It was a mild, sunny weekday in L.A., at last, after an overcast of marine layer that’s haunted us this summer. I was wondering how soon I’d be able to stop pretending that I was working and head home to practice for my guitar lesson or maybe get a start on the next day’s blog entry. The phone rang. Outside number. “Sales call,” I thought. Okay, I could use the amusement: string along some poor sap trying to sell ice to an Eskimo. I’m the Eskimo, he has ice. I’m in the driver’s seat.
“Get over here.”
It was Brumfield. I hadn’t been sure I’d hear from him again. “Bob! What’s going on?”
“The world is coming to an end here.”
“Bob, the world’s always coming to an end. That’s why newspaper men like you have jobs. That’s ‘news value.’ Be of good cheer. Write a story. Hope for catastrophe, things are looking up.”
“You are out of your mind. I made up the stories in my column, I didn’t ‘report’ them. I was a columnist, for crying out loud. But I need to talk to you. Get over here.”
“Uh, where’s ‘here?’ You at The Bird?”
“No. Place in some godforsaken town called Torrents, but spelled wrong. The San Franciscan. Know it?”
Know it? It just figured that Brumfield would discover The San Franciscan. Maybe not a place that time forgot, but Time has to be reminded of it several times before it can bring it to mind. Somehow escaping the massive self-reinvention of Torrance in the ’60s and 70s into a middle-class suburbia, The San Franciscan hangs onto its spot near the intersection of Sepulveda and Crenshaw, just a couple of blocks from the massive Del Amo mall. It’s a genuine throwback, still sporting the same red vinyl booths and starched-apron waitresses it’s had for more than 50 years. I mean the SAME ones, not similar ones. Same menu, too, and it’s good, although a little unreconstructed-Eisenhower-Era for some contemporary tastes. It’s one of those places with a series of little rooms going ‘way back into the back, places you can’t penetrate without a long walk. For all I know, the joint seats three thousand on a busy night, even though it looks like a hole-in-the wall from the street. It’s the kind of place that you imagine the bartender knowing your name and asking if you want The Usual.
I walked through the cramped little entry and spotted Bob down at the end of the curving bar, the kind of spot any aficionado of bars relishes, where it curves around to join the wall and you get a great look back along the seated patrons toward the door.
Bob was drinking a Rob Roy. The San Franciscan is the kind of place where you order a Rob Roy, even if you don’t like ’em. The place just seems to impose it on you. I resisted and had a beer.
Bob didn’t waste time with small talk. He gave me one steady look and said, “Attila’s back.”
I tried not to overreact to the news that the almost-certainly fictional Attila the Attack Roach, who played a prominent role in some of Bob’s more fanciful print escapades in the 60s and 70s was, somehow, well, revived. “I thought he was, uh, a mercenary in some part of Africa.”
“I guess that business got shot all to hell, so to speak, with all the financing moving to Central Asia. He didn’t want to shift operations there ’cause he doesn’t know any of the local languages — no cognates between those African languages and Pashtun and Farsi — so he worked his way back to L.A. on an oil tanker out of Liberia.”
“Well, L.A. is a gigantic place. I know you reporters have that knack for finding things out better than most people, but how in the heck did you find one killer roach in a city that must have a hundred million roaches?”
“The god-damned Internet, of course. Where else do you find things today?”
“You mean there’s a, uh, Lost Roaches site out there? Kind of a Roach-Search?”
“Very funny. No. The blasted insect’s been posting stuff to the Internet. He’s been taking what he remembered out of old columns of mine, typing them up and posting them!”
“Yeah, he has ads for all kinda crap and every time someone hits one of those ads from his site, he collects. Doesn’t take much for him to get by, and he’s been living probably as well as he ever did at my place in Indian Hill, and he doesn’t have to keep the grass mowed as well as they made us in that godforsaken hellhole.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s holed-up in a converted mobile home in a canyon ‘way up above Sierra Madre. Man, it’s remote. Only one road in or out, and if there’s ever a fire up there, even the roaches’ll fry.”
“Was he glad to see you?”
“Surprised, I’d say. He thought I was long gone, and it was hard to explain just how I got here, so I just said I had been on a ‘special assignment’.”
“So, is that what you wanted to see me about? Attila?”
“Well, more about what he’s doing. I’ve been trying to figure out this online, always-on free-for-all that you and all these other blogging half-wits …”
“Well, thanks for that.”
“I mean, it’s not journalism. It’s not publishing. How can Attila post that stuff up there … MY ideas, MY stories, and get paid? Aren’t there any standards, any ethics, any professionalism any more? I mean, who’s in CHARGE of all this?”
This was not going to be easy to explain to someone whose experience of the publication business stopped in 1981.
“Well, think of it as self-publishing. YOU self-published your book.”
“Yeah, great success that was. Except, if I had stolen all my stuff, or even some of it, whoever had written it would’ve hauled me into court. Hey, maybe that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing. I could’ve blamed THEM for the lousy sales, and asked THEM to pay for the rest of the print run.”
“I know it’s hard to grasp, Bob, but there really isn’t anyone out there keeping score. You probably saw a couple of weeks ago that a member of the government believed the version of a speech that some bozo had re-edited and posted, and fired an employee for what they appeared to say. It’s kind of a free-for-all, indeed.”
He ordered another Rob Roy and turned to look at me. “I read an article in the New York Times today about plagiarism of electronic documents. One egghead described students doing that as ‘unwilling to engage the writing process’! ‘Engage the writing process!!’ Where do they think words come from, the copying process?”
I tried to shift the subject. “So, you’re still getting all the papers, then? Haven’t found them dwindling in supply here in the digital era? They still stand for accuracy and thorough reporting.”
“Well, yeah. Heard of the library, have you? Great place. Full of books and magazines? You ought to investigate it. Might improve YOUR vocabulary a bit, too.”
“Nice. Thanks a lot. You know, I only know what you’ve told me about Attila, but I’m betting he doesn’t have the longest of attention spans. Don’t you think he’ll just get distracted and pick up something else pretty quickly?”
“I certainly hope so. I keep thinking that he’s rewriting my old stuff better than I did it originally.”
“Don’t kid yourself, Bob. You were the best. I’m betting not even Attila can make ’em choke with laughter over the ol’ morning coffee on a regular basis, just writing the weather column.”
“Maybe. Well,” he shoved his stool back. “I gotta get going. Long drive up there.”
“You’re staying at Attila’s place?”
“Yeah, kind of a long haul, but at least it’s up away from the rest of this insanity you call a city, and a slightly crazed roach is a lot better company than some of the people you meet here. I’ll be seeing you.”
I hoped I would be seeing him.
Bob Brumfield wrote a regular column for the Cincinnati Enquirer for approximately 15 years, from about 1966 onward. Mr. Brumfield died in 1981. He is remembered for his acerbic but hilarious and imaginative short pieces, which included Attila. My imaginary encounters with Bob are intended as respectful evocations of a genuinely funny guy (and a serious journalist,too). Other episodes are linked under “Brumfield” in the “Categories” widget in the right column.
© 2012 Brad Nixon