When I was maybe five or six or so, my parents started making me read the newspaper, because they were afraid I wasn’t learning English fast enough. They bought a subscription to the San Francisco Examiner and I read it every day after school. This was before major advancements in chemical engineering, so the ink would smear on my hands as I read. I remember my mother would check my fingers to make sure, yes, I really had read the paper, much in the same way they made sure I brushed my teeth by making me open my mouth.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to read the news with a child’s understanding of politics, finance, and culture?
There was this war going on in Kuwait and Iraq over oil… but there was a lot of oil in the aisles at the grocery store and I didn’t know what the problem was. There also were all these “talks” — so many talks! Peace talks! Financial talks! Crime and safety talks! And some people had too much money and other people had too little… in school, we called it “sharing” so I didn’t see why the adults couldn’t get their act together and do the same. Most of what I got out of the newspaper is that grownups talked a lot and bad things were happening in the world. So naturally I gravitated towards the comics, sports, and believe it or not, the classifieds, to inject a little bit of humanity, and levity, and humor into the chore of having to read the newspaper. I have really fond memories of those sections.
Comics — what kid doesn’t like comics? Yes, there were boring ones. Dilbert was lame, especially his stupid tie. But I loved “Calvin and Hobbes.” When those two BFFs embarked on their imaginary adventures, I went with them as I read their comics. Over the river and through the woods, to imaginary planets I went. It was meta-escapism. I was escaping by reading a comic about escaping.
Now sports — my childhood years were the heyday of San Francisco sports. And the Examiner covered it all. I got to know all of the players as if they were family. I remember two players on the Giants baseball team — Steve Decker, the catcher, and Rob Black, the pitcher. And the day they clinched the pennant, the sports section was published in color — which is a very, very big deal in 1989 — and the headline screamed “Black and Decker Drill Padres.” And Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig — all those players that were part of the 49ers football dynasty — I read every interview they gave and carefully cut out the best action shots to save. I can see now why a society can get swept up in sports during wartime: it gives people something to root for in the midst of uncertain and unstable world. And especially for a kid — who can only sense that bad things are happening in the world and that evil people were being mean everywhere — it was nice to see that not everything nor everyone was like that.
And finally, classifieds. It was fascinating to me that people could do all these things in the space of 5 cents a character: get a job, buy a house, find a guitar teacher. My favorite of all was the Miscellaneous section. This is where they listed Lost+Found, personals, that kind of thing. The internet made all of this creepy, but back then, it was completely legit and honest. I remember one posting distinctly. It was short, just one line: “To the Black Car, I apologize.” I liked it because people were being NICE and apologizing. I thought that was pretty cool, especially since the person posting that knew there was about a 0.2% chance of the Black Car actually reading the apology. But what was even better was a few days later, when there was another short posting in the same Miscellaneous section: “To the Green Car, Apology Accepted. Faith Restored, the Black Car.” There were these moments of humanity, micro-interpersonal vignettes that were so refreshing in the face of what was going on in the rest of the newspaper. People were being nice and other people were being nice back. Who would have thought that?
So it’s these sections — the comics, the sports, and the classifieds — are what I remember most about the chore of reading the newspaper when I was a kid. Though it’s all changed now — not only because I understand the politics, economics, and culture of our society, but also that everything is online, and we have iPhones now, updates at our fingertips. But especially the way society is today, the news still is the way for me to remember, yes, there still is humanity, and levity, and humor in the world.