All writers I suspect have their mentors. Without doubt mine is Alexander Cockburn, the legendary leftist journalist who wrote for The Nation and before that The Village Voice, and used to boast that he had “all the right enemies.”
Alex, as I knew him, died Saturday in Germany after a two-year battle with cancer that he told almost no one about. Although he filed stories right up until his death, he said he didn’t want to blog his own death as his friend, frequent adversary and fellow lefty Christopher Hitchens had done. It was the perfect way for this highly intelligent, acerbic and introverted man to leave this world; just as he lived; alone and throwing punches disguised as prose at the establishment.
It’s no coincidence if that sounds a bit like what I do on RI Future. Alex, as progressive in his personal life and his politics as they come, was more prone to attacking political centrists and the fringe left than the wing-nut conservatives and had a special place in his heart for taking on America’s most sacred cows: among his favorite targets were the media, corporations and Israel – often topics that divide moderate liberals from their more radical counterparts.
“No one could skewer the banksters, the robber barons and the crony capitalists of this broken era quite so ably as Alex,” wrote John Nichols, his comrade at The Nation, this morning about his friend. “His last column for The Nation was a delicious takedown of all the dark players involved in the scheme by the biggest bankers in the world to fix rates. The bankers got their due, of course, but so did the regulators and, of course, the pliant media.” (For those of you not familiar with Alex’s writing, here’s a link to his last column … all of his columns are so beautifully written)
While I love nearly everything about his writing, elegant, acerbic and intelligent all at once, I knew Alex as a person before I knew him as a journalist. In the autumn of 2001, shortly after the attacks of September 11, he hired me to help build a rammed earth cider shed on his idyllic hidden home on the banks of the Mattole River on the rugged Northern California coast about halfway between San Francisco and the Oregon border.
I was hitch-hiking from Seattle to San Diego and looking for day labor to help me get down the road. I had already set up camp on the nearby beach for a few weeks (and managed to find some decent work) when, hitching back to the beach one afternoon, I was picked up by a local, of course driving an early ’70′s Volkswagen Bus, who said he might have some additional work for me.
He knew I was a journalist on furlough to live deliberately but neglected to mention that the job in question would be working for one of the most famous leftist columnists in the country. People in this part of the country are notoriously private.
A few days later, he introduced me to Alex, who liked to employ some of the local hippies and pot growers (really the only option in Humboldt County) to help him spruce up his property – a gorgeous couple acres on the banks of the one of the prettiest rivers I’ve ever seen. There were some fruit trees, a couple classic cars from the ’50s and ’60s, a quaint little house with a writer’s studio out back and a few horses in a stable.
We were to construct another building on the property – a small rammed earth shed for making cider and partaking in other agrarian activities. Think of a cross between a southwestern adobe and English cobb. As we shoveled and compacted the locally-harvested dirt between forms, Alex would drop in leaves, stones and other artifacts he wanted fossilized in the walls.
I learned of Alex’s career over the lunches he would make for the work crew. We were a motley crew of dirty, tie-dyed Peter Pan-types – most of whom were living off the land and growing obscene amounts of marijuana as their only substantial source of income aside from the few carpentry or sustainable forestry projects going on around the Mattole Valley. But the daily feasts Alex would create for us were extravagant affairs. Depending on the weather we would either dine in his living room or on his deck and eat duck, or some other delicacy, after a fresh salad harvested from his garden. Usually, there were several courses, all fit for a gourmet restaurant. It was more a siesta than a lunch break, and we’d typically drink several bottles of wine and talked philosophy for sometimes hours before returning to work the afternoon shift.
Alex offered me an internship, and found me a horse farm to live on up the road from him in exchange for help with the chores. All of a sudden I had a farm live on and a journalism gig with one of the most esteemed progressive columnists in the country, it seemed that my crazy idea to hitch-hike across the country actually proved to be not a complete disaster after all.
But back then in my youth, I was even harder to hold down than I am now, and longing more for wanderlust than career advancement, I instead decided to beat it on down the road once and for all with a girl I met on the beach during a meteor shower.
At the time, it seemed like a good enough reason to go – the Mattole Valley, also known as the Lost Coast, is not at all easy to find and it turned out the same fellow who had given me directions while I was still up near the Oregon border had given this woman directions. We met randomly and discovered the coincidence as we watched shooting stars all night long from outside her tent that we set up a few thousand vertical feet almost directly above the Pacific Ocean. She was on her way to have Thanksgiving dinner with our mutual friend in Nevada City.
It’s easy to confuse such serendipity for love at first sight, or maybe that’s what love is – deciding to stick with someone you have some stuff in common with when other options exist … Either way, I told Alex soon after that despite his generous offer my time in the Mattole was coming to an end.
I’ll never forget what he said to me as he dropped me off on the beach the morning I was leaving town for good.
“Alright then, Bob, your star carries you elsewhere.”
And now I get to return the glad tidings he left me with. Your star carries you elsewhere, Alex … I look forward to not only carrying forth your legacy but, maybe, supposing your old friend Christopher Hitchens was indeed as wrong as you often thought he was, maybe we’ll eat duck and drink wine someday again at the great newsroom in the sky.