The Rip Post                                                                                              


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Apr. 9, 2009

          I’m eating a coconut macaroon, which is more than Steve Plesa can do.
          Actually, anything I do is more than Steve Plesa can do.
          Steve’s taken the last exit off the Meat Highway. He’d like that turn of phrase, I’m sure. He’d laugh lustily, and shake his head sardonically, and add something funny to it. And I wish he could.
          I hate writing this, and I’m sick of this website turning into a series of obits of old friends. Print journalism is a hard racket, as they say, and it uses up bodies and brains before they grow old. Is there any consolation in the fact that newspapers appear to be finally getting theirs, in return for all their thankless, brutish treatment of reporters and editors?
          Steve opted out, more or less. Right, alcoholism is a disease, and that’s absolutely true, and he had the disease. But somewhere along the line, he just forgot how to see the sunshine. That’s all I can figure. Part of a letter found in his home reads, “I opened the door and let it in.” “It” being the bottle. Even so, my guess is that he never realized how physically sick he was.
           It is well known among his friends that Steve went through an extremely difficult relationship, which took an enormous toll on his spirit. He used to phone me with tales I could not believe. He also worked for a newspaper (and I use that term advisedly) that kicked his ass out after about 25 years of consummate professionalism and excellence. That rag would be the Orange County Register, a corporatized hell that once eliminated the term, “editor,” from Steve’s title, rendering him something called a “team leader.”
          Yay, team.
          How he laughed about that. Bitterly, yes, but laughed nonetheless. That was his wont, his default mechanism, his essential self: laughter. You picture Plesa, and you damn well picture him smiling. Always. That’s the image that sticks. Eyes narrowed with mirth or mischief or anticipation of something amusing; broad and unrestrained grin.
          Well, it’s restrained now. Wish somebody could have restrained that bottle. Wish somebody could have stopped some poor little girl in her 20’s from giving Steve the ax at the Register. Can you imagine? You work as a journalist all your life---he had about 35 years in newspapers, having started as a copyboy at the L.A. Herald-Examiner, where I met him---and you get the boot from a child. It’s like that movie, “Village of the Damned,” or the Cultural Revolution in China.
          For all the humiliation he felt, they might as well have paraded him through the street in a dunce cap.
          And that’s when he let “it” in.
          Drinking problem? Hardy-har-har. In pre-politically correct newspapers, you used to practically put it on your resume. The drunk, jaded newsman is the oldest cliché in the book. The recently departed Jim Bellows, arguably the greatest newspaper editor of the last 50 years, was a two or three-martini-a-lunch guy. At my old man’s paper, the original L.A. Daily News---and probably every other L.A. paper of those days---there were booze bottles in desk drawers. (A memo from the Daily News publisher once instructed reporters to keep the bottles off the desktops.) I’ve written my share of murder stories after a couple of shots, and I’ve watched a few copy editors nod off over thermoses full of bourbon.
          The Register should have promoted Plesa to editor-in-chief. He was that good, that smart, that knowledegable, that canny, that full of esprit d’ corps, intelligence, news judgement, humanity. He was just one of the good guys. Certainly an improvement over the unimaginative, self-important martinets who too often run newspapers (into the ground, as we are seeing.)
          And that might have been the whole problem. Good guys finish last in this, the era of no empathy. Cunning, deceit, self-aggrandizement, self-reward, hucksterism, cheating, egomania, abuse, avarice, pose, game-playing are the coin of the realm, and Plesa was short on change.
          Ask anyone who worked with him. The stories are all about how decent, fair, comforting, helpful, selfless the guy was. Instructed to fire a young writer, he refused, and took the writer for a walk around the block instead. Another writer wanted his name taken off of a story wrecked by an overzealous editor (almost a redundancy), and Steve went to the top to get it done. Let me tell you: standing up for writers is not what gets you initiated into the Fraternal Order of Pompous Cover-Your-Ass Editors. Another anecdote: he was fired from the city desk at the Register, no fault of his own. A reporter had failed to secure an interview on a breaking murder story---no fault of his own---and Steve was stupidly sacked, “demoted” to features. A supervising editor said to Plesa, “Steve, if you fuck me on this, I’ll fuck you for the rest of your life.”
          Classy people, these editors.
          And Steve just rolled with it. He wasn’t the type to get in the gutter with office politics, but would go to the mat on principle for a colleague.
          This is a rough one. Steve was only 55, and his spirit was young. There are a hell of a lot of ex-colleagues right now who have, as his former Her-Ex pal Anne Hurley said, “holes in their hearts.” The guy had a way of getting into your affections, and staying there. I barely saw him after the Her-Ex, but always---always---counted him as an ally, a close friend. And vice-versa. We checked in with each other once in a while by e-mail and phone, and I eventually was inducted into a small e-mail circle of misanthropes that included thriller author Robert Ferrigno, who was hired by Plesa at the Register (and who went on to name the first guy killed in his books some variation of “Steve,” as a tribute), and Ferrigno’s brother, James, who does the “Dr. Wazoo” strip on this site. 
          He edited a hell of a lot of my best stories, did Steve. In the old days at the Her-Ex Style section, he was the ever-amiable, down-to-earth, unpretentious editor who caught actual deficiencies in your copy, asked you about them in a way that never rankled, and left things improved. He handled most or all of the award-winning series I wrote about unreleased Beatles music there (lobbying to let the series finish when another editor wanted to kill it, noting that it had gotten the paper international headlines and massive news rack sales.) And about ten years ago, he volunteered to edit my first novel, “The Last Byline,” “just for fun,” as he put it. I said okay on the condition that I pay him. In true Plesa form, he agreed to that---and never cashed the check.
          But this isn’t one of these human-as-editor tributes. Steve was a human being who happened to be an editor. This was a Valley kid with a great, classic mom and dad who grew up learning guitar and listening to the Beatles and Stones, hiking in the hills, riding bikes. Paid his hallucinogenic garage-band dues, like any respectable dude, then went to Notre Dame University before landing at the pre-Bellows wreckage of the Her-Ex as a copyboy (where he was to marry copygirl Mary Beth Murrill, with whom he remained friends, decades after their youthful marriage ended.)
          Music. If there was anything more important to him than his beloved sons---and there wasn’t---it would have been music. But for a voice injury suffered in childhood, leaving him permanently gravel-toned, he would certainly have wound up behind a microphone in a club or two. When we were colleagues, he used to drop by my old apartment in Sherman Oaks once in a Saturday afternoon, and in short order things would turn to beer and Beatles. There are a hell of a lot of people who really appreciate The Beatles, who grasp what they were doing on a multitude of levels (more than even they did!), and I can say with some unabashed authority that Plesa was one of them. Our discussions of “why Ringo is great” should have been taped. Wait a second, I can hear Plesa’s rejoinder: “Or maybe not!”
          What else. . .
          He was a romantic, and an old-fashioned gentleman who loved and appreciated women who were witty, conversant, warm, yet he was also a kind of Holden Caulfield who was never fooled by any bullshit, even when caught up in it. He was an intellect with a surprisingly Renaissance Man storehouse of information (he read a lot, and retained), and loved---I mean loved---to shoot the breeze about The Nature of Things. I got a call from him a couple years ago along those lines, from out of the blue. There was an obligatory, “So, Rip, how are you?” but I’d say not two minutes passed before he set the topic:
          “So what the fuck do you think it’s all about? I mean really.”
          That was a two or three-hour call, and I’m sure we both nailed down exactly what the fuck it’s all about. I mean really.
          Not too long ago, I exhorted him and vivacious girlfriend Laurie to come up and see Country Joe McDonald at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, and a splendid time was had by all. “He’s still got it—the voice, the chops! He sounds great!” said Steve. I hadn’t seen him in at least a dozen years, and frankly, he didn’t look so hot, so I got on his back, as much as one can in e-mail, about exercising, learning tai-chi, something. But Plesa more or less rejected all such suggestions, or shined you on. Maybe it was the Booze Devil at work, I don’t know, but he wasn’t interested in anyone’s help, and he never caved in to self-pity. Not once that I ever saw, or heard. He had his dignity, his sense of humor, and he had no illusions about the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. If he had a flaw, it was to have erred on the side of fatalism, but then, that gives him much in common with Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut.
          So our final notes came down to discussions of music (he was dabbling in composing) and how L.A. and human behavior have gone totally to hell, and how he wanted to get his two boys and pick me up and have me sort of narrate a grand tour of historic L.A., but that never happened. And yes, Steve---at least the sober Steve---was still trying to figure out what to do, work-wise, but kept hitting dead ends. In one instance, he told me of submitting a pitch to some dip who used to work for him, and how the dip had gotten full of himself (see accompanying e-mail) and began writing high-flown stuff urging Steve to think “what the piece would really be about.” Gag. That was the end of that. (He was later turned down for a job by that same guy, who claimed it was his boss's decision.) When I suggested that he pick up spare change by running some local weekly, it prompted a well-warranted, “Yes. Dickhead Publications is my first priority.” At one point, he drafted a piece aimed at Hustler---rather wry and oh, racy---and I hear that there is a file of fiction sitting in his computer. Steve was a fine writer, by the way. Maybe would have been happier writing than editing.
          The last Plesa e-mail I have is routine stuff about how he saw took his sons to see “Gran Torino” on my recommendation, and liked it very much. That’s the way life is. Your last talk with someone is about feeding the goddamn dog, cleaning the cat box. (My mother’s last words to me: “I have to go to the bathroom!”) But there is one other note from Steve with which I will end this oh-so-reluctantly written piece (which he knew I would have to do, goddamn it), and it dates from Oct. 3 of last year. He had sent a “Well fuckin’ done” note to me regarding a tribute to yet another deceased Her-Ex colleague, Paul Corkery, and I wrote back, saying he should get off the couch and at least go out for a walk once or twice a day. I was half-kidding:
          “I have this image of you abandoned by all mankind and family, bloated and passed out drunk behind closed Venetian blinds, watching CNN all day. Please disabuse me of this.”
          His response:
          “Not so. I sleep more than watching CNN.”
          It’s perhaps strange or presumptuous to say, but Plesa lived on his own terms, and died on his own terms. Principle and humor to the end. He made his choices, such as anyone with his illness can. He had a lot of heartbreak, but he had---and created---a greater amount of joy. How wonderful it is that he was able to regain consciousness a few days before the end, and speak with his parents, and sons, and friends, and know how loved he was.
          He went with dignity, in the wake of too much pain.
          Now cracks a noble heart.

Steve at the Her-Ex.

Young, Beatle-booted Valley dude
and friend.

Friends of Steve
Steve's Obit
Adrenaline Rush on a Boring Day, by Steve Plesa
Herald-Examiner Memories, by Steve Plesa
Tracing The Beatles' Footsteps Through London, by Steve Plesa
Cybercourting (meeting Steve) by Laurie Kasparian

Anyone wishing to contribute to The Steve Plesa Excellence in Writing and Journalism Scholarship may do so by sending checks to:
JEM Foundation
c/o Joseph Morahan
10 Cherry Hills Park Drive
Englewood, Colorado 80113

Simply write 'for Steve' in the memo line. All contributions in Steve's honor go directly to scholarships for high school students.

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