story sing.

Vince Baker was fairly young by newsroom standards, having just turned thirty in mid-January. The old dogs in the newsroom were okay with him. They thought he had the balls of an old beat hound and they admired the grace with which he could turn nothing into something. He could make anything news. A natural at contorting information into stories where facts hung on the perimeter of truth, with a pinch of sensationalism. They loved that shit at the Herald. Took him off assignments like covering births at the zoo or the largest quilt ever made this side of the Mississippi and gave him the helm as their lead city man. Threw him stories right and left. Told him to chase down the rest. They fucking loved him. Slipped him fifty for a Christmas bonus. Sent him memos all the time saying, “That was great work.” He was going places. He was assigned all the gritty city hall pieces. Every power broker in town knew him by face. Doheny. Harrington. Huntington. G. G. Johnson. They all hated the garbage that his paper put out, but they talked anyway because they knew Baker would write it with or without their quotes. This town was packed tight in his fist. Although he knew he was really nothing other than the modern-day version of the town crier, Baker still managed to keep a sense of integrity and pride—he honestly believed in his role in exposing the ugly underneath. And now he was given the task of salvaging the paper’s reputation by burying the Vienna Buffet once and for all. Playing the pawn in a cheek-to-cheek dance where a grinding pelvis is followed by a knowing wink.

How was that for irony?

Baker did what he did best—he turned oyster shit into a pearl. He interviewed the bishop and one of his flock, Dorothy O’Brien. They snapped the picture. He talked to the theater owners. Drafted the story in a dive named Ralph’s around the corner from the church and edited the commas in a downtown bar that would make the Vienna Buffet look like a family Hof brau. He filed the story. A goddamned hero he was around the newsroom.

After that Tuesday edition ran, Baker tossed the unread paper into a garbage can and then stopped off at a local bar named Willie’s. He threw back a couple shots of some well whiskey that stung like a sonabitch. He gave a nod to the bartender and a few malcontents hugging the corner but didn’t speak a word. He lifted a Lucky Strike from his pocket, tapped the butt against the mahogany once or twice, and then stuck it unlit between his lips. He leaned forward to light the cigarette by candle flame, then pulled back, smoke rising from the amber tip. Takes you right off the stinking earth with the first drag every time. He ordered up another glass. Sucked the cigarette down to the bone. Then rinsed back the whiskey. He wasn’t ready to go home. Being alone in his new apartment on Pico could be dangerous, a man could lose himself in that kind of mess, rot away crazy until the landlord finally has the doors rammed in when the unbearable stench gets too loud. But he also had no intention of pouring on a useless drunk, one that would inevitably find him stupidly waking up with the last broad left standing at closing time.

Baker slapped two bits on the bar to settle and left. The night air was still warm, smelling of Pacific salt and bubbling lard from the Mexican taco stand up the street. It seemed quiet out. A few couples strolled back in secret huddle, followed by an occasional chatty group with one inevitably shrill distaff laugh that hung nearly visible against the concrete and plaster. The oddly loud volume of his shoes against the sidewalk thudded like the trampling of lazy hooves.

He found himself walking down Second. Hands in his pockets. Integrity feeling slightly wounded. He picked up his pace. Skirting past closed offices and businesses. No sign of life other than the winking eye of a haberdasher’s mannequin under a small gray-brimmed hat. Our Lady of Angels lay one block ahead. He thought to cross the street and avoid the thing altogether. He couldn’t give a rat’s ass about what they were doing and why. He had done his part. Played the middleman in the brokerage of decency. The one who kissed and made up, keeping a straight face while Bishop Conaty and O’Brien spewed out the most sinfully vicious thoughts. But he took it well. Wrote it up convincingly and eschewed being a reporter, instead turning goodwill ambassador for a day. But if he had had a crystal ball when he rolled out of that no-name lady’s bed two mornings ago, he would have walked right into the Herald office with a FUCK YOU sign taped across his chest and given the Herald another scandal to negotiate. He had no intentions of turning into their gossip guy, covering people whose biggest crises are which theaters they are going to play.

The cathedral looked set back and almost haunted under the cover of night. Plaster fissures slowly leaked down the wall. Each step had a pile of uncrushed leaves windswept into the corner that made the perfect bum’s pillow. A general lifelessness to the windows, long ago absent of the fog of human breath. Baker imagined that somewhere in the back of the church, the bishop must have been mulling around. Maybe preparing a sermon, decoding the fine print of a land contract, or in one of those chats with God. Maybe Dorothy O’Brien was still in there, poring over the roster of names for potential league members in her head while polishing the savior’s feet. She would look up at the sound of the bishop’s footsteps, and congratulate him on his work with the reporter, silently begging for the bishop’s attention and admiration. And they would have no idea that the reporter felt like one of the broads he took home and banged when the bars closed—used and alone. All potentials cast away.

Vince Baker sat down on the steps of the cathedral. He wiped his nose against his sleeve. It smelled of tobacco. The sky opened in purple with stars sparkling in promise. Sometimes there is no place like Los Angeles to make you feel full of life. Everything is believable and possible. Maybe the bishop would walk right out the front door now. He could sit beside him, and Baker could explain it all to the priest. Then they could gaze at the stars together and smile, thinking about how great it is to live in L.A.


May 14, 1906

ABBOT Kinney stood next to her, a crisp knuckled hand on the doorknob. His sweat smelling of the smoke that made his tobacco fortune. Sarah could barely see his eyes in the darkness of his office, a small adjunct room tucked into the bottom corner of the auditorium that adjoined the pier that bore his name. She could only imagine Kinney’s tall, worldly physique by the stature in his voice.

Bright sunlight streamed in beneath the door. Beyond the dark entrance, the cries of the miniature railroad that circled the distant midway blew along the weathered planks. Heavy sea air rolled down the great incline of the auditorium’s red roof and spilled onto the bustling pier, while a procession of brass entertained the sightseers on the gondolas navigating the replicated canals of Kinney’s dream city: Venice, Italy.

“They’re all out there,” Kinney said. “Waiting for you. Go tell them you don’t care. That’s what you wanted, right?” His crooked finger eerily pointed at the door. The scribes from the Los Angeles tabloids all gathered at the heart of the newly built pier. Keenly aware that the great French actress sat sequestered in the founder’s office. Their shoes tapping faintly. A murmur of voices clipped by the rush of the tide breaking under the quay. There were two quotes that they expected—a flip Sarah Bernhardt denunciation filled with a sardonic yet demure tone about the Los Angeles archdiocese, and one from Kinney that disregarded the Los Angeles culture as a thing of the past, citing as an example Sarah Bernhardt’s pending performance in Venice of America.

The reporters had been waiting outside for nearly a half hour. An event orchestrated by Kinney himself. A self-made publicity man, he was the type who wasn’t nearly as intimidated by reporters as he was by the fear of failure. Certain that with one errant move he could trample his reputation into a fine powdery dust. This town was not kind to damaged careers. Guys like Kinney always needed to keep the business going. And show results. Otherwise it was a long slow road back to Shitbowl, New Jersey.

Kinney had wanted something big to happen with his development. He wanted people to know that he had been the one to draw a line in the beach in 1904 and declare this playland of west Los Angeles as the new entertainment center of the city. Coney Island meets Italy. Canals and Ferris wheels. Venice of America. Ocean Beach. CA. He needed an event to turn a profit for the theater. He told that to his staff every day. Told them he was paying them to make things happen. Not just agree. And last week when those loudmouth Catholics started blowing their traps about Sarah Bernhardt being immoral and unfit for performing downtown, it was Kinney who personally tracked down Max Klein in midtour in New Mexico and made the arrangements to get her here. All within a matter of hours. His next move was to make sure the whole world knew where she was and why.

VINCE BAKER HAD BEEN ORDERED by Graham Scott to wait there on the pier. Normally Scott would have assigned a story like this to an F. T. Seabright, but since the Vienna Buffet debacle, Seabright had become too gun-shy to investigate where his balls went on an cold night. Scott had tried to convince Baker this story was bigger than some petty pugilist shit. “She is as big as all those robber barons that you like to cover. She is powerful. Look at how easily she stirs up guys like Conaty.”

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