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A Time Lost

March 8, 2017

I tried for the first time to summon an Uber ride on Sunday night. I was going to a potluck for former federal court journalists. Traditionally reporters were a drinking group, and I wanted to partake.

Bill Girdner

By Bill Girdner

Editor of Courthouse News Service.

I tried for the first time to summon an Uber ride on Sunday night. I was going to a potluck for former federal court journalists. Traditionally reporters were a drinking group, and I wanted to partake.

So I started the app on my cellphone, entered addresses and waited. Nothing happened. I started again and this time failed to enter my pick-up address. The driver came to my GPS coordinates which were wrong.

He called and said I needed to amend the pick-up location, but instead I amended the destination to the address where I was standing. Ultimately, we got it straightened out and I wound up on the west side of Los Angeles at my friend Andy’s comfortable home.

Gathered around were faces that were older but came back to me one by one.

It was a tight-knit group of reporters in the press room in those days, the mid-1980s to the early 90s. We were competitors but we covered the same big trials and generally helped each other out with quotes.

There was a bumper crop of big trials coming through the federal court in Los Angeles during that time: Russian spy trials, massive frauds, Mexican drug chiefs, terrorists, military technology sales, a civil rights case that was preceded by riots – it was one after another.

Calling in stories from the press room on the third floor, I was able to make a comfortable living as a freelancer selling articles to the Boston Globe, the New York Times, Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald, St. Louis Post Dispatch, Chicago Sun and even foreign publications.

One of the compatriots from that time is now an editor at a big paper, and said she is convinced the stories are still there in federal court but that the critical mass of journalists is missing. I told her I had the same conviction and we are checking the calendars and we have a reporter covering the court.

And there is not much there anymore. Not sure why. One reporter thought it was a change in the U.S. attorney’s priorities, and that may well be right. But it could just be the turning hand of time. It was a heyday of great trials, an exciting time to be a young journalist.

It helped no doubt that after covering those monster news events I would play soccer in the evenings at a Caltech field, then go with the players to drink pitchers of cheap beer at a place called the Burger Continental on South Lake Avenue in Pasadena, along with a gaggle of Danish au pairs.

So last Sunday the reporters all gathered around a big table to tell what they had been up to in the intervening decades, reporters from City News Service, the Times, Orange County Register, Daily News, Associated Press, UPI, Reuters. Many had moved on to corporate PR or academic magazines or political work or law. It was a little like my family dinner discussions; you had to choose your moment to jump in because so many wanted to tell stories.

All as an enormous, very friendly black dog padded around the table visiting each person for a touch or two. As one reporter put it, journalists have the best gossip.

I told the reporter sitting next to me, who used to have the desk behind mine in the old press room, that I sometimes dream about those days. She was surprised because, as she correctly understood, dreams are not normally pleasant.

At the end of the night I lingered briefly with my host drinking some very fine port and then summoned a driver, this time without a hitch. Andy and his wife opened the door and he said, “Your car is outside.”

Looking out the window at the city lights as we went east toward downtown on the Santa Monica freeway, I thought about those dreams. I thought their source was the same as that in Marcel Proust’s “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu,” commonly but incorrectly translated as “A Remembrance of Things Past.”

Literally, the title means, “In Search of Time Lost.”

And I thought that is what those dreams represented, a kind of yearning for a lost time. So indeed they had an ache to them, a vague notion of happiness that was just there outside your fingertips, evading your grasp. Our names were published as the authors of stories in the dominant newspapers of the day while we covered trials with crazy twists and turns and then tried to put it all into words at break-neck speed.

It was a kind of Shangri-La that we didn’t know we were in, until it all faded away.

As the driver turned onto the Pasadena freeway and we rolled north through the sports complex and tall buildings of downtown, I broke from my reverie and asked him if Uber was his full-time job. He said it was, and he was making a decent living at it.

A middle-aged white man, he told me he had been a machinist but could no longer find work. I said the economy seemed to be coming back so it was a bit surprising. He answered that all the machine work now requires a familiarity with computers that he did not have.

And thus I returned to our troubled present.

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