The boys are back in town

Camera time is not something I typically long for. I have spent much of my life in front of still cameras—hanging out with photographers will do that for you—so I don’t mind being photographed. When I get the chance to get even, I take photos, too. But being interviewed in the moving picture way on video or digital makes me a little nervous. I am suddenly full of “ums” and “ahs,” tripping over my tongue as if the words are new to me.

So old friends of Dick’s and mine, Dale Maharidge and Michael Williamson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer/photographer team, called last week and said they were coming to town toting a documentary filmmaker who wanted to interview us. “You knew us when,” Dale said on the phone. “You can help put our time in Sacramento in context, give some background.”

Dick and I love Dale and Michael. We would do just about anything for them. But we are not Big Time People. Dale and Michael (aka, “the boys”) run in major journalistic/movie/music circles. They are on close terms with Bruce Springsteen, for instance. We are little people in their world. We did not think we had anything to say that would be useful.

But the boys and Ron Wyman of Zero Gravity Films (www.zerogravityfilms.com) arrived at my house one morning shortly after 11. Ron, a lovely man with a kind face and silvery hair, began casing the joint—not as a potential burglar, but for good spots for the interviews. The rest of us exchanged enthusiastic hellos and hugs. It’s been a long time since Dick and I have seen the boys at the same time. None of us can remember exactly when the four of us were last together. Michael lives in Washington, D.C., and works for the Washington Post as a photographer, and Dale divides his time between teaching journalism  at Columbia University in New York and his property up in Humboldt County. Though, really, when they’re not working their day jobs, they’re usually traveling, interviewing, photographing for their owns projects separately and together.

The boys are, if I can brag about them for a bit, tremendously accomplished journalists. They won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 in General Nonfiction for their second book, And Their Children After Them. Michael won another Pulitzer at the Post in 2000 with other colleagues for their coverage of Kosovo and has several Newspaper Photographer of the Year awards from national and international associations. They’ve done many books together and separately–beautifully written and photographed. They are, to us, the quintessential writer/photographer (or as Michael might say, “photographer/writer”) team.

In short, these guys rock.

But they were in town to reminisce on camera about their first book project, Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass. In the early 1980s, while working for The Sacramento Bee, they hopped freight trains and rode the rails with backpacks to meet people who had lost jobs, houses, sometimes spouses and children, in the recession of that decade. These folks were not typical “hobos,” and Michael and Dale did a series of articles for The Bee that said, quite plainly, This could be you, readers. Pay attention.

That book, which was born and faded into quick obscurity, was resurrected in 1996 by Bruce Springsteen, who pulled a copy of it off his bookshelf when he was in the process of working on the album that became “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Several songs on that album were inspired by Journey to Nowhere. Springsteen got in touch with the boys, declared that the book had to be put back in print, and so it was. Journey to Nowhere had a second life thanks to Bruce Springsteen.

Though Dick and I had admired his music for years, you can bet we were grateful, diehard Springsteen fans after that. Good taste, that man.

So now, with a feature film in development based on Dale and Michael’s forthcoming book called Someplace Like America: On the Road With Workers, 1980-2010 (www.eitherorfilms.com/upcoming), Ron Wyman is creating a documentary about Michael and Dale in their train-hopping days.

Ron has been retracing the boys’ tracks across the country and came to Sacramento where it all started. They were in the railyards shooting video of trains and reminiscing. They traveled up to Oroville to hobo camps. And they came to talk to us.

Dick and I had the odd experience of sitting in my dining room and kitchen, and talking about two of our oldest and dearest friends as Journalists of Importance as they watched and listened to us. We had no problem with that—we were just afraid we wouldn’t be quotable, wouldn’t remember enough specifics to be credible.

Michael has long called Dick his “mentor and friend,” naming Dick as the guy who taught Michael how to print photos in The Bee’s old-fashioned darkroom in the 1970s. Ron interviewed Dick first in my dining room about the young photographer who hung around the darkroom, pestering the older guys.

Dick said he never thought Michael was a pest. “I thought he was smart and talented,” Dick said, adding that he admired Dale, too—”who treated the most mundane stories as if they were the most important.” He talked about Dale and Michael’s passion for good journalism and was impressed at the lengths they went to—often on their own time and at their own expense—for stories they believed were important. Stories about homeless people, hungry people, people who had lost their jobs and their hope. They shed light on people’s whose stories would otherwise not be told.

When it was my turn in the kitchen, I think I said something about Dale and Michael brand of storytelling with words and pictures helps not only brings public awareness of people in difficult straits but also helps bring healing to this broken world. And that listening to people’s stories, taking their photographs, has perhaps allowed Michael and Dale to heal some of their own demons as well.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Michael leaning against my stacked-tall washer and dryer, listening. His eyes were moist. Ron at the camera’s side looked surprised. Dale, his head cocked to one side, wore a small smile.

“Does that work?” I asked after Ron turned the camera off.

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s great.”

Michael said as Dale nodded, “You’re downright eloquent, Miss Jan.”

I don’t know about that. Though we’re a bit biased, Dick and I believe they are masters of their craft. We have long been impressed by the boys’ work. We don’t get to see them as often as any of us would like, but we are touched by the fact that when they hit our town, they call, visit if they can. The conversation picks up where we last left off, as if no time has passed at all. We appreciate that.

And sometimes when I’m thinking of the boys, I’ll call up a video of Bruce Springsteen singing “Youngstown”—just the man and his guitar—and I get goosebumps. That man pulled an old copy of a book off a shelf once and was inspired to write music because of it—a book by two of our friends who are, to us, two of the brightest stars we will ever know.

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About janishaag

Writer, writing teacher, editor
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3 Responses to The boys are back in town

  1. hilary says:

    Thanks for this, Jan! It made me miss them, of course, and sad that we didn’t get to reunion, too. I remember the day when Bill Moore told them to “follow that train and don’t come back until you explain who these good-looking people are in the boxcars!” (Well, maybe not verbatim!) Those were the days!

  2. hilary abramson says:

    Thanks for this, Jan! Made me salivate to reunion with them, too….I remember the day when Bill Moore told Dale to “follow that train” and “don’t come back until you can write who those good-looking people are in the boxcars!”

    Those were the days.

  3. Sonya says:

    What a lovely, lovely story. Thanks for sharing it, Jan. $

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