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Original Essays

The History That Might Have Been

by Glen David Gold
  1. Carter Beats the Devil
    $5.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Carter Beats the Devil

    Glen David Gold

I lived in Oakland, California in 1993. For those of you who haven't been, it's a town with all of the advantages of geography (a port, rolling hills, miles of bayfront property) and none of the luck of your average city, resulting in a place that just never succeeded, regardless of the fortunes made by its more beloved neighbor across the bay.

I was a failed fiction writer. I was a bad fiction reader, too, in that I argued with authors in my head. I would crack open a book — let's say the book was by Phillip Roth, and let's say the first line was "Hi, my name is Inga. I'm a 17-year-old Swedish nun." That would be all it took for me to toss the book aside, muttering, "No, you're Phillip Roth."

I wrote non-fiction for the local paper. One day, I was called for jury duty. An open and shut case; should have taken about a day to try. A kid had beaten and robbed his landlord, a frail old man who limped into court on a cane. He pointed out the kid who'd done it. They'd known each other for years. There was no cross-examination. The kid didn't take the stand in his own defense.

Then we took lunch. I sat at McDonald's, drinking coffee, and in walked the old man. "Walked," as in without a cane.

After lunch, I found the bailiff, the bailiff found the judge, and I sat in a secret session — judge, lawyers, defendant — and explained what I'd seen. The judge asked if that made me doubt the veracity of the old man, and I told him it made me think he'd been coached to use a cane in the courtroom. Okay, they said, don't tell the other jurors, but you can go.

So I went. And we waited and waited and court was dismissed for the day. It was obvious that I'd thrown a wrench into the proceedings.

The next morning, we were still waiting. We were told we could go to lunch. I didn't want to go back to McDonald's, so I went to the library. The top floor of the Oakland library on 13th Street is the History Room, which I'd heard about but had never been in. The idea of an Oakland History Room was sort of charming to me. It felt like going to the museum of tungsten or the world's third largest ball of string.

I asked to see materials on Lake Merritt, the center of Oakland, because my apartment was near it, and I wondered if there were old photographs that would show it off. There weren't. Instead, there was a stack of aerial photographs of the lake with bridges running across it.

There were no bridges across Lake Merritt. There never had been. If you've ever seen Lake Merritt, you know there's neither room nor reason for bridges. But nonetheless, it turns out that Joseph Strauss, the tyrannical engineer who ran the Golden Gate Bridge project in the 1930s, had sketched out a bridge for Lake Merritt. He was fanatically jealous of the Bay Bridge, and wanted to put something in the East Bay — something, anything, didn't matter what it was, if the city needed it, or if anyone had asked for it — and he settled on Lake Merritt. Once he got enough publicity for the Golden Gate, he forgot about the bridge for Oakland. Which makes it a perfect Oakland story.

What I found in that stack of photographs was my first taste of history-as-narrative. And better yet, the history that might have been — there was an extremely realistic photograph of an opera house on Lake Merritt, and another with huge fountains, and a third with the very library I was in, but its rear porch extended into a dock, so that people could sail up, tie off their boats, and go check out books. All so real, and yet all such unrealized fantasies.

When I returned to court, the old man went back on the stand. The district attorney asked him where he'd had lunch, if he'd used his cane, if not, then why not. Oh, he had medication and didn't need the cane sometimes? Why had he used the cane in court? Because the medication made him foggy? Ah, yes, well, then, let's continue.

It was an interesting lesson in packaging the truth. I still believed he'd been coached, but I also believed that in his desire for sympathy, he'd sort of overshot the mark. There were more witnesses, they all identified the kid who'd beat him up, and we convicted him after deliberating about three hours.

There was a lesson there that I absorbed, but I was entirely unconscious of it as I started writing my first good piece of journalism. Based on what I'd found at the history room, I recounted the alternate history of Lake Merritt. It opened with an incredible, lost-to-the-mist story I'd found in the 1893 Oakland Enquirer, about a city council debate about usage of the lake that had gotten so heated that the former mayor, in the middle of a speech vilifying his opponents, dropped dead on the floor of city hall. Then, with the body still warm, his opponents passed the very measure he'd been bloviating against, and then they adjourned for the night.

The story was so bizarre and colorful I didn't want to exaggerate it. I stuck close to the exact language of the articles that reported it, filling in only enough detail to give the reader the impression he was there. It was a new kind of discipline to me. And when I was done, I had a lengthy article chock full of those amazing nuggets — rival sea captains ramming each other's boats; the awful plan to dump the city's sewage into the lake, reasoning the tide would pull it to sea (it worked just as well as you'd imagine); the bandits of the 1890s who, troll-like, wouldn't let people cross the mouth of the lake without paying extortion money.

When I was done, I was congratulated on my research, and was told how wonderful history was. And I realized something: I could have lied. No one would have checked out the microfiche. If I'd made stuff up, it would have been all-but-untraceable. It dawned on me that, unlike fiction, no one argues with non-fiction (okay, if you're Noam Chomsky or Derrida, sure, but you know what I mean). If someone writes, "during the Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863, General Lee sent fifty muskets to his flank," you nod, yes, and you wait for the next bit of story to happen. You don't go about the same suspension of disbelief as with fiction — though you really should — muskets? Gettysburg? Lee? Is any of that sentence actually defensible?

So I started to play with the idea of adapting a non-fiction voice. Carter begins with names, dates, places, newspaper accounts, of one of the true mysteries of the 1920s — the death of President Harding, who was basically fine one day and gone the next, and who was never autopsied. I want to say that, metaphorically, at least, I never brought my cane to court — in other words, I tried to leave the props at home and let the reader judge whether my story felt true or not.

Luckily, Oakland has the most odd and pathetic and wonderful history you could imagine. There were so many gifts waiting for me I could hardly wait to get to the library each day. I want to tell you about all of them, but here, just one: I used to pass every day a photograph of the Oakland fire department, circa 1892, and there they were, six or seven men, all of them about 5 foot 4 inches tall, except one man, Joe Sullivan, who just happened to be, at 8 foot 2 inches, the tallest man in the world. He looked miserable. I looked up his obituary, and it turned out he'd joined the fire department because he couldn't stand people watching him. He figured he'd choose a job where people would pay attention to things other than himself. Alas, he was wrong, and fires he attended were often more chaotic than otherwise, because crowds would stand between him and the pumps, gawking not at the flames, but at his own tall self.

When you are handed a character like that, it is wise to not embellish. But explore, yes, it's very wise to take the facts Sullivan presents — the emotional truth behind his life — and to explore them. So Sullivan appears early and briefly in Carter, both intimidating and shy — angry and embarrassed.

I wrote quite a bit before I wrote Carter, and it was a process of slowly killing off the clever in me, learning how to listen to characters and scenes. Finding the History Room lent my stories weight.

There are times when I walk around Lake Merritt now, seeing the alternative history — the opera house, the bridges, the fountains — intermixed with my own — a magician and a blind woman flirting in an overgrown park while a lion eats roast beef off of wax paper. They are both equally rooted in what's actually there, right before your very eyes, ready to vanish or be transported across a wide and commodious stage, with just a blink or the turn of a page. spacer

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