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Homage to California's Oddball Cranks

October 18, 2000|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Eccentrics, charismatics, collectors of oddities and plain old cranks have always been drawn to the Golden State, and it has always been Charles Hillinger's stock-in-trade as a journalist to search them out and share them with the rest of us. Over a long and lively career that spanned nearly 50 years, Hillinger's profiles appeared in the pages of the Los Angeles Times, and now the best of them are collected in "California Characters: An Array of Amazing People" (Capra Press, $15.95, 271 pages).

Just the names of the men and women whom Hillinger found, befriended and profiled suggest the varieties of obsession and compulsion that turn an ordinary man or woman into a "character"--Shopping Cart Dougherty and Spaceship Ruthie, Desert Fats and Down the Road Dugan, the Hermit of Hardrock Gulch and Dr. Tinkerpaw of Nitwit Ridge. Among them are Zachary Zzzzra and Vladimir Zzzzzzabakov, who competed with each other for the final listing in the San Francisco telephone directory. Medie Webster is the very last person in the world to speak the language of the Atsugewi Indians, and Seldom Seen Slim is a down-on-his-luck prospector who refuses to leave his pickings. And yet Hillinger is so respectful of his subjects that not one of these characters comes across as pathetic or pitiable.

"I ain't lonely," insists Seldom Seen Slim, "the last man in Ballarat," a ghost town on the outskirts of Death Valley. "Hell, I'm half coyote and half wild burro."

Not surprisingly, a restless search for spiritual truth occupies a great many of the people presented in "California Characters." We meet the Full Mooners, who gather on a hilltop in Ojai Valley to engage in meditation en masse on the night of the full moon, and the charismatic minister of a "one-church denomination" in Napa that doubles as a pet cemetery: "Do you realize that dog is God spelled backwards?" quips the Rev. J. Calvin Harberts, summing up the theology of the Bubbling Well Church of Universal Love. But, as Hillinger demonstrates, some ardent seekers seem to find an equal measure of inspiration in raising bats and bloodworms and crickets or picking up bottles and cans on desert highways.

Still, Hillinger's book is never a freak show, and more often than not the profiles are little morality plays. Thus, for example, we are invited to witness an illuminating encounter between Hillinger and a homeless man named Clint Wescott who was living a troll-like existence in downtown Los Angeles sleeping under various bridges and overpasses around Bunker Hill, when Hillinger first wrote about him. After Hillinger's story appeared, he was contacted by an attorney in New York who had been searching for Wescott in order to turn over a $20,000 windfall that belonged to the long-missing man. As it turned out, however, Wescott wasn't interested.

"Hand me a dollar. I'll take it and buy a little drink, a little smoke. But I don't want a huge wad of money like that," replied Wescott, who had exactly 44 cents in his pocket at the time. "You know all I want out of life is a loaf of bread, a pound of baloney, a hunk of cheese, good health. I've got all that here. I'm at peace with the world."

After a half-century of hanging out with people like Hubcap Lucy, whose desert spread is stocked with some 80,000 used hubcaps, or Alan Dundes, a professor of folklore at Berkeley who collects jokes at the rate of 25,000 a year, Hillinger clearly understands the urge to collect. Indeed, as he demonstrates in "California Characters," he is a collector in his own right and a character himself, no less charming and endearing than the ones he writes about with such insight and empathy.

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A Eurasian woman who became an early civil rights activist, a Paiute woman who served as a military translator, and a half-black fur trader are among the "marginalized" writers whose work is explored in "West of the Border: The Multicultural Literature of the Western American Frontiers" by Noreen Groover Lape (Ohio University Press, $24.95, 224 pages).

Lape purposely chose these "noncanonical" writings to illustrate that the frontier has always been the cutting edge of diversity in American civilization. As it moved ever farther westward under the pressure of "Manifest Destiny," the frontier may have been "a zone of cultural conflict," as she puts it, but it was also a place where different races and cultures encountered and struggled to make sense of each other--and that's exactly what all of the writers in "West of the Border" have in common.

"Frontiers were not simply sites of victimhood or negation," writes Lape about the experiences of the authors whose work she has collected and studied. "The frontier prepared them to grapple with the problems of Americanization as they separated from their original cultures and faced a new culture that debated what to do with them." For each of the writers under consideration, the encounter was both energizing and fatiguing, liberating and alienating.

"What westering pioneers . . . had in common was the experience of the frontier as a contact zone," Lape explains, "that is, a place where cultures meet, interact, and grapple for power." The same notion, of course, is at work even today, and "West of the Border" attests to the fact that the making of cultural war and cultural peace is nothing new in California.

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West Words looks at books related to California and the West. It runs every other Wednesday.

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