I am indebted to my friend Sid for some of my most interesting reads. His most recent suggestion, Desperado, is no exception.
New York Times reporter, Grace Lichtenstein, wrote this memoir in 1977— two years after a jarring displacement from her East Coast home turf to the wild west of Denver, Colorado. At the start of her assignment she was as bewildered by misinformation and fuzzy geography of the west as the New York editor who claimed, “Wyoming . . . Idaho, it’s all the same isn’t it?” (4)
Though the book is now out of print, I easily located a used copy on the Internet. I related especially well to the book in a couple of ways.
• Like Lichtenstein, my mother was a transplanted New Yorker who came west with pride and determination mixed with horror of the little things that were missing, like a good cup of coffee or any truly ethnic cuisine. As Lichtenstein railed about the lack of diversity and ticky-tacky taste she encountered in the west, I hear my mom’s complaints echoing in my head.
• Lichtenstein arrived in the west and experienced a hellish experience in Boise, Idaho at about the same time that I was moving to Idaho. It was my first permanent move from my home state and I was eager to learn the back and current story of my new surroundings. It was fun to observe that Lichtenstein was becoming familiar with the same events and public personalities that I was also getting to know at that time.
I couldn’t help but notice how much has changed in the west as well as in the world in general since the late 70’s. First of all, I was astounded to learn that upon reassignment to Denver, Lichtenstein rented a downtown, two-bedroom apartment with a pool and mountain-view terrace for only $310 a month—half the price she might pay for similar digs in Manhattan. Huh! Today she’d barely be able to find a tenement in Laramie so affordably priced. Plus she had the use of a company car and an expense account. And, really? A two-bedroom apartment could be had in Manhattan for under $700 a month? Wow!
That the New York Times would even have a Rocky Mountain correspondent is a sharp reminder of how seriously we once took our newspaper journalism. That the paper would pay $300 per month to subsidize her second-bedroom office space, thus reducing her monthly rent expense to $10 is even more surprising. Today I suspect most of our print news comes from hard scrabble free-lance journalists who bounce around the country on a wing and a prayer, hoping to sell their copy to American Media, McClatchy, or Gannett for enough to cover their costs.
Another revelation was how far information technology has come. Lichtenstein was hamstrung by an antiquarian process of typing (not processing, mind you) a story, then calling a special New York Times telephone number to “dictate the copy at normal reading speed onto a tape cassette. A typist then transcribed the copy either onto multicarbon ‘books’ or directly into a typesetting computer.” (24) How stone-age this process sounds compared to today’s high-speed document transmissions.
The book is peppered with incidents that confirm the big screen myths of the west. You can see the stars in Lichtenstein’s words as she recalls shaking hands with John Wayne or Robert Redford. Lichtenstein was lucky to meet and spend time with an original woman of the land. Mrs. Barlow of the Cross Bar Ranch in Wyoming grew up in the house she was living in, a house that was built in 1910, not long before her own birth. Lichtenstein is stunned by Mrs. Barlow’s assertion that she never felt isolated. She never had time to know what isolation was because she and all the women she knew were too busy working. Her son, John Perry Barlow, represents the new west; with a degree in comparative literature, John is “an acid-rock lyricist, Republican county official, a failed novelist, and a struggling rancher.” Cuddled in the warmth of this western family, Lichtenstein got a small taste of what it is that draws people to the land and holds them there, as she gazed at pink-nosed calves that might one day land on her New York dinner plate. I wonder what has become of those ranch families that she found struggling to stay afloat thirty years ago.
Day-long conferences on water rights and heated debates about public lands counterpoint the mythology of the west. Probing behind the headlines, Lichtenstein begins to recognize the complexities of western politics: environmental concerns versus the need for jobs in a changing western economy; taxes to build and maintain infrastructure versus putting food on the table; gun legislation versus self protection when there is no one for miles around to hear your cries for help.
Lichtenstein’s encounter with my home town was an ugly chapter that made me wince with recognition. I wanted to yell out, “But Grace, you should see it now. Boise has changed, come see for yourself!” The trumped up charges of cocaine possession which landed her in jail and the lengthy, convoluted legal wrangle that followed left an understandably bad taste in her mouth. Some readers might question the validity of her innocence, but given the players of the day and the conservative feel of this town, I have to say that her account is credible. Her prediction, however, that marijuana would soon be decriminalized has not come to pass. And her assertion that cocaine isn’t likely to become a serious social problem like alcohol or firearms seems ludicrous today. (172)
Lichtenstein gets a lot of things right. She’s unafraid of examining her own preconceived notions and she liberally supports her conclusions with quotes from a respectable library of books about the west. But she goofed geographically. She describes Cody, Wyoming as two hundred miles northwest of Jackson Hole. I had to read that twice. By her reckoning, you’d be somewhere between Sun Valley, Idaho and Butte, Montana. Her editor should have caught that!
For the most part, Desperado is an interesting perspective on the dichotomy of western versus eastern politics. In her scramble to cover the vast territory assigned to her by the New York Times, Lichtenstein becomes a self–proclaimed modern-day rootless, loner. Living out of her suitcase and grabbing substandard grub at Denny’s restaurants she identifies with the Eagles’ song from which she took her book title. She returns to New York a slightly changed woman. The west can do that, if you let it. She learned how to trade stylish heels for Fabiano hiking boots, survive the night in a sleeping bag with stars for a roof, and that provincialism exists wherever you go. Her new understanding of the west is no substitute though, for hot spicy crabs or moo shu pork. Her roots are as firmly planted in New York concrete as the roots of John Perry Barlow are planted in the soil of Wyoming.
Lichtenstein, Grace. Desperado. New York: Dial Press, 1977