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Letter from SLO

“I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.� —The Beatles

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Almost exactly a year ago, I arrived in SLO. At the time I thought I would have to say goodbye to my brother Steve, who had unexpectedly late last April. I was wrecked with grief for the loss of my hero, and I only vaguely recall that first week as my family and his many friends turned out to pay him their final respects. There were so many tales and still more tears, but what I remember most clearly is the comfort I felt in knowing that so many other people shared my love for him. They had evidently lost their hero, too.
 
Steve, as many of you may know, founded this newspaper you now hold in your hands. Twenty years ago, it was a radical addition to the Central Coast, but over time it became a reliable and trusted member of the community. Though he liked to joke that he only started the New Times because he couldn’t get published by any other editor, this was only partly true. Steve was a brilliant man with a love for words and he wanted to share his thoughts with as many people as possible. A newspaper of this sort seemed to perfectly match this vision; through it, he could be smart and crafty, effectively appealing to the broadest possible audience.

Until he died, though, I had never paid much attention to my brother, the newspaperman. Of course, I knew about the New Times, and wherever I lived — whether it was Ventura, or Chico, or Minneapolis, or Brooklyn — I always received my weekly issues.  But I was decades younger than him, and as his little sister our relationship tended to focus on my personal development, not his boring career. Over the years, he’d make allusions to the fact that I might enjoy working in his field, but he never pushed it so I, determined to forge a life that was distinctive from those of my five siblings, carried on in my own direction. I was an actor, I was a singer, and I was even, for a while, a performance artist. By this time last year, I was living in New York, and I was all of these and none of them, happy dabbling in the arts while making my money as a bartender. Steve, nevertheless, was always proud of me, and he told me so just a week before he died. Then, of course, I found myself on a long plane ride to SLO.

Following the funeral, I volunteered to stay in town and go through Steve’s belongings. Though it was an act of necessity, as he’d collected a full life’s worth of things, I realize now that I also stayed on so that I could delay having to say goodbye to him. And this turned out to be the best decision I’ve ever made because I learned more about my brother during those first few months than I had, sadly, ever known when he was alive. With every book of his I paged through and every letter I read, with every painting I admired and every CD I listened to, I began to see what a truly incredible man he had been. Not just to me, but to everybody. His interests were vast and his intellect was razor sharp. I had always taken it for granted that he was great, and I suddenly found myself surrounded by rock-solid proof of this greatness.

In addition to this strange archeological dig I found myself on, I also had the unique opportunity to meet many of the people here on the Central Coast whose own lives were affected by Steve’s larger-than-life presence. Whether they were readers or employees or friends, they all had personal moments with him that they were eager to share with me and so I listened, glad to add their stories to the biography of his life I found myself creating. I would be altering history if I said that he was loved by all, but from the information I’ve gathered I can say this: He was respected by most, and that’s no small potatoes.

Months into my stay here, without a clear plan for returning to my life in New York, I asked King Harris if I could somehow help out in the New Times editorial department. I wanted to continue learning about my brother, and with everything in his house finally packed away, this seemed like the next logical step. Besides, I was a stranger in a strange land and so I needed something to occupy my time. I was honest about my complete lack of experience in this field and King, apparently, took my word for it. He started me out on the most menial, tedious tasks — which I performed with a relish that surprised even me. But I enjoyed the energy of an editorial staff and found that this environment was a wonderful outlet for my own, insatiable curiosity. At night I’d go home and read something of Steve’s, an essay or a book, or a collection of stupid cartoons, and the next day I’d return, a little bit wiser, a little bit funnier, and ready to take on even greater challenges. And little by little, I started seeing my own potential as a writer unfold.

Shortly after I started spending time at the paper, I read a passage in Steve’s memoir that recounted his own journalistic beginnings. He’d been an artist. He’d been a hippie. He’d even worked as a farmer of sorts. He stumbled onto writing entirely by accident and through it found an outlet for all of his creative energy. Though he took many a fall before he could stand up straight and call himself a bona fide writer, he had done it. And, as it turned out, he had done it rather nicely. Without trying to draw too many parallels between our two, very different lives, I couldn’t help but find comfort in this tiny little passage.

What I hear most from people who talk about my brother Steve is that he was a true believer in the human spirit, a tireless coach and man of fierce integrity. All he asked of other people was that they return his faith with honesty and dedication. Armed with these two things, anything was possible, and Steve championed many a would-be writer and designer, often times giving them their first break when no one else would bother. There might just be hope for me after all.

I still haven’t said goodbye to Steve, and I’m not sure that I ever will. I realize now that he will never totally leave me. When I return to New York in a couple of weeks, I will carry with me the memory of this year as one of the greatest I have ever known. In staying here, I escaped from despair and I opened myself up to a world of endless possibilities, the kind people flock to the Big Apple to find. Yet here in this quiet place, I have made precious friends, I have languished in the seductive sunshine, I have cried and laughed, and I have succeeded in ways I never would have dreamed of.  ∆

Alice Moss is returning to Brooklyn where she plans to spend her time singing Beatles’ songs. Email her at missamoss@gmail.com.

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