Canto CCCLIII: 2004, The Year It All Changed, Pt. 1 — An Intro

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Or: WERK it Until You Make It


May 25, 2024

Gentle cabrones:

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say this again:

I hate nostalgia.

I don’t romanticize a past that mostly wasn’t good (I lived it, so I should know). I also don’t have time to idealize moments and people and places I remember — as nice as they were, there’s WERK ahead.

That said, I do look back — A LOT.

I have to in my career, which is built on moments and people and places I remember that fueled me forward. I have a puppy’s memory (see footnote at end), so one past incident turns into another turns in a bout of Immaculate Grid that can go on forever.

I also get asked to talk a lot about my career, for which I don’t have a stump speech, although I do tend to tell the same highlights. That’s why I always try to end my speeches early — to let the audience ask questions, and have me cruise down roads I haven’t thought of in a while.

Which is exactly what happened last week. After giving an overview about what I did and do to a high school class, someone asked a brilliant question: “What moment do you think changed your life forever?”

“Hmm!” I exclaimed, before adding “No one’s ever asked me that before!” which is absolutely true, and gave me a moment to do something I rarely do when I speak:

Think.

We all have those moments — an incident, a day, a chance meeting, a crucial “Yes” or “No.” As I cycled through the View-Master of my life for about seven seconds, I finally found an answer.

“2004.”

I told the classroom there wasn’t one instance that I can pinpoint, because my life is a series of them that built upon each other. I joined the L.A. Times after a GREAT (IYKYK) freelancer year. I got my book deals because of a feature my colega compa Daniel Hernandez did on me. I won over my media chica after I got super-drunk and locked her out of her store — but that’s a canto for another time.

The latter two things happened in 2006, which is also when I moved out of my parents’ house with my best friend Art and settled in SanTana. Appeared on The Colbert Report and The Today Show. My first flight by myself, which I’ve written about in this here newsletter. That year was huge.

But 2004 is When It All Changed.

When a lifetime of wondering what I wanted to do finally came into focus. Where I wrote stories that changed my worldview forever. Made decisions that sent me down the path to where I am today. Solidified a reputation as…somebody. When I learned about the best and stupidest in people.

And oh, the lessons along the way.

So over the rest of the year, I’m going to do these occasional remembrances — mostly tied to stories I published, for reasons that will be apparent.

To paraphrase Talking Heads: Oh, what a year that was.

My 2004, in an image. Image by Ambrose Singh from Pixabay

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2004. My birthday is in February, so that meant I was 25 for most of it. A baby for most people, but I had already lived lives.

Went from underachieving high schooler to summa cum lader. Went from film production to film studies to grad school to a whole new career as a reporter. OCC to Chapman to UCLA grad school. Went from barely reading newspapers besides the sports section to devouring them. Went from not giving a shit about politics to breathing them.

I had not even been officially full time at the Infernal Rag for even six months, but I was getting a reputation. Classes and groups to speak to. Getting stopped in public and being told by someone they liked my stuff…or hated it.

Had just started appearing on AirTalk with Larry Mantle. I was the food critic, the guy who helped to take down the demonized Nativo Lopez (which I’ll always defend, even if history has absolved him), who covered Latin alternative on the side and did a hell of a job at it, who was already being called a vendido and an arriviste.

2004 was the best year the Infernal Rag ever had (2005 would be the fattest the paper ever got — then, the decline). We moved our offices from Costa Mexico to SanTana because our editor knew OC’s future was there, not among the Costa Mesa 500. Before we moved to our fifth-story offices on the corner of Main and 17th early early in the year, he asked me to write a primer for all employees about what to expect in SanTana. I sure as hell hope I still have a copy in my archives, because it was pretty good! Talked about the stereotypes too many county residents heaped on Stabba Ana, gave restaurants to try, people to hit up and boo.

Didn’t matter: At least two people I know of quit the Infernal Rag, because they were concerned about their safety in Santa Ana.

Oh, who could’ve asked for more?

We hit SanTana running. 2004 saw every single editorial staffer at their peak. Lowery was Lowery, Coker was Clockwork, Commie Girl was as Commie as she got gracias to Dubya. Clubbed! LowAssBallChatter! Ziegler and his pseudonym I can’t remember right now!

And then there was Moxley, Schou and I.

Take it, Lowery!

Huntington Beach City Councilwoman Pamela Julien-Houchen, under investigation for illegally converting apartments to condominiums, resigns. She is the second Huntington Beach city official to come under legal scrutiny and then resign after an investigation by the Weekly; the first, Mayor Dave Garofalo, quit after it was discovered nobody liked him. On a personal note, I had nothing to do with any of this, but if you're a local politician, I sincerely suggest you not mess with our news dudes—Arellano, Moxley and Schou. Bob Dornan did, and now he's doing kids' birthday parties and first communions. Larry Agran is getting a little something-something right now. And, dude, if you're a politician from Huntington Beach, I would sincerely consider sending these boys a muffin basket, you know, and hope the Angel of Death passes you over. If they do come calling, you answer your question, cop to anything and thank them for their time. It's like I told this guy Jeff, who was getting his head rammed into a car bumper by my best friend Dom out by the convent. “Stay down,” I told him. “Take your beating and stay down.” It wasn't like he didn't have it coming. He clearly blew the palming call in the finals of the St. Raymond's intramural basketball league; Dom had to do something. We should have easily romped over the team of Dave Domenici, who everyone knew always took an extra step to the hoop, but Jeff conveniently missed that while calling palming when what he had seen was in fact an optical illusion stemming from my superior hand and foot speed, which I told Jeff before, after and during his beating. The point is Jeff was clearly responsible for slamming his head into the back of a car—which, in those days, were made of steel—his biggest mistake being trying to get up. And so it is for you, corrupt H.B. politico. When the Weekly boys come calling, answer their questions, please them any way you can, resistance is futile. Who knows? You may get lucky and catch us in a Best of OC cycle, when they'll be distracted. Otherwise, there's a bumper with your name on it.

Steve Lowery, Diary of a Mad County, Sept. 2004

Damn.

Lowery didn’t mention the Haidl gang rape trial, the abomination of justice that ended up bringing down OC Sheriff Mike Carona. That was Moxley, as well as Dornan. Schou did Houchen, and would end the year writing an obit on the legendary reporter Gary Webb that would turn into a book, then a movie.

None of the gets Lowery mentioned were mine, although he did shout out my work on the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal at the bottom of his columna. I nearly got Agran, but Moxley — in one of the few uncharitable things he ever did to me — yanked that story away from me by whipping out his seniority card (that said, Agran is still in office — hmm…)

That was okay. I was the padewan, the apprentice, and I knew it.

One thing I tell students of all ages is to ALWAYS surround yourself with people smarter than you. That was me in 2004 in the Infernal Rag. Schou became my eternal lunch buddy, and I just observed everyone else. Took my edits, was the guy overshadowed in news meetings by everyone else — and wrote like Kermit on the typewriter. To be in that newsroom that year was the best education a cub reporter could’ve ever wished for. A Murderer’s Row of journalists, which each playing their role, from Lou Gehrig to Babe Ruth to Tony Lazzeri to Waite Hoyt.

Me? I was Mike Gazella, just happy to be there — but taking my swings, and starting to connect more often than not…

And I’ve yet to let it fall.

Coming in Part 2: The only story of mine that I have my journalism students read. To come sometime in the summer…

**

Enough rambling. This was the semana that was:

Onto the next one?

IMAGE OF THE WEEK: The program for “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” part of a series of readings of iconic plays produced by Center Theatre Group. Packed house for an incredible production — and I got to give a speech afterward as dramaturg. Columna to come…

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Vancouver, Vancouver! This is it!” — David A. Johnston

LISTENING: Double Dutch Bus,” Frankie Smith. I first heard this jam of jams on some Thump! Records compilation or other. Always loved its shuffling, nursery rhyme rhythm and the voices, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized it was a linguistic masterpiece — dizzamne! Recently read something praising it for that reason, and here we are: Another Philly plug from in a spring full of them.

READING: Golden Boy goes home – but where is that, exactly?”: Apollo Magazine has been around since 1925, but I only found out about the arts publication maybe two years ago. It’s insider-y yet plebeian, so all are welcome, as exemplified by this story about a repatriated golden statue. Art and empire history, modern-day intrigue, all told eloquently — this publication is so good that I just subscribed to the print edition, and got my first copy, which is GREAT.

BUY MY NEW CO-BOOK! People’s Guide to Orange County tells an alternative history of OC through the scholarship and reporting of myself, Elaine Lewinnek, and Thuy Vo Dang. There’ll be signings all year — in meanwhile, buy your copy TODAY. And, yes: I’ll autograph it!

Gustavo Events  

May 31, 11:30 a.m.: I’ll be part of a panel about the OC media landscape as part of OC Forum. At the Irvine Hyatt. Cheapest ticket is $125 — WTF?

June 6, 7:30 p.m.: I will be the emcee for the Exposé Awards, the annual gala on behalf of the fine news nonprofit Capital & Main held at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA. Tickets ain’t cheap, but don’t be a cheapskate — it’s a damn fundraiser, and you get to see me do my best Billy Crystal impersonation. Buy TODAY.

Gustavo in the News

Gustavo Arellano: It's Drinko de Mayo!”: I appeared on the Bakotunes Podcast a few months ago to talk Drinko.

Thank You For Attending”: The Soraya, the beautiful performing arts space at Cal State Northridge, shouts out my canto of a few weeks back about Culture Clash…

Canto CCCLI: Culture Clash's 40th Anniversary Bash!”: …and the great Caló News was kind enough to reprint!

Tacos of Enchantment”: My work on Mexican food gets a shoutout here…

Welcome! To the Chainification of America“: …and in Eater’s great package on U.S. food chains.

Rethinking Latino identity one year later in ‘Our Migrant Souls’”: I say nice things about author and essayist Héctor Tobar, whom I still say I should be his Boswell.

Daredevil could face charges for stunt at graffiti towers”: I appear on KTTV-TV Fox 11 to talk about Graffiti Towers, LA’s latest amusement park.

La Abeja”: My former student, Fresno Bee government accountability reporter Melissa Montalvo, writes this weeks edition of her paper’s excellent Latino-themed newsletter to shout out my work and remind me I owe the Central Valley a visit. I can’t link to her kind words, for some reason, so subscribe to the newsletter! DEFINITELY a “Random Cool People I Know” profile of Melissa when I finally drive up the 99…

Cómo la comida mexicana conquistó Estados Unidos”: El País shouts out my work on Mexican food.

Gustavo Stories 

Grítale a Guti”: Latest edition of my Tuesday night IG Live free-for-all.

“Orange County Line”: My latest KCRW OC commentary isn’t up online yet, but it was part of their FUNdrive.

A meeting of Cal State L.A. student encampments, 55 years apart”: My latest L.A. Times columna visits the pro-Palestinian tent town up in the Eastside. KEY QUOTE: “The 1969 encampamento is little remembered except by those who were there. But it was pioneering in many ways.”

California wants to mandate folic acid in tortillas to help babies. Why that’s bad”: My next latest L.A. Times columna is a taste test at La Princesita, winners of my 2022 KCRW and Gustavo’s Great #TortillaTournament. KEY QUOTE: “His unsympathetic approach is Big Blue California at its worst: thinking that the state should take care of residents from conception to death, and being willing to mess with traditions if they get in the way.”

You made it this far down? Gracias! Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram while you’re down here by clicking on their logos down below. Don’t forget to forward this newsletter to your compadres y comadres! You can’t get me tacos anymore, but you sure as hell can give them — and more — to the O.C. Catholic Worker!

1  Known by the rest of the world as “elephant’s memory,” but my wife and I call it “puppy’s memory” in honor of our late dog Marge. One evening, when she was older and we mostly had to hold her, we brought her to Alta Baja, where a former coworker/forever friend of my wife who hadn’t visited in a while had stopped by. She immediately started baby-talking to Marge, and her tail wagged hard — she remembered her! Hence, puppy’s memory.