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Photo by Jack GouldRobin Hinch's old dog recently slipped into poor health, so she may be thinking about mortality a little more than usual.
"She's an old dog, but her paws still smell like puppies," Hinch is saying, and she has stopped typing the obituary she's writing for tomorrow's Orange County Register. It's the latest of about 2,500 lifetimes that Hinch has summarized during the past 10 years at about 750 words apiece. This one is about a lady who ran a family-owned market that became a Newport Beach landmark, and Hinch is again pleasantly doting on a detail that illustrates the departed woman as well as a departed time: the way she used to watch for mischievous kids trying to sneak into the market's storage room to steal back the bottles they'd just returned for three-cent deposits, hoping to collect on them again.
But the little story is on hold for a few moments. In the middle of the newsroom, in the middle of the day, the squeaky-sweet aroma of clean baby dogs has wriggled up the nostrils of Hinch's imagination, and the veteran reporter can't help but pause to reflect upon her aging pet. "I just love to smell her paws; it makes me so happy," Hinch says, her words riding the faint gust of a briefly held breath. "I just told my son Ben, 'When I die, make sure you tell that to whoever writes my obituary. Tell them I loved to smell my dog's paws because they smelled like puppies.' He just gave me a weird look and said, 'Mom, why would you want anybody to know that?'"
Sally liked to look wealthy but spend penuriously. She wore a three-quarter-length mink coat to the Hollywood Bowl (de rigueur in her day), but she bought it at Ohrbach's. Pic N Save was her friend. Sally had enjoyed a long career as a banker and knew how to manage her money. Bargains weren't just good economy—they were a victory of sorts. A delicious way to feel like you were beating the system. Kind of like lying about your age (which Sally did) and having those annoying facial wrinkles smoothed by the deft hands of a plastic surgeon (which she also did—repeatedly). Luckily, she outlived most of her friends, so they'll never know that she was 96 when she died July 24.
This could be the year that Robin Hinch gets to know you. Not personally probably. Hinch doesn't have the time—or the clairvoyance—for that. She already has a very full life of her own. Hinch has raised two sons: Ben is a member of the local rock band Peepshot, and Jim is a reporter at the Register. She has stood by her husband, who has been debilitated by a series of strokes for nearly 20 years. Hinch used to drink too much, she has always struggled with her weight, and she has never made much of a secret of either.
But that thing about her dog having puppy-scented paws? That's new.
Hinch became a full-time newspaper reporter in the mid-1960s after she dropped out of Berkeley, landed at Cal State Long Beach and took a job at the Long Beach Press-Telegram solving consumers' problems in a column called Action Line. She's covered government, education and crime; reacted to daily news; and spun evergreen features.
Now she writes obituaries. But Hinch doesn't tend to mark the deaths of the rich, famous or historically significant. She reviews the lives of the rest of us, retracing the wobbly course of everyday existence. Life Stories, the Register calls Hinch's reports, which appear nearly every day of the week.
"The saddest thing about Robin's stories," says Register editor Tonnie Katz, who plucked Hinch from the Press-Telegramin 1997 when the staff of the Long Beach daily was gutted by a new corporate buyer, "is that you cannot actually meet the people she writes about."
Sad? Well, maybe. Hinch admits she gets a little emotional about the job from time to time. But she learned long ago, through lots of experience, that death is a part of life. "I was pretty young when my parents died," Hinch says. "My mother committed suicide when I was 22, and my dad died 10 years later. Both my grandparents had already died, too, as well as an aunt I was very close to."
The reporter in Hinch anticipates the next question, and she answers before it can be asked. "That doesn't give me any extra preparation for this job, except to the extent that it makes me even more fascinated in the way people go about living," she says. "That helps me understand something, I guess, although I've always had that interest. I can remember as a kid growing up in Fresno, sitting on the front porch at the end of hot summer days, listening in on people's conversations and trying to figure them out. I don't know why I didn't go into psychology."
If Hinch gets to know you this year, it'll be a fast friendship—beginning and ending before you know it because, well, you'll be dead. Here's wishing you a good year anyway, even if it is your last. Especially if it is.