Remembering Mike Penner/Christine Daniels
Here's a secret: when nosotros are done smashing skinheads, finishing off the Catholic Church's pedo-priests and their apologists, destroying the Mexican-hating synapse in the OC psyche, exposing Birfers, sending off Carona to jail and basically make Orange County decent for everyone--when all that is said and done--I'd love nothing better than to become the Weekly's full-time sports writer. It's the sports page that was my introduction to journalism as a young wab who kept stealing Anaheim Bulletins and Orange County Registers until his immigrant parents bought him a subscription to each. My favorite writers growing up were longtime Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly, and basically anyone who wrote for the Los Angeles Times sports section--oh, Alan Malamud and Jim Murray, how we miss you. And now Spring Street must add a third person along those two saints: Mike Penner.
Penner passed away this Thanksgiving weekend of an apparent suicide, and most of the remembrances posted around the Web mention personal demons he faced. I knew none of them. I knew he was one of our own--a graduate of Western High School and Cal State Fullerton, former scribe for the Bulletin before starring in the Times' Orange County bureau back when it was a bureau--and a wickedly talented writer. He was a close friend of former Weekling Steve Lowery, and I'd always get a kick out of Lowery describing what a great guy Penner was and knowing a writer I admired greatly.
Now, imagine my surprise when Lowery told me one Penner wanted to meet me--or rather, Christine Daniels.
In April 2007, Pennerwrote a column
announcing he was a transsexual who would from then on would be known as Christine Daniels. It was a moving piece, one that provoked thousands of positive letters. One of them was mine: I commended her for the beautifully written piece, Christine's courage, and sent along thoughts and prayers. She sent back her gratitude and word that she was a fan, which blew me away. Then Lowery--who, by that time, wasn't with us any longer--called to say Christine wanted to meet me to ask for advice. The honor!
We met at a restaurant in Old Towne Orange, Christine wearing a modest dress and a glow of happiness, the type people wear when they have no worry in the world. She jabbered with the restaurant owner, laughed authentic laughs, and was just a wonderful person--everything Lowery said of his friend and more. She wanted advice on how to deal with the media hordes who wanted a piece of her, media hordes I had previously navigated before the year before due to my ¡Ask a Mexican! column. We talked, ate great food, and promised to keep in touch.
We didn't. A year later, Christine switched back to using Mike Penner as a name. I sent Penner a letter wishing him well around that time but didn't receive a response. I kept up with his columns, of course, and they remained as sharp as ever. But I always assumed that Penner was in a good personal spot, the same spot I saw him as Christine in Old Town Orange.
Only Penner's closest friends and families know the pains their loved one faced in life. I'm not part of that circle. But I do feel lucky to have met Penner/Daniels once, to meet someone I admired greatly, and to have come out of that meeting knowing I met someone honestly, truthfully wonderful.