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.
Chuck Hallam had two moods: happy or mad. Mostly, he was happy. But when he was mad, it wasn't much fun. The least little thing could set him off yelling and screaming—a dirty coffee cup left on his desk at work, an improperly parked truck. And a job done sloppily? Yikes! Get outta the way! Chuck turned into a monster. Moments later, though, he was fine, playing a practical joke on the guy he'd just hollered at. Chuck's practical jokes, like his moods, swung wildly from funny to irritating. . . . No one was ambivalent about Chuck. Co-workers either hated him or loved him. Most loved him. Even his wife, Caren, alternately loved and hated him. . . . He was 61 when he died Sunday of a heart attack.
Does it seem ironic that the liveliest writing in the Register is on the obituary page? Well, maybe it's not so ironic when you remember that someone's right to sue for libel expires when they do. If there is danger in speaking ill of the dead, it doesn't lurk in the courtroom. That loosens things up a bit. Still, in an age when the corporate ownership of newspapers has belt-sanded the edges off most daily journalism, Hinch's style is startling, swirling with blanket statements, crucial details, historical references, unattributed facts, snap judgments, meditative conundrums, complaints of unfairness, unblinking accounts of cruelty, 99-cent-store truisms, backhanded compliments, tearjerking sentimentality, warm humor, an enduring reminder that we are all living a story, and a prickly belief that we are all, in some way or another, accountable for our actions.
Hinch's biographical obituaries represent both a bright achievement and a glaring inconsistency amid the fluorescent hum that emanates from the rest of the Register's test-pattern pages. Rather than the so-called "objective" style of journalistic truth telling—get an opinion from both sides and present each without question, assuming that the truth lies somewhere in the middle—Hinch usually writes in the voice of her own authority. She does interviews and research to begin heading toward the truth, but she relies mostly on an innate sense to know when she has arrived there.
"There's something in me that recognizes it. The 'a-ha!' The 'I gotcha!'" Hinch says, tickled by the mystery of her own talent but confident in it—especially since she insists upon doing these interviews over the phone. "How many people do I have to interview to get there? It'll depend. But until I get it, I keep saying, 'Maybe I can talk to a brother, a sister, a best friend or something, until I sense that something real is there. Then I have a sense of who that person was. But until I get that, there's not much point in stringing together a story that's just a series of descriptions like, 'She was a neat freak, and she drove a yellow car.'"
When doctors told Nona Corriere she had but two weeks to live, she turned to her kids and said, "Okay, let's plan the food for the memorial." They'd have it in her large, Fountain Valley home, she decided. She told them where to put the table and what to serve. There will be Italian sandwiches (she didn't want things spilled on her carpet) and mostaccioli. "You can get the mostaccioli at Lucci's," she said, "but tell them to put some damn sauce on it. They never put enough sauce on it." Nothing—not even the end stages of pancreatic cancer—could stifle Nona. She was the kind of woman you expect to see only on TV sitcoms—funny, brash, rude, tender, generous and meddlesome. As owner of La Plaza Mexican Restaurant in Huntington Beach for more than 25 years, she counseled, upbraided, ridiculed, offended and delighted hundreds of customers and employees. She loaned cooks and waitresses money to get their teeth fixed, bail their husbands out of jail and go to college. She helped them buy houses and ordered them to get rid of their worthless boyfriends. "I'll slap you into next week," she'd say if they did something stupid.
In his 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West gave a dark and disgusted account of the sad, empty voyeurs in the newspaper business who played on the same sick curiosity of their readers. In the book, the reporter who is assigned by a cruel editor to write a Dear Abby-style column called "Miss Lonelyhearts is steadily destroyed by the experience. "Although the deadline was less than a quarter of an hour away," West wrote, "he was still working on his leader. He had gone as far as 'Life is worthwhile, for it is full of dreams and peace, gentleness and ecstasy, and faith that burns like a clear white flame on a grim dark altar.' But he found it impossible to continue. The letters were no longer funny. He could not go on finding the same joke funny 30 times a day for months on end. And on most days, he received more than 30 letters, all of them alike, stamped from the dough of suffering with a heart-shaped cookie knife."
Dear Georgia: You're too young to understand or even remember what all the fuss is about. Why the phone keeps ringing, people keep stopping by, and Daddy's voice trembles with sadness. In time, even your Mommy's face will fade from your memory. The adoring smile, framed by long blond hair, that greeted you each morning and reassured you throughout the day that your world was safe and happy will be yours now only in photos—and as it's reflected in your own sweet smile. But you must have known since your birth two years ago—maybe even before—that your Mommy wanted and loved you more than anything on earth. You have felt it each time she's picked you up and held you close, sneaked in a hug while reading you a book, and sung you a song to send you to sleep. And even though she died of cancer at age 34, her love will be part of you forever.
Hinch wept that morning in 1991 when she was summoned into the office of the Press-Telegram's recently arrived editor and informed that she was being assigned to write obituaries full time. She went home crying and didn't come back all day. "She was horrified," acknowledges Saundra Keyes, the editor of the Press-Telegram then and now editor at the Honolulu Advertiser. "She thought my request was a negative comment on her work. She asked if I had something against her. She believed I was putting her out to pasture. She was devastated."
Keyes insists the move was a compliment, emphasizing that it was Hinch's talent, personality and insight that made her the perfect choice to write life-story obituaries about everyday people. "But convincing Robin took quite a selling job," she says with a chuckle. Finally, Keyes compromised: if Hinch would take the assignment and set a standard of quality for the job, she could stop writing obituaries at the end of the year. "But in just those few months," says Hinch, "I was in heaven."
Larry Troxel's license-plate frame says, "I'd rather be watching 'The Andy Griffith Show.'" The walls of his Newport Beach home say, "A serious Andy Griffith fan lives here." The walls are covered with framed, autographed photos of Andy; his TV son, Opie; and anyone else who had the briefest brush with the folksy show. But the heart behind this fan-turned-fanatic said something far more poignant: here was a man in search of a childhood. He queried relatives often about his own youth. "Was I there? Did I have fun?" he'd ask when they talked of past events, as if trying to reconstruct memories that had escaped his recollection. It was as though the perfect childhood was an elusive thing for Larry, the son of a jazz musician who was often on the road. And only a fictionalized version of those long-lost early years could match his vision of an ideal youth. He started watching the show as a child—a child just one week older than Ron Howard, who played Opie. Larry even looked like Opie, with his cute little brush cut and confident stride. To Larry, the show represented a simpler, more wholesome time, filled with fun, understanding and family values—things he was trying to bring to the childhood of his own seven-year-old son, Brian. One of his many Griffith photos is of Andy and Opie, poles in hand, on their way to the fishing hole, Opie gazing adoringly at his dad. Larry had promised Brian he'd take him fishing before Christmas and bring that photo to life. But that was one childhood memory that wasn't to be. Larry rose early Sunday, not feeling well. He went out to the patio with a cup of coffee and a cigarette and had a massive heart attack. He was 44.
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People rarely cry when Hinch is interviewing them about someone who has just died. "Maybe because I get to them so soon—the death hasn't really hit them, and [in the] meantime, they're just in coping mode. You know, call the relatives, call the mortuary, make the funeral arrangements, talk to the newspaper reporter," Hinch speculates. "But I think it's also because I'm not talking to them about loss. I'm talking to them about the life that has been lived. And people love to talk about people they love."
If you've lived in Fullerton for any length of time, you've undoubtedly seen Irene Bunnell—better known to her family as Gooma, and in the community as the Pink Lady—floating around town, dressed all in pink, of course, right down to her dyed tennis shoes. She cruised the streets in her white '78 Pontiac, the one she called her Boom car after her late husband's nickname, with Boom's old tan cowboy hat centered on the rear-window ledge. She said it made her feel as if Boom were still with her. She'd spent 50 of her 86 years in the same house in Fullerton, taking care of Boom, raising two daughters and immersing herself in tracing her family's heritage. It was serious business, this heritage tracking. Irene swore she traced her family back to Egypt—to the guards of King Tut's hill. That's the origin of the name Tuttle, she said—Irene's maiden name. . . . Irene could document her family's crossing on theMayflower, their relationship to Charlemagne, and that someone in her lineage had signed the Magna Carta. She said she traced one line back to Adam.
Even after 10 years of success—Hinch has won numerous awards and counseled at many writing seminars—not everybody is entirely comfortable with the Life Story style of obituary writing. A couple of her colleagues have professional reservations. "Robin is a wonderful writer, but these stories don't set quite right, journalistically," said one. "They frequently have no attribution, no quotes and are written familiarly, as though the reporter knew the person, when really, they never met. It seems a little smug."
Register editor Katz bristles at such criticism. She insists Hinch's stories must pass the same muster as everything else that appears in the paper. "Are they factual? Yes. Are they accurate? Yes. Do they also have a storytelling voice? Yes," Katz says. "That's true of all good features." Another colleague half-jokingly aired fears of becoming the subject of one of Hinch's summaries. "If I die in Orange County, roll me over the county line so that nobody knows what kind of hat I wore and that my kids called me Pookie." You could call him a dwarf. You could call him a short-statured person. But the one thing you could not call Richard Crandall was Dick. That was not his name, and he hated it. And with all the things he could not control—such as steps as tall as his tibia, sinks he couldn't possibly reach, and light switches mounted dreams away—Richard's name was one thing over which he could take undeniable command. At just three feet, 10 inches, Richard, who was 57 when he died Tuesday, was about the size of a three-year-old—a three-year-old with disproportionately short arms and legs. He saw people's belt buckles before he saw the color of their eyes. He couldn't sit on a regular chair. Hinch acknowledges that her style is unique but makes no apologies for her techniques—or their results. "I've written a couple of stories where people thought I was too hard on a person, or where somebody wondered about the accuracy of a particular anecdote, or where I was accused of painting somebody in an unpleasant light," she says. "But then I'd get just the opposite response from the family." She sighs. "I'm just so interested in people; I'm a compulsive eavesdropper. I can sit in an airport or at Disneyland and listen to what people are saying as they walk by. You don't want to go out to dinner with me—I'll be eavesdropping on the people at the next table. I'm just so touched by people's candor. They'll tell you the most intimate details of their lives." He was a convicted rapist, child molester and murderer—the man who killed her mother. But to Fredericka Saterfield, Fred Saterfield was her dad—"the only thing I knew I had that was mine." Occasionally, he sent her money from prison. Always he answered her letters. But his hugs were forced and lacking warmth. He never said, "I love you." He was hardly a father in the traditional sense. Her half sisters wanted nothing to do with him. They were in their Santa Ana home that fateful Thanksgiving Day in 1965 when Fred put bullets in the left temple of their mother, Patsy, and their sister, Mary. They shed the name Saterfield like ducks shaking water off their backs. Fredericka, who was only four at the time of the murders, hung tough. "It doesn't matter what he did," she says now. "He was my father." And when, a few days after Fred's death Nov. 7 at age 83 in state prison at Corcoran, she received the two boxes of his few personal effects, she just stared at them for hours, at a loss for how to feel. "I cried for days over the death of Lucille Ball," she said with a sheepish giggle during a recent interview in her home in Corona. "But for my dad, I don't know."That's the thing about life and death: nobody knows. Our heartbeats are just a drumroll, the fanfare to their own demise—pending the verification of a few details, of course, like heaven or hell. In some sense, the paragraphs in a newspaper obituary constitute as much of the afterlife as we can quantify. "I wish I could say something effective and philosophical about all of this, but even with all the writing I've done about death, I still can't," Hinch says. "Objectively, I do see death as part of life. But talk of heaven and things? I don't know about meeting people in heaven, but I definitely think you leave parts of yourself with those you leave behind. I don't expect to see my mother in heaven, but my kids know her because I have talked about her so much." Either way, nobody has much control over the way things turns out. "How I'm remembered will be up to my kids," Hinch realizes. "I'm interested in what they will say about me after I die—what they will tell the newspaper reporter who calls for information to write my obituary. I'm dying to know, actually. I've asked them, but they don't want to go into it. I think it troubles them. So all I can do is speculate." And as she does, Hinch's thoughts become entwined with the answers she receives when she's asking someone about a deceased friend or relative. "So many people tell me, 'Oh, she never met a stranger.' Or they'll say, 'He never had an enemy,'" Hinch says. She pauses and then chuckles. "Nobody will be able to say that about me. I'm far too volatile." Hinch remembers when her sister died in northern California. She was at the house when the obituary reporter phoned from the Contra Costa Times, and she listened to what her sister's daughter had to say. "My niece told the reporter, 'My mother never said a mean word in her life,'" Hinch recounts, and then she winces and smiles. "I just thought, 'Oh, yeah? Well, to me, she did!'"