Clark Sharon sits at a table in the far corner of the Santa Ana Public Library, beside floor-to-ceiling windows. Everything he owns is next to him in a few reusable grocery bags, neatly filled with food, clothing and other necessities. At 65 years old, Sharon has a slight build that doesn’t quite fill out his oversized sweat shirt.
Hunched over, nearly parallel to the table, Sharon is immersed in his ritual of reading through a sizable stack of the day’s newspapers. Each day, he enters the first library his mother brought him to as a child and immediately heads for the rags, always grabbing the Los Angeles Times first because, as he says with a mischievous grin, “they are better written.” He moves on to the Washington Post, then to the Orange County Register.
It makes sense Sharon has a discerning eye when it comes to newspaper writing—he was once a reporter himself. As a 30-year veteran reporter in Orange County, his name once regularly appeared in many of the pages he reads today.
Currently homeless, Sharon stays at the Orange County Armory Emergency Shelter, about 3 miles from the library; the seasonal facility is scheduled to close this month. He grew up in Santa Ana and graduated from Cal State Fullerton, where he studied music. At 21, he became a journalist, with his first staff-writer job at the Santa Ana Register (which became the Orange County Register in 1985). He claims he was the youngest person to become a staff writer at the paper at that time. Later, he worked with the Los Angeles Times and as a columnist for the now-defunct Orange County Illustrated.
Sharon had many different beats in his career. He spent three years on the police beat, which Sharon says was reserved for the rookie reporters. “Nobody wanted to be there at 7 a.m. to turn those damn wire machines on,” he recalls. Eventually, Sharon tired of its gritty reality. “I saw all this stuff, and I had to write about it: burned to death, shot to death, beat to death, drowned. The list goes on and on. I’m more than happy to write humor.”
Working the beat involved recruiting helpful sources such as a police watch commander, who would let him know if anything funny or bizarre happened at the station, including when a group of kids at the local high school were caught stealing out of the football players’ lockers and got pummeled by the team. He gave it the full treatment, as if he were covering a failed bank heist. This humoristic approach became a staple of his career, earning him the nickname “Mark Twain of the Los Angeles Times” from an editor. His favorite example of this style was a 1,706-word piece about aphids; his playful take on science writing tricks the reader into being interested in a garden-variety insect.
In 1992, Sharon published a book about John Wayne and his beloved yacht, On Board With the Duke: John Wayne and the Wild Goose. The book was co-written with the famed boat’s skipper, Bert Minshall. Shortly after, the pair released a documentary based on Minshall’s home movies while spending time with the actor on the Goose.
Between 1980 and 1985, Minshall says, he and Sharon would meet up to review what the journalist had written, making little changes here and there. Sharon said he was careful to not put words into Minshall’s mouth or mischaracterize what went on on the the boat while combining his research with Minshall’s stories. He described the chaos that was inherent in trying to construct a coherent narrative based on the skipper’s memories. “It’s like throwing a match into a box of fire crackers,” Sharon says. “It goes off, and you don’t know where it’s going, but what you get in there is great!”
After the completion of the documentary, Sharon and Minshall drifted apart, seeing each other for the last time while splitting the cash they received from selling the rights of their book to the Wild Goose’s current owner. When Minshall learned of the writer’s situation, he stopped in place, his eyes widening. “Ah, I’m not surprised he is homeless,” he finally said. “I tried sending a letter, a note, to his address where he used to live, and I got it returned in the mail: ‘Return to sender.’ [I thought,] ‘Ah, shoot, maybe he is dead from boozing.’ . . . So he is homeless. I am close to that myself.”
Minshall made his way from England to the United States by working on boats and has lived in the same trailer in Costa Mesa since 1969. The rent was just $45 per month then, but now it’s more than $900. The trailer is filled with photographs of Wayne as well as family and friends. Other than the flat-screen TV and printer, the layout and décor leaves you feeling as if you stepped onto a boat in 1969. The quarters are tight but cozy, with only the necessities. Yellow-accented wood panels line the walls and are covered with keepsakes from a memorable past. He tells “sea stories” for a couple hundred bucks whenever he gets the chance.
Like many people in a situation similar to his, Sharon uses the library as a place of refuge. It’s an air-conditioned, tranquil place, with access to books, newspapers and computers, which are used for entertainment as well as to look for work and access public resources. “We are a safe place, and we are a conduit for them to try to pick themselves back up,” says Dylan Almendral, archivist for the Santa Ana History Room located within the city’s library. “The library is a place where everyone is welcome.”
Sharon would hang out in the doorway of the History Room, telling stories of being on Wayne’s boat and recalling articles he had written for various publications. Almendral was skeptical at first, but after a few Google searches, he realized that Sharon was who he said he was. Through their discussions, Almendral found out that Sharon was homeless partially because his brother, who had a double lung transplant, owes him $124,000, which he is unable to repay.
Almendral believes that if Sharon used his talent and experience to give a voice to the homeless community, it could “change the game.” But for Sharon, the act of writing became strained with the death of his fiancé, Penny Roush, whom he said resembled actress Debra Winger and had a “whiskey and chocolate laugh.” Figuring out how to navigate immense personal loss and internal professional expectations has at times felt insurmountable. But, he says, there may be an emotional thawing; there’s a story he’s working out in his head about his past experience of being the owner of nine cats that he’d call “Catland.”
When asked about using his talents to tell the story of his current experiences, he muses that he may have his own take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to describe what he considers the insanity surrounding his situation. “It crossed my mind briefly; I am not going to write anything serious about it,” Sharon says. “I wonder if I could write something funny about it. . . . There is humor in everything—even in the most tragic things, there can be some humor, but you have to be very careful.”
He quotes from memory the ending of an article he once wrote in Orange County Illustrated: Do “not worry about things that cannot be helped. I will write it all down now. I hate to think of all I’ve lost because it was not written down.” He pauses, letting the words hang in the air for a moment, like the true story-teller he is. “It’s true now as it was 30 damn years ago—I really have to write it all down.”
Adam J. Samaha is a writer and journalist living in Fullerton, California.