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, Penner wrote 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.