Monday, November 23, 2015

Not Good-Bye, But See You Later: Remembering the Jon Carroll Column


I washed out of a bus onto the streets of San Francisco in the late May 1982, a quasi-Boho, faux-hippie stoner with an anxious, teeming brain, fleeing the Midwest to nowhere, drawn by obligation, not desire.

I started out living in the Tenderloin, first at the YMCA, then at the former Will Rogers Hotel on Post and Taylor.

Later, I found a small room in an apartment at 25th and Bryant in the Mission, for ninety dollars a month. That room alone probably goes for nine hundred now I’d bet.

I read the San Francisco Chronicle of course, acquainted myself with its team of veteran columnists, by then all lifted by time to their upper years, echoes from as far back as the 1930s—Citizen Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, Stanton Delaplane, and Charles McCabe. I didn’t know it then, but they were quite a team.

I mention McCabe last, not because he was more important than Caen, but because he is the more crucial link in this story.

This is because one day, as I recall, McCabe fell down some steps and broke his leg.


There is, I’d think, only so much even the most productive writer can do with his leg encrusted in plaster. With McCabe on the sidelines, laid up, out of the action, pining for the fjords, the Chronicle gave a member of the “hip new generation” a seat at the table with the grizzled veterans.

Everyone assumed Mr. McCabe would return to his post, but it didn’t work out that way. He passed the following year. And then, for the next thirty years, we had the Jon Carroll Column.

The first Jon Carroll Column I recall was a mock memoir about Lenin. (That’s LENIN—L-E-N-I-N. No no, not the one who played in the band, fer chrissakes! That’s—oh, never mind!)

I don’t recall the columnar details, but I chortled and laughed, my brain stem lit by the bright splash of whimsy, obviously written under the influence of S.J. Perelman, Monty Python and other conjurers of cheery nonsense and daft impudence.

Beaming, I showed this Jon Carroll column to one of my roommates, a man of some humor himself.

“Look!” I cried. “Funny humor!”

“Satirists!” he spat, indignant and aburst with pious outrage. “I hate them! They should be banned! Thrown in jail! March them to the salt mines!”

The man, as I was reminded, was a fundamentalist Communist. The Lenin under satiric fire was a sacred figure to him, a god. (Not for the first time had I offended someone with humor. My heels are crusted with the blood of dozens, hundreds, of wounded souls—chin-up patriots and pacifist vegans, jihadists and atheists alike. Yeah, I went too far on occasion. And likely I will again, God forgive--)

[No, not the band that did “My Sharona!” Please pay attention!]


I read the Jon Carroll Column for almost thirty years and missed but a few. I delighted in the offhand mention of a favorite character actor in a garden column about villainous weeds; a tribute to Monty Python involving a man with a bomb. And those darn cats, who became a substitute for an ailurophile who seldom had any of his own. I played with the cats in the Jon Carroll Column.

I also recall an odd fact he mentioned: No matter how much we may love a particular column, Jon Carroll may not have the slightest memory of writing it.

I occasionally wrote to him in my own (unmarketable) voice of nonsense. After he turned me on to the Golden Age of Mystery author Michael Innes, I penned a mock tribute to his Powers of Influence: “I am a Creature of the Media!” I declaimed. “When Jon Carroll says we should all start smoking, I run out for a carton of Marlboros! And why not? Jon Carroll told me to!”)

In response to a column about names and how we live with them, I told my story about how I evolved from my birth name to the one I own now. Imagine my surprise when, days later, he tucked my birth name into the pull quote on the side, indicating he would pursue that topic later. But, as often happens in this column biz, the idea was run over by other, more urgent notions.

One day, I found an issue of Playboy I’d purchased years before for a refracted profile of Thomas Pynchon. A few pages away, I found a profile of Dick Clark . . . penned by Jon Carroll. It was both funny and made Mr. Clark seem a genuinely likeable fellow (whereas Mr. Pynchon remained elusive). I learned there had been a world before the Jon Carroll Column.

We met once during the late 1990s, at one of his popular workshops on column writing (via the Learning Annex). He suggested we start our own e-mail columns, as a door into the news business. I was still bright-eyed and naïve then and I imagine many others of us followed this good advice.

Afterward, he signed my copy of Near Life Experiences, his collection of his columns. He knew well who I was, expressed genuine delight that I had come, praised my work. He also enjoyed several of my subsequent e-mail essays, especially an adventure in which my comic avatar wrecked both our chances at captaining the helm of The New Yorker.

But success eluded me. Even Jon Carroll didn’t know what vast changes awaited, how fast and hard those doors would close.

Jon Carroll had a great arm, threw a lot of different pitches. Like mine, his interests covered the world. He was good funny, he was good serious and so he rarely tired. Nor did he change much, even as the world he wrote from, the platform from which he declaimed, changed radically under and around us all.

Those changes changed our relationship. The “analog” Chronicle dwindled along with newsstands (I never subscribed, always kept myself in quarters) and migrated online. I read the Jon Carroll Column for free—pinched by guilt--for a few years. Then the Chron erected the pay wall around Jon Carroll (and also Leah Garchik, another frequent correspondent who dropped my name into her column a few times.)

I made no attempt to cross that moat. I was sinking back into mild poverty then, where I still remain. (Ironically, while I was drifting away, I moved to the East Bay and then into Oakland, not far from Jon Carroll’s garden domicile: The farther you get, the closer you are.) I contented myself with occasional free Facebook postings. Occasionally, I’d mutter I’d get an online Chronicle subscription as soon as my econometrics improved. But they haven’t.

Another consequence of procrastination. And another consequence of the Internet.


The Internet has perfected the craft of nickeling and diming us to death. Its tentacles have choked off many a business, especially the business of writing. On the Internet, “freedom” only means getting stuff for free and that means a lot of people, talented people, working for nothing.

I don’t blame the Chronicle, or The New York Times, The Daily Racing Form or The New Yorker (which I do cling to) for erecting paywalls. Not one bit. Writers have to be paid, not to mention the hard-working teams that get them published. Good anything should cost money. So when you start grumbling about my misplaced commas, wrong spellings, and general errors of fact, remember YOU’RE GETTING THIS FOR FREE! And what’s more--

Wha--no, he wasn’t one of the guys who sang “Girl You Know It’s True!”


The Jon Carroll Column could shake me out of my deepest doldrums. It could inspire me when my writing was no better than a subprime nursery reader. Pure humor, the well-turned joke for the sake of mischief, seems out of fashion, at least in prose. But Jon Carroll kept the practice going. Jack Handey, John Hodgman and the spotty “Shouts and Murmurs” corner of the New Yorker seem the only magicians remaining. I’ve mostly withdrawn from this most tiny field.

As of last Friday, the Columnist Jon Carroll has retired now to become the . . . Writing Something Else Jon Carroll, for life and work do not, and should not, end with professional retirement (I’m a strict retirement atheist. Even if I were trumped up with wealth, I’d prefer a job in a shoe store to slow absorption by my couch.)

Jon Carroll recently stated on Facebook that he had much prose left in him and would continue in another fashion.

That’s a cheery thought. There are times when I need good laugh, more than anything. There may be no more Jon Carroll Columns but Jon Carroll will be around to deliver.

This I know! Because Jon Carroll told me so!

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield’s latest (yet to be published) novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up. He is also the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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