This installment of Travels with Xavi does not involve anything classifiable as “travels,” but at least it does, for a change, involve Xavi (shown above, leading the way).
I only want to write about our recent outing because it illustrated something I said when I started Last Best News almost five years ago. Which was this: when I began thinking it was high time I left the Billings Gazette, and then decided I couldn’t entirely leave journalism, I realized my options were rather limited.
Where was I supposed to work, given that the only two things I seemed to know anything about were Billings and, to a lesser extent, the state of Montana? Last Best News to the rescue.
I have all my years at the Gazette to thank for my knowledge of Billings. That was brought home to me vividly during my recent walk with Xavi. I had to go to the Albertsons at Sixth and Central anyway, so I parked in the lot, did a little bit of shopping and then leashed up Xavi for our walk.
It wasn’t a big walk, maybe an hour, winding our way up and down various streets roughly bordered by Fourth Street West, Central Avenue, 10th Street West and Custer Avenue. As we wandered, so did my mind, but toward the end of walk I realized that much of what I had been thinking about were all the stories I had written about certain landmarks we’d seen on the way.
Right across from Albertsons, where the CVS store is now, there used to be a rundown by-the-month motel where I interviewed a man who had amassed something like 12 DUIs in 20 years. He had once been fairly well off, but all that drinking had ruined him, and that tiny, dirty little motel room was a pretty good emblem of his current state.
Just north of Albertson’s, there is a lot being used for some kind of storage business. More than 20 years ago, I was sitting in a city car with Marion Dozier, looking at what was then an enormous collection of junk. I always kind of liked the way I opened that story: “Beside a vacant lot just off Sixth Street West in the Central-Terry neighborhood, city code enforcement officer Marion Dozier parks her Chevy Citation to look over another fine mess she’s gotten herself into.”
A few blocks away, on Fifth, I saw from a distance the blue house that Jim Aldrich was living in when I did a story about how he, as a blind man, navigated his way through the world. That was in 2003, and I wondered if he still lived there. As I got closer I figured, nope, he was gone, because the window blinds were open and lights were on inside.
On several blocks of our walk, I remembered my early-morning outing with a Gazette carrier, who called in to object to a column I’d written, in which I gave a sort of mock tour of the Gazette, and jokingly referred to carriers as the people who deliver the paper to your front door, or occasionally to the bushes near your front door, or to the roof above it.
This carrier (whose name I can’t remember and I can’t find the story) wanted me to know that she was always careful to put the paper exactly where her customers wanted it, and that she’d never tossed one on a roof. If I wanted to know more about how she did her job, she said, I should accompany her some morning on her route.
So off we went in the wee hours of the morning, all over the neighborhood I was now traversing on foot. I remember enjoying her nonstop commentary, admiring her diligence … and wondering how in the hell she could stand listening to the crazy AM radio show that aired that time of day.
Xavi and I also walked past a boarded-up house that has sat in the same decrepit condition for several decades now, even after the City Council passed an ordinance, which I wrote about, that seemed to have been aimed at demolishing exactly that sort of eyesore. Hmm. There might still be a story there.
In Terry Park itself, I found myself reminiscing about the old fire station that used to be in the southeast corner of the park, which I’d written about several times, and about the new fire station, in the northwest corner of the park, about which, ditto.
On Howard Avenue, a house brought up memories of a more recent story, one I wrote for Last Best News. The house was owned by a couple who won a $2 million judgment against a bank that foreclosed on the residence—two years after they’d paid cash for it.
And then there was the little house on Miles, which I rented in May of 1989, immediately after going to work at the Gazette and a month before Lisa and our (then) two daughters were to join me in Billings. I knew it wasn’t quite the house we were looking for, but I had a U-Haul to empty, and anyway I knew I would need Lisa’s expert advice before agreeing to a more permanent residence.
As soon as our family was reunited—as if I needed any more proof of the unsuitability of the house on Miles—my oldest daughter, Jessie, then 9 years old, marched into the place, looked around briefly and announced: “This doesn’t look like a house for a pretty girl!” (Editor’s note: It must have been a dump. Jessie has never been vain.)
Anyway, there are many parts of town where I would have just as many memories in as small a compass. That was always the part of my job I liked best—getting out and meeting real people in real places, and learning a little bit more about the city where I have somehow ended up spending much of my life.