I saw Sacramento for the first time in January 1979, when I was a struggling 22-year-old writer. I'd driven out from Ohio and had no money for a hotel. At dusk, on Highway 99 north of Lodi, I spotted a break in the freeway fence.
I steered my Datsun truck up the eastern embankment, deep into a pear orchard, where I slept. Come morning, I went to the Capitol and met with a spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown I wanted an interview for a magazine. It never happened. I returned to Cleveland, intrigued by California and the possibilities that it presented for a young journalist.
A year later, I returned seeking a job. My first stop was at The Bee. City Editor Robert Forsyth pointed to a waist-tall stack of 400 applications on the floor. Bob said he wanted to hire me over anyone in that pile.
"I like your work, kid," he said. "Keep in touch."
Bruce Springsteen talks about being inspired to write two songs after reading Maharidge and Williamson's first book:
Over the next few months, I traversed California, sleeping in national forest campgrounds or on roadsides, while seeking a newspaper gig. Finally, Forsyth said there might be an opening. He'd have an answer the day after the national election.
"I've got good news and bad news," Forsyth said when I telephoned.
"What's the bad news?"
"Reagan is president."
My start date was Nov. 17, 1980. I soon met staff photographer Michael S. Williamson. We teamed up to cover projects on prostitutes, drifters, Hells Angels pretty much any category of people who didn't usually find their lives examined in a newspaper, except when they appeared in the police blotter.
Our backgrounds influenced our journalistic approach. I was a blue-collar kid. After my dad was nearly killed by a drunken driver, our family had a hard time. Michael was an orphan whose mother died when he was 11 he grew up believing that ketchup was a vegetable. Sometimes he was on welfare. We were both college dropouts.
In early 1982, Bill Moore, the new city editor, sent us out to ride the rails with the new breed of hobos who were jobless from the then-raging recession. The Bee story led to an assignment for Life magazine, then a book deal with a big New York publisher.
That began a nearly 30-year journey documenting American workers that has culminated in our latest and most important book, "Someplace Like America: Tales From the New Great Depression."
The book begins and ends in Sacramento.
My impression of the Central Valley was formed as a boy in Ohio. I'd read John Steinbeck and knew the work of Dorothea Lange, the famous Great Depression photographer.
Steinbeck's vision for the "Grapes of Wrath" was partly inspired north of Sacramento, where in 1938 he helped Dust Bowl migrants escape a flood. In Sacramento, Lange took pictures of camps on the American River. Lange's notes about one camp with 80 families: "They pay one dollar and twenty five cents a month ground rent." They had to build their own shanties.
When I began as a police reporter at The Bee, I constantly met life-worn people who could have stepped out of Lange's photographs they actually might have been their offspring. I found Sacramento had a lot of working-class folks scrabbling to survive even in good times. Some of them ended up occasionally homeless.
Their numbers seemed to grow as the 1980s wore on, along with police sweeps of their camps. I remember one major crackdown. Someone, likely a cop with a conscience, anonymously phoned the newsroom and said we should be on the river the next morning.
In the predawn darkness, cops swarming the camps were displeased to discover me and Williamson.
We were fortunate to get our start at a newspaper that published and still publishes these kinds of stories. We've never liked bullies of any stripe. We still love doing stories about things like those sweeps giving a voice to those who can't fight back. Yet I didn't blame the police so much as officials who pushed them to crack down.
Amid the sweeps, I wrote solution stories for The Bee, in the hope of swaying officials to consider options. One story focused on how San Diego was building affordable hotels for the homeless without using public funds. Right after that story appeared, I ran into then-Councilman Joe Serna who later became mayor at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op. Serna was angry.
"Do you want one in your neighborhood!" he barked.
"Yes," I shot back, noting that having marginal people in a hotel was an improvement over their sleeping in my front yard.
So much for influencing officials. Ultimately, however, I'd come to learn that officials were not the real issue. Meantime, Michael and I left the newspaper and moved out of Sacramento.
The journey to a discovery of the root of the problem began in 1995, when Williamson and I met Bruce Springsteen he'd been inspired to write two songs, "The New Timer" and "Youngstown," based on our first book. We'd abandoned the story for a few years: The 1980s work took a toll on us. Bruce got us back on the road.
Because of this, I finally got to meet Jerry Brown. He wanted me on his KPFA-FM show, "We the People," to talk about that first book, which had been recently republished because of Bruce. I arrived at Brown's Oakland commune. He was scheduled to appear on a live CNN satellite feed in eight minutes at a local station. We jumped into his car, Brown at the wheel. We were on a road parallel with a train. "I think we can beat it!" Jerry said, and he gunned the motor. We careened around a corner, my face plastered to the passenger window and the diesel railroad engine bearing down on us as we squeaked through the lowering crossing gates.
As the years passed, Michael and I continued documenting the story of America's marginalized populations. In 2008, we realized we had to pull our decades of work into a book that made sense of the economic dislocation.
We of course had to begin the book in Sacramento where our work began. Logic dictated that it also end in Sacramento. I saw that the Sacramento Safe Ground campaign, organized by homeless people, had begun agitating for a legal campground. The effort started in early 2009 with a march by several hundred people starting at Loaves & Fishes I visited Sacramento to cover it.
Back in the 1980s, I never could imagine such a protest. The homeless cowered in the weeds and scattered in the face of sweeps. Now, the homeless were vocal. In 2009, I spent time with John Kraintz, one of the organizers. I walked the camps along the American River with him. John is what I call an "Edge Man." These are guys in their 50s who've lost jobs; no one wants to hire them. They'll never work again. Many don't abuse alcohol or drugs.
"Real estate speculation caused rents to rise at the same time we were cutting jobs and pay," Kraintz said. For guys like himself, he views the system rigged against the working class. Yet he's motivated to help those even less fortunate.
One afternoon in 2009, as we walked amid the camps of the homeless along the American River, he told me as he pointed to the forest, "A lot of folks lack coping skills. It's more than just 'I lost my job, I worked all my life.' These people out here understand they're never going to fit into society."
In 2009 and 2010, Michael and I found Edge Men all over the country living in shantytowns. They were neither hobos nor traditional homeless they had no other choice about how to live. And now families are joining these guys.
I grew to realize that the sweeps against the homeless we covered for The Bee in the 1980s were not really the fault of the cops, or officials. The cause belongs to us, as a society.
We see Edge Men and homeless families, and they frighten us. We don't necessarily feel guilty we're scared. They remind us how the social contract has been atomized after decades of free market policies and tax rates favoring hedge fund managers. The top 1 percent of America's population has amassed stunning wealth. Among the rest of us in the other 99 percent, we wonder: What comes next? What will happen to us?
So we want to sweep the bottom 5 percent or so from sight.
The Safe Ground campaign has languished because to admit that we need an official campground for Edge People is to admit that we have failed our fellow citizens and maybe ourselves.
It's not just Sacramento. We could have begun and ended our book in just about any American city.
These Edge Men and families are not going to vanish. Their numbers will multiply with no economic upturn in sight.
I think of Leo Tolstoy and the book he wrote about poverty after witnessing the destitution of Moscow. The title is appropriate for today it's a question essentially being asked by the Occupy Wall Street movement:
"What Then Must We Do?"