In the weeks the followed the outbreak of the Tubbs, Nuns, Atlas and other fires here in Northern California, RKP reader Roman Cho got in touch and asked to shoot my portrait. I am embarrassed to admit that I put him off at first. My home didn’t burn. I’d tossed out the contents of my fridge two days after the power went out, and my home wasn’t habitable, but I didn’t feel like a victim.
But he persisted. More than that, he was persuasive, and given that Roman’s job is portraiture, I conclude that must be a requisite skill. I can type verbs all day long and I don’t need anyone to cooperate with me, but Roman needs subjects, bodies, preferably warm ones, though on that angle I haven’t asked. Sell me he did.
What I had been more than happy to do was introduce him to friends who had lost everything. I was aware that we were going to need someone to tell the story of Santa Rosa in a compelling way, to make people from Springfield to Spartanburg connect with our humanity and the deep wound you feel when your whole city has suffered.
Roman’s determination was a thing to behold. Knowing that the hotels were going to be full of people with nowhere else to go, he chose to sleep in his car until Ibis’ Scot Nicol and his wife Sheryl Chapman insisted he park himself on their couch. His emails to those he sought as subjects were polite, persuasive. If this photography thing doesn’t work out, he could have a future in public policy. He could sell me my own trash.
When he shared with me the first three portraits he shot I immediately sent them to Bicycling‘s Features Editor, Gloria Liu. She and I had just concluded work (earlier that day) on a feature about my trip to Japan last April. I was thinking that Roman’s collection of portraits, once finished, would make a great web feature. And I was hoping I could write it.
In short order I was informed they wanted to put the collection in the magazine, that they planned to pull my feature to make room for … my feature. I preempted myself. Or something. I called Roman and told him the good news and that we had a deadline coming up faster than a runway under a landing 747.
So even as RKP’s readers were shipping boxes of clothing to me, I was accompanying Roman to photo shoots. The shoot itself generally took about a half hour, but either before, but usually after, we would sit and interview them. I’ve never spoken to so many people who came so close to death in a single event and yet their experiences were spread over miles rather than on the same street or in the same building. I’ll never forget being told of escaping the fires—racing the flames out of the hilles—only to check into a motel, sit down and the phone rings with yet another evacuation notice.
The title of this piece comes from a line I wrote for Roman’s photo essay that ultimately became the title of the magazine feature.
To a person the members of our community who met with Roman were gracious in a time of sadness that was still hitting them like waves at the beach. This is a chance to publicly thank them. It was hard, at times, not to feel intrusive.
The length Editor-in-Chief Leah Flickinger went (with the help of Gloria and Art Director Colin McSherry) to get this feature in the magazine is difficult to describe. This shipped to the printer so late, knowing what printer deadlines are, and how they work, substituting it for my completed piece must have cost a fortune.
Under ordinary circumstances, I’d say I was proud, but that emotion doesn’t easily square with tragedy of this scale. I am, however, honored to present the stories of my fellow cyclists (many are friends) as a means to put a personal face on our grand disaster. This isn’t the Bicycling Magazine you may have tired of in the 1990s or early 2000s. They gave this 10 pages and kept the text to a minimum. It wasn’t easy condensing hour-long interviews into 200 word quotes, but if you think that was tough, Gloria had to take my 200-word entries and cut them further, sometimes by half. They are as lean as Pete Stetina, the pro cyclist we included.
I hope you’ll do Bicycling, my town and me a solid by going out to pick up a copy of the issue, on newsstands now.