Wooden Teeth Part 2: We don’t need no stinking due diligence

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(Yesterday I explained how I moved to the Northern Californian town of Eureka to start a community newspaper, only to realize the foolishness of attempting this when I knew next to nothing about the community. I ended that chapter with the decision to open a typesetting shop as a fallback plan — which allowed the man with wooden teeth to find me.)

My ego was just beginning to recover by the time that Rama Bhagwhan showed up at our typesetting shop. We had decided to operate out of the front parlor of our Victorian flat to save money the live-work way. Rama explained that he had only started the Barter Bank newspaper a few weeks earlier and wasn’t satisfied with the look of the first issue. This conversation occurred sometime in October 1980 although the passage of time has erased my memory of the specifics. But I recall that I was floored by the fact that this improbable character had perservered where I, the former campus newspaper editor, had quailed. This is no excuse. It is simply an explanation for an incredible lapse of judgement. For though I did not then know that Rama Bhagwan had wooden teeth, every visible clue screamed flim flam.

He had a tangled black beard and a pony tail that he flipped nervously when he spoke. He had wrapped his torso in some imitation of a bright orange toga, which he wore over blue jeans and hiking boots. He said the orange was a token he wore to honor his spiritual leader, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who either had or was about to start a commune further north in Oregon. From the Bhagwan he had also taken his name. I’m not sure if I ever knew and I certainly don’t recall what his given name might have been. I took a guy named Rama at face value.

I cannot recall the precise chronology of what transpired next, except to say that, knowing me and my tendency to reveal skeletons that most folks have the good sense to keep locked in the closet, I must have let on to Rama that my partner and I had a similar plan for a community paper but lost our nerve. It must have been Rama who proposed that we join him in putting out the NorthCoast Journal and Barter Bank. To have turned a potentially paying project into a labor of love would have been foolish enough. But Rama drove a hard bargain. He proposed that we pay him to become partners in putting out what would be the second issue of this eight-page tabloid rag that had a few ads for healing arts and odd bits of text that looked like they were copied out of other publications. So whether it took hours or days for me to commit this next monumental stupidity, I know that Rama exited our shop one day with a check for $1,500 and left behind a scrap of paper on which was written our agreement: that he would sell the ads, I would take charge of editorial, and my partner would do layout and production.

Days passed. I started to find my way about town, looking for stories, snapping pictures. Rama would occasionally show up with some ad copy (but never any checks or even billing information). The second issue of the NorthCoast Journal and Barter Bank began to take shape, and while I should have been pleased that I was finally putting together a community paper, I was more and more nervous. There seemed to be no periodicity to the Barter Bank paper. It wasn’t weekly. It wasn’t bi-weekly. “It will manifest,” Rama would say when I confronted him. Manifest was his favorite word and it fell powerfully upon my ears, as it reminded me which of us had accomplished the task we had both set out to do.

But as November started to ebb away I lost patience. Copy I’d written weeks before was getting stale and I had other dealines looming (my partner and I were supposed to get married just after Thanksgiving as I’ll explain the next installment). I drove over to Rama’s office/apartment in Arcata, the college town that’s just around the curve of Humboldt Bay from Eureka — but several states of consciousness removed from that blue collar town.

It was during that surprise visit — Rama had no phone and so I could tell him I was coming nor be certain he would be there — that I learned about his wooden teeth. They were sitting on a tiny table alongside a picture of the Bhagwan that he had turned into a shrine. I must’ve asked about the teeth because it was he who told me they were wooden but I wasn’t there to talk about dentures and so I turned to the business at hand: we had to set a deadline, we had to manifest this goddamm paper and soon because my family was flying out from Brooklyn to see me get married and I was going to put my premier issue as editor of the NorthCoast Journal and Barter Bank to bed first.

It was an odd conversation, the only part of which I remember was the whiny sound of his voice without his teeth and how ludicrous he looked every time he opened his mouth to reveal his tender red gums. I recall that I stood the whole time while he sat cross legged in a lazy lotus position. I think I left there with a couple of ads he had yet to turn in and informed him that I would be taking the issue to the printers — which, of course, meant paying for it.

Meanwhile, my partner and soon-to-be-bride was making a go of the typesetting business. We only had one machine at the time, and she was the only one of us who really knew how to use it (later I would learn, but my unofficial motto when it comes to typesetting was, “I may be slow, but I make a lot of mistakes”). But she had the gift. If you wanted a menu, she would create one that would set the customers to drooling. If you needed a resume, she could bang out something that would make mean old Donald Trump sit up and take note.

We had arranged, as I recall, to close the typesetting shop early on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, drive down to Sacramento, where she was from and where the wedding would be held, get married on Saturday, honeymoon all day Sunday, and make the seven-hour drive back to Eureka Sunday night so as to be open for business on that Monday morning.

I can’t recall when I had my showdown with Rama, but I recall with certainty that I only picked up my first issue of the paper just before we set out for Sacramento. I set off on that long drive with the bundles in the back the old Ford Cortina that had sustained me through my Navy and college years. My dream of being a community publisher was there in the trunk, wrapped up in several bundles tied with string. Why then did I have a gnawing sense of what is meant by that old adage: be careful or you’ll get what you wish. (to be continued … )