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Dick Vonier and David Mitchell were running the Citizen newsroom in those days, and they somehow convinced upper management to take a chance on the tall guy who wrote. Hired to produce oddball "brights" for the afternoon newspaper, Bowden quickly insinuated himself into harder news slots.
"He didn't know shit about journalism, couldn't write an obit if he tried, but it didn't matter. He had real talent," says Mitchell, city editor at the time, who now lives in Santa Fe. "I was impressed with the writing, and that's all I really gave a damn about. You can hire a leg man anywhere, but to find someone who can put information into usable form, and, more than that, a poetic form, and still be usable as journalism, is a rare thing."
Bowden says that all he knew about journalism at the time he had learned from A Child of the Century, Ben Hecht's rollicking account of Chicago's newspaper heyday. "I thought that was what every newspaper was like," says Bowden of Hecht's vivid descriptions of wily, hard-living reporters. "I thought it was normative behavior. I get on the newspaper and it was like a quilting bee. Not all of it, but a lot of it."
Hired as a "fluff" writer at the Citizen, Bowden did what he could to stir up the bees, and eventually became the newspaper's "takeout" writer. He trekked El Camino Diablo with illegals (on his own time--the newspaper thought the assignment was too dangerous to officially sanction), and spent a year tracking Tucson's sexual-abuse cases. He drank with striking miners for stories and turned in expense-account vouchers marked only "booze"--and refused to change them when management cracked down, chiefly because he hadn't charged the newspaper for any of his own beer.
A trained historian, Bowden brought a new vocabulary to the Citizen. His writing broke rules. His ambitious leg work (one editor dubbed Bowden "Doctor Death" because of the writer's willingness to bolt for the scene of the latest grisly crime) broke stories. Predictably, the newsroom was just about split on his wild-ass style.
"What he was doing didn't fit their narrow definition of newspaper journalism," says Citizen alum Larry Cheek of the anti-Bowden faction. Now a successful freelance writer and author, Cheek places himself solidly in the pro-Bowden camp at the newspaper. "Bowden hadn't paid his dues, hadn't gone to journalism school. He was this atomic bomb that landed in the middle of us."
But Bowden's work was recognized almost immediately by officials of the Gannett newspaper chain, owner of the Citizen. He also won Arizona Press Club's top honor, the Virg Hill Award. A preliminary Pulitzer Prize committee picked his work to win one year, but the next committee down the line flopped an entry in from another category and robbed Bowden of the big award.
Bowden, who says he hadn't read a newspaper in years (too boring") when the time came to work for one, applied at the Tucson Citizen one day because his bankroll was down to $14 and he wanted to work long enough to buy a custom racing bike, long-distance rides being his obsession of that moment. He left a few years later, with his house paid off and his writing reputation launched. He quit, he says, because Gannett was gutting the paper by eliminating reporting jobs.
One of his favorite memories of the newspaper came on his first day on the job, when he was sitting around the newsroom waiting for someone to tell him what to do.
"Some old codger on the copy desk--and they're all working on either repairing their liver or making it last a little longer--turns to me and says, 'Where the fuck is the crash-and-burn on the two lettuce heads?'
"I didn't know what it meant, but I knew it wasn't gonna be polite," he says. "I thought, 'This is gonna be better than I thought.'"
@body:It was during this career stage that Bowden met Ed Abbey.
"The first time I met him, I was out at his house to interview a guest of his for the local paper," Bowden wrote after Abbey's death. "I was leery of meeting him, kind of like disturbing a national monument. So I tapped timidly on the door. He opened it up, and instantly thrust a copy of my first book into my hands--a text that had fallen dead from press and taken almost ten years to sell 2,000 copies. He asked if I would autograph it and went on and on about its wonders. So he may have had pretty bad literary taste, but he was one of the kindest men I have ever known.
"We became friends."
Says Bowden today: "Honest to God, I don't remember ever having a conversation in my life with Ed Abbey about the environment, ecology, anything. Never about what he wrote or I wrote. We'd sit and talk about books and politics and God knows what all.
"I think that's what I liked about him. He was a very intelligent guy with, let's say, an independent way of seeing things.