November 27, 2020

Rude Interruptions: Pardon Me, But...May I?


When Flavia first invited me to consider writing a new column for the Topanga Messenger, I was flattered. When I learned I would be succeeding Al Martinez, I was daunted. (To keep the superlatives to a minimum, I’ll just note parenthetically that I always considered Al one of the two or three best columnists I ever read, not to mention a sweet guy I deeply admired and was personally very fond of.) But now that I’m actually doing it, I’m elated.

Al’s a tough act to follow. Did I say tough? I meant “impossible.” So I’m not going to ape his style; I don’t have his lyrical gifts, I don’t yet have grandchildren to write about, I’m not a dog person (my companion animals are two rescue cats, Maggie and Henry, but don’t look for a book about them any time soon), and my drink of choice is not a martini, but a respectable California red zin or a nice malbec or tempranillo. Like Cinelli with Al, my wife Hope keeps me grounded, and she’s definitely got my number. Hope’s from Brooklyn, has excellent taste in movies and restaurants, and can sing the lyrics to every pop hit between roughly 1960 and 1973, loudly and fearlessly off-key. And I love her for it.

I’m calling this column “Rude Interruptions.” See, journalism had been a dream of mine since high school, and after earning my Bachelor’s and Master’s in it, I worked in radio and daily print journalism for most of the 1980s, until my newspaper, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, collapsed in 1989. As I was literally cleaning out my desk on the day of the final edition, the phone rang and I was offered a job by Third District County Supervisor Ed Edelman, who after the 1990 redistricting, represented Topanga from 1991-1994. I subsequently worked for Ed’s successor, Zev Yaroslavsky, from 1994-2014, and for his successor, Sheila Kuehl, from 2014 until last October.

Despite nearly three decades in mostly satisfying political work, I still had an itch for writing and journalism that I needed to scratch. And so—“before I was so rudely interrupted”— with this column I’ve returned to the fold. And following H.L Mencken’s dictate that the journalist’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, this column reserves the right to be a “rude interruption” to the trite and complacent murmurs and mumbling that too often clog print and broadcast commentary. I’ll also try and avoid the hollow snark and ‘tude that typifies too much digital commentary.

Having worked exclusively in Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles for the past 35 years, I always looked for any excuse I could find to trek out to Topanga, whether it was opening a road, opening a library, cleaning out the creek or enjoying the Topanga Symphony or a production at the Theatricum. This column gives me the best excuse yet to visit more regularly and hang out a little, and I look forward to meeting some of you in person.

When I began teaching my “Opinion Writing” class for UCLA Extension in 1999, Al was one of the first people I approached as a guest speaker and mentor about what made for a good column. He was gracious enough to draft an original essay exclusively for the class that became part of my student’s weekly readings for years after. You can read it yourself in my 2013 tribute to Al at

The German novelist Thomas Mann believed that a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people, a view I share. It takes an enormous amount of work to make writing seemingly flow as effortlessly as Al’s did, but if he found it difficult, as I’m sure he did, I never once heard him complain about it. Sometimes his work made me laugh out loud; at other times, his pieces never failed to wring tears from my eyes no matter how many times I read and re-read them. He set a high bar, indeed.

But personal columns are all about developing a unique and individual voice; with this one I will be striving to find mine. And along the way, from time to time, I hope you’ll pardon the “rude interruption.”

Editor’s Note: When Al died, he left a hole in our hearts. With each issue that relentlessly followed, I just wanted to leave empty what we had come to call “Al’s Space” on page six that he filled once a month with 800 irreplaceable words, often everyday vignettes that he spun into universal truths.

When I heard that Joel Bellman was leaving his Press Deputy position of 26 years at the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, I thought that if anyone could, he was the one to help fill Al’s Space.

If only…

Well, here he is: A journalist who loves the craft enough to lend his talents to our humble newspaper, as did Al, and continue the journey in his own way, all the while giving a nod to his mentor and friend.

We will always remember “Al Martinez…On Everything Else.” Now it’s time for “Rude Interruptions” by Joel Bellman and the Topanga Messenger will carry on.