It's a coming-of-age story at the other end of life.
Howard Junker retired from the West Coast literary journal he founded 25 years ago. But he wasn't ready to put down his pen _ or be put out to pasture. Having discovered many great writers at the impossibly named "ZYZZYVA," the 71-year-old Junker was determined to keep reinventing himself with the new media tools some writers lament are putting books out of business.
"I started blogging just to be hip. But I found I liked the daily yoga of it," he says. The writings on that blog are now compiled in a thin paperback Junker takes out on the streets of San Francisco each day, ambushing people with impromptu readings at iconic landmarks: City Lights Books, Danielle Steele's mansion in Pacific Heights, the Presidio's military cemetery or the Museum of Modern Art.
He read at this month's hipster Litquake crawl, proving the old guard can join the new.
"An Old Junker" is a compilation of 1,300 daily blog blogs he posted over five years, from 2006-2010, while still running the magazine. It's peppered with grainy black-and-white iPhone photos he has taken around the city.
The stream-of-consciousness style includes rants and anecdotes, parodies and reviews.
"I'm extremely shy, so it's like I'm an actor out here, performing a role," Junker says, partly in jest, as he's clearly a showboat who loves to engage. "If I wasn't out here, I'd be sitting in my basement trying not to play on-line chess."
On a recent sunny day, Junker starts out at the Museum of Modern Art, wearing a baseball cap and sneakers, carrying his backpack with copies of his book and a sandwich-board that reads, yes, An Old Junker.
He walks up to a startled tourist having coffee. After a few minutes, they're laughing and she warms to his reading about her hometown Vienna. "I wish you luck," Ingrid Tomasits calls out to him as he heads inside the museum. He next corners a German woman in front of a Chuck Close portrait of "Agnes" to read from his attack on the museum's Fisher Collection, the massive contemporary art collection of Doris and the late Donald Fisher, founders of the Gap clothing store chain.
"1,100 pieces, worth a billion, to be housed in a structure that will cost half a billion, and not a single must-see, defining-moment work," Junker wrote of the collection that otherwise got good reviews from art critics.
The German woman listens intently, and then concedes her English isn't quite good enough to follow. Others look on, hoping he'll talk to them; still others back away, not wanting to take part in the performance.
Junker then gathers his backpack and sign and walks a few blocks to the Sentinel, a classic street-side deli. He abhors the foodie culture and calls Michael Pollan, author of the bestseller "The Omnivore's Dilemma," his nemesis, whose followers would rather spend more on grass-fed beef than a hardback novel.
"How many novels have been shunned in order to gobble up a rack of organic lamb?" he reads to the hungry hopefuls standing in line for a pastrami-on-rye. "How many litmag subscriptions have been abjured in favor of another sip of modest pinot?"
Junker, an East Coast transplant who first came to West as a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, has written for dozens of magazines, including Architectural Digest, Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, The New Republic, Rolling Stone, Playboy and Newsweek.
He founded "ZYZZYVA" _ a tongue twister named for what was often the last word in the dictionary _ in 1985 and retired last year. He discovered authors who would go on to become contemporary giants, such as Haruki Murakami, Po Bronson, Chitra Divakaruni, 2010 U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, as well as 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award winner Sherman Alexie.
Bronson, a New York Times bestselling author of fiction and narrative nonfiction, credits Junker with helping launch his career.
"In the early 90s, it was already well recognized among my writer wanna-be friends that Howard Junker didn't mince words, that he had real taste, and strong opinions, and he didn't give false praise," Bronson said. "When Howard called me to accept my story _ it was maybe my third or fourth submission to him over two years _ that moment was a huge emotional release that brought me to tears. I count it as my biggest turning point in becoming a writer."
Sherman Alexie laughs when asked if it was true that Junker discovered him, noting that he was published in some 12 magazines his freshman year of college. He concedes, however, that "ZYZZYVA" was the first big-name journal _ and it was a thrill to see his 12-page poem, "The Native American Broadcasting System" in print.
"He was an intense editor, but for me the big thing all along, no matter how big the career got, he had no problem rejecting inferior work of mine," Alexie said by phone from Seattle.
Too young to join the fabled Beat writers who made City Lights Books a cultural landmark, and too old to be a hippie, Junker wrote a piece for Esquire in 1965, "Resume of the Young Man as a Non-Generation," lamenting that his contemporaries were the in-betweens.
"He's a genuine San Francisco character; I mean just look at him," said Brooks Roddan, Junker's longtime friend who often accompanies him on his literary loitering, and publisher of "An Old Junker" at his small non-profit, IFSF publishing.
"Traditional publishing methods are up for grabs; there are no templates anymore," Roddan said. "So many writers and artists are reticent about promoting their own work, or too proud. But he loves doing it."
Junker typically reads pieces that reflect off the landmarks where he sets up shop for 15 or 20 minutes.
At the San Francisco National Cemetery at the Presidio, he reads from his scathing fictional letter to President Barack Obama.
"Dear Mr. President: We regret to inform you that your older daughter has been killed in action, defending the dusty city of K -- which few fellow Americans can locate on the map," it goes. "We hope that this war, which we elected you to withdraw from, is ended before your younger daughter is deployed."
While much of the book is snarky and snide, plenty is fun and adoring _ and his love of San Francisco profound.
A poem entitled "Curtains" talks about those he has lost to cancer and AIDS, and the inevitable conclusion to his own story.
"I don't know exactly how this script plays out, but I have an idea," he writes. "There will be some twists, some messy business, then the curtain falls."
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