A short while ago I wrote a stately, eye-glazing memoir about knowing Colin Flaherty for thirty years. Colin had died on January 11, 2022.
Now I keep remembering the good parts I left out, either out of genuine forgetfulness, or because I didn’t wish to talk about myself too much.
Colin and I first met at a newspaper picnic in Mission Bay Park, San Diego, around July 1991. He had big black sunglasses, a big cigar and was lying back in some kind of beach chair or chaise longue.
I don’t know how we were introduced or got to chatting, but I think I said I was probably going to have a terrific headache soon because I’d been drinking (what?—wine? beer? tequila shooters?) out in the bright afternoon sunlight.
Colin told me he didn’t drink at all, because he once got a DUI when going through Colorado. That wouldn’t spook most people, but maybe it was a problem for him because he was riding a motorcycle, which rather eliminates a designated-driver option.
I just don’t know, and probably never will. I don’t like to inquire after people’s clean-and-sober sagas anyway, it’s too much like an AA meeting.
A more interesting revelation was that we’d grown up near each other. He at one end of Brandywine Creek (its mouth, actually, in Wilmington, Delaware), and I at the other, about 15 miles to the north. In between there was Chadds Ford, PA, famous for Andrew Wyeth and the Battle of Brandywine, one of the many routs and massacres the Continental Army suffered in 1777.
Colin always liked to announce me as “San Diego’s Funniest Cartoonist.” For a brief shining moment, maybe I was, when I was doing editorial cartoons and illustrations for local papers. I had a cunning, old-school, brush-and-ink style that worked very well when I had to do strips of Mayor Maureen O’Connor claiming the broken sewage pipe in the bay was just an act of God, “a natural disaster.”
But—to answer your next question—I didn’t have sufficient mainstream perspective or malleability of imagination to pursue a career as a political cartoonist.
Nevertheless Colin continued to flog my talents for the next fifteen years, whether I was California or New York or London or Paris. He included cartoons as part of his public-relations packages, even though most of the work I did for him was limp and tawdry, in my humble opinion.
Mainly they were simple, absurdist, derogatory cartoons about some minor voting initiative in small-town SoCal. But he paid me very well. And it was all tax free, old man!
Because I never declared my earnings from freelance clients. Payment in personal checks and cash meant that the thousands I might make from these and other freelance work each year were pretty much untraceable. I had a steady job in the graphics department of a major banking corporation, so the IRS wasn’t going to investigate my middling income too closely.
Another reason I was happy to do them was that I liked to explore different techniques. Drawing with a Wacom tablet, for example, vs my traditional brush-and-ink. Unfortunately this meant that I became more focused on technology and effective online presentation, and less on the delight of cartooning.
As I suggested before, I was usually living far, far away. For a while I spent a month or two every year in England and France, training for marathons and imagining that I was writing a novel. But a good deal of the time was spent drawing cartoons for Colin.
I’d be sitting in some Paris café with my laptop, and my Vodafone would suddenly go off. It was Colin. “Hey Frenchy! I need some cartoons!”
So I’d bottle myself up in my hotel room or flat for a couple of days, doing nothing but ha-ha drawings about minuscule matters 6000 miles away.
Anyway, as a result of this, I had a very good idea of what was happening in Colin’s career, what pissant town or county politics he was being paid to influence. Santee, Bolsa Chica, Perris, Del Mar…
Politics dovetailed with business, often as not. For ten years the major client was a housebuilder named Barratt American Homes, originally a subsidiary of the Barratt Group in Great Britain. It was led by a very fine fellow from Bedford, England named Mick Pattinson.
I say very fine because I stayed in Mick’s house in Olivenhain, east of Carlsbad, for a day or two in February 2004 when Colin’s daughter was getting married nearby. I had been camping at Colin’s rented condo in Murrieta, but then Colin’s father, brother, and sister arrived for the wedding, and there was no room at the inn.
So Mick put me up in his ginormous mansion. As I did work for Colin, and Colin was Mick’s PR boffin, I was practically a blood relative.
* * *
The wedding itself happened at a vast catering hall in Fallbrook, an area known for its rolling estates, wineries and catering halls. I hadn’t seen Colin’s daughter in ten years, and she had no recollection of me. When Colin introduced us, I might as well have been Cousin Kate from Budapest.
Bride and groom were both very young and strikingly good-looking (as I note in my diary of the time). The wedding service itself, however, was something of a farce.
It was held outside, as though it were June rather than a cold wet day in February. The minister was a woman, more or less, with short, spiky grey hair. The sort of figure you might have seen officiating at a lesbian “holy union” at Metropolitan Community Church. She and the happy couple got some shelter by standing under the floral bridal arch. The rest of us sat on wet folding chairs and put up with the cold drizzle.
(People would ask Colin, discreetly or otherwise, why his daughter wasn’t having a Catholic wedding, where you got a great gothic church with a choir and a proper prelate. Colin’s answer: “I’m not Catholic.” He was once, apparently . . . but didn’t have the money to be one when he landed in La Jolla.)
Before the service began, we wet ones in the mosh pit looked around and took in the surroundings. There was a brick-lined man-made lagoon nearby, quite extensive, surrounding us on three sides.
“This body of water is shaped like a heart!” a young woman sitting near me said to her husband.
“More like another internal organ—liver, maybe,” came the reply.
All dialogue verbatim. I wrote it down.
Now the drizzle turned into rain. Things were hurried along, and we all ran inside to music and cake.
After the party, Mick and I drove back in the rain to Olivenhain, first stopping off at a stripmall for some Chinese lettuce-wraps and Starbucks tea, for dinner. Then Mick sat down and worked on business while I watched TV and wandered the house.
Mick had made a big donation to the Arnold Schwarzenegger gubernatorial campaign, and in the living room of his big, near-empty Olivenhain house there stood an autographed photo of Mick and Arnold together, shaking hands. I did a spindly sketch of it. (See cut.)
Not much else in that house: a TV, a little furniture, a couple books, a basalt bust of Winston Churchill! I believe Mick had just gone through a divorce the past year.
He’d also recently bought controlling interest in Barratt American Homes, with a big loan from Bank of America. He’d completed, or planned, several developments in Olivenhain, Carlsbad, Temecula, Perris…and finally Winchester, CA, a “census-designated” tract in Riverside County, not far from Murrieta.
Winchester acquired some substance and population when Barratt built a slew of McMansions there, in a hillside development called Sagecrest or Sagewood. One of the new residents was going to be Colin Flaherty. Mick was giving Colin a big new house, I expect as payment in kind.
Right now, however, it was just a concrete shell in the ground. A day or two after the wedding, Colin took some of us on a tour of the muddy tract. We walked in the rain with our sweatshirt hoods up, stepped around puddles, walked on boards, and headed for the model houses that were already open for viewing. The decor was a mixture of colonial-rattan and Marriott-tacky. Rooms set up for TV watching, rooms with computer-terminal props, rooms with exercise treadmills . . . no room set up for books and reading, although some prop volumes were scattered here and there. I noted a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume, and Frank McCourt’s ‘Tis.
Mick lavished a lot on Colin. A few months earlier, Mick had taken Colin on a business trip to England, to meet with the parent company. During their travels they stayed at the Royal Midland Hotel in Manchester. “Where Mister Rolls met Mister Royce,” as Colin liked to repeat. That sticks in memory because I was twice in Manchester over the next few months, and once stopped at the Royal Midland, just out of curiosity. A lovely old caravanserai, though it seemed to be in the middle of renovation for years to come. But the Midland had an excellent gym in its basement, including two Concept 2 rowers.
At the time I didn’t ponder the subtext of the many cartoons I did for Colin during his Barratt period. But now I reflect that Mick Pattinson was continually struggling to put up his elegant developments, while local pols and rival property interests were continually fighting to prevent them. Mick’s opponents depicted him as a rapacious developer, always mucking up the countryside. But when I talked with him it was clear he saw himself as a humanitarian, putting up essential housing in tracts of habitable wasteland.
“We might have 200 people wanting to buy houses, but we have to turn 180 away with tears in their eyes!” Mick told me, his own eyes welling up.
On February 23, 2004, a couple days after wedding, Colin and I went to a lunch meeting in a sad café at the Murrieta golf course. (In my diary I whine that the salad with my hamburger was “just some chopped iceberg & tomato”.) Colin was seeing a colleague named Nancy, someone I’d met a couple of times during the wedding weekend. Nancy had her “mute” son with her, I note in the diary.
Nancy said she was starting a “newspaper” called Santee Life, “the purpose of which was to create phony grassroots support for Mick’s upcoming housing project” (diary). Santee Life hadn’t launched yet. Nancy said she planned to start it with a “web presence.” I gather this is where I would come in, though I heard no more of the project.
Nancy had formerly lived in Rancho Bernardo (an upscale “master planned community” built ex nihilo in the 1970 and 80s), but she flipped that home and moved to Las Vegas. Now she owned one house there and was trying to buy another. But the builder wouldn’t let her, because he had a waiting list. Sounds like Mick Pattinson. Here was the 2004 housing bubble in microcosm.
In one of these locales Nancy had encountered a pet skunk. She wrote a poem about it. She suggested maybe I could do drawings for it.
Nancy reminded me of another lady colleague Colin introduced me to at the Del Mar racetrack in 1997. She was a publicist named Lisa, and she too used a sort of “newspaper” as a PR mouthpiece. Except this local journal focused on Del Mar, and it actually published a number of print issues. No “web presence” nonsense. That would have been futile and propeller-head in 1997.
Fake newspapers, astroturfed public support, press releases, cartoons…it all sounds like nine-tenths of a scam, and for the pure of heart, perhaps it was. But this was politics, and the other side was doing the same thing. The difference was, the other side liked to dress up their agenda as some high-minded, environmental initiative. Using that as a front, they’d then seek private and governmental support from all over, using special interests and slush funds to promote their pet projects.
And they had another weapon. They knew it was Colin who was masterminding the political message in favor of the Barratt developments. So they persuaded a Sacramento outfit called the Fair Political Practices Commission to claim that Colin had made illegal (or rather, unreported) donations to political activities.
California FPPC put out the word that Colin had broken campaign finance rules thirty-eight (38) times in 1997-98 and was therefore being fined $76,000. (LA Times, Sept 12, 2003.) One of these purportedly illegal donations was $4000 for a birthday cake and balloons for Governor Pete Wilson. Anyway Colin never paid that “fine,” nor did the FPPC boondoggle ever make any serious effort to collect it. As recently as October 29, 2021 the FPPC sent him a letter, limply threatening to garnish the $76,000 if Colin won the California Lottery!
FPPC never made any serious effort to collect their “fine” because that would have triggered a legal response, and most likely their claim would have been vacated by the court. The FPPC allegations were harassment and vendetta, pure and simple. Significantly, after the LA Times ran that one story (basically an FPPC press release), there was no follow-up or resolution.
I am still personally exercised by this because I myself was put through interrogations via phone, by one Dennis Pellon at FPPC in Sacramento. I was identified as one of a number of people who made a token donation to Colin’s 1997 political campaign in Perris, California. I gave $50, or maybe $25. I was happy to make that little contribution, you betcha. Colin had paid me many times that for graphic and web work in the past year. Not surprisingly, Pellon couldn’t frame my little bagatelle as “money laundering” (to use FPPC’s odd choice of words). After two or three phone calls he gave up.
Were all donors flagged and harassed by FPPC? I don’t know. I may have been because I mailed it from a home address in Seattle, where I lived briefly. A tiny donation from 1100 miles away should always look suspicious, because political fundraisers like to pretend they’re getting their money and moral support from a broad base of locals.
But of course they almost never do.
Postscript. On my way back to the San Diego airport next day—I mean, February 24, 2004—I stopped in at Ocean Beach, on the the ocean side of Point Loma. Both Colin and I had lived there at various times in the 80s and 90s. It had always been a raffish place, but right now it seemed more rundown than ever. Dirty, desolate, mostly abandoned. Or maybe it was just that I was there on a chilly, wet, dark day in February.
A few weeks later I flew to Paris, then entrained for London, and en-bused to see friends in Oxford; then on to Manchester and Leeds, where I took dismal pictures of myself on dark, drizzly days; and then down to Torquay, also very dark and drizzly; and back to wet London, and Paris of the slate-grey skies (there was no sun anywhere that season); finally via Air France to New York…because it was time to get back to work. This all seems so crazy today. I worked on my novel and did a couple of cartoons for Colin.
Whom I saw again a few weeks later, May 2004. Colin’s new home was barely finished, vast and empty, but with that new-house smell. I left a minivan-load of my belongings in his garage.
Shortly before moving from Seattle in 1998, I’d stored belongings in a Public Storage space near the airport. A couple years before that, when I moved from San Diego to London, I’d put all my stuff in a storage space in San Diego. And now, crazy at it seemed, I was moving my goods from Seattle back to Southern California. In retrospect it all seems manic and improvident, but 2004 was a crazy year.
After getting to Winchester, I sorted out a few books, and some drawings, and my old Prat™ portfolio, and flew them back with me to New York the next day.
And here’s the capper: everything else I left in Colin’s garage went up the spout around 2008. The economy crashed, Barratt American went bankrupt, Colin moved the basement contents to his son’s house near San Diego, then the son had to give up his house (he was in the Air Force and suddenly deployed). Colin went on a hitchhiking trip and wrote a memoir about it, and then a few more books that were far more popular and notorious.
“The perfect is the enemy of the good.” An expression I first heard from Colin, sometime around October or November 1997. Seriously, I’d never heard it before. “Clichés for every occasion,” he added.
It was a motto he could follow, I never could. “If it’s not perfect, I don’t want to bother,” is more along my habit of thinking. Makes life very hard.