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After chronicling California at 'LA Times' for 43 years, Louis Sahagún has retired

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Look. New York City may have the Hudson River. Paris may have the Seine, London the Thames. But Los Angeles - you know what we got? We got a concrete ditch filled with trash and smelly water that runs alongside large power lines.

LOUIS SAHAGUN: If you get closer...

CHANG: Yeah.

SAHAGUN: ...Or if you fall in that water, that smells like dirty socks.

CHANG: (Laughter).

SAHAGUN: And it'll be somewhat unnerving.

CHANG: (Laughter).

Louis Sahagun knows that firsthand because he went kayaking down the LA River as a reporter at the LA Times. And he fell into the water multiple times.

SAHAGUN: And I don't resemble a reptile or a lizard...

CHANG: (Laughter).

SAHAGUN: ...Gila monster at this point. That didn't happen.

CHANG: That's good.

This urban river is just one of thousands of subjects that Sahagun has chronicled in his 43 years at the LA Times, a reporting journey that has taken him to unusual places all over the state of California and beyond. He is now 74 years old. And earlier this month, Louis Sahagun retired. And when we asked him where we should meet to talk about his life and his work, he chose this river right here. The LA River, after all, is one of the recurring main characters in his stories.

SAHAGUN: It is a real river that's been straitjacketed in concrete, and that occurred in 1938 after a historic flood. A lot of people died. A lot of property was destroyed as LA was burgeoning. So the city fathers and the people who were moving in said, OK, this cannot ever happen again.

CHANG: Sahagun says the LA River's transformation from a wild, rambunctious river into a concrete channel has been a century-long story of environmental battles, gentrification and displacement, like when Latino families like his were told to move to make way for improvements to the river's waterways. Sahagun grew up not far from here at a ranch along a tributary of the LA River, where his parents were farm workers.

SAHAGUN: It was teeming with wildlife. There were clouds of tadpoles, just fleets - you know, frogs leaping out of the grass. My uncles were shooting waterfowl, you know, and we were having them for dinner.

CHANG: And how did growing up on a ranch with your family in that area - how do you think that shape your relationship with nature?

SAHAGUN: Those memories of all of that wildlife and all of that natural kind of excitement. In a kind of a way throughout my career - 43 years a reporter - I've been chasing those diminishing scenes, looking for patches, remnants of those memories, what their fate might be in the way of, you know, more development.

CHANG: Over the decades, Sahagun's byline became one of the most recognizable in California. But, you know, his first actual job at the LA Times was not reporter.

SAHAGUN: Well, I heard of an opening for a utility man. I got the job. I had worked in factories. I dropped out of junior college.

CHANG: He started out sweeping floors at the paper, then became a copy messenger in the editorial department. And then one day, he strolled into the office of the paper's book editor.

SAHAGUN: His name was Digby Diehl. He said, Louis, what makes you think you could come in here and review a book for the LA Times, please?

CHANG: Dang.

SAHAGUN: And I said, what have you got to lose? And he said, all right. And he took the biggest God-darn book off the shelf, and he slid it across this desk. And he said, Louis, what do you know about the CEBI (ph) of Africa? And I said, as much as the next guy. He said, that's the right answer. Now, that was the beginning of 200 book reviews.

CHANG: Can I ask why did you start with book reviews? Of all the places in the paper that you could start as a novice writer, book reviews seems kind of...

SAHAGUN: I wasn't...

CHANG: ...Kind of intimidating.

SAHAGUN: ...A novice writer. I was just an opinionated utility man (laughter). I had no dream or desire of being a journalist.

CHANG: Really?

SAHAGUN: None.

CHANG: Wow.

SAHAGUN: Zero. I just wanted to...

CHANG: Express an opinion and write it.

SAHAGUN: Yeah, yeah. Give me a book. Let me review it. It was really that outrageous, outlandish.

CHANG: I feel like every time I see some untold story about some corner of California that I've never heard of, I don't even have to look at the byline. I just know it's going to be your name at the top of that story. What is it about California that has kept you here for all these decades as a writer?

SAHAGUN: In part because I grew up with, you know, working-class Chicano parents. In an odd way, I felt I was writing dispatches, you know, for people like those I grew up with. And I was taking them to places that I never got to go - Owens Valley, you know, cyanide heat leach mining in remote corners of the Mojave. And, you know, these are things my mom and dad - hey. I read your story. Hey, man. That was great, you know? That was the applause I was looking for.

CHANG: Oh. Well, Louis, when you look back on your more than four decades writing about this state, what do you want your legacy to be?

SAHAGUN: The legacy is that - if there is one - is that I got to chronicle the tug-of-war between wildlife and humans in one of the largest and fastest-growing and most influential regions of planet Earth. I'm very proud of that. And I want to give you an example of that struggle. It's not the longest story. It's not the most prize-winning. But when it comes to pride, it's this one.

I got to tell the world that desert tortoises did not evolve in the desert. They evolved when things were more moist, and they adapted to the desert. Today, in the midst of historic drought, some female tortoises are laying more eggs than they are physiologically capable of laying without dying. It's a genetic Hail Mary pass into the future on behalf of the species. If I think about it too much, I get tears in my eyes. Those tortoises...

CHANG: I know.

SAHAGUN: Female tortoises are my heroes.

CHANG: I remember you wrote that. Yeah.

SAHAGUN: I got to tell the world about that. And that kind of a thing makes - yeah, I'm proud of that.

CHANG: I can tell you love still to tell stories. What made you decide to leave the LA Times?

SAHAGUN: It's just time. There comes a time when you - I believe you have to step out of the way. You just should. Now, I'm not used to it. I have to admit. But I'm not living on deadline for the first time in 43 years.

CHANG: Hallelujah.

SAHAGUN: It got so bad, even recently, if I'm buttoning a shirt in the morning, I would be thinking, OK, there's one second lost. There's two seconds lost...

CHANG: (Laughter).

SAHAGUN: ...Three seconds lost. I mean...

CHANG: I know that feeling so well.

SAHAGUN: Yeah (laughter). No, OK, so it's time to put on the brakes.

CHANG: So how do you plan on spending your time?

SAHAGUN: I bought an e-bike.

CHANG: A what bike?

SAHAGUN: An e-bike.

CHANG: Oh, an e-bike.

SAHAGUN: I actually bought one. When I got it, I found myself - it was so exciting and so fun, I started singing out loud. I think I was singing The Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb" out loud uncontrollably.

CHANG: (Singing) Under my thumb...

SAHAGUN: And I know that - yeah. And I know there were residents, you know - people watering their lawns, covering their children's eyes. Don't look at him. He's crazy.

CHANG: (Laughter).

SAHAGUN: You know?

CHANG: It's fine to say it.

SAHAGUN: So I've got an e-bike.

CHANG: But do you plan on riding it along the LA River?

SAHAGUN: Oh, yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER MY THUMB")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Under my thumb, the girl who once had me down.

CHANG: That was Louis Sahagun, lifelong Angeleno and staff writer at the LA Times for 43 years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER MY THUMB")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) It's down to me. The difference in the clothes she wears - down to me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.