It was Nov. 7, 1991, when Earvin (Magic) Johnson held a press conference and said: “Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today.” The admission shocked the world, but it jolted Los Angeles like a magnitude-8 earthquake. The reaction in the newsroom at the Los Angeles Times, where I worked for 20 years, was memorable. This was a place where reporters and editors were so used to the violence and tragedy that comes with the city, that most murders, drive-by shootings, drug arrests and fatal car crashes didn’t even make it into the newspaper. There were simply too many of them to fit on the pages. At the paper, we had become emotionally immune to such horrific incidents, and often would casually joke about them —an unfortunate characteristic of some city-room cynics.
Looking around the Times newsroom that day, I saw more than a few of these same, hard-boiled cynics speechless — some weeping — in the wake of Magic’s words. Looking back, it seems clear why they would react this way: We all “knew” Magic Johnson — some literally, but just about all of us felt close to him in some way. Although we lived in a much different world than that of the hall-of-fame NBA legend, he was our neighbor, our friend. He was a big galoot with a sincere smile and a kind word for everyone. He was everywhere, in many ways the face and spirit of LA. And we were all sad at the prospect of losing that friend to a deadly disease.
Magic, of course, has survived and prospered in the years since, thanks to advances in treating the human immunodeficiency virus. But I thought of him this week, as two tragic incidents uncharacteristically unfolded on the Vineyard: an apparent domestic dispute in West Tisbury that resulted in a dramatic husband-wife shootout in which he was killed and she was wounded; and a rare, fatal automobile accident that took the lives of two women, one of them from West Tisbury, and injured a third. That these two things happened on the Vineyard was unusual enough; but to have them occur less than a week apart was, for many Islanders, like getting a one-two punch to the stomach.
I didn’t move here to escape the violence of a big city, although it did occur to me that living on the Vineyard most certainly held the promise of being more tranquil than Los Angeles. Instead of having to negotiate the Pasadena Freeway every day, I could meander to work along Beach Road, or even the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road, which — roundabout or no roundabout — does not seem to hold the potential of a two-hour backup amidst a convoy of road-raging baby boomers — some of them armed. And all the things about the Island I had come to love over my more than 30 years as a visitor would be available for me to enjoy at my leisure, rather than cramming them into one or two weeks before having to return to my pressure cooker life.
But this past week brought home to me that not only are there no true escapes, but that the stereotypical portraits of Los Angeles and Martha’s Vineyard are more misleading than we might think. Yes, there is more crime in big cities — more chances to get mugged (or worse), or to crash your car; more disagreeable phonies to encounter; in general, more unsavory paths to choose from.
But there is also an aura of protection. The very size and anonymity of a Los Angeles can also envelop you in a layer of insulation that, for better or worse, shields you from most of the disasters that occur there every day. The young victim in a drive by might as well be on Mars; the latest quake that killed dozens in the valley did not affect your town or street; the overdose death in Hollywood is, well, another overdose death in Hollywood.
But when tragedy strikes on the Vineyard, it can hit you harder. Many here knew Judith Morse, the West Tisbury woman who died in this week’s crash, and her family. We empathized with Cynthia Bloomquist, the West Tisbury woman who shot her husband in self defense, the district attorney said, after he shot her repeatedly with a shotgun; we felt sick that her husband, Kenneth R. Bloomquist, lost his life in such a manner. These are not abstract names that do make it into the newspaper or onto TV screens. They are neighbors who have/had friends here. Even those who do not know them feel they are part of the same community.
As with most things in life, there is a trade-off in living on a small, beautiful island. There is no insulating, impersonal layer here to protect us. The closeness and familiarity we feel with other Islanders makes us all the more vulnerable when they are gone or hurt.
Just as those in the LA Times newsroom did on that day in 1991, the reporters and editors at the Gazette reacted not only as journalists but as friends and neighbors when the news came, first, of the shootings and next, of the fatal crash. We all wished these particular stories had never occurred.
There is no Magic Johnson on the Vineyard. There are 16,535 of them.