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Monday, Dec 31 2012 12:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: Once in a while, we get to be friends

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    Robert Price

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Jana Warren Byers died the other day. Maybe you knew her. Wife, mother of five, grandmother of 10, enthusiastic cookie baker, voracious Facebooker, and just 49. I'd known her for 10, maybe 12 years. And I met her right here, in these pages.

Jana read my column and I read her occasional, brief and funny emails. She had so many quirky stories I always told her she deserved her own sitcom. Her own reality show. Something.

One day she wrote to say somebody had apparently stolen a gargantuan section of virgin concrete sewer pipeline from a construction site and somehow managed to park it in front of her house.

Another time she wrote to tell me that her son Phillip had landed a $9-an-hour job at a Red Cross call center on 34th Street cataloging Hurricane Katrina relief claims -- some heart-wrenching, some highly suspicious. Then Phillip was subjected to some dubious dealings himself: Spherion Corp., which had contracted with the Red Cross to run the call center, failed to pay him and others, prompting the Kern County D.A.'s office to sue on behalf of 20 employees.

When I went to Jana's house in east Bakersfield to learn more about Phillip's ordeal I was offered a Pepsi and a seat on the sofa. It was the first time I'd met her face to face. Jana told me her life story but the thing I remember most was her matter-of-fact admission that she could fall over dead at any time. She had a bad heart and had already outlived the doctors' forecasts. As a result, she lived her life with a sort of stay-humble-but-don't-wait-till-tomorrow approach that I found myself envying. And that bad heart is what killed her -- in her sleep, just as she'd hoped.

I'm telling you about Jana because she represents something that journalists don't talk much about: Their friendships with readers. These are friendships of a different sort, to be sure. Just as journalists are wise to keep a certain cordial distance from news sources, there's an unspoken wariness about getting too chummy with the regular folks who read the paper. But there's also something nice about establishing a pen pal-like relationship with someone who comes to like you for what you believe and how you express it, whether they agree or not.

I am not the first newspaper columnist to be reminded that his readers are real people. Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times memorably mined that truth with his poignant tales about a homeless musical prodigy -- a collection that became "The Soloist." Others have done the same. I make no claim to anything new or even remotely remarkable.

I thought about all this on Thursday after reading Courtenay Edelhart's wonderful first-person obituary in The Californian on David Assaly, a rumpled, raggedy, unruly-bearded advocate for the poor. " ... If you're barely hanging on from paycheck to paycheck, or darn near starving on the fringes of society," she wrote, "it's likely you knew Dave." She had written about Assaly previously and, as happens occasionally, they had developed a mutual respect -- a special rapport that people from two very different worlds sometimes develop if their hearts and minds are unencumbered by unwritten protocols involving practitioner and client.

I thought, too, about Ria Lira, whose Christmas card turned up again in my mail slot last week. For two years she fought doggedly and courageously to find and bring home her schizophrenic sister from Seattle, and I had the privilege of writing about it, before and after they were reunited in 2007. Schizophrenics never really come home, of course. I learned that from Ria, and maybe she learned something from me.

Jana and her husband, Rick, invited my wife and me to dinner last month at their favorite Mexican restaurant -- just us and 20 of their rowdiest relatives. When Rick picked up our check I expressed regret that I hadn't ordered the jumbo platter. We promised to reciprocate.

Today I express a different sort of regret. Thanks for being my friend, Jana. I'll miss you.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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