Sunday, August 13, 2006

across the universe

yesterday i journeyed to the wilds of yucaipa with the doc, the chief, and valley boy, on the occasion of a party marking the sale of the los angeles reader a decade ago. the party was at the home of the paper's former owner, james vowell, and his wife codette.

coincidentally, this event also marked the tenth anniversary of my escape from the alternative press, although it turned out to be only a temporary reprise.

in any event, we road-tripped in VB's trusty dadmobile, a roomy volvo that proved plenty comfy. (and you can also read his account of this odyssey -- but finish mine first!) we had all the accouterments a road trip requires: tunes, refreshments, and good company. once we arrived in yucaipa, which is very far away from los angeles, we wound our way up through lands of horses and subdivisions, following the signs with twin "Rs" -- one backward, for the wayback days of the reader when the logo was a backward R, and one forward, for its more modern incarnation in the '90s. the front of james and codette's palatial home was draped with a black banner bearing the reader R, so we had no trouble telling it from its similarly beige neighbors.

we knew from evite that most of the people who would be there were from before our time -- names that i had heard but never put a face to, despite having worked at the paper from fall 1987 to august 1996. but the first face we saw was a familiar, if unexpected, one -- someone i hadn't seen in years, and for a long time had hoped never to cross paths with again. ah, well. time does whittle away at the sands of old grudges (or some such similarly tortured metaphor), and it was actually almost good to see him. the dude had been through some very bad shit, but he seems happy, and i am genuinely glad for him.

anyway. we wound our way past racks of old issues that james had kept around for some reason, through the den with the texas-sized tv, past a lovely kitchen, and onto the back patio, where sat several unfamiliar people and a few familiar ones, plus various kids and dogs. introductions were made, drinks were poured, snacks were consumed, pool was played, and soon the party was rolling along. down below the backyard was another, more expansive backyard set up with a misting test (how coachella!), a badminton net (where some totally crazy folks were actually playing a game), and a pretty little gazebo. it was amazingly silent -- no ambient noise of traffic or other city sounds. just the neighbors on their own sides of the many walls, reveling in their own saturday afternoon fun.

we remained for several hours, through the feast of mexican food (mmmmmm), the obligatory cake, numerous beers for the lads, and nearly a whole bottle of cabernet for me. folks popped in and out ... i was happy to see teresa and judy, two former staffers i hadn't seen in ages, although they still live in town. i ended up chatting a long time with teresa, who remains one of the more impressive and committed human beings i've ever known. and judy, who must be in her 70s by now, still completely awes me with her boundless energy and thirst for experience (not to mention ability to chat your ear off!).

i did try to talk with different people, but the heat and the altitude (4,000 feet) and the alcohol at some point did end up rooting me to one spot, which was a very pleasant spot, but still. the sun set and turned the sky a pretty pinkish orange to violet. and then the stars came out and the evening became actually pleasant after the heat of the day. we would've liked to see the perseids, but they don't really get going 'til after midnight, and we couldn't stay that long.

i initially did not want to attend this party; i had not planned to go until the chief and valley boy talked me into it a few weeks ago. it is hard to explain why. the reader was a big part of my life for a long time, but it was a long time ago. as much as i can get caught up in thinking about the past, it's usually via some proustian accidental mechanism rather than a deliberate exercise in nostalgia. which this party, by definition, was. yet some of my closest friends and most favorite colleagues come from that era of my life. i have many fond memories but also some bad ones, some of which don't seem to have diminished much with time. and, although james did a good job of soft-pedaling the fact, the anniversary of the sale of the reader also meant, unfortunately, a commemoration of it no longer existing, as it was murdered by the new times. it's not like we all sat around feeling miserable or remembering bad things. but it was hard to share too much; i do not think another person there could really understand my experience of the reader, and how tightly the bad is wound with the good. it is singularly different from anyone else's, b/c i was there so long and through so many different changes. yet it gave me a lot of things i may not otherwise have had. when i arrived -- when the publication was in the toilet after having been poorly managed nearly into oblivion -- i was very young and very stupid, and all i knew was it was a job in journalism, which was all i wanted. i had a lot of freedom to write what i felt like, and i was just smart enough to know that was something i wasn't likely to get elsewhere. surprisingly, i do have that now, again, along with the weird-but-thrilling feeling of having an effect on things simply by putting my hands on them.

when the mysterious person known as james vowell "returned" to the reader -- i of course had no idea he'd been away, or even existed -- things began to change quickly. so quickly that, almost before i knew it, the offices had moved from the north hollywood dump i'd first known to much nicer digs on wilshire boulevard in the miracle mile, right at the dawn of that area becoming "media row," as james liked to call it. i am sure it helped that he lived right down the street from that office, but it was a much better location and helped us become a fixture in the city. it also prompted me to move from the valley to the city, a decision i have never regretted. when i stepped down from being managing editor and hired my replacement, valley boy, while staying on as arts editor, thus began the last era of the reader: in my opinion, the best of my time there. yeah, sure -- the geezers had the legacy of matt groening, steve erickson, richard meltzer, blahblahblahblahblah, but we had a great staff of aces and eccentrics, not to mention some amazing writers and columnists, an awesome production department, and good ad support thanks to associate publisher ron slack. we embraced our opportunity, made some missteps and had some bad patches, but we kicked ass anyway.

and what we had most was a sense of camaraderie and purpose. james was savvy about promoting the paper -- we were a part of the community, and we mattered. every week we made something, something that you could hold in your hands -- something we could see people all over the city holding in their hands. we worked hard. we dealt with a lot of frustrations. we learned a lot. and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. and i think that feeling of fun permeated the pages of the reader. we never could rival the weekly in size, but so many people told us they preferred our paper. they liked our spirit, our unpredictability, our basic weirdness.

citybeat carries part of that legacy. we work hard. we deal with a lot of frustrations. we learn a lot. and we often enjoy ourselves immensely. we are a part of the community. people still tell us they like our paper better than the weekly. and that is, as always, kind of cool.


MW said...

A very touching tribute to the Reader. It was a fine paper, indeed.

teeveeboy said...

Don't forget about the "underpaid" part... we were that, too! But you're so right about the atmosphere there, NN... a moment in time where everything was professionally idyllic.