Wrong place, wrong time, wrong turn

Wrong place, wrong time, wrong turn

Reader and weep: How a small alternative paper remained a prophet without honor even on its home turf

By Nigey Lennon 01/12/2006

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As one grows older and the philosophical faculties become somewhat jaded, it is probably inevitable that one will begin to recall certain memories from the past and try to remember if there were any cosmic signposts that indicated a sharp turn to the left, say, or perhaps a detour sign which, if heeded, could have prevented much subsequent misery. Ironically, for me, the signpost of my youth may very well have been a box of Winchell's donuts, had I only been able to recognize it at the time.

Although my ex-husband Lionel Rolfe eventually wrote a series of books called "Literary L.A.," Los Angeles has never been known as a literary town, and it was even less so in 1978, when two competing weekly alternative newspapers, the LA Weekly and the LA Reader, began publishing in the same week. Back then it seemed, at least at first, as though there might finally be a cultural scene developing in Los Angeles and hence, increasing opportunities for a couple of ink-stained polymaths to make public spectacles of themselves.

However, we soon came to understand that this fantasy of a burgeoning cultural Mecca in philistine LA was just that - a fantasy. In fact, it took Lionel and me exactly 10 minutes to learn that the Weekly - from the beginning, it was by far the more successful of the two papers - had no use for us. As its editor, a New York transplant who had previously worked at the New York Post, sternly admonished us, we lacked the all-important, if elusive, hipness quotient necessary to establish our credentials as contributors. Neither of us was particularly fascinated by Hollywood or by LA's music industry (the fact that I was an unsuccessful musician compounded the felony), and we weren't scenemakers by any stretch of the imagination. How could we be when our interests lay in recondite subjects like literature, architecture, history and politics? But the thing that really rendered us non gratis in extremis was the fact that our appearance didn't pass muster: Lionel was portly and balding and favored ancient corduroy jackets with leather elbow patches, while my idea of "office casual" tended to be a T-shirt and old sweatpants.

Having been efficiently and unconditionally ejected from the Weekly's Hollywood Boulevard office by the trend police, we undauntedly schlepped across town to the competition. At the time, the LA Reader was located in a very unhip part of downtown LA on Spring Street, in a bleakly utilitarian office skyscraper that suffered from unfortunate feng shui, having been built on the very threshold of Black Friday. There we accosted the Reader's editor, James Vowell, whom Lionel had met previously when Vowell was copy editing the op-ed page of the LA Times. And lo and behold, neither our approach nor our garb drew any censure, and the interview bore fruit. Since all the really desirable writers were gravitating to the Weekly, Vowell was more than willing to publish us and, in fact, to give us plenty of space. Especially exciting for us, Vowell didn't object if we wrote about subjects we were interested in; how could he, when he was offering a measly $125 for articles that generally required a month or six weeks to research and write?

Thus we became two of the Reader's original contributors; fools rushing into what we little expected would become a decade of engrossing but unallayed toil. We enjoyed our work, on occasion; but the milieu could have used a makeover. The specter of the Weekly was forever hovering over us like an ominous blimp; we couldn't begin to compete with it, much less challenge its readership or advertising clout. So no one bothered to. Instead, the more quixotic among us chose to assert that ours was the superior product, a sheet with literary and cultural finesse in a wilderness of howling barbarians, certainly too good for the herds of trendy sheep who obediently lined up every Wednesday waiting for the Weekly's advance issues to hit the stands. This gave rise to an admittedly unique style of writing, in which individualism was given free rein, for better or worse, no doubt at least partly on account of its remarkable ability to fill up column inches.

Initially the Reader staff consisted of Vowell; the publisher, Jane Levine; the advertising department, which was usually one or two people (there being no need for more); and Matt Groening and Richard Gehr, who wrote the paper's unsigned items and calendar listings and did whatever else needed to be done.

For the vast majority of people today, the name Matt Groening would probably conjure up an image of his trademark cartoonist's signature on "The Simpsons" credit roll, or maybe your 9-year-old's Bart Simpson doll, brought to you courtesy of Wal-Mart. Media savvy types probably have one of Groening's old "Life in Hell" comic strips taped to the wall in their cubicles, and some may even have hung on to a few of the books, hats, calendars and coffee mugs LIH managed to spawn during its merchandising heyday.

But it's a safe bet that not many folks visualize Matt the way I remember him - as the Reader's general factotum and sad sack, lurking in a dim cubicle where he attempted to evade censure by pretending to work.

Matt was the guy at the Reader whom everybody harassed because he gave the impression of abjectly wishing to be abused. He always seemed to be in the throes of catarrh and he often sported livid paper cuts which resulted from constantly redoing the boards that he was supposed to paste up, along with his other duties.

There was an element of Bartleby the Scrivener in Matt, although unlike Bartleby he never dared to say "I would prefer not to." Office habitués were well aware of the Grand Guignolesque, darkly comical relationship he had with Vowell; each knowing their roles and playing them to the hilt. "MATT!" Vowell would bellow at the top of his lungs, clearly reveling in his authority. And Matt, Quasimodo-like, crouched near Vowell's elbow, would mumble on cue, "I'm right here, James."

Outside his role as the office buffoon, Matt was somewhat reticent and tended to disappear into the scenery, and I wasn't really aware of him as a distinct entity until the day I happened to show up with a box of rather gone-by Winchell's donuts, which I parked conspicuously in the front reception area hoping to foist them off on the unwary. Vowell's office was at the end of the hall, and Matt's cubicle was just off the reception area. As I passed it on my way to see Vowell, I heard a curious muffled gulping, and looking into the cubicle I was confronted with the sight of Matt, his head buried in the donut box. Some years later, when Homer Simpson's donut fetish became an internationally copyrighted trademark (no doubt much to the delight of the Winchell's corporation), this scene took on considerable significance for me. I would venture to say it came to represent the satori of my Reader years, the moment when I suddenly understood the meaning (or lack thereof) of the whole experience. But I'm getting ahead of myself again, and anyway, you probably already know the punchline.

When he wasn't engaged in general editorial drudgery (he seemed, for instance, to spend an inordinate amount of time sharpening repro-blue markup pencils), Matt furtively squiggled comic drawings in his cubicle, usually one-eared rabbits or crude self-portraits. The thought that one day Matt might actually get his work published someplace never occurred to me. He had repeatedly tried to convince Vowell to publish his "Life in Hell" strip, only to be more brusquely rebuffed with each attempt. Eventually the LA Weekly wound up publishing "Life in Hell." Matt later told an amusing, if apocryphal, anecdote about walking in off the street and showing Vowell the comic strip, whereupon Vowell promptly hired him - to deliver papers. (The "Life in Hell" strip purportedly began as a one-off comic that Groening called "Work is Hell.")

The Reader may have loomed large in Matt's legend, but his ship truly came in when he consolidated with Deborah Caplan, the Reader's sometime advertising saleswoman. They were married in 1986 and subsequently divorced in 1999. Caplan, a take-charge type, demonstrated vision beyond any of us. She rolled up her sleeves and began by syndicating Matt's "Life in Hell" comic strip and then continued building Matt's media empire by creating numerous merchandise knock-offs based on the strip. She evidently also had a deeper understanding of the vast archetypical pull of the glazed jelly; it was through her brokering that "The Simpsons" and all its references to fried bakery goods came into being.

The rest, of course, is television history. "The Simpsons" is one of, if not the, most successful shows ever to appear on television. It has generated billions of dollars' worth of revenue and made Matt Groening a millionaire many times over.

The rest of us, not so lucky, continued to toil. The Reader, despite periodic surges in circulation, continued its role as underdog of LA alternative weeklies. With little increase in its ad lineage, its page count never permitted more than two articles per issue. The main story often ran to 4,000 words or longer, and the pay for such an undertaking was a remarkable $150. (Ten years or so later, Vowell, reluctantly bowing to inflation, finally agreed to raise the remuneration to $200. By then, however, I had learned my lesson and was working as a typesetter at a Jewish newspaper.)

During our tenure as contributors, Lionel and I ground out dozens of magnum opuses for the Reader, often alternating weeks. It was a highly charged atmosphere, and between incessantly quibbling with Vowell over petty details while trying to make our paltry income cover our living expenses, it seems to me that I was always either faintly nauseous and/or in the mood to murder somebody. Competition was fierce both in terms of nailing down writing assignments and in the media jungle I had to frequent to get my stories - little wonder that I used to compare this universe to a low-stakes poker game.

Ironically, because it was so diminutive and, frankly, irrelevant, the Reader gradually gained a reputation as a reader's paper, although it generally remained a prophet without honor on its home turf, at least compared to the unavoidable Weekly. The Reader specialized in the sort of outrageously overwritten screeds that cerebrally frustrated natives would clip and send to their friends back home as proof that there was a literate sub-genre in LA - this small but fanatical readership, whether in Altadena or Altoona, tended to be types who appreciated characteristic writing, even if it was frequently shrill, solipsistic, pompous and convoluted.

Vowell had his peccadilloes, as many other former Reader contributors will attest, but whether because of him or despite him I somehow managed to arduously compose a couple dozen exhaustively researched articles on subjects ranging from LA's architectural history to fine printing. It was, in a sense, like getting a liberal arts education for free. I can trace my interests in architecture, preservation and graphic design directly back to the articles I wrote about those subjects. Later, Lionel and I would co-found a book publishing company in which I was able to make semi-practical use of my knowledge.

Eventually - long after Lionel and I had moved on - the Reader was merged into New Times, which lived and died. Since then, other alternative papers have come and gone. Having left Los Angeles in 2000, the publishing scene there ceased to hold any interest for me, thus I haven't been party to the hot arguments which continue to this day, in periodicals and books, about Los Angeles' intellectual validity or vacuity, depending on one's personal view. From where I sit, looking back at the cast of characters who made the Reader whatever it was, I'm struck at this point in time by the distinctly ephemeral nature of most of its contributors and their passions. In all fairness, that's probably intrinsic to all arts-and-entertainment publications, especially free weeklies. Who will remember anything about any of them 20 years down the line? And why should they?

Still, despite the contentions of those who would point to this novelist, that artist, or the other critic who once graced the pages of the Reader and have gone on to achieve something or other, the inescapable fact remains that Matt Groening was the sole LA Reader alumnus singled out by the universe to achieve meteoric success, and it furthermore bears remembering that his success was not in the picayune world of publishing, but in the far more lucrative sphere of video syndication, product tie-ins and McDonald's Happy Meals.

For me, anyway, this bit of post-irony will have to remain the penultimate impression, the coda, if you will, to my discordant if educational decade at the LA Reader. Despite my obsession with weighty subjects - landmarks in architectural history, the finer points of fine printing, the deeper implications of literary movements or musical innovations - the exhaustive articles I wrote for the Reader on these topics have long since disappeared into recycling bins and thence into oblivion, and it's probably just as well.

But there on Joe Six-Pack's television screen, as well as in the homes of countless millions of viewers all over the globe, Homer Simpson can be seen nightly as he inhales his 25th Winchell's donut and intones what has (through the medium of mass syndication) become a multinational mantra: "DOH!"

Alas, for me, this single syllable and its grease-encrusted, sugary genesis will forever remain the "hark from the tomb," the Finger of God, if you will, refuting my youthful idealism and pointing, had I only known it, to the wrong turn to the wrong place and the wrong time, where I squandered my impressionable years as an unappreciated cultural coolie at the LA Reader.

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