What Made the Weekly Great Is That We Were Always Mr. Nice Guys--Seriously!
Steve Lowery wrote the column Diary of a Mad County from 2003 to 2007. He is also the only person in the world louder than Gustavo Arellano.
Babies, originally I was going to tell you about what I've been doing since I left the Weekly nearly 10 years ago, but there's really not much to tell: I helped start a wonderful weekly in Long Beach that eventually folded (goddamn Bush), and then went on to freelance writing, a treadmill of a career path akin to being an oarsman on a slave ship who, having staged a successful mutiny, declares "Now we will show them how free men row!"
Instead of all that, I thought it better to write something handy, "news you can use" being quite the seller in today's freelance market, whether it's simply handy information, e.g., "Nine Beautiful Celebrities Who Married Ugly Spouses," or cautionary tales, "Eleven Sexy Celebrities and Their Ugly Children." Where the Weekly is concerned, what you need to know is that in my 30 years of journalism, it remains not only the best publication I have ever worked for, but also the one staffed with the nicest people.
That may sound trite—nice is often seen as the refuge of the weak and the Canadian—but I believe it is the central reason for the Weekly's success. It's also important for you to know because—and I'm talking to mostly the young ones now—when you get out into the world and start working for people, there's a good chance you're going to work for some asshole(s), and when you tell certain people about it, these people—and I'm talking mostly about the older ones now—are going to say smug, bitter things such as "Welcome to the real world" and intimate that you were naive to expect anything better in that hopeless way the dying have of saying things.
I had not only been told this, but I had also lived it before I got to the Weekly. I had been in the business a decade and gotten used to having myself and my work denigrated, being yelled at—as well as listening as others were yelled at across newsrooms and whispered about in intra-office intrigues that set up one writer against another. I had seen others treated poorly and accepted it as normal until, inevitably, came the explosion of hurled insults, fists, staplers and/or chairs.
I figured the Weekly would be more of the same, given the passions of its critics and columnists, the aggressiveness of its news staff, and the sharp focus of its editors and designers to bring it all together. They called bullshit on bad music and art, on bigotry and small-mindedness; they got innocent people out of jail and put crooked politicians in. Tough? That crew stopped an airport—a frigging airport!
But what I found when I got there in 1996 was nothing but kind words, actions and support for my voice as a writer—you have no idea how important, as well as rare, that is—while experiencing a true collaborative process. It was, remarkably, thankfully void of petty jealousies or agendas, a place in which the only demand was that you be yourself. In fact, upon my arrival at the Weekly, I'd become so accustomed to writing for my editors' sensibilities that I had lost touch with my own; I sucked something awful, so much so that founding editor Will Swaim commanded the next couple of pieces I wrote were to be only what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write.
And that kind of saved my career. Thanks for that, Wilson.
Plus, everyone was just so damn nice. When I was missing my young children who were vacationing Back East, a bunch of them took time out from their work to help me make an audio tape of short skits for the kids, including Anthony Pignataro, who, though he was in the midst of stopping said frigging airport, recorded a bit my now college-graduated kids still refer to, as it began with him intoning in his best Edward R. Murrow, "I'm Mr. Bongo."
It was a place where people took their work, but not themselves, seriously. As with all things at the Weekly, the atmosphere and attitude emanated from its Fertile Crescent, Will. I had worked places where to speak up was considered daring, dangerous or just plain dumb, leaving a writer exposed to scrutiny, wagging fingers or tongues. But you always felt safe at the Weekly to mention something you thought might be the story, even if it was only the barest hint of an insinuation of a half-baked idea, kinda.
"It's somewhere in the room," Will would say when an idea was waiting to be dressed up, and I can think of no finer example of the paper's openness to thought than the "Rabbit" issue, which began as a quick mention at a story meeting that the folks at Leisure World were killing bunnies. Inside of an hour, we had remade the next week's entire issue, assigned stories, photos and cartoons, including a cover illustration by Matt Groening—everything. It's probably my favorite issue, not because of its content, but because it showed what's possible when people work unfettered by ego, self-critical judgment or sanity. (My contribution to that issue—a ridiculous Q&A with then-music editor Buddy Seigal, who I pretended to believe was actually Bunny Seigal—remains a personal favorite:
ME: Have you ever had an occasion to ask God—if your kind have the capacity to believe in a God—you know, "Why me, God? Why did you make me this way? Why didn't you just have someone drop me off a bridge in a sack or throw me under the wheels of a fast-moving truck? Why must I live as this filthy, loathsome thing that's really good for nothing except spreading disease and filth and degradation?" Do you ever just do that?
BUDDY: All right, this is getting old.
How much of a struggle has it been for you to deal with your own natural impulses? Going to the bathroom, for example: How long did it take you to finally train yourself to go indoors?
And by indoors, I mean in a toilet.
Or did you ever learn? Are you going to the bathroom right now?
Shut the hell up!
And the openness of spirit produced not only great stories, but also great people. Folks who could have never walked into a mainstream publication for their lack of experience or credentials were welcomed into the Weekly, and for that, the world has Alison Rosen, Anthony Pignataro and Gustavo Arellano, as well as a bevy of one-hit wonders who were allowed to tell their stories, their way.
I knew it was special when I was there, and I was happy when I went back a year or so ago to crash a story meeting to find that nothing had changed. Things were the same, and that was nice.
You know, it wasn't that long ago that I found out a guy I grew up with in my neighborhood had died suddenly; it was one of those moments that makes you understand how fleeting everything is and how grateful you should be for special things in your life (and how grateful you should be that guys die who know a whole bunch of crazy shit about you). I've always been grateful for this place, for these people, and the thing is, my beauties, you should be, too. It shows you that you shouldn't be afraid to be nice, and you shouldn't be afraid to expect others to be, also. Actually, just don't be afraid—it's just so stupid.
Nice works. Nice abides. Nice makes for a lovely read.
Love to all. You, too, Mr. Bongo. ?Theo sucks.