Chapter 5: An Ongoing Odyssey
Austin: Look around you.
Chronicle History: We have been in the same building, with SXSW World Headquarters across the field, since August 1991. The paper seems to do well, though this issue may forever change that. Every week there is another issue.
Cindy WidnerSo now you know the Chronicle started out as a twisted family, born of the loins of a variety of creative and nutso now-fiftysomethings who, as I'm sure the attentive reader has discerned by now, are very attached to their vision of the Chronicle as something wild and free and bordering on adamantly and permanently "unprofessional." But here's the thing: Twenty years passed. The Chronicle grew large and successful, and also lots and lots of people were born. Now some of those people come to the Chronicle looking for simply a job, a job writing or editing or designing or selling -- or whatever -- doing what they love or think they might love, completely ignorant of the deeply self-referential twistedness of this place, expecting at least the trappings of a "normal" workplace and having nowhere near the affection for brokedown furniture and non sequitur Office Space-y stopgap measures of coping (not to mention the much-celebrated brand of jock thuggery) manifested by the old-timers. In no way are they prepared for the time capsule they encounter, and in no way do the longtime inhabitants of that capsule get where these "outsiders" are coming from.
Still, we know that -- if only because cryogenics haven't yet been perfected -- we must, grudgingly, roll with the new, and the most determined of the sprouts stick around to kick a hole in the wall of nostalgia and chart their own sentimental journey.
Kimberley JonesA cubicle. I figured I'd get a cubicle: three walls and a few personal effects, like a framed photo of my cat. But then, this is the Chronicle, and I was quickly informed that the paper was overstaffed, space was limited, the politics were weird, are you sure you want this job. I got part-time positioning at another proofreader's desk, but I sensed he wasn't pleased, so I spent most my time on the porch, or in the lounge, or any other space I might squirrel away for myself.
Then it came: my desk. First, I had to move the mountain of books and files and assorted crap from the two editors who occupied the office; they had a hairpin of a hovel in the corner of their room that I was supposed to situate myself in. I cleared away the mess and the grime, even dusted a bit
Then I had to build the desk -- My desk is here, hot diggity damn quickly translated to Your desk is in pieces and you get to assemble it yourself in your free time, here's a Phillips head. And I did. I assembled the damn thing on all fours, with the aid of a Phillips head and that surly proofer named Shawn who was tired of sharing his desk with me. It ended up being kind of fun, 'cause it was a Friday afternoon and it beat looking for misplaced commas. We had a diagram that confused us terribly and Shawn poked a hole in the cheap imitation wood, which you can still see today if you slide under the desk, assuming you can maneuver around the stacks of old issues and publicity swag and discarded iodized salt packets that have accumulated in a year gone by. We built the damn thing, and after work I drove Shawn to the mechanic to pick up his limping '79 Volvo, and then we went out to dinner and later we moved in together, and it turns out he wasn't surly after all.
Michael KingI've lived in Austin long enough to know that the Chronicle can be a very unpredictable read, and over the years I've heard enough stories (some of them published this week) to know that it might also be a fairly surreal place to work. But last fall I was out of a job and soon to be out of money, Louis and Nick were interested, and what's more they said they liked my stuff -- so like any writer desperate for praise, I asked, "How much?"
Actually, the salary negotiation went fairly smoothly. It was when I asked, "So where's my desk and phone?" that I realized I had entered The Chronicle Zone. There was a long silence, and then Nick (Zen Master of the Long Silence) responded, "Well, that could be a problem." It seems there was this question of exhausted potential phone lines, and they weren't certain they had a desk for me, but there was probably a computer available, and then temporarily maybe I could just use a cell phone. ...
It all worked out, and soon I was installed in a bathroom-size office with two other bedraggled office mates, stacks of ancient documents, a love seat propped on bricks (the better for interruptions), and a peerless view of the Dust Bowl Memorial Parking Lot and the afternoon volleyball game. For a time, this office held the long-legendary Desk-Kicked-in-by-Louis when he was pissed at its occupant, Daryl Slusher (who undoubtedly deserved the Black Wrath) -- we finally switched it out over the Christmas holiday. Across the hall is the combination Meeting Dungeon and Boiler Room, where attending staff can either see or hear what's going on, but never both simultaneously.
This is a Homemade Place: part devil's workshop, part Salvation Army leftovers, part drunken elves' dominion, part oven for crackbrained genius, part last rebel holdout, part tin-pan redoubt against tyranny and dullness, part (freezing or boiling) slacker sweatshop. Either it grows on you (like something in the sink), or you grow on it.
I'm unnervingly happy to be an inmate.
Shawn BadgleyI have one Chronicle T-shirt. Some of you out there might have like five or six Chronicle T-shirts; I really don't know. I have one. I moved desks to get that T-shirt -- big, hulking things that spit out ear-waxed paperclips and ruptured condiment packets when Michael Chamy and I maneuvered them though this cluttered maze of partitions and file cabinets. The place is cramped. Somebody probably already told you that.
Margaret MoserI bet there's not a piece of furniture or a room in the office that someone hasn't had sex in. I'll admit to the old lounge and the parking lot. Okay, the bathroom during a Christmas party, but it was only a blow job.
Kate X MesserIt's strange being such a weirdo in a place as screwed up as The Austin Chronicle. (And I mean "screwed up" in the nicest sense.) But I reside in a generation nestled, nay wedged, between the tight regulatory cheeks of the previous band of latent hippie drug-abusing fornicators and today's wanton and randy indie rocker kid serial monogamists. I'm not old enough to have done enough drugs (drugs = passé by the time I got here) or to have fond wacky memories of who fucked whom on this couch or that golf cart. Nor am I young enough to participate in the current musical chairs of doe-eyed romance that seems to drive our younger pups into frenzied copulating coupledom (heterosexuality = passé by the time I got here). I so boring.
Michael Chamy"Are you the only one who's ever even heard of this band?" demanded ever-wary Music Editor Raoul Hernandez as he surveyed the Chronicle kitchen in a futile search for a last bite of "community" food.
The sour look on his face screamed "C'mon, write about a band people care about for once." It wouldn't be the first time, or the last, he'd give me that look.
Raoul was probably as tired of reading my references to the Abrasion Ensembles and Golden Crickets of the world as he is of our Wednesday lunchmeat buffet, but he eventually saw the light (i.e., the gushing reviews in Rolling Stone and Melody Maker) and let me publish an overwrought ode to an Icelandic beauty.
It was just another episode in a perpetual tug-of-war between past and present, in which stalwarts of the old-guard country and blues sound grapple with harbingers of the new. It's Willie Nelson vs. Sigur Rós far more than it is Raoul Hernandez vs. Michael Chamy. Sometimes I feel like a bullheaded bastard, but everybody has to pick a side, you see.
Bryan KightThings I have gotten for FREE while working at the Chronicle (July 1999-present). Presented in no particular order:
Approx. 95 Wednesday lunches; House on Haunted Hill T-shirt; The Bone Collector T-shirt; The Skulls T-shirt; Quark X-Press 4.0; Entrapment laser pointer; Light It Up T-shirt; Bowfinger T-shirt (gifted to sister); 2 issues Mac Addict; 10 Sharpie markers; Unbreakable T-shirt (pass on to brother-in-law); Me, Myself and Irene T-shirt; Adobe Illustrator 9.0; Titan A.E. T-shirt; Screwed baseball cap; 2 yellow legal tablets; Fight Club T-shirt; The Ex-Presidents comic book; Iron Giant keychain; Inventing the Abbots combs (2); 1 white legal tablet; Being John Malkovich folders (2), mask, and stickers (4); James Bond Golden Eye playing cards; Final Fantasy sports bottle with bendy straw (2); 28 Days bottles filled with various top-shelf candy; CD holder thing (secret Santa); brand-name candy (3); various Statesman T-shirts (3); 1 issue of Step by Step magazine; Love Stinks T-shirt (bequeathed to friend Joyce); 20 Dates matchbooks (3); 47 No. 11 window envelopes (sans paychecks); Ghost World script; Your Friends and Neighbors notepad; Nutty Professor II: The Klumps baseball cap; Fight Club soap; Mod Squad shot glass; Final Fantasy T-shirts (8); Up on the Villa champagne glasses; X-Men keychain; X-acto knife; approx. 25 X-acto blades; movie sneaks: Being John Malkovich, Mumford, The Muse (left before over); Man in the Moon button; Road Trip specimen collection kit; concerts attended via the guest lists: John Spencer Blues Explosion, the Roots, Pavement (twice), George Jones, Merle Haggard, Blackalicious, Giant Sand, Elliott Smith; SXSW Music Badge 2000 and 2001 (no events attended), Wristband 2000, various and sundry swag from swag bags (2000 & 2001); plain white Chronicle T-shirts with logo (3); 2 rolls of bathroom tissue; Antz joke stickers; Ghost World T-shirt; Chronicle Hot Sauce T-shirt 1999 (gave to sister); Adobe Photoshop 5.5; Chronicle Hot Sauce 2000 T-shirt; dog (Boutros-Boutros Collie); life partner (Kim).
Shawn BadgleyThings I've been accused of at The Austin Chronicle:
1. Padding my hours
2. Breaking the coffee machine
3. Not washing my dishes
4. Breaking the water cooler
5. Rigging an NCAA Tournament pool
6. Being a moody, self-absorbed, passive-aggressive, defensive, paranoiac, smart-assed prick
7. Distributing child pornography
8. As a proofreader, being "lower than the interns," according to Louis Black
9. Drinking too much water
My response to those accusations:
1. Insultingly wrong. I just love being here.
2. It wasn't me, and it wasn't broken anyway.
3. I don't use any Chronicle dishes. They have germs.
4. This happened when I first started here two years ago, so it was really scary. It wasn't me.
5. I won. I'm sorry people like (Advertising Manager) Carol Flagg can't accept that.
6. Like I said, I love being here. I feel like I really fit in.
7. You shouldn't joke about shit like that, I know.
8. Well, Louis Black is a werewolf, and werewolves are notoriously exaggerative.
9. Get it while the gettin's good, take care of your urethra, and avoid any and all bodily stones. Especially in this heat.
Michael KingAnd as an ever-recovering workaholic, I've learned (slowly, grudgingly but eventually gratefully) that the Chronicle is not the place to be if you're obsessed with running "a tight ship." A high ship, maybe -- indeed, sometimes reminiscent of those colorful giant balloons that rise over Barton Springs in the early morning. Around here, things happen when they happen, get done when they get done, and every Thursday morning I'm both pleased and astonished to find the piles of issues stacked in the hallway.
Bobby CheathamI sat down for my interview and immediately started looking for things around the office that I could chat about -- to make small talk. When I discovered my future boss had a calendar from the Gas Pipe, I was filled with the sense of relief, the same way you might feel when a policeman lets you off of a traffic ticket, even though you were speeding.
Samantha McClellanSo many people walk through the door every day -- it's hard to name a favorite because they are all my favorite! The worst are the ones who forget to take showers and the most unusual are those who use the Chronicle as one of their stops while tripping on some hallucinogen.
Anne HarrisComing out of the tarty business of advertising, where pimped-out offices deliver bad creative, I could finally see the light! This was the edgiest new workplace aesthetic: a Loud family garage sale meets the Spahn Ranch. Sign me up. The first person I saw was Nick, thoughtfully engaged in a big, sticky jar of peanut butter, digging for an answer in the goo ... next a scurrilous but oddly compelling production camp fronting a Doug St. Ament-produced soundtrack ... I passed a guy with a wicked grin lurking in the kitchen (oh, that's Louis, I know him) ... then my heart stopped. There before me was my sartorial ideal, my soon-to-be-muse, Ken Lieck. In cutoffs so worn they look like Venetian blinds, not obscuring peach boxer shorts, Ken's je ne sais quoi is always pulled together. WWKD? My next stop was the edgier still employee lounge, where my hourlong interview with an inestimable Kate Messer became a blabfest that continues. What have I learned since I've been here? These people are onto something: The key to inspired creative is volleyball.
S. Emerson MoffatLooking back 20 years will make your head spin.
Some of us are old enough to be the parents of our new hires. Single departments are bigger now than the whole paper was in '81. Everyone doesn't fit around two tables at the Hole in the Wall anymore. Hell, we might not even fit in the club.
Babies keep coming, so do gray hairs. There's a mix of generations in the building, and it seems to work. Chron parties now include solid food and cab rides, but the fun quotient is still high, as is half the production crew.
Volleyball remains the sport of choice. Computers have changed damn near everything.
But Wednesday nights are still Wednesday nights. Nick's picking letters to the editor, copy's coming through late, an ad just dropped out, where's page 23? Production's clicking, Taylor at his screen, Karen everywhere, Tim doing whatever it is Tim does. Someone shows up with a 12-pack. Louis calls in. Ken Lieck wanders through talking about rats again. Hey, are there any more of those cookies left?
Somehow the flats get done.
Somehow the paper goes out.
Somehow we made it 20 years.
Somehow we're still a family.