August 21, 2001
To: Margaret Moser
From: Joe Dishner
Re: On Why I Can't Write Anything for The Austin Chronicle 20th Anniversary Issue
It was great hearing your voice this morning. Sorry I didn't respond to your earlier message about the 20th anniversary issue. I was on vacation in NYC with the family all last week. This is probably the last official family vacation as George, my oldest, starts UT-Austin next week. Marge has already promised to take him out to dinner and provide bail money if the need ever arises. I'm sure he can use a hot meal and in the wholesome environment of the Chronicle, I'm sure bail money will never be necessary.
In regard to me writing something for this issue: As I explained, I am not a journalist, nor do I feel I have anything that anyone would be remotely interested in reading. But, your point is well taken that these circumstances never stopped others from contributing to the Chronicle.
For me to find "the collective voice," as you put it, from those early beginnings is hard. It all kind of blurs together. Do I start with the story about meeting a banker at a nice restaurant to discuss a loan and Nick eating a pickle off some one else's unfinished plate of food during the meeting? Do I recount how I drove to Micael Priest's house at the crack of dawn and dragged him out of bed to finish the cover art that was due hours ago? Do I tell the story of how Chuck Dunaway at KLBJ called me up at 6am the morning we published our first issue and threatened to kill me because it was so unbelievably bad? Do I tell how I got in trouble at the Austin Police Station for impersonating a lawyer when I was trying to get a staffer out of jail? Do I recall my never-ending fascination of how you always had first-row tickets to every important rock show and how you always explained to me that "The Texas Blondes were a quasi-Christian glee-club greeting service for lonely rock stars" and that's what I should tell the authorities if ever asked? Or, do I give a blow-by-blow description of those early weekly editorial meetings that tried to answer the questions: What do we do now that we created this monster?
It turned out that getting a staffer out of jail or dragging someone out of bed to meet a deadline was just another thing that happened in the course of your day like opening the mail or getting my Ford Pinto gassed up. Even the lack of money, or I should say the absence of any money, was not so bad once you got used to living on the edge for the all-or-nothing proposition of just surviving. At least twice, I remember openly discussing the fact that we were going bankrupt at a staff meeting and we may not have enough cash to finish the month. Both times the matter was unresolved and with no money in the bank and creditors at our door we went on because we didn't know any better. That was the easy stuff.
The hard part, as it turned out, was figuring what we were and then getting it right. My ears still hurt from all those passionate arguments at our first office that continued long into the night at Eddie and Louis' house about what "right" actually meant. I still have visions of Ed Lowry telling all of us that the current issue was not good enough and we could do a lot better.
Margaret, I have a four-minute Super-8 film shot at the CinemaTexas office of "The Founding of The Austin Chronicle" from 20 years ago that you must see. To put it in historical perspective, Nick and I had been walking around town for three months drumming up support for this new venture. We had a business plan and were talking to our lawyer, Chris Hale, about drawing up articles of incorporation. At that point, we would talk to anybody who would listen. If they had something to do with a newspaper, a defunct newspaper, had written for a newspaper, thought about writing for a newspaper, or found a newspaper on a park bench, Nick would arrange a meeting with them.
After "taking a meeting" with Ed Ward where he told us we were idiots and should find another line of work, we stopped by the CinemaTexas office to see Eddie Lowry and Louis. Out of a sense of destiny or more likely out of complete boredom, we decided to document this historic moment. Nick and I jumped over the balcony onto the adjacent roof while Eddie played cinematographer and Louis mumbled directions out of camera range. The camera pans to an Austin skyline of 20 years ago and settles on Nick and me sitting on the gravel roof with our hand-me-down briefcases taking a meeting on this thing we are going to get right. So there we were, four dumb guys with the fate of what would come to be The Austin Chronicle in our hands.
After 20 years have passed, it turns out, those four dumb guys and all the other staffers, writers, photographers, advertisers, and friends from those early years were not so dumb after all. That is not to say that all those involved did not make a lot of dumb decisions. But it is a simple fact that we made enough correct decisions and had just enough sense to learn from our mistakes to stretch the first year into the second year and beyond.
I will always have a special bond with Louis and Nick for knowing what it was like those first couple years. They are both very dear to me. My biggest regret is that Eddie Lowry is not here to write something worthwhile for this issue. My other regret is that we did not have air conditioning or heat in our first office. But that's another story, Margaret; I'm not sure I will make your deadline. But then again, if I don't make it, I'm not sure recounting old war stories makes much difference. Those who were there at the beginning remember what happened, and, luckily, those who missed it still get to read the next Chronicle.
Tell Marge I'll see her when I drop off George, and give my best to "The Texas Blondes."
Happy 20th! Boy, it seems like yesterday that I wrote about Elda's, a mysterious and fabulous Mexican place that closed just before the Chronicle started because nobody but a handful of us knew about it. That was my first column.
Maria and I are celebrating our eighth year here in Italy, and, with a lot of help, we've gotten the place running nicely. Thanks to some folks I knew in Austin, I managed to invest in the dot-com thing and get out with a very healthy profit, so we've been able to live well, and we've even been able to make a small difference in the food world.
As some of you may remember, I worked for a bioregional foundation in the States, and this issue came up in Europe some years back. Coincidentally, Maria had been spending some time in France, looking for the place where the Thibodeaux family came from, and she was the one who made me aware of the AOC movement: Appelation d'origine controllee. Wine, of course, had long had this sort of protection, but there were regions which declared that their fruits, cheeses, pastries, pates, etc. should also have this protection: Why, you could sell a bleu cheese as "Roquefort" without its having been within hundreds of miles of the town of Roquefort! So we got involved with that, and now any region or town in Europe can apply to the EU for an AOC label for a product. We met a lot of fascinating people along the way on that one, including that scourge of McDonald's, Jose Bove. We had him over to our place last summer, in fact. As a giggle, I made cheeseburgers. Fortunately, he's got a sense of humor.
I've been back to Austin several times since I left, and I have to say that the food scene there keeps getting better and better. It could still use a good Italian restaurant, though.