This Job Will Change Your Life
Former staff reflect on the zigs and zags of life post-Chronicle
By Jesse Sublett, Michael Ventura, Marjorie Baumgarten, Gerald E. McLeod, Shawn Badgley, Kaci Beeler, Jessi Cape, and Joe O'Connell, Fri., Sept. 3, 2021
I can't remember the first time I heard the Chronicle referred to as "the island of misfit toys" (hat tip to Rankin/Bass). It certainly gets at some of the magic and malfunctioning of the place. Whether you're a lifer or just passing through, the Chronicle has left its mark on the many writers who've filled its pages over the years. – K.J.
The Birth of Martin Fender and the Hardboiled Highway
by Jesse Sublett
Back in February 1983, Louis Black gave me a story assignment for the paper's upcoming music issue. He wanted a story, he said, about the circuits that Austin bands play when they travel out of town. Ever since two of the bands I was playing in – the Violators and the Skunks – caught fire at a little Tejano joint called Raul's and sparked the Austin punk/New Wave scene at the beginning of 1977, I had played a good many places around Texas and any state with a music venue that might be on the way to NYC, where we had pinned our hopes on the big label deal and rock stardom. The story I turned in, however, did include a few hundred words on music venues I had played in the South, Midwest, and East Coast, but it was wrapped inside a short story about a bass-playing part-time detective named Martin Fender ("Traveling the Hardboiled Highway," Music, March 23, 1984). Fender was the wisecracking private eye of Hammett and Chandler, living in the Slacker-era Austin of the Eighties, thumping out a living playing bass in blues bands.
My story was put on the cover, illustrated by a Guy Juke drawing of yours truly wearing a fedora, my size 12 shoes on a cluttered desk. Louis Black, eyes alight, hands like jittery butterflies, pulled me aside. "Jesse," he said, "I think you've got something here." If I had the urge to write detective novels, Louis said, I should definitely pursue it. Louis, a top authority on hard-boiled and noir, said he would help me. Ed Ward, a close second, also volunteered as mentor. What strange luck! Two highly influential and gifted writers who, let's be clear, had not been great fans of my music, followed through on promises to encourage, guide, and advise me on my path to becoming a published crime writer.
The first Martin Fender novel, Rock Critic Murders, was published by Viking Penguin in 1989. Two sequels, Blunt Instrument and Boiled in Concrete, followed. These days, I mostly write nonfiction. Next spring, UT Press will issue my 13th book, Last Gangster in Austin: Frank Smith, Ronnie Earl, and the End of a Junkyard Mafia. Would I ever have become an author if not for The Austin Chronicle and the ragtag gang of people who founded it? That's one mystery I don't care to ponder.
Letter From Lubbock
by Michael Ventura
"Letters at 3am" columnist, 1993-2014
For 21 years the Chronicle published "Letters at 3am," more than 400 of them, each edited, shepherded, and cared for by Marjorie Baumgarten. In all that time Marj and I never argued. She was so deft I barely noticed where she changed things, and always agreed. The paper's intrepid crews of fact-checking proofreaders saved me from many embarrassments, and the illustrations, especially Jason Stout's, gave our page class (as well as sly commentary on my writing). Louis and Nick backed me up unstintingly. For its last 11 years, I composed "Letters at 3am" in Lubbock, Texas. I often heard, "You're not from around here, are you?" And the more pointed, "What do you do, Mister?"
"I'm a writer."
A stunned look, and then, almost invariably: "That's cool!"
"It really is."
Four Decades in 400 Words or Less
by Marjorie Baumgarten
contributor, 1981; office manager, 1982-1987; Screens editor and film reviews editor, 1987-2016; contributing writer, 2017-present
The first article I wrote for The Austin Chronicle appeared in Volume 1, Issue No. 2. It was the first of many interviews, news stories, headlines, lists, photo captions, and film reviews I penned over the subsequent four decades. When asked to recall salient moments from my Chronicle writing career for this anniversary issue, many episodes come to mind – some pleasant, some painful, and most hazy.
Most fun: 1. Compiling the "X" issue of the staff's random lists in 1985 or '86 was some of the most fun I've ever had prior to a deadline. (Too bad that one resides in the scrap heap of the pre-internet era.) 2. The "Ass-Backwards April Fools' Day" cover drawn by Mike Judge and printed entirely back to front. That was a delirium come true.
Most embarrassing: There's a cover from somewhere back in the early Nineties (also the Chronicle's pre-internet years, thank goodness) that's emblazoned with a gross grammatical error in the headline that my proofreading eyes missed and which still makes me want to hide under my desk nearly 30 years later.
Most satisfying: Few are the things I've written that I don't feel I could have done better if only there were more time, or greater insight. "If only, if only." However, here are a couple I look back on fondly: "Still the Greatest" (Screens, March 28, 1997), an interview with director Leon Gast and my personal appreciation of the career of Muhammad Ali; and "What Color Is Your Parapluie?" (July 19, 1996), an appraisal of the movie The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Most frightening: After my review of Pulp Fiction ran in 1994, some jerk found my number in the phone book (and, presumably, my address also) and left a message on my home answering machine that began something like, "So you like violence, hunh? Well, I'll show you some violence." And then he went on to describe the ways he and his pal intended to get medieval on my ass.
The thing of which I'm most proud: Getting up and doing it over again, week in and week out, for something like 35 years.
By Gerald E. McLeod
production assistant, 1984-1990; contributing editor, 1990-present
My name first appeared in the staff box of The Austin Chronicle the issue after Thanksgiving 1984. I was hired as a part-time graphic designer building advertisements.
It was four months after I began a career with a state agency. At first I worked the second job at the Chronicle to help make ends meet, but I stayed because my co-workers were also my friends. I'm very proud of what the staff over the years has accomplished and hope that in some small way I have contributed to the paper's success.
Working for a newspaper is what I've wanted to do since as a fourth-grader I delivered the Lincoln Star in the early morning hours in Oxford, Neb. While other kids wanted to be firefighters, policemen, and teachers, I saw journalism as the noblest profession. I still do consider it an important part of our democracy.
Over the years for the Chronicle I wrote, photographed, designed, and pasted up "101 Swimming Holes," "Guide to Downtown Austin," "Guide to Central Texas Barbecue," and several other special issues and stories.
In July 1989, the Chronicle needed full-time, computer-literate designers to build the ads. In the reorganization Louis Black suggested that I do a local travel column called "Day Trips." Daryl Slusher, the politics editor at the time, suggested I number them.
After 1,565 columns as Captain Day Trips, I still love the weekly challenge of writing about places to visit in and around Texas. My travels have taken me to places like Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River, turtle hatchling releases at Padre Island National Seashore, and sampling the barbecue at New Zion Baptist Church in Huntsville. I hope y'all have enjoyed at least some of my wanderings as much as I have enjoyed bringing them to you.
One story that has stuck with me over the years happened in the pre-internet days when I called directory assistance for the phone number to Cave Without a Name outside of Boerne. The operator replied, "Well, it's got to have a name." Without missing a beat I said, "It's too beautiful to have a name." She found the number.
Which Direction? All of Them.
by Shawn Badgley
Books & Screens editor, 2003-2007
The Austin Chronicle changed my life. The people I encountered there – those I covered, of course, but especially those I was fortunate enough to call colleagues – fill me with affection and gratitude to this day.
Editor-in-Chief Kimberley Jones is at the top of that list. I will hold her in my heart forever.
When I finally sat down to do this after she reached out a while back, I realized I don't even know where to begin. It's a familiar feeling, actually, one that I found both liberating and scary while undertaking the process for pretty much every piece I wrote during my decade-plus working for the paper ... I can go in any direction I want here.
I spent the better part of my 20s at the Chronicle; fun, formative years brimming with books, movies, music, art, politics, volleyball, and softball in a city so dynamic that we could watch it transform into a global destination day by day.
That, taken together, is one of the greatest gifts I've ever received – it truly keeps on giving – and I thank Cindy Widner, Sarah Hepola, Clay Smith, Taylor Holland, Raoul Hernandez, Marjorie Baumgarten, Louis Black, and Nick Barbaro for their generosity. Along with Kimberley, I came to know them as among the most brilliant human beings I would ever meet.
As long as you believed in Austin and wanted to make it better, the Chronicle gave you the space to learn and improve. And they have always trusted the talents of their staff. I needed every single millimeter of that space, and I stretched the trust to its breaking point.
Luckily, there were many smarter, nicer people around to help. They led with quiet dignity, or they used loud humor – good natured and scathing – to show me the error of my ways. Even now, a generation later, I still look up to them. And I strive to live up to their personal and professional examples.
Getting Into "Pole Position"
by Kaci Beeler
December 2012 was a simpler time. I was 25 years old, LiveJournal was yet to be owned by Russia, Facebook wasn't everything and everywhere, and I had no idea I had a neurodivergent brain. When the Chronicle reached out to me to write a guest piece about pole dancing ("Pole Position," Arts, Dec. 28, 2012), I felt unsure and unqualified. Did they know I had never taken a single English class in college? Or worse, had they found my secret fanfiction account?
But truth be told, I love a challenge. And as I would learn, I love writing.
My journey into writing was a lot like taking pole dancing classes. A little sloppy, uncomfortable, somehow both underdressed and overdressed, but carried out with fake-it-til-you-make-it confidence and nervous determination. And it gets sexier the more you do it. Five months after my Chron piece came out (cover image and all) my first play, Blood, Sweat, and Cheers, written alongside my good friend and AC notable [former "The Good Eye" columnist] Amy Gentry, debuted. The script had its hits and its misses but the best part about it? It was ours. There's no easing into the kiddie pool of having a public creative life. No one talks about the hardest part – hanging onto your hapless and at times embarrassingly giddy joy. The world wants to suck that right out of you.
Nine years and countless plays, scripts, screenplays, and original works later, I see what the Chronicle saw in me. Someone who is game to not only try new things but who finds deep joy in bringing other people along for the ride. My favorite writing pursuit? Writing dialogue. My favorite sneaky writing thing to do? Make a scene that's deeply funny and deeply vulnerable at the same time. Give me all the lovable weirdos. Delicious escapism is what's for dinner.
This month I'm brushing up a few original TV pilots for pitches and submissions. One of them has enough legs to last several seasons, I think. Have I done anything quite like this before? Not yet. It's an ambitious leap – not unlike jumping half-naked onto an unforgiving metal pole.
How Far We've Come
by Jessi Cape
contributor, 2010-2017; Food editor, 2017-2021
It's a strange twist of fate, the timing of this issue, and one that amps up the sap factor for this longtime staffer. Well, former staffer now, as of only one week ago. Although I'll still be contributing, it's those pop magic memories made in the old Elgin Butler Brick building that branded my heart. From my early vantage point at the info desk, I got a front-row seat to the best, worst, and weirdest that Austin has to offer as I started writing for the paper. But one fitting for this anniversary exercise is my first restaurant review as Food editor. I'd reviewed restaurants before, having learned under the indelible former Food Editors Virginia Wood and Brandon Watson, but I wanted to make my own mark, and get it just right. I hemmed and hawed, and if I'm honest, shed more than a few frustration tears as I scurried back and forth from Editor-in-Chief Kimberley Jones' office. I'd finally pushed the deadline as far as I could, and she told me to just file the damn thing. As luck, or maybe skill, would have it, the review was well-received, save for a few comments posted by internet-dwelling creatures that in the years to come would follow me, chitter-chattering cruelties before scampering back into their hidey-holes. Even better, my review was correct – Eldorado Cafe is a citywide forever favorite – and it set the pace for the rest of my tenure. I learned to just ignore the noise and write, to anchor myself in truth, and to trust my skills and knowledge. And while we're speeding down Reporting Highway, it's worth noting that many of the articles that prepared me to stand on my own were conversations with women that blew my mind: Gloria Steinem, Judy Blume, Cheryl Strayed, Jody Williams, Lidia Bastianich, Helen Prejean, to name a few heavy hitters. But it was also the stories of lesser-known women, the star power on the ground working their asses off every single day, often with little recognition, that reminded me of how far we've come, how far I've come. So, as I jump into the new unknown, I'm thankful for the chance to grow up and find my voice within the fortress of this beloved institution.
by Joe O'Connell
Screens columnist, contributor, 2005-present
My life's current trajectory began with two Austin Chronicle stories.
David Gordon Green shot his film Joe in Austin. The third lead was a local homeless man named Gary Poulter who drunkenly passed out and drowned along the Lady Bird Lake shoreline before the movie was released. Why was Poulter homeless? What brought him to this point? I set out to find the answer. I wanted the human story. I kept digging, but wasn't satisfied. My editor Monica Riese was patient. I got patient with the story, too, and kept going until I burrowed to the truth. ("His Name Was Gary Poulter," Screens, April 11, 2014)
Based on that story, Chronicle Editor[-in-Chief] Kimberley Jones suggested I write about Andrew Shapter, a famed Austin photographer-turned-filmmaker. Our wives were high school classmates, and I'd met Andrew once over lunch. Andrew had three obsessions: his baby boy Ford, his labor-of-love movie The Teller and the Truth, and beating the cancer inside him.
Soon I was following the charismatic Andrew to chemo and radiation ("Pause/Play," Music, Oct. 10, 2014). Jones said take my own photos – intimidating with a pro like Andrew. I stayed in his guest house and photographed him walking the dogs at sunrise through Travis Heights. We talked. A lot. He made it through treatment, and we met up later to celebrate. I took his portrait in the doorway of his home (with a little direction from Andrew). I was sure this picture would be on the Chronicle cover. Instead they chose one of Ford, in Andrew's arms, chewing on the pen I'd used to take notes. It was a Pilot Razor Point, the pen my late architect father often doodled with on restaurant napkins. The photo was a perfect choice. Andrew won. He beat cancer. A happy ending! But cancer is an evil, unforgiving, relentless monster. At Andrew's memorial, I gave Christina that pen for Ford. Last I saw, it was on a shrine in their home.
I'm working patiently on a book of narrative nonfiction now. I learned from Shapter and Poulter to never stop clawing toward human truth until it reveals itself.