Farewell to the 'Phoenix': Working at Boston’s Defunct Alt-Weekly
Mar 31 2013
Photo by BartEvert via Flickr
The newsroom at 126 Brookline Avenue was painted red. It had bare concrete pillars and an unfinished ceiling, where bundles of wires crawled above the fluorescent lights or spilled down like guts. Desks and file cabinets blistered with old cartoons and band stickers and photos and letters taped up by staffers long past—like the picture of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino posing with a Village People tribute act, or the water-stained document giving advice on "how to approach a tweaker." The place looked raw and messy and alive, a mangy animal.
It was beautiful.
The first time I walked into that room, as an intern in 1998, the Phoenix was running full tilt. All the desks were occupied; I had to find a place to sit squeezed in next to the scanner. The reporters around me took up enough space for all of us. The newsroom was full of giants then, two future Pulitzer winners, writers who would go on to Time and the Wall Street Journal, and I was terrified of all of them. They were loud even when they were quiet. They filled up the room with noise, swearing into their phones, opining, arguing, laughing.
I was barely 20, and walking wounded. My stepfather had died the year before, and my fragile, cobbled-together step-family was just beginning its long, painful disintegration. I felt half like a ghost myself, moving through the world without quite inhabiting it.
That was the summer that the Phoenix was cheerfully engaged in dismantling the career of Mike Barnicle, a Boston Globe columnist who'd been unmasked as a fabulist and a hack. I wound up spending afternoons cross-legged on the floor with bound copies of the Globe, sorting through Barnicle's old columns to find instances where he'd plagiarized himself.
That was also the summer I saw Wim Wenders's great art-house movie, Wings of Desire, for the first time. There's a scene where the angels talk about what it must be like to be human, to occupy the world of the living.
"To have a fever," one of them wonders, "to have blackened fingers from the newspaper..."
The next day, I was working in the Phoenix newsroom, sorting through Globe back issues. I looked down at my hands, saw them smeared with the cheap ink.
The easiest way to make something a legend is to kill it. When the Phoenix shut down two weeks ago, after 48 years as an institution in the Boston political and artistic landscape, the internet surged with remembrances from the writers who had passed through its doors—from Charlie Pierce to Susan Orlean. They all got it right, but they were all also, somehow, wrong.
It was hard for me to read those columns. The Phoenix wasn't an ideal for me, or a memory, and I don't want to make it into a legend. I don't want to write about it as part of a mythical, heroic journalistic past. It was my daily life. It was my job.
When I returned to the Phoenix in 2010, as a staff editor, the staff had shrunk to almost a skeleton crew. Long stretches of desk were bare. But the room didn't seem any quieter, or any emptier.
The pay was insultingly low. In a weird way, that made it better: we all knew we were there by choice. We had all taken a bargain: slave wages and ridiculous hours, in return for a publication that belonged to no one but us.
So it's 11 PM on a Tuesday, and we're all still here, wrestling the Phoenix to bed. We've been huddled for more than two hours, agonizing over a headline on a profile of Amanda Palmer. It comes very close to being "PALMER? WE HARDLY KNOW HER." The rule of thumb is usually that if something can crack us all up, it goes in the paper—but we still have taste.
Another day, though, I make an offhand joke, and Shaula Clark, our managing editor, looks up with glowing werewolf eyes and says, "Yes, that's great, let's do that." This is what leads to the issue we will forever afterward refer to as the Gay Tea Party Witch Sex Issue. ("How did this happen?" Carly Carioli, the editor-in-chief, wonders aloud as we lay out the pages. He'd started at the Phoenix as a long-haired metal kid and had cut the hair but never lost the metal. He had never worked anywhere else, or wanted to work anywhere else. I've never met anyone more ready to be delighted with the world.)
There was no reason to publish something if we don't like it. There was no reason to turn out lousy work because the work was all we had. The pay was so low that the job itself had to be the reward.
All this winter, whenever it rained or snowed, the roof would leak. We put out buckets and garbage cans, and sometimes we put a rag in the bottom so that the tapping of the water as it hits the bottom would be muffled.
Not that we could hear it most days because most of the time, we couldn't hear anything over the sound of construction. Our landlords had herded us out of the old newsroom the year before—for a while, we thought we would move out entirely, but nothing came of it—and now they were completely remodeling the other side of the building. All that separated us from the work was a sheet of plastic.
There was one drill in particular that made a sound like a rusty trumpet. After a while I googled up a virtual keyboard so I could check, and sure enough, it was playing a perfect fifth, starting on middle C. That made it a little easier to listen to.
But not much.
Of course we know what was coming. If you work in journalism, there's always a doom dogging your heels. I've watched papers diminish, become lurching zombie versions of themselves, barely more than advertising circulars. We knew it was inevitable, we just didn't expect it to happen like this.
The email came on Wednesday night. There would be a meeting the next day at 2 PM; our publisher, Stephen Mindich, was to make announcement at the meeting that would impact every employee.
We spent the morning working on the March 22 issue, editing stories, laying them out on the page. Proofing them. The newsroom was very quiet.
Then it was 2 PM and everything stopped. All the advertising and sales staff came into our half of the building. And then Mindich stood up and read a letter that began, "I can state with certainty that this is the single most difficult communication I've ever had to deliver and there's no other way to state it than straightforwardly..."
I didn't know what to do with my body. I didn't know what expression should be on my face. "As of now the Boston Phoenix has ceased publishing."
Some of us were crying. When Stephen finished, some dill weed started to clap, and we suffered a stunted, dutiful barrage of applause. I didn't clap. I don't think anyone on the editorial staff clapped. I felt like someone just demolished my house while I was still in it.
That was Thursday. The building was shut on Friday. On Monday, they let us come back to pack up our things.
So we loaded up our boxes and trucked them down to the street, and then we listened to a talk about unemployment—apparently there were placement agencies that can find us jobs in magazine publishing, but they may have been confusing it with factory work—and then I went home and slept for a while, and then I got up and went back to meet my former newsroom at an Irish bar.
There were beers and whiskey, and the writers I edited told me nice things about how much they learned about writing from me, and I told them nice things about how fucking talented they were, and we hugged a lot. This was the one nice thing about the Phoenix getting killed: I could finally break decorum and hug these crazy, talented people I loved.
But pretty quickly it was getting late, the Irish bar was turning into a Goth bar, and there was nothing else to say. Carly and I were the last to leave. It had started to snow, a late-March dusting, and we walked back to his car on the slushy sidewalks.
"This was my family," he said.
"Don't tell your kids that."
"Oh, they already know."
It hadn't take us long to pack up that afternoon, since we'd only been inhabiting that space for a little over a year. The real dismantling had come when we'd moved out of the old newsroom in 2011.
When we took the old newsroom apart, it was the first time anyone had cleaned the place out in about three decades. Our excavations keep turning up artifacts: a floppy disk labeled "DINOSAURS!!!"; a folder full of battle-of-the-band applications from the 1980s; a 1988 Macintosh computer manual that explained, in great detail, how to use a mouse; unlabeled tapes full of interviews from reporters long gone; the Mark Jurkowitz memorial stapler; a giant framed AIDS poster showing a naked man whose penis was a gun; black-and-white photographs of bands no one remembered and politicians no one could forget.
I kept the stapler, and the "DINOSAURS!!!" disk.
Finally I opened a drawer in an abandoned desk. Underneath a sheaf of old arts sections, I found two books. At first I didn't recognize them, and then, suddenly, I knew what they were.
They were the books I had been reading in 1998, when I was a summer intern. This was the desk where I sat, next to the scanner.
They were still here, had been here, all these years, waiting—right where I left them.
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