I vaguely remember getting a package in the mail from my friend Lesley when I was living in San Francisco in the late 1980s. She had sent me a copy of a new newspaper, an alternative weekly she called it, from back home in Portland. “I thought you might be interested in this,” read the note. “Oh yawn,” I must’ve said, shifting the shoulder pads of my Willie Wear jacket and taking a sip of my overly oaked, overly priced glass of Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay. “Who cares?”
You see, I’d finally done it. After much squawking, I’d finally made the break from my home state and my longtime residence of Portland out into the great big world. Sure, I had done plenty of running — backpacking in the Rockies in high school, a semester in London and treks around Europe in college, a solo cross-country trip between my last six credits and graduation — but this was a move. I had my stuff with me — at least all I could cram into the back of my bright-red, two-seater Honda CRX (basically a box of books and a change of undies). I was fleeing our chilly corner of the country, with its Nor’easters and Sou’westers and parking bans and ayuhs and potholes and iceberg lettuce and hicks in Dickies and two-bit, small-town thinking. I couldn’t get far away fast enough.
Imagine my surprise, then, three years later, when I found myself back in Portland, composing a letter to one Monte Paulsen, editor of said alternative newspaper, Casco Bay Weekly, regarding a want ad he’d published. I informed him I was the person he sought to fill the position of arts editor. I wrote (among other things): “I want to take root in a community where I can impact change and see results. The passivity and self-interest of the eighties are no longer acceptable; the time has come to act.”
[Just a note here: Hey, kids! Make sure you hang onto all your old journals and correspondence. They’ll provide endless hours of entertainment for your future self.]
I continued: “We are embarking on frightening and precarious times in the arts. Without community education and involvement, we could face a future of Norman Rockwell [who knew he’d come back into vogue?] and Reader’s Digest. It is a newspaper’s responsibility to be political, to challenge and instruct. From what I have seen of Casco Bay Weekly, I feel it has that courage others may lack. I would like to be involved with such a newspaper.” I neglected to mention the San Francisco yawn.
And here comes, as they say in sales, the closer: “I am feisty, witty, street savvy and book smart, interested and brave. Most important, I am hungry [actually, I was hungry; after looking fruitlessly for work in Boston for a year, I was in desperate need of a job] for the kind of challenge the position of Arts Editor presents.” And then the kicker: “As I have newly returned to the area and am not yet fully planted on terra firma, I might be difficult to reach. I therefore will telephone you at week’s end to see if we might meet.” Bold? Yes. But drastic times call for drastic measures. Even my signature looked like it was penned by a nutjob.
You will probably not be shocked to learn I didn’t get the position. Instead, I started waiting tables and embarked upon an upromising-looking freelance career (writing resident profiles for a senior-care facility’s newsletter, brochure copy for my landlord). Gradually, though, work started to pick up. I did a few magazine features and was hired to write theater reviews for the Maine Times, which caught the attention of Paulsen’s successor, Wayne Curtis. He and I met for coffee, which I managed to dribble all over myself throughout the meeting. He wanted to know if I’d be interested in writing for the paper. “Sure,” I said, as I continued to slop and mop. (What is this, a dribble cup?) Just as we were wrapping up, he ambushed me. “Say, you wouldn’t have any interest in being our arts editor, would you?”
I’d just started teaching public speaking at USM. My first feature for Down East magazine would be published in a couple months. I was getting commercial work, which helped pay the bills. Things felt like they were finally going my way. Did he think I was going to screw it all up and throw it away for a real job?
The next thing I knew, I was parked at a desk in CBW’s offices on Congress Street, above what is now Nosh. I didn’t know where to put my stuff. The desk was crammed with the files and personal effects of the woman who’d been arts editor before my predecessor. What had happened to her? Had she run screaming from the job? Why hadn’t her successor (the one who had beat me out in 1990) moved her stuff? What was it with this place? What did it do to people?
After being given a “welcome to CBW” tour — visiting all the happy ad reps pounding the phones in the front of the office (“Hi, sales team!”) and all the happy designers busy in the back room (“Hi, production team!”) — I settled into my corner of the newsroom. Besides retail and restaurants, I’d never had a job before. Without sidework and stocking to keep me busy, I didn’t know what to do with myself. As I recall, my first day was deadline day. My “assistant,” Shelly (she seemed more in charge than I), was pounding away at her computer, entering listings. All I could see of news editor Bob Young was the crown of his head, poking above the fort of piled newspapers on his desk. Wayne’s desk was at the opposite end of the room from mine, adjacent to Bob’s, facing the wall. I stared at the back of Wayne’s head, waiting for him to tell me what to do. I assumed he’d forgotten he’d hired me.
At some point I guess Wayne noticed me “accidentally” knocking pencils out of the tray in the middle drawer of my desk, to make room for mine. That’s when he told me to go out and introduce myself around town, hit some galleries. I found myself on the street, on the verge of tears. What kind of punishment was this? They make me take a job and then kick me out on the street? I didn’t want to go introduce myself around town like an Avon lady. Weren’t these arts people supposed to come to me? If this was what the real world was all about, I wanted no part of it.
I found a gallery on Deering Street run by a genial elderly man who seemed as eager for company as I was for refuge. Did I spend the entire afternoon hiding there? Can’t say. But that might have been the last time I drew a breath under the employ of CBW for the next year and a half.
What followed was a blur of deadlines and freelancers and cover stories, editorial meetings and photo shoots and evenings out — every evening out, it seemed. Not long after I was hired, the offices of Maine Times and CBW were consolidated. The two papers were moved into a former bank-turned-Japanese steak house a few doors to the west (now the home of Salt Institute). The Maine Times newsroom was always dimly lit and dead quiet. We CBWers would creep past their door and snigger at their funereal factory of wonky prose with malicious glee. We were feisty and witty. We challenged politicians, instructed the populace about how to be better citizens, and generally afflicted anyone in the community who seemed too comfortable. We also had frequent Necco Wafer fights (they really hurt when they hit), and I liked to serenade then-freelancer Al Diamon (of whom I was initially terrified) with a wobbly rendition of “Close To You” when he dropped by the office. If this is what a real job is, I decided, I’m in.
I was once told to produce a cover story summing up the state of the arts in Portland, with multiple voices chiming in. I shifted in my Doc Martens and motorcycle jacket, took a sip of my Gritty’s Best Bitter and sighed. It sounded like a lot of work, but I poured everything I had into it. The title I chose: “Who Cares?”
Those 18 months were, indeed, heady, but by April 1995, I was back neck-deep in my freewheeling, freelancing ways. That fall I started writing a little column called “Outta My Way.” It ran every other week until the paper’s editorial demise six years later.
CBWendured for 14 good years, and I was there for the bulk of them. And even though that letter I wrote to Monte Paulsen all those years ago was enough to make even Norman Rockwell roll his eyes, in the end it actually represented what made those years so much fun. We cared.
Elizabeth Peavey brings her award-winning one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, back to St. Lawrence Arts on June 19 & 20. FMI: stlawrencearts.org.