The RFT's Locust Street office, where I started in 1993, was an open newsroom, rubber bands and spitballs zinging over the partitions as we cranked out 9,000-word articles that weren't called longform yet. We tackled anything — politics, social issues, sex, death, exposés of institutions that promptly pulled their ads. There was an Iron Curtain between us and the sales staff; not once in a decade did I worry about offending an advertiser or distressing the sensibilities of someone in power. But, God, we were a motley crew.
Eddie Silva was a poet with a caustic wit; Geri Dreiling, a former lawyer who cheerfully labeled herself a nerd. I was a philosophy major, fresh out of grad school and too shy to teach. DJ Wilson was a laconic Irish city-politics addict who could level any delusion of grandeur with a funny story. Experience had lowered his expectations but left a hidden well of empathy unscathed; what came off as cynicism was really just disappointed idealism. Our editor, on the other hand, was an idealist who'd read about U.S. democracy as a kid in India, and he, miraculously, was not yet cynical. The only one of us with a formal journalism degree, Safir Ahmed read Noam Chomsky for fun. At midnight on press day, he'd be stroking his goatee, calmly searching for a better adjective or cleverer headline while the rest of us yawned and paced.
The other staffers and freelancers were just as idiosyncratic. Everybody was smart, fiercely independent, passionate about something. The glue that bound us was irreverence. Staff photographer Jennifer Silverberg drove around the city with a "Question Authority" bumper sticker on her car (which didn't exactly smooth the way when a corporate security guard approached to seize her film). We rolled our eyes at the pablum other outlets produced, mocking the obligatory seasonal and celebrity stories. My colleagues taught my prissy schoolgirl self to drink hard and cuss purposefully. Old habits of fear and obedience had me trembling every Tuesday morning, waiting for the fallout from that week's paper — but by noon I was diving into my next assignment. (Docility, it turns out, is a bit like virginity; once you lose it, it's gone.)
Sure, we got too caught up in the arrogance of puncturing egos — including each other's. But we did try to tell the truth. An exhilarating freedom came with that — as well as an insane degree of productivity. At one point we hired a supposedly kickass investigative reporter from a daily paper who resented all the fuss we made over words and muttered every week, at the ritual editorial meeting, "Those motherfuckers are stonewalling me, man." He was gone inside a year.
The rest of us came in whatever time we woke up and stayed late because we wanted to and wrote on weekends because we were on a roll. We didn't punch clocks or count breaks or waste time with PowerPoint presentations or branding or clickbait (the personal ads brought in enough money that the future seemed ever-bright). The office politics were frank: blazing fights and outright grudges, nothing subtle or Machiavellian. We wore jeans; dogs and toddlers ran in the hall. One day my pup snatched the moss from the potted tree outside Ray's office, and she was shaking her prey to its death when some elected official emerged. Brushing bits of fern from his trousers, he gave a tight smile and kept walking. People expected a certain degree of chaos from an alt-weekly whose publisher had asked for 231-6666 as a phone number, just to mess with those already suspicious.
The people we were careful with were the ones who'd had a raw deal, who had no voice anywhere else. I'd spend hours in clandestine meetings with heroin addicts and, a few months later, be driving around rough neighborhoods with a former dealer whose drugs helped hook them. I interviewed rightfully convicted murderers and wrongfully convicted rapists and people who'd been abused by priests before anyone realized how often that happened. I learned to question, not just authority, but assumptions.
And then a company called New Times bought us, and we were told to stop doing "victim stories." The head honcho on the editorial side, Mike Lacey, took us all out to a bar, tossed back several shots of tequila, and announced our new mandate: "I want you to bitch-slap 'em off the bar stool."
That fast, the free booze lost its appeal. With New Times, drinking was machismo, not camaraderie. "Be contrarian," we were told. "Be counter-intuitive." Attitude was to be automatic: an attention-getting stance, not a reaction to public policy that needed challenging.
It wasn't the job I'd signed up for. I stayed another five years, loath to give up the freedom that was eroding beneath my feet — but it was never the same. The ego and posturing and power-play were on the inside, now.
I've been so glad to see a compassionate irreverence restored.
Jeannette Cooperman is the staff writer at St. Louis Magazine — owned by Ray Hartmann.