The music was too loud for anyone else to hear the stripper crying. She was weeping, begging the coked-up humor columnist for more money because her car was about to be repossessed. The columnist, high and drunk, felt sorry for her and ordered that a lap dance be given to his quiet, reserved managing editor. The rest of the editorial staff of The Met couldn't help but watch, because there was no one else in the cavernous strip club. It was opening night, September 30, 1995, at the world-famous Carl's Corner truck stop, about an hour south of Dallas and a thousand miles from nowhere. The scene was surreal: scores of angry strippers--who'd been promised big spenders aplenty--smoking and bitching with the dozen or so Met staffers who'd been invited. It was funny and pathetic and disturbing in the most surprising way. As such, it typified all things memorable about The Met.
The trip to Carl's Corner sounded like a good idea when it was proposed. Carl Cornelius himself had extended an invitation to the staff after the paper ran a cover story on him, penned by longtime Dallas writer Mike Shropshire. The entire edit staff--at The Met, a small-budget operation from its birth in 1994 until its death two weeks ago, every staff member was his or her own department head and star writer--made the trip, convinced that the onetime Willie Nelson haunt would be filled with Texas' elite party-heartiers. We were that stupid.
We took two cars. On the drive down, managing editor Joe Guinto gave the staff a stern warning: "Dammit, I'm serious: no drugs." He was, as always, worried about getting the paper out, and a bunch of editors rotting in a county jail somewhere would not help make deadline.
"No problem, dude," said arts editor Chris Shull, wearing his sunglasses at night because he'd broken his regular eyeglasses.
As soon as we arrived in the parking lot, the trunk of Car No. 2 opened, and half the staff disappeared behind its cover, snorting loudly. Bad sign.Once inside, we saw what a clusterfuck we'd been led to. There were about six other men and hundreds of empty seats in the place. We wandered about and drank, listening to the entertainers complain about how they'd been promised a packed house of rich, horny men. Our only amusement came from following Kyle Burnett, then art director and current New Times Inc. corporate honcho, as he surreptitiously took photos for the Met scrapbook. I drank to ease the boredom and pain of paying a cover charge to watch half-naked women weep.We left well after midnight. On the drive back, I had trouble staying awake. Even in my pre-passed-out state, though, I remember asking myself, How did I get here? I have a kid and a wife back home. How did the Fates conspire to put me in the back of this car with a bunch of talented, twentysomething journalists, each of whom could be making more money in higher-profile jobs? I thought about each of us at that club and remembered how and why we'd been drawn into the ridiculous, sophomoric, wonderful world of The Met. I thought about each employee's unique contribution to the paper, to readers, to our continuous parade of stupid fun. I thought about why this paper even existed--to do good work, to surprise people, to have fun. I thought about what people would say once it was gone--which, given our state and the speed at which we were approaching town, could be any minute. I thought about throwing up.
South of town, we slowed to a crawl. Drowsy, I looked outside the window. A man who had recently been killed in an auto accident was on the freeway. Well, his body was on the freeway, covered. His head was somewhere else. Again, bad sign. Better to sleep and remember than face the real world.
Randy and the paper for people who don't read
Randy Stagen was excited as he came through the offices of D Magazine. It was early 1993, and he had himself an idea--a good idea. He was going to start an alternative newsweekly, like the Dallas Observer, only, dude, not like the Observer. It wouldn't be about scandal and death. It would be fun. It would be positive, like a proton, not negative, like an electron.
He had asked to meet with D editors to get feedback about his idea. Most of them told him that he was silly and unlikely to succeed. Then he met me. I was meaner. At the time, I fancied myself an investigative reporter and feature writer. I'd written 8,000-word profiles and scandal stories. I'd secretly applied at my favorite publication, the very serious New Republic. I was 25, on the fast track, pompous. I listened to his idea about an arts and entertainment publication, rolled my eyes, then mocked him after he left.
A few months later, D Magazine closed. I called Stagen. "Uh, about that newsweekly you were putting together..."
Soon, we had a commitment. I would be editor. Stagen--who regularly roller-skated through East Dallas while listening to disco music; who had started a college paper as a way to get pictures of his SMU frat buddies in print; whose greatest accomplishment was being named Bone Master by said fraternity after he ate another young man's vomited goldfish--would be publisher and my new boss.
Throughout the rest of 1993, we would meet at the place Stagen had designated as our new offices: a horrific office space above the Green Elephant Bar and Grill, half a mile from SMU. At the bar, Stagen would conduct his highly scientific surveys about what Dallas readers wanted in an alternative to an alternative weekly. I would suggest story ideas or section titles, and he would ask the wait staff at the Elephant if they liked my suggestion. If they didn't, it was vetoed. At the time I was upset, but now I realize how well it prepared me for the journalism-by-focus-group approach that I would later encounter at daily newspapers.
Although he didn't know exactly what the final paper would look like, Stagen knew the office environment he wanted to create. "Dude, we're gonna have beanbags. When you come in to the lobby, there will be beanbags and a juicer. If you want fresh juice, bam, throw in some carrots." He was starting to worry me...and I him, because the waitress with the pierced tongue had better suggestions for editorial content than I did.
In early 1994, we finally raised our seed money of $250,000, having done so through a long and arduous process that cannot be fully explained in this limited space (read: we begged and whored ourselves like junkies). We had a sales staff of three young women, an edit staff of three (myself, college friend and suburban newspaperman Joe Guinto as managing editor, and UNT alum Kelly Kitchens as calendar editor), and a college student/art director, Chad Tomlinson, who had helped do graphic art design for the Observer. Our coup: Most people made $18K to $21K. I was the salary heavyweight at $28K. We hired John Lewis, onetime film critic for the Observer, as our lead critic for $40 a review. Our biggest problem: Two weeks before our debut, we had no stories, a few borrowed computers, and we were already running out of money.
None of which seemed to matter when I considered our publisher's off-the-cuff summation of what this paper should be: "Dude, we're gonna be the paper for people who don't read."
Me and the self-congratulatory part of this story
The publisher and the editor were holding each other in the parking lot of the Dallas Museum of Art, scared and weeping, waiting for the debut issues to arrive. The launch party was ridiculously packed--people in expensive cars just kept arriving, crowding into the front room, waiting to see the first issue of the upstart Met. Since said upstart had gotten to the printer 24 hours late, we doubted they would.
Hours into the party, a truck came barreling into the parking lot, stopping just short of the DMA's front entrance. It carried half of its Met payload. The other half had come flying out on the Dallas North Tollway, and radio reports suggested that southbound motorists were considerably upset about it.
Inside, an editor and the publisher's mother were hidden in a back room, furiously gluing poster-sized pages of the first issue onto corkboards so the patrons at this swanky affair could easily see the typos. We didn't care. We'd been awake for 48 hours; we just wanted everyone to see the fruits of our labor. Instead, they saw our need for a copy editor.
I strolled up to my oversize editor's note, which I didn't even remember writing, and read it for what seemed like the first time.
"For me, there was no epiphany...I'm sure our publisher and salespeople would say Dallas needs this...but we're not saving Dallas here. I do have some modest goals--find good writers; run stories for no other reason than they make me laugh...but I hope we never consider ourselves 'vital' to Dallas. That attitude, common in the media, is exactly what we're trying to avoid. Above all, we just want to entertain and inform our readers."
Made sense. The old political game: lower expectations, surprise them when you do your job well. What it didn't say is that during the next few years the paper's goal would evolve into something at once more grand and juvenile: Let's always surprise them, we said, with great reads, perceptive arts criticism, dumb-ass fart jokes, and everything in between. It came to be considered a truism that a cover story could be approved if it met one of five criteria: a) it made us laugh ; b) it featured gratuitous profanity or sexual content; c) it was unbelievably, over-the-top, sickeningly self-indulgent; d) it had solid literary or journalistic merit; e) a writer we trusted said, "Trust me."
With such varied guidelines, we were able to cover any and all stories. We were, I think, consistently more interested in humor, high and low, than any weekly newspaper in the country. We had a full-time humor columnist from day one; the staff of The Onion wrote a cover story for us before you ever heard of the paper. In the "sell-out issue," we paid homage to a great idea (each and every story was sponsored, as was the cover) first done by the late, great national magazine Might. Its founding editor, Dave Eggers--currently the hottest thing in the national literary scene because of his debut book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius--cowrote a comic strip for The Met that ran for several months, first as a Dallas-only version of "Smart Feller" and later as "Cindy!" For no other reason than we thought that "monkey" was the funniest word in the English language, we created "the monkey issue," in which we made hundreds of gratuitous references to the primates.
Make no mistake: We also ran trainloads of shit. Review the paper's first three to four years (I left after two years), and it's impossible not to laugh at some of the stories we wrote, at some of the greener-than-Bermuda-rye freelancers whose work we published. We were, to be sure, an easy target--especially when I once published an apology on the cover because I had jokingly inserted the quote "I'm that fucking good" into a profile of a well-known classical musician. (It wasn't meant to run, but, oh well.)
But we also did our share of standard-issue newsweekly stories--a look at the decline of the art deco masterpiece that is Fair Park, profiles of important local writers, some crime-and-punishment covers, and so on. And there's no mistaking that the paper connected with a younger, hipper reader. We had a bar columnist--first Joe Capasso, then David Blend--who became known by bartenders and patrons about town. We wrote the first large profile on the founders of id Software, creators of Doom. And we wrote about music, cussing, and drinking, not just because it was a way to "reach the reader," but because we wrote about everything and anything we cared about. We wanted to be, in the words of anti-grunge singer Todd Snider, "alternative to alternative."
Joe and the self-indulgent part of this story that really breaks up the narrative
Our goals became possible, though, only because of the talented, smart, outer-limits nut-bar staff that we hired as the paper grew in its first few years. Other good people came later--editors Sally Shults, Adam McGill, Bret McCabe--but it was these people whose hard work, love of sophomoric humor, and drunken exploits laid the foundation and created the personality blueprint for the hires that would follow. They did good journalism-type stuff, but more important, they added, through their own vastly different personalities, an appeal that made the paper more than just a frat rag--because, in the end, despite some awards and accolades, personality was about all The Met ever had going for it.
Joe Guinto, managing editor: Joe was the man who made The Met happen, the newspaper guy who understood that we were only as good as our sources or our dick jokes. When columnist Tim Rogers and I got drunk on Halloween night and passed out during deadline, he and the staff had to work until 6 a.m. to cover for us. The next day, even though he worked for me, he sat me and Rogers down in my office and, red-faced, berated us like children, so much so that the vein on his forehead began throbbing. My favorite story of his: a look at a Hooters lawsuit, because besides being a well-written, entertaining business story, it allowed me to put huge breasts on the cover. (Guinto is national affairs reporter for Investors Business Daily in Washington, D.C.)
Tim Rogers, humor columnist and major general editor: Everyone remembers his columns, which later became known as "Mr. Funny Guy." (Always hated that name.) Many are indeed memorable: how to sneak into the Ballpark in Arlington, interviewing Jose Eber during a haircut, several examining the art of masturbation. He was the paper's biggest personality, the human face of what the paper was and what it tried to be. Tim was best known on staff, though, as the man who entered a La Bare amateur stripping contest.
Keven McAlester, music editor: nicknamed DJ (he was an original co-host of the Edge's Adventure Club) and Harvard (his alma mater), he was master of the movie quote as catchphrase (from Mr. Mom: "220, 221, whatever it takes") and easily the smartest person on staff. As such, he spent little time working, since everything came easy to him; most of his time was spent playing video games. When we were there late on deadline, it wasn't unusual for us to, at midnight, turn off all the lights, crank up the volume on every computer, and engage in a screaming, hour-long tournament of Maelstrom. Remember, he went to Harvard. McAlester, a documentary filmmaker, once turned down a job at the Dallas Observer by telling our staff, "I'm gonna take a grauwyler [poo poo], then make a decision." He emerged from the bathroom, newspaper in hand, screaming, "I'm staying!" As sophomoric as the paper was, it was often quite intelligent, largely because of Harvard and the people he later recruited.
Chad Tomlinson, art director: A helluva designer, he says his favorite memory was partying with cartoonist Lynda Barry during our trip to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conference in Nashville. (Recalled fondly because we were the only ones who showed up in bed sheets to an outdoor party; we almost slammed into a member of ZZ Top as we were using stolen luggage carts to have races in the lobby of our hotel; and oh, yeah, because nationally known gay advice columnist Dan Savage shared a moonlit evening by a pond with married columnist Tim Rogers...but I digress.) Tomlinson redesigns big national magazines for a New York firm.
Chris Shull, arts editor: A guy who otherwise wouldn't have gotten a chance, because he was too weird, too high-maintenance, too everything. This current Wichita Eagle arts writer penned my favorite 196 words The Met ever published, because they were so undeniably, out-and-out evil-funny:
"We have but one question for the fastidious organizers of Sun & Star 1996, this fall's ubiquitous festival of Japanese art and culture that has relentlessly filled museums and concert halls since September: Remember Pearl Harbor? The sun and star have met and mingled before, and it wasn't in the cool darkness of the DMA or the quiet grandeur of the Meyerson in that breathless moment between silence and music. Oh no, my friends. It was on the blood-frothed beaches of Tarawa and on the fire-swept hell of Iwo Jima that sun and star first mingled, and it was no goddamned tea ceremony either. IT WAS WAR, dammit. WAR! It was a peaceful Sunday morning in paradise, shattered by treachery and well-aimed 500-pound bombs. But you got yours, didn't you, my little samurai? PAYBACK'S A BITCH, huh Tojo? You can make pretty little enamel lacquered boxes and folded paper cranes, but could you construct a simple self-sealing gas tank? HELL NO! Nimble is as nimble does, and your vaunted Zeros were just that: DUCKS IN A GODDAMNED SHOOTING GALLERY, from Midway all the way to Tokyo Bay. Never forget! Remember the Arizona!"
This past Saturday, it's five years to the day that we visited Carl's Corner, and it seems like I never woke up from that backseat drive. I'm in a drunken dream world, only this time back at the Green Elephant. Dozens of former staffers and well-wishers have flown here for a Met wake. There is plenty of remembering good times and bad--several of the staffers had been fired--and everyone wanted to heal old wounds and remember a paper that shouldn't have made it as long as it did, that somehow, through hard work and lots of silliness, made us all better writers, better people.
We don't spend a lot of time on what killed The Met. Despite my attachment to it and to the paper that won the war, I really don't care how it died. It had a good six-year run. Business is business, but business has nothing to do with writing or friendship or good times or your first story published, and that was what The Met always meant to me. Even later, when Stagen admits that he helped make the paper less viable by taking more control, by insisting that it put beautiful people on its covers and do more easily sellable service pieces ("I've finally gotten the paper I thought I wanted," he said to me, half-joking, "and now I think I've killed it"), it was hiring young writers and giving them a chance to sink or swim in a big-league media market, something other papers here never used to do. That's changed, and I think The Met had a lot to do with it, and for that I think it will always be an important footnote in this town's media history--more than any of us ever thought it would be.
Late in the evening, Kim Harwell, an editor for Guide Live and one of our former dining critics/editors, approaches me looking sad.
"Someone better get naked soon," she says.
"I always see nudity on my birthday when I'm with Met folk. Just like five years ago, at Carl's Corner."
"That was your birthday present? I forgot. Is that why we went?"
Of course. That made sense. I was there that night for no other reason than a gal wanted to see some nudity for her birthday. I remembered how that made sense at the time. How it continues to make sense, doing something stupid for no reason. Like starting a newspaper.
Later that night, she got her wish: Tim Rogers took his pants off at the bar and almost got kicked out. He later passed out on the Southwest Airlines seats we brought along, the very ones that had been in the Met offices from beginning to end. The ladies took turns drawing on his face with magic marker. A good sign. Monkey monkey.