Reflections

 

James Lileks
(James Lileks, a City Pages contributing writer from 1985 till 1987, is the Backfence columnist for the Star Tribune.)

City Pages saved my life.

In the middle of the Eighties I was working the 2:00 a.m. shift at a convenience store, a lone, scowling geek in a green grocer's apron, standing behind a big bright window. Bullet bait. Come on in! Rob me! I'm all alone. The store had a bar rush--happy blurry drunks; dateless, thin-lipped outstate guys with pimply shaved necks and thick glasses; giggly, sauced sorority fillies. But by 1:45 I had the place to myself. Sometimes you'd get a haggard soul who came in for some inscrutable combination of goods (mothballs, popsicles, Brillo pads, butter), and you'd watch him on the cameras, wondering if he was assembling dinner, a bomb, or the courage to stick a gun in your ribs.

Robbery and failure: That's what I thought about on the late shift. Things were not going as planned. I'd done everything right--years at the U, years at the Daily. I'd expected to get a nice little job as an essayist, and if that failed, well, I'd fall back on my art history minor. But now I was out of the Daily, eased out by mutual consensus (there's little that's more pathetic than someone hanging on at a college paper) and no job as a Professional Ruminator had presented itself. So I was working at Ralph and Jerry's Market & Culture Centre, waiting for the night when I stammered Yessir! to a twitchy man with a gun, emptied the till into a bag, and got shot. It would be a lit major's death: expiring on the tile floor of a minimum-wage job, wondering whether to quote the last words of Dylan Thomas or Goethe.

Then City Pages, or rather Craig Cox, called. He wanted an article about late-night convenience-store clerking. Right up my alley: No research required, and I could quote myself. It didn't feel like the big chance; it felt like the last one. I wrote a strenuously unfunny piece, mannered and desperate; he guided me through the requisite revisions and ran it. One piece, one hundred bucks. I quit my job.

Over the next few years, City Pages gave me some of my favorite assignments. I was restaurant critic for a while. Given my asbestos palate, Taco Bell tastes, and utter lack of knowledge about food or cooking, it's surprising we were only sued for libel once. (We won.) I did some features, and ended up sharing a column with Mike O'Neill. He put my alt creds to shame, since I'm about as alternative as Kraft cheese. But this was during City Pages' Happy Period, when it decided to be a spending-and-getting rag--just like the Reader, but ten percent added social conscience. You could write about a baguette store without having to condemn the phallocracy.

If City Pages hadn't called when they did, I might have ended up one of those muttering gray souls who hang around college towns forever, scowling over unsellable work in small cafés, unable to wander ten blocks from the U without getting the shakes. Then again, if they hadn't called, and I'd survived a robbery, I could have sued the owner and used the money to nourish a career as a novelist.

On second thought, thanks for nothing.

 

Michael Phillips
(Michael Phillips was with City Pages from 1983 until 1987, most notably as arts editor. Now he is a theater critic for the Los Angeles Times.)

City Pages gave me my first full-time job, which meant a lot more to me than it did to City Pages. No matter. Too late to rescind the offer. I took it. For three years, I took it and took it and took it.

Most weeks it was heaps of fun, and when it wasn't, it still seemed like it was. The paper in the years 1985, '86, and '87 may have been more fun to do than to read, in ways cruelly reminiscent of the end-credit outtakes from the Cannonball Run movies, where Jamie Farr and Adrienne Barbeau and everyone else are laughing their asses off, as if to say: See what sportive glee we brought to ourselves, creating this for you?

And look how well those movies turned out.

The luckiest and most-pretty-good thing I remember as a writer in those years was a profile of former St. Paul playwright August Wilson. The story entailed a trip to New York, on a wee budget, and hanging out with Wilson (much barrel-bottom wine, in his room at the Hotel Edison) one night during preview week of his play Fences. The story came out and Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize a week later. Cause and effect, obviously. Or at least the timing made us look like we knew what we were doing. Which we didn't. But sometimes we did. I miss the making-it-up vibe of the City Pages. I even miss the survival paranoia, which turned out not to be justified, but did turn out sadly anyway, since the war between the Reader and City Pages killed the Reader.

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