When I first moved to Baltimore in 1995, I met Jefferson Jackson Steele at the old punk bar Memory Lane before I was even unpacked. He was working at the City Paper as their staff photographer at the time. He said I should talk to Joe MacLeod because they needed someone to work on the Sizzlin’ Summer issue that was coming up. I was familiar with alternative newspapers. I grew up in Texas and was a huge fan of the Austin Chronicle. I thought it was so cool that they used the word “fuck” and wrote about weed. I had been working for a daily newspaper before moving here.
With a daily, you have night shift and day shift and deadlines don’t raise anyone’s pulse. The culture at dailies tends to be more conservative and people work in cubicles. When I was hired at City Paper in 1995, we were in a huge old townhouse with tall, ornate ceilings and no central air conditioning, the dress code was no pajamas, and deadlines couldn’t be more frantic. When we finally finished the pages, they were put in a battered, sticker-covered suitcase and driven to our printer in Waverly, Pennsylvania. Our boss, Joe MacLeod, would have us all circle around the suitcase that held our hard work and scream as loud as we could—a primal scream to release all the built-up tension.
Before digital publishing, we pasted everything up by hand using wax rollers and blue-lined paste-up boards called flats. All the columns in the classified sections, which would be up to 20 pages or more, would have to be carefully checked and lines in between classified ads needed to be separated with line tape. The page count was huge then, but there was a much larger staff to handle the workload. Still, the hours were long and we worked our asses off. People would sometimes be so sleep-deprived that arguments would break out over the weirdest things and jokes would be funnier than they would’ve been on a well-rested brain. We called it being “punchy.” I remember midnight beer-fueled volleyball games, yoga in the conference room, and lots of pranks. We once rearranged the desk of one of the ad reps and the next day heard him complain that one of the other ad reps was messing with his stuff. So then of course we rearranged the other ad rep’s desk and sat back to watch them confront each other—they knew who was responsible as soon as they saw us laughing. We were jerks, come to think of it.
People came and went. It was a small place with a small staff so we all got to know each other pretty well. We got the idea to start taking ballroom dance lessons after work and it turned into the longest running group lesson the dance studio had ever seen. We were in volleyball leagues together. We played softball together. These weren’t official company-endorsed events, they were things we did because we liked each other. There were a few office romances and even more friendships that transcended the office.
Things weren’t always so friendly, though. When it got really late, we’d wonder who would survive if there was all-out war between the departments. The art department clearly had some advantages. We had all the sharp tools. We were near the bathroom and the safe to take cover. The previous owner of the building had an enormous walk-in safe in the same room as a Jacuzzi. This area was turned into the darkroom and later turned into the web editor’s office. Sadly, the Jacuzzi was removed. I liked to imagine the previous owner wearing a monocle and drinking champagne in the Jacuzzi then drying himself off with piles of money in the safe. But these days, the room at least made for an effective fort.
The art department was also a more neutral party in the ever-waging war between editorial and advertising and it was physically located in between the two. Editorial was on the third floor, art on the second, and advertising on the first. Working with the ad reps directly meant that we got to know them pretty well—they were the ones who taught me that you can’t be a good salesperson if you don’t believe in the product you’re selling. And we got to know the writers because we were the ones who prepared the pages for the printer and designed their stories. Although both departments cared deeply about their work, they had different paths to the same goal. And sometimes there was conflict. But everyone’s focus was always on this city and its people.
Athena Towery is the art director at City Paper.