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‘Thank you, Debby’

Grazing, liberalism, and a paradigm shift

Paper Collage Cliff

I staggered into the managing editor’s job at Creative Loafing around 1982. I literally went to work there the day after Atlanta Weekly, the Sunday magazine supplement of the AJC, printed my cover story about getting sober after a year of criminal behavior, bizarre travels, and really dumb sex.

I had actually met Debby Eason, editor and publisher of Creative Loafing, around 1978. (Warning: dates throughout this   essay are clouded by a memory that dislikes being used.) At the time, I was editor of the Atlanta Gazette, a competing alternative weekly that grew out of the comparatively radical The Great Speckled Bird and had been infused with cash by Larry Flynt, the repulsively charming pornographer and champion of molestation, misogyny, and rape. He famously came to Jesus in an airplane seat next to Jimmy Carter’s evangelical sister.

Debby called and asked that we meet for lunch at Manuel’s Tavern on North Highland, the media hangout of the time. She asked me if I’d be interested in a job at Creative Loafing. At the Gazette our emphasis was on news and opinion while Creative Loafing mainly published endless lists of “Happenings” — events of all types around town — and classified ads. Honestly, I was shocked by her offer because the Gazette was strongly leftist, and I knew Debby to be conservative-minded. I remember that we discussed the role of alternative media and she advocated the need for objectivity in reporting. That triggered me. Five years of editing weekly newspapers in rural Georgia had harshly thrown me back to my academic fidelity to the New Journalism, which advocated disclosing a writer’s bias without ignoring facts, even making it part of the story, ideally written as a first-person “literary narrative.” (Think Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion, and Tom Wolfe.) Never mind that the Gazette wasn’t doing much of that (as Larry Flynt’s money dried up) but we did have a crew of brilliant, beyond-liberal columnists like Julian Bond, Pearl Cleage, Tom Houck (aka The Tattler), and music critic Tony Paris, who helped me pry loose from my fixation on the already passe folk rock and psychedelia. The Gazette had no pretensions to the objectivity now sarcastically called “both-sidesm,” “truthiness,” and “alternative facts.”

Creative Loafing on the other hand didn’t seem to have a commitment to any journalism, although I’d later learn from Boyd Lewis, aka Ludwig von Loafer, that I was wrong about that. The paper had published quite a lot of controversial journalism in its early years, when I was not in the city. Still, Debby and her professor husband Chick Eason had founded the weekly in 1972 primarily to provide people a huge schedule of opportunities (“happenings”) to … loaf creatively. That included everything from sports and music to academic lectures and sex (via personal ads). In those days before Craigslist, the paper published endless classified ads too. CL even published a TV schedule. All of this is categorized as “directional copy” and if something needed to be cut to accommodate advertising, it was usually a story, not the listings.

Debby and I chatted about an hour. I declined the vague offer, but I remember telling my partner that the conversation defied everything I’d been told about her by insiders. “Why would she tell me something different about herself?” I asked. “I mean, why not hire a Neil Boortz clone?” (I confess it also occurred to me that she was trying to take a dig at the Gazette, which had filed a silly libel suit against the Loaf a year before.)

During my years of employment, I had a habit of standing up at my desk, and, with no warning, say bye-bye and walk out the door. Money was rarely the issue. I was never ambitious in this respect; I got and remain pretty good at being poor. True, it helped that my wealthy father would write a check I could tape to the gas meter to avoid disconnection. Soon, the day of quick departure arrived at the Gazette. The paper had actually become full of inane celebrity interviews. I left in the orange and white station wagon my friends called “The Ambulance.” I had no idea what I was going to do.

Only a few weeks afterward, I got a call from the editor of Atlanta Weekly. I ended up basically writing full-time for them under contract. (I was also hired as an editor — that lasted three days.) I still say this was the best writing job I ever had. The editor let me explore odd, absurdist cultural fascinations at unlimited length. Meanwhile, in 1980, I was awarded a book contract by HarperCollins (then Harper and Row). I was paid a decent advance since the book required a lot of travel around the South. I was looking for the legacy of Flannery O’Connor and ways the mystical and mundane coalesced in the rural heart of redneck darkness. The project also filled me with horrific anxiety. My parents already thought my work was so weird they insisted I hide it from my grandmother. (She found it and loved it.) My fear, frankly, was that I’d be disinherited. I became blocked and ultimately defaulted on my contract. I did do all the research, driving drunk from a Louisiana drive-in funeral home to the off-season home of America’s freak shows. Back home, I got drunk enough to be taken to jail where I recounted my freak-show adventures to a man in a wheelchair arrested on Peachtree for indecent exposure when he took out his penis to pee in a bottle. The second time I attracted police attention, the cop gave me the alternative of going to jail or an AA meeting. Both choices were unattractive, but the cop drove me home and actually delivered me to my first meeting the next day. I’ve been sober but no less demented ever since.

After all that chaos, I received a call from Alix Kenagy, who was working as editor at Creative Loafing, which stunned me. Alix and I had both done work for Atlanta magazine, as well as Atlanta Weekly. She wrote about fashion. I wrote about foot fetishism in shoe stores. I was shocked she was working at the Loaf. I was even more shocked when she offered me a job, saying Debby was committed to improving editorial content. I was flabbergasted when I accepted the job. I did not know that Alix was already planning to open Partners and Indigo Coastal Grill, restaurants that were pivotal in Atlanta’s development into a serious dining town. She left. I ended up becoming managing editor.

I was at a loss. I remember sitting in the small room where Debby and I met weekly to plan the next issue. Without Alix present, it probably took me less than five minutes to start complaining about the way the listings crowded out editorial content and the TV schedule was redundant since the AJC already ran one. To accommodate her “both-sides-ism,” we ran a column by, yes, Neil Boortz, who, you might guess, was one of my least favorite promoters of the scam of libertarianism, a political ideology with no codified principles. It was and remains full of contradictions and has no history of actual use in governing anywhere. I shared this absolute truth with Debby, who laughed.

Occasionally, it crossed my mind that Neil Boortz, who is back on the air now, brought the paper a lot of readers. And I admitted to myself that a friend and I ran filthy personal ads whose surprisingly numerous responses we reviewed as we sunbathed in Piedmont Park on weekends. It occurred to me that, while it was true that the AJC published the TV schedule, they charged for the paper and we didn’t. In other words, it dawned on me that these light “offenses” might be financially useful to the paper, which had already been through bankruptcy. When I read enough of Neil Boortz to realize his version of libertarianism allowed gay marriage and, at best, provided a critical lens of both the Republican and Democratic parties, I felt a bit better. Still, I thought it was my job to advocate for a greater investment in journalism.

Debby from the start defied explanation. She was always toting a camera, having worked for Delta Airlines as a photographer. She had an intense gaze that burned like hell when she got mad, but she also had a sense of humor. (How can you play the accordion and not?) There were things about her that annoyed me hugely but things that intrigued me and ultimately made me respect her a lot.

The thing I appreciated most about her hiring me was that she — not quite the libertine of Larry Flynt’s crew — was apparently indifferent to my being gay. It was the early ‘80s. Queer people, despite Anita Bryant’s prescient version of today’s don’t-say-gay campaign, were gaining acceptance and emerging from a sexual playground inspired by the one feminists created by burning their bras and popping birth control pills. But the party and optimism were ending as AIDS began the descent that would cause global, medieval-scale death and hatred so intense that Ronald Reagan would make jokes about us and some members of the US House actually advocated creating concentration camps. I was depressed, angry, and volatile, watching my friends grow ill and dying quickly, including my first partner. I was also confused about my life’s work. I had blown a book contract even though, from the day I went to work in the Faulkner novel called Rural Georgia, I wondered why a writer had to turn into an editor to create an almost stable income.

I encountered the most mystifying and visionary thing about Debby on the first day of work in the form of a funny, affable young Black guy sitting in the editorial office, with his back to our lily-white staff of maybe four or five. Nobody really knew what his job was. I asked him and he sprung to his feet and excitedly explained that he was “coding the Happenings section.” He also said, unforgettably, “I don’t know why nobody cares except Debby. We are going to jump into the World Wide Web!”

I was seriously horrified by the thought of a publication that couldn’t be held in the hands. This was 1982 and the idea of online publishing had just become of mainly theoretical interest, with IBM releasing the first personal computer only a year earlier, in 1981. Time magazine named the computer the “Machine of the Year” in 1983. In short, Debby Eason was light years ahead of most others in publishing. While some big-money dailies had begun experimenting, mainly in silence, I don’t think anyone was picturing the future with the same clarity — perhaps messianically — as Debby. I had frequent conversations with her that I left dead silent but internally screaming, “What the fuck is she talking about?” Over the next seven years, the digital Loaf became her obsession. By the time I left, there was a separate staff of five or six people in a black office box at work on Debby’s dream.

The worst thing about my job in those early days was the one day of the week when we put the paper to bed, readying the layout pages for the printer. I was required to remain in the office until the “paste-up” was done. Some weeks, I didn’t get home until 10 p.m. The reason was that the entire production staff would go out the back door, get in their cars, and smoke a ton of weed. I would slam the cars with my fist or a shoe, demanding that they get back to work. They laughed. I fumed. The production department clung to the good old days of hippie anarchy. They knew what they were doing and when the last minute arrived, they always did a brilliant job, especially Chuck Styles, the artist who gave CL its enduring hippie look.

About two years into this, I received a call from my editor at Atlanta Weekly. She had been fired and moved back to Texas. She was now editing the largest regional design magazine in the country, Houston Home and Garden. She offered me the job of managing editor. It paid probably 50 percent more than I was being paid at Creative Loafing, which means it paid next to nothing, too. I accepted the job, moved to the tropical swamp of Houston, and hated the job almost instantly. I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. I wasn’t there eight months when the management fired the editor and I was promoted to her position. Then, thanks to fetid corporate politics pursued by my assistant, I was fired too, and she got my job. That’s not too bad when you’re losing a job you hate and are getting a large severance check. I spent the next year freelancing. I was hired to turn the weekly gay paper there into a daily one. When three mainly naked guys stumbled down the stairs while I was writing, I realized the venture was being financed by a sex club on the second floor. AIDS was raging and I couldn’t support a club that made no effort to encourage safe sex. The idea was insane, anyway.

I had stayed in touch with Debby and I told her in a phone call that I had lost my job and she told me, “I’d love for you to come back to Creative Loafing .” Is it odd that I was deeply moved by her offer and I accepted it immediately?

I returned to a Loaf that was publishing well over 100 pages a week, thanks to Scott Walsey who had joined the paper in the late ‘70s and had built a team of killer sales reps who were so blood-thirsty for advertorial copy that they were not allowed in the editorial offices.

I found that previous editors, including Gene-Gabriel Moore, had hired a staff of talented writers and editors, including Rodger Brown, Steve Beeber, John Thomas, Bill Gupton, Laura Otto, and Rob. Walton. They were all smart, funny, and adventurous. We also had a stable of freelancers who wrote about music, film, art, and dining.

Pay had not improved. This was hard to accept when Creative Loafing was expanding to Charlotte and Tampa, creating suburban Atlanta papers and building a separate staff devoted entirely to the mystery of online publication. How much money was the paper making? I have no idea, but the CFO told me that the Atlanta paper was paying for all of the expansion with very little return, if any. I was driving Debby crazy with continual demands for new hires and better pay for editorial staff. My car broke down. My father, screaming that I needed to get a “real job,” sent me to a dealership to pick out a new car. Then I had to return to ask Debby for an advance to pay the insurance to bring the car home. Meanwhile, I tried to enlist the CFO in my campaign to pay the staff a living wage. He told me repeatedly with a sad face, “I would love to help out, but there just isn’t enough money.” Then one day, he met with Debby and Scott to admit that he had embezzled significantly more than $1 million. He had panicked, thinking they had noticed. They had not, or at least not the extent of it. He had spent much of the money on art glass to keep his gold-digging boyfriend happy. The Loaf got the glass and prosecuted him. Eventually, Debby did increase our pay, but we remained slightly poorer than employees of other alternative weeklies around the country.

Fairly soon, I found a way to increase my pay even more. During my first term at the paper, I hired my friend Elliott Mackle, to write a dining column, “Grazing.” My thought was that he could write a less formal, reflective column to augment John and Helen Friese’s weekly reviews. The column became quite popular and Elliott was hired as the AJC’s dining critic while I was in Houston. When I returned it was a priority for Scott Walsey that we resurrect the column with a new author because we needed editorial content for the countless restaurant ads he was selling. I hired a series of great, enthusiastic writers but nobody could sustain the energy needed to produce the column weekly while working their real jobs. Finally, I asked Debby and Scott if I could take it on myself. They agreed and the added income did indeed make it easier to buy milk for the cat.

My rendition of Grazing was meant, pretentiously and secretly, to exhibit the Dada movement that sought to destroy formal criticism with humor and narrative disjunction. I had become obsessed with it in my freshman year, especially Lenin’s association with it. It fit the so-called New Journalism, even though that long-form style wasn’t so Dada.

Critics hated the turn I took with Grazing (and — sorry, Elliott — we should have changed the column’s name). Understand that I did not then or ever since regard myself as a formal dining critic. How does someone with the objective of subverting traditional criticism view himself as a critic? I did always insist that we have one official critic, because, you know, this was a capitalist enterprise. I remember one day when I was at a meeting with Scott, Debby, and Terrell Vermont, our critic at the time. This was not long after I left the editor’s job. At one point, the histrionic Terrell slapped the table and stood up, proclaiming, “I don’t write stories! I write about food! Food!” She glared at me and returned to her seat. She was not alone. Repeatedly, usually second-hand, I heard other critics saying the same thing.

I didn’t and still don’t disagree with that, but it was a silly slap. Coming out of the New Journalism, I wanted everything to be a story. Grazing, as I wrote it, was a personal column set amid restaurants. I could write about dinner after the funeral for a friend who died of AIDS and rage about genocidal politics. I could have dinner in a “pop-up” restaurant in an illegal immigrant’s Buford Highway apartment and take shots at xenophobes. My principal perspective was comedic and satirical, always taking shots at right-wingers. I was totally open about being gay and included my boyfriends in the column. This was an intentional effort to lampoon homophobia and, I admit, quite a few friends told me I was going to ruin my career for doing it. (“What career?” I always replied. “I still don’t know what I want to do with my life.”) I included other dining companions in my columns to provide opinions different from my own, because no review of a restaurant is more than one person’s opinion based on a moment or two in time. I also offended critics by openly violating the faux claim that nobody ever accepts anything free to eat. I included a section of the column called “Edible Bribes” in which I urged food businesses to deliver free snacks to the paper for the staff to sample. If the food sucked, I said so, but those serious critics were horrified by my ethical transgressions. For the same reason I included opinions of friends in Grazing, I urged people to leave me phone messages and I’d print them with responses. This was before we were online and trolling became America’s favorite sport.

Something odd happened fairly quickly. Readers started taking me seriously as a dining critic. Granted, if I landed in a restaurant with experimental approaches, like the early fusion cuisine of the ‘80s, I’d take a serious look, but, believe me, I was not looking for perfect food. So-called fine dining was of no interest to me. On the other hand, because my approach was usually comedic, I wasn’t gentle with negative experiences. “The worse the restaurant is, the better your column is,” I frequently heard. I also regarded restaurants as theaters and often liked the drama — the story — more than the food. The main actors were the servers I referred to as “waitrons,” awarding the title of “Waitron of the Week” in every issue. Someone petitioned the paper to have me fired because my use of the dehumanizing word “waitron.” I actually did stop using it.

It shocked me when people began to take me seriously as a dining critic and I received offers from the same serious publications whose critics hated me. It was totally not my goal.

There were several psychological reasons why the Grazing gig suited me. First, I am an antisocial introvert. That’s right. I hate people. A restaurant critic at the time was expected to be completely anonymous. It was a total farce. After you’ve been around town a while, people recognize you, and when they do, proper etiquette requires them to pretend they don’t know who you are. Thus, I was given an introvert’s dream gig: I got to disconnect from everyone. It gave me an extra excuse to avoid all social events and invitations to function as, say, a judge in a chili cook-off. I never even went to a single Creative Loafing Christmas party. I did make one big mistake in this respect. I agreed to do a weekly spot on WGST radio. Maybe the worst week of my life was getting into a war with Sean Hannity. I made a joke about seeing the inestimably hypocritical Rev. Charles Stanley of the First Baptist Church at the gay restaurant, I was reviewing. Sean ranted for a week, weirdly making frequent comments about my butt. I explained on the air that my butt had become the object of his repressed homosexuality.

I got calls from all over the country inviting me to do call-in shows. An agent contacted me, saying he wanted to make me “the next gay Rush Limbaugh.” The next?

Let me note that as we moved deeper into the present century the whole business of restaurant criticism and food writing changed. With the arrival of Yelp and the rapid reductions of newspaper staff, the critic at once became less authoritative and was also given the role of writing general food stories. The very positive effect of that, I think, was a much greater consideration of economics, farming, and health, as was true in the general culture. Creative Loafing has produced some renowned critics and food writers: Besha Rodell, Bill Addison, Stephanie Dazey, Elliott Mackle, and Wyatt Williams, who wrote a compelling article for Atlanta magazine about the reason he quit restaurant reviewing after four years at the AJC. He has a book out, “Springer Mountain: Meditations on Killing and Eating.”

I sometimes referred to Debby as “a New Age Republican.” She had a portrait of L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of Dianetics and the founder of the Church of Scientology, in her office. I had never heard of Hubbard and this was before all the insane stories about him emerged. What was important though was learning that Debby and I shared a fascination with alternative spiritual paths. I had grown up with practically no religious indoctrination, so encountering AA’s fairly liberal, psychologized spirituality was completely new to me and set me on a path of discovery, leading to intense interest in Buddhism.

I was a skeptic, to say the least, but I was a fascinated skeptic. Debby wanted to start running a regular column on New Age thought by a friend of hers. I was game but wished she was more skeptical. I had watched friends in Houston who were dying of AIDS spend astronomical amounts of money to have a popular New Age guru pile crystals on their chakras. If they didn’t get better, their “negative thinking” was blamed.

My memory becomes especially blurry at this point, because I had really come to feel torn apart. Like many other early hippie New Leftists I misread the genocidal but adored Chairman Mao Tse Tung’s “Little Red Book” and other writing to mean that revolution requires both a political tact and a cultural one. I was more aligned with the latter and, as I said, I wanted to disrupt the status quo through the humor and intended irrationality that turned Marcel Duchamp’s Dada urinal into a fountain that flushed away formal concepts. During my five years of work in rural Georgia, I couldn’t use that lens but the evidence of its need was everywhere. Flannery O’Connor, whom I worshipped, used that lens, as did Andy Warhol, who gave us a soup can and claimed it had nothing to say about anything even though it was an icon of capitalism’s suffocation.

I never got to pursue this conceptual path to any significant degree. I tried, with Grazing, but I did come to feel that the paper needed a more explicitly political agenda as presidents were killing off gay men with their effectively genocidal policies and cutting huge holes in the social safety net. Yes, Chairman Mao had a point about the political tact in revolution.

I knew it was time to go, but unlike every other time in my life, I was unable to stand up and depart. Friends told me to let go, saying inane things like “When one door closes, another opens.” My father was feeding me checks while he literally screamed at me about my uselessness. My mother tried to deflect things with humor. She gave me a plaque from Ronald Reagan they received for giving him a huge donation. She replaced their names with mine. I kept hearing my therapist of 15 years earlier telling me, “You are the most entitled socialist I’ve ever met.” My then-present therapist whose methodology had contributed to my dawning, unwelcome self-awareness, insisted I go to a program called STAR in a mountain cove in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. Debby was completely supportive. I arrived a few days after the 1989 earthquake. There’s nothing like a cataclysmic shuddering of the ground to provide a welcoming metaphor.

I was completely ungrounded when I tried to return to my earthly routine at Creative Loafing. It was clear the Dystopia on Willoughby Way was ready for me to go. I remember sitting in the glass enclosure that was my office in the editorial department, crying. A lot. I especially remember Scott Walsey, the advertising genius and official publisher, coming in my office and telling me, kindly for real, that, as unhappy as I clearly was, maybe it really was time to go. Finally, I summoned the energy to stand up and leave. On my way out, I stopped by Debby’s office to get my last check. She asked me to continue writing “Grazing,” which I was happy to do. At that moment, something about her I often tried to explain to people flashed forward. Debby valued loyalty above all else. No matter how destructive an employee or freelancer became, firing the person was not going to happen. I think I had become part of that dynamic.

CB Hackworth, a columnist for the paper, became editor for the next year and, I think, began the assertive push toward investigative journalism that the fiery Ken Edelstein would later feature.

Life changed dramatically for the better after I left the managing editor’s job. I also began a second weekly column for the Loaf, Headcase, initially called Paradigms. It was the follow-up to the original New Age column and, honestly, it was the primary reason I stuck with CL the next 20 years. At first, I spent a lot of words visiting New Age practitioners and rapidly concluded that many were simply literalizing the imaginal. They helped clients develop new stories, just like psychotherapists do, and achieve goals through the use of placebos and dreamy fables. In addition to writing 3,000 words a week for the Loaf, I decided to enroll full time in the master’s program in psychology at West Georgia, which was in the throes of transitioning from the hotbed that incubated Humanistic Psychology but allowed me to study transpersonal psychology. I began offering workshops and seeing individual clients under supervision. I began writing a monthly dining column for Georgia Trend that allowed me to re-visit rural Georgia. I continued writing a bi-weekly gay column for ETC magazine that seemed to enrage every gay man in the city.

My best gig was getting to do my internship at STAR in California. I commuted there every other month for two to three weeks for more than two years. This required that I expand the time to get my Master’s degree from two to nearly four years. This step and my discovery of the post-Jungian discourse called archetypal psychology literally gave my Headcase column international readership. That in turn produced offers to speak and conduct workshops everywhere from Vancouver to Sydney. Needing to take beta blockers and sometimes Xanax to do such work quickly had me turning down offers. After 20 years, Ken Edelstein called and told me CL couldn’t afford to print Headcase anymore. I was actually sort of relieved, although it affected my practice negatively, especially in that time of recession. But I had rather stupidly enrolled in a PhD program in Santa Barbara at Pacifica Graduate Institute. I had actually been accepted at Emory, which was going to require passing exams in two departments. Pacifica, less complicated, was the only place in the world you can get a PhD in Jungian psychology and it was the only place James Hillman, the founder of archetypal psychology, taught, so I decided to go there…at great expense. I was at the apogee of my second midlife crisis.


I’m telling you all of this because the woman behind Creative Loafing, a controversial conservative liberal with crazy-ass visions of Internet worlds, gave me the support to find my actual calling and pursue it. It would be years before I realized how much she had influenced me. When I formulated my dissertation proposal it was on psychology and cyberspace. How had I been writing about that academically for a few years, getting a good bit of attention, without ever realizing that I had become absorbed in what I earlier thought was Debby Eason’s lunacy? In fact, my committee of Luddites was so put off by the topic, that I dropped it. I became the Debby of nearly 20 years earlier and my professors became the me of that same time.

In short, what started out for me as a bizarrely boring, insane job led me ultimately down an even more bizarre but totally adventurous path. It would not have happened without Debby Eason’s crazy wisdom. Thank you, Debby. —CL—