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Finding the Center 

Department of lost (and literary) souls

Wednesday, Dec 3 2008

Intern/fact checker, editorial assistant 1998-1999
Associate arts editor 2000-2002
Books/food/lifestyle editor 2002-2005

It was a single issue, February 6, 1998, that led me to the Weekly. I’d just moved to Los Angeles from the East Coast and was answering phones at the now defunct Buzz Magazine, a glossy celebrity-heavy monthly not entirely unlike Ugly Betty’s Mode. Manning the front desk was clearly not my forte — think Lily Tomlin in Laugh-In meets a frenetic tangle of wires and blinking red lights — and I quit one afternoon in tears, just one debacle away, I was certain, from being fired.

I didn’t have a working car at the time, so I gathered my things and went looking for a bus stop. I was hobbling along Sepulveda (which I pronounced “Se-pul-VEE-da”), a blister on my right ankle and the relentless August sun beating down on my bare forehead, when I sought refuge in a small, nondescript café with six or so tables and an odd menu: shwarma, sushi and egg salad. By the front door was a stack of L.A. Weeklys.

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I sat down and cried onto the sticky, mustard-stained formica. I felt disconnected — from my family back East; from this centerless sprawl of a city; from my own dreams of wanting to be a writer, to be around other writers. I wished I’d moved to New York instead of L.A. Then I opened that issue of the Weekly and, as I thumbed through its pages, the city began to take shape for me — if just in that moment.

The cover was “A Guide to Literary L.A.” — 84 miniprofiles of local authors studded with poignant and humorous pull quotes about writing, Los Angeles, and being a writer here. (Memorably funny: “I came to L.A. on vacation and stayed on probation” — Eddie Little.) It was, as David Ulin’s intro read, “... a scrapbook of snapshots that functions as a collective group portrait of the communities and aesthetics on the L.A. literary map.” I read it cover-to-cover that afternoon, alphabetically, from Alex Abella to Terry Wolverton. After which I decided to give L.A. one full year.

The next day, I trimmed my hair, painted my fingernails black and applied for an internship at the Weekly. When I showed up at 6700 Sunset Boulevard a week later, the front-desk receptionist was receiving a FedEx with one hand and vigorously strumming the guitar with his other. The editor in chief’s assistant was a handsome 6-foot-4 black man dressed as a handsome 6-foot-4 black woman, Miss Davis. (As in Vaginal Davis, the uber, now Berlin-based performance artist.) Research editor Pam Klein ushered me into her office, which was plastered with palm fronds and bright tropical blooms. Someone was crooning a Who song, I think, over the loudspeaker.

Whereas Buzz was slick and corporate if a bit sterile, this place was dusty and chaotic but substantive, a bit “off” in the most affectionate way, full of talent and quirk and spirit. It was a place I wanted to be, simple as that.

I still have that Literary L.A. issue. It’s gray and brittle now, stashed somewhere atop my bedroom closet with other Weekly literary issues that I later came to edit as books editor. Many of the authors profiled in it are now friends; most of them have in one way or another inspired me, along with the passionate and colorful writers, illustrators, photographers and editors who passed through the Weekly’s halls during my seven years there.

L.A. may still be a concrete sprawl without a proper center, but for a certain segment of the city, for a brief period of time, the Weekly was a center of sorts, a revolving door for talent and ideas, as much about the process of putting it together as the publication itself, a “binding agent” for a fertile pool of freelancers looking as much to connect with each other as they were for an outlet for expression. And that’s as good a town square as any I can think of.

Deborah Vankin is editor in chief of Metromix L.A.

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