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The Two-Minute Interview 

Jay Levin and the beginnings ...

Wednesday, Dec 3 2008
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Distribution manager 1978-1981
Contributing writer 1978-present

The phone call came a few days before Thanksgiving. The man on the other end of the line identified himself as Jay Levin, and although he didn’t exactly stutter, the words rolled out as if playing catch-up to his thoughts: “Jeff Gottlieb told me you’re lookin’ for a job,” he said with a Long Island accent.

My friend Jeff had said I might get a call from Levin, who’d come out West from New York to revive the fabled Los Angeles Free Press — a folly that, it was rumored, had racked up a million-dollar debt. Now Levin was starting a paper of his own, and he was building a staff.

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This was the autumn of 1978. I was a neophyte freelance journalist who’d penned an article for The Nation — really, what seemed like a charity offering from Victor Navasky — and a veteran of two years’ experience at KPFK, under the tutelage of Earl Ofari and Paul Vangelisti. What I knew about journalism consisted of toting around a Sony TC142 tape recorder, transferring sound bites to reel-to-reel and splicing tape on an Ampex that had been new in 1959.

“Are you smart?” Levin asked. “Sure,” I said. And that clinched it. Interview over. “Okay, you’re hired,” he said. “I’ll give you $250 a week and you’ll get stock in the paper.” Then he asked, “Do you have a car and are you insured?”

This seemed a bit odd. What did car insurance have to do with writing articles?

The interview, including my getting hired, lasted two minutes. That was Jay Levin. He worked on instinct, and an uncanny faith that people he liked on first sight or sound could be trusted. The manner might be called “hippie paternalism,” since Jay ran everything according to his whims, and could not be budged by another point of view. But he had guts — the kind of guts that were inappropriate — and that’s what the paper thrived on most.

I was hired as the Weekly’s first distribution manager (a job I would later liken to being a junior Mafioso, a relatively fair comparison given that newspaper distribution was then associated with mobsters). I never did see the stock, but Jay managed to hand us our paychecks on a somewhat regular basis. As distribution manager, I had to single-handedly cajole storekeepers to put the paper in a prominent place for free; deliver the paper using, of course, my station wagon, gasoline and insurance; and then carefully count returns to figure out where the paper was being picked up and what cover stories really flew. I also occasionally ran money, from the home of one of Jay’s backers to the bank at the corner of Hollywood and Western, to meet payroll and keep creditors from shutting us down. Plus, I supplemented my take by making a surreptitious run to the recycling yards on Washington Boulevard, between Alameda and Soto, where I sold last week’s papers for $125 a ton.

Eventually, Jay called me into his office and gave me a writing assignment. “Do a story on the horrible conditions in the county jail,” he commanded, without a shard of evidence that conditions were horrible. Weeks later, when I handed in my draft, recounting from dozens of interviews with inmates how bad the jail was, Jay speed-typed a rewrite, as only a former tabloid reporter could, providing “details” that made the conditions exactly what Jay had said they were: “horrible.”

I never did read that first issue, the one with Sandra Bernhard mugging beneath a caption that read, “Why Are These Women Laughing?” Still, I was grateful to Jay Levin, who, on the basis of a phone call, gave me a break and an education. Who gets one, let alone both, nowadays?

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