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It Started With a Kiss: Finding Shelter Among the Stray Cats

Contributor 1996-2002 Deputy editor 2002-2008

I moved to Los Angeles, for real as it turned out, in 1996. I’d done some time here a couple years prior, when I worked at the L.A. Times but left to try my hand at other newspapers between here and Washington, D.C. When I came back, it was to work at a magazine based in Santa Monica. I lived in Hollywood. I was almost entirely cut off from my past. Looking back, it seems by design.

I was very unsettled during this time in my life (“as opposed to ... ?” I can hear my friends saying), and vast, unwieldy Los Angeles was as indifferent to my state of affairs as the traffic on Fountain Avenue to the birds in the trees. It didn’t help any that not long after arriving, I heard about a woman who was brutally murdered in her hotel room in Chicago, where she had been training for a new job. Her name was Nan Toder. The murderer was the hotel’s maintenance manager, who’d entered the room next to Nan’s with a master key. He had earlier fixed the door adjoining the two rooms. He went into Nan’s room and attacked her with a machete and subsequently strangled her to death with pantyhose and a telephone cord.

I didn’t know the details of the murder until much later. What I knew at the time was that she was my first girlfriend. I hadn’t talked to Nan in close to 20 years. We’d started moving in different circles after junior high and hadn’t had much to do with each other since. And then, suddenly, a mutual friend called with the news. It was a disorienting exhumation of things I had barely thought of for many, many years.

Accounts of the murder mentioned how beautiful and vibrant Nan was. I remembered her differently. Beautiful, yes ... but vibrant? I’m not sure that was in our disaffected teenage mix. Details of her adult life surfaced in news accounts, and what I was left with was a sense that Nan had made a successful transition to the mores of adult life. I learned she was starting a new job as vice president of a wholesale floral company and was a physical fitness buff. That struck me as funny and refreshing. The Nan I knew was more goth (though we didn’t have that word back then) than jock. More Winona Ryder in Heathers than Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On. Somewhere along the line, she must have dropped the cynical world-weary posture I’d found so compelling at 13. As the night wore on, I thought about the Nan I knew more and more, and then felt compelled to write about the gifts she had given me when we were going together. She was my first kiss, my first encounter with hyper-romantic teenage love.

Nan was 33 when she died. I’d never tried to track down more recent pictures of her, or even learn too much about the details of her death until now. I wanted to remember her as she was when we were 13 and I’d summoned all of my courage to kiss her as we sat on a wall outside the rec center in our local park in Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania. In my mind’s eye, she was dark, rebellious and beautiful — an S.E. Hinton figure not yet blunted by the mundane demands of adulthood, such as job training in Chicago. We lived in our own twilight. When you’re 13, everyone is epic in some way. And so Nan would remain in my imagination.

The piece poured out in a single cigarette- and music-fueled sitting, and when I’d finished, I wondered what the hell could be done with it? Who would possibly publish such an untoward and bleeding thing? The next morning, I took a chance and submitted it (by fax, to date myself) to Janet Duckworth, who was L.A. Weekly’s features editor. She called me back that afternoon and said the piece had her in tears and that she would run it. Somehow, that fact acted like salve on the weirdness Nan’s death evoked, and salvation for the weirdness that had been lurking inside of me for as long as I was aware of myself, a weirdness Nan’s death cracked open once again and which I can only describe as a childish awkwardness in the face of the immense effort required to live and feel all the feelings I still felt at 33 as acutely as when I was the uncouth 13-year-old she knew. It was an awkwardness that yearned for the kind of release I could never quite find in the mainstream newspapers I had previously worked at. When Janet said she’d run the piece, I suddenly didn’t feel so alone.

In my time as deputy editor of L.A. Weekly, I tried to do the same — to open the paper to a new generation of writers hoping to share their own weird voices with the city. New talent is the lifeblood of any paper that hopes to be as dynamic and vital as L.A. Weekly aspires to be, and the Weekly was, at the time, overdue for some new blood. So many examples come to mind, but if I had to hold one up as symbolic, it would have to be Sam Slovick and his three-part cover series on the challenges posed by Skid Row in the context of the new downtown Los Angeles. Published between December 2005 and August 2006, the pieces were sprawling, epic investigations of the pressures of life in the middle of what police chief William Bratton called “the worst social problem in America.” Slovick told his stories from the perspectives of the police, politicians and mostly the elderly and the young trying to carve out some dignity, hope and balance in an unforgiving environment.

Slovick was an unpolished and unproven talent at the time, but he possessed a sharp eye and a unique voice and, as the street hustler he once was, had an uncanny knack for disarming folks — whether they walked the halls of power or the streets of Skid Row. He represented something I wanted to see more at the Weekly — a raw, street-level, unprofessional (as opposed to institutional) approach to covering the city. Bloody, brutal, heartbreaking and sometimes uplifting, Slovick’s pieces were impossible to ignore. They were copied, passed around and cited at City Hall policy debates; they helped to inform; were the inspiration for a five-part documentary series produced by Good magazine, which appeared on various Web sites; and were finalists for several social-issue awards. I know they wouldn’t have found a home anywhere else, which is a testament not to me, but to the spirit of L.A. Weekly.

Writers are weird. We’re dysfunctional and insecure. We’re childish and wise. Occasionally brilliant. We’re stray cats, and we have the blues. We need homes. L.A. Weekly offered me and so many other wonderful weirdos some shelter, a place to feel not so alone, to try to make a difference in this wild and wonderful city.

Decades ago, Nan opened herself up to me and made me feel connected to something grand. More recently, L.A. Weekly did the same. If I did that for anyone else, I was just doing my job. How cool is that?


From “She Was My First Kiss, for Christ’s Sake,” by Joe Donnelly
Originally published 1996

When I first heard the news, through a mutual friend, all I could say was, “God, that’s weird.” Then, about midway through the day, her face came floating by like it was plastered on billboard after billboard on the road back to Mount Lebanon. Black hair, ivory skin, round, red lips. ... I remembered the first kiss on the wall outside the skating rink in our town park. I remembered the way my body was shaking all over as I finally leaned in with all the mind over matter I could muster and kissed those lips and found her soft tongue, unflinching and forgiving. I stayed there until my breath was gone and I nearly fell off the wall.