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Reflections on L.A. Weekly of the 1990s and Its Motley Crew of Misfits

07/03/2013 09:07 am ET | Updated Sep 02, 2013

On June 30, 1997, roughly sixteen years ago, I walked in to the offices of L.A. Weekly, which was located at the time in the heart of Hollywood on Sunset Boulevard near Highland, for my first day of work. I had done well on a copy editing test and had been recommended for the job by my then-Venice Beach neighbor Peggy Lake, a stalwart of the Weekly's graphics and advertising department.

There I was, two and one-half months removed from my first psychotic break, with no life, no job for more than a year since I had quit a position as a Hollywood marketing research analyst, no girlfriend, and no friends, so I thought. Little did I know that I was about to embark on the most enriching work experience of my life.

On that first day, I wore a suit, tie, dark socks and dark shoes. I was the only one there so attired and would never repeat that manner of dress while employed at the Weekly. Fortunately, my boss, Connie Monaghan, the proofreading manager, very kindly said that she thought it was appropriate to dress conservatively on the first day at a new job.

Monaghan took me around the building and introduced me to various editors of the paper, most of whom were housed on the floor above the proofreading office. I met, among others, then-editor in chief Sue Horton and then-articles editor Janet Duckworth, who would edit my first stories for the paper many years later.

Then, after I met these editors, Monaghan said, "Robert, I'd like you to meet Miss Vaginal Davis."

I looked up, and standing before me was a six-foot, five-inch African American male. I did not know at the time that Dr. Davis was a legendary cult figure in the underground art world and the LGBT community.

I paused only for a split-second before sticking out my hand and saying, "Vaginal." (Later, I would learn that Dr. Davis often went by "Vag.")

It was probably at that moment, when I met Dr. Davis, that I realized, at least subconsciously, that the L.A. Weekly was the place for me. If the L.A. Weekly could welcome Vag, an iconic transvestite, I sensed it could welcome me, a diagnosed psychotic who had been hospitalized at the USC psychiatric ward in March 1997.

During the course of my nine years at the paper, which included my relapse and hospitalization at the UCLA psych ward in late January 1999, I served my apprenticeship as a writer at a place that nurtured me. While I did have a few battles, the battles, insofar as I understood them, had little to do with the fact that I had a diagnosis and more to do with the mundane issues of the day, pettiness, jealousy, misdirected animosity.

Not one of those battles undercut the prevailing ethos of the Weekly, which was one of tolerance and diversity. As a friend later said, when I was leaving the paper to write full-time, "For awhile, I thought you had to be psychotic to work in proofreading!"

At the time that I worked in proofreading, I may have been the only one in our department who was diagnosed with a mental disorder, or the only one who was open about it, but I was far from the only oddball there. We had a "motley crew of misfits," as David Caplan, the copy chief following Monaghan, once said.

Thankfully, we also had Caplan and Monaghan, as well as other sophisticated people, who oversaw the operations of the paper. Most of them understood that in spite of, and perhaps because of our eccentricities, our department was, pound for pound, the most outstanding copy editing and proofreading force anyone had encountered.

In recent days, I have seen an above-the-fold, front-page New York Times headline about the demonstrations in Brazil, in which the word, "Protester," was misspelled as "Proteser." I have seen another Times headline, this one online, with Justice Elena Kagan's surname misspelled as "Kagen."

I recognize the sad truth that there have been cutbacks at papers across the country, including the Gray Lady, and that copy editing and proofreading, like perhaps the written word itself, seem to be disappearing not only as a department but also as an art form.

I feel blessed and honored that I spent nine years at the Weekly, learning to fine-tune my own prose while helping to fine-tune the writing of others. The Weekly gave me a home, a place where I could be part of something that was not only greater than me but also great in and of itself.

Alumni of that paper have gone on to do stellar work at many other publications across the country, including the New York Times, the L.A. Times and The Huffington Post, where I have blogged for four years now.

That is not to say that everyone had a great experience at the Weekly.

Some people left under less than optimal circumstances. Others, such as Vaginal Davis, whom I never got to know well, focused on and thrived in the underground art scene.

When I left the paper on St. Patrick's Day in 2006, I had a farewell lunch at Miceli's, a few blocks from the Weekly offices in Hollywood. I sang Bob Dylan's "You're gonna make me lonesome when you go," at the suggestion of my wife, Barbara, whom I began dating about three weeks after starting at the Weekly in the summer of 1997.

Sixteen years later, Barbara and journalism remain my bulwarks. Work and love, as Freud famously said, are the keys to a fulfilling life. He was right decades ago when he said that, and he is right now.

It can be difficult to find those two elements. At the time of my first psychotic break, in March 1997, a few months before beginning my new life, I had wondered how I could ever be employed again after quitting numerous jobs and being hospitalized in a psych ward. And it was beyond my ken, so I thought, how I was ever going to meet a good woman, let alone an angel like Barbara.

Some people talk about courage being essential in life, but I think that having an imagination or at least an open mind may be more crucial. I would like to think that, all these years later, following for instance the recent Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage, the country as a whole may be catching up to the L.A. Weekly of the late 1990s in terms of openness and acceptance.

Working at the Weekly, arguably the most mind-opening experience of my life, began my process of recovery from a deep depression and feelings of worthlessness. For that, I will always be grateful to Connie Monaghan, Vag Davis, David Caplan, Peggy Lake and our motley crew of misfits.