Time may not be strictly linear, but a weekly production schedule definitely is. That daunting fact had a good deal to do with my leaving Mountain Xpress almost as soon as it began. I was the editor of Xpress’ monthly predecessor, Green Line, from 1991 to ’94. After nearly seven years, however, it had become all too apparent that despite Publisher Jeff Fobes’ seemingly limitless energy, passion, determination and resourcefulness, Green Line simply wasn’t sustainable. And after a good deal of soul-searching, it was decided to recast it as an alt weekly in hopes of at least breaking even.
For me, though, this decision triggered a crisis of sorts. Green Line’s grueling, 60- or 70-hour production week came around only once a month; the thought of doing even a scaled-down version of that each week gave me the heebie-jeebies, and I reluctantly tendered my resignation.
Even putting personal considerations aside, however, Xpress was a pretty dicey proposition. Asheville was a lot smaller then, barely on the cultural map, and in many quarters, our little ragtag operation was viewed with considerable suspicion. So, figuring it might take a while to find someone else crazy enough to do the job for the money on offer, I gave six months’ notice — enough to carry us through Green Line’s final issues and get the weekly launched.
We wrapped up Green Line in June of ’94, spent the month of July scrambling furiously to get ready, and unveiled the new project Aug. 10.
That first issue’s 32 pages contained: commentaries by a half-dozen local writers wildly spanning the political spectrum; a cover story by Cecil Bothwell taking aim at the D.A.R.E. drug-resistance program; another news story profiling a leader in the local African-American community; some shorter pieces spotlighting Asheville’s nascent arts-and-entertainment scene; plus assorted advertorials, club listings and classified ads. Not exactly a home run, perhaps, but a fair indication of what was to come.
And come it did, though after the Oct. 5 issue, I took my first hiatus from the paper. I spent the next couple of years doing random freelancing (including a stint as a beer writer, at a time when Asheville had exactly one craft brewery), before finding my way back to Xpress as a freelance editor. Did that for another decade, went back on staff for six further years, left again in 2013 and am now once more a freelance editor for the paper.
Like Green Line, Xpress has always been a magnet for sharp, talented, creative oddballs, whether they were staffers or freelancers. I’ve seen a great many of both come and go over the years, some leaving deeper marks than others. In those leanest of lean times, though, it was really only the power of a shared group obsession that enabled us to keep putting out a paper each week.
I remember how some in the community thought we were communists or wild-eyed, bomb-throwing anarchists or whatever other label may have served as their hobgoblin of choice. I remember the line of reporters regularly filing into Jeff’s office seeking an advance on their next monthly paycheck.
Readers, meanwhile, seemed to fall into two principal camps: enviros, hipsters and assorted other progressives hungry for news and inspiration, on the one hand; and more mainstream types who felt they needed to keep an eye on what those troublemakers were up to now.
The past two decades have witnessed remarkable changes, both in this town and at the paper. But as much as I love the vibrant Asheville of today, there are times when I can’t help but shake my head in wonder, remembering how things used to be.
Yet when I call back all the memories, revisiting the turmoil and ferment and adventure, my most enduring impression is the sense that we were really just continually feeling our way toward some dimly imagined vision: of quality, of creativity, of community. Twenty years later, I’m not sure how much that’s changed. And perhaps that’s a good thing.