On the evening before I was supposed to start working at Gambit Weekly, Gary Esolen, the weekly's founder and editor, phoned. He wanted to welcome me to the new job and to advise me of some changes: The budget was tight so some cuts had to be made. To make way for me, one of the existing employees had been fired and, oh yes, Gambit might not last through the month. Welcome aboard.
Of all those announcements, the one that worried me the most was about the dismissed worker. I imagined walking into a short-term job facing an angry staff because I had taken someone's place. As it turned out, the jettisoned employee was not very popular and anyone would have been welcomed as his replacement. As for the other announcement: Gambit not only made it through the month but is now in its third decade. I'm glad I took a chance.
In its early days Gambit was located on Pleasant Street, in a cavernous upstairs room above Turci's, the reincarnation of a former restaurant by that name turned into a spaghetti house.
My desk was off to the side facing the open end of a large empty cardboard box that had apparently been used to deliver a big piece of furniture. During the afternoon of the first day, I watched the art director carry a stool into the box and just sit there for a while. She explained that she needed a change of scenery.
Then there was the hammock. Hung between two exposed columns, it could accommodate three or four people and sometimes it did, especially on production nights. The inhabitants were usually of both genders but the experience wasn't sexual, rather it was a release from exhaustion. There was danger, though: whoever was positioned on the hammock's edges was always on the verge of falling.
And there were the antics. Once, on the day after Mardi Gras I walked in and noticed that the two girls sitting at the front desk had crucifixes smudged on their foreheads indicating that they had gone to church and gotten their ashes. I thought that was sweet until I realized that they had been smoking and while finagling with their ashtrays performed the ritual on each other.
As carefree as the setting could be, at some point Gambit began to grow and become popular. One reason was that the weekly became especially strong in its coverage of local politics. In addition to its column and editorial writing there was a new section called "Scuttlebutt," which was filled with short political news items. While early alternative newspapers were preoccupied with counterculture issues, Gambit was looking at City Hall and the workings of the Dutch Morial Administration. In a city preoccupied with politicians, Gambit became the newspaper of politics.
When the decision was made to start giving political endorsements, Gambit became a serious voice. In the early days, Esolen wrote lengthy and profound endorsement editorials unlike anything published locally.
On other pages, a couple of characters helped the paper too. One was Rex Dukeé, the world's only Mardi Gras parade critic. Duke applied standards to Carnival. He wasn't concerned about the quantity of throws, but was outspoken about parade-theme development, originality and riders keeping their masks on. His impact was enormous. One krewe captain evicted riders who Duke reported had been unmasked. Another krewe designed its whole structure based on Duke's perception of what a parade should be.
Blake Pontchartainé was the other character. In the early days Gambit included a media criticism column called "Press Clips." The problem was that as we became more a part of the press scene there were too many people we knew, and therefore too many conflicts. Writing the column objectively became difficult. "Press Clips" had to go. In its place came something new, a question-and-answer column about New Orleans. The author of the column was created over cocktails in the Fairmont Hotel's Blue Room. The name, Blake Pontchartrainé, was devised so that it would sound local yet, lest anyone be confused, was obviously a pseudonym. Blake caught on and the style of addressing the expert, "Hey Blake" became natural. (We know of at least one child who was named Blake after Pontchartain.)
Duke and Pontchartrain helped Gambit develop a true feeling of being about New Orleans.
Good feature writing and investigative pieces also helped enrich the newspaper. There were many complex stories concerning utility rate issues. On the question of transferring the regulation of utilities back to the City Council, Gambit had the loudest voice.
During my time at Gambit, our office was located in three different places. After Pleasant Street we moved to the building at the corner of Rampart and Dumaine streets. I felt eerily predestined to work at that location. In another era the building had housed Cosimo Matassa's J&M Recording Studio, where many early rhythm and blues records were made. I once figured that the room where we did our production work was where Fats Domino had recorded "Blueberry Hill." Yes, I belonged there.
And the other location was the Maison Blanche Building. I belonged there, too. Once the home of many dentists and physicians, the building was virtually empty by the time we were there, leaving huge spaces for exploration. Ledger books were still in place in some abandoned offices. On the top floor was the radio station WSMB, which attracted celebrities and politicians to its studios. The building was one of the last in the city to still have elevator operators. Mr. Broussard, the elevator starter, didn't let anyone get past him. Frequently when I arrived for work he would give me a report of which notable souls were in the building.
Gambit is the product of many people, but in remembering its early days two names stand out. One is Esolen, who created the newspaper. The other is Philip Carter, the son of a proud newspaper family, who sacrificed plenty of money to this newspaper. He, probably more than anyone else, is the reason why the weekly survived its early years.
On the night of the day that I left Gambit, I listened to a Pavarotti tape, over and over, into the early morning. I was emotionally wrenched. Other opportunities were ahead, but that night I was feeling pensive. Gambit had been a part of my life. I had been there to witness it grow into an important media voice. There had been a few bumps along the way, but, overall, my nearly eight-year stay had been exhilarating. And I never fell off the hammock.
Associate Editor, 1982-87