Nobody at Gambit Weekly knows about this, but my first encounter with the paper was as a failed freelancer. It was sometime in the late 1980s, and I'd gone to an American studies conference in New Orleans to hear historian George Lipsitz give a talk about Mardi Gras Indians. I contacted Gambit Weekly to pitch a "Scuttlebutt" on the conference. Nobody called me back.
Conspiracy theorists will note that the "Scuttlebutt" section didn't get a lot of play during my seven years as editor.
I finally got my foot in the door when I was called in to help out Count Basiné, the expert who previews Jazz Fest acts. (Of course he's real. I was just his helper.) I moved out of town for a couple years to write a book about zydeco, get married and have our first child. When I moved back in 1998, I was offered the job as editor, a job I held for seven years.
I'd worked as a general news freelancer before signing up with Gambit Weekly, and even covered Hurricane Andrew in 1992 for USA Today. Still, I came to the paper with a special interest in culture and the arts. Ellis Marsalis famously said, "In other places, culture comes from on high. In New Orleans it bubbles up from the street." I took those words as a challenge. If we properly cover culture, we'll be covering New Orleans at the street level. Indeed, the lines between news and culture always blurred during the years I served as editor. Stories about the music and police and neighborhoods and prisons and poverty and education and the arts all became One Big Story about this jubilant, troubled city.
Along the way, I had a chance to regularly work with some of my favorite writers anywhere. Ronnie Virgets had mostly switched to spots on TV news programs when I pulled him back into Gambit Weekly. When contacted, Andrei Codrescu cheerfully agreed to write a weekly column about anything he wanted to write about. And I even had the chance to call up legendary Cleveland, Ohio-based comic writer Harvey Pekar, who profiled New Orleans jazz musicians such as Lonnie Johnson and King Oliver in our pages. Over the years, I learned more about the city through the work of Gambit Weekly's staff writers and freelancers than I possibly could have learned anywhere else.
Yet I also learned that editors, like all journalists, don't always get to choose their stories. Gathering around the television in the paper's conference room on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, we knew we had to respond in print to the scenes that were unfolding hundreds of miles away, yet were of such magnitude that they seemed to be happening next door. That was one of the few times we immediately cancelled our coverage plans for the week and started fresh with a new paper. The last time was the summer of 2005, when Big Chief Tootie Montana died while addressing the City Council about police harassment.
At Montana's jazz funeral, I saw mourners holding up copies of Gambit Weekly's tribute cover. It was one of my proudest moments as editor. It's also one of my last memories of being a New Orleans resident. Standing in front of the historic St. Augustine Church. Surrounded by throngs of people who'd gathered to celebrate a craftsman. Saying goodbye yet following the music's forward movement. Now, I am one of the many who couldn't find their way back to New Orleans -- at least not yet. Instead, we must find other ways to repay the city that gave us so much. I'll be turning to Gambit Weekly to help show me how.
By Michael Tisserand