The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine

Chapter 16

I made three executive decisions immediately. First, I killed the new third feature imposed by Jennifer that would feature the “favorite road-trips of the presidential candidates.” Being the political season, Jennifer sought to generate publicity with our own particular spin on the campaign. When told of this idea, I responded, “I don’t think anyone’s really going to give a damn about this story, Jennifer. I know, because I don’t.” My alternative would have us write a quick Roadside tour of Washington D.C., featuring some great local places for our new president. Overruled, I assigned a writer, who though a friend of Jennifer’s, knew how to assemble this kind of story. The day before George’s call, I had received a letter from the George W. Bush campaign denying us access to the Governor. “Well, duh,” I thought as I read the letter. Of course they wouldn’t grant an interview to us.

I loved Eddie. From the day Mark Zingarelli's sample strips arrived at my house in 1993, I knew he belonged in Roadside. See more of Mark's work at

My second immediate decision reinstated Eddie Longo. Third, I restored the original logo.

We scrubbed the editorial calendar clean of any and all Jennifer-directed stories, department names, and design decisions. Then I retained the services of Gotham City Graphics in Burlington, Vermont to design the templates for the new magazine. Gotham regularly advertised their services in the magazine, while displaying a creative flair I often envied. Gotham needed little explanation of what I needed. They also knew to mostly leave the logo alone. Since they couldn’t commit to the magazine’s layout once we entered production, I handed that task to the firm of Gallini-Hemman in Philadelphia.

At first, I found myself uncomfortable with spending Mr. Ball’s money without his consent, but in one of our few phone conversations in the fall of 2000, Mr. Ball told me to “do whatever you need to do to get the magazine done.” With this free reign to produce this magazine, I assumed he entrusted me with the best interests of the enterprise and allowed me to act accordingly.

In October, we hired Jerry Soucy to oversee the development of the Roadside website. Under Ball Publishing, the website had become yet another contentious issue, because again, Jennifer and John dismissed my suggestions for its construction. My own experiences showed that frequent, almost daily updates to the site with brief news items relating to our mission brought more traffic every day.

Jennifer had rejected this idea. “We’re not a news magazine,” she declared, while drafting a plan to make the site look much like every other magazine site, updated monthly. Meanwhile, she instructed me in May to cease posting any updates myself. Traffic plummeted.

Though we really needed a publisher, in November, Mr. Ball bought new Chrysler PT Cruisers for Christine and for Jerry. Both cars would sport the Roadside logo. Christine had little occasion to drive hers except back and forth to work along the Chicagoland freeways. People did notice the car as it rolled down the road, but with no magazine on any racks just yet, the logo meant nothing to just about everyone who saw it.

While I thought having these cars made this project even more fun, I quietly worried over the expense. We had a fleet of three cars and no office. I assumed Mr. Ball’s pockets were deep, but I couldn’t assume they were bottomless. Having also heard from Martens that the accountants at Burpee “hated” this project, I had some reason for concern. Listing for more than $26,000 each, the money could have instead gone towards the yearly salaries of two editorial assistants or an ad sales rep or the production of an entire issue. In the short term, this expense would yield very little.

Here's two-thirds of our fleet in front of diners. Above, I drove the VW Jetta on this trip down Route 31 on Michigan's west coast in October 2000. Below, Jerry Soucy's PT Cruiser parked in front of one of my favorite places, Charlie's Diner in January, 2001.

Mr. Ball, to our dismay, had become largely inaccessible and evasive during these months. Christine saw him the most, but he rarely figured into most of our day-to-day decisions. We managed to have him come out to Worcester for a staff meeting in August, where a lack of available conference space forced us to convene at my apartment — a prospect I found unsettling. Once there, Mr. Ball never appeared much at ease in my modest space, though he made quite an impression at Charlie’s Diner during lunch.

He spoke effusively about how much he loved such places, waxed eloquently on their charm and importance to our society, and awkwardly traded barbs with owner Steve Turner, a character right out of a nostalgic diner fantasy. I sensed a fatal incongruity generated by this scene. This was not Mr. Ball’s world. He might have landed from Mars for all the familiarity the place had for him, yet I felt this was all part of an acclimation process which would ultimately help the magazine.

Mr. Ball retained a publishing consultant in September, only to let him go in October because of severe differences in opinion on the magazine’s direction. Though he hired him, Mr. Ball left Christine to fire him, a move I considered a woeful shirking of his responsibilities.

More money wasted, I thought, and still no publisher. Though Mr. Ball assured us that he searched in earnest, it didn’t look like we’d have anyone in place before Issue 31 came off the press. I had even presented a qualified candidate, but Mr. Ball wouldn’t agree to interview him. Into the void stepped Christine, who largely helped us determine budgets, negotiate with printers, and pursue potential advertisers while performing the usual duties of managing editor. About this time, I realized that Jennifer had done me a great favor by hiring Christine.

In December, we signed a five-year lease on a beautiful office in downtown Worcester. Located in the historic Printers Building, previous occupants had remodeled the space in the early 1960s with walnut paneling. To sweeten the prospect even further, my friend’s company had sold out to a larger corporation, leaving behind an office full of furniture. We could have whatever we wanted at no charge. We planned our move for mid-February.

By the middle of January, Issue 31 went to the printer, with finished copies expected to arrive two weeks later. Meanwhile, we busied ourselves with Issue 32 and raced to meet its late January deadline. I flew out to Oakland, California to complete my exploration of the city for our next “urban profile.”

Returning ten days later, I still had some odds and ends to tie up. Though I took many photographs for the story, I still needed a photographer for the key “people” shots. Late one night, I found myself on the phone negotiating day rates with a photographer in the Bay Area, Rory McNamara .

“I like to get between $700 and $750 a day,” he said. “Why? What are you budgeting?”

“We’d like to keep this under $500,” I countered.

“How does $450 sound?”

“Sounds good to me,” I smiled. I hung up the phone and took stock of my life so far. I worked until midnight almost every night. I just wrangled bargain rates with a photographer three thousands miles away. I edit a magazine I created and I make money doing it. I’ve never been so happy in my whole life.

Best of all, I realized that I was good at this. Finally given the proper resources, I had more confidence than ever that we would make a mark on the publishing world. Every day brought a new challenge, a problem to solve, and a person to meet.

Just when I thought it got no better, the magazine arrived.

I had always wondered how the ideal Roadside would look, and now I thought I came damn close. Best of all, just about everyone else who saw it felt much the same, even the staff back at Ball Publishing. Kimm Roberts, the company’s finance director, paid me the ultimate compliment. “They never could have produced a magazine like this out of this office,” she confided.

I had reached the pinnacle of my career, but in the back of my mind, I remained mindful that our unpredictable benefactor could pull the plug at any moment. Also, we considered it extremely important to get issue 31 done as quickly as possible. In the month before it went to press, Mr. Ball, Christine, and Kimm to drafted a budget for the following year. Mr. Ball warned me in November that we had to “get the spending under control.” While not necessarily disagreeing with him, these words echoed ominously. For the first time since this project’s start, spending became an issue.

I did spend what I thought necessary, but nothing near what the former regime lavished on the project. We had just rented an office for ten dollars a square foot, cheaper than what they paid in Batavia, and obtained free office furniture. I had no problem with limits on spending, but it helped to know the parameters of those limits. From the day I signed onto this joy ride, no one shared this information with me.

We’ll work that out, I thought. Meanwhile, we finally have that issue and I felt great. Feedback from current and a growing number of new readers rang universally positive, and the media had begun to take notice. It seemed, in fact, that we heard from just about everyone, except Mr. Ball. I expected, but never received, a congratulatory call, note, or email, but I assumed that when we all met again in the beginning of February at Fordhook Farm , we’d celebrate then.

Next time: Entering the twilight zone