The Rise and Fall of Roadside Magazine
Craig Sellers and Guy Nicolucci seemed to drop into the development of Roadside in the nick of time. Their combined talents promised to fill important voids in the enterprise. We had, however, the task of defining this new "partnership" before us.
I met with Craig and Guy as part of my first swing down the length of Long Island, starting at Montauk Point disembarking from the ferry, driving west to the Big Apple. That particular trip introduced me to the Cutchogue Diner for the first time, again beginning another long-lasting relationship.
I enjoyed my first time on the Island, though admittedly, I felt somewhat adrift taking this extended roadtrip without the company of Marjorie. The closer I drove towards New York City, the higher the level of tension I could feel in my gut. My 1982 Honda Civic had, by that time, grown a bit long in the tooth ten years later, and visions of breaking down in inopportune places fueled anxieties.
The Munson Diner sits on the lower West Side of Manhattan, a largely industrial section of the island, where at night hardly a soul walks the streets. The Munson never closed, a common state for diners in this region, but it probably stayed open as a means of self-defense. Mayor Giuliani hadn't yet given Michael Eisner Carte Blanche to Disney-fy Times Square, and residents and visitors alike still kept watchful eyes over their shoulders. In these days, sections like the lower West Side still suffered from perceptions of inhospitality – especially at night.
Yet, here I was, parking on largely deserted 11th Avenue on a frigid January night to meet a total stranger in an a rowdy diner.
The scene inside the Munson had few similarities to the happy, lively setting Roadside had preferred to describe and promote in past issues. The Munson bustled and clattered like most diners, but it largely catered to a clientele not eager to spark up conversations with strangers. A bank of payphones at the back of the diner worked overtime with a steady stream of young men making and taking calls that I doubted connected to their stockbrokers.
In the midst of this food and funny business patiently sat a nice, clean-cut young man sporting a baseball cap emblazoned with a logo from some diner. In this atmosphere, I could have spotted Craig Sellers from New Jersey. Through a fog. While drunk.
Craig's easy, middle-American demeanor made him easy to like. I felt comfortable in his presence almost from the moment we shook hands, and he immediately put me at ease in this frenetic setting. Not long after I arrived, Guy Nicolucci followed, sitting in the booth next to Craig. We spent the next hour or so getting acquainted, assessing each other's professional and "spiritual" credentials. Were these guys true kindred spirits? What did they want? And more importantly, what and how were they going to do to contribute?
We agreed to spend the next few months working together in a trial arrangement. The idea of Roadside having actual representation in the media capital of the world, of course, had great appeal to me. Craig and Guy facilitated the effort to spread the magazine by placing copies in every diner in Manhattan in one fell swoop. Their editorial contributions soon followed. Both good writers, they introduced readers to some of that area's more notable examples of the genre.
For the first time, Roadside extensively used email as a method of transmitting information. The three of us had AOL accounts then, and we took full advantage of the new technology to establish this spunky little virtual enterprise.
One immediate reward of this new arrangement came soon after I received a call from the editor of the New York Press, a weekly alternative paper and a conservative counterpoint to the Village Voice. John Strausbaugh penned a story that for years remained the most complimentary assessment of our mission in print. About the same time, Roadside generated some substantial ink from the New York Daily News, where we learned that its publisher, Jim Wilse was a big fan of diners. Sadly, this half-page in the city's second-largest paper generated no discernable increase in subscriptions. The Press brought some attention, but hardly the blockbusting response we had hoped for.
During 1992 and into 1993, I had a great time experiencing my small taste of New York City culture. Craig and Guy had lived in the city for several years by that time in their lives, so they had become accustomed to its rhythms and offerings and served as authoritative guides to its culture.
Though the trial arrangement seemed to progress smoothly, a nagging suspicion dogged me from the beginning. Without a doubt, New York City defies superlative. A true New York experience lends itself to the extreme, and the people who live there tend to view the outside world through the lens of these experiences. Your city has a subway? Well, it's nothing like the New York subway. Your deli has a good reuben sandwich? Well, it's nothing like the reuben you get on (name your favorite New York deli). Bagels? Don't even talk to me! Cab ride? Ha! Your haven't lived… etc.
New Yorkers tend to regard their experiences as more authentic than yours. Given the forces at play in this metropolis, I hardly blame them. I suspect I'd feel exactly the same way.
Unfortunately, Roadside was not about New York, but about America's back roads and Main Streets. America and New York have this uneasy relationship with each other, though one inevitably defines the other. Perhaps putting the world capital of media, money, and culture on an island befits this symbiosis, both figuratively and politically, but the differences in our outlooks had put a strain on this little magazine.
By the beginning of 1993, the three of us had begun the process of drafting a partnership agreement. With Craig's background as an attorney, we easily drafted the basic framework of the rules and regulations governing our future together. I blame my naiveté and my general optimistic nature for completely ignoring one glaring omission of this arrangement: It provided for no capital investment. As drafted, this agreement allowed Craig and Guy, in effect, to own portions of the operation by virtue of their day-to-day contribution. This belied the fact that by that point, I had long-since depleted my original $3,000 and now lived off the income from freelance design work. Craig and Guy showed no inclinations either to quit their day jobs or to contribute financially in the enterprise. In fact, Guy's off-hand discussion of his retirement plan made me think, "I have no retirement plan. This business is my retirement plan!" Something was amiss. As events unfolded, however, the issue never came to fore. Guy and I had an editorial disagreement that led to the dissolution of the partnership before it began. Rather than work without Guy, Craig decided to cease involvement as well. In April, 1993, I found myself alone with the magazine yet again, and the immediate task of rewriting the lead story originally assigned to Guy about Richard Gutman's new book, American Diner Then And Now.
Also, I needed a new editor. Luckily I remembered the postcards from that eager subscriber.