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From 1995 to 2000, David Carr ran Washington City Paper, inspiring a generation of journalists in D.C. and elsewhere. He left the District, and the paper, for New York 15 years ago, but even today, still helps drive City Paper‘s style and spirit. Here’s how some former City Paper staffers and contributors will remember Carr, who died suddenly Thursday night.
This post will be updated. To send your own thoughts about Carr, email me.
Amy Austin, City Paper publisher:
He was a master at unconditional love, unconditional wrath at fallacies, and unconditional gratitude.
Brett Anderson, food writer at the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
David hired me to write about pop music for the Twin Cities Reader in 1992. I’d recently failed out of college. He’d recently emerged from rehab. I’d never written a newspaper article or conducted an interview before. A few years later, he asked me, “What would you think about adding restaurant reviewing to your book of business?” (I don’t remember the exact sentence, but “book of business” was a Carrism I’m certain he used.) He was calling from Washington, D.C., where I would follow him to City Paper and start writing about restaurants. I didn’t eat rare meat or tomatoes at the time. I’d never tried sushi before, or even pho, and I thought foie gras was a vegetable. He named the column he gave me Young & Hungry. He insisted I learn how to properly hold chopsticks during an early review meal at a Vietnamese restaurant in Arlington.
Later, we went to the Black Cat. The Make-Up was playing, if memory serves.
Today is actually the 17th anniversary of the first mistake I made while working for David Carr. In the story “Rubbing Out Nine Lives,” about the debate over euthanizing cats, published on Feb. 13, 1998, I misattributed a quote.
I had screwed up.
And my brand new boss in my first fulltime job in journalism, Washington City Paper editor David Carr, made sure I knew this was no small thing. Think the Code of Hammurabi as voiced by Zuul with a Minnesota twang.
“The language you’re looking for is ‘Due to a reporter error,’” he said when I tried to explain how I had confused the names of the two women in the piece. I remember the mistake to this day (obviously), and I hear his voice echoing with every journalistic error I have made since. And I know that each one of them is no small thing.
Having him as an editor, a friend, and a mentor was a tremendous blessing. In those City Paper offices on Champlain Street NW in the late 1990s, those of us who worked for David—Erik “Coach” Wemple, Michael Schaffer, Amanda Ripley, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jason Cherkis, Eddie Dean, Sean Daly, Neil Drumming, Jandos Rothstein, Jelani Cobb, Brett Anderson, and on and on—knew when we did good and we knew when we made a mistake.
This was not always a pleasant experience. It was always an important and meaningful one.
Sometimes the mistake was in not bringing our best to the table. Our weekly pitch meetings could be brutal if the notebook dump produced nothing that piqued his interest. Items we had discovered that we thought were new were usually not, and he let us know that we were standing on a foundation of cliché.
“What else ya got?” he would ask.
He stood for excellence in journalism. That did not mean he thought our job was all about boring lectures; quite the contrary. He wanted our prose to pop and crackle (his edits made me appear a much better writer than I was). He wanted our stories to grab readers by the ears and drag them into our pages. He wanted journalism to engage and entertain, and mostly he wanted it to matter.
He continued to be a compass of journalistic ethics after he left City Paper and went to New York City, where he landed as one of the most important media columnists of the era. In addition to standing for what was right in journalism, he also stood for the need for humility. He publicly second-guessed himself, was nakedly open about his struggles with drug addiction, and was never above bringing his errors to light. It only made him of more value.
Beyond all of that, of course, he was a dear friend and a loving father and husband.
I am heartbroken and the world is a poorer place.
Natalie Hopkinson, freelance writer:
I first met David Carr in Chicago, during the National Association of Black Journalists convention in 1996. Ta-Nehisi Coates introduced us. We were both editors at Howard University’s student newspaper, The Hilltop, and I think Ta-Nehisi had some sort of writing fellowship there at City Paper.
I was still in undergrad, but I already had several internships with mainstream daily newspapers, and had taken some journalism classes at Howard. I didn’t know anything about the “alternative” newspaper tradition. But Ta-Nehisi made it look like fun, so I gave it a try.
In his office, David kept a stack of books of “Literary Journalism.” He handed me and everyone else who passed through a copy. So I learned about voice, thick description, character development, how to stretch out, write long. How to detonate bombs in print, and roll with the inevitable punches that came after. His “story meetings” were brutal. If you came with a lame idea, the writers and editors around the table would mock it ruthlessly. So you had to bring your A-game.
David battled personal demons and found redemption, just like Marion Barry, who made his comeback in the mayor’s office just when David was continuing his comeback in journalism after battles with cocaine. A Ph.D might explain Barry’s rise with a phrase like, “challenged prevailing narratives of race and power and D.C.’s colonial status.” I remember David describing Barry as “a walking, talking middle finger to Congress.” I like his version better.
Later, when I found myself in David’s office, whining about my first journalism job, and fretting about my future prospects, he told me that being a black woman would never serve me as well it would at that moment, when experienced minority applicants at major newspapers were scarce: ”You are the blonde with the big boobs in the horror movie,” he told me.
Probably David’s biggest legacy was teaching me about the importance of voice and the power of first-person narratives. He put the final edits on one essay I published in City Paper about losing a local jazz station and losing a boyfriend in a D.C. snowstorm. My ex read the piece, and reached out to me after nearly two years of not speaking. We are still married today and have two kids here in D.C.
Eddie Dean, freelance writer:
Carr was a huge-hearted soul and an inspiration. He could yell like a crazed drill sergeant and in the next breath comfort you with the bear hug of a big brother. Having him as a boss, I always wanted to work my hardest because I knew he was working even harder. He always made my stories better, asking questions and cackling with glee at a lede that showed promise, chopping my excess verbiage like a weed whacker, and adding a dollop of pure Carr to make a sentence sing. His gargantuan love of life was contagious and he stoked a flame in all us writers even while he drove himself to a frazzle. He was our guide, our fierce leader, and our tender friend. And as his post-City Paper career proved, he was a hell of a writer with a singular voice and made millions of readers his friends as well.
Jonetta Rose Barras, freelance writer:
I remember when I heard that David Carr, a former crack addict, was to assume editorial control of the Washington City Paper, I made up my mind I would not cooperate. I was going to hate him with a passion. It wasn’t just his addiction; he also was stepping into the shoes of an editor I believed, at the time, to be irreplaceable—Jack Shafer. I had decided to leave the Washington Times, where I worked on the Metro desk, and called Shafer asking if he wanted to hire me. He, thankfully, said yes. But just as I was getting comfortable, getting into a good groove, he left to work for some new online whatever, and Carr arrived not long after.
My decision to become a Carr hater lasted all of one week. I couldn’t help but like him, mostly because he was a brilliant editor—at least for me. He was fun and funny, warm and inspiring. And equally important, he could dance—no, really dance.
As an editor, he gave me the freedom to explore my ideas, guided me in making them clearer, stronger and, in some instances, more provocative. Under David, I wrote some of my best pieces about District politics, black leadership, and my own personal search to understand how I became who I am. Those pieces launched my book career. (My freedom came at a price to him. Years after he left, he told me that on more than one occasion he and his family had been threatened because of something I had written in the paper. When I asked why he hadn’t told me earlier, he responded that he didn’t want to worry or to stop what I was doing.)
Sure there were fights; what writer hasn’t had a squabble with an editor. But in the end, what I produced was always better because of him—his insights, his mastery of language and command of the written word.
During his tenure, City Paper began its relationship with the District’s African-American community. Sure it had a storied history of getting up close and personal with black leaders, but many folks were really uncomfortable with the publication. David began a series of in-your-community lunches. City Paper staff went in the ‘hood to eat but also to meet ordinary people, so that we could write more authentically about them and the city. He began the fellowship for African-American writers, bringing in Jelani Cobb and Ta-Nehesi Coates, among others; they proved to be more than worth the investment.
I think of City Paper under Carr as a glorious period for the publication, the city and for me. I am devastated by his death.
Guy Raz, NPR host:
In 1998, I got my first break in journalism out of college as a freelancer for the City Paper. I will never forget the day I made the masthead as a contributor. David Carr was already a legend, and I was intimidated as hell by him. In ’98, I mustered the courage to pitch a cover story. To my amazement, he bit. The piece was on the decline and fall of Georgetown University’s radio station and the lefties, drop outs and dreamers who ran it in the ’60s and ’70s. Carr was a fierce and demanding editor. My unedited story, filled with spelling mistakes and errors in detail, was a disaster just days before publication. Carr sat me down in his office and handed me a marked-up copy of the draft. I could barely see my typewritten prose. The margins were filled with questions, suggestions, clarifications and corrected spelling. I was mortified. He wasn’t gentle about it—he didn’t give me a pass for being a kid—but he was humane and tough and encouraging. I’d worked on the story for months and wondered what the hell I was thinking trying to do journalism. I felt like a complete fraud. Days later, it was published. I headed over to the City Paper office to thank him. “Good job, kid,” he said. “What are you working on next?” That’s all I needed to hear. It meant the world to me that he approved.
Jelani Cobb, New Yorker contributor and professor:
One of the things I loved most about Carr was his utter lack of assumptions of judgment. He approached all kinds of stories as just what they were, chronicles of the hopes and failings of flawed people who at any other point in their lives may have had a completely different story to tell. He also diversified the newspaper without needing to make some grand pronouncement about it. He simply went out and found writers who could tell stories that weren’t being told or at least not being told from that perspective and brought us into the fold.
I’m not sure how well it’s known, but there was a huge deal of animosity toward City Paper during that era, particularly from black Washingtonians. When I first heard from Ta-Nehisi Coates that City Paper was looking for interns, I thought he was crazy for suggesting I apply. Around that time, Carr ran a cover story called “Why BET Sucks,” and I braced myself for more white snark about black shortcomings, but I was surprised to see that it was written by Holly Bass, a black writer, and written from a perspective that articulated many of the criticisms people I knew had for the network. I didn’t expect to see something like that in City Paper.
I learned tremendously from Carr. He could be unsparing in criticism. I once wrote a piece with a quote from another writer, and he sent me an all-caps edit that said “THIS LINE AIN’T WORTH STEALING.” But he was also thoroughly encouraging and funnier than most people knew. I just checked my emails and realized that as late as 2013, Carr was still putting me in touch with editors who might be interested in my work. At that point I hadn’t written for him in at least ten years. He was sharply unsentimental in his writing, but he had a great capacity for sympathy as well.
I literally don’t think I would’ve had gotten to where I am without him, and if I had, it would have certainly been a longer and more arduous route.
John Dugan, freelance writer and editor:
It’s entirely possible that without David Carr, I wouldn’t have done as much writing and editing as I have over the past 20 years. I landed a gig as a production artist and ad designer at the City Paper in the mid-nineties. I started writing music pieces, previews and reviews with the encouragement of the arts editor Glenn Dixon, but it was Carr as new editor-in-chief who made me feel as if I could do more than pay off my endless D.C. parking tickets by penning record reviews and band profiles. Taken with a long review of a new Sloan record that City Paper had published, he asked me about my craft, how I wrote, what my process was. You could say I was flattered. I sensed that he did that with a lot of writers out of curiosity and enormous appetite for journo shop talk, but also to help them realize what was particular about their process. Carr was a master of the compliment. He offered up his jealousy for anyone such as I who could play in a band and write well. That’s the kind of compliment you keep in your pocket forever, just in case you need it.
Carr was a passionate fan of music, too. I liked to drink in his stories of wild times with the Replacements, Soul Asylum and Husker Du in Minneapolis.
He was also gracious in hearing criticism. I once met with him in his office to vent about some oddly nasty takedown pieces CP had published on local musicians. He respected my point of view as someone with friends in music, but defended the stories on the grounds that he liked the writer’s voice. He was a writer’s editor.
Carr liked the idea of connecting people that might otherwise never cross paths. He invited me to start joining City Paper editorial meetings. Now, I wish I had attended more. He took me along for outings with writers, journalists and politicos. Once, after an AAN convention event, he somehow got a bunch of us into the Tibetan Freedom Concert after show at the 9:30 Club. Another night, he popped into the production room and introduced the staff to his buddy the comedian Tom Arnold, who was sporting a George Hamilton-esque “I’m from Hollywood” glow.
When closing the issue on Wednesday nights, the editor was supposed to flip through the layout pages to be sent to the printer and sign off on them. In a loose tradition, the cover story writer brought in beer for the remaining edit staff, production artists and took a final look at their story. At some point, Carr got in the habit of asking me to sign off on the pages instead, which was interesting as I was drinking and he wasn’t. It gave him a chance to visit with his family or jaw with the writer, but it also was like the captain standing on the deck saying, “Go ahead and take the wheel, this paper is as much yours as mine.” David Carr treated a lot of us like first mates and that’s something we’ll never forget.
Dave Nuttycombe, journalist and filmmaker:
Shortly after he was hired as City Paper‘s editor, I found myself in the bathroom with David Carr. I was headed out and he was coming in, so I quickly detoured to the sink to wash up. Had to make a good impression on the new boss. As he took his place at the urinal, David made some comment about how my mother would be so proud of me, washing my hands like a good boy should. I made the witty response, “Yes, but 25 times an hour?” He laughed—much louder and longer than I thought the joke warranted. I didn’t know then about David’s battles and why a little joke about OCD and obsession might tickle him so. David was certainly obsessed. He was interested in everything, everywhere, all the time. David was FOMO before that was an acronym, and that’s how he ran the paper.
One of David’s early innovations was to move the paper, finally, into the digital age. He had to after pissing off then-art director (and film critic, music critic, art critic, etc.) Mark Jenkins, who quit. Pissing off Mark was not difficult to do, but Jenkins was a master of the old Krohm typesetting system, which required exact mathematical calculations to indent a paragraph or wrap text around a photograph. This was 1995, mind you. Desktop publishing had been around for a long while, but City Paper was still wedded to the paste-up method of production. In fact, my title was typesetter—a totally inaccurate job description for what was basically a human conduit between the XyWrite DOS files that contained the articles and the machines that spit them out as pretty fonts on long strips of paper. The strips were then pasted onto boards, and the boards were put in a car and driven many miles away to the printer. Again, this was 1995-96. Computers were already a thing. And the Internet was starting to be a thing, too. With the switch to desktop publishing, there was no need for a typesetter.
Fortunately for me, the Krohm system was a close cousin to HTML. You had to type a lot of < symbols in both. And I was an early online adopter with a spiffy Compuserve account. I wrote a District Line piece about trying to join an online chat with then-Vice President Al Gore. So David decided I should be City Paper‘s webmeister. One of my clearest memories is standing in his office while he made up my job and the word “webmeister.” It’s German for webmaster, but the paper already had a webmaster, the IT guy, Eddie. So I would be the online editorial guy.
City Paper‘s owners in Chicago hated the Internet (with good reason, it turned out). So initially, City Paper would not post any of its precious stories online. Rather, we created a music-centric site, inDC, which I oversaw. We launched a message board, inDCent eXposure, that quickly drew a crowd, and columns written by staffers who were not technically journalists. The distinction mattered to some back then. There was a weekly band interview that usually featured musicians not quite hip enough to get ink from the paper’s critics.
And Mark Jenkins wrote a column, What Goes On, which, because I don’t think he believed anyone was paying attention, was some of his best writing.
Eventually, more content from the paper made it to the site, and the World Wide Web became a bigger and bigger deal. So, in true FOMO style, David moved on to a purely Internet business, Kurt Anderson‘s Inside.com. That site didn’t survive the Internet crash, but David landed at the New York Times and thrived online.
After bankruptcies, redesigns, and office moves, inDC has vanished. But what has survived for me are hundreds of friends I made through the message board and the band interviews, many of whom I actually know in that thing we call real life. So, thank you very much, David Carr.
Alex Baca, marketing coordinator:
Many benevolent spirits loomed large over the City Paper newsroom by the time I got there in 2010. David Carr’s might have been the largest, even a decade after his departure. He was mythical to my class of interns, which became a crop of young staffers—The Night of the Gun had come out the year before, and and he worked where we worked, and then-editor Mike Schaffer had worked for him.
I’ll always feel fondly toward my experience at City Paper; Carr’s imprint absolutely imbued my time there, which I’d like to think of as smart and puckish and lean and wrangling with the constraints of print and the possibilities of the Internet. I mourned him in isolation Thursday night in San Francisco, scanning Twitter and kicking texts back and forth with East Coast media friends who understood what it meant to lose such a giant. I never met him, but I didn’t need to: His aptitude, fearlessness, and goodness was tangible in all his words and in all the lore surrounding him.
Janet Hopf, former City Paper business manager:
I’m one of probably very few people who won two bets off Carr. The first was over the spelling of Players Lounge, where we had his farewell party. (I later lost that cherished dollar to Caroline Schweiter, whose knowledge of Strunk and White I foolishly challenged.) The second one was when he introduced me to chopped liver at Sofia’s in New York and suggested we play odds/evens for the bill. I won the first round, he the second. We stared it down for a while, and what I thought I read in his eyes was, “You are not in my league and will make the fool’s choice,” which cost him lunch. I think I saw a genuine flash of anger, but he wasn’t wrong—I am not in his league.
Elisa Nader, novelist:
I worked with David at the City Paper. I joined around the same time he did. I entered classifieds and matches ads into the system when I started, and David gave me a an opportunity to write for the paper. He gave me my first writing gig.
I remember I wrote a piece on the band Clutch. One of the members of the band asked me to delete the word “fuck” from all of his quotes, because he didn’t want his mom to get upset. I went to David’s office and asked him if I could do it (I was very young and totally inexperienced). David looked at me like I’d grown a second head. “Hell no,” he said. “You’re reporting the truth. And the truth is he says ‘fuck’ a lot.”
Seemingly small interaction, but that has stuck with me. As a young writer, it was a profound lesson to learn. I don’t report any longer, but I do write novels for teens.
David was a wonderful, no bullshit guy. He taught me a lot, and also scared me a little. Sometimes the best do that.
I first met David in the mid-1990s, when he came to town from Minnesota to edit Washington City Paper. At the time, I was writing freelance pieces for the alt-weekly, and when an opening arose, I applied, interviewed and wrote one of those job memos. The process was difficult only in the sense that many of the things David told me I didn’t understand. He used his own language—a dictionary of what his friends would call “Carrisms”—that he often uttered under his breath. “Semiotics of public discourse” is one that sticks out (all these years later, I still don’t know what it means). At one point in the interview process, he told me, “I think we may end up doing business.” Did he need a partner in retail or something? … Yet David’s ascension wasn’t a selfish, slash-and-burn tear to the top, which is why his death is stirring so many emotions across the industry. A deeply tribal fellow, David’s proudest work was not that thing he wrote about Twitter, not that slap against CNN, not that quip he made at the Vice News honcho. His proudest work was the advancement of the people he encountered and mentored along the way.
What’s been less talked about is what I and the rest of our cohort at City Paper knew: Carr was a great boss. He assembled an amazing bunch of people, emphasizing diversity, celebrating quirks, demanding excellence. He could scream and kick ass and terrify, sure, but also had this very deft sense of what would motivate each individual. He bought us books. He gamed out careers. He forged bonds. And he usually made it home for dinner, too, to the family life he’d reassembled out of chaos. It worked on me, and on the old colleagues who spent last night grieving, too. When a prominent editing job came open last year and I told him I thought he should do it, he told me he was glad to no longer be fielding dog-ate-my-homework excuses about blown deadlines, and added—in media-wiseman style—that in 2015 it’s better to be a brand. Maybe. But a glance at Twitter last night made it clear the mentor gene was still strong in him, whatever his title.
Garance Franke-Ruta, Yahoo News Washington editor:
Though I don’t think I fully understand it at the time, in the late 1990s, City Paper functioned in the journalism ecosystem as the metro desk of the magazine world—a place where up-and-coming writers earned their chops and polished their styles covering local issues before launching careers writing for major national publications.
After two years of freelancing for City Paper while working for other D.C. publications, a job as news editor there came open, which led me to my first-ever meeting with David Carr.
We met for coffee at a counter at Tryst in Adams Morgan. I told him why I’d wanted to be a journalist, describing a not so distant trip to Mexico where I’d tagged along with Mexican reporters covering the conflict between Mayans and paramilitary groups in Chiapas. It was about the life you got to live while doing the work as much as about the work itself, I said. He told me the job of a reporter was to get out of the office—“There are no stories in the office”—but that of an editor was to “decide, decide, decide.” He asked if I was up for it. I said I was game. And then he gave me my first job as an editor.
Carr announced he was leavingto work for Inside.com about a month after I came aboard, because, as he said, he liked “the adjacencies.” He knew he was taking a gamble on a novel Internet startup back then during the first online boom, but he was confident it would put him near a place he wanted to be, and even if it didn’t work out, that made it a good move. Boy, was he right.
And memorable. All those little Carrisms stuck with me. “Balls the size of church bells.” “Between us girls.” His gift for the pithy phrase would go on to make him a natural on Twitter, the dream platform for people prone to speaking in epigrams. Our paths continued to cross over the years after I moved back into the world of political journalism. Parties at political conventions, the weekend-long bender of the White House Correspondents Association festivities—if there was a room to be worked and fun to be had, David was part of it. Of course for him by then it was also working his beat, media journalism.
It’s also true that as much of a mentor as he could be, I learned pretty quickly that his way of operating in the world could be no model for me as a woman making my way in journalism. Macho swagger is not a woman’s game, and women who are feared in the office are rarely, as Carr was, also loved. One female colleague at City Paper said she considered it a personal win if she managed to get through a meeting with him without tearing up. When he pushed his writers he wanted them to push back or take the tongue-lashing they deserved, not to collapse or cry, and toughness of spirit is something he cultivated in them. It’s no accident that in later years, many of those he worked with became figures in the opinion media game or cultural criticism, and that he himself emerged as a simultaneous critic of dunderheads in and outside the media and a powerful advocate for his paper and for his profession.
And in many ways, Carr’s later journalism career, his post-City Paper, post-editing career, allowed him to be his best self, continuing to mentor youthful hopes without having to confront youthful missteps or prose on a day-to-day basis.
He was a hell of a writer, but that was as much because he was such an astute observer and creative thinker as because he was a gorgeous stylist. He was a great proponent of the “show, don’t tell,” school of journalism. But it was in his telling as much as his showing that he shone.
Tricia Olszewksi, City Paper film critic:
Nov. 18, 1998, was not only my first day as a proofreader for City Paper, it was my first job in a newsroom of any sort. To ensure the day was as nerve-wracking as possible, I showed up late. (Morning rush continues to be a challenge I seldom conquer.)
David Carr sat me down before I started. I have no idea what he said. This was a Wednesday, a routinely bustling, boisterous day at the paper in an environment already foreign to this Buffalo-born rabbit. And I could sense I was having a (one-sided) conversation with someone formidable.
The hours kept blurring until Carr approached my desk to look at the cover story—which was titled “I’m O.K. Eurotrash.”
“What do you think?” he asked. Whatever my answer was, I guarantee it ended with a question mark. “Uh, I liked it? It’s good?” I’d been too frazzled hunting for errors to form an opinion, and at that stage of what I didn’t know would become my career, I’d be too terrified to admit it if I did have any criticism. (I do seem to remember thinking the paper would be receiving lots and lots of letters.)
Eventually I started getting small bylines, calendar picks and such. I never stopped feeling intimidated by Carr—I’d heard, along with the rest of editorial, his blowups from the office topped with the somewhat joking signage “Cape Fear.” But then the compliment came: “Your writing is gorgeous.”
Those words meant everything to me, even before Carr’s talent, personality, integrity, and tenacity dazzled the New York Times and then the nation. They’ve kept me going, they renew me when my faith fades, they give me hope—particularly after reading his brutally honest memoir, The Night of the Gun—that when I’m feeling rock-bottom down, it doesn’t mean that I’m out.
This morning, my former arts editor told me, “His faith in you was so compelling.” The outpouring of affection and admiration that began last night proves he gifted many with that faith, when he knew that the right amount of encouragement, guidance, and old-school ass-busting could yield a gem. Both his support and his example fortified you, made you want to work harder and get better, whatever your goal. And no one whose lives he influenced, directly or indirectly, will forget him.
Stephanie Mencimer, Mother Jones staff writer:
David Carr was a bundle of genius wrapped up in the most unlikely packaging. Once, when I was working at the Washington Monthly, he stopped by our scruffy, roach-infested Dupont Circle headquarters for a visit. He didn’t get three feet into the office before another editor physically tried to shove him back out the door. He thought Carr was a homeless person who’d wandered in off the street. Steve Pomper will never live that down, but Carr and I had a good laugh about it. But that was the thing about him, especially as the wheels really started to pop off his battered body: The disguise was deceptive.
Behind the guy who often looked like a derelict was a formidable intellect and an unmatchable gift for language. Carr hired me to work for him at City Paper. Even today, I can re-read my old clips that he edited and identify the brilliant one-liners that were all Carr. The “jackknife of joy” and other Carr-isms that found their way into my stories have become like codewords for those of us lucky enough to be in his tribe.
Carr has been a steady figure in my life for 20 years. For someone who had had such a messy personal history, he was a rock as a friend. Even after he launched into media superstardom, and it seemed he knew just about everyone worth knowing, he was always there when it counted. When I got engaged to my then-editor, Erik Wemple, Carr was the very first person we told. He was in my wedding, and gave the appropriately off-color rehearsal dinner toast. When my mother-in-law dropped dead in the supermarket unexpectedly, he was there for the funeral. He scheduled his whole summer last year to make sure he could be around to celebrate Erik’s 50th birthday. He loved my children and they love him.
In spite of the manic pace of both his work and social life, David knew what was important. He was fiercely loyal and just generally fun to have around. Loud and outspoken, he was never afraid to put his foot in his mouth. Two summers ago, at a lake in the Adirondacks, I introduced him to a co-worker and her husband, who was wearing a life jacket on the beach. Carr razzed him mercilessly about sporting the vest on dry land—only to learn later that the guy couldn’t swim. He’d try speaking his loud, terrible Spanish to a street vendor, only to be told later that the vendor was from South Asia. At those moments, he could laugh at himself, and no one ever held those sorts of things against him because Carr’s gaffes were invariably accompanied by such enthusiasm and effusive interest in whomever he was talking to at the time it was impossible not to love him.
To this day, I don’t even know where Carr went to college, which is unusual for anyone who’s spent any time in Washington. He might have liked to drop a few names, but Carr was the ultimate anti-snob. As someone who also has a forgettable college record, I loved that about him. Carr was brilliant, but he also got where he was with agonizing hard work, and working smarter than everyone else, not because of his pedigree or other credentials. That work ethos and determination carried over into his personal life.
Even though he was a physical wreck and a chain smoker, he continued to go on regular bike tours organized by his good friend John Otis. The last trip, in the Adirondacks, he did in spite of a set of ribs broken after falling off his bike in a training ride. For years, I’d wondered how he managed to keep up with the far fitter cyclists he traveled with. I thought maybe he was simply fueled by competitiveness and his determination to keep going in spite of his failing body—a defiant “fuck you” to his own mortality. To an extent, that was all true. But a few years ago, I learned the real secret.
In 2011, I went to China for a visit, and Carr, a man with a friend in every port, hooked me up with his buddy Ruthie, who lived in Shanghai. Over dinner, Ruthie, who’d been on several of the bike trips, disclosed Carr’s secret: He got a head start. Carr would get up and hit the road several hours before the other guys so he could keep up. If anyone had ever wondered how someone like Carr, with his history of addiction and jail and all the other stuff, ever made it to the top of the media pyramid, this story seemed to sum it all up nicely.
Over the past few years, Carr has had a bit of a haunted look about him. He’d lost weight. His health problems seemed to be dogging him more. I think everyone who knew him well recognized, at least subconsciously, that Carr was not going to be on this earth long enough to need a rocking chair. But I think we also had some collective denial about his mortality. To use a cliché he wouldn’t approve of, Carr genuinely was a force of nature. I think maybe we assumed he could go on like that forever, pulling the all-nighters, smoking, drinking gallons of coffee, working like a fiend, and talking, talking and talking. But of course, he couldn’t. And so here we are, devastated, grieving, missing our irreplaceable friend. I think Jake Tapper spoke for a lot of us who knew and loved Carr in an anguished tweet today, “What the hell are we going to do now?”
Deborah Rouse, freelance writer:
David brought me in as an intern in 1996 when I was 26 years old, and I went on to become an editorial assistant and contributing writer. I remember how no-nonsense he was, but still so very kind. I never doubted that I would become a better writer under his tutelage. One thing I loved about David is that he let you write what you wanted to write. He didn’t censor you or hold you back. It was pure joy for a writer. I had a bad habit of sprinkling curse words in my articles, and there was not one time David edited them out, unless they just didn’t fit with the story.
I watched as he coached and guided all of the interns and writers there. Although I was still young, I knew how special David was and how fortunate I was to have had him as an editor.
The one compliment David gave me, I have carried with me my entire life. “You’re a semi-beautiful writer,” he said to me one afternoon in front of his office. Semi-beautiful. He might as well have handed me a Pulitzer, because coming from David, those words were priceless to a young writer. Those words told me, “You’re good, you’re on your way, but you have more work to do.” David let me know I had what it takes, but I needed to refine my craft, practice it, make it the best it could be.
I hadn’t spoken with David since I left City Paper in 1998, but I followed his work and deeply admired, through his articles I read and interviews of him I watched, how he had not changed, no matter how grand he had become in the realm of journalism.
I read a quote from David, “I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve, but we all walk this earth feeling like we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end too soon.” While I found his statement profound, I didn’t agree with all of it. David did indeed deserve the life he was then inhabiting…it was simply good karma for all he had done for so many of us for so much of his life. I will miss him and am so grateful to have known him.
Brad McKee, editor of Landscape Architecture:
Certainly, my vocabulary is richer for having known David Carr. In my early weeks starting to work for him in the winter of 1998, he’d let loose with one of his many idioms, or Carrisms (“…over the windmill and through the clown’s mouth…”), and I’d stiffen and think, What did he just say?, and feel somewhat stupid. Then the first time I spent together with him and the lovely Jill Rooney Carr, I noted that she, too, didn’t seem to understand what he was saying half the time, and she had married him. So I quit worrying about it.
I happened to text David last week to tell him, “off of nothing,” as he would say—meaning unrelated to anything—that ever since I’d worked for him and went on eventually to run my own shop, I’ve tried, consciously and not, to be the kind of boss he was, and that I’d had a moment that day with my office family, never mind the details, when I felt as if I was at least partly there.
He was above all an utterly decent person. When I was the arts editor at City Paper in the fall of 1999, I needed surgery suddenly that kept me out of the office for several weeks and away from the circus of umpteen freelance critics and reporters who needed various levels of hand-holding for each issue. I remember his words when I told him. He said: “You go. Don’t worry about us. We’ll worry about you.” He came to see me at the hospital and brought me a decadent breakfast biscuit. Several weeks later, he called to say he was sending home a trifling make-work assignment for me to edit and send back. The reason was, if I recall correctly, it was Day 29 of my absence, and he wanted to keep me working, technically speaking, and off the disability pay that would kick in on Day 30. The next week, I said I was better and ready to come back. He differed. I was to stay home another week, he said, feel all better for a week, and then come back to work.
I was of course deeply touched, but I suppose not entirely surprised. Before the surgery, I’d been hobbling around for a few weeks sick and tired, not knowing what was up. One afternoon, I shut my office door and curled up the floor. There was a knock at the door. David opened the door and was holding a slice of pizza. “Oh, you’re sleeping,” he said. “I’ll just leave this here for you.”
Kevin Diaz, Washington correspondent, Houston Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers:
I first encountered David Carr in a Minneapolis police report. I didn’t know him personally, but I knew he was the editor of the Twin Cities Reader, then one of the cities’ two alternative weeklies. It was sometime in the 1980s, and I was a night cops reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
My drug days were long behind me, and I admit I looked a little askance at a seemingly successful, talented guy who couldn’t manage to use and keep his nose clean at the same time. Along with another cop reporter at the paper, the late, great Larry Oakes, I mulled whether to report Carr’s drug arrest, given the semi-public nature of his job.
I might have erred in deciding he wasn’t enough of a public figure at the time to warrant a public outing. I forget if Larry took a different view. Maybe it became a metro brief. It wasn’t a conflict-of interest thing. Carr and I were not friends. Our social circles overlapped to some tiny degree of separation, but I got the sense that the alt-weekly crowd looked upon us better-paid mainstream media types with self-conscious hipster disdain.
Years later, after I joined Carr at City Paper, he confided that he had hated me back in Minneapolis, owing mainly, I guess, to my close proximity to law enforcement and my too-friendly access to the folks in power at the Hennepin County courthouse.
Though I didn’t connect the dots at the time, I had been on good professional terms with the cop who busted Carr snorting coke in a seedy Hennepin Avenue bar. Lt. Mike Quinn has since retired. Back then, he was as energetic, clean, and upright a cop as you might ever meet, one who would later go on to stick his neck out, like Carr, as an outspoken critic of police brutality and the code of silence in which it can thrive.
For the record, Quinn didn’t blab to me about the Carr bust. It just turned up in the routine crime blotter check.
In one of those odd twists of fate that make life so darn interesting, I moved back to D.C. (my home town) at the end of 1999, looking for new horizons and a career move. A mutual friend and Strib editor, Claude Peck, put me in touch with Carr, who decided we could “do business.” For me, a mid-career reporter, it was a chance to try my hand at a different kind of magazine style journalism, one where it seemed you were encouraged to write long, abandon the conceit of objectivity, and foist yourself, your attitude, and your reporting into the architecture of the story.
I found this both fascinating and terrifying, and Carr would be my accomplice in the caper. Like practically every journalist who moves to D.C., I made the obligatory stab at the Post, interviewed poorly, and didn’t get the respect I thought I was due. I had to seek out alternatives. The Mooney-owned Washington Times offered me better pay than City Paper, but the alt-weekly offered the intriguing prospect of working with Carr, who had left the Twin Cities with a larger-than-life reputation.
I knew I did not fit the alt-weekly profile. I was a married homeowner with a dog, and, God forbid, I didn’t even live in the District. I was tragically unhip. But Carr liked to mix ingredients, and I think he thought I’d provide practical gum-shoe know-how in a stable full of smarter, more talented, but less experienced young writers. In contrast to a newsroom of wise-guy curmudgeons I’d left behind in the Midwest, I was suddenly surrounded by a group of young East Coast intellectuals who might quiz you on what authors you read.
I could report, but I struggled to get comfortable with this experiment in long-form journalism. Carr was sympathetic to my first effort, an insider account of a botched FBI sting targeting former Mayor Marion Barry. Carr called the first draft “unedited videotape.” I liked the “videotape” part, since I found it suggestive of vivid, colorful writing. But I was wounded by his conclusion: “You’re not out of the weeds yet, Diaz.”
Oh, so this was sort of like work.
Some revising, and some artful edits by Carr, got the story on the cover. But after more than a decade in daily print journalism, this gig felt like boot camp. You toiled over cover stories for days and weeks, not hours and minutes. I was being broken down and built up all over again, and Carr was my drill sergeant. There was even a mandatory staff snowball fight.
Maybe a line or two of another kind of powder wouldn’t have hurt. My nerves were raw in a totally new environment that pushed me to my limits. If I lost heart, Carr prodded me on. I was too old to participate in what I perceived as a newsroom Cult of Carr, but I learned to admire this shrewd SOB, who permitted a certain amount of writerly self-indulgence so long as it hewed to some deeper truth.
You didn’t win many reporter-editor arguments with Carr, but that only spurred you to pick up your game. If he was sometimes a little full of himself, he could always back it up. And a few times, if I could make a case, he would back me up, too.
This is a hoary cliché Carr would hate, but he did take care of his peeps, even if it had nothing to do with journalism. When a young staffer on the business side went missing in some mysterious domestic complication, Carr quietly sent me out to track the guy down.
In the end, I always wondered if Carr’s experience with addiction might not have actually sharpened his edges and tightened his focus. I had known smart, even profound ex-druggies before. But Carr’s ability to cut through the fog of pretension was truly remarkable, beginning with the understanding he imparted in his every word and gesture about the transactional nature of the commodity we served up every day.
But if he had a keen sense of the business imperatives of our chosen profession, he was even more conscious of the larger calling involved. It’s hard to hear that calling and not feel like you don’t measure up. Carr helped us all understand that, and live with it. Be grateful, he counseled in his book, and hope the caper doesn’t end anytime soon.
Steve Volk, writer-at-large at Philadelphia magazine and freelance journalist:
I had coffee with David Carr last summer. We’d spoken recently, over the phone, about his coverage of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and he invited me to the New York Times building. He met me in the lobby, ushered me upstairs to the cafeteria, ordered a small dish of ice cream and we sat, for about an hour, in the kind of pristine light, cascading in through the big picture windows, I associate with church.
He was relaxed, his every word the right one, and I felt a little out of sorts. We’d last sat together, just the two of us, maybe 15 years earlier, when he offered me a job at City Paper. Ours was a whirlwind romance. He advertised a job. I applied. He invited me for an interview and proceeded to spend the entire day and night with me. He parked me in the office when he needed to have a private conversation, but otherwise I was at his hip. At some point he shared his story with me, his recovery from crack addiction, and during lunch he reviewed all the clips I’d sent him and a stack I hadn’t.
He complimented my writing (I was flattered), criticized me for “writing around” reporting holes in some of my stories (I was flustered), and told me my talents would rank me “average” on the City Paper masthead and I never felt so electrified in all of my life. I read City Paper avidly, and recognized the paper as the birthplace of stars. And just listening to Carr break down my work, I felt like I was becoming a better journalist already.
We bonded over shared Midwest roots. He was from Hopkins, Minn. I was from Pittsburgh. And at one point he said, “I know you. I can tell. You’re going to love just getting lost here.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it felt important. When evening hit, he put the week’s edition to bed, gazing intensely at each page as it emerged in the production room. Then he whisked me to a cocktail party, where he worked the room with silky ease. He put me up in the spare bedroom of his house, and I watched him usher his youngest daughter, a toddler then, as she climbed, staggering, up the stairs. We had dinner in the backyard with his wife.
Maybe a week later, he offered the job.
I immediately accepted.
And three weeks later, I called him and told him I had to back out. I had a terrible secret.
In those days, I would spend a couple of days working, furiously, and then a day or two on the floor, unable to peel myself off the ground. My gut boiled in fears I couldn’t name, with the fear of living. A friend had to point out the pattern for me. When he did, I burst into tears. A big move, in the midst of this crisis, seemed out of the question.
Several months later, when I’d sought help, had a name for what ailed me (depression), and could see that I was gaining some mastery over it, I called Carr again. I told him everything. A few seconds elapsed in silence. “You’re going to have a great career,” he said.
He asked me to stay in touch, and we did, intermittently. Over the years, I saw him at a couple of conferences. When I spoke at a discussion he was leading at an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies conference, he gave me a big wind-up of an introduction, like he was trying to plump up my chances of landing a great job. In time, after I started working as a journalist in Philadelphia, I found a niche wandering the city’s poorest streets and recalled Carr’s words, “You’re going to love just getting lost here” and realized he’d seen something in me I had not recognized in myself.
What I will remember most about that coffee in New York is that when we parted, he lifted his hands and slowly, parentally, adjusted my shirt collar. “Stay in touch,” he said.
He looked me in the eyes and said, quietly: “I mean it. I have an investment to protect.”
In the months afterward, we exchanged a couple of emails, and I’d started to write him a longer letter, something to linger over and stick in the mail. But I’ll never get to send it.
A long time ago, a man who could pull the sword from the stone had offered me his hand, and I was incapable of taking it. I might write 1,000 stories. Or I could write one more good sentence. But I will never, ever, forget what I missed.
Jandos Rothstein, City Paper creative director:
When David Carr left City Paper for New York, the staff created a goodbye card for him. The exterior was a satire of a recent cover for a feature he had written and the interior included “translations” for some of the “Carrisms” that have already been written about extensively since his passing. The translation for “I think we can do business”—David’s way of saying “the paper will soon be making you an offer of employment” (and words I will always be grateful I once heard from him) was “soon I will be yelling at you so loudly that the teeth in the back of your head will vibrate.”
That was certainly the David Carr I knew. He did not send a writer or an editor a discreet email when he wanted to express displeasure, but instead barked them into his office—and then, even from behind the closed door, everybody knew what was being said—which I suppose at least offered a view of what to expect when your time in the hot seat inevitably came. His harshest criticism of me came early in my tenure: “So, people around here have noticed that your ego is a bit out of alignment with your talent”—a comment all the more cutting because it was true. That was not a threat of termination, though I might have taken it as such; David never minced words. “Anybody want to now how they’re doing, just ask me and I’ll tell them” he’d say, “but don’t ask me if you don’t really want to know.” But that’s how David managed the economics of an enterprise like City Paper that hires with a philosophy of “get them young, get them talented, get them cheap.” Like a lot young City Paper employees, I had been hired for a position that I was, at least on paper, unqualified for. David was not going to let his ever-churning and inexperienced staff get in the way of excellence. In the process he helped many of us become excellent.
David and I are both the fathers of premature (8-plus weeks) twin girls (his were 5 or 6 when mine were born). My daughters were born on a Sunday, and I called on Monday to say that I would take the day off, but I would be in on Tuesday to put the paper out. Carr told me that I shouldn’t do that, I should be with my family, and anyway City Paper could survive putting out one issue without its art director—I should take the week. Two days later, he called me to ask when I would be in, and only begrudgingly accepted my answer that I would follow his original proposal and not be in until the following Monday. I am pleased to say that City Paper now has a paternity leave program.
David was, I should add, not just a deeply committed parent, but also goo-goo-eyed over any baby, a trait I can fully appreciate now that I am a father of children who are no longer babies—there’s just nothing else quite like holding one. During the six weeks my daughters were in the NICU, he wanted desperately to come and see them, a desire he repeatedly brought up. When I told him their policy was “strictly parents and grandparents,” and that even my brother hadn’t been allowed into the sterile area, he proposed an elaborate fraud—he would impersonate my father which, though only seven years older than me, he seemed convinced he could pull off. “So, my boy, you did it, you really did it, I didn’t think you had it in you,” he said jovially, patting me on the back, previewing the impersonation he imagined himself making for the benefit of the nurses. We never did attempt that, but he all but ordered me to have him and his family over for dinner shortly after my girls finally came home so that he could see them. Needless to say it was daunting, the idea of entertaining your boss, his wife, and brood of three kids—when you are a new parent, your children are hooked up to heart and breathing monitors, need to be fed every four hours and are still scary-small. But somehow we rallied, and made a picnicky meal centered on chicken teriyaki. We planned for an early evening—drinks at 5, dinner at 6, so we could get some sleep before what Carr referred to as “the late shift.” He called a half hour before his scheduled arrival to suggest a 6:30 start instead, because a daughter had “a thing.” But he also gave me the best advice I ever received about parenting twins: “A twin is born with a yardstick—you’ll want to say ‘your sister can do this, why can’t you?’ You can’t do that, they’re each their own person.”
What else can I say about David that (I think) nobody has said yet? He was a master of the extravagant and public apology, which he would employ if he had overruled you, and as a result, it turned out that something he later regretted had made it into the paper. He could unembarrassedly use any wall or corner for a back-scratch, during which time he looked most like a cartoon bear, and if he wanted anything, that need quickly became acute and then desperate—and spread over those around him. I once searched a Utah ski lodge because David had to have a cup of coffee that instant.
Friday night, City Paper employees from the Carr era gathered to remember him. What became clear as we swapped stories and remembered friends and colleagues was that while the man was gone, David Carr the club is still with us. People would ask each other, “Were you a Carr hire? Remember so-and-so? Was she a Carr hire?” All these years later, I’m still proud to be a member.