Tribute to an alt-weekly veteran: When David Carr came to Iowa City

David Carr and A. O. Scott
David Carr with NYTimes film critic, A. O. Scott, at the Paley Center on Oscar night 2012. — photo by Rachel Lovinger via Flickr Creative Commons

I waited for David Carr like a long lost friend that spring night 10 years ago in Iowa City’s Shambaugh Auditorium. A minor deity as far as I was concerned, he was a New York Times reporter in town for a speaking engagement, and I looked forward to renewing our acquaintance.

I’d worked with him years earlier at the alt-weekly Twin Cities Reader, when he was an up-and-coming star in Twin Cities journalism, and I was a callow college intern. He was chunky going on corpulent then, with a shock of curly hair, and he walked with a determined stomp. He spoke like an authority on everything and asked questions to the point where you had to end the conversation because he did his best to keep it going by asking another “what else?” Then there were the eyes, always with that mischievous Irish twinkle, taking in everything about you and around you and, sometimes, looking right into you.

But I’d lost touch with him after he fell into his drug-fueled nightmare and, later, a near-fatal bout of Hodgkin’s lymphoma, so I didn’t know what to expect as he shuffled through the Shambaugh door and up the steps.

“Holy shit,” I thought. “That’s David Carr?”

And I was probably not the first person to think that. His back swayed like an old horse, and his head perched so precariously on his rubbery, radiation-ravaged neck I worried it would roll off. He struggled up the stairs, and for a moment I thought, “Nah, that’s not him,” hoping this frail creature wasn’t David Carr, because of all the people who shaped me as a writer, David was in the top two or three. He took a chance back then, and arranged the internship at the Reader after meeting me all of one time. What he saw in that one meeting I have no idea, because I was a pathologically shy, naïve kid with little confidence, no street smarts and few indications of any talent.

The first story I wrote was not good, something that would have been fine in a college newswriting class, which is what he told me as a way of saying it sucked. He’d crossed out every sentence but one, the only sentence worth a shit, he said, and I should re-write the whole thing like I wrote that sentence.

So I did. The revision was great — well, better, anyway — a light bulb clicked, and I was on my way to finding my voice. I worked with him for eight months at the Reader, and his criticism could be painful—he didn’t pull punches when a story was lazy or stupid or just crap. But his praise was frequent and effusive — he said I was a bulldog, that I had a future as a writer. And it made me better.

But for all the good he did to push me as a writer, Carr was not always a good person back then.

Read the tributes following his death and most are brutally honest in detailing what a creep he could be — a monster sometimes — because you can’t describe what made him fascinating without acknowledging his complications and contradictions. I worked with him in 1986, an interesting year to work with David Carr because it was the year he changed from a wild, overgrown party boy who dabbled with narcotics into an out-of control coke addict bent on destroying himself and everyone he knew. It was the year he began the final descent into hell documented in his memoir, Night of the Gun.

He introduced me twice to a sleazy-looking “friend” with a long ponytail and a gnarled smile, someone I knew even in my naivete to stay away from. They invited me to party, have a few drinks.

“It’ll be fun,” they said.

In his memoir, he described a drug supplier who looked pretty much as I remembered the sleazy-looking guy.

He became increasingly unhinged through those eight months, begging his first wife not to divorce him, paying me to research and report his stories, co-workers looking at him with more and more concern that maybe somebody should get David some help. I left in August, just before he began his final faceplant (a frequent Carr-ism).

He eventually rescued himself with multiple trips to rehab and somehow, miraculously, revived his career in the Twin Cities. After overcoming Hodgkin’s, he moved to Washington to lead the City Paper, and finally settled at the New York Times. He had been there only three years, and was not yet the media star he would become, when he shuffled into Shambaugh, and I stared in disbelief at a body that looked like it was squeezed by a vice.

“Nice to be here,” he said, shaking my hand, and when I saw his eyes I knew it was David. There were crow’s feet on the edges and bags underneath, but they had the same glint and intelligence, the same curiosity and Irish mischievousness, I remembered.

His lecture was about the changing media landscape in a digital world. Always foul-mouthed, he made copious use of the f-bomb, which gave him instant cred with the students. When one of them asked why he didn’t finish college the first time he tried, he said, “I majored in throwing the Frisbee and smoking doobie.”

We had dinner together afterward and breakfast the next morning and when he left, he hugged me and apologized.

“For what?” I asked.

“For whatever I did to try to fuck you up.”

— Tom Snee lives in Iowa City

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