In the summer of 1999, I was 26 years old. I'd just impetuously quit a job at Mother Jones magazine in San Francisco, packed up a Saturn wagon, and moved into my mother's basement in Washington, D.C. I had no job and no real prospects, and like many 26-year-old jobless journalists, I set about seeking "informational interviews" with various grandees in the hopes of stirring something up for myself. My friend Clara Jeffery, who had worked under Carr at the Washington City Paper, suggested I give him a call, and told me to use her name.
I knew nothing about Carr at that time. This was in Google's beta days, and if I had thought to look him up I would have simply found that he ran the City Paper and had written some stuff. He was just a name on a list of potential career saviors I was going down. I left a voicemail for him at his office: Hi, I'm some kid, you don't know me, Clara Jeffery said to call, I need a job, would you buy me lunch.
I didn't hear back—and please understand that this is just an unverified recollection, because there is no one left to verify it with—for a day or two, so I tried again and left another message. A day or two after that, he calls me back.
"I'm sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. I'm calling you from a hospital in Minneapolis. My mother is dying."
"Oh Jesus I'm sorry, I'll just circle back in a month or so."
"Don't be silly. She probably won't last the week, in which case I'll be back next week and we can maybe do Thursday. If she lasts longer than that, we'll have to wait and see...."
"Mr. Carr, please, I don't want to bother you at a time like this. I'm so sorry."
"It is what it is. I'll call you next week."
She died, he called. He showed up for lunch wearing bermuda shorts, bunched-up socks, and a baggy, garish Hawaiian shirt. He didn't have a job for me, but he asked me about my life, my work thus far, how I knew Clara. I asked him to tell me how he got where he is. I was anxious. I wanted to succeed, quickly. How do you get to be the editor of the City Paper? What does the career arc look like? Where are the handholds?
I don't recall the particulars, but it went something like: "I started out in state politics, and wrote a little bit, then I was a crackhead for a few years..."
"Yeah, full-on crackhead. Welfare. Trailer park. Then I cleaned up and became the editor of a paper in Minneapolis...."
This was before David had become a North Star in the journalism business by way of his Times gig, and before his candid memoir The Night of the Gun. His tour of duty as a crackhead wasn't that widely known, not that he ever sought to hide it. But the knowledge of it was a shock and a release to me. A lot of people in this business get mired in anxiety in their mid-20s—you see your peers succeeding suddenly and spectacularly, getting launched into notoriety on the strength of one good story. How will I get there? Am I spinning my wheels? How do I achieve launch velocity?
I was a young man in a hurry, deeply worried that I would miss my moment to penetrate the upper echelons of the career I had chosen. As David spoke, I started running the numbers in my head, and a wave a relief washed over me: At my age, David had just started freebasing coke, and had a good three or four more terrifying and lost years until he started to get his life, and those of his twin daughters, in order. He wasn't telling me this to encourage me to go fuck off for a while. It was: Slow down. Do the work. There is time.
It wasn't that many years before I found myself counseling aspiring reporters a few years younger than myself who were struck with that same sense of urgency and despair at not having made quite the splash they had hoped. And I would always answer: Do you know who David Carr is? Do you know what he was doing when he was your age?
Over the years of my friendship with David—we worked together at Steve Brill's operation after Steve bought Inside.com, and he's been a reliable friend and mentor and defender and critic of Gawker Media for most of its life—he would occasionally shit on my work, and I would occasionally shit on his. But we didn't take the shots we traded personally; he would crankily let me know when Gawker's coverage of the Times fell short, and acknowledge a clean hit with the composure of a professional.
I am a cynical person. I was often tempted to view David's gregariousness as mercenary, or self-interested. There's no doubt that he was an operator. He cultivated relationships and traded on them and championed favorites and enjoyed his proximity to celebrity. He hung out with Judd Apatow, and he liked being that guy. He leveraged the access his job as a reporter got him into personal friendships with a lot of powerful people.
But every time that temptation arose—David Carr the influence-peddler—I remembered the skinny guy with plucked-chicken legs in an ugly shirt who literally walked away from his mother's deathbed to return the phone call of some annoying, entitled kid that he'd never heard of. And I don't know, but I certainly believe that the same impulse motivated his relationships with people far more worth knowing than me.
Last night I started running the numbers again, and discovered that next year, I'll be the age that David was when he sat down to that lunch with me. I realize now that the sense of peace and optimism our conversation instilled in me was somewhat misplaced—as it turns out, I wasn't able to achieve a fraction of what he achieved in the decades between his 20s and 40s, even without the albatross of addiction that he faced.
I don't mean to say that I hoped to simply enter into a slipstream and advance methodically up some media-status ladder until I reached his rank. For a lot of reporters my age, Carr was the guy you aspire to, either to be or to impress. His was the bell you wanted to ring. A little over a year ago, the reporters in my tribe lost another father figure, Peter Kaplan. They were the two men that, for many of my peers, served as internal editors. We fine-tuned our work to hit their sensibilities, to hopefully prompt a congratulatory note or a flicker of recognition. Losing both of them in a span of months feels like losing a rudder.
Now, as I survey the gulf between where David finally ended up and where I am today, I am forced to amend the lesson I took from him. Yes, if you are willing to do the work, there is time. But never as much of it as you thought.
[Photo by Victor Jeffreys]