Brad’s tattoos. That’s the first thing I saw when I walked into the MauiTime office on North Main Street in the spring of 2008.
I was fresh off a run as staff reporter at an alt weekly in tony Marin County and looking for a new challenge. Something completely different, but sort of the same.
I’d heard about an editor opening at this newspaper in Hawaii, which sounded simultaneously too good and too crazy to be true.
What the hell? Buy the ticket, take the ride, fill out the animal/agricultural declaration form.
“Is Tommy in?”
Brad jerked a fully inked arm toward the back of the room.
“Right in there,” he said in his voiceover baritone.
Sure enough he was, Tommy Russo, slippered feet up on his desk. His kinetic energy hit me before I crossed the threshold. Meeting Tommy is like being hit by a very friendly wave, or maybe hugged by a hurricane.
We talked, me at first and then mostly him. Tommy talks in rolling bursts; keeping up is the trick. You learn with time.
We hit it off, or so I felt, but when I walked out the door past Brad–who shot me a knowing wink for reasons I would only later understand–I felt sure this couldn’t be for real. Maui was where you came to take vacations and sip overpriced corn syrup cocktails. What were the odds I’d live here, wrangling sources and battling deadlines?
Turns out, 100 percent.
I spent three years as editor of MauiTime, and they felt like a flash and an eternity. I interviewed a theoretical physicist-slash-surf bum who thought he’d discovered the shape of the universe, turned politicians into zombies (and I mean that literally), hung out with the corrupt good ol’ boys of the county liquor commission, inadvertently trapped the future governor of Hawaii behind a locked gate, ate from a chocolate fountain with Zac Efron (who was inexplicably wearing a children’s backpack) and printed an entire issue in 3D, which necessitated hand-stuffing blue and red glasses into tens of thousands of newspapers.
Come to think of it, those were some of the less weird things I did.
What I remember most about my tenure at that scrappy little weekly, however, are the people.
The aforementioned Brad Chambers, who served for years as the paper’s chief salesman and tatted primary breadwinner. My various art directors, including the irrepressibly passionate Travis Tiffin (RIP), the lovably fastidious Brittany Shaw and the keen-eyed and hyper-talented Texan Chris Skiles.
Anu Yagi, the erudite Kula Kid, who helped me through my darkest deadline-day doldrums and who won the paper its first Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) writing award. Jen Russo, one of the most laid-back no-nonsense people I know, who stumped for me to get the gig and was always a source of support.
And, of course, Tommy, who has kept the ship afloat for 20 years. Through the halcyon days of the late-90s, through George W. Bush and the Great Recession, through the advent of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter (which Tommy insisted I join way back in 2008, by the way, meaning I totally got the @Jacobshafer handle) and now into the tenuous frontier of Donald Trump’s America.
It’s impressive, no two ways about it. Folks outside the media sphere–the people who grab MauiTime to scan the Grid, chortle at Eh Brah! and see what’s in store for Sagittarius–can’t possibly understand the blood, sweat, tears and other bodily fluids that go into making a publication materialize every seven days. Yeah, that’s how long it took God to create the Earth, but he’s God. And even he rested.
This is a sad story, and a personal one. I hesitate to even mention it, but it’s something Anu wrote about in a different way at the time, so I don’t feel I’m betraying anyone’s trust. (Hope I’m right.)
In the autumn of 2009, I was sitting in my two-bedroom downstairs apartment in Wailuku, overlooking the harbor and the container ships sliding in and out with rectangular metal offerings from a benevolent capitalist deity. My phone rang. It was Anu.
Those words hung suspended and heavy in the sticky evening air. I tried to breathe in, but nothing came.
Anu was in her 20s; vibrant, energetic, irrepressibly positive. Surely this was some sort of joke.
What followed was a hell Anu described in several moving, poignant stories, including a beautifully written personal reflection on an interview with writer David Sedaris, a hero of hers, conducted shortly before her diagnosis.
That’s her story to tell. My story was a suddenly empty editorial office. For weeks, I cranked out the paper without the help of my right-hand woman, who was off on Oahu getting treatment for a bone cancer she didn’t deserve and I couldn’t comprehend.
There were lonely days, late nights, when I left the house before my kids woke up and returned, exhausted, well after they’d gone to sleep. I cursed deadlines, cursed the universe whatever its shape, cursed the random wheel of fate that spins so often without plan or pity.
Then I told myself to quit sniveling. This is what you wanted, dude. To be an editor in paradise. Guess what? Every paradise has a dark side. Every beach has its kiawe thorn.
Anu got better. She came back. MauiTime sailed on. Happy endings exist.
MauiTime sailed on. I just said that, but I’ll repeat myself. Anthony Pignataro, who had the job before I came on and took it back when I bid farewell, is at the helm, and bless him and buy that man a beer if you see him out on a warm Kihei night.
I believe, firmly, it’ll keep sailing. Because of the tenacity of the people it attracts, sure, but also because a tiny rock in the middle of the Pacific peppered with opulence, cultural clashes, layered history, eye-melting natural beauty and an abiding uniqueness needs an irreverent mirror.
For two decades, MauiTime has been that mirror. Has the paper been wrong? You bet. Out of touch? Sometimes. Brash? Damn straight.
Above all, though, as it says below the masthead, MauiTime is independent. It bows to no master, it gives no quarter and, at its best, it asks none in return.
In another year, it’ll be old enough to drink. Bottoms up.
Jacob Shafer was Editor of MauiTime from July 2008 to June 2011.
Photo of Shafer and former MT staff writer Kate Bradshaw: Tommy Russo