Remembering Clif Garboden

The life and times of an alternative-media true believer
By PHOENIX STAFF  |  March 4, 2011

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It is said of great actors that they can read a phone book aloud and make it sound wonderful; the same was true of Clif's writing. Among Clif's many duties at the Phoenix during the five years we worked there together (and long after) were "Hot Dots," the television listings -- long columns of tiny agate type that we joked were primarily there "to keep the ads from slamming together." But Clif managed to make even the listings required reading: funny, caustic, pitch-perfect nano-critiques of, I don't know, Brideshead Revisited, maybe, or Hill Street Blues, or SNL. The Jerry Lewis Telethon. Whatever -- you wanted to read what Clif said even about shows you would never watch. At the end of each column was Clif's signature coda: "the 525th line." Long after I left the Phoenix, but before the revolution in Cable and TiVo made TV listings obsolete, I would devour these nuggets of philosophy from Clif. How he jammed so much wisdom, intellect, and humanity into so small a space I'll never know. Honestly I think someone should collect these.

Long after I'd met Clif at the Phoenix (that would be 1985, at 100 Mass. Ave.), I'd send my best Emerson College students to him -- literary hopefuls looking to write about things that mattered -- should there be an open internship or entry-level job. In 2008, I sent him Jackie; she seemed a perfect fit; in fact, her sensibilities and values reminded me of my own when I crossed the hallowed Phoenix threshold (126 Brookline Ave. by then). Clif responded oh-so Clif-like: "Thanks," he wrote me in an email. "Jackie's kinda like you when you were young, but I think she has a more developed sense of humor (remember the day John Ferguson tried to explain how to write a headline pun to you?)." He went on to explain how the conversation was prompted by my "suggesting a headline that punned in the wrong direction." Then he closed with: "Seriously, she is one good kid (as you were, of course)."

I don't recall the headline tutorial -- just that I was totally awed and intimidated by both Clif and John back then. But to think that Clif saw me -- so nervous and intense and, well, square -- as "one good kid" makes me beam even now.

It is impossible to say how much I will miss Clif -- his unique voice hilarious, laced with cutting social commentary, and loving all at once. He could do that because was so fiercely intelligent and cared so much about so much. When he was first diagnosed with cancer, in 2004, he wrote a letter to the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, where he was president, answering some "obvious questions" folks would have. One such: "What can we do to help?" Clif's response: "Nice of you to ask. Actually, all I ask is that people not fear, shun, or avoid me, no matter how repulsive I become. Comments such as 'Hey, baldy, you look like crap,' are fine as long as I can feel the love."

Oh, Clif. We all felt the love, in both directions -- to you, from you, whether you were reminding us of our punning deficiencies or actively championing our new book. I felt it when you came to my book signing, in October, and asked the most rigorous question of the lot about a topic in cellular biology that left many in the dust. I felt it when you followed up, urging me to blog, blog, blog!, to publicize the book, when a new scientific finding on the subject came to light. And I feel it when I read and reread your remarkable writing: in emails, printed articles, and blog postings so full of grace and courage, humor and fire. You signed off one Garboden family Christmas letter "Fight fiercely and keep your favorite faith," punctuated by that trademark lowercase "clif." With you at my back, I will.

Clif Garboden was the boss in the office with a door in 1979 when I started work at the Phoenix in a job that's now extinct -- typesetter. Clif was ultimately the man responsible for making sure that old-fashioned curio -- a physical printed newspaper -- hit the street on time every week. The production schedule reflected the first of three qualities I most remember about Clif: clear, sane rules and organization. Turning out the paper was like running a good editing session. There was minimal anxiety and anguish, but also minimal screwing around and you could enjoy a stiff drink at the end.

Tensions ran highest when a fat special edition was pressing the deadline. Only once, Clif went ballistic in the middle of the press room and ordered everybody in general to get cracking. His rant was so ferocious that hair jumped off all of us and we began working as though we had four arms and 60 fingers.

The second aspect I recall is that Clif incarnated the fundamentals of excellence in generalist journalism (along with the original master of "Don't Quote Me," Dave O'Brien). Seemed Clif could write about any topic and it was never glib or churned out. Often, the reader felt like he or she was learning facts and insights along with Clif, as he was knowledgeable, probing and always, always, dryly humorous. Pick a subject that interests you, do the research, have fun with it, and all will go well. Clif inspired me to undertake one of my favorite articles -- about bats (the flying mammals, not the baseball sticks),

Finally, only Clif could have created "Hot Dots," a weekly TV-schedule rundown for the ages. One of the earliest super-popular features of the paper, "Hot Dots" was more than TV Guide with a soul; that was just the first step. Clif cast a cool eye on a cool medium, but with boundless engagement. More than any other TV column, "Hot Dots" conveyed the torrent of television: mountains of unmitigated swill, bright moments of bright drama or comedy or history, fun mindless and otherwise pretense and desperation and bits of unintended glory mixed with nonstop transmitted trance. To me, "Hot Dots" suggested what the most sagacious imaginable incarnation of television would write about itself. A single, succinct example of Clif's perfect pitch will have to do here:

9:00 (44) Frontline: Hunting bin Laden. A good terrorist is hard to find.

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