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Double vision (continued)


AT NOON ON Good Friday, Kicklighter and Lowenstein are crammed into a Concord Center Brigham’s booth. That’s one-third of the DoubleTake staff. Yesterday afternoon, an interview for this article had been scheduled with Coles at his home, but at the last minute he postponed it to this morning, here at Brigham’s. The shift in location could be due to the indiscriminate groups of Springsteen fans who keep showing up in Coles’s driveway to ask about the Boss — the retired lecturer may be wary about bringing more public attention to his home. Lowenstein drove and Kicklighter came along because, as the latter said when scheduling the meeting, "it sometimes helps [Coles] to have a staffer remind him of details about the magazine during lengthy conversations."

When Coles staggers in 55 minutes late, he looks disoriented, lost. In a foreword to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Walker Evans says of James Agee, "His clothes were deliberately cheap ... he felt that wearing good, expensive clothes involved him in some sort of claim to superiority of the social kind." Coles appears to have embraced this Agee-ism: he’s wearing a brown sweater, and his gray hair is simultaneously matted to his scalp and fanned out like greasy peacock feathers.

In retrospect, the circumstances of the meeting seemed symptomatic of an underlying problem at DoubleTake. Not only did one-third of the magazine’s personnel waste three hours traipsing out to Concord on a workday — to perform a role more suited to assistants, managers, or handlers than to an already-lean editorial staff trying to plot the course of a debilitated magazine — but a waitress who earns part of her living from tips, an "ordinary person" on whom Coles’s entire mission rests, lost a bunch of money during the lunch rush because the DoubleTake group occupied her table for a bill totaling less than $5. Although Lowenstein gave the waitress $20 to save the seats before Coles arrived, she finally asked for the table back at 1:30 p.m.

None of this appeared to register with Coles. According to former DoubleTake employees, Coles’s behavior is erratic, moody, and often oblivious to reality. Moreover, he’s not an easy man to work with on a day-to-day basis. They say he’s the soul, the genius, the blessing behind DoubleTake. But at times, they say, he’s been the publication’s impediment.

"A lot of people have been really hurt there," says one former staffer, who does not want to be identified. "It was a terrible place to work," says another. "There’s sort of a fear about the place. Most of the time people call me to talk about DoubleTake, it’s a witch-hunt to talk about Coles. He definitely has a certain reputation. People want to know, ‘Why did he fire these people?’"

According to people who have worked for Coles, DoubleTake has experienced a long line of messy firings. They say Coles doesn’t tolerate dissent, doesn’t allow anyone else to make decisions, and sometimes uses his psychoanalytic skills to manipulate his employees. They say he publicly minimizes his role in the publication, yet in reality expects his staff to cater to his idiosyncratic will. Making matters more difficult, this behavior often comes as a surprise: those who end up working for Coles often know him from the classroom, where he has a much different manner.

Externally, the indicators are there, too. Consider that over the course of eight years, DoubleTake has burned through three publishers and a CEO. The employee with the longest tenure, designer Betsy Brandes, has been with the magazine for a mere three years. To account for this revolving door, Coles cites the publication’s interminable financial instability. But considering how the place inspires a genuine sense of awe for its thoughtfulness, splendor, and objective, it seems strange that nearly everyone would’ve consistently chosen money over mission.

Another, subtler irregularity harks back to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the oft-cited model for DoubleTake’s vision and intent. In 1936, when Agee and Evans traversed the South to profile three penniless cotton-sharecropper families, the pair struggled with the starkness, devastation, and injury that plagued their human subjects. In the introduction, an anguished Agee — then a 27-year-old Harvard grad — openly grapples with writing about poor, unfortunate, uneducated citizens as a kind of selfish means to intellectual enrichment, sociological observation, and ultimately, pecuniary profit. He calls himself a "spy, traveling as a journalist" and delves into the churlish, plundering, and voyeuristic implications of his and Evans’s roles as reportorial emissaries. Tormented by self-doubt, confusion, and humility, Agee recognizes that Let Us Now Praise Famous Men could be construed, on some level, as a form of exploitation.

That tension is less apparent in the pages of DoubleTake. The publication assumes that documenting people who are often appallingly less fortunate is unquestioningly good. This may or may not be true — there are no easy answers here — but either way, DoubleTake tends to mute Agee’s sense of conflict. That may be because, as Harvard’s Agee Professor of Social Ethics, Coles has been sermonizing about Agee’s moral struggle for so long that he (and, by extension, DoubleTake) has reconciled the clash between the documentarian’s privilege and the injuries of class. Maybe he’s become gradually desensitized to this impasse. Or maybe it’s just that Agee was young, inexperienced, and looking for answers, while Coles is a 73-year-old expert whose lifetime of success settles the dilemma.

But Coles pays lip service to Agee’s dilemma. When asked how he reconciles the disconnect of the elite getting money from the wealthy to depict the common man, he says, his voice fluttering, "This is the part of the tension of our lives. I hold onto the few moments, maybe there are only a few, but I got a letter from a young lady who was a junior in high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She wrote me a letter and told me how much it meant to her to look at the pictures. She thought that if she could only go to college, she’d like to do the kind of work that the magazine writers and the photographers did. I was so thrilled."

Another criticism of DoubleTake is that its tone can be self-congratulatory and sanctimonious, given that it’s so steadfast, earnest, and vocal about its attention to "ordinary" people. How does Coles respond to that charge? "We call those legitimate occupational hazards of people who have values and purposes and who maybe get all too carried away with themselves," Coles says slowly. "An occupational hazard of being earnest is being a bit smug, and a bit full of oneself, and a bit self-preoccupied with one’s mission." He mentions that he witnessed such self-absorption throughout the civil-rights movement, and since his publication is a descendant of that movement, vanity should definitely be a concern. Has DoubleTake veered into that territory? "That’s something we ought to watch in ourselves, and we ought to be very careful," he says, deflecting the question. "That’s a legitimate, straightforward criticism. Because we all know righteousness can become self-righteousness."

NOTHING ABOVE the downstairs archway leading to DoubleTake’s Davis Square office marks the place as home to a National Magazine Award winner. The only visible inkling of life is a collection of books — sets of slanted spines leaning against adjacent second-floor window ledges. Otherwise, there are no obvious signs of the publication’s presence from the sidewalk below: no framed photographs peer out from behind the panes, no verdant plant leaves float in view. Aside from the books, the only other object suggesting human habitation is a yolk-colored banner bearing stanzas from Seamus Heaney’s The Cure at Troy.

So if you wanted to find out whether the embattled journal is still in business after the Springsteen gig’s hurricane hype, you’d have to approach a locked pair of glass doors flanking the Someday Café and look to the right. There, an unobtrusive white placard would tell you that metal buzzer number two belongs to the "DoubleTake Community Service Corp.," the official name of the nonprofit organization that publishes the magazine. Otherwise, aside from a small note posted halfway down the homepage of DoubleTake’s mostly outdated Web site — "Look for a new issue of DoubleTake on newsstands in May" — there’ve been no clear signs of its survival.

"What’s the point of saying anything if we don’t have the product?" reasons Coles. "You will hear a public announcement soon."

Kicklighter, a former officer in the Marines, uses military terms to describe DoubleTake’s recuperation. "For a couple of weeks after the Springsteen concert, that was the big surge. Then after that, we were nursing our wounds and our sore muscles from that big battle that we waged. Then we realized, we didn’t win the war, that was just a battle — a very successful battle."

The next battle is already under way. The long-awaited issue #30 — the first since last summer — is a rumination on heartland America, and will arrive on newsstands this month. Issue #31 is already in progress: a postwar cogitation on children in conflict inspired in part by Coles’s Pulitzer Prize–winning series Children of Conflict. On the business side, an ad-sales circulation person recently joined the magazine’s ranks. There’s a direct-mail campaign in progress, designed to attract lost subscribers back to its lists. There’s also a current-subscriber survey in the works, so DoubleTake can offer potential advertisers an accurate breakdown of its demographic — a standard publishing-industry tool that has been neglected here since 1998.

"Ordinary magazine-business fundamentals need to be put into place, just the way they would for any other publication," publisher Barreca says dryly. "We’d like to increase our newsstand coverage, so that anybody who wants to go out and buy a copy can; that isn’t always the case right now. And we want to increase our advertising base back to where it used to be."

There’s also discussion about the magazine’s long-term future: sending Kicklighter to Iraq for the children-in-conflict issue, giving away free subscriptions to expand circulation, branching out into the community to increase local visibility, someday becoming a monthly publication. In the meantime, there’s work to be done. "We need to be total, no stops," Kicklighter says impatiently. "We don’t have time to pussyfoot around. We need to do it now or we’ll go under."

"This thing is worth it," says Barreca. "If it disappears, there really won’t be another like it. There’s not another one waiting to pop out of the dispenser. This is something we’re saving because it’s not going to be duplicated."

He’s right. DoubleTake may have been strong on sensibility and short on common sense, but the magazine has attempted something unprecedented. It has turned simple subjects into intricate, stunning worlds, and consistently drawn attention to the beauty, grace, and splendor of everyday life. It has viewed societal and commercial constraints as impositions and not obstacles. It has revived the passion and social awareness of two maverick Depression-era documentarians and expanded their work’s focus onto an international level in the 21st century. Just as important, it’s treated readers like individuals rather than markets.

As for DoubleTake’s internal drama, how much does it matter? It’s a subplot, possibly cause for a double take. But ultimately, what remains are the results. DoubleTake has sacrificed everything — very nearly its own existence — to sustain a measure of excellence few could achieve.

And Coles is not DoubleTake, despite his affinity with the publication: the creator is different from the creation, and the creative process can be ugly. In reality, the wrangling really matters only if it prevents DoubleTake from surviving.

"It is all, in a sense, the same, necessary story being presented us, one that bears constant repetition," reads a 1996 Editors’ Story, an issue round-up typically written by Coles. The tale is one of "our flaws and possibilities as they make and break us in the daily stretch and gift of life."

Camille Dodero can be reached at cdodero[a]

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Issue Date: May 9 - 15, 2003
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