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Metro's 20th Anniversary Issue
Thank You, Silicon Valley!: A founder looks back.
How We Barely Survived a Publishing Startup 20 Years Ago...: By Julia Smith.
A Letter to 1985, From the Year 2005: By Richard von Busack.
Growing Up in Public: A look back at some of Metro's most talked-about articles.

Cover illustration by Max Kisman


How We Barely Survived a Publishing Startup 20 Years Ago So You Could Spill Your $5 Starbucks Latte On It Today

By Julia Smith

SO THERE we were, a handful of us chosen by who knew which cruel deity to start a newspaper out of little more than thin air: January of 1985, hunched up in a cockroach-infested concrete meat locker of an office next door to the Pussycat Theater in downtown San Jose's filthy inner-city guts. Obviously, we were there because the rent was cheap. Half the buildings on the block were boarded up. The few businesses that were open had been there forever, with the exception of Eulipia Restaurant and Camera One Theater.

Nobody I knew would set foot in downtown San Jose back then. It was a rat hole. The only people who went there had to go out of duty or obligation by day, but the town was as empty as a boardwalk in winter after 5:30pm except for theater nights. And that's where Metro was born, in the wee hours of the first Thursday in March. That neither of the publishers knew dick about San Jose (one was from L.A., the other was from Los Gatos, which was worse) wasn't important. They had an idea that nudged my little neurons and protons and endorphins to life. They wanted to establish an alternative voice to the drone of the San Jose Mercury News in Santa Clara Valley, and I wanted—I needed —to be there.

So we all killed cockroaches and they hired people who worked for so little money that I'm still ashamed, 20 years later, to tell people what I was paid to put in 60 or 70 hour weeks, me and a mismatched community of hopefuls who wrote articles and took photographs and submitted artwork and sold advertising space for a counterculture weekly newspaper that didn't even exist yet (try to get yourself up in the morning for that kind of a challenge). Capable persons somehow formed an art department and made us tangible, despite our wobbly journalistic abilities and forays into something called "infotainment." We went through staff like they were paper clips but there was always someone else crazy or desperate enough to join the payroll and help push that greased ball up a glass hill, week after money-losing week.

I remember sitting on the floor in the publisher's office drinking whiskey out of paper cups after the sales numbers came in on Friday nights, and him always thinking we were never going to make it and me always believing that somehow it was all going to work out. We found an actual homeless dead guy under the floorboards across the street but the guys wouldn't let the women look at him, so I got our photographer to get me a picture and I pasted it on the wall of my cubicle to amuse myself. Before I could afford to rent a wonderfully crummy apartment a few doors down near the soon-defunct Sex Shoppe Arcade, I slept on the sofa in the lobby or my broken-down Honda Civic and went out on dates mostly so I could get some vegetables in my diet once in a while.

We yelled at each other and smoked cigarettes with pre-Surgeon General abandon and suspected each other of every vice under the sun, but I loved it. I loved writing, and editing other writer's works, covering the South Bay's exploding theater community and finding hidden surprises in the hundreds of people I'd interview.

People lied to me, people lied about me, people pissed me off so bad that I'd wait months for the chance to tear them to pieces in a later article and then do it—always, of course, in the best of taste. Conversely, I met great people who deserved far more recognition than we could ever offer, small as we were. At the same time we were evolving, San Jose spent half a billion dollars on a makeover, which chased the hookers and their tricks off the sidewalk in front of our office. And so we survived, my life merging with Metro for more than six years.

It was great. Like live childbirth, which I've done since. You'd just never volunteer for it if you actually knew what you'd have to go through to get that thing out there into the real world in the first place.

Julia Smith died on Monday after a long battle with cancer. Julia was a founding member of the Metro staff, starting as a member of the advertising department, and later working as office manager, writer and editor. She is survived by her husband Colin and daughters Lily, 13, Irene, 10, and Colette, 8. Services are pending. Donations may be made in her memory to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. — Editor

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From the April 27-May 3, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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