Remembering Clif Garboden

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

Vanessa and Clif_800
Clif Garboden and Vanessa Czarnecki 

JACQUELINE HOUTON (Managing Editor, Stuff)
I first met Clif Garboden four years ago, when I was an intern at the Boston Phoenix. Then I was 22, shy almost to the point of pathology, too intimidated to say a word to any of writers or editors buzzing about the newsroom. For some reason wholly inexplicable (you know, given my near muteness), Clif saw something in me. He gave me a weekly project for the TJI section, tapped me for freelance fact-checking work after the internship had ended, and always, always encouraged me to pitch ideas. When I wrote my first feature for the Phoenix, it was Clif who ripped my introduction to shreds and told me I could do better. (He was right.) When the managing editor position opened up at STUFF, it was Clif who called me up about it -- no, who practically shoved me at it. And when I arrived for my first day on the job, it was Clif who welcomed me, showing me how to navigate the antiquated software and filing systems, and, more importantly, reminding me that his door was always wide open.

It sounds like the worst kind of cliche -- but it is the literal truth that I would not be where I am today if it were not for Clif, and I am not alone: there are dozens who can say the same, who came to discover that this gruff, grizzled guy possessed the most generous sort of spirit. I knew this already of course, but over the past few days, as I've heard from colleagues and friends and read comments online from strangers, I've been struck to see so many people describe the very same debt. I still can't grasp that we've lost his gravelly voice, his curmudgeonly quips, his wisdom and his anger. I can't believe we no longer get to have him.

Lapsed Catholic that I am, I've long been flummoxed by the idea of a heaven, having little patience for talk of someone being "in a better place." And yet I hope there is a heaven. I hope because of people like Clif, who so eminently deserve one.

VANESSA CZARNECKI (Boston Phoenix, 2006-2010)
The first time I met Clif, he snarled at me. I was a Phoenix intern, still in my last few weeks of college, and interviewing for a copyediting position. He grilled me on my commitment to the alternative press. "Let's give this a shot," he said, but remained wary. I remained terrified of him for the next year. Time wasted, I learned.

Clif was a giant in the alternative press: a brilliant writer, a mentor, and a patient editor. He ushered in every new generation at the Phoenix, teaching them what it meant to carry the alt-weekly torch. He took his mission seriously, but never himself: he basked in life's absurdities and railed against them, never stooped to cynicism and never accepted less than the best. No task was too trivial: he loved his job and made others love theirs.

His final weeks at the paper were spent teaching anyone who would listen, ensuring the paper would transition seamlessly without him at the helm. On the last day he handed me two manila folders. The word "Legacy" was scrawled on the front. No matter how hard he tried, I told him, his legacy wouldn't fit into a folder filled with instructions. "I know," he whispered. It was uncharacteristic for him to take credit for his work.

Long after Clif had left the paper, he continued to stop by the office, to offer words of consolation and guidance. I feared I would lose track of him when I left the Phoenix. Instead we grew closer.

We swapped stories of the paper's progress, of personal matters and new projects. He introduced me to old acquaintances and opened doors, and would send silly videos with short notes like, "For no good reason except that you might be having a bad day." Every email was signed "Love, Clif."

Those who believe that he was grumpy or difficult either did not know him or were not privileged enough to have the myth dispelled. He was generous, genuine, principled and kind -- the alternative to the modern-day newspaperman. He wanted people to live lives of significance; he wanted to push you, but support you, too. He did this for everyone he respected. To me, my friendship with Clif was extraordinary. It probably wasn't to him.

When I first met Clif, he carried two things with him: a briefcase and a camera. Each item rivaled his body mass, which upon our introduction was already minimal. But his spine, so supported by sheer stubbornness, managed to let him avoid any loose footing (though it did nothing for his posture, if anything instead contributing to its downward slope). The contents of the briefcase remained hidden, but he revealed the camera's lens before I got any decent sense of the bespeckled waif standing in front of my desk. I wasn't exactly caught off guard, though. After all, I was the new assistant, with only a few weeks into my tenure, and for Phoenix staff, particularly veterans, the position had a newborn appeal. There were those who stayed on as assistants for years, dwindling in infancy until they were rocketed into journalism adulthood with a proper position -- staff writer, editor, etc. And then there were others who left before they were out of diapers (I guess with my impending departure, I would be classified as the latter). For Clif, though so bitter, so jaded, being an Assistant-to-the-Editor held real promise. You were here, this was journalism. After all, you're at the Phoenix, and even though the last couple of years marred his outlook on the paper biz, this was the house he built -- didn't matter that he didn't live there anymore, he still wanted to meet the new tenants.

Within a few weeks, I was on his email list, and then a face in his one of his albums. I became a thread in the Clif quilt, woven alongside all the other names and faces in his photos and stories. Its dearth was overwhelming but its seams were coming undone -- people were leaving, physically and metaphorically. The photo frame capturing the reunion photos of the ol' newsroom gang no longer called for the momentous squeezing, and the gatherings themselves were far and between.

Few people spoke of Clif's exit from the paper (it happened on my birthday the year before I started; this I found out by way of bounced-back emails). When it was spoken of, it would take up the air of a childhood traumatic event, mentioned either with forced humor or grim nonchalance. Even Clif didn't talk about it much. The bitterness was there, but the details were always missing. What he did mention was what the paper meant to him, how it got to where it was, where it could go.

I always speak of my reverence for teachers, but I didn't imagine to find similar guidance outside of a classroom. Then again, I didn't think I'd need out past college, but seated between an empty desk (meant for an intern) and a crowded office (belonging to the Executive Editor), I found myself in a kind of professional limbo almost immediately. I think Clif picked up on my desperation the first time he saw me, placing his briefcase down, lifting his camera up, finding a shared quality in someone wallowing in doubt on the opposite spectrum of life. It sounds melodramatic, and it is: It's a journalistic perspective. But if it weren't for Clif, I wouldn't have even given myself that much credit -- I would've just called it sulking.

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