About the Editor 

Scenes from the far side of Bruce Dobie's desk

Scenes from the far side of Bruce Dobie's desk

Christine Kreyling

architecture and urban planning writer

It is Friday morning, July 29, 1994. Christ Church Cathedral. Funeral. Blue delphinium and mauve foxglove. Priests in black cassocks. Women in hats. Men in spectacles. Many also wear beards and soft-soled shoes. The deceased: a Vanderbilt professor.

Someone reads from the Book of Common Prayer. We rise for the benediction. Bruce Dobie leans his Scottish deerhound profile—long nose and shaggy, grizzled eyebrows—over the back of the pew in which I sit. I expect mourner murmur—untimely end, how well did I know the departed, how friends are holding up.

Dobie whispers: “Hey, man, I need 1,500 words by Monday. Space to fill. Can you write the Ryman rehab?”

I lean back, hissing, “Can’t do. Sources not available till middle of next week.”

Outside, I tilt my brim against the glare. We speak in normal, if subdued, tones. I am obdurate. Dobie is casually insistent. He needs something; I can write about anything. I am wonderful. He is desperate. I cave. Dobie says, “Awesome. See ya, man.” He lopes to his car. I climb slowly and heavily into mine. I drive through the city, looking for a topic. I find a half-demolished building next to City Cemetery: The 19th-century Nashville & Decatur Railroad Depot in its death throes.

I go home and write 1,500 words. They come easily. They are evocative. I am pleased. It is one of my good ones. Dobie blesses me. That is editing.

It is a Wednesday morning in March 1995. Cummins Station. Bruce Dobie’s office.

I knock on the open door; he waves me in. He’s on the phone, says to me, “Hold on a minute, let me finish this call.”

I sit. My dog, Raymond, picks up a golf ball from Dobie’s plastic putting green and begins to chew. Dobie turns his back to me. I scan his desk and shelves, looking for something to wrap my mind around. I know it could be a while. I settle on Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I begin to read the first essay: “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.”

This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles....

Bits of Dobie’s phone conversation buzz in and out of the Didion.

Dobie: You’re asking me what it’s like to be an editor? I just sit here and let it all come at me. Mostly I’m plugging holes in the dike with all 10 fingers....

Didion: This is the California where it is easy to Dial-a-Devotion, but hard to buy a book....

Dobie: All writers are basically neurotic as hell. Comes with the territory. I made a minor criticism about some copy once, and the guy went on three-day binge. Yeah, and he’s one of our best....

Didion: Of course she came from somewhere else, came off the prairie in search of something she had seen in a movie or heard on the radio, for this is a Southern California story....

Dobie: At least my writers realize they’re a little twisted. They admit it, and they respect each other...very strong personalities, full of attitude. Get ’em in one room and they’re all just being themselves, and the one-liners....

Didion: In some ways it was the conventional clandestine affair in a place like San Bernadino, a place where little is bright or graceful, where it is routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed....

Dobie: I just turn ’em loose, tell ’em to write with passion. Shit, it’s a writers’ paper....

Didion: The California Institution for Women at Frontera, where Lucille Miller is now, lies down where Euclid Avenue turns into a country road, not too many miles from where she once lived and shopped and organized the Heart Fund Ball....

Dobie: And they always want more money....

Didion: A lot of California murderesses live here, a lot of girls who somehow misunderstood the promise....

Dobie: You’d be a great editor. Go for it. See ya, bye.

Dobie swivels his chair and seems surprised to see me. “Buddy of mine movin’ up.” Pause. “All that talk about writers being neurotic and twisted. ’Course, I didn’t mean you. Can we just keep this, um, confidential?”

I laugh. He relaxes. Raymond drops one badly pockmarked ball and begins on another.

“So what’s happenin’? What’re you workin’ on?” He sees the book in my hands.

“Ah, Joan Didion—one of the great closing lines in non-fiction: ‘A coronet of seed pearls held her illusion veil.’ ” It is the final line of “Dreamers,” the essay I’d been reading.

Now that I have a piece of Dobie’s attention, we begin to talk.

Kay West

food critic

In the newspaper business, the adjective that most often precedes the title of editor is “crusty.” That has applied to many of the editors I’ve worked for, with the notable exception of Bruce Dobie.

In fact, a loosely organized group of women who work for the Scene fondly refer to him as The Breeze. It’s a term that not only describes his personality as we know it, but also his management style, which can be so hands-off we sometimes want to tether him to the nearest post. As frustrating as that can sometimes be, it works for us, allowing him to ride herd on a stable of perma-lancers (as he calls us) so blatant in our dysfunctional, self-absorbed narcissism that for years we were not even invited to the annual company Christmas party.

If he wants to get a paper out, Dobie has to deal with each and every awful one of us, some more often than others. Perhaps the only way he can do that is by enveloping himself in a protective bubble of bemused detachment.

In the 10 years I have worked for Bruce Dobie, I have only seen him lose his temper once; unfortunately, I was on the receiving end. It was an event so rare, so atypical, that it has become enshrined in Scene lore. Dobie had magnanimously allowed Christine Kreyling and me to take a road trip to Birmingham, where we would observe and report on the architecture, the food, the shopping, and overall the personality of the city. The self-absorbed writers that we are, we made reservations at what is considered Birmingham’s finest hotel, The Tutwiller. God knows we were willing to share a room, but when we were told the only ones left had just one bed, we reserved two.

We had a wonderful time in Birmingham, eating at three of the city’s most popular restaurants, each time taking along at least one guest. When we returned, Christine handed in a piece on the architecture and landscape of the city; I wrote two pieces—one on the food and one on Birmingham’s unique shopping opportunities. We also sent in our expenses for the weekend, which together added up to around $1,000.

When I got the paper on Wednesday night, I found that not only was my entire shopping story missing, but the food column had been cut to about 250 words. My fingers couldn’t dial the Scene number fast enough, and when I got Dobie’s voice-mail, I let loose a stream of self-righteous indignation, letting him know in no uncertain terms that I hadn’t spent my weekend in Birmingham, Ala., for a lousy 1,000 words.

The next morning, I was a guest, along with PR guru Mike Pigott, on the Teddy Bart show, which at that time was broadcast from Cummins Station, where the Scene was then located. Afterward, Pigott and I decided to drop in on Dobie. He was on the phone as we stood at the door to his office; when he turned around and saw us, he immediately hung up. A storm cloud seemed to pass over his face, and he stood up. He pointed a finger in my direction.

“You!” he nearly shouted. “Sit down!” He pointed at the chair in front of his desk. “You!” he pointed to Pigott. “Get out!” As he was physically pushing Pigott out of his office, the last thing I heard Pigott say before the door closed was, “Are you going to fire her?” He was nearly gleeful. Dobie shouted back through the door, “I might!”

He went behind his desk, picked up a copy of that week’s paper, and threw it; it whizzed a couple of inches past my head, hit the wall, and splattered onto the floor. For the next 15 minutes, he read me the riot act, the gist of which was something like, how dare I call and complain to him about my story getting cut when Christine Kreyling and I had just spent more money in one weekend on the road than he and publisher Albie Del Favero had spent in four. The way he figured it, the story paid me about $1 a word (a princely sum for an alternative paper, I assure you, and far more than the going rate at the Scene). He ranted and raved on. All I knew was that by the time he was finished with me, I still had a job, but I was going to be kissing some major booty for a long time to come.

I learned two other things from that experience.

No. 1: Never throw a hissy fit on voice-mail. I promise, it will come back to bite you in the ass.

And No. 2: We may call him The Breeze, but pushed by an ill wind, Bruce Dobie is capable of unleashing all the terrible fury of a tornado.

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