December 1999
s m u g
back issues
by Joshua Allen

the journal of municipal arborists

I've been doing this column for a while now, and I was starting to feel like I'd seen it all. The magazines were starting to blur together in a dizzying mishmash of lists, puns, blow-in cards, perfume samples, insipid interviews, and humorous back-page articles. But a couple of weeks ago I stumbled upon something that cleared my sinuses with its holy fire and reminded me of what a magazine should be: a thorough exploration of human culture through an instrument of human evil.

I first heard about The Journal of Municipal Arborists two years ago, back when it was being published under its original title, Haunted Royal. This was when I was deep in my David Foster Wallace phase, and a fan site informed me that he would have a short piece appearing in the '97 issue. I figured it was some lame student publication so I kept my eye out for it whilst cruising the more esoteric newsstands in my humble hometown, but to no avail. I became increasingly antsy the longer my DFW collection remained incomplete, so I applied some heat to my research, trying to track down a distributor for this thing.

The more I found out about it, the more intrigued I became. Here's the deal: In 1988, a man named John Goldhar was convicted of murder and given a life sentence which he is currently serving at the Florida State Penitentiary. Goldhar was involved in some sort of lover's spat with his longtime companion and, fueled by alcohol, he bludgeoned the man to death with his own typewriter. The case was fairly open-and-shut.

Goldhar went nuts, you know, of course, but a few years ago he came out of his suicidal fog, struck by inspiration. He decided to start a monthly publication from within prison, something to keep his mind busy and to memorialize his boyfriend.

Somehow — and this is where the story gets a little sketchy for me — but somehow Goldhar was able to arrange for his sister Emily to get a hold of the killer typewriter. Nobody seems too clear on how this was accomplished, but it sounds like she got lucky and dealt with a soft-hearted clerk who bought whatever story she was spinning.

Goldhar's plan was this: Get people to write stories or articles or whatever on this typewriter, this typewriter with its mangled and twisted keys, clogged with blood and hair and bone fragments, blotted with guilty fingerprints and an innocent soul, fresh out of the evidence bag. The resulting content would be edited by him and designed by his sister, and it would be called Haunted Royal.

The first issue came out in 1995 and is, I hear, impossible to come by. It was your regular low-fi zine, ink-smear'd and corner-stapl'd. Supposedly, the content wasn't particularly interesting, but the story behind its inception got picked up by a few local papers and eventually crept its way up to New York (of course!) where it caught the attention of none other than heartthrob/actor/novelist/dreamer Ethan Hawke.

Yeah, it just keeps coming. So Ethan tracks down Goldhar and, using his sister as a go-between, set up a deal where Ethan would fund the production of this magazine as long as he got a co-editor credit (although in issue #5, the one I have, the editors are listed as "#7098233" and "T. Anderson") and could write a featured poem in each issue. Goldhar readily agreed.

Because of delays in the penitentiary mail system, Haunted Royal was kept to an annual publication schedule, but with Ethan's relatively deep pockets footing the bill, it quickly expanded to over fifty glossy pages, complete with full-color pictures (courtesy of Goldhar's sister and some reappropriated clip art) and noted contributors including the aforementioned David Foster Wallace, Alan Cheuse, Maggie Estep, and Nick Cave.

Early last year, there was some sort of legal inquiry into Goldhar running a commercial enterprise while incarcerated, and this resulted in Haunted Royal being shut down and instantly replaced with an almost identical publication given the more innocuous title of The Journal of Municipal Arborists. I have no idea why, and the only clue is the motto that appears in the rather sparse masthead: "The tree is the life, the city is the prison, the word is the scalpel." Heavy, man. Heavy.

Anyway, I'd forgotten all about all this until I saw a copy sitting right there next to ZYZZYVA or some shit. The only reason I noticed it was because the cover was completely blank and white except for a stylized image of a dragonfly hovering in the upper right-hand corner. I picked it up, glimpsed the title page, and almost peed my pants.

There are a lot of contributors in issue #5; shipping that typewriter back and forth must be a logistical nightmare. Or maybe — and I don't like to even think about this, but it's probably true — maybe they gave up on the whole concept and none of these writers are actually using it. But at least they work at keeping the simulation alive: Each article is (allegedly) scanned from the original typewritten page, complete with endearing typos and jammed keys. Emily Goldhar works wonders with these raw materials, keeping the layout clear and minimal but still potent. Every typeface she uses for the headers is almost imperceptibly blurred or smeared, every horizontal line just barely off-center or angled. A sort of precise, intentional imperfection that's a little unsettling. A single photograph (again, always a little crooked) accompanies each article, usually in supersatured color and so zoomed-in that you don't know what you're looking at until you take a few steps back.

I didn't recognize any of the writers this time out except for Carl Hiaasen whom I only know because he wrote the book that the fine film Striptease was based on. Oh, and of course the annual Ethan contribution, which includes the immortal couplet: "its the dyuing thats th envelope / wrappedup in a lumberng lope" [everything sic because of the typewriter's built-in errors, recall].

There is no rhyme or reason to the articles, of course. They run the gamut from short stories to political analyses to songs to critical essays. But what unites them, oddly (aside from the typos), is an overwhelming sense of optimism and sincerity. Maybe I've become jaded by my immersion in the world of magazines for the past year or so, but the JMA has a noticeable absence of irony and sarcasm. These are writers exploring topics they care about (urban sanitation, advertising color schemes, sadomasochism, the harmonica, love, carpentry, etc., etc.), people finding little hints of joy in the world and talking about them honestly. It's as if they're all trying to wrest some sort of life out of the bloody tool of death that they're asked to work with.

The Journal of Municipal Arborists is the only magazine I've ever read that can be described as beautiful. It's the only magazine that made me feel better instead of worse about the state of the world, creating inspiration out of misery instead of vice-versa.



in the junk drawer

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