Stephanie and I met through zines.
The next question is always, “What the hell are zines?” Zines (rhymes with beans) are amateur magazines, published on photocopy machines and sent through the mail. Instead of thousands of copies, a zinemaker (or zinester) prints perhaps twenty, perhaps a hundred copies; then he/she folds and staples and mails them to anyone who expresses an interest. One of the best ways to express an interest is by sending a zinester a couple of dollars. Another way is by sending a zinester the zine you’ve created.
Zines were wildly popular with a tiny niche audience in the 1980s and ’90s, before there was much of an internet. Zines are still being published and mailed today, but the audience has gotten smaller, since most folks find the internet easier. On the internet, you don’t have to send cash to a stranger and wait a week or two to receive something you might or might not like. But the internet lacks a personal touch, zine enthusiasts will tell you. And I’ll tell you, if you haven’t read zines you don’t know what you’re missing.
Stephanie lived in Madison, Wisconsin, and wrote and published a zine called Crawfish, which sparkled with comedy and satire. Perhaps it’s best likened to a good episode of Saturday Night Live, but on paper, with a new and usually funny article every few pages. I would sprawl out in bed reading each issue, laughing a lot, and when I’d finished reading I’d usually read it again. If she had made it her goal, she could’ve written material for comedians or sit-coms, except that her writing was usually funnier than the professionals’.
I had written a zine called Pathetic Life, a day-to-day journal of my late 30s, after I’d given up on ever finding love, working part-time at crap jobs, and living in a ramshackle San Francisco residential hotel, sharing the room with rats and roaches. It was a mildly mean-spirited homage to loneliness and poverty, with an occasional chuckle if the words weren’t too clumsy.
By this time, though, I had stopped publishing Pathetic Life, and instead I was publishing Zine World, a mega-zine primarily focused on reviewing other zines. Every issue of Zine World would, we hoped, introduce readers to hundreds of zines they’d never heard of. Stephanie and I had traded notes to each other along with our zines, and I knew she had exactly the sharp wit I was looking for, so I had asked her to review zines for Zine World. In that sense we’d been colleagues or unpaid co-workers for almost two years.
Soon we were trading letters instead of notes, and something about our personalities smoldered and eventually sparked in those marvelous letters. In one, she wrote that the only meaning of life is to be kind to others, and then she explained what she meant, at length. In another, she mentioned that she’d earned a college degree and had been well on her way toward a second but she’d dropped out instead. Takes some serious guts, I wrote back, to reconsider something enormous like that, and walk away when no doubt your friends and parents would be disappointed. She once told me she’d thought flunking out of grad school was a major failing in her life, but that she began falling in love with me when she read that line in one of my letters.
Now that she’s gone, it would be heavenly to re-read those letters and perhaps quote them at length, but somewhere in our travels all those letters were lost. They exist only in my heart.
At the time, I had maybe two or three friends, and to my surprise one of them was this young single woman I’d never met. So we decided to actually get together, face-to-face in the real world. She booked a flight to California, and I met her at the airport. Her plan was to stay for a week; she ended up staying two weeks and marrying me (spoiler alert!).
I had never seen Stephanie before that moment at the airport, not even a photograph of her. She didn’t want me to see what she looked like, until we were face-to-face. Steph always thought she was fat and never thought she was pretty, and preferred not to have her picture taken. That’s actually part of the allure of creating zines – you can’t see a zinester’s face, only a zinester’s personality. So people who saw themselves as ugly, or fat, or hideous, could connect with others and be judged solely on the content of their characters.
At San Francisco Airport on a June evening in 1997, I stood at the gate and watched a parade of people debarking from the plane, waiting for one who seemed to be about the age (26) and gender (female) I’d been led to expect. She was the second 20-something woman to come off the plane alone, so she was the second one I said “Steph?” to. The first one looked at me like I was crazy. The second one smiled and said “Doug?” and we took up our conversation where we’d left off in our letters.
Even that quick conversation was remarkable, because conversations or social interactions with almost anyone were difficult for both of us, yet conversations with each other were so very easy, right from the start.
And how silly that she’d been worried that she was fat and ugly — she was plump but not really fat (I was always the fat one), and maybe she wasn’t Vogue model-material but she was definitely an attractive woman.
Was it love at first sight? Yeah, it was, but there’s more to it than that. Steph and I had already exchanged dozens of letters, and our letters had some real content – not just a lot of “How’s the weather in Wisconsin?” and “How are the earthquakes in California?” In our letters, we went on for pages and pages about things that mattered to us, things we believed. So sure, it was love at first sight, but we certainly weren’t strangers at the airport. To a large extent, we had already fallen in love via the mail. I was 3/4 sure before I laid eyes on her that she was the one, and Steph felt the same way.
As we walked down the airport concourse and outside, then onto a Muni bus headed for San Francisco, the words continued flowing easily between us. All our lives, we’d both had trouble talking with strangers, but there we were, riding the bus to my scuzzy hotel, and talking with no shyness at all. Two strangers were talking like best friends, which, it turns out, is what we were from the moment we met.
More about Stephanie.