November 8, 2015

Beginning of the End


I must admit, with apologies, that after all these years, and with a brain still sodden much of the time, I’m no longer exactly sure which stories I’ve told and which I haven’t yet. So stop me if I’ve told this one before, which comes to mind now as the latest pointless presidential season drones on toward its grim and inevitably pointless conclusion.

            In 2004, the Republican National Convention (and why do they even have these anymore?) came to New York and set up shop in Madison Square Garden, some four blocks due north of my office at the time.

            I’d had to deal with party conventions first hand in the past. In 1992, the Democrats likewise came to NYC, and decided to have a big wingy-dingy at the Guggenheim, where I was working. My god, what a loathsome, boorish bunch of crass, thick-necked, beet-faced louts they were, pouring drinks off the ramps into the rotunda, staggering drunkenly around the artwork, playing grabass with whatever happened by. I knew already at that point there was no difference between one party and the other save for semantics, but that nailed it. These were the people in power, whatever fucking thing they called themselves.

            In 2004 the game was very different and much more frightening. The towers had gone down, the Patriot Act had been passed a few hours later, Homeland Security was in place, the Justice Department had instituted their Total Information Access program, and CARNIVORE was gobbling up all our data. Security was king, and so a huge chunk of Manhattan became a frozen zone patrolled by cops, National Guardsmen, and military personnel armed with semiautomatic weaponry. I had to pass through three checkpoints, showing my papers each time, in order to get to and from work. Let’s just say it pissed me off a little.

            I wasn’t alone. The two editors running the New York Press at the time—Jeff and Alex—felt the same way, but were still young enough to see it as an opportunity to pull a really great prank. That I admired. I liked those guys a bunch.

            As pranks go, it was pretty ballsy. The morning after George W. Bush was set to accept the nomination, we would hit the streets with an issue disguised as the Post—same cover design, same fonts, same everything—but with the screaming headline “BUSH SHOT!” accompanied by a grainy photo of the President looking pained (not that hard to find). The entire issue would be filled with stories and photos to this end, from profiles of the shooter to schematics of the scene to eyewitness accounts and reactions from around the globe, together with the inevitably Postian hair-pulling “How Could This Happen?” editorials. The ultimate joke in the end would be that Bush was not killed in the assassination attempt, but only took a bullet in the ass. How great is that? It would be a big belly laugh of a Fuck You to everything America had become.

            The danger of this was clear from the beginning, especially considering the mood of the country at that point. Historically even casually mentioning shooting a sitting president could easily result in some heavy-duty legal action, but in 2004 you might well be shot on sight or shipped off to Gitmo under cover of darkness as yet one more averted terrorist threat. It was agreed we would keep the issue a secret, and only I, Jeff, Alex, and another staff writer named Mike (himself an inveterate prankster with loads of experience) knew what was happening. Even the rest of the editorial staff was kept in the dark, just in case one of them got to feeling all patriotic. For my part, I contacted an old friend with military experience, a sincere love of firearms, and an extremely poor attitude, and asked him—just hypothetically mind you—what specific kind of weapon he would choose if he was aiming at a target some seventy-five yards away, on a stage overlooking a crowded room in a space that might vaguely resemble Madison Square Garden. Just hypothetically. He asked a few more questions to get the scene down, then responded without hesitation with a detailed description of a specific make and model of weapon I now forget, complete with the necessary modifications.

            Meanwhile the others were writing stories and putting a mock-up together. I must admit it was pretty goddamn funny. We thought so anyway.

            But as things grew closer, the realities of the immediate and savage repercussions we would all face began creeping in. Not only the four of us, but everyone associated with the paper. Because within ten minutes of that issue hitting the streets (the office was just four blocks from MSG, remember), we would have a cadre of armed FBI agents in the office as SWAT mobilized out front and black helicopters hovered overhead. We would all be taken into custody whether or not it was obvious it was all a joke. Maybe especially if it was. The nation at the time was not exactly known for its sense of humor. The computers would be confiscated, the paper would be shut down for good, and everyone—most of whom would have no idea at all this was coming—would be out of work at the very least.

            All this was becoming awfully clear to me, anyway, and Mike too, if to a lesser degree. Jeff, who’d made a career of skewering sacred hogs, was still adamant and anxious to get it out. Even after he assured us he would take full responsibility for everything, the size of the anvil that would come down on everyone prompted a last minute meeting in my office. I hated to be the noodge—I did love and respect the idea. But I was getting up there in years, I was tired, and I was blind, so didn’t much relish the idea of a stretch in stir or worse on account of a funny joke.

            “It’s fun and great and important to play with society,” I reminded Jeff. “Just so long as you remember society plays really, really rough.” Given the way things were, I would’ve been honestly surprised if the lot of us simply weren’t disappeared and that was that. About thirty people would see the issue before it was yanked off the streets, and it would have made no impact at all. And that’s the kind of country we’re still living in now, if not worse, simply because it’s all become so ingrained and accepted.

            Well, Jeff relented, if reluctantly, taking into account all those dozens of others in the ad department and distribution and the fact checkers (well screw the fact checkers) who would also get slapped around, and decided not to run it. It was a sad moment, really, maybe for me more than anyone, knowing I’d been Auntie No Fun here, and worse had knuckled under to the realities on the street outside. It made me feel old. But we do still have that great original mock up around the apartment here someplace, and the fact it existed at all when it did still makes me happy.

            Even though the issue never ran, that was the beginning of the end. It was clear the owners of the paper were having their doubts about these renegade nutjobs in the editorial department who seemed intent on pissing everyone off. The new owners just wanted the Press to be a nice, inoffensive, family-friendly paper in which the role of the editorial content was to shamelessly plug the advertisers. They had no use for things like the annual “50 Most Loathsome New Yorkers” issue.

            (For the record here, several of my proposed entries for those issues were cut for being too mean.)

            Anyway, it was less than a year after the proposed BUSH SHOT issue that Jeff ran Mike’s “The Fifty Funniest Things About the Impending Death of John Paul II” as a cover story, and all hell broke loose. Hillary Clinton and that weasel Chuck Schumer both publicly condemned us, which I found hilarious. I mean, you can’t buy publicity like that. The owners felt differently, and so did the advertisers. In a flash, both Jeff and Mike were gone. The real crime of that story, I thought, was less the impact it had on the paper than the fact it simply wasn’t very funny.

            Alex ran things for awhile and did a mighty swell job, but even as that was happening the owners were already secretly interviewing more easily manipulated replacement editors. And they took my office away. The next three years, as the paper grew tame and dull and flat and incoherent, were pretty miserable.

            Oh wait, now I’m pretty sure I did tell this one already. Well, crap. Guess I really should get to work on that playlist I was talking about in last week’s column.


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