Jewish World Review June 3, 1999/ 20 Sivan 5759
Coping with the Alternative Press
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These Southerners are friendly and eager to josh around, but man, they move at a lethargic pace. When I landed at the airport on Thursday morning, after an uneventful Northwest flight (what a relief, finally, not to fly Continental out of Newark), I waited on a taxi line for 45 minutes. And then I had to double up with a goober who had a closer destination: I never did like sharing cabs—a real downside in DC when I worked there in the early 80s. But soon enough we got to the Peabody, a classic, grand hotel. There’s the feted “duck walk” twice a day, where locals and tourists flock into the lobby to watch ducks troop into and out of the elevator and wobble on a red carpet laid out for them.
According to the Peabody Memphis Fact Book, this is how the tradition originated: “It all started back in the 1930’s when Frank Schutt, General Manager of the Peabody Memphis, and a good friend, Chip Barwick, Sr., both avid outdoorsmen, returned from a weekend hunting trip to Arkansas. It seems that they had nipped a bit of Tennessee sippin’ whiskey, and thought, with schoolboy prankishness, that it would be humorous to place some of their live duck decoys (it was legal for hunters to use live decoys) in the beautiful but barren Peabody fountain. Three small English call ducks were selected as ‘guinea pigs’ and the reaction was nothing short of enthusiastic. Thus began a Peabody tradition which was to become famous in international hoteldom for years to come.” Cute, but hardly the changing of the guards.
Fortunately, Andrey Slivka was also here, as well as NYPress controller Paul Abrams, so I was free to skip all the seminars, explore the small city and eat barbecue. New Times’ CEO Jim Larkin and I tried out the Interstate Bar-B-Q, about five miles outside town, and it was an inch less touristy than the joints in the heart of Memphis. It was a fine lunch: chopped pork shoulder sandwiches, a slab of ribs and chicken wings with a bracing hot sauce did the two of us fine, as we gossiped and talked business. I’m not one for the midday meal as a rule, so I was bushed by the time we got back to the Peabody (the cabby waited for us; there are so few of them in town that you don’t let one get away), picked up a batch of the AAN papers, checked my e-mail, called the office and read for a while.
It was curious to see that Charleston, SC, now has a weekly called City Paper, with the discarded logo of a similarly named paper in Philadelphia. The Charleston City Paper, which drew negative reviews from AAN’s uptight admissions committee, has a cool column called “The Wandering Eye,” which is loaded down with pinko politics (this “hate crimes” controversy is just so bogus; a crime is a crime) but has an edge to the writing that isn’t seen often in AAN ad-sheets.
But there’s a story here: back in ’81 or ’82, the Philly City Paper started up, stealing the name Al From Baltimore came up with in ’77 when we huddled in his five-story walk-up, trying to figure out a jazzier title than City Squeeze. They were within a geographical distance close enough to Baltimore that we could’ve sued for copyright infringement; unfortunately, Al and I were neck-deep in IRS debt and didn’t have two nickels to rub together for meaningful litigation, so we let the egregious theft go. The other day, a friend of mine told me that Bruce Schimmel, former owner of Philly’s City Paper, said in fact it was MUGGER and AFB who lifted the name! That’s bald-faced revisionism, and dishonesty that doesn’t sit well with me, but there’s nothing you can do except get angry for about a minute, realize the guy’s a jerk and, as President C. would say, move on.
I missed Mrs. M and the kids: Fortunately, I don’t have to travel often without them. Whenever I do, however, the boys give me a talisman of theirs for good luck. This time, instead of the plastic rat MUGGER III usually stows in my garment bag, I got a toy lobster; Junior let me have his vintage ’65 Carl Yastrzemski baseball card. And of course I kept pictures of the boys and their mother on my desk as I worked. Junior, I found out on the phone, was still on a pink cloud over his nabbing a foul ball at Yankee Stadium. I was on a dark cloud right then, as I watched CNN endlessly replay Roger Clemens mowing down the Bosox on Thursday night, extending his winning streak to 19. That stat is a little chintzy, I think, since it doesn’t include no-decisions, and with the Rocket there’s a bunch of them, but I’ll leave the world of sports minutiae to The Wall Street Journal’s Allen Barra, who writes much better for that paper than back in his days at the Voice. No contest. In fact, I’ll bet he’s erased his tenure at the beatnik weekly from his resume.
The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, on May 28, had an astute insight about the Yanks-Bosox rivalry. He was as dismayed as I was looking at Clemens in pinstripes, and even though the Sox are in first place at this writing, both Shaughnessy and I know our team will be lucky to grab a wildcard slot come this October. He wrote: “The Yankee crowd was fairly tame about the whole matter. As always, most of the emotion was being felt by folks back home in Boston. At times, the New York-Boston rivalry is a little like the Humphrey Bogart exchange in ‘Casablanca.’ Peter Lorre (representing Boston) says, ‘You detest me, don’t you, Rick?’ and Bogart (New York) responds, ‘If I gave you any thought, I probably would.’”
Since Katha Pollitt resigned her editorship duties at The Nation in protest of the weekly’s inclusion of a Ron Unz article, she’s had more time on her hands. So she turns to The New Republic to soil their already filthy (Marty Peretz’s sponsorship of Al Gore being the primary sin) pages. In a book review of Monica Lewinsky’s and George Stephanopoulos’ recent accounts of their proximity to President Clinton, Pollitt (whom I’ve never met, but I doubt there’s a Miss America crown in her past) offers this slur on Kenneth Starr: “This explains why people’s looks were so important. Monica Lewinsky, and Bill Clinton, too, were constantly ridiculed as fat; Hillary Clinton took to working out constantly; Paula Jones had a nose job and Linda Tripp a total makeover. One can only wonder what would have happened had Kenneth Starr looked more like George Clooney and less like the sort of man who spends his lunch hour in an adult book store.”
Starr might not have washboard abs, but this adult book store crap, because he compiled a report on the President’s abhorrent behavior, is a poison dart that belongs strictly in Michael Moore’s oeuvre. How dare Pollitt take such a cheap shot. Only a deeply unhappy and disturbed person could pen such an unsubstantiated opinion.
There was a swell opening-night convention party on Mud Island at the River Terrace Yacht Club on Thursday where I lingered for about two hours, stretching my tolerance for these usually dull affairs. At one point, while I was talking to Randy Campbell, an owner of the Santa Barbara Independent (a weekly that Voice owner Leonard Stern last year announced he’d purchased and then backed out of the deal; Campbell just frowned when I pressed for details) and a nice fellow, he made the outrageous statement that Santa Barbara beats any Italian seaside town by a mile, food included! Talk about misguided boosterism.
Slivka was gazing at the Mississippi River and exercising his academic, Ukrainian mind. “What a trip,” he said. “Look at the view. This is the wellspring of American culture we’re talking about.” I chalked it up to his recent Southern sojourn that he wrote about so impressively in NYPress a few months back. I’ve seen the Mississippi on many occasions, even took steamer rides in New Orleans; all literary notions aside, it’s still a dirty mess. I was lost by his romanticism.
I was in a chatty mood, and so while Andrey was collecting a surprising number of compliments on his story about San Francisco Bay Guardian blowhard Bruce Brugmann (who missed this convention: The first rumor was that he was in Europe getting his blood changed; but it turned out he was on a junket in China, working for what side I don’t have a clue) and the generally poor AAN newspapers, I tentatively made the rounds. I congratulated Nick Riggio on his new high-ranking position at New Times Inc.’s Cleveland Scene, escaping the strange world of Anthony Clifton’s Pennsylvania holdings, which include Philadelphia Weekly (in for a bumpy ride, I can guarantee you) and In Pittsburgh.
It’s always pleasant to see Richard Meeker and Mark Zusman, co-owners of Portland’s Willamette Week, a fine paper, if a bit on the dry side (also true of the Northwest’s Washington Monthly, though it’s profitable). Tim Keck, the Seattle Stranger’s publisher, was by their side, and though we’ve heaped praise on his nutty paper for years (he competes with Stern’s Seattle Weekly), here’s a little advice for the prankster Tim: Redesign the paper, dude, it’s getting a little like a junky Raygun (although nothing compared to the unreadable New City of Chicago) and don’t let the left-wing editorial people you’ve hired get too cocky. Tim was one of the founders of The Onion, the satirical newspaper the mainstream media has finally discovered (and that does mean you, Rick Hertzberg), so he gets a pass from a lot of people for that credit alone.
I’ve known the incoming president of AAN, Patty Calhoun, for 20 years now and she still cracks me up with her wry and cutting observations about the other conventioneers. Patty’s the editor of Denver’s Westword, the virtual queen of that flea-bitten city, and still holds a minor grudge against me for voting against her paper’s AAN admission at the Boston convention in ’79. Never fails to bring it up. Anyway, she suggested a restaurant where they had “yummy lamb cutlets,” and when I joked that that was a kind of girly dish to order in a ribs town, she just glared and I thought those cowboy boots of hers were going to meet one of my knees. John Mecklin, editor of S.F. Weekly, had a few rants about his competitor Brugmann to share and impressed Slivka with his tough-guy advice for lousy writers. I saw Miami New Times’ editor Jim Mullin for about a minute and then he vaporized; I’m sure he was still in some dive on Beale St. when I arose the next morning.
After the party four of us had dinner at The Rendezvous, in an alley by the Peabody, and though it’s a tourist destination, sometimes that’s not a reason for dismissal. Sure, there was the side store selling Rendezvous souvenirs, but the dry pork ribs were terrific, and the waiter, who has his shtick practiced to a perfect pitch, was right on the spot with the grub. The sausage and cheese appetizer was suspect, but we couldn’t complain about the pulled pork, ribs and sides of slaw and beans. That was enough for me and so I retreated to my room, read The Weekly Standard and went to sleep, while the AAN conventioneers, some 600 of them, mobbed the lobby of the Peabody, getting increasingly touchy-feely as the hours wore on.
The next morning, while Robert Newman, a well-traveled and respected art director in Manhattan, apparently made complimentary remarks about NYPress’ broadsheet design in a seminar, I was on the phone to New York and heard a terrific rumor a buddy picked up at a cigar shop on 6th Ave. Seems that Time Out New York is contemplating a switch to biweekly publication, the first step toward their demise. Maybe it’s too good to be true, ridding the newsstands of that fraudulent atrocity, but it certainly lifted my morning.
(Going to the office last Sunday I was greeted by another dunning notice from their sleazy billing department, once again for a subscription I never ordered.)
I went for a walk around Memphis and inevitably wound up on Beale St., the equivalent of Bourbon St. in this third-tier version of New Orleans. All the shops have Elvis t-shirts, CDs, badges and cookbooks and posters of old blues concerts for sale, and the obligatory stop at Schwab’s was worth 30 minutes or so. I picked up some potions, bottles of hot sauce, tambourines for the kids, Moon Pies, jukebox piggy banks, rabbits’ feet, Tabasco cheese-nips, an Elvis puzzle for Junior and a batch of keychains and magnets for MUGGER III’s current collection.
(Later in the day, Mrs. M e-mailed me, begging that I not bring home a lot of junk. I just wrote back, “Speak to the hand!” our code for “I can’t hear you!”)
I sat down in a park for a half-hour and listened to a makeshift blues band playing for tips; it was pretty cool, especially when a class of fourth-graders camped out listening to the drummer sing and jive with the audience, most of whom, like me, had bags that revealed we were tourists. Well, that’s what I was, but still, the fact that the park was on Rufus Thomas Blvd. gave me a feeling of some long-ago authenticity. Later, I was speaking to an AAN know-it-all and he claimed that if you traveled outside the immediate environs you could find the real bluesmen, dude, just like in 1955, where the old black guys sing about cornbread and how their mamas did ’em wrong. Right. This is a theme park waiting to happen: Already, in addition to all the homages to Elvis, there’s a Hard Rock Cafe, and a AAA-baseball stadium is under construction right by the Peabody.
Andrey and I had lunch at the King’s Palace Cafe and, like everywhere here, had our food in about two minutes, all of it pretty damn good. Tasty and chunky gumbo with red beans and shrimp, more pulled pork sandwiches and some fried catfish. When the waitress said it was a “joy” to serve us I asked Andrey if she was being facetious; not that we were obnoxious or anything. He told me to lose the cynicism and get moving with the slow Southern culture. He was about to launch into a Faulkner rhapsody, betraying his Ivy League background, and I was just too stuffed for that malarkey, so I paid the bill and we went back to the Peabody, missing the afternoon duck walk.
Andrey came back to my “Danny Thomas” suite to e-mail his “Skillet” column to the office, an unsuccessful venture, and actually asked who the great comedian and Memphis native was. I slapped my forehead and said, “Sometimes, I wish you were older than 27. Danny Thomas, dodo! The great Uncle Tonoose! What, were you born yesterday?” Practically. A boomer friend of mine back in New York, apprised of this horrible gaffe, wrote back: “Jeez, Andrey’s Ringo-ignorance was speculative. But Danny Thomas! Wouldn’t that be the equivalent of us not knowing who Lou Costello was when we were kids? I’d dock his pay.” Precisely.
I combed through a bunch of the papers applying for membership and then read the AAN board’s recommendations and was just appalled. For example, in suggesting that the Buffalo Beat not be allowed in the organization, admissions chair Clif Garboden wrote (in all seriousness, I presume): “This paper puzzled the committee. Specific committee-member reactions were divergent, ranging from praise for improvement from the last time it applied to some discouraging suggestions that it seems to be losing touch with its community. Critiques of writing quality ranged from ‘sophomoric’ to ‘a rich reading experience.’ Most of the pieces are there, but they may not fit.”
I know how these committee selections work: I’ve participated in the past. And the comment that Buffalo Beat “seems to be losing touch with the community” is just silly. How in the world would these editors have any idea about that? Do they live in Buffalo? No, they take six or so consecutive issues before the convention, flip through them and get back to their daily work. It’s arbitrary and completely unfocused. Likewise, the membership at large doesn’t pay attention. Usually, at the convention’s closing business meeting, they’ll vote the way the committee suggests, as they kibitz among themselves and drink Bloody Marys or beers. If, by chance, a paper is caught between rejection and acceptance, and a representative is allowed to make a speech before the hungover conventioneers still in attendance, that paper will get in because no one wants to face the person later in the bar. It’s all a scam.
I’m not trying to be excessively ornery here, but let’s examine one paper that’s a current member of AAN, The Paper of Grand Rapids, MI. In its “mission statement,” the fine print reads: “We publish in-depth, well-crafted stories that explore the issues, events and personalities that make our community tick. Our stories inform, entertain and—hopefully—provoke strong reaction. We will deliver the news in a format that resembles a news magazine, but also acknowledge that readers have less time than ever to digest an increasingly large amount of information delivered from a wide variety of sources.” Whoa. That last sentence sounds like The Paper is suggesting readers don’t bother with their subpar tabloid. In addition, after this high-minded blurb about in-depth stories (which they aren’t) and well-crafted writing (which it isn’t), look at the masthead and the first names are those of the advertising directors, certainly an anomaly in most newspapers. What I especially found funny, really combing the agate, is that the Paper’s copyright still reads 1998, and this is from the May 13, ’99, issue.
My point isn’t to single out The Paper as being just as bad as the papers that were rejected last Saturday at AAN’s meeting, just that there’re no real standards applied. Any paper that runs Matt Groening’s dated “Life in Hell” on page three along with that sanctimonious “mission statement” has no business belonging to an organization that purportedly puts a premium on quality. But AAN doesn’t.
And it’s not as if 80 percent of current AAN members could pass the admissions criteria: Last year, in DC I suggested that this year every single paper reapply for membership and that way the group would be whittled down by two-thirds. My motion didn’t make much of an impression. NYPress would be tossed too, for crimes against Democrats, but that would be fine. I think the Ruxton Group, the national sales group owned by New Times, should secede from AAN anyway and have a productive trade group, instead of the morons who make up this tribe. But as Maureen Dowd, via Dick Morris, would say, that’s just Saturday Night Russ talking, because a lot of these people, awful papers notwithstanding, are very nice, in the parlance of the large California delegation, folks.
But while I’m in this mood, I can’t resist reprinting a letter to the editor from the Cleveland Free Times’ May 5 issue that typifies how most of the AAN papers are lockstep liberal, yes, Massa Bonior, no-questions-asked tabloids. (That the Times is a Stern publication is just a coincidence, I swear.) Michael Bikulic writes: “The Free Times is starting to become an extended Tom Tomorrow cartoon, ‘This Modern World,’ as it appears in your paper. Apparently any story, no matter how biased, one-sided or just plain wrong, is fit to be printed in your paper as long as it agrees with your liberal social agenda. Based on the stories I read, the thinking appears to be: Chief Wahoo—bad; guns—bad; police arresting minority criminals—bad; gays—good; Republicans—bad, etc., etc. The only reason I look at the Free Times is mainly for Roldo [an entertaining political columnist who predates the Stern takeover], who is the only real journalist left in Cleveland. Too bad he can’t do an expose of the Free Times as to who and what drives their liberal agenda.”
On Friday night there was another jovial bash atop the Peabody, with a gorgeous sunset and a clear view of one of the city’s few tall buildings (“skyscraper” isn’t operable here), the Memphis Business Journal. (It was sponsored by MicroVoice, an audiotext vendor, and if they were trying to cadge more customers, the cash bar wasn’t a smart idea.) I finally caught up with Jim Mullin, and reminisced about conventions from 20 years ago, as well as the croquet tournaments Al From Baltimore and I hosted at Phyllis Orrick’s Ruxton manse. Those were parties: One time, Phoenix New Times Inc.’s co-owner Mike Lacey emerged from the Belvedere Hotel with a bottle of red wine at 9 in the morning and asked for someone, anyone, to sample the vintage. He was conked out next to a tree by noon, when the real drinking began. The same year, it was 103 degrees, and the Chicago Reader’s Tom Yoder gave up on the croquet and slept in an air-conditioned car while his partner Bob Roth kept gabbing about how much he loved softshell crab sandwiches on white bread with mayo.
Mullin’s a sharp guy and has the brains to include Mike Wartella’s “Nuts” in his huge Miami newspaper, and is beyond all the dated cartoonists who were trying to sell their syndicated strips at the trade show inside. It’s always a pleasure to speak with David Carr, Washington City Paper’s editor, even though he never says anything on the record for my column—and he had juicy stuff this time around—and I met his senior editor Michael Schaffer, who just gushed over an article Slivka wrote two years ago, saying it was clipped on his bulletin board. Great. It’ll be hard to fit Andrey’s swollen head next time he visits me in the Danny Thomas suite. Which reminds me once again: How could any sentient human never have heard of Make Room for Daddy? Next thing I know, Andrey will draw a blank on Hazel or Mr. Ed.
One thing that I found interesting in Memphis, coming from New York, is the tolerance shown to smokers. The filthy habit is allowed in restaurants, and if you ask if there’s a smoking table, the friendly waiter or waitress will give you a look like you’re from another planet. And people puff like crazy here; it might as well be Cairo. No doubt a Bay Guardian writer would attribute that to the poor, undereducated Southern culture, but that’s hogwash. One of my friends told me he hadn’t had the nerve to light up in his Peabody room because of the “No smoking” plaque on the door. I told him that was garbage; they’re used to scofflaws like us. In fact, the next day, after the maid was finished cleaning my room, she left outside the door an ashtray with a pack of Peabody matches. It sure was better than using the soap dish.
Saturday was pretty much a bore at the convention; I spoke briefly with Richard Karpel, AAN’s executive director (who was a real weasel for not posting Slivka’s Brugmann story on the AAN website; he’s clearly under the thumb of Mr. China and the Voice’s David Schneiderman), and he told me about the horrendous mugging of a Weekly Alibi staffer two nights before (see Andrey’s “Media Roundup”). I went for a last-minute shopping spree at one of the Peabody’s half-dozen gift shops, ignoring Mrs. M’s order, and bought her a bbq pig t-shirt, plus duck chocolates, silver-plate piggy banks, a Memphis bbq coffee cup, stuffed ducks, duck lollipops and more keychains.
Just before noon, Paul Abrams and I cabbed to the airport, expecting a quick breeze-through to our Northwest connection. Not so. You’d expect Memphis’ airport (with FedEx in a separate terminal) to be a rinky-dink building not unlike a Caribbean island’s. Instead, it was mobbed, with people lined up at McDonald’s and Starbucks kiosks, and the frantic personnel just trying to keep up with wheelchair requests and transfer information.
I searched in vain for Saturday’s New York Times, and was lured into an Elvis shop to buy t-shirts for the boys, and then when we arrived in Newark it was as calm as could be. I had an amazingly quick limo ride home, was greeted by a sign on the door that said, “Welcome Home, Daddy, We Missed You!” and snuggled with my wife and boys, glad to be back in an environment that doesn’t condone organically pure sandals, crummy comic strips and frightened gasps when you mention the name of the United States’ next president, George W. Bush.
Junior "Catches" A Foul Ball
It was in the sixth inning on May 26 and Junior was just at the point of boredom during the Yanks-Bosox game at the Stadium. So was I; after all, Nomar Garciaparra was scratched from the game (an alleged split finger, although one of my buddies speculated Derek Jeter had shown him the town the night before) and the Red Sox were down 6-1, thanks to Tino Martinez’s grand-slammer (which I missed, thanks to a cotton candy run for You Know Who).
Suddenly, Sox right fielder Darren Lewis fouled back a pitch that hit the mezzanine in the section next to ours, the ball bobbled amongst a dozen fans and finally wound up in the hands of a young guy right in front of my son. Junior immediately took it out of his hand and screamed, “I caught a foul ball!” I told him to give it back, but after a tense two seconds, Geoff Spies, of Princeton (at the ballpark with his friend Sheyda Djahanbani), let him keep it, which made Junior’s week. The surrounding adults gave Geoff a rousing cheer for his act of sportsmanship, I snapped a photo and the game was transformed into an event Junior will never forget, even though the first-place Sox eventually lost the game 8-3.
My friend David F.X. Mandel wrote later: “Please tell your son that I was at the playoff game in 1951 between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers at the Polo Grounds when Bobby Thomson homered off Ralph Branca to win the pennant. I mean, that’s historic. But to get a foul ball at such a young age, that’s really stupendous.”
Junior wanted to go home right away to show off the ball to his mom and MUGGER III. It was fine by me, since the Sox were sputtering, and I was a little tired of playing butler when a popcorn whim occurred, and so he packed the treasure in his backpack, along with his glove and Gameboy, and we made the trek back to Tribeca. On the 9 train downtown, a homeless refugee—I honestly couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman—made a pitiful stab at cadging some cash. He/she clutched a pole and muttered the lamest version of “Tom Dooley” I’ve ever heard, which was met by stone-cold faces. Junior nudged me, and said, “Dad, I bet you’re going to write about that person, huh?” It won’t be long before I’m sharing this column, so watch out, there’s a new crank right behind you.
We got home, relaxed for a while and then Mrs. M and I went to a school
function on the Upper East Side. Couldn’t complain about the cocktail
component, but when I saw the table set with about 12 forks at each
setting, I knew we’d be in for a long night. Which would’ve been fine,
despite being a disruption of my routine, but Alejandro was picking me
up the next morning at 5 for an early flight out of Newark, winging down
to Memphis, site of this year’s Association of Alternative Newsweeklies
(AAN) convention. We didn’t get home till almost 11, which left me
bushed in the morning, not a promising start to the day for a farmer
06/02/99: A McCain For All Seasons