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A former Maxim editor's memoir recalls the frenzied, iniquitous life of a lad mag.- September 3, 2004
If you ignored the letters in which readers shared their favorite dirty jokes, and overlooked the envelopes containing blurry photographs of kindhearted girls in burlesque poses stapled to handwritten notes that begged us to publish these pictures as a reward to their devoted boyfriends, the most frequent piece of fan mail we received at Maxim could be reduced to the same simple question: Why does your magazine come out only once every month? And in response, among ourselves, we offered a simple, unprinted answer: Only?
After working at Maxim for long enough, you had to accept that there was an intelligent design to the universe, because what you discovered was that the 30 days it takes for the moon to revolve around the earth is precisely the least amount of time in which the combined efforts of you and your colleagues could produce a single issue. No matter how hard you worked, you were told that you had completed your task at The. Last. Possible. Second. To understand why, consider the torturous path that any piece of copy had to follow before it ever appeared in print.
First the text came to you from your writer, raw and unfocused, and you poked at it, prodded it, and mostly rewrote it, then passed it along to your boss, who passed it along to his boss, who passed it back to you. Once everyone had signed off, its next stop was the copy department, where sentences were inspected for petty offenses like dangling modifiers and subject-verb agreement, under the guidance of an agreeable, bespectacled den mother who had once worked at Penthouse yet implored editors to eliminate obscene words like clusterfuck in favor of more acceptable equivalents like gangbang. From there, the story was forwarded to the research department, which bore the burden of checking facts and corroborating sources, for preserving accuracy and averting liability, and was therefore staffed by recent college grads even younger than myself who possessed no previous journalism training. Meanwhile, the layout for your article was being designed by a skeleton crew of Brits imported from Dennis Publishing's London office, who believed that any quantity of words could be fitted into a box measuring five inches by three inches, and you didn't dare complain to them because to do so would necessitate a trip to the far corner where the Brits resided, a dank cavity clouded with the stench of their constant belching and farting and cigarette smoking. So you cut your copy-edited, fact-checked text, and you cut some more, and you reviewed the page two additional times, recognizing that at any step in the sequence the magazine's lawyers could cry foul, contending that a reference within your story to "being buggered with a size-9 Gucci loafer" was not merely of questionable taste but legally indefensible, and needed to be rewritten. If you could avoid that, you were donewith that page, anyway.
We lived our lives in constant fear of the Close, that portion of the production schedule when we reviewed our pages one final time and the state of our office metastasized from mere delirium to outright hysteria. The Close should have lasted for only one week every month, but soon the Close stretched to two weeks and then three, until finally we were working in a state of perpetual Close. The Close took precedence over all matters, and the Close denied all other aspects of your existence until the Close was complete. The Close tried you on, the Close wore you out, the Close shrank you to fit. The Close made the man, and the Close made him miserable; you'd hear the Close invoked in every telephone Close around six or seven o'Close each Close: "Sorry, I can't. We're closing.
Days and nights, weekdays and weekends, were spent at our desks, poring over copy, waiting for pages, surfing the Web to check stock quotes, sneaking onto the fire escape for clandestine bong hits, and engaging in computer games that allowed our alter egos to run through fantastically complex labyrinths while toting imaginary weaponry designed to kill one another on sight. The cathartic release we derived from seeing someone blown to bits was no reflection of what we felt toward one anotherwe were too dependent on our fellow editors to wish them dead. When a comrade needed assistance with a photo caption or a wacky headline for his winter sports feature, we sprang into action and gathered around his computer, batting around innuendoes, awful puns, and alliteration, until "Ice Holes" gave way to "Snow Jobs," which yielded "Snow Means Yes!" and everyone was satisfied. Each evening we gathered in a conference room furnished with mismatched chairs of varying sizes and degrees of comfort, a television set that wasn't connected to anything, and a lacquered wooden table where we ate our catered dinners in communal quiet, raising our voices only to mock the one guy who inevitably didn't get his order.
Once a week we'd assemble around the same table, still littered with plates of half-eaten egg rolls and quarter-finished pizza pies, still sticky from spilled sodas and prepackaged honey mustard sauce, and ten of usnine men and one woman who was perfectly at ease referring to her own genitals as her "cooch"would determine the contents of a periodical that would be consumed by some two million people. At the age of twenty-four, Parker and I were the youngest of the team and the only members who fit its target demographic. True to Bill Shapiro's ominous warnings, most of these people had never worked a fulltime publishing job in their livesand it was to their advantage. Uncorrupted by the rigors of the trade, not yet indoctrinated into believing that a magazine had to look or read a certain way, they had mastered the ability to spin the mundane afflictions and curiosities from their own lives into articles a casual reader could find compelling. If you had ever wondered why you were perpetually picked on by bank tellers, toll collectors, and meter maids; in what order you should remove your clothes when undressing in front of a woman; or how to escape from a stuck elevatorand if there was enough consent around that filthy tablethen that idea became an article.
It was an unusual approach that almost entirely shunned submissions from outsiders: The pitches we seldom received from professional magazine writers read like pitches from professional magazine writers, and the ideas that came from our readers were usually pleas to pay for their road trip to Mardi Gras or Burning Man. Jim Kaminsky and Lester W. would offer their counsel, and Mike Soutar would occasionally chime in to remind us that an element was missing from the formula he had long ago perfected. "Where is this month's personal benefit story?" he would inquire, reciting from an imaginary checklist he knew better than "The Flower of Scotland." "Where is the gritty read?" Otherwise, the fate of the book was ours to decide, the magazine's reputation ours to enhance or to ruin.
Unable to leave the premises except to sleep in our beds, we became the only people in one another's lives. Were this a rational work environment, discerning employees might have started quitting, but by now it wasn't just Parker who had come to see the squad as his surrogate familyit was all of us: We had no say in who the other members of our household were, and no matter how oppressive circumstances became, our sense of obligation to the group prevented us from walking away. It might as well have been in our blood.
But like any modern family, we were exhibiting symptoms of dysfunction, and ours could be largely attributed to an absentee parent. Mike had never fully embraced his role as editor-in-chief, nor had his subordinates ever completely accepted him, and it all started with that accent of his. In his very first meeting with his inherited staff, he had declared that he could "edit the fook out of this magazine," a bold proclamation that yielded more open laughter than the hushed obeisance he was hoping for. Little by little, his linguistic tics burrowed into our brainsthe way his palate tortured vowel sounds until they emerged from his lips so mangled that they couldn't be recognized without their dental records; how his burr stretched out frequently used superlatives like "great" into "grrrrrrrrreat"; his preference for comical Britishisms, wishing us good night with a courteous "Ta-ta!," labeling deceitful behavior as "under-the-table form," or sending us on our way with the untranslatable exclamation "Bob's your uncle!"until we couldn't stop ourselves from lashing out. Everyone had perfected an impression of Mike they could perform on command, each keyed to a different mannerism or catchphrase of hiseven the Brits in the art department, with their guttural northern accents that marked them as the progeny of England's working class.
Our satire wasn't affectionate, and it wasn't discreet. And it wasn't long before Mike simply stopped coming in to work. Not all at oncea missed day here, another couple of days there, and every time a different excuse: He had to run down the pub to watch his football club's championship match; the wife and kids had insisted he take them on a sightseeing tour around the city or a really grrrrrrrrreat ski trip; he had to fly back to London for an old friend's bachelor party. So we did what any group of Americans would do when faced with an underperforming teammate: We covered for him, finding ways to run a magazine without a warm body in the single most important seat, redistributing his duties throughout the office; even his editor's letter, the few hundred introductory words at the front of every issue that no one evereverreads, was being ghostwritten for him. Without Mike to inform us about the outside world, to demand that we increase productivity because our print run was going up or our production plant was fining us for missed deadlines, we had no one to enforce the motto we had each resiliently adopted: "We will work harder." Without his authoritative presence, without the fear of being chastised, we had lost any sense of right and wrong.
Sometimes, when Parker was away from his desk and I was allowed to sit in his chair, I would spend my idle hours watching Harold, another assistant editor, who sat in an adjoining cubicle. Harold was a fellow Hebe, also short and also with glasses, approaching the magical, perfect, halfway age of thirty, with a hairline that could no longer be described as recedingit was in full retreat. ("With the amount of hair we tear out here, we should all be bald," he explained.) By his own admission, he had first caught the attention of the magazine by pitching a story in which he claimed to have, at one time or another, contracted every sexually transmitted disease known to man (except HIV, of course); it was a blatant lie, but the sort of lie that editors love to harmlessly perpetuate on their readership, one in which the semblance of truth made it true enough. This literary persona contrasted sharply with what I took to be his authentic one: an unassuming guy with no more going on beneath his meek exterior than perhaps a deviated septum, though I'm sure if you asked him, he'd have described me the same way. He liked to make crank phone calls to escort agencies; he would sing himself imaginary show tunes using the name Slobodan Milosevic as his only lyric; he'd jam his finger in his nose, and when I caught him in the act, he'd just jam it in there deeper.
"Harold," I would say, "I can't stand you."
"That makes two of us," he would answer. "I can't stand me either."
When Parker was around, he and I fought incessantly, over deadlines and edits and missing assignments, and "Circus Maximus" was routinely the last portion of the magazine to be completed every month. When we both appealed to shifty, suspicious Lester W. to mediate our dispute, I fully expected that he would put me in charge of the section and be done with it. Instead, when the three of us met privately to hear his verdict, Parker sat speechlessly to the side as Lester W. directed his comments entirely at me. "I don't want to hear any more complaints from you," he snarled.
"Parker is the editor of 'Circus Maximus,' and you are his assistant. That means you do whatever he tells you to do. Are we clear about this?"
I gave no answer, so Lester W. got right up in my personal space, his face so close to mine that I could taste the bile in his words. "Are we clear?" he repeated. "Because if you don't like it, there's the door."
The following morning I awoke to find that my arms and waist had erupted with clusters of yellow purple pustules, itchy and painful to the touch. Shingles, I was told by my doctor, can be brought on by anything from a common cold to an episode of intense stress. Wonderful, I thought, now it's coming out through my skin. After a few days of recuperation, I returned to work to find a sign with the word QUARANTINE handwritten on it, taped to my closet door. I didn't know how much longer I could put up with this.
Dave Itzkoff is an editor at Spin magazine. This is excerpted from Lads, by Dave Itzkoff. Copyright © 2004 by Dave Itzkoff and published by Villard Books, an imprint of Random House Inc. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy this book at Amazon.com.
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