Going with the flow in a Canali suit, Zegna overcoat, and all the rest of it (always outdressing the boss), I headed uptown on a bus crawling along Sixth Avenue to my third day of official employment. It was February of '95 and I had my Hearst identity card—a thrilling piece of plastic that entitled me to Esquire-financed health benefits, a paycheck, and entry to those shady midtown buildings. Day three of being an official human being, and I dressed to look the part, slicked the hair back, put on a seize-the-day scowl. And because we're always in motion, always going forward, I had the newspaper open. It was the free weekly newspaper that was independent and angry enough to say whatever it wanted, and the paper that had made minor stars (cloudy satellites, really) of two writers I'd first published back in Massachusetts.
And there, at that moment, I saw my first published writing in New York City. It was a thrilling moment to be in that newspaper's font, to see my name in bold. A few weeks earlier, the editor of the free weekly had asked me, with a friend's prodding, to be their new nightlife correspondent. Having just moved to New York, and never one to go out anyway, I was perfect for the job. I quickly spent a week and all available funds watching Spalding Gray and the Spitters and a Victoria's Secret show, tucking in every activity between fundraisers for Lincoln Center and sex parties off 14th Street—all the events that could only really be interesting to someone who had only lived a few weeks in the city. I walked through all of that and jotted it down and massaged the details and created my new character —Aldo, the man on the scene! I wrote my little heart out and walked the piece up to the editor's office with a Mont Blanc pen's little snowcap peeking out from the inside pocket of my only coat at the time. I handed the pages to the editor, and at the precise moment my body bent to sit down and discuss my new ideas for the column, the editor stood up and extended his hand, thanked me, and assured me he would be in touch.
For days and then weeks, I would check the answering machine and open the paper and tell everyone who would listen about my new column, my new status. And then I heard what I learned to say to my own writers soon enough: absolutely nothing, nothing at all. Not a dial tone, not a peep, not a criticism, not even an insult. And in the middle of the silence, Esquire magazine called, out of the blue, and said I was their man—or their boy, as it transpired—and they gave me credentials, credibility, and reason.
So on Sixth Avenue I opened up the paper and there were my words—not quite as I had written them. This wasn't the column, of course. It was a letter to the editor—the editor who hadn't bothered to reject me. He'd written something about a bar on Houston Street, about the boy at the bar with his smock-like coat and the peeking-out Mont Blanc pen that must have been given to him by his mother upon graduation. He had gone off on one of those alternative-press riffs about the history of the out-of-place boy in the old-man bar and how that pen gave his whole game away. And so I had written a letter, in one blind thrust, and it went like this, or at least this is what I read in their font as the bus trundled past the park on 42nd Street:
FROM THE RESUME ON FILE DEPARTMENT:
Was The Editor staring at a mirror in Milanos, as his review of the place would seem to suggest? For a paper as commercially ironic as the NYPress, the criticism of Mont Blanc-wielding boys in paint-spattered chinos hanging out downmarket sounds suspiciously close to your collective editorial, all-white, Ivy League bone. One surmises that Harvard boys in their late 20s who get work at a freebie advertising circulars are not made any more interesting by a display of self-hatred written (and I use the word lightly) in the third person.
—William J. Georgiades, Manhattan
I read this 17 times in a row and everything was in motion, my blood moving around at a breakneck speed—not boiling, just rushing. I noted that the elegantly crafted line about his mother getting him his job had been cut. Too much information, perhaps. And then I got to the response, in italics (because that was the format for response), as the bus came up to 55th Street and my stop.
The Editor responds: For the record, I am the only Ivy League graduate on the NYPress staff. Speaking collectively, though, one wonders if any of Georgiades' bitterness stems from the fact that he has attempted to secure work here three times in the past year, each time unsuccessfully.
And there it was, my startling debut to the world of the New York literati. My middle initial honored, no less! It took no time at all for the revenge to settle in my brain as I walked from Sixth Avenue through all the important busy assistants, over to Eighth Avenue and up the elevator, and into the office a full hour before any of the star editors arrived. I took stock: There was a reservoir of photocopiers, computers, fax machines, stationery, and friends—gullible, female, easy friends. And I thought of the then-balding 29-year-old editor licking his lips down on Lafayette and Houston, wearing his Carhart pants, and I thought to myself, you, son of great repute; you have no idea. Let the games begin.
Pamela Shamshiri. Just roll that name along your tongue for a moment. If you're not inclined to tongue rolling, you get the general idea of rotund, thrusting femininity, fulsome, exotic fuckability. Persian, escaped Iran with her father after the Shah was ousted, escaped all the way to Los Angeles where she became a Valley girl, and then to Smith, where she became mine until she escaped again to New York. All that running caught up to her one day when she was bending over—and how she would bend over, just delicately enough while putting down masking tape on a film set with Harvey Keitel hovering nearby. He goosed her, fore and aft, and as she told me later that night (not quite dangling from a chandelier, but close enough), she knew everything was going to be just fine in that moment, that moment of full frontal goosing by an actor of such repute.
So Pamela had to be the first one I would call. I settled into my Formica cubicle and woke her up. I could hear her nodding while I spoke very quickly about the paper, my letter, and my plan. Would she help? Would she lend me her name, her identity, her address? "Of course," she said. "Anything for you."
I wrote her letter with my eyes closed, imagined the painted toes crushed into some heeled elegance, imagined her swish and sass, reduced her to tits and ass. I wrote without thinking of anything except her face and my fury.
To the editors:
I'm not a weather reporter and I've no interest in politics or reportage. I find the word "litmus" confusing. Most of my contacts are dead or bored with me. Should I ever become a bar or restaurant writer, I'd slit my throat. Enclosed is one example to prove I can photocopy, string a sentence together with a notion, and get into print at a college paper. Feminine intuition dictates that amongst your thousand hopeful winning entries, a wad of eager, smudgy clips would be about as welcome as a boy intern.
I was new at Esquire, so I didn't start using the messenger service for personal correspondence until the following week. In the evening, I found an old college paper review of a band, smudged the name out and inserted Sham's name, photocopied it, threw in a photograph of Betty Page for good measure, and looked at the slim envelope with something better than hope bursting inside. I put the envelope on the red leather writing table that once belonged to my uncle and stared at the bulletin board above it, at the three rejection letters, arranged tidily, chronologically, and in order of impersonalization—all with the same masthead, all with the same signature.
Pamela called me two days later brimming with the kind of excitement that I tended to feel when editors called me asking for work, only she was excited for me. She said that The Editor had called, that she hadn't known what to say, that we hadn't gone over that part. He asked her what she wanted to do and she blurted out something about theatre reviewing.
I hadn't anticipated a response time of two days; my own work had only just been rejected in the Letters section. Then again, Pamela's work was also my own work. So I sat down and wrote a long review of a play I had seen that week—a production of Stoppard's Arcadia at Lincoln Center. Written in an overly feminine voice to match Sham's wiles, it hinged on three brilliant, forgotten conceits. It was learned and light and heartfelt and perfect in its balance. I finished the last line and faxed it to the New York Press.
Now, when you write something on your home computer and then fax it out there tends to be an automatic imprint of your name and the phone number you from which you are sending the fax. This is unfortunate if you are trying to be covert. Pamela never heard from the paper again. She was fine with it; and refrained from starting a letter-writing campaign from a male perspective.
Over the next several months—in order to stretch things out and not allow for too much suspicion—four other women allowed me to use their identities to continue the journalistic experiment (literary prank? obsessive psycho stalking?)
As the days became warmer, and the drones around me started to have names and graspable functions at the magazine, I tried on Amy White for size—a girl I found in Panty Line Fever in a feature called "Chicks with Guns," which displayed several pages of naked women and their automatic weapons of choice. Amy's choice was a 44 Magnum. She was topless, legs curled under her, the weapon pointing down, of course. I used that picture, and on the back wrote, "I write the way I look" and sent it with the phone number of a woman with whom I was sleeping at the time. She got a call three days later from The Editor, who asked about doing a piece on violence against women. The girl felt that The Editor was just a little bit too creepy for her (which is odd, considering with whom she was sleeping at the time) and was unwilling to pursue an actual meeting.
Then there was Yummy, a media-something on her way to being a media darling. She wasn't exactly enthusiastic, but when I explained that this was a literary experiment being conducted through the offices of Esquire magazine (neglecting to mention that I was a glorified secretary, who wasn't actually glorified), she relented. And she agreed to let me use her mailing address, but not her real name. I could hear the Esquire pitches already whirring in her mind. I called her Dylan Antoni.
In the body of her letter were the phrases "women can write about fucking, too" and "consensual rape." She suggested a sex column and got a response in two days flat, got asked out to lunch, and again, felt the editor was just a little too interested to want to look at him in person.
By the time the glare of summer was with us, I was starting to settle in to New York. My byline was popping up in all the places someone just starting out tends to start out. I was surprised for a moment at how so many magazines and newspapers would never get back to me when I wrote them from my downtown hovel, but the minute I pitched stories on Esquire stationery and messengered them across town, I seemed to be in a club where of course you are welcome, and where have you been all these years, and what would you like to write about, and by the way, do you know if Esquire is hiring? And in this manner, my name popped up in the fonts of Observer, Paper, Details, the Post, Detour, Hustler, Time Out, and most miserably of all, the Voice. The acceptance was far more jarring than the rejection had been and suddenly it seemed everyone said yes—yes to 2000 words on sex workers, yes to author profiles and book reviews and celebrity profiles and think-pieces for thoughtless magazines. Yes, yes, yes. You can write. We like you. You are worthy.
But I wasn't. Not until the plan was realized, anyway. Three strikes already, one techno-mistake on my part, and two women who couldn't be bothered.
Cue Rebeccah, who wrote an irregular music column for a long-since-forgotten giveaway paper on the Lower East Side, and also played with her band, Emma Peel. I promised to review her band's album in Paper if she would go along with me. She shrugged.
Rebeccah would be the film reviewer and so her letter included the line, "Girls can write about movies—or do you just think of us as the handjob with your popcorn?"
(I know, I know. But look at the level of editorial sophistication being dealt with here! They rejected me. Me!)
We also used four words in conjunction that I soon realized would ring a bell with every male editor working in Manhattan: passive, penetration, dildo and harness.
That one worked the best. She got a call a day after we sent out her missive. She said she would write a movie column and I did so immediately, castigating some piece of work as pedophilia. I faxed it from a Kinko's. The piece got her called into the office for a meeting with the editors, who told her that her movie writing was far too obnoxious and controversial, but would she like to be the seventh regular music writer on rotation? Controversy is much better suited to music, they said.
"Yes," she said. "I can write about music." She went home and wrote a column, never told me about it, and turned it in. They asked where the spirit of the pitch letter was, the fury of the film review. I suggested letting me write through her, as that was the original plan. "No," she said. "You have no idea—music is my life! This is my business! I play every week, and if they found out, they would review me badly."
"Oh," I said. "OK." Her column never ran, but her album came out. I reviewed it in Paper and said kind things.
When the fall came around, I gave it one last shot with a music publicist I'd met while doing a band write-up. She had a side career as a dominatrix. This was in the mid-'90s when every third woman in New York was a dominatrix in much the same way that every third woman today is a yoga teacher. Her nighttime name was "Mistress Nadine." I knew her as a 23-year-old from Long Island. She loved hitting people and she hated telling people to write about Marilyn Manson, which I found to be the only mysterious thing about her. A brief note was written on black paper with a silver marker suggesting a sex column from the perspective of a dominatrix. It was a cute and rather obvious idea. We came full circle with no response whatsoever. I was heartened, though, to see that three weeks later, a new column appeared in the New York Press written by someone called "Mistress Ruby"—a sex-advice column from the perspective of a pedantic dominatrix.
The experiment petered out after that. The resentment didn't, of course. A year went by of new suits and new bylines and office politics and dinner parties. I got business cards and a raise. My psychosis became shrouded by plumpness and pomposity as the magazine deftly rearranged my nothing title to another nothing title. And the Rolodex filled up with smooth publicists and harried magazine editors and freelancers—the few, the proud who, somehow, through no dint of talent, became indispensable to the process of putting together a magazine. I slithered into the routine, until the seething settled down, slowly, and then drifted away, alighting on fresh outrages.
The Editor went on to continued success. I apologized to him and he was gracious, as successful people tend to be when confronted with groveling. The New York Press was sold to the next round of bright young things. Esquire went on to become a woman's magazine of great repute. And me? I finally got what I always wanted. Like an actor who's aspiration is to be the third person on the jury, to the left of the foreman, in an episode of Law and Order, I finally got to be in the New York Press. Seven years after the first volley, they ran a sensitive piece by me complaining about thong underpants.
To be continued next week...> Send a letter to the editor