My Life and Times in American Journalism
My whole foray into journalism arose from a misapprehension. I wanted to be a writer, and I thought the most important thing about being a writer was seeing your work in print. Becoming a newspaper reporter seemed like the quickest way to see my work in print. I was 18 and callow. What can I say.
I spent six years, off and on, and $60,000 at two universities to obtain a bachelor’s degree in print journalism, but six years and sixty grand weren’t enough, according to my professors. I needed internships—as many and as illustrious as possible. This is how I allowed myself to be talked into a summer job at the Fargo Forum by a professor who knew the managing editor there. I would cover the beats of reporters who went on vacation, one by one: cops, courts, agriculture, religion, et cetera.
Eight weeks into it, I knew I didn’t have the fortitude to write against deadline, day after day, on subjects I didn’t give a damn about—city water-board meetings, the travails of emu farmers. The managing editor kept putting my stories on the front page, but the thrill of seeing my work in print wore off pretty quickly. The only really interesting story I covered was an anti-abortion protest at a women’s clinic, during which the protest leader stood and shouted, “Fargo is a nice town full of nice people. But when people hear the word ‘Dachau,’ they don’t think of a nice little Bavarian town. And Fargo, unfortunately, is known as the city in North Dakota where they kill babies.” I wrote that down in my notebook and used it to lead my story. It seemed like something the residents of Fargo would be interested to learn about their town over breakfast the next morning.
One of my professors had justified this sort of story by calling it “Swiss-cheese journalism.” He said people will often stage events or call press conferences that are plainly acts of demagoguery, and although reporters generally have a duty to report on these events with a straight face, most readers will recognize them for what they are.
It’s like Swiss cheese, he said. You hold up a piece of Swiss cheese, and everyone can see what it is. You don’t have to point at the holes.
I was beginning to doubt whether I wanted to make a career out of holding up pieces of Swiss cheese. One Monday morning, not long after my feature on the artistry of local pet groomers was splashed across the front of the B section, along with big color photos of poodles and dachshunds undergoing various forms of beautification, I decided I’d had enough. One month remained of my internship—one month more than I could take. I skipped breakfast and went straight to a neighborhood sports-medicine clinic. To a kindly but perplexed nurse, I explained that I was with the drama department at the university. We were putting on a play in the fall, and in the play there was a character who wore a sling on his arm. Our prop room didn’t have a sling. I asked whether she might let us borrow one, or, if that wasn’t an option, whether she might take cash for it. She seemed to pity me, for some reason; she let me have the thing for free. I told her I’d stop by with a couple of complimentary tickets in the fall, before the play opened, and she looked pleased. I was relieved when she didn’t ask the name of the play.
Half an hour later I appeared in the office of the managing editor, empty shirtsleeve dangling pathetically at my side. I explained my history of shoulder trouble, told him in detail how I’d dislocated it over the weekend in a game of pickup basketball, and informed him that I needed to leave immediately to see my doctor back home about the likelihood of major rotator cuff surgery. The old man stabbed out his cigarette and lit another, wheezing as he shifted his enormous girth in his chair.
Listen, kid, he said, peering at me over the top of his half-moon glasses. I can’t lose you. I’ve got people going on vacation. I’m shorthanded.
I’m sorry, I said, but I can’t stay. I can’t even take notes anymore.
You can use a tape recorder, he said.
I don’t have one, I said.
We’ll get you one, he said.
I can’t type, I said.
Sure you can, he said. You’ll just have to use one hand. Hunt and peck. Half the monkeys in this newsroom type that way.
Give him credit for trying, but I didn’t budge. By noon I’d packed my car, having worn the sling the entire time in case a colleague from the paper drove past the empty frat house where I’d rented a room for the summer. I was thirty miles down the interstate before I decided I could safely remove the sling.
Newspapers were not for me; clearly I was a magazine guy. Back at school that fall, I heard about an internship program run by the American Society of Magazine Editors. It placed forty interns at forty different magazines, most of them in New York. I applied for the next summer and was accepted. I was ecstatic as I ticked off the glossies on my list of preferences: Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone. I’d worked at North Dakota’s Largest Daily Newspaper. I’d written front-page stories. Now I was getting my due. I bought a Manhattan guidebook and reserved a flight to LaGuardia. I should have known the lack of the words Harvard and Yale on my résumé would put me at a disadvantage. When ASME sent the letter informing me of my assignment, I learned I’d be spending the summer in Washington, D.C., at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine.
I almost backed out, but one of my professors reminded me to consider my résumé—my future résumé. I spent the summer fact-checking lists of mutual funds, money-market funds, and tax-exempt bond funds ranked by risk and return. To relieve the boredom, I drank appalling amounts of Paul Masson wine—you know, the kind with the pop-off plastic caps that used to sell for $2.95 a bottle—late at night on the Mall by the reflecting pool with the intern from National Geographic, who became a good friend, despite my envy of his future résumé. Toward the end I even wrote an article for the magazine, a profile of a telemarketing entrepreneur, and although the managing editor told me it was a fine piece of work, it bore almost no resemblance to my original draft when it was finally published. This was an unsettling development: seeing my name in print over a whole page of words I hadn’t even written.
I had one more crack at an internship before I left college, so I placed my hope in the pugilistic world of political magazines. I applied to be an intern at the Nation, whose leftist orientation appealed to my underdog sympathies, and despite the fact that I’d worked for the glossy capitalist press, I got the job.
Here was a magazine with substance, a magazine with an exciting history. It was America’s Oldest Continuously Published Weekly Magazine, having been founded at the end of the Civil War. Its pages had been graced by the work of Henry James, Willa Cather, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Hunter Thompson, Gore Vidal—a world above the sausage-factory hackery of the Fargo Forum, or the service-mag boosterism of Kiplinger’s. I prepared for a glamorous, amorous season of rubbing elbows with the New York literati, engaging in passionate but casual affairs with my fellow interns, the libertine girls of elite Eastern schooling—my just compensation for having been trumped, on the ASME internship, by the boys of Harvard and Yale.
The condition of the office was the first bad omen. The windowsills were coated in dust so thick it might have been there since the magazine’s inception. The air smelled vaguely of unwashed underarm and cigarettes, and moldering paper lay everywhere in piles. Thankfully, the production assistant had the good sense to smoke his daily, fragrant joint in the men’s room, where a perpetually leaking pipe kept the humidity high and the fire danger low.
When I showed up the first day wearing a tie, wanting to make a good impression, everyone looked at me nervously, as if I might be a poorly disguised FBI agent. I spent the next four months hunched over a telephone in a windowless room we called the bullpen, fact-checking articles on how to reinvigorate the labor movement, a longtime staple of Nation reportage whose frequency and desperation of tone increased as union membership declined. For variety, I did research for a contrarian columnist on “the hoax of global warming,” but occasionally I avoided the research by acting as the columnist’s courier—dropping off film of him and his girlfriend in racy poses, picking up the prints, and mailing them to him in a plain manila envelope. Those tawdry four-by-sixes were the only element of those months that could be considered vaguely amorous, although they didn’t do much for me.
The hundred-dollar-a-week intern stipend matched exactly the cost of my sublet room in Queens. With a six-hundred-dollar cash advance on my very first credit card, I was left with fifty dollars a week for food, coffee, and subway fare. Mostly, I passed my evenings writing long, lugubrious letters to friends about the irony of working as an indentured slave for a magazine founded by abolitionists. The girls of elite Eastern schooling were more interested in guys who could discourse with easy intimacy on the works of Habermas and Derrida; an earnest Midwesterner with firsthand knowledge of techniques in pig castration did not exactly set their loins aquiver, at least not with desire. I missed my one chance to mingle with Kurt Vonnegut and E. L. Doctorow when I called in sick the day the interns were enlisted to serve hors d’oeuvres at a fund-raising dinner for the magazine, which had lost money 132 years running. I very much doubted Vonnegut would want to discuss with me the bombing of Dresden while I held a tray of stuffed dates wrapped in prosciutto. I counted the days till I could return to school in Montana.
I did get one break just before I left. One of my weekly duties involved opening all the packages sent to the literary editors, an unceasing wave of review copies of the latest books, and on one such occasion I came across a book about a cyanide heap-leach gold mine a company had proposed near the headwaters of the Blackfoot River in Montana. I knew the Blackfoot well and agreed with the author that the mine would be a disaster, so I proposed an essay on the book and the mine, and the literary editor accepted it. Back in Missoula that winter, after the piece appeared, I waited for the phone to ring, thinking that now all the important editors in New York would be aware of what a stylish writer I was. When the phone remained mum for several weeks, I let my service lapse. The silence was too depressing, and I was too broke to pay the bill. If they wanted to find me they could write a letter to the Nation and have it forwarded, like people did in the old days.
After graduation I stayed on in Missoula, where I paid $180 a month for a studio apartment above a downtown movie theater. On summer days fishermen cast their flies upstream from the Higgins Avenue Bridge, seventy-five yards from my window, and a bagpiper went through his mournful musical paces, using the bridge abutments as acoustic enhancement. Mornings I eked out a living baking bread alongside a failed novelist who’d mastered the texture of the baguette, though not the art of fiction, during two years in Paris in the 1970s. Afternoons I worked on what I hoped would become my own first novel, an imitation of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy that stalled forever at forty pages. For a time I felt sort of authentically bohemian pounding on my old Olivetti while the muffled sound track to that week’s feature film droned through the floor. The building’s manual elevator, one of the few of its kind still in operation west of the Mississippi, was staffed by a woman who’d never abandoned the apartment upstairs where her husband had blown his brains out a decade earlier. More than once I heard a rumor that David Lynch had spent some time around the place during his stay in Missoula, long enough to use it as a model for the apartment building in Blue Velvet.
I’d finally given up on journalism. I wanted to devote myself to art, to real writing, to an eccentric vision along the lines of David Lynch. I might have been content to live for years hand-to-mouth in that heady mixture of squalor and beauty, within walking distance of eleven bars, had an old flame not dropped back into my life.
We’d broken up a few years earlier; she’d moved to Paris, and I hadn’t seen her since. When she wrote to say she was coming to Montana for a cousin’s wedding, we planned to meet for one last bittersweet romantic good-bye.
We drove through the mountains, camped by an alpine lake, and, gripped by sentimentality, agreed to try again: she’d leave Paris, I’d leave Montana. We’d meet in the middle, New York. I guess we had to prove to ourselves, once and for all, that we weren’t meant to be. Which of course we did. One gray morning I woke up and found myself alone in a Hell’s Kitchen sublet with the owner’s four cats, wondering how I was ever going to pay my bills. Journalism beckoned.
I sent my résumé to dozens of magazines and waited to hear back, but in the end only one of them called me for an interview. I only got the interview because I knew someone who knew someone at the magazine. It was called Civilization and was affiliated with the Library of Congress. The magazine was glossy but kind of boring. I didn’t care. I’d been in the city for two months and was buying groceries with my credit card.
I showed up in a jacket and tie and tried my best to look like a diligent and respectable young college graduate from the American Middle West. I was shown to the office of the editor, a man named Nelson Aldrich, who asked me about my various internships. I told him about all the intrepid reporting I’d done at the Fargo Forum, the article I’d written for the Nation, the many things I’d learned about the ways of the world while staring into the abyss of an impending deadline. I tried to make it sound as if I were the prairie incarnation of H. L. Mencken and no doubt went too far, because Nelson Aldrich immediately said I was overqualified for the job. He was looking for an editorial assistant. I told him I really wanted the job. He said I’d probably find it boring and he didn’t want a bored assistant moping around the office. I told him I didn’t mope. He said the pay was poor and I could find something better. I told him I’d already been looking for two months and didn’t share his optimism. We spent most of the interview in this way, me begging in an unseemly manner for the job, him trying to talk me out of wanting it.
I’d done some research about Nelson Aldrich before I arrived for the interview. In addition to helping found the Paris Review, he’d written a book called Old Money, about growing up in a family that had a lot of it. I wanted to tell him that I’d grown up in a family that had hardly any of it, that I needed a job to begin paying my student loans and my extortionate New York rent, that if he hired me I’d be the most attentive and responsible editorial assistant he’d ever known, and that even if I became bored I’d pretend I wasn’t, because I just wanted money—new, old, crisp, soiled, I didn’t care. But he was from old money, and I figured he didn’t understand such things, so I didn’t bring them up, and he didn’t hire me, and after I left his office I never spoke to him again.
I may have had to leave the city in disgrace if I hadn’t called the former head of the journalism department at the University of Montana, a man named Frank Allen. He’d once worked at the Wall Street Journal and knew a lot of people in New York. When I called him, he gave me the name of a woman at the Wall Street Journal and told me I should call her and ask her to coffee. The idea was she might know people who knew other people who might want to hire a hungry young journalist from the northern Plains.
The woman was the newspaper’s legal editor. I called her, and we met for coffee. She said, in her gravelly Brooklyn accent, that Frank Allen had hired her when he was chief of the Philadelphia bureau of the Wall Street Journal, and for that she was eternally grateful. There was no longer a Philadelphia bureau of the Wall Street Journal, and about that she was sad.
As luck would have it, she said, I’ve just been given permission by my boss to hire a news assistant. Would you be interested in the job?
I said, Yes, absolutely.
She told me to send her six samples of my writing by the end of the week.
I told her I would.
When I left the interview, which I hadn’t even known was going to be an interview, I was conflicted. All of a sudden, I had a chance to get a job at a place that considered itself the World’s Most Important Publication, but I didn’t want to work at the world’s most important publication. In fact, I’d hardly ever read it; I thought it was a fusty rag for middle-aged bankers, as predictable in its celebration of capitalism as Pravda had been in its defense of Communism. My politics at the time were fierce and not always coherent, but if they were given a one-word description I suppose you’d call them socialist. And while socialism taking root in America was about as likely as a manned space flight to Pluto, journalism, I thought, might at least be a means to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, as one of my professors liked to say. The Wall Street Journal seemed about the least likely place in the world where a writer could do that.
Soon I decided my politics mattered less than the anemic balance in my checking account—and then I realized I had an even bigger problem. The legal editor had wanted to see six samples of my writing—six—but I had only four or five really good ones from the Fargo Forum. The best thing I’d written was the essay on the Blackfoot River in the Nation. As fate would have it, I’d said an unkind thing about the Wall Street Journal in that piece. In reference to a logging company whose clear-cuts of healthy forest had fouled the river with silt and killed untold numbers of fish, I’d written: “Even a newspaper as sympathetic to corporate plunder as the Wall Street Journal once called Plum Creek the ‘Darth Vader of the [timber] industry.’” I doubted that the legal editor thought of her employer as sympathetic to corporate plunder, and I very much doubted that she would hire me if she discovered I’d written such a thing.
You can see my quandary.
Soon, though, I thought of a solution. I still had friends at the Nation, and I called one of them, explained my situation, and asked if he’d do me a giant favor. Would he go into the electronic archives of the magazine and touch up the article that said unkind things about the Wall Street Journal, and then print for me a copy of the doctored article, which would no longer say unkind things? At first he was reluctant. He didn’t want to tinker with the historical record of the magazine. I told him he should of course change back my wording before saving and closing the file.
In the end he capitulated, and I sent a copy of the doctored article to the legal editor. She was impressed by it, and I was hired.
When I showed up for work that first day, on Liberty Street in Manhattan, just across the West Side Highway from the World Trade Center towers, in World Financial Center building number one, I had my picture taken and affixed to a little magnetic pass card. When waved in front of a laserlike beam of discerning red light, the pass card unlocked doors for me in the paper’s austere corridors. My qualms about working for the bible of American capitalism were in quick retreat. I felt proud, powerful, important: I was going places.
I’d been hired as a news assistant. I thought this meant I’d help with the gathering and writing of news. In practice, this meant I fetched faxes and replenished water coolers. I spent most of each day standing over a squadron of a half-dozen fax machines, manually collating and stapling press releases and court documents, then delivering them to reporters who covered corporate law, telecommunications, and the pharmaceutical industry. I performed this task with actuarial efficiency, the paper a blur in my hand like a magician’s trick; I served the reporters their faxes with the cordial discretion of a waiter in a fancy restaurant. My only means of discriminating good days from bad was by noting, at the end of my shift, whether I’d avoided a paper cut.
All day long I inhaled the hot ink fumes wafting from the fax machines. I felt an irrational fear that the fumes might have some secret, insidious effect—hastening the onset of lung cancer, shrinking my testicles. My job was pointless. I’d spent the prime years of my education working menial jobs and borrowing heavily to pay for a college degree that qualified me for a position that was already obsolete. Al Gore had invented the internet. People didn’t need to send faxes anymore. They could send e-mail. But they went on sending faxes on paper, laying waste to great swaths of forest, enriching pulp mills and timber companies. I thought about mentioning this to my boss: Why don’t we encourage people to rechannel their communications electronically, saving the world lots of trees and me lots of time? But then I wondered whether that would result in me losing my job, whereupon I’d be forced to wait tables at a tapas bar. So I kept my mouth shut and sorted and stapled the faxes, and cashed my check every two weeks, which still came quaintly on paper, despite the invention of direct deposit.
Once in a while I came across an amusing press release, which I tucked in a folder marked “GREATEST HITS OF PUBLIC RELATIONS.”
New York University Medical Center: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: NEW YORK, NY (November 29, 1999)—FREQUENT NIGHTTIME BATHROOM VISITS AFFECT SLEEP AND QUALITY OF LIFE. . . .
THE AYN RAND INSTITUTE—October 20, 1999. FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: FIFTH ANNIVERSARY OF AMERICORPS = FIVE YEARS OF SACRIFICE. Marina Del Ray, CA—The AmeriCorps should be abolished, said the director of communications for the Ayn Rand Institute. “The AmeriCorps aims to indoctrinate young people into a life of sacrificing to society,” said Scott McConnell. “That is a recipe for slavery, not freedom.” . . . Since 1997, the Ayn Rand Institute has been the only voice morally opposing volunteerism. Through the Institute’s Anti-Servitude Internship Program, students have the opportunity to fulfill their school’s volunteer requirements by working to abolish volunteerism.
NEWS: Re: PEOPLE MAGAZINE’S TRIBUTE ISSUE RELEASE. July 22, 1999. Please note that there was an error in the press release forwarded to you this morning: JOHN F. KENNEDY JR. WAS PEOPLE’S ‘SEXIEST MAN ALIVE’ IN 1988 (NOT 1998). We regret the error.
March 30, 1999: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: News from State Senator Roy M.
Goodman: SENATOR GOODMAN URGES PASSAGE OF LEGISLATION TO REGULATE SPERM RETRIEVAL FROM DEAD MEN
One day, about eight months after I was hired, I learned of a job opening on the Leisure & Arts page. It was listed on the company’s internal website, a copyediting job, repairing split infinitives and run-on sentences and the like. I figured I could do that. More important, I knew the job would double my salary and probably halve my chances of lung cancer. I had my résumé and cover letter polished by the end of the day.
I was confident of my chances until I learned that, in order to get the job, I would have to sit for an interview with Bob Bartley, the editorial-page editor of the paper, who also oversaw hiring for the Leisure & Arts page, which he otherwise supervised with benign neglect. Bob Bartley, who has since passed away, was among the most influential American journalists of the second half of the 20th century, although his name was not widely known outside of New York and Washington. He was fairly soft-spoken, and his posture was poor. He rarely smiled, but when he did he looked like a cat who’d just swallowed your canary.
His abiding obsessions were taxes and weapons. He thought taxes should be cut always and everywhere, except for poor people, and he thought America should build as many weapons as possible. The more weapons we had, in his view, the less likely we were to need them. But he believed that occasionally we might need them to bomb other nations that were trying to get them too, because those nations couldn’t be trusted not to use them, the way we could. In order to further thwart the nations that, unlike us, couldn’t be trusted not to use their weapons, he thought we should spend however many trillions it took to build a missile-defense shield, that sci-fi sort of umbrella that would protect America from the rain of other nations’ missiles. (I always admired the childish simplicity of the concept: like one man shooting a bullet at another man, and instead of the second man shooting back at the first man, he shoots a bullet at the first man’s bullet. That way, no one dies. Only bullets die.) Bob Bartley believed that with tax cuts, lots of weapons, and a missile-defense shield, Americans would remain safe, happy, and prosperous.
Bob Bartley had been writing editorials about these ideas for more than thirty years.
Someone once made a joke about editorial writers. Why is writing an editorial like pissing yourself in a blue serge suit? Because it gives you a warm feeling, and nobody notices what you’ve done.
Bob Bartley was no trouser-wetter, though. From what I could discern, he never had warm feelings, and people in power tended to notice what he wrote. The arena in which he’d had his greatest influence was tax policy. He was a ceaseless proponent of trickle-down economics: by cutting taxes for rich people and raising them for poor people, he argued, more money would end up in the hands of not only rich people but, because the rich people would spend it on maids and yachts, in the hands of people who cleaned houses and sanded the decks of yachts. Because everyone would be making more money, the government would generate more money in taxes, even though the top tax rates were lower. Since bloating the government with more taxpayer money was actually a bad thing, an evil outcome of good policy (I know, I know, it all gets very confusing), the government would be obliged to funnel the extra tax revenues to bomb-building projects—in effect throwing the money away, since it created wealth, in the form of weapons, that could only be used once, if at all, and then only to destroy, never to create more wealth, which was supposed to be the essence of capitalism, wealth creating wealth—while at the same time cutting programs for poor people, which would make the poor people angry at the government and entice them to vote for Republicans, just like the rich people did, ensuring Republican rule forever.
Despite the baroque strangeness of some of his ideas, Bob Bartley had once won a Pulitzer Prize.
When I first joined the paper, Bob Bartley was in the late, hysterical stages of his obsession with Bill Clinton. Bob Bartley’s editorial page had printed enough editorials about Whitewater to fill 3,000 pages in six thick anthologies (now available on CD-ROM!). Bob Bartley was proud of these books, even though no one read them. He thought Whitewater was comparable to Watergate; he was hoping to bring down a president, like Woodward and Bernstein had, and win another Pulitzer Prize. But despite his 3,000 pages of editorials, Whitewater ultimately degenerated into an ontological squabble about whether fellatio is actually sex, and the president did not resign and was not forced from office, although Bob Bartley was adamant that he should have been, because Bob Bartley did not approve of extramarital fellatio. At least not for Democrats. When a reporter asked him whether he would’ve attacked Newt Gingrich or another prominent Republican faced with similar charges of sexual misconduct, Bob Bartley admitted that, “We would have defended them. That’s the way it is.”
I was nervous when I went to Bob Bartley’s office for my interview. My internship at the Nation featured prominently on my résumé. While the work I did there was utterly harmless to the spread of corporate capitalism—fact-checking articles on a labor movement that was doomed no matter what anyone said; researching articles on “the hoax of global warming,” which Bob Bartley agreed was a hoax—the Nation was known to say kind things about socialists. Bob Bartley detested socialists. Bob Bartley held my résumé in his hands. I feared he would ask me about socialism, taxes, trickle-down economics. Then I would face a choice: I could either tell him what I thought about these things, where upon he would refuse to hire me to work on the Leisure & Arts page, or I could betray my own principles, barter away my soul, and lie. I’d been here before, and I knew which path I’d choose.
He did not ask me about any of these things. We talked about Minnesota and Iowa, where, it turned out, we had both lived as boys. He’d been born in southwestern Minnesota but grew up mostly in Ames, Iowa, while I’d been born in Ames, Iowa, and grew up mostly in southwestern Minnesota. This seemed apt, our moving in opposite directions at the beginning of our lives—me upward and to the left on the map, him downward and to the right.
Bob Bartley asked me only one serious question, with two leading follow-ups: What is your ambition in life? Do you, for instance, want to be a reporter? Or do you want to be editorial-page editor of the Wall Street Journal?
I was sure I didn’t want to be a reporter, especially not at the Wall Street Journal, where most reporters covered a single industry (insurance, airlines) or even a single company (AOL, Microsoft), had very few opportunities to comfort the afflicted, and never detached themselves from their cell phones. And even though a part of me did want to be editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal, which was the same thing as saying I wanted to be the Most Important Person at the World’s Most Important Publication, I knew I never would be, because I didn’t believe any of the things Bob Bartley believed. If I said no, he might be insulted. If I said yes, a part of him would always suspect that repairing split infinitives was merely the first step in my devious plan to succeed him, after which I would install a cadre of liberal editorial writers who would call for higher taxes on rich people, the abolition of nuclear weapons, and government sponsored extramarital fellatio for all American Democrats.
I chose my words carefully. I said, No, I want to write a novel.
My answer pleased him, as I figured it would. When I left Bob Bartley’s office, I knew I had the job.
Shortly thereafter, I ceased to hand out faxes, and instead wrote headlines and edited copy for the next three years. I was anonymous, efficient, and discreet. Nothing slipped past me. Day after day an unblemished page was shipped electronically to seventeen printing plants across the country, and the following morning nearly two million readers held the fruits of my labor in their hands. At first I resented the lack of attention paid my mastery of English grammar and the intricacies of the house style book. Not once did I receive a letter from an armchair grammarian in Dubuque or Terre Haute, one of those retired English teachers who scour the daily paper with a red pen in hand, searching for evidence of American decline in the form of a split infinitive. Nor did my immediate superior mention, even in passing, that I did my job diligently and well. But over time I began to take delight in this peculiar feature of my job—that my success was measured by how rarely people noticed what I did. In this way I believed myself akin to oil-tanker captains and air-traffic controllers, those anonymous technicians of social stability whose identities become known only through catastrophic failure.
When I moved to the Leisure & Arts page, I assumed I’d have little contact with the editorial writers. I was wrong. My cubicle was situated smack in the midst of theirs. A couple of them came forward to welcome me, but most of them didn’t. The ones who welcomed me overlooked the fact that my politics were repugnant. Those who didn’t welcome me couldn’t overlook that fact. By hanging a campaign poster of Ralph Nader in my cubicle, I made it a hard fact to overlook.
I had almost nothing in the way of social interaction with the editorial writers, although I began to read their writing very closely, sometimes even dipping into the archives to sample their obsessions over the decades. They wrote with the zeal of converts, as if they’d all been Communists in their youth, and each of them clutched, with merciless loins, the flanks of a favorite right-wing hobby horse: not only taxes and weapons but the treachery and moral lassitude of the Palestinians, the creeping fascism of fluoride in the water supply, the heroic necessity of Pinochet’s bloody dictatorship in crushing democratic socialism in Chile. In this way the collective voice of the newspaper, the unsigned editorials, was always the furthest to the right of the range of beliefs held by the editorial-page writers, no accident on Bob Bartley’s part. He himself held the most extreme position on every issue, and although he couldn’t write three editorials a day himself, he took great care in his choice of surrogates. He hired people who could just as well have been Republican speechwriters, as indeed some of them had been (Peggy Noonan) or soon would be (Bill McGurn)—a line of work that seemed to me, if not exactly noble, then at least more intellectually honest than masquerading as a journalist.
I tried once and only once to engage in a reasonable discussion about politics with one of the editorial writers. She was a voluble and attractive young blonde who’d grown up in Oregon and gone to college at Princeton. She worked in the cubicle next to mine. She wrote a lot about environmental issues, and one time I told her I disagreed with something she’d written about federal forest policy. The essence of my argument was simple: I don’t think trees should be cut down carelessly. She told me that trees existed to be cut down. Needless to say, I was surprised; I sort of assumed people from Oregon liked trees. She said she preferred clear-cuts—essentially, forests transformed into nonforests. She said that clear-cuts grew back as peaceful meadows, which were aesthetically superior to forests. I disagreed. She said I had an unhealthy, sentimental attitude about trees; she accused me of wanting to hug them. I told her I didn’t want to hug them, I just didn’t think they should all die. But she said most trees would be better off dead, after which they could be given a more useful second life as chairs, ranch houses, or fax paper. We didn’t talk much after that, although we always said hello when passing in the hallways.
My boss, Raymond Sokolov, was the one true sophisticate among the bunch. He’d founded, in 1982, the Leisure & Arts page as a daily staple of the paper. Before that he’d been a book and movie critic for Newsweek, a food editor at the New York Times, and a columnist for Natural History magazine. He’d also written several books, among them a biography of A. J. Liebling. With his diminutive stature, his shock of white hair, and his colorful bow ties, he had the appearance of a mischievous, elfin intellectual. He was no ideologue when it came to politics. He seemed, from what I could gather in our occasional, brief conversations, to be a sensible moderate, but he had a streak of iconoclasm, some inherent desire to tweak the sensibilities of the powers that be.
One day he came to me with a proposal. Our regular TV critic was going on vacation. Would I care to try my hand at filling her column? I could pick through the piles of tapes she was sent by the networks and write on anything that struck me, as long as he approved it first.
I was flattered—but I hadn’t owned a television in seven years. This, I told him, might rob me of the requisite tone of authority, the breadth of reference, that is the currency of the modern newspaper critic.
He stroked the tips of his mustache with his thumb and forefinger and sagely nodded his head.
Why don’t you write about life without television? he said. For one day we can make the TV column an anti-TV column.
He flashed a devilish smile.
The next week, for the first time in anyone’s memory, the paper’s TV column failed to offer a blurb for the latest darling project of some cable or network exec. Nor did it provide Fortune 500 ad managers with a hint of where to place their commercials. Nothing was hyped or sold. In fact, a half-dozen subscribers wrote letters to the editor and claimed they’d been emboldened to unplug their sets and stow them away in their attics. And while all of this gave me a small but palpable thrill, it may have been that assignment that first helped me move beyond a conception of myself as a hardworking and dedicated foe of split infinitives and run-on sentences, an honest working stiff in the salt mines of American journalism. My little column suddenly helped me see myself through the eyes of the men in the suites upstairs: another peon doing his part to enhance shareholder value at the flagship editorial product in the universe of Dow Jones brands. So this peon doesn’t have a TV set. How droll.
Nonetheless, the paper had an audience of millions, and a part of me couldn’t quite shake the idea that the point of writing is to have your work read by as many people as possible. So, once a month or so, I’d propose an article for the Leisure & Arts page, and more often than not Ray would go for it. In this manner I smuggled the occasional outré sentiment into the paper.
The assignment I enjoyed most was a profile of a radical black performance artist named William Pope.L. He’d once walked the streets of Harlem with a twelve-foot white phallus strapped to his midsection, a comment on white fears of black sexuality that sent the National Endowment for the Arts—which had once bestowed on Pope.L a grant of taxpayer money—into a tizzy. His most famous work, however, involved eating a copy of the Wall Street Journal with the aid of ketchup and milk, then regurgitating the meal, all while sitting on a gleaming porcelain toilet perched atop a ten-foot scaffold. He told me he’d once seen an ad campaign for the paper that made it out to be the modern equivalent of a primitive cultural object imbued with mystical powers. I quoted his explanation at length: “The ads suggested that if you bought a subscription, good things would happen to you. It proposed that the paper could have magical effects. You didn’t have to read it. Just having it near you, having it land on your doorstep, would multiply your wealth. So I took the logic to its absurd conclusion. Shouldn’t ingesting it increase your wealth ten-fold?”
It was Ray’s idea to run the piece on the day the paper, after more than a hundred years in existence, first enlivened its pages with color ink. Thus I could quip that we’d spiced up the product mainly for the sake of its digestibility. Nothing I wrote elicited more comments from my colleagues, and everyone thought it was a gas.
Bob Bartley and I talked so infrequently I remember every occasion with total clarity. I even recorded these encounters in my journal, for posterity and biographers. The first time, he asked if I would proofread something he’d written. I didn’t want to proofread his editorials. I thought they were wrong; copyediting would only prettify their idiocy. But you don’t say no to the Most Important Person at the World’s Most Important Publication. The people who usually proofread his editorials were gone for the day, and apparently I was the only one left in the office who knew how to repair dangling participles.
I read the editorial. I disagreed with everything in it, but it was powerfully written. That’s the thing about his editorials—even if you thought they were wrong, they left you with no doubt about what he believed. He claimed to craft everything he wrote for optimal “muzzle velocity,” as he once put it to another journalist. His style owed a great deal to the old yellow journalism of personal invective, and he didn’t just savage his opponents’ ideas, he aimed to obliterate his opponents altogether.
I told him I saw only one mistake. It wasn’t a split infinitive, it was an unsplit word. He’d made the words “pipe dream” one word, with no space between them. I told him it should be two words, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, which was my authoritative source in such matters.
He told me he didn’t care what Webster’s New World Dictionary said. It was his editorial, and he wanted “pipe dream” to be one word. He said I should delete the space I’d inserted between “pipe” and “dream.”
I never edited anything by Bob Bartley again.
We talked a second time a few months later. I was standing in the hallway with some colleagues from the Leisure & Arts page, and Bob Bartley approached us. He said he had two doctors’ appointments on the Upper East Side of Manhattan the next day. He had a bit of leisure time to spare between them and wondered if there was any art at the museums on the Upper East Side that he ought to see.
I said, Yes, there’s a wonderful show of Walker Evans photos at the Met. Anyone who cares about photography—or America—should see it if he can.
He said, Thanks, I may just go.
A few days later I met him in the hallway. I said hello. He did not say hello.
I said, Bob, did you see the Walker Evans show at the Met?
He stopped and looked at me. I wondered if I should have called him Mr. Bartley instead of Bob.
He said, Yes, I saw it.
What did you think? I asked.
It wasn’t for me, he said. I stayed for five minutes and went to the Egyptian galleries.
After I thought about it for a while, his answer made sense. Walker Evans was the great documentarian of Depression-era Southern poverty; Bob Bartley was appalled by the very idea of poor people. In fact, he’d once said he didn’t think there were any poor people left in America—“ just a few hermits or something like that.” (This quote can be found in the Washington Post Magazine of July 11, 1982.) On this issue Bob Bartley was the intellectual heir of an old American idea expressed most succinctly by the preacher Henry Ward Beecher: “No man in this land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault—unless it be his sin.” For Bob Bartley, the agrarian pictures of Walker Evans and the homoerotic pictures of Robert Mapplethorpe were morally equivalent. Both depicted human beings in a sinful state of filth and degradation, and such images had no place in an American museum.
Of course I disagreed. Not only did I appreciate the unadorned honesty of Walker Evans’s photographs, I’d grown up in a poor family myself. As a child, while living on a rented farm where we struggled to make enough money to feed ourselves, I’d stood in line with my mother for handouts of surplus government cheese. Pictures of people like us from the time of the Great Depression hung in many museums, a testament to certain unappealing aspects of the American experience.
Bob Bartley didn’t believe the government should be in the cheese handout business.
I never recommended a museum to Bob Bartley again.
The last time we spoke was on the day of his retirement. Dow Jones & Company required senior executives to retire at the age of 65. Bob Bartley was now 65, and would be replaced as editorial-page editor by Paul Gigot, who’d won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary and often appeared on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. Paul Gigot wrote signed columns that made him sound like a reasonable conservative, although some of his unsigned pieces hinted at a fear that the Boy Scouts might soon become a front group for initiating American boys in the fine art of fellatio. As for Bob Bartley, he would still write a weekly column called “Thinking Things Over,” in which he would say the same things he’d been thinking for thirty years all over again.
I went to the men’s room on my way out of the office. Bob Bartley was in the men’s room too. We stood next to each other, pissing contemplatively, not talking. When I was finished, I went to the sink and washed my hands. When Bob Bartley was finished, he looked at himself in the mirror and walked out.
We boarded the elevator together. His hair was mussed, and his shoulders were slumped. He had the doleful look of an injured horse aware it’s about to be taken out to pasture and shot.
Big day, I said.
Yes, he said.
I thought a little flattery might cheer him up.
Now Paul gets to see how hard you work, I said.
That’s right, he said. And I have to figure out how to disengage. Not sure how to do that. Maybe stop coming into the office every day.
Yes, I said, I can imagine that would be a challenge after thirty years. He didn’t respond.
As we got off the elevator, I tried to think of something else to say to him—something serious and substantive, something intelligent people may have wanted to ask him but were too afraid—since I knew I’d probably never speak to him again. I considered asking him how he felt about an in-depth study of his editorials by the Columbia Journalism Review, which found that his page “rarely offers balance, is often unfair, and is riddled with errors—distortions and outright falsehoods of every kind and stripe.” I thought to ask whether he felt in any way responsible for the death of Vincent Foster, the White House counsel to Bill Clinton who’d killed himself shortly after Bob Bartley ran a series of harsh attacks on his integrity. A note found in Foster’s briefcase expressed anguish that “the WSJ editors lie without consequence.” After Foster’s death, Bob Bartley’s editorials hinted darkly that Foster may have been murdered for knowing too much about Whitewater, and called for a special counsel to investigate. “The American public is entitled to know if Mr. Foster’s death was somehow connected to his high office,” Bob Bartley wrote. I sort of thought the American public was entitled to know if Bob Bartley thought Vince Foster’s death was somehow connected to irresponsible journalism.
In my heart I knew it was the wrong day for such questions, so I didn’t ask them. We parted ways in the lobby, him heading for his limousine to Brooklyn, me for the subway to Queens.
Well, I said, enjoy your newfound freedom.
I’ll try, he said.
I never talked to Bob Bartley again.
Ray’s most provocative move had nothing to do with my writing for the paper. It was March of 2000 when he hatched a plan to get a poet friend of his the exposure Ray thought he deserved. The poet’s name was Frederick Seidel. I’d never heard of him. Ray said he was brilliant but had a devil of a time getting started on a poem; in fact, in a review in the late ’80s, Ray had called him “gifted” but “maddeningly unproductive.” Ray’s plan was to give Seidel a monthly deadline, as if he were a journalist. Seidel would write one poem a month under the title of that month, and not only would the deadline prod him into action, the paper would offer him an audience the size of which most poets could only dream.
Here, Ray said, reaching into his bookshelves. Take these home with you. See what you think.
I spent that evening with three of Seidel’s collections. Some of it was profoundly beautiful, like this, from a poem called “The Childhood Sunlight” in his book The Cosmos Poems:
The parking lot washed clean smells sweet,
And even has a rainbow that
A little girl tiptoes toward,
Hoping not to frighten it.
The neighbor’s dog that won’t go home
Is watching her—which she can’t see—
With naked eyes of love and awe.
She feels that way herself sometimes.
When you are sure that you’re alone,
Tell yourself to not be sure.
This universe is not the first.
The other ones are not the same.
This sort of poem was atypical, though. Generally, reading Seidel was like riding shotgun on a Ducati racer, a machine that appeared on occasion in his poems. It was a ride full of quick, propulsive accelerations and sudden, screeching stops, hairpin turns into spooky alleys. In addition to racing bikes there was a lot of racy sex. Ray could not have picked a poet better suited to offend the sensibilities of wealthy born-again housewives or buttoned-up corporate executives in the great American suburbs.
Seidel began to write his poems, one per month, and it was my job to typeset them, make sure all the italics and em-dashes and capital letters were just so, and then fax him a copy to inspect and approve. When we talked on the phone, I felt like a peasant in the presence of royalty. He always said, Phil, my boy, how are you? in the most sophisticated voice I’d ever heard, very precise, as if his concourse was always with the gods but he’d learned English as a second language, so he could order lunch. He always wanted to know what I thought of his poems. What could I tell him? I was on deadline every time, late in the afternoon, with headlines to write and stories to cut to make them fit on the page. I didn’t have time to read his poems the half-dozen times required for me to make sense of them, at least not until the next morning, before the hum of the day began, when I could sit with a cup of coffee and my feet up on my desk, reading the paper. What I really wanted to say was, Dude, I can’t believe you’re getting away with this in the Wall Street Journal! You’re my hero! But that seemed a little lowbrow, so I’d focus on a particular stanza whose music I liked, or a particular image that struck me. I think he believed I wasn’t a very bright boy, at least when it came to poetry.
My favorite of his early poems for the paper was this:
My Christmas is covered
With goosepimples in the cold.
Her arms are raised straight
Above her head.
She turns around slowly in nothing but a
Garter belt and stockings outdoors.
She has the powerful
Buttocks of a Percheron.
My beautiful with goosepimples
Climbs the ladder to the high diving board
In her high heels
The mirror of the swimming pool is looking up at her
She bounces up and down
As if about to dive.
In her ideals, in her high heels,
The palm trees go up and down.
The mirror of the swimming pool is looking up at her
The heated swimming pool mirror is steaming
In the cold.
The Christmas tree is on.
A cigarette speedboat cuts the bay in two.
It rears up on its white wake.
Ninety miles away
The cigarette smokes fine cigars,
Rolls hundred dollar bills into straws.
Is in his arms.
Around this time, not surprisingly, there began to be heard complaints about the political thrust and aesthetic sensibilities of the Leisure & Arts page. Ray mentioned these complaints to me in elliptical asides to conversations on other matters. He’d apparently been forwarded some scolding letters to the editor about a couple of Seidel poems; he’d also received a memo from the publisher that raised concerns about propriety and sound judgment. But Ray was a cagey fellow, a survivor of twenty years in the shadow of Bob Bartley, and although I never asked him how he responded to questions about his stewardship, I imagined him pointing out that the occasional kerfuffle proved he had his readers’ attention, and besides, every single day a big fat ad appeared on his page. For a time he managed to forestall these complaints, in part because the paper was awash in ad money.
We were, after all, in the midst of millennial madness. The paper was both an avid chronicler of and an unashamed participant in that madness, and, as Bob Bartley believed and Ray was aware, a balance sheet deep in the black was the strongest proof of virtue known to man.
One month after I was originally hired, the Dow Jones Industrial Average—comprising thirty companies chosen by the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and the only company brand more recognizable than the paper itself—closed above 10,000 for the first time. The paper celebrated this triumph with a banner six-column headline, only the third in its history, the others having blared the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the start of the first Gulf War.
Nearly a year to the day after I began at the paper, the NASDAQ index reached an all-time high of 5048.62. The paper was so fat with “New Economy” advertising, the average subscriber—white, fiftyish, male, with a yearly household income of around $200,000—risked a hernia when he lifted it off his doorstep. Management went on a hiring spree to fill an ever greater need for copy to offset the profusion of ads. The paper started whole new daily sections and weekly supplements to cash in on the marketing lucre of companies that would go belly up before the end of their second fiscal year. I knew colleagues who charged every movie, every dinner, every new book and bottle of high-end wine to company credit cards. Ad managers at the paper’s sister publication, Barron’s, were known to keep open tabs at various Manhattan bars and to entertain clients by expensing the cost of strippers. No one in the suites batted an eye. Company executives merely increased their own bonuses.
It was easy to be carried along on this tide of giddy prosperity, writing the occasional mildly subversive piece in order to cling, however tenuously, to what I thought of as possession of my soul. I made a salary in the mid-five figures, more than I’d ever expected. I saw jazz for free in any club I cared to visit, just by calling ahead and telling the doorman where I worked. When I wrote a profile of a writer or a musician—Larry McMurtry, Jacky Terrasson—the subject’s latest book or album shot up the Amazon.com sales charts. I was moving units and meeting people.
I built a sweet little home library from the spoils of the weekly book give-away, the constant pile of review copies sent by American publishers to the paper’s book editor. Not only did I make off with reissued classics from Penguin and the Modern Library, I surreptitiously swiped the volumes on Tantric sex, slipping them into my bag when no one else was looking. When uttered during the exchange of small talk at parties in Brooklyn tenements—always somewhat sheepishly, and only in response to direct questions about my gainful employment—the words Wall Street Journal had the effect of a good narcotic: dilated pupils, flushed face, and what seemed to me a perceptible slackening of sexual inhibition, which, being a shy and socially awkward young man from the American Middle West, I never did take advantage of, despite my collection of books on Tantric sex.
You might think an institution whose very purpose is to chronicle the ups and downs of American capitalism would be uniquely prepared for a swing in the business cycle. You would be wrong. Dow Jones was notoriously bad at running its own business. In the late 1980s, the company bought an electronic provider of business information called Telerate for $1.6 billion. It was meant to compete with Reuters and Bloomberg. A decade later, Dow Jones sold Telerate at a loss of almost $1 billion. The “New Economy” boom was a chimera that allowed the company to believe it might escape the shackles of Telerate and its other dumb decisions, but the sudden implosion of tech stocks in 2000 hit Dow Jones like a blow to the solar plexus. Ad revenue plummeted. Managers at the flagship editorial product in the universe of Dow Jones brands were instructed to streamline their budgets. In the summer of 2001 we received a memo that said the following:
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, We are discontinuing the ownership and maintenance of indoor plants throughout our office space in the World Financial Center. This, combined with a similar move in South Brunswick, will save Dow Jones more than $40,000 per year. The WFC plants will be moved from the floor space to the reception areas for disposal late Friday, July 13, 2001. If you would like to take over the maintenance of any of the plants, please attach a yellow Post-It note with your name to a visible part of the plant container. Or, if you would like to take any of the plants home, please feel free to do so before this Friday, July 13. If you have any questions, please call Bill at ext. 2072.
This was a novel form of outsourcing, I thought.
At the time, Dow Jones CEO Peter Kann made almost $2 million per year in salary and bonuses. In his glory days, he and his wife had been known to fly to the office in a helicopter from their home in New Jersey. I wondered whether the company could just get rid of Peter Kann—it had already jettisoned the helicopter—and save the indoor plants. But I never said anything.
Other ominous things happened. We received a memo from Peter Kann in which he wrote: “As most of you know, over the last two or three weeks we have done a number of layoffs in some parts of the company as part of a cost-reduction program aimed at getting our expense structure aligned with reduced revenues in a tougher business environment.”
Peter Kann had once been a journalist. In the 1970s, he’d won a Pulitzer Prize as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Moving to the suites had hampered his prose style, but if you read the memo enough times, you could figure out what he was saying. He was saying: Since I’m not giving back my $1 million New Economy bonus, lots of people are getting canned.
He later named his wife to replace him as publisher of the Wall Street Journal, a rather brazen bit of nepotism, I thought, but I never said anything.
Things got worse. There were rumors the company would be sold to a competitor—the New York Times, the Washington Post. In the office cafeteria, reporters and editors had the look of a dwindling tribe being hunted by enemies with superior weaponry.
The atmosphere around the office was clammy with portents of doom.
On September 11, 2001, just as I finished my breakfast, I received a call from a friend who knew I lived without a TV. She told me, in a voice wracked with panic, that the World Trade Center towers had been hit by airplanes. I put on my suit jacket, left my apartment, and ran to take a subway to work. I was on journalistic autopilot: there was a big story, I was within reach of the story—it was right across the street from my workplace—and therefore I had a professional obligation to get there, even if I usually copyedited pieces about theater and books.
Partway to the office, my train stalled and didn’t move for an hour and a half. Since we were stuck underground, we had no way of knowing the severity of the situation downtown, and when at last we were discharged from the train at Union Square, I continued the journey to the office on foot. In Chinatown, the police had cordoned off the streets. No one was allowed any farther, not even people with press credentials, although as a copy editor I had none. The towers, in the distance, were swathed in a cloud of black smoke; my mind, still stuck in a news vacuum, couldn’t comprehend that they no longer stood, though in fact they’d fallen an hour earlier. I did know that if I was truly intent on getting to the office, I had but one choice. I would have to reenter the subway system and walk through the tunnel.
The entrance to the Franklin Street station was blocked with yellow police tape. I looked at the campaign posters for the mayoral primary taped to the railing above the stairs and thought that, if I crossed the police line, there would be no one to rely on thereafter but myself. What else was I going to do? Go back to my apartment and listen to the radio? Sit in a bar and watch TV? I lifted the tape, descended the stairs, and, in a last gesture toward civilized norms, swiped my MetroCard instead of jumping the turnstile.
No trains were running. No clerk was in the token booth. I waited a few moments to see if a train or an MTA worker would appear, but there was only an otherworldly quiet. With no one around to stop me, I lowered myself onto the tracks and began walking through the tunnel, creeping through the dark, careful to avoid touching the third rail. Not even the squeak of a rat marred the silence. It would be the only time I ever heard nothing in New York.
Ten blocks later, when I emerged into the light of the Chambers Street station, the platform was coated in dust, and ahead in the tunnel I heard water rushing with a sound like a waterfall. A couple of cops were in the station, hanging around the token booth. I waited until they wandered off and then I climbed the stairs to the street.
I emerged a couple of blocks north of the towers, or at least where the towers had been. The streets were covered in ash and office paper. A cop stood alone in the middle of the street, watching a burning building, which I later learned was World Trade Center number seven. I walked over and stood next to her, both of us mesmerized. After a couple of minutes she looked at me. That building’s probably gonna go, she said, you might wanna get outta here. She didn’t order me to leave. She seemed to assume I wouldn’t. She merely offered it as a suggestion, one among a series of options, take it or leave it.
I picked up a discarded dust mask, put it on my face, and began to make my way around the smoking rubble, through streets flooded with greenish-yellow water, or ankle-deep in fine gray powder. After crossing the West Side Highway, I entered the World Financial Center complex. The Winter Garden’s glass roof was shattered in places, and the palm trees in the courtyard were pallid with ash. All the shops were empty. I climbed the emergency fire stairs in World Financial Center building number one. No one was there. The office had long been evacuated and was now, at least on our floors, coated in a thin gritty film blown in through shattered windows, though the computers still ran on the power of a backup generator. It was one of the most unnerving moments of my life, standing in that empty newsroom, wondering where everyone was, hoping none of my colleagues had been hurt or killed, all those computers humming with no one in front of them.
I went to my cubicle, blew the ash off my keyboard, set a newspaper over the dust on my chair, and logged on to my computer. I sent an e-mail message to the entire editorial-page staff, asking if anyone needed anything, since I’d made it to the office. Those equipped with laptops immediately wrote back and told me I was crazy, that I ought to get the hell out as soon as possible, there was nothing I could do for them there, a gas line might explode, the building might collapse. I logged off and walked around the office, inspecting the damage, hoping I might see another editor or reporter, but I couldn’t find a soul. I circled back to my desk. The telephone rang. It sounded a little forlorn, even spooky, amid the unusual silence of the newsroom. I picked it up. It was my mother calling from Texas, where she was on vacation with my father, watching TV with her in-laws. I could tell from her voice that she was frightened witless. I said I was fine, we were just now evacuating the building, all was well, I would call her later in the afternoon. I hung up and checked my voice mail. There were eight frantic messages from friends wondering if I was OK. I got up and went to the men’s room. I felt strangely reverent as I stood before the urinal, aware I’d be the last man to piss there that day, that week, perhaps even that month or longer. (Almost a year, as it turned out.) The irony, when I thought about it later, was vertiginous: I had less devotion to the idea of the paper than anyone else I knew there, yet I’d risked my safety to get to the office—and for nothing. I was useless. Little did I know that if I’d wanted to be of help I should have hopped a ferry to New Jersey, where a small group of editors was putting together a paper that would win a Pulitzer Prize for spot news coverage. The Wall Street Journal of September 12, 2001 carried the fourth banner headline in the paper’s history, in letters nearly as big as the masthead: “TERRORISTS DESTROY WORLD TRADE CENTER, HIT PENTAGON IN RAID WITH HIJACKED JETS.”
I suppose I could tell you how the smoke smelled when I went back outside, like every kind of burning you’ve ever known in your life rolled into a cloud so thick you could almost drink it. I suppose I could tell you how, if you looked up at the bright blue sky a certain way, you could see waves of tiny glass crystals floating and sparkling like iridescent sea anemones. I could also tell you about the firefighters standing around in the smoke and dust, holding their heads in their hands, some of them openly weeping. But I’ve already gone on too long. Hundreds of people have written about what they saw on September 11, and I have nothing to add to that. I was just another of the spectators at the edge of the rubble, vainly hoping for a call to join a rescue operation, snapping pictures with a digital camera I’d snatched from the office, as if to preserve in some other form, outside of myself, the ghastly images searing themselves on my brain.
For a few weeks we all commuted to the cornfields of New Jersey. We put out the paper in a makeshift newsroom, a windowless bunker in the training wing of Dow Jones corporate headquarters near Princeton. My commute was two hours each way. All the stories in the paper concerned terrorism. It felt, for a time, utterly asinine to have anything to do with leisure and art. After anthrax turned up in the offices of other media companies, all of our mail was heat-steamed. The men in the mail room sorted it with masks on their faces and rubber gloves on their hands. They looked like lab technicians working with a deadly poison. When we opened our mail, the envelopes crackled like dead leaves, and the ink on the letters was often illegible.
When Danny Pearl was abducted in Pakistan, most of us had an inkling how that would end, and we braced ourselves. On the day we learned he’d been beheaded, you could have heard a pin drop in the office. He was entirely the wrong man for such a fate—not to say that there’s a right man. But he wasn’t a slavering ideologue. He wasn’t a rhetorical flamethrower who never left the home office. He was out in the danger zones, seeking to understand radical Islam by talking to the people who were shaping and being shaped by it. He believed in the democratic function of storytelling. The horror of his end was unimaginable.
About the only thing in the paper that made much sense anymore was Fred Seidel’s monthly poem. All the news stories tracking terrorist recruiting and finances, all the editorials calling for “total war” and a full-scale invasion of the Middle East in response to September 11—all of it seemed inadequate next to those eight monthly stanzas of Seidel’s verse, which, by adopting a voice as twisted and chilling as that of Osama bin Laden, seemed to get much closer to the heart of the matter. Consider this, written two months after the attacks:
I don’t believe in anything, I do
Believe in you.
Down here in hell we do don’t.
I can’t think of anything I won’t.
I amputate your feet and I walk.
I excise your tongue and I talk.
You make me fly through the black sky.
I will kill you until I die.
Thank God for you, God.
My God, it is almost always Christmas Eve this time of year, too.
Then I began to pray.
I don’t believe in anything anyway.
I did what I do. I do believe in you.
Down here in hell they do don’t.
I can’t think of anything we won’t.
How beautiful thy feet with shoes.
Struggling barefoot over dunes of snow forever, more falling, forever, Jews
Imagine mounds of breasts stretching to the horizon.
We send them to their breast, mouthful of orison.
I like the color of the smell. I like the odor of spoiled meat.
I like how gangrene transubstantiates warm firm flesh into rotten sleet.
When the blue blackens and they amputate, I fly.
I am flying a Concorde of modern passengers to gangrene in the sky.
I am flying to Area Code 212
To stab a Concorde into you,
To plunge a sword into the gangrene.
This is a poem about a sword of kerosene.
This is my 21st century in hell.
I stab the sword into the smell.
I am the sword of sunrise flying into Area Code 212
To flense the people in the buildings, and the buildings, into dew.
Needless to say, some of the paper’s more sensitive readers were not impressed; they wrote letters calling for Seidel to be silenced.
Now when I wrote for the paper the stakes were higher, and with Fred as my, dare I say, moral example—the writer willing to say the unsayable in a climate of fear and self-censorship—I chose my subjects with the utmost care. Still, it was easier as a journalist: I could simply quote the words of others, neither condoning nor condemning. In a profile of jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas, for instance, I quoted him calling the war in Afghanistan “more of a trade show and a laboratory for new weapons than a real pursuit of those who perpetrated that horrible event” already known by the glib shorthand 9/11. But it wasn’t as if the paper’s readers were looking to the arts pages for an understanding of what would soon be christened “the war on terror.”
Once we were resettled in Manhattan, in temporary quarters above the West Side’s Garment District, the men in the suites looked again for places to squeeze. Eventually a quarter of the company’s workforce would be cut, and Ray was among the downsized. At the age of 60, after twenty years of service to the company, he was strong-armed to take early retirement and replaced by a guy who’d cut his journalistic teeth at the Moonie-owned Washington Times.
Soon it came to pass that I was given a chance to work on pieces of greater world-political import. I was sitting with my feet on my desk, editing a story about a play in Chicago, or an opera in Seattle, or maybe the lovely wines of the Alsace region, when Paul Gigot asked me to follow him into an empty conference room. He invited me to sit. He cut straight to the chase. He said that for the foreseeable future I would continue copyediting for the Leisure & Arts page, but beginning in a few weeks I would do the same for the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal’s European edition.
I told him I didn’t want to do that.
He seemed surprised.
I told him I didn’t agree with the politics of the editorial page.
He said he wasn’t asking me to write things I didn’t believe. He was asking me to delete serial commas and repair split infinitives.
I told him I didn’t want my hands on the editorial page in any way, shape, or form.
He said he would give me a small raise in compensation for my added responsibilities, and I would do whatever he told me to do.
I thanked him for the raise.
I’d been keeping another folder, much like the one I’d called “GREATEST HITS OF PUBLIC RELATIONS,” though the title on this one said “FULL-BLOWN INSANITY ON THE WSJ EDITORIAL PAGE,” and when I got home that night I opened it and read the clippings again, slowly. I’d known all along there would come a time when I’d need them, and this was it.
On the day after September 11, an editorial stated: “We are entitled to presume that this is the work of the usual suspects—Saddam Hussein,” et cetera. Two days later a news article in the paper reported that “U.S. Officials Discount Any Role by Iraq in Terrorist Attacks.” The editorial page was unruffled. “Reports are swirling,” an unsigned piece announced the next day, “that Saddam Hussein was also behind last week’s attacks. . . . Deposing Saddam has to be considered another war aim.”
Immediately the paper called for speeding up the deployment of a missile-defense shield—an effort that seemed to me like that of a man lifting an umbrella over his head while being pelted in the groin by snowballs. An unsigned editorial argued that the first and most important steps in combatting terrorism ought to include capital-gains tax cuts and immediate drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The same editorial stated: “Throughout history the periods of greatest military innovation have been wars.” Apparently war was needed, because military innovation was needed, because nineteen men had flown passenger jets into three buildings on American soil. I didn’t follow the logic but I could see where this was headed. On and on it went. October 4: “Clinton Didn’t Do Enough to Stop Terrorists,” under the byline of pain-med addict Rush Limbaugh. October 9: “The Answer to Terrorism? Colonialism.”
It was clear they wouldn’t stop clamoring until they got themselves an honest-to-God war.
After I’d read all the clippings and put them aside, I was acutely aware that if I removed so much as one serial comma from an editorial calling for “total war,” capital-gains tax cuts, or the despoiling of wildlife refuges in response to September 11, I would find myself chin-deep in a malodorous swamp of hypocrisy. Here, finally, was the line I could not cross. After promptly using my allotment of yearly paid vacation, I served notice that I was terminating my employment at the World’s Most Important Publication, ostensibly to finish work on a novel which did not, in fact, exist. Instead I arranged to take a seasonal job in New Mexico as a fire lookout with the United States Forest Service, an appropriate form of penance, really, that involved alerting authorities when trees caught on fire, so crews could come and save them. Alone in my little bird’s nest, my glass-walled perch, I would add almost nothing to the gross national product, which was gross enough on its own.
I met Paul Gigot in the hallway on my second-to-last day of work, and we had one last brief conversation, which I recorded in my journal for posterity and biographers.
Well, it’s been a pleasure, I said.
Yes, good luck, he said.
At least now you’ll be able to hire someone who’s more enthusiastic about working on the editorial page, I said.
Oh, we decided against that plan, he said. Whoever replaces you is only going to work on Leisure & Arts.
He stepped onto the elevator and threw me a little half-wave, half-salute.
So long, he said.
As a connoisseur of subterfuge and stealth—having earned my original position at the paper by means of manipulating the truth to my advantage—I at first had the thought that I’d been purged by my own hand, by a pure ballsy bluff. This would have been in keeping with the whole mind-set of the editorial page—that their enemies were treasonous, despicable, and deserving of nothing but ruination and contempt. But I didn’t want to think like them. I didn’t want to share in their paranoia. I wanted, in the end, to believe it had been miscommunication, a mistake. (Oh, it had been a mistake all right, from the very beginning.) And anyway, what was I going to do? Take it back? Beg him to let me stay?
So long, I said, waving.