It was sweet, really, to read the comments from Gawker readers in reaction to the posting of a Sept. 12 New York Observer article by Charles Kaiser about a celebration of Molly Ivins’ life at the Society of Ethical Culture last week.
Ivins, who died last January at the age of 62, was one of the nation’s funniest liberal pundits, a rare species, and her column was syndicated in more than 400 newspapers. Although I didn’t often agree with Ivins’ blend of populism and Texan cornpone, she was entertaining and by all accounts a splendid companion. John Leonard, one the guests quoted by Kaiser, was over-the-top, I think, when he described her prose as “an amphetamine rush of Rabelais, Mark Twain, Lily Tomlin, Lenny Bruce and Jeremiah,” but what the hell, that’s what friends are for at a such a gathering.
It was a bit odd, though, scrolling through Gawker’s assortment of “snarky” blurbs on Sept. 13, and see a deviation from the normal fare of rude declarations about celebrities, media villains and rich college students desperately trying to blend into the current New York “hipster” culture, and find editor Alex Balk (of “My Cock” notoriety) simply stating: “Nice piece on the New York memorial service for the late Texas columnist.”
The two most notable strengths of this particular website—the flagship of entrepreneur Nick Denton’s online fiefdom—are the launching pad it provides for its writers to move on to more lucrative media jobs and the demographically desirable youthfulness of its readers. The latter was amply demonstrated earlier last week when an item headlined, “America Remembers: September 10, 2001,” solicited recollections about where its audience was on that day, “back when you were innocent and unafraid.” A large percentage of readers were in high school or college 6 years ago, which leaves them on the bright side of 30. One typical entry read: “I was a junior in college and I remember watching the VMAs. Britney had a snake that year and looked like [a] (hotter) slut then.”
And so beneath the veneer of wise-ass attitude and presumptions of immortality, the reaction to Kaiser’s article revealed the tender underbelly of Gawker devotees, some of whom haven’t yet experienced the death of a family member or close friend. “Without wishing to be florid,” one read, “this kind of thing keeps my faith in you Gawkettes.”
“I was surprised to find that that choked me up. Rest in peace,” was another. “Now I’m all teary. Goddamn you, Gawker!” was a jarring aberration from the normal commentary on dick jokes and the creepiness of Rudy Giuliani. Finally, this comment summed it up: “I adored Molly Ivins and was so sad when she died. If you haven’t checked out her books, they are simply awesome. She was snarky before it was fashionable. And so damn funny!”
Never mind that “snarky” writers, as Ivins would no doubt agree, have been “fashionable” for hundreds of years, and in the 20th century alone one has only to read the columns of H.L. Mencken or the snippets of satire in the early years of Time magazine to confirm that. It’s swell, and maybe even necessary, that every new generation coming of age believes it’s reinventing the world, as if time began on the day its various members were born, but still a touch obnoxious.
Needless to say, this lapse into the depths of sentimentality and human expression was the exception to the Gawker rule. I got a kick out of Balk’s Sept. 13 entry about the horrors of the annual San Gennaro Festival, in which, “because we have a problem with alcohol and we desperately needed something to quell the tremors,” the supposedly perpetually soused editor (a tired pose, of course, since the small Gawker staff wouldn’t be able to produce its prodigious output with a collective bottle on its back), warns potential fair-goers that “real Italians” don’t bother with the 11-day extravaganza.
After educating his devoted readers that the carneys and grilled sausage purveyors are professionals who travel from location to location during the city’s festival months, Balk serves up some silly vitriol that is just so “damned funny!”
This strained passage is priceless: “Real Italians are too busy whacking people, stealing things from trucks, and sitting around in their backyards in sleeveless T-shirts drinking terrible homemade wine from a tacky gold-gilted glass that they rest on their enormous guts… They only interrupt their [racist] perorations to give their wives a sharp crack on the jaw for overcooking the meatballs.”
It’s true that San Gennaro, upon repeated visits, loses its charm rather quickly, but its annual tradition isn’t without merit. Many years ago, in 1973 to be exact, my college roommate and I, before seeing Jerry Jeff Walker in the Village, accidentally wound up at the Feast while roaming the streets and it was pretty cool. This was back in the days when the drinking age in New York, as opposed to most states, was 18, and tanked up on beer we didn’t care if the original intent of San Gennaro was subverted by hustlers who don’t spend Sunday mornings at mass. We were having too much fun tossing baseballs at dishes and missing every time, watching impromptu three-card Monte games in the shadows of the church and gawking, so to speak, at the assembly of the great washed and un-washed.
When New York Press was housed in the Puck Building from 1989–1997, the Feast coincided with the staff’s round-the-clock work on the paper’s annual “Best Of” issue. The aroma of grease, sour suds and piss wafted upstairs to the ninth floor and a bunch of us would give up and meld into the crowd that Balk finds so plebian and unworthy, and have a lot of laughs, crummy food and maybe toss a couple of bucks into one of the charity buckets you find on every block at the event.
By the way, I’m a Gawker reader myself, although its novelty continues to wane—as opposed to sister destination Deadspin, probably the best sports website around—and the preceding is far from a blanket condemnation. Just an acknowledgement that its editors and readers aren’t always, in the words of Choire Sicha’s description of new Gawker associate editor Maggie Shnayerson, day in, day out, “superfun bitche[s].”