Mugging For The Camera


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Twenty years ago, as the six-person staff of the New York Press  settled into our first headquarters, a second-floor space at Broadway and Spring Street, I wrestled with the difficulty of naming this column, just three weeks before the first issue would be distributed to what we expected would be an initially indifferent audience. It wasn’t that the vision for the free weekly was flawed—The Village Voice was then a behemoth in the alternative newspaper market, a paid-circulation paper that had priced itself out of reach for small retailers and restaurants, reputedly treating clients like dirt, and therefore ripe for competition—but rather the plain fact that New Yorkers had seen other weeklies come and go, usually within a year.


The city’s media landscape in 2008 obviously couldn’t be imagined by any of the cocky smart-alecks plying their trade two decades ago in the pre-blogosphere, pre-Craigslist days. Tina Brown, now a relic attempting to cook up any new project that’ll restore her fiefdom, was the belle of the Upper East Side, with sycophants lining up to kiss her Vanity Fair-encrusted ring; Spy magazine was a smarter, more clever print version of Gawker, and its future appeared limitless; the Times (and Wall Street Journal) posted plump profits each quarter that now seem as distant as Johnny Carson or David Dinkins’ “gorgeous mosaic”; and the Voice, stuffed with retail and classified advertisements, was a must-read for not only newly arrived students or artists, but 60s survivors as well. People who remembered the more idiosyncratic Voice of founding editor Dan Wolf, and even the glitzier version run by Clay Felker, might’ve bitched about the paper’s increasing homogenization, but most still bought it every Wednesday.


The travails of print-based media companies have been well documented, lamented and chewed over by journalists (often by those taking buy-outs from dailies) with almost hysterical frequency during the past five years. This was, after all, was long considered an impregnable profession; reporters and editorialists traditionally wrote the obituaries of other failing industries, never really believing there would come a time when the victims would be men and women they knew or even worked with. That The New York Times is a ripe target for a takeover would have been a daft notion even at the start of this century; now, after News Corp. acquired Dow Jones & Co., it just seems like a matter of time.


On a micro level, the alternative weeklies, for more than a generation the gateway for young adults seeking entertainment not listed in the dailies, long arts reviews and irreverent pop culture criticism, are also in flux. A large part of the trouble can be attributed to neglect: As the best weekly papers became more successful, and their now-wealthy owners were able to pay salaries that rivaled other publishing concerns, the youth market was ceded to Internet entrepreneurs.


At one time, people picked up free weeklies around the country to find out what to do on Saturday night, look for rentals or scan the dirty ads; the editorial content was a bonus, although one that cemented the reputation of writers who often migrated to higher-profile jobs. Now that listings and classifieds are available on the web, and confronted with the plain fact that most adults under the age of 30 simply don’t read newspapers, weekly owners and editors have a problem.


Hence the layoffs and sniping at and about the Voice, which gets the most attention because it’s owned by an out-of-town chain (Village Voice Media) and Mike Lacey, the company’s editor-in-chief, has the reputation of a hard-nosed proprietor/journalist who’s never cared about making enemies. The weeklies, now with middle-aged staffs, made a half-hearted transformation to the Internet, mirroring the dailies, and are now playing catch-up. In addition, young media entrepreneurs with access to a small amount of money aren’t going to start newspapers, like Lacey or his colleagues did in the early ’70s; they’ll take their chances online.


When the Chicago Reader, long a cash cow, was sold last year, one of the owners, approaching 60, said he simply didn’t have energy to soldier on in a vastly changed environment. It could be that Lacey (who a couple of weeks ago was caught on tape using the word “nigger” in a jocular manner, which was promptly displayed on any number of Internet sites) might feel the same way.  


••••••••••••

Anyhow, pardon the digression, and back to 1988. Several of us, spending an hour or two or three after work at the pre-chic Milano’s on Houston Street, tossing back pints of beer and shots of crummy tequila, would trade names back and forth, but nothing stuck. As it happened, not long before the launch, at home in Tribeca, my sister-in-law called to tell me my brother had been accosted at their co-op a few blocks down the street at Hudson and Franklin. Terry asked if I could mind their infant son while she went to St. Vincent’s. My brother, walking home from his job on Rector St., had reached their loft—the ground floor of which is now occupied by Nobu—and was suddenly approached by a disreputable character who pointed a gun at his head and demanded “all your money.” Acting out of adrenaline, and not common sense, my brother hit the guy with his briefcase and ran down the street, eluding his stalker—Holland Tunnel traffic aided his escape—but was moving so fast that he tripped and wound up with a serious infection on his leg.

The next day, while visiting him at the hospital, I asked if it was OK if I called my column “MUGGER,” an idea that occurred while rocking the baby to sleep the night before. He laughed, said it was no skin off his nose, and so I had a name. The initial anonymity of MUGGER—I didn’t attach a byline until the New York Press’s 10th anniversary—was a gimmick, an attempt to create any bit of controversy for a 24-page paper that was riddled with typos and articles that wouldn’t even be considered for publication a few years later.


More significantly, this incident illustrated the landscape of Lower Manhattan in 1988, pre-Giuliani, a time when streetlights were scarce or often broken. A few months later, wading through the Soho tourists on the way to the office on a brilliant Sunday afternoon, I saw the strangest spectacle. A tall man, with a bright red bandana on his head, was calmly smashing the windshield of a parked car on Spring St., ignoring the then-ubiquitous “no radio” hand-scrawled poster on the dashboard. He went about his business as if he were changing a flat tire, put the plundered loot in a pillowcase, and then walked off to an unknown destination.


This wasn’t exactly a Kitty Genovese moment, but the fact that no one, myself included, among the hundreds of people in the vicinity bothered to flag down a cop or dial 911, simply demonstrates that such criminal activity was routine, a downside of living in New York at the time. That night, when telling the story to a couple of friends at Puffy’s, the paper’s first art director, Michael Gentile, asked, “Did the guy get anything good out of the car?” and then ordered another Rolling Rock.


Around the same time, I arrived at the office one Monday morning and found several cops on the premises, putting handcuffs on a teenager who’d botched a robbery an hour or so earlier. Apparently, he’d gained access to our space from the roof of the building, making his way downstairs and hammered a hole in one of the walls of the bathroom. He’d collected six computers, some loose change in desks and then, satisfied with a job well done, helped himself to several warm beers on a salesman’s desk and then passed out. It was the paper’s operations manager, I believe, who the first in that morning and she saw the slumbering crook and called the police, who had a hearty laugh at the absurdity of the situation.


••••••••••••


There were other oddities, at least by my reckoning, we encountered in the paper’s first year. In the fall of 1987, I’d sold Baltimore’s City Paper, a weekly a buddy and I began as college seniors in ’77 back when such publications were still derisively dismissed by most people as “underground.” At one store near the city’s then-abandoned waterfront, the paper wasn’t allowed access to the top of a cigarette machine for distribution because the logo was red, which screamed “Communist propaganda” to the owner. Eleven years later, in New York, I ran into a reverse problem. The New York Press was no longer allowed in Shakespeare Books on Broadway, because, the clerk told me, the staff objected to MUGGER’s negative comments about Jesse Jackson, who was running for president that year.

The very notion that my politically conservative commentary—at least on economic and foreign policy issues—was so foreign to many readers that the New York Press was labeled a “Republican paper,” despite the fact that everyone on the staff except me voted for Michael Dukakis that fall. That mischaracterization of the paper’s content continued for years, even after the columns of Alexander Cockburn, David Corn, John Strausbaugh, David Lindsay, Amy Sohn, Jessica Willis and Bill Monahan were added to an eclectic mix.


The cost of living in New York in 1988 was shockingly high, especially to those young men and women who came up from Baltimore to join the staff, a plain and constant reality no matter what the state of the national economy is in. Michael Gentile and his wife, for example, were blown away that the studio off University Place, a few minutes away from the Cedar Tavern, set them back $1,200/mo. One time that year, returning to Baltimore for a wedding, several of us had nightcaps at a hotel bar. When the check came for three beers and a margarita and totaled just $7.97, I asked the waitress if her math was on the blink. No, she replied with a smile, one that broadened when I left a $5 tip.


The New York Press was the first weekly to switch over to desktop publishing, a decision that was made by our designer Joachim Blunck, who then worked at the TV show A Current Affair. The amount of money saved on production costs was substantial; instead of several people pasting up bits of copy, including one-line corrections, on galleys, the whole job was at first accomplished by Gentile and one part-time employee. On the other hand, diving into a new technology wasn’t exactly a financial lark. For example, aside from the 300 street boxes we’d purchased to distribute the paper, the biggest investment was for… a printer. This machine, the size of a large chest of drawers, and featuring 300 d.p.i. resolution, set us back north of $20,000. As I write today, there’s a 900 d.p.i. Brother printer next to my iMac that retails at Staples for under $300.


••••••••••••


The New York Press’ early years involved a lot of tough slogging, making pitches to recalcitrant advertisers (most of whom are out of business today), attracting writers for minimal fees and continually missing the deadline for our printer in the Meatpacking District. But mostly, we had a lot of fun. Like poking fingers in the eyes of established Voice critics like Robert Christgau (who called the New York Press a “yuppie paper,” considered an insult back then) and Richard Goldstein, who wondered, upon reading my column after the GOP ’94 Congressional landslide, “When did it become cool to be conservative?”

When we moved to Puck Building in ’89, taking over Spy magazine’s offices, there was a steady stream of visitors who’d come by to hang out, such as Beauregard Houston-Montgomery, then an omnipresent man about town who had the talent of amiably mixing with the staffs of competing publications, whether it was Paper (just as horrendous then as it is now), the short-lived Egg or the Voice. Ben Katchor, who introduced his extraordinary comic strip “Julius Knipl” in the first issue of the New York Press, was prized for his droll and often self-deprecating monologues, and Mike Doughty (pre-Soul Coughing) was always welcome, a jack-in-the-box energizer who responded to an in-house ad for music critics and wound up writing for the paper for several years. J.R. Taylor, who complemented Doughty and Neil Strauss in the New York Press’ music pages, delighted some staffers and appalled others with his stream of politically incorrect pronouncements, but never took offense when upbraided. And there was no one who wouldn’t interrupt their work when “Slackjaw” columnist Jim Knipfel—before he became the paper’s receptionist and then staff writer—stopped by and offered a slug from his pint bottle of blackberry brandy to anyone who was interested.


Oh, one more note about the strung-out assailant, mentioned at the top of this column. An hour after he’d flubbed that mugging, he was apprehended in the now-closed coffee shop Socrates, across the street from my brother’s loft. High on crack, a waitress called the cops and he was hauled off to the local precinct and sent to the same prison from which he’d been released that very afternoon. Say what you will about mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg—and I’ve said plenty, with the former a grandstanding creep, the latter a holier-than-thou nudge—but it’s indisputable that New York, under their administrations, has become a much safer place to live and work. 


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