“Five major publishers were accused of colluding with one another and Apple.”
“Five major publishers were accused of colluding with one another and Apple.”
In the run up to Christmas 2011, in a moment of weakness and against my better judgement, I opened my checkbook and actually Gave To Charity.
I fell for it because it was a children’s charity. My thinking is that if you’re an adult in need of charity, barring an act of God or geopolitical concerns you may have brought it on yourself, but kids are different because they’re not the ones in charge, or so I reasoned and when I saw the ad on the side of a bus stop, I dunno, maybe I was in a schmaltzy frame of mind in the run up to the holidays but I said to myself, ‘Ah, look at this poor little toe headed pike! This is something I really can and should do something about.’
I’m not going to say which children’s charity it was for reasons that will be come clear in the next paragraph or so. So I sent them a check, not a huge check, less than a decent bottle of wine in fact, but something and then something else a week or two later. Then the thanks rolled in. Now I’ve worked in direct mail, I know what these packages cost to produce. A tri color multiple page piece of mail with a tchotchke in it might run to 75 cents or more. I did not appreciate getting an expensive ‘thank you’ in the mail because the cost of it just took a bite out of the money I had just sent them. I understand that whatever it is they send you after a donation has been proven to produce repeated and better giving, but not from me. I’d already set them up as an electronic payee on my online backing, so I didn’t have to sit down and write the check out. I had a plan to give in small increments over and over again, in the long hall perhaps making a difference.
Then the deluge came. Of course they had sold my info! I was a tried and tested giver. How much for? I have no idea. Pennies? Dollars? So they made a bit of cash to put toward what I’d already given. But then I stared getting expensive please from all kinds of charities, all worth while and noble, but how could I possibly send money to all of them? I felt guilty. With each new glossy pamphlet or sheaf of mailing labels my initial donation was getting smaller and smaller. In comparison my net giving was slipping into the red. I was now uncharitable! The cost of all this direct mail was eating away my donations. I was now actually taking money from the needy by not consistently keeping up with all these expensive pleas. I either had to up the ante or stop altogether. If I sent money to all of them would the volume of this costly mail on my mat then increase exponentially? Ah! Then I hit on the solution. Anonymous giving. Word to the wise. Efficient giving is anonymous giving.
Great article on Amazon & Publishing.
We all have that one irrational thing that just scares the living crap out of us. Or that one irritant that gives us the keebles so bad, we’d do anything to get away from it. Winston Smith was petrified of rats, elephants of mice. I have a normally placid friend that will physically attack in an effort to stop you molesting that squeaking Styrofoam. Indy hates snakes. Do waterbugs bug you? Nails on a blackboard? The list is endless. Me? I don’t like a wooden ice lolly stick touching my cold teeth as I’m finishing the lolly, it freaks me out, so does peanut butter stuck to my soft pallet, here panic ensues. Some people really hate birds, when they see one they go, “Ehhhch!’ How inconvenient that must be, with so many birds hopping about these days. I really hate wet wool, especially if its trying to get on me. But these are just things that make me shiver with disgust and revulsion, like that hugely popular song; The Wind Beneath My Wings; it makes my skin crawl but its not going to give me a heart attack. But what about those things that literally terrify you?
My mother, for instance, is deathly afraid of blimps. When she sees one in the sky (usually because some, thrill seeking, family member has pointed it out to her) the reaction is immediate and hilarious. First she will sink to the ground as if the earth itself is tipping over, then she starts to wail and point and weep, clutching at the knees of the nearest bystander. ‘Keening terror’ I think they call it. The blimp provokes such a profound fear in her, such a catastrophic sense of dread that she is helpless against it, to the point where, if a real threat came along, let’s say a rapidly approaching, grinning, ax-wielding, blood-soaked maniac in inmates pajamas, it wouldn’t get her off the sidewalk during a blimp sighting. In terms of evolutionary psychology, these irrational terrors can’t be helpful to our chances of survival. Pathological behavior, like too much sat fat, isn’t good for you; unless she knows something about blimps that we do not? But wait, surely these irrational terrors are simply a veiled fear of death? You can’t just fling yourself on the ground and scream, “Ahh, I’m definitely going to die one day in the future!” They’d cart you off the nearest
loony bin mental health facility. Far better to say, “Oh sorry about that! I’m feeling much better now. Such sinister things those dirigibles! They gimmie the willies something awful, so they do!” Yes, mother has shown us fear in skyful of zeppelin.
So what’s mine? Ok, I’ll tell you. Although its pretty stupid, I’m already breaking out in a cold sweat thinking about it. Kind of the converse of hers really, it’s being in the water, with something big. No other people in the water, just me. It could be a pool, a pond or a lake, could be the ocean, any body of water really. It might be a whale, or a wreck. A submarine would be particularly terrifying (shaped a lot like a zeppelin!). Its just being in the water with something that has way more mass than I do and I can’t really see it too well and I can’t run away and if it starts moving, I might get sucked under and drown. This gives me a fear akin to falling from a great height and seeing the ground rushing to meet you. And I was a competitive swimmer! I have swum alone in pools and lakes and ponds and oceans. Sometimes I did feel the approach of terror, but I’ve never swum next to a ship or with a whale or a sub and I’m not likely to start now.
The reason I got to thinking about my greatest fear is because I saw this woman freaking out down by Lincoln Center. I was sitting on the median strip passing a few moments before an appointment. The median strip down on that section of Broadway is particularly clean as they have these guys constantly sweeping and spraying and wiping everything. I guess if you’re paying $500 per square foot a month for your yogurt-free-yogurt store front you might as well have a dude with a big blue rolling bucket making sure the benches are yogurt-free-yogurt free as well. She exploded onto Broadway coming east off of 61st street. ‘Not another damn movie shoot while I’m trying to enjoy my crabgrass flavored yogurt-free-yogurt. Dam it all to hell!” I looked around for the camera, but there wasn’t one, no one carrying a massive silvery disk of fabric, no thick black wires over the sidewalk, no impatient hipsters with walkie-talkies and Bat Utility Belts. This spectacle is for real! Now why should that be surprising to me? People who scream in the streets are very common in NYC. You can’t throw a wooden lolly stick without hitting a whacko chemically challenged outpatient having a heated conversation with his ‘absent’ friend or enemy, nemesis, freaking giant rabbit whatever. But this one was different, she looked like she hadn’t been insane earlier in the day. It looked like it had just happened, she’d just this minute, snapped.
It was the shopping bag she was carrying that made us nervous. By ‘us’ I mean me and my fellow onlookers, because she had an audience almost immediately. I looked around to see if anyone else was watching and they were, we were scattered over Broadway in a pensive constellation, some closer to me other perhaps a block away but we were all looking at her, some chewing their thumbnails, some holding Lattes loose and forgotten at their sides.
It was both crisp and creamy this bag. There was obviously something expensive in it, a cardigan or a dress maybe or slacks & it had a great logo, French Royalty care of Beverly Hills. ‘Ohh, she’s been shopping today, before this all started!’ We thought to ourselves. She turned on her heel, did an abrupt 180 and continued raving in the other direction. A guy on his cell leapt out of her way, as if she might bite him. Not yet thirty, she had black slacks and a white headband, a nice jacket and shades jammed into her brunette hair. She was screaming, literally at the top of her lungs. “Are you fucking joking? ARE YOU?” She’d already shredded her vocal chords, the volume was incredible, (there was a ping back from Gracious Homes across the street) but even so, you could hear she was only a minute from loosing her voice. It was horse in just that way, husky with tiny bits of sound dropping out. Instead of bringing it down a notch she continued to scream as loud as she possibly could. “NO. NoNoNo. No!” Another 180, spinning, almost loosing a heel this time, completely wild & unaware of her surroundings. We were looking for the earpiece. ‘Is there an earpiece? I don’t see the earpiece. Oh God, let there be an earpiece! She must be on the phone. She’s just having an argument with her boyfriend. She was shopping so she must have been OK earlier. The phone rang, there was an argument…’ It was disturbing, as I’ve said because she looked like one of us, she wasn’t an out-patient, not homeless, not whacked out on street drugs. ‘She has a job & some taste. She’ll be fine when she settles down,’ we thought. Yeah but clearly she wasn’t just angry, she was psychotic & about to get run over. Damn it! She’d been one of us a minute ago, just another grazing gazelle, keeping calm and carrying on but now she was one of them; carrion. And if it could happen to her..
It went on and on, up and down the block, screaming, bouncing off cars. I stopped looking for the bluetooth, there was no bluetooth. Eventually she stayed in a straight line and moved uptown. Unconsciously we all took three steps in her direction, keeping her in sight for just a little longer. Her screams grew fainter, “WHY DON’T YOU JUST GO?” had been her mantra for a while now. Sobbing, “Why don’t you just GO?” the fight was leaving her. “WHY don’t you just go?” her voice was almost gone now. Begging, pleading. Really wanting an answer.
What happened to her? When she’d gone, I started thinking about this news story that due to my special fear, had scared the crap out of me several years ago. It was about two men, a father and son, who had gone SCUBA diving in one of the Lochs in Scotland. They had some experience but were not really up to the task of a pitch black dive. Just a few yards down, they were unable to see their dials. Thinking they were level they actually began to sink steadily. Imagine it; you think you’re ten yards down enjoying yourself but actually you’re forty yards now seventy five yards below the surface of a frigid loch. You might feel a bit out of it at one hundred yards down. Something nagging at the back of your mind, like a phone call you were supposed to make. But you’re enjoying a quiet reverie and sometimes you just have to let these things go. You’re back in that great place you used to go to with friends, it was always sunny in the garden area and you laughed so hard the beer came out of your nose .. Wait, have you noticed a certain pressure? And which way is up by the way? Do you then just slip away peacefully to that sunny summer beer garden with smiling friends or is there a moment of sudden panic & realization? Does a little light come up on your dial? “While You Were Away.. you passed the point of no return”. Do you start to thrash then and beat uselessly for the surface far, far above? Are you incensed? Thoroughly pissed that your life disappeared like a full monthly Metro Card simply misplaced somewhere? One minute you were treating yourself to that Prada bag you’d had your eye on for a while and next thing you find yourself strapped to a gurney in Bellevue. We’re not really built for this modern life are we? We may see many more of these snappings, ‘thrashings’ in the dark days to come. That’s why I never go shopping.
But you know what? Now that I come to think of it, she must have been on the phone. Maybe she just needed to blow a fuse, get it off her chest. It could have been building for weeks I’ll bet. She’ll be fine. They say Yoga does wonders.
I moved into my new place in Washington Heights a few years back. The building on the next block, facing Broadway, is one of those massive, featureless apartment buildings with permanent scaffolding all around and a heavy rotation of store fronts. On the corner there was a chinese restaurant with a ‘C’ rating and Nixon era linoleum. The teller was stationed behind perspex and the door to the kitchen was made of iron bars. Next door was a drug store run by indians which closed at 5PM. Then came the cell phone store and then the Yemeni ”Deli” which sold mainly beer, loosies and TP. The cell phone store was abandoned a while back, the lights remain on and all the free standing marketing materials are still there, even the Visual Display Unit, a huge, propped up cell phone that shows the company’s great money saving deals on its screen, is still in the window and still plugged in, running through their offers and services with attractive bullet points. On the floor next to the cell phone is a black garbage bag full of paperwork; the full extent of the clean up. The deli closed because, as it turns out, they had no liquor licence. The Chinese place and the Drug Store both leaped two stores to the left, leaving two grimy shells vacant and what do you think moved in? Another hairdresser ? A taxi dispatcher? Nothing? No; a Bookstore! That’s right. My God, I thought, in this neighbourhood the rent is so freakin low, even literature can be profitable.
It turns out that the abandoned drug store had always been a drug store. When they moved down the block they took their awning with them and underneath was one of those cool, old timey signs made of deep tin letters filled with neon. ASCOT DRUGS. This is where the bookstore moved in.
At first it had the kind of selection you might find going for .25 cents a throw on a folding card table at a New Jersey yard sale at four PM. The window was chaotic - a few books thrown onto a vegetable rack. But gradually things improved and I picked up three classics for a buck each there last night. Word-up is (in their words) a multi-language, general-interest bookshop committed to promoting literacy & community-building in Washington Heights. By hosting workshops, literary readings, and musical engagements for kids and adults, we do our best to support and fortify the creative spirit unique to our diverse, Uptown community. And it looks as if they are succeeding. It’s a warm, inviting place with a small stage in back and there’s something going on there pretty much every night. Poetry, live music, readings. OK, it’s subsidized and its employees work for free, so it’s not a business in the strictest sence but still, they sell books, so hey..
It appears that in areas that do not have astronomical rent, like Greenpoint, established smaller bookstores , selling both new and used titles are, if not exactly thriving, at least staying the course. Hopefully as the big bookstores continue to collapse under thier own weight, more new stores will be springing up in the cheaper zip codes & neighborhoods trembling on the brink of gentrification.
Also there seems to be a hard kernel of readers who point-blank refuse to use the Kindles and Nooks that arrived unbidden in their Christmas stockings. They distain technology & prefer The Feel of the Real. Is this a big enough demographic to sustain a new wave local booksellers or is this the last hurrah before we bend to the inevitable and books become Kind of a Luxury Item?
Comments? Any great new bookstores out there that we should know about?
CODA: Word Up closed its Wash Heights location in Sept 2012.
I remember exactly the hour that I abandoned my childhood dream of becoming a Biology teacher, because it began as the most boring hour of my life thus far and ended with Norman’s famous outburst. It was double ‘A’ Level Biology on a muggy Thursday afternoon at my local junior college. The usual suspects were all there, we’d spent an hour or two at lunch time drinking in the Red Lion. We wanted to continue drinking and just like we did every week, almost said, ‘to hell with it’. But we believed we had to get our ‘A’ levels or we’d more than likely be stuck in crap jobs for the rest of our lives. It was this thought and this thought alone that dragged us back across the big, soggy common field and up to our white, airless room for one hundred minutes of the Krebs Cycle.
It was the Krebs Cycle that finally killed it for me really. All through school Biology had been my best subject. Not an attentive student at the best of times, biology and geometry were the only subjects in which I excelled. Biology: big friendly organs with clearly delineated functions all working together to keep us going. The science of life; what could be more fascinating than that? Terrific! Thinks the young me, I’m not going to be wringing my hands thinking about what I’m going to do with my life. I’ll stick with this easy subject that I enjoy and end up teaching it to kids like me who also enjoy it; Lovely. But ‘A’ level Biology isn’t like ‘O’ level Biology. ‘A’ level Biology is essentially Chemistry and Chemistry is hard, and so boring.
We piled in, hot, beery and sleepy and sprawled on the desks waiting for the teacher to show. There was me and Rob and Martin was there too. Martin was a few years older, twenty-two or maybe even twenty-three! He was a messy red head, doughy but handsome with pale skin and clammy hands. He dressed always in layers of faded, threadbare cotton. With his famous, voluminous, day-glow orange Marxism Today newspaper sack slung over his shoulder with Kicking Against the Pricks scrawled across it in black marker. Martin was a committed Socialist and had been approached by the other committed Socialist, (our Psychology teacher) who was always trying to get Martin to mail pamphlets and vote and stuff like that. Martin was the one who knew all about the Beats, The Velvet Underground & Camus; things that sounded really great. He’d grown up in a Council House and was the most exotic person I knew.
“Look buy Lust for Life.” Martin was saying now. “It’s an A plus plus album, Bowie produced. It’s only four quid right and if you don’t like it, I’ll buy it off you.”
“Ok, fair enough.”
“And get Half Man/Half Biscuit as well.”
“I’m not getting Half Man/Half Biscuit, its shit, I’ve heard it.”
“Shit? They’re the last absolutely genuine..”
As he’s extolling the virtues of Half Man/Half Biscuit, I’m in a chair and Martin is on a table, in front and slightly above me. His legs are open and there’s a rip in the crotch of his trousers. I can’t help noticing he’s wearing baggy, hairy, flesh-colored underpants. Then I make a face like Stan Laurel gradually assimilating a new piece of difficult information. “Ah! Those are not underpants.’
Norman walks in. He’d been in the pub too, but not really with us. “Hello chaps.” he says in his usual nasally, patronizing tone.
“Norman.” We all reply.
Norman wanted to get into the Royal Air Force. He wanted to be a pilot, a fighter pilot. This was his dream, his passion, he wanted it more than anything, but it was never going to happen. To put it simply – he wasn’t smart enough. But Norman did have the persona of an RAF pilot down pat. He had the smart, clipped tones of a well-heeled, upper-middle class airman. His back was ramrod straight, shoulders thrust back and rigid, he had a short back and sides with a big mop of black, fly boy hair up on top and of course a soft, tan, leather flyer’s jacket with applets’ and a flap for the hat and everything. All that was missing was the pencil moustache; missing perhaps because he didn’t want to draw attention to the big nose and his two, quite prominent, front teeth, which gave him a bit of a rodenty look.
Norman was not well liked, because although he was personable enough, he looked down his nose at us, condescended along class lines; as if he were an enlisted officer and we were just rowdy squaddies. He treated us like clueless no-hopers, when it has him that had applied and failed again and again. But he wouldn’t give up. It was the RAF or bust for Norman. We couldn’t even tease him, as ridiculous as he was; there was no point of entry for our sarcasm or ridicule. He was always unruffled by any kind of ribbing we gave him, his time with us was simply a means to an end, there was nothing going to stand between him and his dream. Our opinion meant less than nothing. He was, in the end, too bizarre to tease. He couldn’t even be niggled over the fact that he never had a girlfriend, although he had systematically asked and been turned down by every girl we knew and a bunch that we didn’t. “Nice girl, too bad, her loss”. As crazy as he was, I guess we had to reluctantly admire Norman’s great British, stiff upper lip. In a weird way, he was the real thing, but this bogus calm, this pathological conviction that he would one day be joining the RAF… Well, the center could not hold; success was impossible. The first crack was about to appear.
The week before, Martin had let it drop casually, “His dads a plumber you know?”
“F#@k off! His dad’s an accountant or something isn’t he?”
“No, he’s a plumber. They live on Bogton Road.”
“But what about the accent? Did he go to public school?”
“No, he went to school round here. It’s all bollocks, it’s all just an affectation. He’s nuts.”
“Wow.” Was all I could say.
How did Norman get like this? Well, my guess would be that at some point during his formative years, ill with the Measles or the Mumps and home from school on a dreary Wednesday. His parents must have stuck him in front of the TV with an eider-down and a jug of orange squash. Two PM on BBC 2 and the feverish Norman is staring at the wobbly intro to a classic British war film, The Battle of Britain or The Dam Busters, one of those where young men casually embark on suicide missions for king and country, “Chocks away Ginger!” The life of a brave pilot during wartime really appeals to Norman’s addled brain. ‘This is what I want to be when I grow up.’ Norman – chip set.
The teacher shows up five minutes early and apologizes for being late. She’s a tall, thin woman from some foreign, commonwealth country. Her florid blouse is buttoned to the neck, there’s a brooch, her perm sprayed to within an inch of its life. She gets stuck right in and after sixty seconds I feel like I’ve already been there for half an hour. The only person listening is the kid who will end up going to Oxford; the nutty guy that trots out long, un-solicited passages from Shakespeare. His hair is so black and his skin so pale that when he shaves, his face is blue. He looks like a dog that had to be shaved for an operation. Blueface is down with the Krebs Cycle today, he gets it. The teacher is jazzed that he gets it and now they’re both excited. I don’t get it. It’s impossible to understand. I’m never going to understand and I don’t want to hear about it anymore! My whole career plan is going up in smoke. How did this subject get so crap, so fast?
An hour later and we are only halfway through. I’m literally counting the seconds on the clock above the teacher’s rigid hair. Finally I feel myself drifting. I’ve abandoned all hope of understanding the Krebs Cycle and just have to count on it not coming up in the final exam. The room is too warm and the beer is working on us. I glance around and see that more than half of the class, Norman included, are drowsing in their seats. Ms. Rigid’s voice is becoming a drone, as if she’s murmuring now in Farsi. A fat, lazy bee comes in through the window and then goes back out again. In the distance I can hear the giant lawn mower, trundling up and down, the smell of fresh cut grass reaches us, so nice. Wait! The tone of her voice just changed, she’s asked the class a question. Must concentrate, something polynucleotide what?
Here it comes, bubbling up through Norman in his semi-conscious state, and the answer is; “GONADS!” The word is flung out of him like a rock belched from Krakatoa. “Gonads!” he shouts, in his perfect, golden age of British Cinema accent. A little hasty – I have to be first! A bit ecstatic – I’ve got it right! Wholly without his usual composure, Norman, half asleep, has just yelled out, ‘Gonads!’ by mistake during a quiet class on respiration. Startled fully awake, I look at Rob, I see shock on his face too. We stare at each other. ‘Gonads?’ Rob mouths the word for me to confirm. I nod and I can see the beginning of a massive grin breaking across his face. I start with a chuckle, how is this possible? This is priceless. Oh my God. I can’t believe it. ‘Gonads’ – how perfect. Laughing harder now I glance over at Martin who, instead of sharing in the glee, has decided to milk the situation perfectly and is simply nodding slowly with a look of concern and gravitas – sad, but of course we knew this day would come. All laughing eyes are tuned in Norman’s direction, could he have been joking? Was he serious? No; he was half asleep, even better! How bizarre! What kind of crazy, dirty, confused little dream had Norman been having? And just conscious enough so that the teacher’s question had worked its way in and just out of it enough to yell out the answer without any checks and balances in play.
The teacher looks put out for only a second. “No.” she says, which should have been doubly hilarious but because of who she is, it sucks the laughter out of the room and Blueface immediately trots out the correct answer. I finally join the others watching Norman. He’s trying, not very hard, to smile. He looks confused, he’s trembling. There’s a light sheen of sweat on his face, he looks both vulnerable and hateful the dual emotions of humiliation and contempt play around his quivering mouth. Is it possible that he’d simply glimpsed Martin’s nut sack as he entered the classroom? Were these the Gonads that crept into Norman’s subconscious, or did something very private just spill out in a very public setting? He was usually so careful, so restrained, almost wholesome – this would taint.
The class settles down and an hour later it finally grinds to a close. Afterwards in the student union café, there is an endless, hysterical analysis of Norman’s outburst. We go over it again and again, like the Zapruder Film, looking for clues.”Of all the things he could have yelled.” Say’s Rob, ”He yelled gonads not pyruvate, the right answer by the way, not help or mother but Gonads!”
We tried to imagine what his little waking dream must have been about. What was the question he heard? Maybe a game show, with a Diana Dors/Betty Grable type of USO broad cooing: “Ok boys, I want fingers stroking the buzzers for this last question; now we know it starts with the letter G, that should narrow it down for you. We’ve got a dead heat remember so the hunk who answers correctly now, wins and becomes a fully trained RAF officer and will almost certainly ravish me and go on to save hundreds of British lives and be decorated by the Queen herself in a private ceremony at Buckingham Palace, with cucumber sandwiches and free gold bars to take home afterwards. OK then; ‘Every brave RAF fighter pilot must have a sturdy pair of these in his cockpit before takeoff.”
The real question is probably lost to us now but the answer was definitely wrong. Norman would never be wearing the goggles of an RAF man, I believe he eventually followed his father into the plumbing trade. I barely managed to get a passing grade in ‘A’ level Biology and soon enough I escaped, flying out of that white, airless room forever.
It used to be that if you couldn’t get your novel published it was because you probably couldn’t write very well. Discerning editors at the big publishing houses stood between you and the reading public, wading through and rejecting the trite, the clunky and the just plain bad manuscripts, in favour of novels with depth, nuance, rich themes & vivid characters. They were looking for good novels in other words; ambitious, thought-provoking novels that might win an award or two. But later as things started to ‘thin out’ (minds & sales for instance) they were on the lookout for more commercial fare, something that might be really popular, something that might pay a few bills.
Now back then, if Ted down the hall was absolutely determined to get his novel, ”Who Wants My Orange?” out there and the publishers were not biting, he might turn to vanity publishing. Pay out-of-pocket for an ISBN and a few thousand copies and then get out there & really beat the sidewalk, getting booksellers interested and pushing Orange towards his public. This just never worked. Now though some time has passed and Ted, having failed once again to interest a publisher in his new novel, “I Want My Orange Back!” can simply throw it up on Amazon for a Kindle download. With a few keywords & some blurb, Ted’s sequel gets dangled in front of thousands of perspective buyers. They can read the first page and for dollar or two, what the hell, they might give it a try. Hey and you know what? I want My Orange Back! really resonates with some readers. It sells.
Now imagine there are thousands of people like Ted, writers who don’t even bother to submit query letters to publishers any more because it’s an uphill struggle and they know that publishers no longer promote their new releases anyway – that’s become the author’s job. So they might as well just go ahead and float their baby on Amazon & see what happens. Most of them sink but some of them fly. Now imagine you’re a publisher, are you going to wade into that massive, stinky slush pile looking for the next Girl With An Orange Tattoo or are you going to log on to Amazon and see which ‘unpublished’ authors are actually selling? Yeah you’re right. Why pay a comparative lit grad to trawl through all that paper when you have the public’s pulse right at your fingertips? “Get me Ted’s number, we’ll offer him X$$ for his Orange and get it on the shelves for Christmas.” So from the publishers perspective Amazon functions as this huge test audience. The public gets what it wants the publishers get a paper bestseller and everyone’s happy. Apart from your old timey discerning editor who becomes a quaint anachronism, ends up working in Starbucks, bemoaning the absence of weighty, dense, rich, themed novels to a divorced woman who comes in everyday for a spiced latte and ends up picking his brain because she’s writing a huge, really good novel which the world needs to read and she’s going to upload it but he wants to agent it & get back in the game and they fall in love and they fight and her son is a recovering alcoholic and his daughter is gay and his ex-wife sees that he’s more driven than he has been in years & she starts sniffing around…. This is great - get me a pen - this is going to blow up on Kindle… Yes I’m going to upload to Kindle. Why the hell not? I have a draw full of top shelf material that those fools couldn’t appreciate. Finally the recognition I deserve is just a few clicks away. Hahahahaha. Watch This Space!
I’m on my bike, hacking up the endless incline of Broadway in Hamilton Heights. It’s over 90 degrees and I’m slick with sweat, the heat baking off the moving engine blocks around me feels unbearable. My heart is beating faster than it has in years. There are people screaming across the Mall to each other, car alarms, horns and stereos are all blaring, lucky people are dancing in the spray of open fire hydrants. Groups of ripped, tough looking hispanic guys in brilliant white wife-beaters are hanging in front of the News&Smoke stores. Overdressed homeless dudes are staggering along raving to no one in particular. I reach a plateau and manage to pick up some speed. Suddenly there’s a huge Whamp sound to my left and one of those massive black Chrysler Escapades just kneels down in front of me like a felled Elk. Glass flies past my head in bullet time, wires and engine guts spill out on the street, behind me I hear something land, whatever hit the Chrysler hit it hard enough to spend some time in the air. People are yelling, “Oh shit!” I’ve stopped peddling, too shocked to feel any fear I roll quietly through the carnage untouched. Looking up I see a hundred heads turned in my direction. I don’t look back but I do start peddling again. Commuting on a bike certainly isn’t dull. This is the moment when I decide to give in and buy a helmet.
These days New Yorkers are deeply ambivalent about bicycles. In an era when we are striving to be green it makes sence to encourage the proliferation of two-wheeled engineless transport in Manhattan, more and more people are using bikes but the green lanes were a mistake, bad for traffic and deadly to ride on and the behaviour of some cyclists is causing consternation, tourists are alarmed and the police have started cracking down on those that violate the laws. I got a ticket, for riding my bike in the park. It seems I’m not responsible enough to slow down when pedestrians are present. I can’t be trusted to use good judgement and therefore I must adhere to the blanket rule. I must dismount. There are those cyclists out there who do not slow down, who do not exercise common sence and present a deadly threat to small children and the elderly. The same over zealous, selfish, speed demons that ignore all lights and zip past your nose on the cross walk, causing you to leap in the air with fright, drop your Fairway bag and shriek, “Maniac!” These are the people who have brought down the draconian laws and given cyclists a bad rep. Who are they?
I assumed my ticket was just a way to generate cash for the city, I figured I was simply getting fleeced. But no. No fine but a mandatory court date! All part of the Quality of Life measures instituted years ago to clean up Times Square. So I found myself, after many hours in the courthouse, a consultation with a court appointed attorney & time in front of the judge in a room with seven Public Urinators, taking a class on why it’s not cool to take a leak between two cars at 3AM on a Saturday night, or ride your bike in the park when there’s no human being within fifty feet of you, (apart from a cop on a bike). Such a colossal waste of time, money and resources it makes you want to weep, especially in light of all the education cuts going on in the city right now. Just fine me! For God’s sake and put the money to good use. Hello! How about a public restroom in Times Square?
There are several types of cyclist we see daily in Manhattan. You have, of course, the delivery guys. Middle aged Chinese dudes in button downs and soft pants, sitting side-saddle on those steam punk machines that whisper along under their own mysterious power, no peddling needed. These guys are chill. Smoking their Parliament 100s, floating along calmly like wax paper boats on the old Yangtze River. Then you have your Mexican delivery guy. You’ve made the call for food and soon you hear that THRAANG sound, he’s wrapping his massive chain around the traffic sign outside your building and you start to salivate. These chronically bemused young men ride heavy, poorly maintained mountain bikes, done up with tape, done up with rubber, black, filthy & often lightless & breakless as well. Don’t forget the bike messengers, those original fearless riders of NYC. These tattooed nihilists, with their separated shoulders and missing teeth don’t need breaks either, they favor track bikes, fixed gear/fixed wheel. They ride ergonomically perfect machines, like McLuhan said, simply an extension of the rider’s lean and grubby body, everything superfluous has been removed, even sometimes, the seat! Before e-signitures these danger junkies used to face down the very worst of midtown traffic. Where are they now?
Then you have the hipsters, twenty something guys with ironic facial hair that want to, or have already moved to Brooklyn – also on track bikes, ah but nothing grubby here, these are beautiful pieces of equipment, sleek and spare with one expensive logo of spectacular simplicity. I give you – The Moth, The Guvnor et al – bikes engineered for simplicity, elegance and fun. The faithful will tell you that this is the best way to zip downtown to catch a free concert (at speed) period.
And of course you have your regular people. Men and women from all walks of life who just like to get around on a bike. Any comfy old bike will do, “It has a basket for my groceries!” They live longer than most and save a fortune on cab fare. Sensible and no posturing here whatsoever.
Last on my list and on yours too I hope, are the ones I like to call Power Rangers, you’ve seen them, zooming past in packs of ten on a Saturday morning in their wonderfully tight, spandex, citrus fruit costumes. They yell out to each other in a special code worked out before hand, the ones in front can deploy one of these code words if they sence danger ahead. There are also specialized hand signals, the same kind that your little guy in Modern Warfare might use if he were sneaking up to a rebel occupied barn in Chechnya. I think they’re mostly guys in their early thirties who work in midtown. There’s usually a token girl too. Office life can be dull and its good to blow off some steam, get pumped and go for it on the weekends with your buds. If some entrepreneurial genius had opened a chain of spas offering classes in authentic Grecian wrestling, he could have attracted so many of these guys, all you need is some oil, a hessian loincloth and some good old american male aggression and you’re away. But cycling gives these young lions the chance to display their wealth and taste. These corporate Power Rangers have some serious equipment between their legs! A super light, beautifully engineered 24 speed, like a Pinarello or a Litespeed, can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention the special fire-retardant costume, the tap shoes, butt pads, and your Even Flow, air slicing helmet.
Do I have an axe to grind here? Well I was tooling along on my bike, heading home through the park, going the ‘wrong’ way, doing about six mph, up yet another incline and suddenly at the top of the hill, high above me, exploding through spears of sunlight comes Team Gonad! They’re moving at incredible speed, their helmets are blinding, they seem possessed with a special demon energy, angry and in charge, they’re bearing down on me & I start to panic, my front tire wobbles, “STAY STRAIGHT! MOTHERFUCKER!! STAY STRAIGHT!!” I’m barely moving. “STAY STRAIGHT! MOTHERFUCKER!! STAY STRAIGHT!!” I’ve clearly violated this guy’s rules, I can see that he thinks he’s in real danger here, that my sick recklessness has brought him face-to-face with death, but that he’s faced death before and that he faced death down with courage and the loving fraternity of his crew. He flies past. “Asshole!” yells the token girl as she flies past, zip “Tool!’ Zip “Cock!” Zip “Weiner head!” Zip. I’m seeing a pattern here.
It’s probably not the power rangers that scare old people & knock down children. (It’s probably unsupervised children and other old people. Or tourists on their neon painted, white-walled, cruiser rentals.) But I’m guessing head on collisions are quite common and probably deadly at 30 MPH. Is it necessary, or even legal to go 30 MPH in the park? It seems that each cyclist has his or her own ideas on what rules should apply when you’re on your bike. Am I going to stop at a red light when I can see there’s nothing coming from any direction? No. Do I ride on the sidewalk? No? And it bugs me when others do it. Do I have lights? Of course! Do I dismount in the park when it says dismount? No, I think I’ll continue to use my good judgement there. Will I pee between two parked cars at 3AM in Times Square on a Saturday night? Well not if I can find two Pinarellos.
CODA: The “Cyclists Must Dismount!” sign has been taken down and replaced with a sign that reads; “Cyclist Must Use Sound Judgement!” Sweet vindication but I still have a one month probationary period left.