The only time I was ever in the New York Times building was in the fall of 2013. It was, I think, a rainy night and they were holding an event. It had something to do either with all the art used for its Modern Love column or one artist in particular who contributed to it. There was a long line at the lobby to get in. After presenting my ticket I went up the elevator to the art department. All the artwork was displayed in the narrow, white corridor where the elevators let off, and where most of the guests were crowded. At one end of the corridor, in front of the head offices, was the alcohol. At the other end, on the file cabinet amidst the cubicles, were chips and salsa.
I’d found out about the event through Twitter. One of my friends, a graphic designer, had shared it. It was a time when I knew more graphic designers than I did writers, though that was in transition at the time. Or rather, I was in a time of transition. Earlier that year I had put out the fourth and final issue of Biopsy. I was still promoting it while at the same time resigned to the reality that the zine was effectively over. I remember it as a low point, but not my lowest over the past six years. Things were sort of looking up by then.
The point being, I was not invited and I knew no one there. I spent much of the night milling around at either end of the corridor. I talked to maybe one person for more than a few seconds. I looked only casually at the art on the wall, which ranged from instantly forgettable to eventually forgettable. Clearly going to look at art, which I could have done anywhere, was not my main motive for going.
“Events” are a staple in the life of a “creative.” If you fancy yourself creatively inclined — which can include creating things, commenting on created things, or persuading commenters to comment on a certain created thing — and you live in or around a major metropolitan area, you will have attended at least one. By that point I’d attended several different events. A previous magazine job, where I’d fallen into writing pithy — and extensively rewritten — blurbs about high-end alcohol got me numerous invites to private promotional parties at luxury hotels and restaurants. The most extravagant was held at the Plaza Hotel for a cognac that was $100,000 a bottle. I drank $1,000 of it — one glass — and was interviewed by a freelancer who wanted to write an article about the event for, I think, New York (it didn’t run). I was in my early 20s, working in a section of the industry where, in hindsight, I should not have been — and which still owes me $600, but that’s neither here nor there — I had no idea how to comport myself among the more seasoned hacks who worked in trade rags or at the legacy general interest titles like Esquire. In my childhood I developed an obsession with business cards, I collected them, but I never had any of my own printed. I did not know how to network and those with whom I did try to network couldn’t really use me. One time I just up and left in the middle of a presentation.
Local events weren’t even the half of it. Occasionally I would get emails from publicists offering press trips to Scotland or France or wherever related to whatever boozy product they represented. There were no apparent restrictions for such trips, and I believe glorified interns were encouraged to do this out of pity. But I turned each one down for the simple reason that I did not care and I still don’t.
Even the events where I fit in somewhat better were troublesome. I would go to zine fests, readings, and release parties, some held as far out as Red Hook. I could find easier avenues to be sociable and have far more substantial conversations with more than a few people. But I still felt like an ambassador from a small, diplomatically inconvenient hermit kingdom. I met some nice, interesting, and talented people. But that and the free beer were not enough to raise my interest or to ever try to be a part of the community around which the event was based. This was especially true at zine fests, that functioned within networks that included a lot of the same publishers and artists. I do not know if attending them with the explicit end of self-promotion (I persuaded more than a few to wave their arbitrary “no trades ’til later” policies) actually constituted a gate-crashing transgression, but it felt like it.
I realize it’s a bit rich to complain about events. Even for people with average social skills — a rare commodity in journalism — events are just an extension of work. The free booze, the luxurious settings, and clever company contrast against the paltry and unstable nature of the job itself. You’re there to hang out or see something possibly interesting; you’re also perpetually on the hunt. The line separating journalist and serial killer is … not as stark as many would probably wish it to be.
But events remain especially perplexing for what I’m now going to call the “socially angular.” For them, going to an event is like walking into a life-sized diorama depicting just one more ecosystem where survival is the end goal. The socially angular tend to lack a talent for meshing into group dynamics, which makes them more sensitive to how they form and what they offer them. Where they know one or two people makes them feel like an anchor, while going to one where they know several makes them feel like a bottom feeder. My most acute experience of the latter was continuously running into an editor with a habit of never remembering my name. My greatest regret was belatedly thinking of a prank where I reintroduce myself to him using a different generic porn stage name — Harry Reems, John Holmes, Peter North, Jamie Gillis, etc. By comparison, walking into a room with total strangers, while daunting at first, at least gives them breathing space where the making it is theirs to fake. Some of the most illuminating and fun conversations I’ve had were with people I never saw again.
Moments like that are hit or miss. Nothing hit at the New York Times. I walked past the chips and salsa and into a conference room where the layout of the next day’s edition was tacked onto the wall. I weaved through the cubicles and noted a name of one of the designers and made a note to send her a copy of the zine later.
I think I lasted a little under two hours before giving up. I made my way back through the crowd toward the elevator, which was surrounded by people. As I pressed the button a man standing next to it turned to me and said, “Good.” I chuckled, thinking that he was sardonically commenting on the lackluster exhibit and extending solidarity. By the time I came back to the lobby I thought differently. Had the man meant the opposite? Had he scoped me out earlier and saw me taking up space where I did not belong? Was my exit lifting a burden for him and the crowd for whom he was presumably speaking?
I’ll never know for sure, but I let the ambiguity of that word stick to me. I’m forever “good,” doing only “good” things. “Good” will probably go on my headstone. The Oxford English Dictionary will make an entry for “good” and put my perpetually ambivalent not-smiling-but-not-exactly-smirking-either visage next to it. That will also be the definition. Because you know “good” when you see it.
Thus concludes this “good” essay.