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I CAN’T stop running. Not now. Not ever.
I think the police are following me. Unless they’re not.
That’s the crazy part. I’m just not sure.
Maybe somebody recognized me…
My picture’s been all over. I bet someone called the NYPD and said, “There’s a crazy guy, about forty-five years old, stumbling around SoHo. On Prince Street. Wild-man eyes. You’d better get him before he hurts himself.”
They always say that—“before he hurts himself.” Like they care.
That crazy guy is me. And if I had seen me, I would have called the cops, too. My dirty-blond hair really is dirty and sweaty from running. The rest of me? I feel like hell and look worse. Torn jeans (not hip, just torn), dirty army-green T-shirt, dirty classic red-and-white Nikes. “Dirty” is the theme. But it doesn’t really matter.
All that matters right now is the box I’m carrying. A cardboard box, held together with pieces of string. What’s in it? A four-hundred-and-ten-page manuscript.
I keep running. I look around. So this is what SoHo’s become…neat and clean and very rich. Give the people what they want. And what they want is SoHo as a tourist attraction—high-tech gyms and upscale restaurants. Not much else. The cool “buy-in-bulk” underwear shops and electronics stores selling 1950s lighting fixtures have all disappeared. Today you can buy a five-hundred-dollar dinner of porcini mushroom foam with frozen nettle crème brûlée, but you can’t buy a pair of Jockey shorts or a Phillips-head screwdriver or a quart of skim milk.
I stop for a moment in front of a restaurant—the sign says PORC ET FLAGEOLETS. The translation is high school easy—“pork and beans.” Adorable. Just then I hear a woman’s voice behind me.
“That’s gotta be him. That’s the guy. Jacob Brandeis.”
I turn around. The woman is “old” SoHo—black tights, tattoos, Native American silver jewelry. Eighty years old at least. Her tats have wrinkles. She must have lived in SoHo since the Dutch settled New York.
“I’m going to call the police,” she says. She’s not afraid of me.
Her equally hip but much younger male friend says, “Let’s not. Who the hell wants to get involved?”
They deliberately cross the street, and I hear the woman speak. “I have to say: he is really handsome.”
That comment doesn’t surprise me. Women like me a lot. Okay, that’s obnoxious and arrogant, but it’s true. The old gal should have seen me a few years ago. I had long dirty-blond hair, and, as a girl in college once told me, I was a “hunky nerd.” I was. Until all this shit happened to me and wore me out and brought me down and…
The old lady and younger man are now across the street. I shout to them.
“You don’t have to call the cops, lady. I’m sure they know I’m here.”
As if to prove this fact to myself, I look up and see a camera-packed drone hovering above me, recording my every step. How could I have forgotten? Drones zoom through the sky—in pairs, in groups, alone. Tiny cameras dot the corners of every building. In this New York, a person is never really alone.
I stumble along for another block, then I stop at a classic SoHo cast-iron building. It’s home to Writers Place, the last major publisher left in New York. Hell, it’s the last major publisher in all of America.
I clutch the box that holds the manuscript. Dirt streaks my face. My back and armpits are soaked. You know you smell like hell when you can smell your own sweat.
I’m about to push my way through the revolving door when I pause.
I feel like I could cry, but instead I extend the middle finger of my right hand and flip it at the drone.
ANNE GUTMAN, editor in chief and publisher of Writers Place, greets me with her usual warmth.
“You look like shit,” she says.
“Thank you,” I say. “Now let’s get the hell out of your office and go someplace where we can’t be watched.”
“Where’d you have in mind, Jacob? Jupiter or Mars?”
“Christ. I can’t stand it,” I say. “They watch me 24-7.”
She nods, but I’m not sure she agrees with me. I’m not even sure she cares. I lean forward and hand her the box.
“What’s this?” she says. “A gift?”
“It’s the manuscript! It’s Twenty-Twenty!” I yell. Why am I yelling?
Anne tosses her head back and laughs.
“I can’t remember the last time I received a hard-copy manuscript,” she says.
Then I look at her intently. I lower my voice.
“Look, Anne. This book is incredible. This is corporate reporting like it’s never been written before.”
“You know my concern, Jacob,” she says.
“Yeah. I know. You don’t think the Store is worth writing about; you don’t truly think it’s morally bankrupt.”
“That’s not it. I think it may very well be morally bankrupt, but I can make a list of forty companies that are just as bad. I don’t think the Store is inherently evil. It’s a creative monopoly.”
“Read my book. Read Twenty-Twenty. Then decide.”
“Tonight?” I ask.
“Yes. Tonight. Immediately.”
“Immediately? Wow. That’s fast.”
Anne smiles at my minuscule joke. I try to remain calm. I’m sure if she reads the book she’s going to be blown away. Then again, maybe she won’t be. Maybe she’ll toss it after a few chapters. What do I know? After all, I’ve been wrong about this sort of thing before.
Suddenly there’s noise. A scuffling of feet. Indistinguishable but loud. It comes from outside Anne’s office. Then a very quick knock on the door. Before Anne can say anything, her assistant opens the door and speaks.
“Ms. Gutman, there are three policemen and two NYPD detectives out here with me.”
“What do they want?” Anne asks.
“They’re here to arrest Mr. Brandeis.”
Anne and I look at each other as her assistant closes the door. I’m about to fall apart. As always, she’s in take-charge mode.
“You go out through the conference room. Then take the back stairs down and outside. Find a place to stay.”
Anne hands me some money from the top drawer of her desk. I turn toward the conference room.
“I’ll handle the cops,” Anne says.
“Read the book, okay?” I say.
“Damn it, Jacob. Of course I’ll read the book.”
She walks out her office door. I also start walking. The last thing I hear her say is: “Good afternoon, officers. How can I help you?”
Eight Months Earlier
MY WIFE, Megan, wrote an e-vite to our dinner party that was like Megan herself: funny, sharp, and a touch mysterious:
Megan and Jacob Brandeis
invite you to our
“Last Gasp in Manhattan” party
Tuesday evening, August 30
322 Pearl Street
We had invited our eight best friends to have dinner with us in the big goofy-looking loft space that we had carved out of half a floor in an art deco building. If you’re thinking when you hear the word loft that the space was glamorous, high-tech, and modern, you’re thinking wrong. Our very long, very narrow apartment was in what had once been an old insurance company building. After that, it was vacant for five years. Then it was home to a bunch of squatters. Then it was bought by a bunch of would-be writers and artists. Each apartment had a tiny view of the East River and a fabulous view of the garbage barges docked at the South Street Seaport. We could afford the apartment only because the area at the time (then the Financial District, now very chicly called FiDi) was a no-man’s-land. The nearest grocery store was two miles away in Greenwich Village. We could also afford it because we were making fairly decent money writing everything from ad copy to catalog copy to an occasional piece for New York magazine and the New York Observer. Like everyone else in Manhattan who hadn’t founded a tech company or managed a hedge fund, we made do. What’s even better is that our kids seemed to have no problem making do.
Lindsay was sixteen and attended Spence. When I was a kid at George Washington High, Spence was debutante-snooty. Only a touch of that culture remained, and those types didn’t seem to interest Lindsay. In fact, most of her friends seemed to be the Latinos and African American scholarship kids, with a UN ambassador’s daughter or Middle Eastern princess thrown in for diversity.
Alex, Lindsay’s thirteen-year-old brother, attended a Reform-Jewish prep school, Rodeph Sholom, on the Upper West Side. He pretty much liked his school and liked his friends and didn’t hate the subway ride up to the place. We had sent him there because both Megan and I were thoroughly unreligious—she a lapsed Catholic, I a Jew in terms of culture only. But by the end of his first month at the school, Alex had become almost frighteningly interested in Judaism. He studied as much Torah as he did computer science. He studied Chinese, but he also took Hebrew. And of course he made me feel embarrassed that my knowledge of Judaism revolved around three things: (1) food (matzo balls should be hard), (2) superstitions that no other Jewish family had ever heard of (“Touch a coat button if you see a nun”), and (3) the words be careful, which we say to anyone leaving our apartment—a plumber, a great-aunt, a Jehovah’s Witness.
Alex and Lindsay fought constantly with each other, and when they weren’t fighting they were laughing with each other. Plus they read books—real books with real paper pages that you have to use your fingers to turn. These kids were smart, sarcastic, and usually nice. Megan and I really got a kick out of them. I don’t want to speculate how much they reciprocated the adoration.
The evening of the party found Megan and me very nervous. But we had our reasons. I poured Megan her third white wine (an unusually enormous amount for her), and Lindsay and Alex put the final touches on the dinner—Lindsay glazed the poached salmon while Alex scattered the watercress over the fish. “I’m doing watercress. Dill is a catering cliché.” Great chefs talk tough.
“Live and learn,” I said.
Megan took a sip of her wine and spoke. “Maybe we should have entitled this evening the ‘Last Dinosaurs in Manhattan’ party.”
I laughed and said, “Maybe,” but I knew what she meant. All eight guests were people whose jobs were simply not very important anymore. In a piece I had written the previous month for Salon.com, I had referred to this category of worker as “leftover people in our new high-tech world.”
Yes, the friends who’d be eating our salmon that evening were folks waiting to be—as the British would say—“made redundant.” I had been thinking of that scene in the movie The Tall Guy in which the boss turns to his assistant, played by Jeff Goldblum, and says, “You’re fired. F-U-C-K-E-D. Fired!” If I sound heartless, I don’t mean to be. It was a fact of life, and it was happening all over the country.
The night was a kind of debutante party for those “coming out” of the workforce.
Sandi Feinblum, the assistant style editor at the New York Times, was taking a buyout. She had been assigned to the “traditional” hard-copy newspaper. But the only people who still preferred the printed Times were slowly but surely showing up on the obituaries page.
Wendy Witten and Chuck McKirdy were editors of a wine magazine and a golf magazine respectively; neither publication had transitioned successfully from a newsstand presence to an Internet presence.
We had also invited an executive from Sotheby’s auction house and his very nervous, prescription-druggy wife. He was quickly being strangled into oblivion by websites like eBay and iGavel.
One woman had already gotten the ax. A former travel agent. All the people who once used her services were now making their own hotel reservations and printing their own airline tickets. In essence, she had been replaced by William Shatner.
One guy, Charlie Burke, was in a business that was about to be eaten by Fox. When that meal took place, he would probably be known as the last guy on earth who had ever managed an independent broadcasting company. His syndicated sitcoms would be just another part of neo-con broadcasting.
And finally there was Anne Gutman, editor in chief of Writers Place. Anne still managed to make a living editing and occasionally publishing a few nonfiction writers such as Megan and me. But she knew—we all knew—that she was the exception to the electronic rule.
Shit. The unemployment office could have set up an application desk in our dining room. What’s more, Megan and I would have been first in line.
YES, WE were in trouble.
From the outside we still looked prosperous—the crazy-looking loft (full of interesting, artsy “found objects”), the two good-looking teenage kids, the August rental on Fire Island.
But the fact was, we were hurting badly.
To our shock, Anne Gutman had turned down the book that Megan and I had been working on for almost two years. Our proposed project was entitled The Roots of Rap. It traced the history of rap music from blues through early rock and roll, then doo-wop, and ultimately the past twenty-five years of rap and hip-hop.
“I just don’t have the funds anymore,” Anne had said. “I had money when you started the project, but I’ve just been squeezed too hard by the Internet.…Then, of course, there’s always the Store.…I just can’t afford to take big risks anymore.…I could shove it into self-publish, but the guys in research told me you’d be lucky to sell five hundred copies.”
The Store. This online colossus was becoming a huge player in the world of publishing. And in every other part of the consumer world as well.
The Store stocked what people wanted. Then, because it controlled pricing, it pretty much told us what to buy. It’s where we all went shopping for our toasters, tractors, Tide, soy sauce, jeans, lightbulbs. If somebody on earth manufactured something, anything, the Store sold it. Potted oak trees, cases of wine, automobiles…all usually at a lower price than the brick-and-mortar source.
The Store’s publishing arm was churning out e-books, and every once in a while they’d hit upon something really popular. Okay, Megan and I thought…if you can’t beat ’em…
So as soon as the painful impact of Anne’s rejection sank in, we did the only thing left to do. We moved over to the opposition: we flipped open our laptops, quickly pulled up the Store page, then clicked over to “Independent Publishing.” We had no other choice. Why the hell not? Megan and I were sure we had a bestselling e-book.
Within less than a minute of logging on, I was having my first e-mail conversation with my “contact rep.”
At the beginning, our e-mail conversations were all warm hugs and wet kisses. A few rewrites. Our promise to start a Twitter account, a Facebook page, an Instagram profile—the usual social-media journey to the bestseller list. It was going great…only a matter of time until Megan and I would be looking at book-cover concepts.
Then came the not-so-inevitable kick in the balls.
With one tap of the Send button, the Store destroyed our plan. They suddenly rejected The Roots of Rap. No reason was given. Their e-mail sounded like a ransom letter: Your project is no longer viable. The Store.
My index finger raced to the Reply tab. Hey, folks, what gives? All of a sudden? This idea is a winner waiting to happen. This book could really live online. It’s about music. You know, music downloads. The YouTube clips. The cross-ref…
Came a one-line response: We are as sorry about the outcome as you are. The Store.
It was clear: the Store was finished with us. Or so they thought.
But we were not finished with the Store. Not by a long shot.
“NEBRASKA! THAT’S nuts!” Chuck McKirdy shouted. “You two will be moving to freakin’ Nebraska?”
Megan stepped in and answered the question with her usual patience.
“That’s where the jobs are. So that’s where we’ll be going,” she said softly.
“What’s Nebraska’s nickname? The Cornhusking State?” Sandi asked.
I corrected her. “The Cornhusker State.”
“Go, Cornhuskers!” someone shouted.
The chant was quickly picked up. “Go, Cornhuskers! Go, Cornhuskers!”
“Okay,” I said. “The annual asshole convention will now come to order.”
Megan smiled, then began a little speech. She said it was hardly a secret in our social group that our most recent nonfiction effort had been rejected “not merely by faithful friends who shall remain nameless”—at this point Anne Gutman jokingly hid her face behind her unfolded napkin—“but also…and you’re not going to believe this humiliation…even rejected by the Store.
“So with The Roots of Rap totally without a future, and Jacob and I—not to mention our two kids—totally without a future, it looked like we were doomed. But just when things looked darkest, lo and behold, the Store came through for us.”
We stopped talking. Just for a moment, but long enough to run the risk of screwing up our story. And it was a story, almost a fairy tale. It was a highly fictionalized account of what had really happened.
At that very moment Megan and I were about to tell a very big lie to our closest friends. And even though we had rehearsed it carefully, my stomach was rolling, my chest was filling with acid, and Megan’s hands visibly shook. But the starting pistol had been fired. We had to talk. So Megan took off.
“Well, it’s sort of crazy what happened next. We thought it was all finished between us and the Store. And Alex and Lindsay even started joking about being so poor that they’d have to decide which relatives to go live with.”
I interrupted. “Nobody wanted to go with Megan’s family.”
She punched me gently. (We had not rehearsed the ad-libs.)
“Anyway, we got a message from the Store HR people, and they…offered…us…jobs.”
“Doing what?” Chuck asked. “Writing ad copy or catalog stuff?”
“Well, that’s the sorry part,” I said. “They’re kinda crappy jobs. We’ll be working in their fulfillment center. You know, filling orders and getting them out to people. But…” I paused. I was lost.
Megan was not going to let that sentence hang there in space. “But,” Megan said, “because the Store is so big and growing, we’ll be eligible for promotions and advancements within three months. Just three months.”
“And that’s the story,” I said, hoping that the strength in my delivery would let me recover and seal the deal with my friends.
Okay, they were surprised. Very surprised. And yes, our friends were still spitting out a few farmer jokes, a few Republican jokes, a few Cornhusker jokes. But as I looked around the room I could tell everyone believed me. Someone mentioned a good-bye party. Someone else mentioned a group bus trip to Nebraska. Yes, it looked like everyone believed us.
Well, almost everyone.
I glanced out the apartment window and saw a drone hovering. It was recording everything going on at our dinner table.
I also noticed that Anne Gutman was looking directly at me. We were good friends, old friends. She had a weak smile on her lips. And I could tell that Anne wasn’t buying a single word of our story.
OKAY, WE had told our friends a lie. But it wasn’t a total lie. I say that as if a partial lie is somehow more acceptable.
Yes, we were moving to Nebraska. Yes, we were going to work at the Store. But here’s what we left out:
The Store had not invited us to work there.
The real truth was that Megan and I had made all this happen. And like a lot of things, it all started with a simple idea.
Here’s how the bean stalk grew: after the Store had rejected our manuscript, I was burning with anger and resentment. Sure, they thought they could screw me. Well, here’s some news. I was going to show them. If I sound like a crazy person, I think it’s because I was.
Megan and I would infiltrate the Store. We’d unearth their secrets and their plans. Then we’d write about it. We’d get even. But first we had to get hired.
Some good news (finally): it turned out that getting hired by the Store was incredibly easy. The Store’s business was growing so fast that apparently they accepted almost everyone who clicked on the link that sat at the bottom of every Store Web page: “Be part of our team.”
I clicked on it one day, and within seconds an application form appeared. The form was hardly detailed, but I was sure it was because the Store would be doing their own investigative deep dive.
When they asked why we wanted to work there, we had planned the perfect answer: we were tired of the New York rat race. Tired of alternate side of the street parking, homeless beggars on every corner, squeezing four people into a crappy walk-up apartment built for two. We had a sincere desire to raise our kids in a proper community, with a real backyard, grass, trees…blah, blah, blah. We were writers. We knew that people outside New York loved anti–New York opinions, and even Megan, usually a very bad liar, followed my lead and fibbed like a pro. It worked.
Two days later I was having an online chat with a “marshal of human resources” who had the male-or-female name of Leslie. Leslie stated the Store’s position unequivocally: You’re superqualified for marketing or business positions, but at the moment we can offer you employment in our beautiful new New Burg, Nebraska, fulfillment center. I was aching to write the book. We were busting to be…well…spies. I was willing to take the job. So was Megan. We made a deal. And the Store made it clear that Megan and I were not being assigned to high-level, white-collar corporate jobs. No way. Ours were strictly factory jobs, filling orders and pasting on mailing labels. Yes, it was a truly shitty job. It required nothing more than a grammar-school education and a strong back.
- On Sale
- Aug 14, 2017
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown and Company