This afternoon, grabbing my midday coffee, I passed Jimmy Fallon coming out of a SoHo store and getting into an Escalade. He had a short conversation with a woman, with the driver, and it would have been perfect for one of my first writing gigs, or pseudo writing gigs.
I took a job at a big New York City magazine as a gossip columnist. The job was supposed to move me into a writing and editorial position down the road. I lasted barely 2 weeks. It’s not even something I put on my resume. Gossip is about as bad as you can imagine it to be.
“Jarret,” my editor would say, and this is a hypothetical example of the type of things I tackled in those weeks, “One of my sources tells me that Brad Pitt was so drunk at Hogs & Heifers last night he pulled it out and pissed on the bar. I need confirmation. Get it, and I’ll let you write it up.”
Get Brad Pitt’s publicist on the phone.
“Hi, my name is Jarret, I’m calling from some big time magazine. We’ve had a report that Brad Pitt was hanging out at a bar, and peed on it. I just need to get confirmation.”
“I don’t comment on Mr. Pitt’s urinary practices.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m not calling about his regular practices, just one single occurrence.”
“I don’t comment on any occurrences. Are you being serious.”
“Yes, I am. Can you confirm that Mr. Pitt was out drinking last night?”
“I don’t keep Mr. Pitts calendar. That would be his personal secretary.”
“Can I get a name and number for his secretary then?”
“Are you fucking kidding me? Hell no!” Click.
Dammit! If I get this info, I can write it. If I write it, that will be a byline. If I get a byline, that will be… wait, don’t get ahead of yourself. How can I do this.
“Hogs & Heifers.”
“Hi, my name is Jarret from some super big whooping mag thing. Can I talk to your manager?”
“I am the manager. What do you want.”
“We are running a story on Brad Pitt, and the writer is including some details from a night out they spent together. Can you confirm that Mr. Pitt has ever been to your bar?”
“Sure, he has been to this bar in the past.”
“Do you know if he was there last night?”
“What is this about, exactly?”
“We have a report that Mr. Pitt mistook the bar for the Men’s room, if you catch my drift.”
“I don’t comment on the customers who frequent my establishment.”
“Well, that’s not entirely true, is it? Just a second ago you were telling me that Brad had been there before.”
“Thank you. Goodbye.”
I would track down the bartender, on his mobile, in his girlfriend’s kitchen. Whatever it took. This was journalism. This was writing. This was what reporters do? This was journalism? This wasn’t writing.
Again, this was a fictitious example, but not too far off. I never had to confirm a thing about Brad Pitt in my 2 weeks there. But 10 working days after I started I went to the editor, told her I wouldn’t be working there anymore. I said it was about the money. They weren’t going to pay me for the first 3 weeks, as a trial. They called it a “trial internship,” but it basically amounted to indentured servitude. At the time, in the beginning, I was more than game. But working for a gossip column is soul searing. The kid who took my place, who at the time supposedly worked for me—though how one can work for an “intern” is a bit beyond me—stayed at the gig for a few years. He used the work to get byline after byline, and make contacts in the publishing industry. He sold a book, which was published last year. In that, he’s one up on me. You have to write a book to publish a book. The job provided the right hours and the right temperament to set someone up for that. I just couldn’t do it.
I’ve known friends who’ve written catalogs to make money, business-to-business plans, online medical forms, you name it. After that experience I went to work for a well-known New York internet magazine. Unfortunately that place was run by someone who could have cared less about the content, just wanted to hit the dotcom Lotto jackpot. After that, I backed into a gig with the magazine at the Big Grey Lady. An editor there took me under her wings, and that lead me where I am now. I wanted to be around people who had a stake in words, who care about what was written down. I don’t know if where I work right now, as an institution, does, but the people I work with certainly do. It’s something of a bullshit distinction, but its one that was important to me. And I think the tradeoff, whether in a year, or two, or ten, will be meaningful.