FROM THE ARCHIVES, May 21 - This originally ran in Punk Planet 45.
ONE YEAR OF BORING MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTIONS
There's a certain kink in interstate 10 when one heads west into Los Angeles. You crest a hill, pull northward and suddenly you're peering over the spectacular skyline of L.A. Depending on the day's particulate count, it can be a stunning view. You're also momentarily faced with what has to be one of the prime billboard locations in southern California. Ever since I moved here in late 1999, an internet company called LoansDirect.com has monopolized the spot. For most of that first fall, the slogan on their billboard read think of us as your rate crisis hotline. I assumed I'd misread it the first two times I was driven past. The third time made me think there was something fundamental I was missing about modern commerce.
The next spring I was offered some insight. A frequent flyer account magically surfaced (being, like karma or [and my prostate crinkles even writing this phrase] "punk points", something you think of as existing in an invisible bank account somewhere, accruing interest, until one day - presto! - you discover that it really was in an invisible bank account). United Airlines wrote to say that I had 9,000 miles about to expire, and would I like to redeem them for magazine subscriptions so they weren't wasted? This seemed suspiciously polite of them, especially in light of my not being able to remember having flown United. I was reminded briefly of those sting operations run by sheriffs' offices to catch gullible deadbeat dads and petty fugitives ("Congratulations, you are a winner!!... meet us at the corners of such-and-such streets to claim your new snowmobile!") Then I remembered LoansDirect.com and my desire for insight into the unseen. I checked the box next to every business magazine they carried - Business 2.0, Business Week, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, Forbes ,Fortune ,Industry Standard ,Inc., Inc Technology, Money, Red Herring. At the very least, I thought, I would be able to write an informed report from the world of finance journalism by mid 2001.
But wee insight was to be had. Below the surface lay... more surface. I rarely found anything in any of these eleven publications to hold the interest of a non-MBA holding humanoid. There was a general impenetrability to the reportage that hammered my self confidence. Well, you're wondering, what the hell did I expect? But I did hold high expectations. The LA Times business section, after all, is loaded with good stuff. You just have to know how to read it (meaning, the same way one reads the NY Times Metro section - with an eye for gross human misconduct). It was in the LAT Business pages that I learned of the 37-year-old finance advisor who bilked $20 mil out of Phish and Leonardo Decaprio (only to arrive at his arraignment with a stocking over his head), the Iridium global phone meltdown, and the guys who tried to con NASA by having gold spacecraft sheeting delivered to a strip mall suite with a sign on the door reading "Neutron Accelerator Project" (they were caught only after misspelling the word "sergeant" on a requisition form).
None of these types of stories make it into the modern American business publication. Instead, I got two basic types of reporting: 1. Small Biz Success 2. Incomprehensible. The former featured many pictures of determined (and frequently ugly) people who had conquered some dinky, first world adversity to triumph as regional distributor of lawnmowers-by-internet / specialty hot sauce / llama feed. The latter featured amazing headlines like "the limbic slavery of the outernet", but never seemed to follow through with the great science fiction short story that should logically follow. The only articles I could wrap my brain around were those discussing the great villains of finance, and then only if there were pictures. I started scanning these magazines like a 16-year old devouring Tiger Beat behind closed doors. GE's Jack Welch, slimy NY mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg, Oracle's sinister, scheming Larry Ellison, ham-faced Ford CEO Jacques Nasser, those two ponytailed buttholes behind energy-broker Enron... these were the only guys who held my interest.
Meanwhile, the magazines piled up. A half dozen of these slippery, heavy, richly inked bastards are spilling out of my mailbox every day. The people at my post office have started with those sharp glances that tell me I'm not fooling anyone. Our front porch has passed through the waiting room stage and now resembles the outer office of a hopeless crank, my obsessive removal of the paper subscription inserts has become a daily chore and I'm realizing... shouldn't these subscriptions have ended months ago??
1. I finally saw an Iridium satellite in person. It was purely by accident. I happened to be in the Smithsonian Air & Space museum last month (unknowingly on the first leg of a patriotic quadrangle that would take me to the White House tourist wing ["the jerk wing" I heard a fellow sightseer muttering on the sidewalk afterwards], the Empire State Building lobby and, by mistake, the statue of Uncle Sam in south Troy, NY). I was hunting for the Enola Gay. It's a testament to the greatness of the A&S that one could go walking its halls in search of a stray B-29 bomber, but I never did find the thing. In a certain room full of computers and doodads a friend tapped me on the shoulder and motioned upwards. There was the Iridium orbiter. Did Motorolla commission a satellite especially for the Smithsonian, or was this one a factory mistake? It was a lot uglier than I'd expected, and a lot larger. And it certainly looked like it could kill the shit out of anyone it fell on.
The good news is, unless the one I saw comes unmoored from the Smithsonian ceiling, no satellites will be falling on anyone soon. Someone raised the cash to keep the things afloat (I know this only because I've seen the ads for renewed & improved Iridium service in my business magazines, not because I'm, um, obsessed with the story), one of many signs that the economy is still doing fine. In fact, my entire trip east seemed filled with such favorable financial omens - a) I was flown to DC by a UK techno act so that my band could open a vast & ridiculous show simply because the UK techno act had, like sultans of earlier centuries, felt like seeing my band play and ordered that it be so b) my hometown of Albany, NY remains in the process of replacing its former downtown with a much uglier, more costly downtown seemingly molded from a single piece of concrete c) I passed several tons of new, expensive looking, stupendously ugly and completely unnecessary sculpture in the Providence airport, d) the only gutter punks I saw on St. Marks Place in NY were actually talking on their cell phones.
2. Business Week is actually a great magazine. I'm keeping my subscription after the freebie expires. It's a journalistically solid compliment to The Nation, only minus the wit & crusty crankery of certain columnists. Ralph Nader praised BW last year for a good piece on corporate welfare, calling the magazine "to the left of Al Gore". But then, so is Tiger Beat.
3. The LoansDirect.com ad gets weirder the more I dwell on it. This wasn't a vanity billboard, and LoansDirect.com isn't some fly by night affair. By '99, this company had been in finance for 16 years (the dot com was only a recent addition). A LOT of people must've signed off on an ad campaign directly poking fun at rape victims. What is the exact chain of events that leads to a judgment collapse of such magnitude? This last week I searched for evidence of the billboard in question, mostly to prove to myself I hadn't imagined it. I discovered that the "edgy" ads had indeed existed and incurred the wrath of many. Said an unnamed CEO, "we'd never seen it from the point of view that our consumers have seen it." But, of course, there's no other way to see it. The CEO feebly added that the company's female vice president of marketing had approved the campaign.
(Writing this now makes me wonder why I hadn't complained my own self. After all, I'd seen this billboard at least a dozen times and the company's name is also their address. The only reason I could think of - and it's not an excuse - is that the sign was facing westbound traffic. By the time I was heading home, in the eastbound lane, whatever events had just transpired inside Los Angeles had pushed the controversy off my temporary palette and into long-term memory. If the billboard had been facing the other direction I would've been all hellfired up the entire drive home.)
4. Of course it's not really interstate ten, it's the ten. As in "take the ten to the fifty seven to get to Disneyland." Apparently one has surrendered to California the moment one starts adding "the" before the number of a highway. When I talk to east coast people now and make the mistake of saying something like "traffic on the 95 clears up after New Haven", they say "oh, so now it's THE 95?" with a curdled little smile as if they had some psychoanalytical knowledge of a defect in my personality I was unaware of and/or powerless over. Guys: fuck off.