The New Yorker obituary of Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana who killed himself in the spring of 1994, includes a typographical error, if I remember correctly, in the second column.
I know this because I was an intern that spring in the magazine’s old word processing department, and, as the writing of Alex Ross went through the magazine’s meat-grinder of an editorial process, I missed a verb tense change. No one caught the mistake. The next week, I found the magazine open on my keyboard when I came to work, the offending words circled in red.
This is a perfect example of the unreliability of memory. I just re-read “Generation Exit,” and for the life of me I couldn’t find the error. How can that be? The humiliation has been burned into my soul. In my mind’s eye, the page still lies on the keyboard, the red markings unmistakeable near the top of the second column, or was it the third?
Or was it a different story?
I can tell you this. In the word processing department, after edits had been typed into the master draft, one word processor would read the paper copy of the old version with the hand-written changes to another word processor, who checked the edited version for accuracy. Here’s how we sounded aloud both punctuation and capitalization: “Up dumbness persisted pause but there were always scattered bands picking out weird rich chords and giving no thought to a major hyphen label future point….” This is how it would look on the page: “Dumbness persisted, but there were always scattered bands picking out weird rich chords and giving no thought to a major-label future.”
Sounds simple enough, once you get the hang of it, but sometimes I’d get nervous and, even when I spotted an inaccuracy, I’d mutely continue reading along. My oversight would be identified a few minutes later, and I’d berate myself, and then a week later I’d do it again.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The previous spring, as I prepared to return to Sarah Lawrence College for my final year, I dreamed of landing the only internship worth having, at the only magazine worth reading. I wrote to the magazine and included a packet of my short stories and nonfiction essays, and a letter of recommendation from William Kittredge. (That spring, I had weaseled my way into one of his graduate fiction workshops at the University of Montana.)
Incredibly, a letter came back mid-summer from Anthony Pisano at the New Yorker with a date and time for an interview in August after my return to New York from Montana.
Even with months to plan, I didn’t think to purchase a nice button-down shirt or suit coat. After all, I had one cotton, collared shirt, light blue, and a few pairs of slacks. On the day of the interview, I chose leather hiking boots over my battered basketball shoes. I wore a tie on the walk from my dorm room to the Metro North train,. But I felt awkward wearing it, so I self-consciously took it off and stuffed it into the pocket of my stone-washed jean jacket. It was the only jacket I had. Here’s what makes it worse. Two years earlier, I had quilted big “S” in fabric and sewn it onto the back, for Struckman.
In the lobby of 23 West 43rd Street, I found that the dampness of my pocket had crinkled my tie like an accordion. I wore it anyway.
I should pause here to explain that I wasn’t consciously trying to be the rube from Montana. It’s simply who I was.
My style couldn’t have contrasted more sharply from that of the dapper and immaculate Anthony Pisano, who was the head of the magazine’s human resources department. He was amazing with a beautiful tailored shirt, suspenders, cuff links and dress shoes.
On my cover letter, he noted the “e” at the end of the word “intern.” Yes. I had spelled it “interne.” I was that pretentious. It seemed more worldly to spell it that way. Pisano indulgently suggested I check my cover letter for misspellings. I explained it was a variant spelling. He checked his dictionary, and saw that I was right. I don’t remember the rest of the interview, but that afternoon he called me back for a second interview the next day with Babette Lazarus in marketing.
With only the one shirt and tie and no time for laundry, I wore the same clothes, including the jacket and boots.
Lazarus, who when away from work competed as a ballroom dancer, was welcoming. We talked comfortably about writing, and she told me that I would need to put in my dues in her department if I wanted to get a shot later at an internship on the editorial side. I jumped at the chance. I got class credit and a generous stipend. I came to the office three days a week. I dressed as professionally as I could, although I never purchased any new clothing. My co-workers were genuine and generous marketing professionals. We went for bagels together every week. Late in the fall, the department took me to a super-fancy lunch where the waiter wore a black jump suit, like some kind of chic, space-age mechanic, and Lazarus and I work-shopped my fiction on a weekly basis. My assignments were interesting. Once, I spent several weeks analyzing southern California magazine ad sales.
Every now and then my marketing internship would take me down to the 18th floor, where the writers and editors existed in quiet offices. Papers and books spilled off desks and into the halls. Stacks of books covered benches in the corridors. I was in awe, and I welcomed every excuse to get down there.
Sometimes I ventured to 18 on business of my own. Several times, I hand-submitted poems to the poetry editor, who gave me encouraging hand-written notes in response, although she didn’t accept anything.
Just before Christmas, I met with Justine Cook, who headed the word processing department. She was known as the “steel hand in the velvet glove.” I’m not sure why I ended up talking to her. Pisano had OK’d the move, and Lazarus arranged the interview.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I got the second internship, too. Everything seemed great. My schedule remained the same, and my stipend improved.
But on the first day, only Cook was friendly. A dozen people worked in the large, airy room. My co-workers were in their late-20s and 30s. All were aspiring writers. None greeted me or returned my friendly overtures. Almost immediately, one of them told me to return “to the minor leagues.”
Without my own desk, I bounced around from one work station to another, depending on which was free that day.
The bright spots were the times the writers came into the room. I found David Remnick to be a warm person while he shepherded his articles through the editing process. He was so friendly that I assumed he couldn’t be important, until the day he won a Pulitzer for his book about the collapse of the Soviet Union, Lenin’s Tomb. And John Seabrook, a tall nervous guy, always seemed to have just had a fascinating interview with a source, which he eagerly talked about with anyone who would listen. Plus, at that time, Seabrook’s stories never seemed to make the cut. He’d call the word processing room to ask me to check their status. And it was an incredible honor and pleasure helping to get a font designed by Art Spiegelman into the pages. Spiegelman was passionate about getting it exactly right, and he treated me with kindness and respect.
Some of the writers were terribly precious, handing in sheaves of typewriter-written pages with train-of-thought impressions on subjects like boxing, but with no information, only brackets with the letters “TK” indicating facts to be supplied by the fact-checking department. Not that I judged them. Everything involving the writing and editing was exhilarating.
The careful and meticulous attention to every detail—from the grammar to the nuances of language and the accuracy—lived up to my idealized notion of the magazine.
But the rest of the internship was miserable. The department managed stories from the first draft through dozens and sometimes hundreds of revisions. Occasionally drafts would be taped or stapled together, as old-school editors relied on us to type the changes and then to pass clean, up-t0-date versions of the stories back to the writer and editors. (I heard lately that the word processing department has long been disbanded. Good riddance.)
The department was a den of vipers, of literary hangers-on who all seemed to be going through a belated adolescence. I’d overhear them talking about getting drunk on the weekends and doing stupid things, like sitting on a flight of stairs exclaiming loudly that “my legs don’t work!” Those were the kind of juvenile hijinks that I had pulled back in high school. Honestly, I was too self-absorbed to notice if they were unkind to each other, but they were merciless to me. They’d offer scathing comments on my clothes or my hair or look stunned if I cussed. One was a comparative lit PhD dropout from Columbia University, who specialized in James Joyce. Another had two masters degrees from the University of Iowa, one an MFA in creative writing.
I don’t think I wanted anything more than their approval and acceptance, not because I admired them particularly but because I had never encountered any group of people who had shut me out so decisively.
I never got it. For five months I tried and failed to join their club.
After work, they’d meet at a bar or one of their homes to read and critique each others’ writing. The next day at the magazine, they’d rehash the sessions. Once, I asked if I could come. The answer was blunt. “No.” I tried to join their conversations but was met with silence, or the conversation would just sort of die until I left.
As I grew more insecure, my work suffered. I missed a lot of edits. My meanest colleagues picked me apart, and the worst part was they were right.
To comfort myself, I’d fantasize about beating up the meanest one. Or after I got back return to campus and telephone my girlfriend in Boston.
Once, as I was working at the desk of a petty man who I will always hate, I snooped into his personal files and read his poetry. In my defense, he saved this stuff on his work computer. What an idiot. One poem described him raping his mother in violent and bloody detail. In another poem, he railed at his “pathetic” and “disgusting” self. I was creeped out, but delighted to find out how miserable he was, how tortured by angst.
The final weeks passed, numbly. Graduation approached. And then it was my last day.
The poet with the mother-rape fantasy happened to get on the elevator with me as I left. Downstairs in the lobby, he said something bland like “good luck.”
I can’t even tell you how uncomfortable I was with him. I have no idea why, but in reply I said, “Hasta la vista, baby.”
He probably thought I was the freak.