August 04, 2008

So there I was at the 21 Club, eating raw meat with The Gun Lady….


That was the best journalistic lede I ever wrote—and it never saw print. My editor at a second-tier business paper snipped it right out of the profile I’d done of a high-powered female gun rights activist on Capitol Hill. This large-caliber dowager (she’d dubbed herself the Gun Lady) had the close-cropped steel hair and roller derby shoulders of every nut-cutter nun I’d ever known, and her favorite political philosopher, she told me in her brawny voice, was Ayn Rand. This lobbyist had taken me to lunch at 21, the swanky Manhattan spot where Michael Douglas brings Charlie Sheen in Wall Street. (Douglas orders Sheen steak tartare, and leaves him staring puzzled at a plateful of hamburger meat topped by a shiny raw egg.) So I figured I’d re-enact the scene—even though this woman could easily clean Michael Douglas’s clock. Indeed, when I saw Douglas flash that wrinkly ass in the brain-boiler Basic Instinct, I briefly wished that the Gun Lady would walk on screen to kick it.


It was the first time I’d tried the dish, and I’ve since come to like it—to like best of all the Ethiopian variant called kitfo, which mixes ground up, uncooked beef (in some places, you just have to hope that it’s beef) with berbere pepper, butter, and farmer’s cheese. You wash it down with tej (the African honey wine that puts out the fire), rinse hands, and repeat. You scarf down Ethiopian food with all five fingers, scooping up balls of flavorful meat and sauce in this nutty, spongy bread they call injera. Then, if you’re me, you curl up in a fetal ball by the toilet for the rest of the night—groaning that you’ll never eat Ethiopian food again. But it’s so damn good, you always come crawling back, sure that this time, this time, it will turn out differently. It’s a lot like dating….


The point of my story was to distill from a leader in her field “the secrets of my success,” and share them with the investors who read our paper on the Acela—to help them someday read a higher class of paper while flying the Delta Shuttle. For this weekly feature, which I wrote every couple of months, we were supposed to track down CEOs and pry from them the details of their corporate strategies—occasionally spicing things up by throwing in someone who’d succeeded in other areas of life. Since I understood corporate strategy about as well as the average Ethiopian, I made sure that every story idea I pitched was one of the “spicy” items featuring someone whose story I actually wanted to tell. My editors were busily engaged in vicious office politics, so for nine months I got away with it. I managed never to interview any of the overstuffed suits who were even then puffing up the Internet bubble at the expense of clueless investors like… our readers. Instead I wrote a series of intriguing features for this business paper on figures of real importance:


* Blues legend John Lee Hooker, whom I tracked down in Mississippi and quizzed by phone about what inspired his early hit, “Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom.” His Delta accent was so impenetrable that his answers sounded to me like “Ahz lifn rount Greenville batden n’I’d dis gurlphren werkt in a genamens club….” I stammered, completely confused, until his manager jumped on the other line and translated John Lee’s answers into Yankee. I learned, among other things, that the author of the immortal “One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer” was now a Jehovah’s Witness, so I wouldn’t see him at Last Call. Nor did his sect believe in eternal damnation; it turned out that his classic “Burning Hell” blues was in fact intended as a tract. It was indeed an honor to speak with this man.


* Film-maker Elia Kazan, who like the (now-late) Hooker was still then clinging to life. But he wasn’t giving interviews. From talks with one of his editors, and a slog through his autobiography, I dug out the key traits which had formed this icon of American film-making: An ego the size of the Soviet Bloc and the libido of a rutting goat. No wonder he didn’t like agents of Stalin’s puppet CPUSA giving him orders about what to write and direct. What did Uncle Joe think he was—a producer? Kazan turned against the Hollywood commie conspirators because he came to see Stalin as a wannabe Irving Thalberg. Without the swimming pool.


* St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits. This one was easy. Again, I couldn’t get an interview, but using a few biographies, I explained to my business audience how a handsome, successful soldier and lothario had—through long psychological effort and harsh physical penances—transformed himself into an impoverished, celibate missionary who took all his orders from the pope. I offered some “take-away” lessons on how they could do the same.


* Music legend Wynton Marsalis. A jolly and canny character, this scion of a New Orleans music family has made a career out of rescuing jazz from the critics—irritating white guys who have been wearing berets since 1955, snapping their fingers and going “Oh, baby!” to ever-more cacophonous and crackpot atonal noodling… as the popular audience excused themselves and snuck out the back. Marsalis is a champion of “classic” styles of jazz—the kind with melodic lines, discernible structures, and other features once considered important to music. I call it “non-suck” jazz, for short. By reviving non-suck jazz and teaching it to young musicians at Lincoln Center, Marsalis has done more for the genre than anyone else alive. It was great fun speaking with him, but also a little frustrating: When he answered the phone, he announced that as he talked to me, he planned to eat a plate of fried chicken. And so he did, through our whole conversation. Just the kind of colorful detail a writer can’t resist—which, of course, I couldn’t use. Had Marsalis announced he was eating a watermelon, I’d have known he was doing it just to taunt me.


This gig was only one of a long string of jobs I have had writing about entrepreneurs and their companies—a field for which I’d prepared through 12 years of studying literature. I’d never taken a single class in either business or journalism, so of course I became a business journalist. (But then, I’ve never studied economics, so I wrote my first book on an economist.) I never could quite grasp accounting terms, so when some CEO used jargon like “gross earnings” and “amortization,” my eyes would glaze over and I’d think about Gothic architecture or sex, until he came around to some topic I understood, then I’d go back to taking notes.


God protects drunks and idiots, of course, and in my 20s I was a little bit of both. Given how I planned out my career, I’d have to say that my guru was Mr. McGoo, who would walk straight out a window—onto an i-beam which carried him safely to the ground. The lucky thing was that my first, make-or-break job was at a magazine called Success (it since went bankrupt), whose focus was less on specifics of fiscal whatchamahoozits and fiduciary thingamabobs, than it was on emotional uplift and positive thinking. Inspirational stuff, like you see on those Successories posters with eagles and mountaintops and incantatory quotes:


* “What you can conceive, you can achieve.”


* “Live your best today, for it is your only preparation for tomorrow.”


* “The Little Choo-Choo… Could.”


Other business magazines might take as their bible Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, but ours was a book called Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill—an early-20th century pauper who did indeed become a millionaire… by peddling thousands of books door-to-door about how to become a millionaire. The book’s philosophy was a weird mix of elements from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Norman Vincent Peale, and Machiavelli.


At bottom, it argued that “the Universe” responds to our thoughts like hot Silly Putty in the hands of a hyperactive 5-year-old. Think dark thoughts, and the sun will set. Think green thoughts, and you’ll attract big, tottering piles of money. And so on—it’s the same message Oprah is peddling all over Africa with her sacred text The Secret. (Is your village starving? Then you must have been thinking starving thoughts.) The creepiest section of Think and Grow Rich was the part where Hill encourages readers to write down the precise day and month by which they will have earned a million dollars, then repeat that date to themselves hundreds of times a day, every day, for years, until it happens. Kind of like the Jesus Prayer—except, you know, for Mammon.


As a dour blue-collar monarchist, this all went down pretty badly with me. I used to walk around the office muttering, “Think and grow mushrooms….” But I needed the work. (My girlfriend, Sallie Mae, had expensive tastes.) And having to write for a business audience taught me to drop the phony Chestertonian style I’d picked up. When you have exactly 500 characters (not words) in which to make a point, you learn the virtues of economy—if not of economics.


Anyway, it turned out that my workshops in screenwriting would prove the perfect prologue for my new line of work. The ideal story for the old Success followed pretty much the format of VH-1’s “Behind the Music.”


Act I: A poor kid, with a brilliant idea, through hard work, pluck, and luck, makes a business out of nothing. He starts a whole new industry, or builds a better mousepad. The money rolls in. He gets a John Edwards haircut, and buys his aging mother a Cadillac.


Act II: He gets cocky. Or lazy. Or his best friend steals his company, his wife, and his Persian cats. He verges on despair, starts watching pole-dancers through the bottom of a shot glass at 3:00 p.m. on Mondays, and gets investigated by the SEC. Pretty soon he’s selling used spark plugs from a garbage bag just to fund his heroin habit.


Act III: The newly poor entrepreneur has one hand on a bottle of tranquillizers, the other on the trigger of a shotgun—when Something Special happens. He finds his Higher Power. On his way up the clocktower with a sniper’s rifle, he stumbles into a self-hypnosis seminar. His wife brings home a kitten that looks like Buddha. Whatever. The point is, his life turns around and he figures out how to go back to making money. He buys back his old company, bankrupts his enemies—but forgives them—and earns three times the fortune he’d frittered away. Resurrexit, sicut dixit.


To keep myself sane, in the midst of these articles, I usually found something offbeat to write about, which sometimes would slip by my editors. So an article about office ergonomics would appear… that mentioned Evelyn Waugh. Or I’d jump up the New Age rhetoric of a Tony Robbins-type we were profiling to the point of self-parody. I once even pitched a cover story on how to “Harness the Power of… Luck.” (It made as much sense as some other stories we ran—like profiles of how CEOs learned leadership skills by… walking barefoot over hot coals. During deductible, weeklong junkets to Hawaii.)


But the high point of my career in business writing has to be the time I wrote up a detailed story proposal that applied the principles of positive thinking and entrepreneurship to post-Soviet Russia. It seemed that two newly out-of-work KGB guards had acquired the capital to turn their former Gulag camp into an executive “toughness training” facility. For only $5,000, CEOs could come for six whole weeks of the Total Gulag Experience™—chopping logs barefoot in the snow, being prodded from barracks to mess hall with bayonets, all night interrogations, and a diet of fish head soup. I included spurious quotes about what they’d gained through the experience from the serious business philosopher Peter Drucker (then in his late 90s), and corporate guru Tom Peters, whom I had saying: “It’s pretty hard to be set in your old corporate patterns, when six guards in top coats with Kalashnikovs are chasing you across the taiga.” Most of my smart-ass fellow editors saw through the parody right away—and smiled to themselves. Not my egomaniacal boss, who managed the magazine like a baboon troop. He loved the piece, and wanted to run it. Then he looked around the room….


Six weeks later, I found myself 1,300 miles away in Baton Rouge, watching snakes from my back window, eating red beans and writing about Walker Percy. My Act III had begun.


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