the column of lasting insignificance: Mar. 9, 2013
by John Wilcock
[The columns that follow were among those
I wrote for the Village Voice in the 1950s]
The Chronic Footnote-Writer
The Chronic Footnote-Writer was on his knees in the Sheridan Square subway station as I passed through the other day. He had just finished chalking “Tourists Go Home” on one step and was part way through inscribing “Stamp Out Mental Health” on the step above.
We had met before, but now he seemed older and sadder. “I'm sorry you caught me doing this,” he said ruefully. “It's so far below my usual standards, but these days one has to make a mark in any way one can.”
I had to agree with him. He had certainly seen happier days. Days during the Golden-Age-of-the-Footnote, when one publisher after another had needed his services. Days when a famous author could hardly open his mouth, so to speak, without my friend putting his footnote in it.
But though the old publishing styles have changed—forcing the Chronic Footnote-Writer into involuntary retirement—he has not been able to forget his vocation. And there are signs of his dedication on every side. The library books whose scholarly dissertations are invariably annotated with a penciled “Nonsense!” in the margins; the signs on toilet doors which have been amended to read “To let”; the placards in self-service elevators which inform you that this elevator was last inspected by “Alexander the Great.”
Nothing has been too small to escape the C. F-W.'s editorial attention. He's the man who took ordinary one-cent pieces and, right below where it said “In God We Trust,” scratched: “All Others Pay Cash.” He's the man who, on receiving bills in the mail, crossed out the address, wrote “Not here” on the envelope, and mailed them again. He's the man who saw a blank wall labeled: “Bill Posters Will Be Prosecuted” and added the comment: “Poor Old Bill.”
And here he was, my old friend, on his knees in the subway. “Of course,” he said cheerfully, “things aren't all bad. There are bright days. I was in the New York Times building one morning and I managed to write ‘All the notices fit to print’ on several of the bulletin boards. And while I was there, I penciled ‘Up’ on several of the mail chutes and ‘Down’ on the others.” He chuckled with the memory of it and we walked up the subway steps together.
“Oh look,” he pointed. “There's some more of my work. That poster there on the wall.” I looked over. The poster read: “Did You Make New York Dirty Today?”—but underneath I could clearly discern the Chronic Footnote-Writer's shaky script: “New York,” it read, “makes ME dirty every day.”
New Girl in Town
On the last Friday of April, Natalie Severe, 19, said goodbye to her close friends in Scranton, Pa., where she had spent all her life, and boarded a Greyhound bus for New York. The trip took 4-1/2 hours, cost four dollars and three cents, and left her with about seventy dollars. She had a few vague acquaintances in New York, but nobody in particular, and this being her first time away from home, it suited her to feel alone and independent.
The first night she stayed at a hotel in Times Square, but by lunchtime of the second day she was walking Village streets in search of both job and apartment. She was shocked that such grubby little apartments brought such high rents—“why $60 or $70 will rent almost a whole house back home!”—but impressed to learn that a good clerical job would pay almost double the $40 a week she had been earning in Scranton. The only trouble was in finding a job, preferably without having to pay an agency fee.
As she sat in Washington Square, a man with a dog spoke to her. He didn't try to pick her up, he just spoke to her, making some remark about the kids playing nearby. She was overjoyed that “people don't stand on ceremony here. Why, back in Scranton, nobody speaks to anybody.”
Of course she soon discovered that, apart from the different phraseology, a pick-up in New York approximated a pick-up any other place. By the end of her first week she had learned how to parry the following gambits:
“Haven't I seen you up in the Bronx somewhere?”
“Would you like to have a cup of coffee with me?”
“You look like the sort of girl who can cheer me up. I've just been fired.”
Natalie's father, a baker, hadn't wanted her to leave home, and her mother particularly didn't like the idea of her coming to Greenwich Village, which, she hinted gloomily, was the home of people who weren't quite normal, people who lived together without the formality of marriage, and men and women generally who were devoid of both ambition and morals. Although Natalie maintains “they're very narrow in Scranton,” and says that most of their views of the outside world are unfair, she admits that her presence in the Village (she's staying in a hotel) is partly due to the offbeat things she's heard about it, and she rationalizes her desire to stay here by saying: “The atmosphere is nice and easy-going; people don't mind what you do. I'll bet nobody would care if you stood on your head.”
A bright girl with a penchant for composing “gloomy poetry,” Natalie has quickly learned not to show surprise, even though many things have shocked her by their unfamiliarity. Such things as Negro-white couples (“My friends wouldn't believe me if I said that I'd sat down to eat with a Negro”), girls kissing each other as they walked along, and a pomaded youth dressed all in pink (“He had a lovely figure; I nearly asked him how he kept so thin”).
At the time this is being written (Friday) Natalie Severe has been in New York exactly two weeks, during which her outlook on life has undergone constant changes, most of which she says have made her more “broad-minded.” Her determination to stay in the Village is equaled only by her disinclination to return to Scranton, and she feels optimistically that an apartment, a job, and a whole new life are just around the corner. She hopes it comes before she spends her remaining four dollars.
Auditioning at the New Yorker
And then there was that memorable day on which I tried to get a job with weekly magazine X (as if you didn't know which that was). Somebody had given me an introduction to one of its senior editors, a charming, friendly man who'd been with the magazine for many years. We sat in his bleak office and discussed the hammering noises drifting up from another part of the same floor.
“It's almost always like that,” he said. “I don't know what they're doing, but they're always doing it.”
Politely, I brought up the subject of my quest. “Oh yes,” he said. “Well, I don't know who you should see but I'll try to find out. I know there's somebody who hires reporters, but I don't know who it is. Usually I don't have a great deal to do with them, though as a matter of fact I was introduced to one of the reporters only the other day.”
We were interrupted by a teenage boy who walked in with a sheaf of glossy proofs which he laid carefully on the senior editor's desk. The s.e. looked up, thanked him casually, and then fell silent. Only distant hammering sounds disturbed the calm. Apart from the proofs, I noticed, the space in front of the editor was antiseptically bare. No sweet disorder on the desk. No wantonness. Definitely no wantonness.
I reminded him gently about the job. “Oh yes,” he said, “I was telling you about this reporter. Seems he'd been writing bits of things ever since he's been here—about three years, I think he said—and he's never had anything used. This editor asked me if I'd say hello to the lad. Sort of make him feel better. I said, ‘Yes, of course,’ and then introduced us. I hope it did make him feel better, but I'm afraid I've forgotten what he looks like, so he'll think me pretty rude if we meet again.”
After I had mulled this over for a moment or two, I remarked that Magazine X seemed to be a pretty mysterious set-up. “Yes, I suppose it is,” the senior editor agreed. “Every now and then somebody will move over from here to one of the news magazines, and then they'll have some very revealing comments about the difference. One writer went back and forth between here and Time quite a bit, but he finally came back for good. Said the housekeeping over there was magnificent but the editing was lousy, whereas here it's just the opposite…
The time was getting along, and so I rose to go. The senior editor helped me on with my coat and repeated his assurances to do all he could to help, as we walked past the hammering workmen to the elevator. He did, too, because I got a friendly note from him a few days later saying my clippings had been passed along.
I haven't heard a word since then, but of course I'm not worrying. Who knows how many of the poor devils have been nailed up inside their offices by now?
The Blind-Date Bit
A guy I know with plenty of time on his hands has a system for what he calls “taking the guess out of the blind-date bit'.” It's a pretty simple operation, consisting simply of taking your pick of other people's blind dates.
The most popular spots where strangers agree to meet, it seems, are outside the main branch of the New York Public Library, beside the Washington Square Arch, under the clock at the Biltmore, and by the information booth in Grand Central Station. At any of these places and many others, says my friend, pretty girls will always be waiting, with at least a few of them waiting for men they've never met.
“I look them over carefully whenever I want a date,” my informant explains, “and I pick out the ones who are obviously waiting for blind dates. Somehow you can always tell; they seem more apprehensive. Anyway, I choose the nicest-looking girl and, approaching very nervously, I say: ‘Excuse me but are you … ?’ always letting the sentence trail off.
“She'll invariably smile and finish it for me. Then next comes the time when you must listen very carefully, because she'll usually counter with: ‘Oh, you must be—?’ And you have to be very attentive, because that will tell you what your name is, or anyway what it's supposed to be.
“Naturally you'll make a mistake occasionally, but so long as you remember to be charming and a little shy, and to apologize and leave when you're obviously not going to get away with it, you'll find there's scarcely any risk at all.”
(Incidentally, if you want to invest in a white carnation for your buttonhole, that's fine, but you don't really need it. Research has proved that the most common identification symbol among blind dates is a New Yorker magazine tucked under the arm.)
Once the contact has been made and the conversation is under way, my friend suggests all that's needed are a few remarks like:
“Gee, you're much prettier than I expected” or “Is my watch fast or slow? I'm sorry if I kept you waiting” or “Excuse me if I seem a little nervous but I've never done this before.”
“By following developments pretty closely,” he adds, “you can usually bluff your way through. But if she suddenly asks a question that throws you, or seeks information about some mutual friend that you have never met, I've always found a good way to play for time is to say: 'Well, let's go have a coffee and we'll talk about it.' Once you get that far, you can even afford to be honest with her.
You'd be amazed how easy it is to salvage the date as long as you can convince her how much better you are than the man she was supposed to meet.”
JW is currently sailing down China’s Yangtze River
Bagan, Myanmar (Burma):
Seeking the Drama of Everyday Life in Burma: part 4 - Bagan
Lompoc, CA: Seeking the Drama of Everyday Life in Lompoc, CA:
Inle Lake, Myanmar (Burma): Seeking the Drama of Everyday Life in Burma: part 3 - Inle Lake
Bagan, Myanmar (Burma):
Seeking the Drama of Everyday Life in Burma: part 2 - Bagan
Seeking the Drama of Everyday Life in Burma: part 1 - Yangon
Forty years ago the second of my three books about magic was published, A Guide to Occult Britain (Sidgwick & Jackson) covering a wide range of sites from Stonehenge to Loch Ness and King Arthur country to the witches of Pendle Hill. It is now available as an eBook on amazon.com.
A Budget Travel Pioneer on a Time When $5 a Day Was Real (Frugal) Money
nytimes.com: Frugal Traveler by Seth Kugel
It was the first handwritten letter I’d received in 5 years. Or maybe 10. Signed by John Wilcock, a man I’d never heard of, and postmarked Ojai, Calif., it was waiting for me when I returned from my São Paulo-to-New York summer trip. Mr. Wilcock wrote that he had been an assistant editor at The Times Travel section back in the 1950s, and had written the first editions of “Mexico on $5 a Day,” “Greece on $5 a Day” and “Japan on $5 a Day” for Arthur Frommer in the 1960s.
By George, I thought. This man was the original Frugal Traveler.
Manhattan Memories An Autobiography by John Wilcock
"A GOOD WAY to describe John Wilcock is to say that he is a talented bohemian counter-culture journalist who once played a major role in the emergence of America’s underground press. Born 1927 in Sheffield, England, he left school aged 16 to work on various newspapers in England, and on Toronto periodicals before moving to New York City. There in 1955 he became one of the five founders of the Village Voice in which he and co-founder Norman Mailer wrote weekly columns. Wilcock called his column “The Village Square”, an intended pun. He and young Mailer were not quite friends, although Wilcock was at times annoyed, but always amused, by Mailer’s monstrous ego."
-From the preface of Manhattan Memories, by Martin Gardner
The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol by John Wilcock
Edited by Christopher Trela
Photographs by Shunk-Kender
Village Voice and Interview cofounder John Wilcock was first drawn into the
milieu of Andy Warhol through film-maker Jonas Mekas, assisting on some
of Warhol’s early films, hanging out at his parties and quickly becoming a
regular at the Factory. “About six months after I started hanging out at the
old, silvery Factory on West 47th Street,” he recalls, “[Gerard] Malanga came
up to me and asked, ‘When are you going to write something about us?’”
Already fascinated by Warhol’s persona, Wilcock went to work, interviewing
the artist’s closest associates, supporters and superstars. Among these were
Malanga, Naomi Levine, Taylor Mead and Ultra Violet, all of whom had been
in the earliest films; scriptwriter Ronnie Tavel, and photographer Gretchen
Berg; art dealers Sam Green, Ivan Karp, Eleanor Ward and Leo Castelli, and
the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Henry Geldzahler; the poets Charles Henri
Ford and Taylor Mead, and the artist Marisol; and the musicians Lou Reed and Nico. Paul Morrisey supplied the title: The Autobiography and Sex Life of
Andy Warhol was the first oral biography of the artist. First published in 1971,
and pitched against the colorful backdrop of the 1960s, it assembles a prismatic
portrait of one of modern art’s least knowable artists during the early
years of his fame. The Autobiography and Sex Life is likely the most revealing
portrait of Warhol, being composite instead of singular; each of its interviewees
offers a piece of the puzzle that was Andy Warhol. This new edition
corrects the many errors of the first, and is beautifully designed in a bright,
Warholian palette with numerous illustrations.
The British-born writer John Wilcock co-founded The Village Voice in 1955,
and went on to edit seminal publications such as The East Village Other, Los
Angeles Free Press, Other Scenes and (in 1970) Interview, with Andy Warhol.