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The Column of Lasting Insignificance: February 24, 2007

Interview with Magazine X

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 teen-age 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 they 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 newsmagazines, 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. Take copy paper, for example. In all the years I’ve been here I’ve never found out how to get copy paper; I usually sneak it from the secretaries.

“When Geoffrey came back for good he tried to even things up by lifting a great stack of memo pads to bring with him. But that didn’t do much good, because the former editor here just appropriated them, and for weeks afterwards we’d all be getting memos that began, ‘From the desk of Henry Luce’…!

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 Embarrassment-Shopper

The woman sitting next to me at the bar had obviously just been shopping. I looked over the crazy array of items in her open basket. They seemed to be a pretty diverse assortment. “You must be a Comparison-shopper?  I asked.

“Oh no,” she said. “I’m a woman who thinks for other people — I’m an Embarrassment-shopper.” I’m one of those people who buys those items that you’d be too ashamed to ask for yourself.”

I was skeptical and said so.

The ES looked hurt. “No really,” she said, “we Embarrassment-shoppers do a very worthwhile job. Here, for example, “— she reached into her bag — “could you imagine anyone going into a store and asking for something called ‘Mr. Clean’?

“In fact,” she continued, “there’s a whole wide list of products that make people uncomfortable.  Shopping isn’t easy these days and that’s where I come in. Sometimes I provide a complete service which includes deciding which of two near-by stores is your friendly neighborhood grocer and then buying all the goods there.

“Sometimes my client comes along with me but, of course, leaves it to me to do the asking for Broiler Foil, Cashmere Bouquet, Dent-u-grip, Double Danderine, Sani-flush, Johnny Mop, Silicare, Uneeda Biscuits, Royal Jelly, and Nehi Orange Juice.”

I agreed that it did take a special kind of person able to ask for such items but wondered aloud how she found her clients.

The Embarrassment-shopper seemed surprised I had asked. “Why, they’re all over the place,” she replied. “I was on the second floor of Bloomingdale’s one day when I observed this shy girl who appeared to be having trouble.  She wanted to ask for an Exquisite Form bra but was too modest to ask for an item with such an implication.

“I helped her out, but she was so shaken that we had to stop for a drink on the way home. She wanted a Grasshopper, or maybe it was a Pink Lady, and I had to ask for that, too.”

I had to concede that the Embarrassment-shopper had made out a good case. As a matter of fact, I said, there was something that I myself had never been able to bring myself to ask for — Fig Newtons. Maybe the Embarrassment-shopper could help?

“Oh good Lord, no,” she said.  “Even I would be too embarrassed to ask for those.”

from The Village Square, John Wilcock’s
column in the Village Voice, c. 1958