Monday, May 24, 2010

The crowded road

It’s a long way from here to the Javits Center on Manhattan’s far west side, that hangar sheathed in black glass, sidling up against Twelfth Avenue, across the street from the heliport and ferry terminal, all cold concrete and steel under its jet exterior, both clumsy and menacing, especially given the dead open spaces surrounding it. Some have called it an alien ship. It’s a long way there, especially in the summer. Walking slowly you feel the oppressive length of each city block, overdressed in the muggy heat, watching ominous thunderheads tumble across the New Jersey swampland, mired as you are in a kind of stuporous anxiety wherein the bleakness of the current publishing scene takes on mythic dimensions, and one imagines little heads rolling down Thirty-Fourth Street straight into the Hudson River, their show badges left behind, so no one can tell who’s who. The heads are all vaguely recognizable. A year ago, one of them might have been yours. These are the unlucky ones who have labored long in cramped offices to produce bound books, only to find that the world has moved on to books as bits of data. You sorrow for them, even as you count your lucky stars that you’re not among them still.

True, some of your friends survived the corporate firings and panic, but many have fled the scene for good. It’s an effin crapshoot. Some will tell you that their adaptability saw them through, that they took their marketable skills and altered them just in time for the social media revolution. Others will tell you that success is all about a positive attitude, and that it was the fact they kept their chins up and stayed cheerful that kept them in the game. Still others will claim that they saw it coming, the electronic revolution, planned for it, and are now riding the wave like golden surfers of yore. And then some will tell you that angels watched over them and pointed them in the right direction.

There’s bits of truth stuck in there somewhere, but, for the most part, no one can make any claim about extending their publishing careers these days other than that their success or failure is more a matter of pure unadulterated luck than anything else. Look at me. I’ve been one of the luckiest bastards on the scene, coming into a good job with a fine company, doing what I love to do, among like-minded book people. I wish I could tell you that I did it myself, that it was my brains and my expenditure of energy that got me where I am. But that would be bullshit. After getting axed, I wandered for ten months and landed in clover. I could have just as easily landed in a briarpatch or a potter’s field. I still have bad dreams that this waking life is an effin mirage. Who knows? Maybe soon I will be drawn back into the suffocating world of worry, overdue bills, and shame. The way to Javits is strewn with thorns, pink slips, broken dreams, torn-up receipts, and shiteloads of schadenfreude. Sad.

“Adaptation is the mark of civilization,” my old man used to say, tapping his pipe on a hardbound edition of Schopenhauer he used to dip into regularly. He was a man of limited vision and he knew it. Books helped him cope with life until he was tired of living altogether. Then nothing helped him. When I walk the long way to Javits this year, I will think of his limitations, and his anger at being made to feel small by circumstances he couldn’t control. Last year I walked the airless aisles a free agent, which means “jobless and looking.” This year you’ll see me smiling and schmoozing in a booth. It’s a long way from there to here and such a crowded road. I can't believe I made it.

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