Blowjob Realty

The nasal voice on the telephone kept calling me shark and hustler and player.
"Do we know each other?" I asked.
"I love what you do in the subways, shark. Very New York. How do you afford sending out all those free cassettes?"
"Maybe I got a McArthur Genius Grant. Do we know each other?"
"Could be. Name is Dan Mangan. You got me on your mailing list under the name Clifford Odets. I'm the publisher of the Manhattan Mirror. Ring a bell, shark?"
"Not really. Is it one of those free newspapers?"
"Yeah, it's free. But you say that in the pejorative. Mark my word, it's gonna be the hottest publication in town soon. Numero uno. Eighteen months and I sell it off for a killing. Know what's gonna get this paper so red hot? Writing, shark. I'm gathering up all the best writers in town. That's why we're talking. You've got what it takes. I'm hereby deputizing you staff writer. I figure you meet lots of interesting folks just from posting those Twenty % Tippers fliers. I also figure you have lots of angles. So I'm giving you carte blanch. Just hand in the pieces and I pay you per diem as they whiz by. Comprende?"
"Perfect," I said. "We'll start with the front page Twenty % Tippers profile."
"Not so fast, barracuda. First you supply me with five killer pieces that are worthy of deadline. Then we publish the Tippers cream puff item."
That was it. The conversation over, I was now a newspaperman. Instead of my constant bitter harangues coming across as mere resentment, now they would have a validity due to their outlet -- the printed word! Suddenly I was a roving eye, an observer of the human condition. Every street I turned down arbitrarily would be a potential scoop.
The phone rang again. Lisa, the band's new vocalist. Should we get together in the middle of the week to go over more material? Why not, how about Tuesday?
"Hey Lisa, guess what? I'm a staff writer with the Manhattan Mirror. Any ideas for a story."
"Not really."
"So what's going on?"
"My sublet is up," she said. "I'm looking for a new place. It's so depressing searching for an apartment. This one place I went to, there was a line of people trailing down three flights of stairs and around the block. There must've been 150 people just to view this one bedroom apartment for, like, seven-fifty. And all the woman kept saying was, 'Call the real estate office if you're interested.' That was it. Then this place I went to yesterday in the neighborhood, they wanted a $50 non-refundable application fee with my application form. Non-refundable! I asked what it was for, so the girl with the clipboard says, 'to cover the expenses for the credit check.' I told her a TRW costs about $8. I wasn't born yesterday. The girl wrinkles her nose. I said, 'the $50 doesn't get returned even if you get passed up?' She says, 'What are you worried about, do you have bad credit?' She says it like that. Do you believe it? What a racket!"
Eureka! "Hey, that's it!" I yelled. "You just gave me an idea for a story. Lisa, are you still sitting for that lady's apartment, the one with the cats you told me about?"
"I got the keys in my pocket," she said. "She comes back next month."
"Perfect! Here's the plan. Tomorrow's Monday, the last day you can place an ad in next week's Voice. Say that that apartment's up for rent. Say call Lisa. Change the outgoing message on the lady's answering machine. When people come to check it out at your convenience tell them they have to leave a $50 non-refundable application fee. Tell them to make it out to some phony name. Sunrise Realty, Blowjob Realty, whatever you decide. If things go as planned, then we can write the shocking exposť article that uncovers fraudulent real estate practices. If it backfires in our face, and I don't see why it should, we'll just say it was in the name of cautionary investigative journalism, a classic 'don't-let-this-happen-to-you' story. Got it?"
"I don't know Ken, it seems awful risky. I don't know if I want to stick my neck out."
"Lisa, you want to be in the band, don't you? This is a small thing I'm asking. I'll take full responsibility for whatever goes wrong. Now don't be so predictable. Surprise me. Just do what I say and I'll see you on Tuesday, OK?"
"Well, OK. But I don't like it."
All through the next week I wracked my brain trying to come up with good story ideas. Five easy pieces and the Tippers would finally have something to put in their barren, wind-whistling press kit. I set up a make-shift office at the corner table of the Bagel Buffet on Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, the table near the window. The office consisted of a cellular phone, a paperweight and a copy of Robert's Rules of Order. Printing up business cards, I went around town slipping them between the pages of True Detective and Fresh Flava magazines at all the newsstands. Cards were left inside peep show booths around the 42nd Street area and on the benches at arraignment hearings in all of the city courthouses.
One week later I was sitting in my office at night when Dean, the Tippers' bass player, came by as I had requested.
"What kind of story do you got for me?" I asked as he sat down across the table.
"I'm dry," he said, glancing around to see what the other customers were eating. "You know me, I'm not an idea man."
"You're not an idea man, huh? What kind of man are you?"
"I guess I'm a leg man."
"Oh, I see. Listen yo-yo, you want to see the band written up for once, don't you? Help me out here. Now what job have you been doing since you got laid off from that bio-technology firm?"
"I've been driving for a car service," said Dean.
"So isn't there a story there? Haven't you driven anybody famous? People love to read about celebrities."
"The car service is up in Yonkers and the Bronx. Who's gonna be in my backseat that's famous?"
I threw up my arms in desperation. "Fake it! Can you fake it?! Famous people take so many cabs around town, you think they can account for every ride they've had? And they're so hopped up on pills half the time, you think they can remember their conversations anyway? So let's say you're driving and you've got those two radical attorneys in the car, William Kuntzler and who's the other one, the one with the ponytail . . . Ronald Kuby. So you overhear them talking, but they're not talking about court cases or about civil rights, they're talking about golf. See, that's the twist, that's what makes the whole article interesting. These guys spend the entire cab ride talking about golf and what their handicaps are. They turn out to be fanatics. Who knew?
"Let me give you another for instance. You've got Al Sharpton in the car, the black activist. And one of his cronies. We'll make it C. Vernon Mason. They're talking about reparations to black people for all those years of slavery, like what the government is doing now with the Japanese who were in the internment camps during World War II. But with the blacks it goes back farther. The forty acres and a mule thing. So for some reason they start talking about reincarnation. Gee, why would they do that? OK, I got it! Let's say you got the radio on and it's some New Age program on WBAI and they overhear it. So C. Vernon Mason turns to Al Sharpton and goes, 'Hey Al, what if in a previous life you were actually a slave master and some of the slaves on your plantation included George Will, William F. Buckley, and Patrick Buchanan. Wouldn't that kind of invalidate the whole idea of reparations?' And Al Sharpton thinks about it for a minute, puts on an awkward face and then he goes, 'Could be, but I'll tell you what -- let's not mention a word to whitey.' So Dean, couldn't you write me an article like that? We'll call it 'Overheard On The Way from LaGuardia' or 'Overheard In My Backseat,' something like that."
The cellular phone rang. It woke up the old drunk who was nodding off at the next table.
"Hello, city desk," I said.
"Hello city desk, this is Mangan at the Mirror."
"What a pleasant surprise. Did you get that piece I submitted? A real winner, right?"
"Oh, it's a winner all right. I'm a little nervous though. See, I don't have a fact-checking department as extensive as the New Yorker. In fact I am the fact-checking department. So let me ask you, stingray, is everything in this piece on the level?"
"Gee Mr. Odets, you gave me carte blanche. I wouldn't abuse my privilege. Everything in that piece is true." I shot Dean a confident wink. "In fact I'm glad you called. I've been thinking. That Twenty % Tippers piece that you refer to as 'cream puff,' you know I could work that up in a way that would make it much more fascinating than any plain news story I might submit."
"Easy, Shamu," he said. "You know the agreement. First give me the five Pulitzer nominees. We'll count this as your first. You've got four more. Gotta go."
He hung up abruptly. "Well, we're on our way," I assured Dean, putting the phone back down. "But I can't do everything by myself. And you're not helping much."
Dean slouched back in his chair, rolling his eyes around. Then he spoke up. "Why don't you write a story about Yanni's mustache."
"Excuse me?" I said.
"I said why don't you write a story about Yanni's mustache."
I looked him over hard. "What are you, some kind of fucking sicko?"
"Listen," said Dean, going into one of his explanations. "The lyrics you write for the band are OK, but they're a little wordy, you know? And the music you write, there's always like a B-section and a C-section. People want things simple. One central image. Now, I saw a poster of Yanni somewhere on the street today and I thought, wouldn't it be effective to write a story just focusing on this guy's mustache?"
My face was frozen into a horrible grimace. "I'd hate to take a bite out of you Dino, you're one fried plantain loaded with MSG." The cellular phone rang again. The old drunk at the next table roused and made a gurgling noise.
"Hello, city desk."
"Ken, this is Lisa."
"Hey Lisa, what's the good news?"
"I'm calling to tell you that the apartment story you wanted me to set up for you, I've been collecting a lot of non-refundable application fees."
"That's interesting, " I told her, "How much money have we collected?"
"So far we've collected $9,000."
"$9,000?! Get out of here! People are just walking in and cutting checks like that?"
"Yeah."
"Who are they writing the checks out to?"
"Well you see, I did what you told me. They're writing the checks out to Blowjob Realty."
I slapped my forehead, startling Dean. "They're walking in and writing $50 checks out to Blowjob Realty, no questions asked? Who are these people?"
"Regular people," said Lisa. "A lot of yuppie types, you know. I guess they're all desperate for an apartment."
"Listen, the next thing I want you to do is to go down to the bank tomorrow and open an account under Blowjob Realty. Get a tax ID number from a lawyer if you have to."
"We're not going to keep that money are we?" asked Lisa.
I suddenly got irritated and raised my voice. "Why are you throwing all these questions at me?! Did I say we're keeping the money?! Did I say that?! I need time to think. Will you just let me be cool? In the meantime there's no reason to have all those loose checks lying around."
"A lot of it's in cash too."
"A lot of it's in cash? How much?"
"About ten or fifteen percent of it. They ask if they can leave cash and I don't know what to say. They also slip me extra, thinking it'll help. The slick ones do."
I slapped my forehead again. Dean was staring at me intensely. A sudden feeling of sadness gripped me. Why had I been killing myself all these years working like a slug when there were so many easy money schemes staring me right in the face? Why was I 145 pounds, eating cream cheese sandwiches on the subway, why were the black circles around my eyes getting darker and darker? I wanted to be suave. I wanted to be found attractive by attractive people, the attractiveness that comes with appearing relaxed and confident. Instead of trying to find the goodness in people, why couldn't I see that they were just waiting to be skinned? Why couldn't I put two and two together?
"Lisa, don't argue with me. Keep the names of the applicants, but open an account for Blowjob Realty all the same. Do it as soon as possible. We'll talk tomorrow, OK?"
"OK Ken, I'll call you tomorrow."
I put the phone back down. "We've collected $9,000 from this real estate story," I told Dean.
"We're keeping the money, aren't we?"
"Of course we're keeping the money. What do I look like, a fucking asshole?"
A disgusting yet familiar noise was heard and suddenly the old drunk had thrown up all over the table next to us. Dean and I glanced over. His most recent dining experience was on display. Scallion cream cheese on an egg bagel. Dean and I looked back at each other and I winked. "I love this dirty town."
The events of the next two weeks flew by. I was writing like a madman. Dan Mangan gave me a column called Incredibly Short Film & Video Reviews and the first installment featured Pulp Fiction:
Video store employee writes script based on conversations about pop culture with other video store
employees. If characters in film were video store employees, you wouldn't go, so he makes them killers
instead, and you stand on movie line stretching around the block because you're shallow and vapid.
No stars.
Also featured was the video release of In the Line of Fire:
John Malkovich plays the ultimate, unstoppable killing machine, but once the film has gone on for 1 hour
and 45 minutes, perfect for television and video rentals, Clint Eastwood, an old man, gives him one
punch and he falls to his death. No stars.
Because Mangan had pulled together a team of crack writers seemingly out of nowhere, the newspaper took off overnight. But the piece that garnered the most attention was a cover story I did on Yanni's mustache. In the story, one of Yanni's favorite charities, Save a Dolphin Foundation, was planning a big auction to raise much-needed funds. One of the people on the PR side came up with the brainstorm of getting Yanni to auction off his actual mustache. So upon his agreement, they all went up to a specialist on Park Avenue and held a procedure where the individual mustache hairs were melded together by cyanoacrylate and radiator glue and then carefully snipped off with a Mitchelson knife. Yanni was on tour in Europe and could not be reached to either confirm or deny the piece, but it definitely captured the imagination of the reading public. The New York Observer talked up the Manhattan Mirror in its Off the Record column and Alex Kuzcinski interviewed Dan Mangan for an Observer profile.
In no time my name had appeared on the byline of five pieces and I called up Dan Mangan for our high noon shoot-out. It was early evening and I was in my office as usual. A woman answered my call.
"Manhattan Mirror."
"Hi, let me talk to Dan Mangan."
"I'm sorry, Dan Mangan is no longer with the Manhattan Mirror."
"What are you talking about? This is Ken Sorkin, ace feature writer. What's going on?"
"Dan made some kind of deal. I don't know where he went, but he disappeared. The people who run the New York Press are taking over the paper. They're bringing in their own regular columnists to do the writing."
"Those schnorers? What a depressing development!" There was a clicking noise on the line. " Would you hold on. I've got another call." Click. "Hello city desk."
"Ken, this is Dean."
"What do you got."
"Did you hear what happened to Lisa? She was at that lady's apartment when two guys came in saying they wanted to view it. They robbed the place. They beat her up pretty bad. She's in the hospital."
"What hospital!"
"I don't know, the one in Park Slope. Don't you know Brooklyn?"
"Oh man, Brooklyn's like a foreign country to me."
"Well you sure screwed up this time. All she was doing was trying to help you out."
"Would you shut up! Do I need to hear this?! I gotta go out to Park Slope right now!"
I ran out of the Bagel Buffet and tore into the subway. The F train came pretty quickly but it was the slowest train ride I'd ever taken. I couldn't sit down, but instead kept pacing through the cars. Everyone stared at me. I think they all knew what happened. Then I was in the very first car looking out at the upcoming tracks. When we pulled into the Seventh Avenue stop I ran out and started screaming at people, asking where the hospital was. They pointed out Mount Carmel on 13th Street.
At Mount Carmel I got a visitor's pass and went up to Lisa's room on the third floor. She was sharing the room with an emaciated old woman who was sleeping. Lisa stared at me, not saying anything, and I pulled a chair up to her bed. She had a bandage over her eye and she had bruises. I sat there for a long time without saying a word. Visitors and hospital employees were walking around out in the hall. Sometimes confused-looking people would glance in searching for family members.
"They broke two ribs," Lisa finally said matter-of-factly.
"Black guys, right?"
"They were white."
"Oh."
"They took all the money. I never did go to the bank. I'm sorry, but I just didn't feel right. I guess I let you down."
"That's OK. Listen Lisa, the first time I met you I told you I was an asshole, didn't I?"
"You said you were a piece of shit."
"I said that? You sure I didn't say asshole?"
"Piece of shit. Those were your exact words. I remember."
"Well, alright, but now you know what I meant, right?"
She nodded her head and looked over at the old lady in the next bed who was sleeping with her mouth wide open.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm sorry about everything. You just came into the band. I don't even know you that well."
Lisa looked expressionless. "Just pay for my hospital bills," she said. "They're gonna be big."
We watched each other for a spell longer. Then I gave her my hand to hold onto. I was afraid she wouldn't take it, but she did, though I don't know why. There was a television flashing on the wall with the sound off. Visiting hours would soon be over, but I wasn't sure when. For the longest time we just sat there holding hands, not saying anything.

-- sent out as announcement for 11/9/96 party at the Park Central Hotel, room 2547


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