Journalist, copywriter, and sometime NewsBlur functionary.
412 stories

The Lonely Death of George Bell

1 Comment and 2 Shares

They found him in the living room, crumpled up on the mottled carpet. The police did. Sniffing a fetid odor, a neighbor had called 911. The apartment was in north-central Queens, in an unassertive building on 79th Street in Jackson Heights.

The apartment belonged to a George Bell. He lived alone. Thus the presumption was that the corpse also belonged to George Bell. It was a plausible supposition, but it remained just that, for the puffy body on the floor was decomposed and unrecognizable. Clearly the man had not died on July 12, the Saturday last year when he was discovered, nor the day before nor the day before that. He had lain there for a while, nothing to announce his departure to the world, while the hyperkinetic city around him hurried on with its business.

Neighbors had last seen him six days earlier, a Sunday. On Thursday, there was a break in his routine. The car he always kept out front and moved from one side of the street to the other to obey parking rules sat on the wrong side. A ticket was wedged beneath the wiper. The woman next door called Mr. Bell. His phone rang and rang.

Then the smell of death and the police and the sobering reason that George Bell did not move his car.

Each year around 50,000 people die in New York, and each year the mortality rate seems to graze a new low, with people living healthier and longer. A great majority of the deceased have relatives and friends who soon learn of their passing and tearfully assemble at their funeral. A reverent death notice appears. Sympathy cards accumulate. When the celebrated die or there is some heart-rending killing of the innocent, the entire city might weep.

A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.

George Bell — a simple name, two syllables, the minimum. There were no obvious answers as to who he was or what shape his life had taken. What worries weighed on him. Whom he loved and who loved him.

Like most New Yorkers, he lived in the corners, under the pale light of obscurity.

Yet death even in such forlorn form can cause a surprising amount of activity, setting off an elaborate, lurching process that involves a hodgepodge of interlocking characters whose livelihoods flow in part or in whole from death.

With George Bell, the ripples from the process would spill improbably and seemingly by happenstance from the shadows of Queens to upstate New York and Virginia and Florida. Dozens of people who never knew him, all cogs in the city’s complicated machinery of mortality, would find themselves settling the affairs of an ordinary man who left this world without anyone in particular noticing.

In discovering a death, you find a life story and perhaps meaning. Could anything in the map of George Bell’s existence have explained his lonely end? Possibly not. But it was true that George Bell died carrying some secrets. Secrets about how he lived and secrets about who mattered most to him. Those secrets would bring sorrow. At the same time, they would deliver rewards. Death does that. It closes doors but also opens them.

ONCE FIREFIGHTERS had jimmied the door that July afternoon, the police squeezed into a beaten apartment groaning with possessions, a grotesque parody of the “lived-in” condition. Clearly, its occupant had been a hoarder.

The officers from the 115th Precinct called the medical examiner’s office, which involves itself in suspicious deaths and unidentified bodies, and a medical legal investigator arrived. His task was to rule out foul play and look for evidence that could help locate the next of kin and identify the body. In short order, it was clear that nothing criminal had taken place (no sign of forced entry, bullet wounds, congealed blood).

A Fire Department paramedic made the obvious pronouncement that the man was dead; even a skeleton must be formally declared no longer living. The body was zipped into a human remains pouch. A transport team from the medical examiner’s office drove it to the morgue at Queens Hospital Center, where it was deposited in one of some 100 refrigerated drawers, cooled to 35 degrees.

It falls to the police to notify next of kin, but the neighbors did not know of any. Detectives grabbed some names and phone numbers from the apartment, called them and got nothing: The man had no wife, no siblings. The police estimate that they reach kin 85 percent of the time. They struck out with George Bell.

At the Queens morgue, identification personnel got started. Something like 90 percent of the corpses arriving at city morgues are identified by relatives or friends after they are shown photographs of the body. Most remains depart for burial within a few days. For the rest, it gets complicated.

The easiest resolution is furnished by fingerprints; otherwise by dental and medical records or, as a last resort, by DNA. The medical examiner can also do a so-called contextual ID; when all elements are considered, none of which by themselves bring certainty, a sort of circumstantial identification can be made.

Fingerprints were taken, which required days because of the poor condition of the fingers. Enhanced techniques had to be used, such as soaking the fingers in a solution to soften them. The prints were sent to city, state and federal databases. No hits.

ONCE NINE DAYS had elapsed and no next of kin had come forth, the medical examiner reported the death to the office of the Queens County public administrator, an obscure agency that operates out of the State Supreme Court building in the Jamaica neighborhood. Its austere quarters are adjacent to Surrogate’s Court, familiarly known as widows and orphans court, where wills are probated and battles are often waged over the dead.

Each county in New York City has a public administrator to manage estates when there is no one else to do so, most commonly when there is no will or no known heirs.

Public administrators tend to rouse attention only when complaints flare over their competence or their fees or their tendency to oversee dens of political patronage. Or when they run afoul of the law. Last year, a former longtime counsel to the Bronx County public administrator pleaded guilty to grand larceny, while a bookkeeper for the Kings County public administrator was sentenced to a prison term for stealing from the dead.

Recent audits by the city’s comptroller found disturbing dysfunction at both of those offices, which the occupants said had been overstated. The most recent audit of the Queens office, in 2012, raised no significant issues.

The Queens unit employs 15 people and processes something like 1,500 deaths a year. Appointed by the Queens surrogate, Lois M. Rosenblatt, a lawyer, has been head of the office for the past 13 years. Most cases arrive from nursing homes, others from the medical examiner, legal guardians, the police, undertakers. While a majority of estates contain assets of less than $500, one had been worth $16 million. Meager estates can move swiftly. Bigger ones routinely extend from 12 to 24 months.

The office extracts a commission that starts at 5 percent of the first $100,000 of an estate and then slides downward, money that is entered into the city’s general fund. An additional 1 percent goes toward the office’s expenses. The office’s counsel, who for 23 years has been Gerard Sweeney, a private lawyer who mainly does the public administrator’s legal work, customarily gets a sliding legal fee that begins at 6 percent of the estate’s first $750,000.

“You can die in such anonymity in New York,” he likes to say. “We’ve had instances of people dead for months. No one finds them, no one misses them.”

The man presumed to be George Bell joined the wash of cases, a fresh arrival that Ms. Rosenblatt viewed as nothing special at all.

Meanwhile, the medical examiner needed records — X-rays would do — to confirm the identity of the body. The office took its own chest X-rays but still required earlier ones for comparison.

The medical examiner’s office had no idea which doctors the man had seen, so in a Hail Mary maneuver, personnel began cold-calling hospitals and doctors in the vicinity, in a pattern that radiated outward from the Jackson Heights apartment. Whoever picked up was asked if by chance a George Bell had ever dropped in.

THREE INVESTIGATORS work for the Queens County public administrator. They comb through the residences of the departed, mining their homes for clues as to what was owned, who their relatives were. It’s a peculiar kind of work, seeing what strangers had kept in their closets, what they hung on the walls, what deodorant they liked.

On July 24, two investigators, Juan Plaza and Ronald Rodriguez, entered the glutted premises of the Bell apartment, clad in billowy hazmat suits and bootees. Investigators work in pairs, to discourage theft.

Bleak as the place was, they had seen worse. An apartment so swollen with belongings that the tenant, a woman, died standing up, unable to collapse to the floor. Or the place they fled swatting at swarms of fleas.

Yes, they saw a human existence that few others did.

Mr. Plaza had been a data entry clerk before joining his macabre field in 1994; Mr. Rodriguez had been a waiter and found his interest piqued in 2002.

What qualified someone for the job? Ms. Rosenblatt, the head of the office, summed it up: “People willing to go into these disgusting apartments.”

The two men foraged through the unedited anarchy, 800 square feet, one bedroom. A stench thickened the air. Mr. Plaza dabbed his nostrils with a Vicks vapor stick. Mr. Rodriguez toughed it out. Vicks bothered his nose.

The only bed was the lumpy foldout couch in the living room. The bedroom and bathroom looked pillaged. The kitchen was splashed with trash and balled-up, decades-old lottery tickets that had failed to deliver. A soiled shopping list read: sea salt, garlic, carrots, broccoli (two packs), “TV Guide.”

The faucet didn’t work. The chipped stove had no knobs and could not have been used to cook in a long time.

The men scavenged for a will, a cemetery deed, financial documents, an address book, computer, cellphone, those sorts of things. Photographs might show relatives — could that be a mom or sis beaming in that picture on the mantel?

Portable objects of value were to be retrieved. A Vermeer hangs on the wall? Grab it. Once they found $30,000 in cash, another time a Rolex wedged inside a radio. But the bar is not placed nearly that high: In one instance, they lugged back a picture of the deceased in a Knights of Malta outfit.

In the slanting light they scooped up papers from a table and some drawers in the living room. They found $241 in bills and $187.45 in coins. A silver Relic watch did not look special, but they took it in case.

Fastened to the walls were a bear’s head, steer horns and some military pictures of planes and warships. Over the couch hung a photo sequence of a parachutist coming in for a landing, with a certificate recording George Bell’s first jump in 1963. Chinese food cartons and pizza boxes were ubiquitous. Shelves were stacked with music tapes and videos: “Top Gun,” “Braveheart,” “Yule Log.”

A splotched calendar from Lucky Market hung in the bathroom, flipped open to August 2007.

Hoarding is deemed a mental disorder, poorly understood, that stirs people to incoherent acts; sufferers may buy products simply to have them. Amid the mess were a half-dozen unopened ironing board covers, multiple packages of unused Christmas lights, four new tire-pressure gauges.

The investigators returned twice more, rounding up more papers, another $95. They found no cellphone, no computer or credit cards.

Rummaging through the personal effects of the dead, sensing the misery in these rooms, can color your thoughts. The work changes people, and it has changed these men.

Mr. Rodriguez, 57 and divorced, has a greater sense of urgency. “I try to build a life like it’s the last day,” he said. “You never know when you will die. Before this, I went along like I would live forever.”

The solitude of so many deaths wears on Mr. Plaza, the fear that someday it will be him splayed on the floor in one of these silent apartments. “This job teaches you a lot,” he said. “You learn whatever material stuff you have you should use it and share it. Share yourself. People die with nobody to talk to. They die and relatives come out of the woodwork. ‘He was my uncle. He was my cousin. Give me what he had.’ Gimme, gimme. Yet when he was alive they never visited, never knew the person. From working in this office, my life changed.”

He is 52, also divorced, and without children, but he keeps expanding his base of friends. Every day, he sends them motivational Instagram messages: “With each sunrise, may we value every minute”; “Be kind, smile to the world and it will smile back”; “Share your life with loved ones”; “Love, forgive, forget.”

He said: “When I die, someone will find out the same day or the next day. Since I’ve worked here, my list of friends has gotten longer and longer. I don’t want to die alone.”

IN HIS QUEENS CUBICLE, wearing rubber gloves, Patrick Stressler thumbed through the sheaf of documents retrieved by the two investigators. Mr. Stressler, the caseworker with the public administrator’s office responsible for piecing together George Bell’s estate, is formally a “decedent property agent,” a title he finds useful as a conversation starter at parties. He is 27, and had been a restaurant cashier five years ago when he learned you could be a decedent property agent and became one.

He began with the pictures. Mr. Stressler mingles in the leavings of people he can never meet and especially likes to ponder the photographs so “you get a sense of a person’s history, not that they just died.”

The snapshots ranged over the humdrum of life. A child wearing a holster and toy pistols. A man in military dress. Men fishing. A young woman sitting on a chair in a corner. A high school class on a stage, everyone wearing blackface. “Different times,” Mr. Stressler mused.

In the end, the photos divulged little of what George Bell had done across his 72 years.

The thicket of papers yielded a few hazy kernels. An unused passport, issued in 2007 to George Main Bell Jr., showing a thick-necked man with a meaty face ripened by time, born Jan. 15, 1942. Documents establishing that his father — George Bell — died in 1969 at 59, his mother, Davina Bell, in 1981 at 76.

Some holiday cards. Several from an Elsie Logan in Red Bank, N.J., thanking him for gifts of Godiva chocolates. One, dated 2001, said: “I called Sunday around 2 — no answer. Will try again.” A 2007 Thanksgiving Day card read, “I have been trying to call you — but no answer.”

A 2001 Christmas card signed, “Love always, Eleanore (Puffy),” with the message: “I seldom mention it, but I hope you realize how much it means to have you for a friend. I care a lot for you.”

Cards from a Thomas Higginbotham, addressed to “Big George” and signed “friend, Tom.”

A golden find: H&R Block-prepared tax returns, useful for divining assets. The latest showed adjusted gross income of $13,207 from a pension and interest, another $21,311 from Social Security. The bank statements contained the biggest revelation: For what appeared to be a simple life, they showed balances of several hundred thousand dollars. Letters went out to confirm the amounts.

No evidence of stocks or bonds, but a small life insurance policy, with the beneficiaries his parents. And there was a will, dated 1982. It split his estate evenly among three men and a woman of unknown relation. And specified that George Bell be cremated.

Using addresses he found online, Mr. Stressler sent out form letters asking the four to contact him. He heard only from a Martin Westbrook, who called from Sprakers, a hamlet in upstate New York, and said he had not spoken with George Bell in some time. The will named him as executor, but he deferred to the public administrator.

Loose ends began to be tidied up. The car, a silver 2005 Toyota RAV4, was sent to an auctioneer. There was a notice advising that George Bell had not responded to two juror questionnaires and was now subpoenaed to appear before the commissioner of jurors; a letter went out saying he would not be there. He was dead.

If an apartment’s contents have any value, auction companies bid for them. When they don’t, “cleanout companies” dispose of the belongings. George Bell’s place was deemed a cleanout.

Among his papers was an honorable military discharge from 1966, following six years in the United States Army Reserve. A request was made to the Department of Veterans Affairs, national cemetery administration, in St. Louis, for burial in one of its national cemeteries, with the government paying the bill.

St. Louis responded that George Bell did not qualify as a veteran, not having seen active duty or having died while in the Reserves. The public administrator appealed the rebuff. A week later, 16 pages came back from the centralized satellite processing and appeals unit that could be summed up in unambiguous concision: No.

Another thing the public administrator takes care of is having the post office forward the mail of the deceased. Statements may arrive from brokerage houses. Letters could pinpoint the whereabouts of relatives. When magazines show up, the subscriptions are ended and refunds requested. Could be $6.82 or $12.05, but the puny sums enter the estate, pushing it incrementally upward.

Not much came for George Bell: bank statements, a notice on the apartment insurance, utility bills, junk mail.

EVERY LIFE DESERVES to come to a final resting place, but they’re not all pretty. Most estates arrive with the public administrator after the body has already been buried by relatives or friends or in accordance with a prepaid plan.

When someone dies destitute and forsaken, and one of various free burial organizations does not learn of the case, the body ends up joining others in communal oblivion at the potter’s field on Hart Island in the Bronx, the graveyard of last resort.

If there are funds, the public administrator honors the wishes of the will or of relatives. When no one speaks for the deceased, the office is partial to two fairly dismal, cut-rate cemeteries in New Jersey. It prefers the total expense to come in under $5,000, not always easy in a city where funeral and burial costs can be multiples of that.

Simonson Funeral Home in Forest Hills was picked by Susan Brown, the deputy public administrator, to handle George Bell once his identity was verified. It is among 16 regulars that she rotates the office’s deaths through.

George Bell’s body was hardly the first to be trapped in limbo. Some years ago, one had lingered for weeks while siblings skirmished over the funeral specifics. The decedent’s sister wanted a barbershop quartet and brass band to perform; a brother preferred something solemn. Surrogate’s Court nodded in favor of the sister, and the man got a melodious send-off.

The medical examiner was not having any luck with George Bell. The cold calls to doctors and hospitals continued, but as the inquiries bounced around Queens, the discouraging answers came back slowly and redundantly: no George Bell.

In the interim, the medical examiner filed an unverified death certificate, on July 28. The cause of death was determined to be hypertensive and arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease, with obesity a significant factor. This was surmised, based on the position in which the body was found, its age, the man’s size and the statistical likelihood of it being the cause. Occupation was listed as unknown.

City law specifies that bodies be buried, cremated or sent from the city within four days of discovery, unless an exemption is granted. The medical examiner can release even an unverified body for burial. Absent a corpse’s being confirmed, however, the policy of the medical examiner is not to allow cremation. What if there has been a mistake? You can’t un-cremate someone.

So days scrolled past. Other corpses streamed through the morgue, pausing on their way to the grave, while the body presumed to be George Bell entered its second month of chilled residence. Then its third.

IN EARLY SEPTEMBER last year, a downstairs neighbor complained to the public administrator that George Bell’s refrigerator was leaking through the ceiling and that vermin might be scuttling about.

Grandma’s Attic Cleanouts was sent over to remove the offending appliance. Diego Benitez, the company’s owner, showed up with two workers.

The refrigerator was unplugged, with unfrozen frozen vegetables and Chinese takeout rotting inside. Roaches had moved in. Mr. Benitez doused it with bug spray. He plugged it in to chill the food and rid it of the smell, then cleaned it out and took it to a recycling center in Jamaica. A few weeks later, Wipeout Exterminating came in and treated the whole place.

Meanwhile, the medical examiner kept calling around hunting for old X-rays. In late September, the 11th call hit pay dirt. A radiology provider had chest X-rays of George Bell dating from 2004. They were in a warehouse, though, and would take some time to retrieve.

Weeks tumbled by. In late October, the radiology service reported: Sorry, the X-rays had been destroyed. The medical examiner asked for written confirmation. Back came the response: Never mind, the X-rays were there. In early November, they landed at the medical examiner’s office.

The X-rays were compared, and bingo. In the first week of November, nearly four months after it had arrived, the presumed corpse of George Bell officially became George Bell, deceased, of Jackson Heights, Queens.

COLD OUT. Streaks of sunshine splashing over Queens. On Saturday morning, Nov. 15, John Sommese settled into a rented hearse, eased into the sparse traffic and drove to the morgue. He owns Simonson Funeral Home. At age 73, he remained a working owner in a city of dwindling deaths.

At the morgue, an attendant withdrew the body from the drawer, and both medical examiner and undertaker checked the identity tag. Using a hydraulic lift, the attendant swung the body into the wooden coffin. George Bell was at last going to his eternal home.

The coffin was wheeled out and guided into the back of the hearse. Mr. Sommese smoothed an American flag over it. The armed forces had passed on a military burial, but George Bell’s years in the Army Reserves were good enough for the funeral director, and he abided by military custom.

Next stop was U.S. Columbarium at Fresh Pond Crematory in Middle Village, for the cremation. Mr. Sommese made good time along the loud streets lined with shedding trees. The volume on the radio was muted; the dashboard said Queen’s “You’re My Best Friend” was playing.

While the undertaker said he didn’t dwell much on the strangers he transported, he allowed how instances like this saddened him — a person dies and nobody shows up, no service, no one from the clergy to say a few kind words, to say rest in peace.

The undertaker was a Christian, and believed that George Bell was already in another place, a better place, but still. “I don’t think everyone should have an elaborate funeral,” he said in a soft voice. “But I think burial or cremation should be with respect, or else what is society about? I think about this man. I believe we’re all connected. We’re all products of the same God. Does it matter that this man should be cremated with respect? Yes, it does.”

He consulted the mirror and blended into the next lane. “You can have a fancy funeral, but people don’t pay for kindness,” he went on. “They don’t pay for understanding. They don’t pay for caring. This man is getting caring. I care about this man.”

At U.S. Columbarium, he steered around to the rear, to the unloading dock. Another hearse stood there. Yes — a line at the crematory.

Squinting in the sun, Mr. Sommese paced in the motionless air. After 15 minutes, the dock opened up and the undertaker angled the hearse in. Workers took the coffin. Mr. Sommese kept the flag. Normally, it would go to the next of kin. There being none, the undertaker folded it up to use again.

The cremation process, what U.S. Columbarium calls the “journey,” consumed nearly three hours. Typically, cremains are ready for pickup in a couple of days. For an extra $180, the columbarium provides same-day express service, which was unneeded in this case.

Some 40,000 cremains were stored at the columbarium, almost all of them tucked into handsome individual wall niches, viewable through glass. Downstairs was a storage area near the bathrooms with a bronze tree affixed to the door. This was the Community Tree. Behind the door cremains were stacked up and stored out of sight. The budget alternative. Names were etched on the tree leaves. Some time ago, when the leaves filled up, doves were added.

Several days after the cremation, the superintendent stacked an urn shaped like a small shoe box inside the storage area. Then he nailed a metal dove, wings spread, above the right edge of the tree. It identified the new addition: “George M. Bell Jr. 1942-2014.”

ON ALTERNATE TUESDAYS, David R. Maltz & Company, in Central Islip, N.Y., auctions off 100 to 150 cars; other days, it auctions real estate, jewelry and pretty much everything else. It has sold the Woodcrest Country Club in Muttontown, N.Y., four engines from an automobile shredder, 22 KFC franchises. Items arrive from bankruptcies, repossessions and estates, including a regular stream from the Queens public administrator.

In the frosty gloom of Dec. 30, as a hissing wind spun litter through the air, the Maltz company had among its cars a 2011 Mustang convertible, multiple Mercedes-Benzes, two cars that didn’t even run and George Bell’s 2005 Toyota. Despite its age, it had just over 3,000 miles on it, brightening its appeal.

In a one-minute bidding spasm — “3,000 the bid, 3,500, 35 the bid, 4,000…” — the car went for $9,500, beating expectations. After expenses, $8,631.50 was added to the estate. The buyer was Sam Maloof, a regular, who runs a used car dealership, Beltway Motor Sales, in Brooklyn and planned to resell it. After he brought it back, his sister and secretary, Janet Maloof, adored it. She had the same 2005 model, same color, burdened with over 100,000 miles. So, feeling the holiday spirit, he gave her George Bell’s car.

In a couple of weeks, the only other valuable possession extracted from the apartment, the Relic watch, came up for sale at a Maltz auction of jewelry, wine, art and collectibles. The auction was dominated by 42 estates put up by the Queens public administrator, the thinnest by far being George Bell’s. Bidding on the watch began at $1 and finished at $3. The winner was a creaky, unemployed man named Tony Nik. He was in a sulky mood, mumbling after his triumph that he liked the slim price.

Again after expenses, another $2.31 trickled into the Bell estate.

On a sun-kindled day a week later, six muscled men from GreenEx, a junk removal business, arrived to empty the cluttered Queens apartment. Dispassionately, they scooped up the dusty traces of George Bell’s life and shoveled them into trash cans and bags. They broke apart the furniture with hammers. Tinny music poured from a portable radio.

Eyeing the bottomless thickets, puzzling over what heartbreak they told of, one of the men said: “Depression, I think. People get depressed and then, Lord help them, forget about it.”

Seven hours they went at it, flinging everything into trucks destined for a Bronx dump where the rates were good.

Some nuggets they salvaged for themselves. One man fancied a set of Marilyn Monroe porcelain plates. Another worker plucked up an unopened jumbo package of Nike socks, some model cars and some brand-new sponges. Yet another claimed the television and an unused carbon monoxide detector. Gatherings from a life, all worth more than that $3 watch.

A spindly worker with taut arms crouched down to inspect some never-worn tan work boots, still snug in their box. They were a size big, but he slid them on and liked the fit.

He cleaned George Bell’s apartment wearing the dead man’s boots.

THE PEOPLE NAMED to split the assets in the will were known as the legatees. Over 30 years had passed since George Bell chose them: Martin Westbrook, Frank Murzi, Albert Schober and Eleanore Albert. Plus, there was a beneficiary on two bank accounts: Thomas Higginbotham.

Elizabeth Rooney, a kinship investigator in the office of Gerard Sweeney, the public administrator’s counsel, set out to help find them. By law, she also had to hunt for the next of kin, down to a first cousin once removed, the furthest relative eligible to lay claim to an estate. They had to be notified, should they choose to contest the will.

There was time, for George Bell’s assets could not be distributed until seven months after the public administrator had been appointed, the period state law specifies for creditors to step forward.

Prowling the Internet, Ms. Rooney learned that Mr. Murzi and Mr. Schober were dead. Mr. Westbrook was in Sprakers and Mr. Higginbotham in Lynchburg, Va. Ms. Rooney found Ms. Albert, now going by the name Flemm, upstate in Worcester.

They were surprised to learn that George Bell had left them money. Ms. Flemm had spoken to him by phone a few weeks before he died; the others had not been in touch for years.

A core piece of Ms. Rooney’s job was drafting a family tree going back three generations. Using the genealogy company <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a>, she compiled evidence with things like census records and ship manifests, showing Bell relatives arriving from Scotland. Her office once produced a family tree that was six feet long. Another time it traced a family back to Daniel Boone.

Ms. Rooney created paternal and maternal trees, each with dozens of names. She found five living relatives: two first cousins on his mother’s side, one living in Edina, Minn., and the other in Henderson, Nev. Neither had been in contact with George Bell in decades, and didn’t know what he did for a living.

On the paternal side, Ms. Rooney identified two first cousins, one in Scotland and another in England, as well as a third whose whereabouts proved elusive.

When that cousin, Janet Bell, was not found, protocol dictated that a notice be published in a newspaper for four weeks, a gesture intended to alert unlocated relatives. With sizable estates, the court chooses The New York Law Journal, where the bill for the notice can run about $4,000. In this instance the court picked The Wave, a Queens weekly with a print circulation of 12,000, at a cost of $247.

The cousin might have been in Tajikistan or in Hog Jaw, Ark., or even on Staten Island, and the odds of her spotting the notice were approximately zero. Among thousands of such ads that Mr. Sweeney has placed, he is still awaiting his first response.

Word came that Eleanore Flemm had died of a heart attack, on Feb. 3 at 66. Since she had outlived Mr. Bell, her estate would receive her proceeds. Her heirs were her brother, James Albert, a private detective on Long Island who barely remembered the Bell name, along with a nephew and two nieces in Florida. One did not know George Bell had existed.

Death, though, isn’t social. It’s business. No need to have known someone to get his money.

On Feb. 20, a Queens real estate broker listed the Bell apartment at $219,000. It was the final asset to liquidate. Three potential buyers toured it the next day, and one woman’s offer of $225,000 was accepted.

Three months later, the building’s board said no. A middle-aged couple who lived down the block entered the picture, and, at $215,000, was approved. Their plan was to fix up the marred apartment, turn their own place over to their grown-up son and then move in, overwriting George Bell’s life.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sweeney appeared in Surrogate’s Court to request probate of the will. Besides the two known beneficiaries, he listed the possibility of unknown relatives and the unfound cousin. The court appointed a so-called guardian ad litem to review the will on behalf of these people, who might, in fact, be phantoms.

In September, Mr. Sweeney submitted a final accounting, the hard math of the estate, for court approval. No objections arrived. Tallied up, George Bell’s assets amounted to roughly $540,000. Bank accounts holding $215,000 listed Mr. Higginbotham as the sole beneficiary, and he got that directly. Proceeds from the apartment, other accounts, a life insurance policy, the car and the watch went to the estate: around $324,000.

A commission of $13,726 went to the city, a $3,238 fee to the public administrator, $19,453 to Mr. Sweeney.

Other expenses included things like the apartment maintenance, at $7,360; a funeral bill of $4,873; $2,800 for the cleanout company; $1,663 for the kinship investigator; a $222 parking ticket; a $704 Fire Department bill for ambulance service; $750 for the guardian ad litem; and $12.50 for an appraisal of the watch that sold for $3.

That left about $264,000 to be split between Mr. Westbrook and the heirs of Ms. Flemm. Some 14 months after a man died, his estate was settled and the proceeds were good to go.

For the recipients, George Bell had stepped out of eternity and united them by bestowing his money. No one in the drawn-out process knew why he had chosen them, nor did they need to. They only needed to know him in the quietude of death, as a man whose heart had stopped beating in Queens. But he had been like anyone, a human being who had built a life on this earth.

HIS LIFE BEGAN small and plain. George Bell was especially attached to his parents. He slept on the pullout sofa in the living room, while his parents claimed the bedroom, and he continued to sleep there even after they died. Both parents came from Scotland. His father was a tool-and-die machinist, and his mother worked for a time as a seamstress in the toy industry.

After high school, he joined his father as an apprentice. In 1961, he made an acquaintance at a local bar, a moving man. They became friends, and the moving man pulled George Bell into the moving business. His name was Tom Higginbotham. Three fellow movers also became friends: Frank Murzi, Albert Schober and Martin Westbrook. The men in the will. They mainly moved business offices, and they all guzzled booze, in titanic proportions.

“We were a bunch of drunks,” Mr. Westbrook said. “I’m a juicer. But George put me to shame. He was a real nice guy, kind of a hermit. Boy, we had some good times.”

In the words of Mr. Higginbotham: “We were great friends. I don’t know if you can say it this way, but we were men who loved each other.”

They called him Big George, for he was a thickset, brawny man, weighing perhaps 210 pounds. Later, his ravenous appetite had him pushing 350.

He had a puckish streak. Once a woman invited him and Mr. Higginbotham to a party at her parents’ house. Her father kept tropical fish. She showed George Bell the tank. When he admired a distinctive fish, she said, “Oh, that’s an expensive one.” He picked up a net, caught the fish and swallowed it.

One day the friends were moving a financial firm. After they had fitted the desks into the new offices, George Bell slid notes into the drawers, writing things like: “I’m madly in love with you. Meet me at the water cooler.” Or: “There’s a bomb under your chair. Your next move might be your last.”

Dumb pranks. Big George being Big George.

Friends, though, found him difficult to crack open. There were things inside no one could get out. You learned to suppress your questions around him.

He had his burdens. His father died young. As she aged, his mother became crippled by arthritis. He cared for her, fetching her food and bathing her until her death.

He was fastidious about his money, only trusted banks for his savings. There was a woman he began dating when she was 19 and he was 25. “We got real keen on each other,” she said later. “He made me feel special.”

A marriage was planned. They spoke to a wedding hall. He bought a suit. Then, he told friends, the woman’s mother had wanted him to sign a prenuptial agreement to protect her daughter if the marriage should break apart. He ended the engagement, and never had another serious relationship.

That woman was Eleanore Albert, the fourth name in the will.

Some years later, she married an older man who made equipment for a party supply company, and moved upstate to become Ms. Flemm. In 2002, her husband died.

Distance and time never dampened the emotional affinity between her and George Bell. They spoke on the phone and exchanged cards. “We had something for each other that never got used up,” she said. She had sent him a Valentine’s Day card just last year: “George, think of you often with love.”

And unbeknown to her, he had put her in his will and kept her there.

Her life finished up a lot like his. She lived alone, in a trailer. She died of a heart attack. A neighbor who cleared her snow found her. She had gotten obese. Her brother had her cremated.

A difference was that she left behind debt, owed to the bank and to credit card companies. All that she would pass on was tens of thousands of dollars of George Bell’s money, money that she never got to touch.

Some would filter down to her brother, who had no plans for it. A slice went to Michael Garber, her nephew, who drives a bus at Disney World. A friend of his aunt’s had owned a Camaro convertible that she relished, and he might buy a used Camaro in her honor.

Some more would go to Sarah Teta, a niece, retired and living in Altamonte Springs, Fla., who plans to save it for a rainy day. “You always hear about people you don’t know dying and leaving you money,” she said. “I never thought it would happen to me.”

And some would funnel down to Eleanore Flemm’s other niece, Dorothy Gardiner, a retired waitress and home health care aide. She lives in Apopka, Fla., never heard of George Bell. She has survived two cancers and has several thousand dollars in medical bills that could finally disappear. “I’ve been paying off $25 a month, what I can,” she said. “I never would have expected this. It’s crazy.”

IN 1996, GEORGE BELL hurt his left shoulder and spine lifting a desk on a moving job, and his life took a different shape. He received approval for workers’ compensation and Social Security disability payments and began collecting a pension from the Teamsters. Though he never worked again, he had all the income he needed.

He used to have buddies over to watch television and he would cook for them. Then he stopped having anyone over. No one knew why.

Old friends had drifted away, and with them some of the fire in George Bell’s life. Of his moving man colleagues, Mr. Murzi retired in 1994 and died in 2011. Mr. Schober retired in 1996 and moved to Brooklyn, losing touch. He died in 2002.

Mr. Higginbotham quit the moving business, and moved upstate in 1973 to work for the state as an environmental scientist.

He is now 74, retired and living alone in Virginia. The last time he spoke to George Bell was 10 years ago. He used a code of ringing and hanging up to get him to answer his phone, but in time, he got no answer. He sent cards, beseeched him to come and visit, but he wouldn’t. It was two months before Mr. Higginbotham found out George Bell had died.

It has been hard for him to reconcile the way George Bell’s money came to him. “I’ve been stressed about this,” he said. “I haven’t been sleeping. My stomach hurts. My blood pressure is up. I argued with him time and again to get out of that apartment and spend his money and enjoy life. I sent him so many brochures on places to go. I thought I understood George. Now I realize I didn’t understand him at all.”

Mr. Higginbotham was content with the fundaments of his own life: his modest one-bedroom apartment, his 15-year-old truck. He put the inheritance into mutual funds and figures it will help his three grandchildren through college. George Bell’s money educating the future.

In 1994, Mr. Westbrook hurt his knee and left the moving business. He moved to Sprakers, where he had a cattle farm. When he got older and his marriage dissolved, he sold the farm but still lives nearby. He is 74. It was several years ago that he last spoke to George Bell on the phone. Mr. Bell told him he did not get out much.

He has three grandchildren and wants to move to a mellower climate. He plans to give some of the money to Mr. Murzi’s widow, because Mr. Murzi had been his best friend.

“My sister needs some dental work,” he said. “I need some dental work. I need hearing aids. The golden age ain’t so cheap. Big George’s money will make my old age easier.”

He felt awful about his dying alone, nobody knowing. “Yeah, that’ll happen to me,” he said. “I’m a loner, too. There’s maybe four or five people up here I talk to.”

In his final years, with the moving men gone, George Bell’s life had become emptier. Neighbors nodded to him on the street and he smiled. He told lively stories to the young woman next door, who lived with her parents, when he bumped into her. She recently became a police officer, and she was the one who had smelled what she knew was death.

But in the end, George Bell seemed to keep just one true friend.

He had been a fixture at a neighborhood pub called Budds Bar. He showed up in his cutoff blue sweatshirt so often that some regulars called him Sweatshirt Bell. At one point, he eased up on his drinking, then, worried about his health, quit. But he still went to Budds, ordering club soda.

In April 2005, Budds closed. Many regulars gravitated to another bar, Legends. George Bell went a few times, then transferred his allegiance to Bantry Bay Publick House in Long Island City. He would meet his friend there.

THE SIGN at the entrance to Bantry Bay says, “Enter as Strangers, Leave as Friends.” Squished in near the window was Frank Bertone, sipping soup and nursing a drink. He is known as the Dude. George Bell’s last good friend.

In the early 1980s, not long after moving to Jackson Heights, he stopped in at Budds in need of a restroom. A big man had bellowed, “Have a beer.”

That was George Bell. In time, a friendship was spawned, deepening during the 15 years that remained of George Bell’s life. They met on Saturdays at Bantry Bay. They fished in the Rockaways and at Jones Beach, sometimes with others. Mr. Bell bought a car to get out to the good spots, but the car otherwise mostly sat. They passed time meandering around, the days bleeding into one another.

“Where did we go?” Mr. Bertone said. “No place. One time we sat for hours in the parking lot of Bed Bath & Beyond. What did we talk about? The world’s problems. Just like that, the two of us solved the world’s problems.”

Mr. Bertone is 67, a retired inspector for Consolidated Edison. Over the last decade, he had spent more time with George Bell than anyone, but he didn’t feel he truly knew him.

“One thing about George is he didn’t get personal,” he said. “Not ever.”

He knew he had never married. He spoke of girlfriends, but Mr. Bertone never met any. The two had even swapped views on wills and what happens to your money in the end, though Mr. Bertone did not know George Bell had drafted a will before they met.

Mr. Bertone would invite him to his place, but he would beg off. George Bell never had him over.

Once, some eight years ago, Mr. Bertone trooped out there when he hadn’t heard from him in a while. George Bell cracked open the door, shooed him away. A curtain draped inside the entryway had camouflaged the chaos. Mr. Bertone had no idea that at some point, George Bell had begun keeping everything.

The Dude, Mr. Bertone, told a story. A few years ago, George Bell was going into the hospital for his heart and had asked him to hold onto some money. Gave him a fat envelope. Inside was $55,000.

Mike Kerins, a bartender, interrupted: “Two things about George. He gave me $100 every Christmas, and he never went out to eat.” He had confessed he was too embarrassed because he would have required three entrees.

George Bell had diabetes and complained about a shoulder pain. He took pills but skipped them during the day, saying they made him feel like an idiot.

Both the Dude and Mr. Kerins sensed he felt he had been bullied too hard by life. “George was in a lot of pain,” Mr. Kerins said. “I think he was just waiting to die, had lived enough.”

It was as if sadness had killed George Bell.

His days had become predictable, an endless loop. He stayed cloistered inside. Neighbors heard the regular parade of deliverymen who brought him his takeout meals.

The last time the Dude saw George Bell was about a week before his body was found. Frozen shrimp was on sale at the shopping center. George Bell got some, to take back to the kitchen he did not use.

Mr. Bertone didn’t realize he had died until someone came to Legends with the news. Mr. Kerins was there and he told the Dude. They made some calls to find out more, but got nowhere.

Why did he die alone, no one knowing?

The Dude thought on that. “I don’t know, man,” he said. “I wish I could tell you. But I don’t know.”

On the televisions above the busy bar, a woman was promoting a cleaning product. In the dim light, Mr. Bertone emptied his drink. “You know, I miss him,” he said. “I would have liked to see George one more time. He was my friend. One more time.”

Read the whole story
42 days ago
So nicely done. It's amazing to see the workings behind fixing the estate and burial of those who die alone.
San Francisco, CA
41 days ago
New York, NY
Share this story

Donald Trump Is Saving Our Democracy -- NYMag

1 Comment

Far from destroying our democracy, he’s exposing all its phoniness and corruption in ways as serious as he is not. And changing it in the process.

As the summer of Donald Trump came to its end — and the prospect of a springtime for Trump no longer seemed like a gag — the quest to explain the billionaire’s runaway clown car went into overdrive. How could a crass, bigoted bully with a narcissistic-personality disorder and policy views bordering on gibberish “defy political gravity,” dominate the national stage, make monkeys out of pundits and pollsters, and pose an existential threat to one of America’s two major parties?

Of course, it was the news media’s fault: The Washington Post charted the correlation between Trump’s national polling numbers and his disproportionate press coverage. Or maybe the public was to blame: Op-ed writers dusted off their sermons about Americans’ childish infatuation with celebrities and reality television. Or perhaps Trump was just the GOP’s answer to the “outsider” Bernie Sanders — even though Sanders, unlike Trump, has a coherent ideology and has spent nearly a quarter-century of his so-called outsider’s career in Congress. Still others riffled through historical precedents, from the third-party run of the cranky billionaire Ross Perot back to Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin, the radio-savvy populist demagogues of the Great Depression. Or might Trump be the reincarnation of Joseph McCarthy (per the Times’ Thomas Friedman), Hugo Chávez (the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens), or that avatar of white-racist resentment, George Wallace (George Will)? The historian Richard Hofstadter’s Goldwater-era essay on “the paranoid style” in American politics was once again in vogue.

In the midst of all the hand-wringing from conservatives and liberals alike, Politico convened a panel of historians to adjudicate. Two authoritative chroniclers of 20th-century American populism and race, Alan Brinkley of Columbia and David Blight of Yale, dismissed the parallels. Brinkley, the author of the definitive book on Long and Coughlin (Voices of Protest), said Trump was a first in American politics, a presidential candidate with no “belief system other than the certainty that anything he says is right.” Blight said Trump’s “real antecedents are in Mark Twain” — in other words, fictional characters, and funny ones.

There is indeed a lighter way to look at Trump’s rise and his impact on the country. Far from being an apocalyptic harbinger of the end-times, it’s possible that his buffoonery poses no lasting danger. Quite the contrary: His unexpected monopoly of center stage may well be the best thing to happen to our politics since the arrival of Barack Obama.

In the short time since Trump declared his candidacy, he has performed a public service by exposing, however crudely and at times inadvertently, the posturings of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the foolishness and obsolescence of much of the political culture they share. He is, as many say, making a mockery of the entire political process with his bull-in-a-china-shop antics. But the mockery in this case may be overdue, highly warranted, and ultimately a spur to reform rather than the crime against civic order that has scandalized those who see him, in the words of the former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, as “dangerous to democracy.”

Trump may be injecting American democracy with steroids. No one, after all, is arguing that the debates among the GOP presidential contenders would be drawing remotely their Game of Thrones-scale audiences if the marquee stars were Jeb Bush and Scott Walker. When most of the field — minus Trump — appeared ahead of the first debate at a New Hampshire forum broadcast on C-SPAN, it caused little more stir than a soporific pageant of congressional backbenchers addressing the empty floor of the House. Without Trump, even a relatively tame Trump, would anyone have sat through even a third of the three-hour-plus trainwreck that CNN passed off as the second debate?

 What has made him more entertaining than his peers is not his superficial similarities to any historical analogues or his shopworn celebrity. His passport to political stardom has been his uncanny resemblance to a provocative fictional comic archetype that has been an invigorating staple of American movies since Vietnam and Watergate ushered in wholesale disillusionment with Washington four decades ago. That character is a direct descendant of Twain’s 19th-century confidence men: the unhinged charlatan who decides to blow up the system by running for office — often the presidency — on a platform of outrageous pronouncements and boorish behavior. Trump has taken that role, the antithesis of the idealist politicians enshrined by Frank Capra and Aaron Sorkin, and run with it. He bestrides our current political landscape like the reincarnation not of Joe McCarthy (that would be Ted Cruz) but of Jay Billington Bulworth.

Trump’s shenanigans sometimes seem to be lifted directly from the eponymous 1998 movie, in which Warren Beatty plays a senator from California who abandons his scripted bromides to take up harsh truth-telling in rap: “Wells Fargo and Citibank, you’re really very dear / Loan billions to Mexico and never have to fear / ’Cause taxpayers take it in the rear.” Bulworth insults the moderators of a television debate, addresses his Hollywood donors as “big Jews,” and infuriates a black constituent by telling her he’ll ignore her unless she shells out to his campaign. Larry King, cast as himself, books him on his show because “people are sick and tired of all this baloney” and crave an unplugged politician who calls Washington “a disaster.”

Trump also sounds like Hal Phillip Walker, the unseen candidate of the “Replacement Party” whose campaign aphorisms percolate throughout Robert Altman’s post-Watergate state-of-the-union comic epic, Nashville (1975). His platform includes eliminating farm subsides, taxing churches, banning lawyers from government, and jettisoning the national anthem because “nobody knows the words, nobody can sing it, nobody understands it.” (Francis Scott Key was a lawyer.) In résumé and beliefs, Trump is even closer to the insurgent candidate played by Tim Robbins and reviled as “a crypto-fascist clown” in the mockumentary Bob Roberts (1992) — a self-congratulatory right-wing Wall Street success story, beauty-pageant aficionado, and folksinging star whose emblematic song is titled “Retake America.” Give Trump time, and we may yet find him quoting the accidental president played by Chris Rock in Head of State (2003): “If America was a woman, she would be a big-tittied woman. Everybody loves a big-tittied woman!”

Thanks to Trump, this character has leaped off the screen into real life, like the Hollywood leading man in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo. As a human torpedo blasting through the 2016 campaign, Trump can inflict more damage, satirical and otherwise, than any fictional prototype ever could. In his great comic novel of 1959, The Magic Christian, Terry Southern anticipated just the kind of ruckus a Trump could make. Southern’s protagonist is a billionaire named Guy Grand who spends his fortune on elaborate pranks to disrupt almost every sector of American life — law enforcement, advertising, newspapers, movies, television, sports, the space program. Like Trump, he operates on the premise that everyone can be bought. In one typical venture, he pays the actor playing “an amiable old physician” on a live network medical drama a million bucks to stop in mid-surgery and tell the audience that if he speaks “one more line of this drivel,” he’ll “vomit right into that incision I’ve made.” The network, FCC, and press go into a tizzy until viewers, hoping to see more such outrages, start rewarding the show with record ratings.

There have already been some modest precedents for Trump’s real-life prank — most recently, Stephen Colbert, who staged a brief stunt run for president in 2007. The comic Pat Paulsen, a Smothers Brothers acolyte, ran for president intermittently from 1968 into the ’90s, aiming to call attention to the absurdity of politics. His first run was under the banner of the STAG (Straight Talking American Government) Party; later, he ran consecutively as a Republican and a Democrat. (“I like to mix it up,” he explained.) Paulsen came in a (very) distant second to Bill Clinton in the 1996 New Hampshire primary, one of four primaries where he qualified for the ballot that year. But a judge threw him off the ballot in California, declaring, “I do not want to reduce the campaign for an important office like president of the United States to some kind of farce.”

Some kind of farce, nonetheless, is just what the modern presidential campaign has devolved into. By calling attention to that sorry state of affairs 24/7, Trump’s impersonation of a crypto-fascist clown is delivering the most persuasively bipartisan message of 2016.

Trump lacks the comic chops of a Colbert or Paulsen, and, unlike the screenwriters of movies like Bulworth and Nashville, he is witless. His instrument of humor is the bitch-slap, blunt and cruel — Don Rickles dumbed down to the schoolyard. But when he hits a worthy target and exerts himself beyond his usual repertoire of lazy epithets (Loser! Dope! Slob!), he is funny, in part because his one-liners have the ring of truth. When Eric Cantor endorsed Jeb Bush, Trump asked, “Who wants the endorsement of a guy who lost in perhaps the greatest upset in the history of Congress?” When Trump’s presidential rivals attended a David and Charles Koch retreat, he tweeted: “I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch brothers. Puppets?” Twitter inspires his best material, as does Bush. Among Trump’s many Bush put-downs is this classic: “Why would you pay a man $1.3 million a year for a no-show job at Lehman Brothers — which, when it folded, almost took the world with it?” The exclamation point in Bush’s sad campaign logo, JEB!, has effectively been downsized to a semicolon by Trump’s insistence on affixing the modifier “low-energy” to his name every chance he gets.

The most significant Trump insult thus far is the one that heralded his hostile takeover of the GOP. The target was Reince Priebus, the overmatched Republican National Committee chairman. Following the debacle of 2012, Priebus had vowed that his party would reach out to minorities and curb the xenophobic and misogynist invective that drives away the voters without whom it cannot win national elections. When Trump lampooned John McCain’s sacred record as a POW as gleefully as Republicans had Swift Boated John Kerry, the chairman saw his best-laid plans for a “big tent” GOP imperiled by an unauthorized sideshow. “Party donors,” no doubt with his blessing, let it be known to the Washington Post that, in a lengthy phone conversation, he had persuaded Trump to “tone it down.” Hardly had the story surfaced when Trump shot it down: He said Priebus’s call had been brief and flattering, and that he hadn’t agreed to change a thing. As Priebus beat a hasty retreat, Trump joked that manipulating him wasn’t exactly like “dealing with a five-star Army general.” Soon the chastened chairman was proclaiming Trump a “net positive” for his party. When Trump deigned to sign a faux legal document pledging not to run as a third-party candidate, Priebus had to show up at Trump Tower to bear witness, like a lackey summoned to an audience with the boss. That “pledge” served Trump’s immediate goal of securing his spot on primary ballots, but come next year it will carry no more weight than a certificate from the now-defunct Trump University.

Trump’s ability to reduce the head of his adopted party to a comic functionary out of a Gilbert-and-Sullivan operetta is typical of his remarkable success in exposing Republican weakness and hypocrisy. The party Establishment has been trying to erect a firewall against the onslaught by claiming, as George Will has it, that Trump is a “counterfeit” Republican and that even “the assumption that today’s Trumpites are Republicans is unsubstantiated and implausible.” Thus voters should discount Trump’s “bimbo” tweets, anti-immigration fulminations, and rants about Mexican “rapists” as a wild man’s ravings that don’t represent a party that reveres women, welcomes immigrants, and loves Hispanics. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, in its own effort to inoculate the GOP from Trump, disparages him as a “casino magnate” — an epithet it doesn’t hurl at Sheldon Adelson, the still-bigger casino magnate who serves as sugar daddy to the neocon hawks the Journal favors.

Trump does take heretical economic positions for a Republican — “The hedge-fund guys are getting away with murder!” — but on the matters of race, women, and immigration that threaten the GOP’s future viability in nonwhite, non-male America, he is at one with his party’s base. What he does so rudely is call the GOP’s bluff by saying loudly, unambiguously, and repeatedly the ugly things that other Republican politicians try to camouflage in innuendo, focus-group-tested euphemisms, and consultantspeak.

In reality, Trump’s most noxious views have not only been defended by conservative stars like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and late summer’s No. 1 best-selling nonfiction author, the radio host Mark Levin, but also by the ostensibly more “mainstream” Republican candidates. Trump is picking up where his vocal fan Sarah Palin left off and is for that reason by far the favored candidate of tea-party Republicans, according to a Labor Day CNN-ORC poll. Take Trump’s peddling of “birtherism,” for instance. It’s been a right-wing cause since well before he took it up; even Mitt Romney dipped into that racist well in 2012. It took a village of birthers to get Republicans to the point where only 29 percent of them now believe that Obama was born in America (and 54 percent identify him as a Muslim), according to an August survey by Public Policy Polling. Far from being a fake Republican, Trump speaks for the party’s overwhelming majority.

Charles Krauthammer, another conservative apoplectic about Trump’s potential to sabotage the GOP’s 2016 chances, is arguing that Trump’s incendiary immigration stand is also counterfeit Republicanism — an aberrational “policy innovation.” The only problem is that Cruz, Walker, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rand Paul, and Ben Carson have all supported Trump’s “policy innovation” calling for an end to the “birthright citizenship” guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. In Pew’s latest survey on the issue — taken in May, before Trump was in the race — 47 percent of Republicans agreed as well. Even more Republicans (62 percent) support building a wall along the Mexican border (as does Krauthammer), much as they did in 2012 when Herman Cain did Trump one better by proposing an “electrified fence.” Trump’s draconian call for deporting illegal immigrants en masse is also genuine, not counterfeit, Republicanism. Romney had not only argued for “self-deportation” in his last presidential campaign but in 2008 had called for newly arrived illegal immigrants to be deported immediately and for the rest to be given just enough time “to organize their affairs and go home.”

With women, too, Trump embarrasses the GOP by saying in public what “real” Republicans keep private. The telling moment in the Fox News debate was not when Megyn Kelly called him out for slurring women as “fat pigs” and “dogs” but the cheers from the audience at Trump’s retort, in which he directed those same epithets at Rosie O’Donnell. (No one onstage protested.) When Trump attacked Kelly the next day in language that seemed to refer to menstruation, most of his GOP rivals made a show of rallying around Kelly. But the party’s real stand on the sanctity of female biology had been encapsulated in the debate by Walker’s and Marco Rubio’s endorsement of a ban on abortions for women who have been raped or risk dying in childbirth. No wonder Trump’s bloodying of Kelly gave him another uptick in polls of Republican voters. 

Republican potentates can’t fight back against him because the party’s base has his back. He’s ensnared the GOP Establishment in a classic Catch-22: It wants Trump voters — it can’t win elections without them — but doesn’t want Trump calling attention to what those voters actually believe. Poor Bush, once the Establishment’s great legacy hope, is so ill-equipped to pander to the base that he outdid Trump in defending the nativist term anchor babies by applying it to Asians as well as Mexicans. (Bush also started mimicking Trump’s vilification of hedge-fund managers.) The candidates who have gone after Trump with the greatest gusto — Graham, Paul, Carly Fiorina, Jindal, George Pataki — have been so low in the polls they had nothing to lose. (Even so, all except Fiorina have fallen farther after doing so — or, in Rick Perry’s case, fallen out of the race altogether.) The others were painfully slow to challenge him. That cowardice was foretold in June when most of the presidential field waited days to take a stand against the Confederate flag following the Charleston massacre. If they’re afraid to come out against slavery a century after Appomattox, it only follows that they’d cower before a billionaire who insults his male adversaries’ manhood as reflexively as he attacks women’s looks. As Steve Schmidt, the 2008 McCain campaign manager, has said, Trump had all but emasculated Bush by the time Bush belatedly started fighting back. In the second debate, Fiorina finished the job by counterpunching Trump with more vigor than Bush could muster.

In this excerpt from the 1959 novel The Magic Christian, the eccentric billionaire employs his fortune to prank American media and show business from the inside, exposing its inanity.

August Guy Grand himself was a billionaire. He had 180 millions cash deposit in New York banks, and this ready capital was of course but a part of his gross holdings.

In the beginning, Grand’s associates, wealthy men themselves, saw nothing extraordinary about him; a reticent man of simple tastes, they thought, a man who had inherited most of his money and had preserved it through large safe investments in steel, rubber, and oil. What his associates managed to see in Grand was usually a reflection of their own dullness: a club member, a dinner guest, a possibility, a threat — a man whose holdings represented a prospect and a danger. But this was to do injustice to Grand’s private life, because his private life was atypical … he had a very unusual attitude towards people — he spent about ten million a year in, as he expressed it himself, “making it hot for them.”

“There’s no biz like show biz,” he liked to quip to the other troupers, “ … oh, we have our ups and downs, heck yes — but I wouldn’t trade one whiff of grease paint on opening night, by gosh, for all the darned chateaux in France!”

Thus did he enter the field, not nominally of course, but in effect. There was at this time a rather successful drama hour on Sunday evening. “Our Town Playhouse” it was called and was devoted to serious fare; at least the viewers were told it was serious fare — truth to tell though, it was by any civilized standard, the crassest sort of sham, cant, and weak-kneed pornography imaginable. Grand set about to interfere with it.

His arrival was fairly propitious; the production in dress rehearsal at that moment was called All Our Yesterdays, a drama which, according to the sponsors, was to be, concerning certain emotions and viewpoints, more or less definitive.

Beginning with this production, Grand made it a point that he or his representative contact the hero or heroine of each play, while it was still in rehearsal, and reach some sort of understanding about final production. A million was generally sufficient.

The arrangement between Grand and the leading actress of All Our Yesterdays was simplicity itself. During final production, that is to say, the Sunday-night nation-wide presentation of the play, and at the top of her big end-of-the-second-act scene, the heroine suddenly turned away from the other players, approached the camera, and addressed the viewers, point-blank:

“Anyone who would allow this slobbering pomp and drivel in his home has less sense and taste than the beasts of the field!”

Then she pranced off the set.

Half the remaining actors turned to stare after her in amazement, while the others sat frozen in their last attitudes. There was a frenzy of muffled whispers coming from off-stage … Then there was a bit of commotion before it was actually faded — one of the supporting actors had been trained in Russian methods and thought he could improvise the rest of the play, about twelve minutes, so there were one or two odd lines spoken by him in this attempt before the scene jerkily faded to blackness. …

The third time something like this happened, the producer and sponsor were very nearly out of their minds. Of course they suspected that a rival company was tampering with the productions, bribing the actors and so on. Security measures were taken. Directors were fired right and left. Rehearsals were held behind locked doors, and there was an attempt to keep the actors under constant surveillance, but … Grand always seemed to get in there somehow, with the old convincer.

In the aftermath, some of the actors paid the breach-of-contract fine of twenty-five or fifty thousand; others pleaded temporary insanity; still others gained a lot of publicity by taking a philosophic stand, saying that it was true, they had been overcome with nausea at that drivel, and that they themselves were too sensitive and serious for it, and had too much integrity, moral fiber, etc. …

Meanwhile the show went on. People started tuning in to see what new outrage would happen; it even appeared to have a sort of elusive comic appeal. It became the talk of the industry; the rating soared — but somehow it looked bad. Finally the producer and the sponsor of the show were put on the carpet before Mr. Harlan, the tall and distinguished head of the network.

“Listen,” he said to the sponsor as he paced the office, “we want your business, Mr. Levet, don’t get me wrong — but if you guys can’t control that show of yours … well, I mean goddamn it, what’s going on over there?” He turned to the producer now, who was a personal friend of his: “For Christ’s sake, Max, can’t you get together a show, and put it on the way it’s supposed to be without any somersaults? … is that so hard to do? … I mean we can’t have this sort of thing going on, you know that, Max, we simply cannot have …”

“Listen, Al,” said the producer, a short fat man who rose up and down on his toes, smiling, as he spoke, “we got the highest Trendex in the books right now.” …

The critics for the most part, after lambasting the first couple of shows as “terrific boners,” sat tight for a while, just to see which way the wind was going to blow, so to speak — then, with the rating at skyrocket level, they began to suggest that the show might be worth a peek.

“An off-beat sleeper,” one of them said, “don’t miss it.” “New comedy,” said a second, “a sophisticated take-off on the sentimental.” And another: “Here’s humor at its highest.” Almost all agreed in the end that it was a healthy satire.

After interfering with six or seven shows, Grand grew restive. “I’m pulling out,” he said to himself, “it may have been good money after bad all along.”

It was just as well perhaps, because at the point when the producer and sponsor became aware of what was responsible for their vast audience, they began consciously trying to choose and shape each drama towards that moment of anomaly which had made the show famous. And somehow this seemed to spoil it. At any rate it very soon degenerated — back to the same old tripe. And of course it was soon back to the old rating as well — which, as in the early, pre-Grand days, was all right, but nothing, really, to be too proud of.

All of this should make Democrats feel pretty confident about 2016. A couple of conspiracy theorists on the right have speculated that Trump is a Hillary Clinton plant. But Trump has hurt Clinton too. Her penchant for dodging controversial questions — fracking, the Keystone pipeline, the Trans-Pacific trade pact — looks still worse when contrasted with Trump’s shoot-from-the-hip decisiveness. Even when asked to name her favorite ice-cream flavor during a July appearance at a New Hampshire Dairy Twirl, she could do no better than “I like nearly everything.”

It’s not a coincidence that the Joe Biden buzz heated up just as Trump started taking off. The difference between Clinton’s and Biden’s views is negligible, but some Democrats may be in the market for a candidate of their own who will wander off the reservation and say anything in the echt Trump manner. Yesterday’s “gaffes” are today’s authenticity. Whatever happens with Biden, the Clinton campaign seems oblivious to the possibility that Trump is a double-edged sword, exposing her weaknesses even as he undermines the GOP. When he boasted in the Fox News debate that the Clintons had no choice but to attend his last wedding because he had given them money, he reduced the cloudy questions about transactions between the Clinton Foundation and its donors to a primal quid pro quo that any voter can understand.

As the Trump fallout has rained down on Clinton, so it has on the news media and political pros who keep writing his premature obituary. He has been dismissed as a lackluster also-ran in both debates — compared to the “impressive” Fiorina, Rubio, John Kasich, whoever. No one seems to have considered that more Republican primary voters may have cared about Tom Brady’s endorsement of Trump hours before the CNN debate than the substance of the event itself. Throughout, Trump’s rise has been accompanied by a veritable “Dewey Defeats Truman” festival. After the McCain smackdown in July, political analysts at the Times, the Washington Post, and CNN all declared that he had reached a “turning point” presaging his demise. The Times version of this consensus ran as a column in “The Upshot,” the paper’s rubric for data-driven reporting. It argued that because Republican “elites” had been outraged by the incident, it would “probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.” This conclusion ultimately proved no more predictive than the ostensibly data-driven Literary Digest poll proclaiming Alf Landon the certain victor over FDR in 1936. Given the hostility of the GOP base to elites in general and McCain in particular (unless he’s on a ticket with Palin), it was a better-than-even bet that Trump’s numbers would go up, as they did.

An “Upshot” entry almost two weeks after the Fox News debate dug in further: “The Most Important Story in the G.O.P. Race Isn’t About Donald Trump.” The more important story, it turned out, was the relative “boomlets” for the not-Trump candidates. But Trump continued to be the most important story, not least because of how he kept drowning out the supposed boomlets of the other candidates. Trump, we’ve been told, is sucking the oxygen out of a GOP contest whose other contenders constitute a “deep bench of talent” (the Times) and “an embarrassment of riches” (Peggy Noonan). But Trump is the oxygen of the GOP race, and that deep bench’s embarrassing inability to compete with him is another important story. Even so, guardians of journalistic propriety (and some readers) have implored the upscale press to resist emulating cable news and stop paying Trump so much attention. Some journalists who condescended to write about him have asked forgiveness for momentarily forsaking sober policy debate and stooping so low. The Huffington Post announced it was relegating Trump coverage to the Entertainment section.

That summer of denial is now kaput, but many of the press’s usual empirical tools are impotent against Trump. Columnists and editorial writers across the political spectrum can keep preaching to their own choirs about how vile he is, but they are not likely being read, let alone heeded, by Trump fans. Diligent analyses of his policy inconsistencies are built on a false premise because Trump has almost no policies, just ad hoc opinions that by his own account he forms mainly by reading newspapers or watching Sunday talk shows. When writers for both the Times and Journal op-ed pages analyzed Trumponomics, they produced the same verdict: Nothing Trump said added up. Kimberley Strassel, a conservative columnist at the Journal who regards the Republican field as “teeming with serious candidates,” has complained that Trump is “not policy knowledgeable.” That’s for sure. You won’t catch him following the example of “serious” candidates like Fiorina, Rubio, and Walker, who regurgitate the boilerplate drilled into them by foreign-policy tutors. Why bother, Trump explains, since “one of the problems with foreign policy is it changes on a daily basis.” Such thinking, or anti-thinking, may not win over anyone at the Aspen Institute or the American Enterprise Institute, but does anyone seriously doubt that it plays to much of the Republican-primary electorate? That’s precisely what is spooking conservatives like Strassel.

What’s exhilarating, even joyous, about Trump has nothing to do with his alternately rancid and nonsensical positions on policy. It’s that he’s exposing the phoniness of our politicians and the corruption of our political process by defying the protocols of the whole game. He skips small-scale meet-and-greets in primary-state living rooms and diners. He turned down an invitation to appear at the influential freshman senator Joni Ernst’s hog roast in Iowa. He routinely denigrates sacred GOP cows like Karl Rove and the Club for Growth. He has blown off the most powerful newspapers in the crucial early states of Iowa (the Des Moines Register) and New Hampshire (the Union-Leader) and paid no political price for it. Yet he is overall far more accessible to the press than most candidates — most conspicuously Clinton — which in turn saves him from having to buy television ad time.

It’s as if Trump were performing a running burlesque of the absurd but intractable conventions of presidential campaigns in real time. His impact on our politics post-2016 could be as serious as he is not. Unsurprisingly, the shrewdest description of the Trump show’s appeal has come from an actor, Owen Wilson. “You can’t help but get a kick out of him,” he told the Daily Beast, “and I think part of it is we’re so used to politicians on both sides sounding like actors at press junkets — it’s sort of by rote, and they say all the right things. So here’s somebody who’s not following that script. It’s like when Charlie Sheen was doing that stuff.” As Wilson says, for all the efforts to dismiss Trump as an entertainer, in truth it’s his opponents who are more likely to be playacting, reciting their politically correct and cautious lines by rote. The political market for improvisational candor is as large as it was after Vietnam and Watergate, and right now Trump pretty much has a monopoly on it.

He also makes a sport of humiliating high-end campaign gurus. When Sam Clovis, a powerful Evangelical conservative activist in Iowa, jumped from the cratering Perry to Trump in August, it seemed weird. Despite saying things like “I’m strongly into the Bible,” Trump barely pretends to practice any religion. The Des Moines Register soon published excerpts from emails written just five weeks earlier (supplied by Perry allies) in which Clovis had questioned Trump’s “moral center” and lack of “foundation in Christ” and praised Perry for calling Trump “a cancer on conservatism.” But, like Guy Grand in The Magic Christian, Trump figured correctly that money spoke louder than Christ to Clovis. He was no less shrewd in bringing the focus-group entrepreneur Frank Luntz to heel. After Luntz convened a negative post-debate panel on Fox News that, in Luntz’s view, signaled “the destruction” of Trump’s campaign, Trump showered him with ridicule. Luntz soon did a Priebus-style about-face and convened a new panel that amounted to a Trump lovefest. One participant praised Trump for not mouthing “that crap” that’s been “pushed to us for the past 40 years.” It’s unclear if Luntz was aware of the irony of his having been a major (and highly compensated) pusher of “that crap,” starting with his role in contriving the poll-shaped pablum of Newt Gingrich’s bogus “Contract With America.”

A perfect paradigm of how lame old-school, top-heavy campaigns can be was crystallized by a single story on the front page of the Times the day after Labor Day. Its headline said it all: “Clinton Aides Set New Focus for Campaign — A More Personal Tone of Humor and Heart.” By announcing this “new focus” to the Times, which included “new efforts to bring spontaneity” to a candidacy that “sometimes seems wooden,” these strategists were at once boasting of their own (supposed) political smarts and denigrating their candidate, who implicitly was presented as incapable of being human without their direction and scripts. Hilariously enough, the article straight-facedly cited as expert opinion the former Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom — whose stewardship of the most wooden candidate in modern memory has apparently vanished into a memory hole — to hammer home the moral that “what matters is you appear genuine.”

We also learned from this piece that Clinton would soon offer “a more contrite tone” when discussing her email woes, because a focus group “revealed that voters wanted to hear directly from Mrs. Clinton” about it. The aides, who gave the Times “extensive interviews,” clearly thought that this story was a plus for their candidate, and maybe the candidate did, too, since she didn’t fire them on the spot. They all seemed unaware of the downside of portraying Clinton as someone who delegated her “heart” to political operatives and her calibration of contrition to a focus group. By offering a stark contrast to such artifice, the spontaneous, unscripted Trump is challenging the validity and value of the high-priced campaign strategists, consultants, and pollsters who dominate our politics, shape journalistic coverage, and persuade even substantial candidates to outsource their souls to focus groups and image doctors. That brand of politics has had a winning run ever since the young television producer Roger Ailes used his media wiles to create a “new Nixon” in 1968. But in the wake of Trump’s “unprofessional” candidacy, many of the late-20th-century accoutrements of presidential campaigns, often tone-deaf and counter­productive in a new era where social media breeds insurgencies like Obama’s, Trump’s and Sanders’s, could be swept away — particularly if Clinton’s campaign collapses.

Another change Trump may bring about is a GOP rethinking of its embrace of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision unleashing unlimited campaign contributions. Citizens United was supposed to be a weapon wielded mainly against Democrats, but Trump is using it as a club to bludgeon Republicans. “I’m using my own money,” he said when announcing his candidacy. “I’m not using lobbyists, I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.” By Washington etiquette, it’s a no-no for a presidential candidate to gloat about his wealth. Especially if you’re a wealthy Republican, it’s axiomatic that you follow the George H.W. Bush template of pretending to savor pork rinds. But Trump has made a virtue of flaunting his fortune and glitzy lifestyle — and not just because that’s the authentic Trump. His self-funding campaign may make him more effective than any Democrat in turning Citizens United into a political albatross for those who are enslaved to it.

Having no Citizens United–enabled political-action committee frees him to remind voters daily that his Republican adversaries are bought and paid for by anonymous wealthy donors. The notion of a billionaire playing this populist card may seem counterintuitive, but paradoxically Trump’s populism is enhanced by the source of his own billions. His signature business, real-estate development, is concrete, literally so: He builds big things, thus visibly creating jobs, and stamps his name on them in uppercase gold lest anyone forget (even when he hasn’t actually built them and doesn’t actually own them). This instantly separates him from the “hedge-fund guys” and all the other unpopular one percenters who trade in intangible and suspect financial “products,” facilitate the outsourcing of American jobs, and underwrite much of the Republican presidential field and party infrastructure, to some of the Republican-primary electorate’s dismay. The simplicity and transparency of Trump’s campaign funding are going to make it harder for his rivals — and perhaps future presidential candidates — to defend their dependence on shadowy, plutocratic, and politically toxic PAC donors. 

The best news about Trump is that he is wreaking this havoc on the status quo while having no chance of ascending to the presidency. You can’t win the Electoral College in 2016 by driving away women, Hispanics, blacks, and Asian-Americans, no matter how large the margins you pile up in deep-red states. Republicans who have started fretting that he’d perform as Barry Goldwater did on Election Day in 1964 have good reason to worry.

But Goldwater won the nomination in the first place by rallying a disaffected hard-right base that caught the GOP Establishment by surprise, much as the remnants of that Establishment were blindsided by Ronald Reagan’s insurgency that almost denied the nomination to Gerald Ford in 1976. Trump’s ascent, like the Goldwater and Reagan rebellions, makes it less likely that the divide between the GOP’s angriest grassroots and the party elites who write the checks will be papered over in 2016, as it was by the time the 2008 and 2012 Republican conventions came to order.

Probable as it may be that Trump’s poll numbers will fade and that he will flame out before the Republicans convene in Cleveland in July, it’s not a sure thing. If the best his intraparty adversaries can come up with as dragon slayers are his fellow outsiders — the joyless scold Fiorina, who presided over the firing of 30,000 Hewlett-Packard workers (a bounteous gift to Democratic attack ads), or the low-low-energy Carson, who has never run anything except an operating room — that means they have no plan. And thanks to another unintended consequence of the GOP’s Citizens United “victory,” the PACs it enables will keep hopeless presidential candidates financially afloat no matter how poorly they are faring in polls and primaries, thereby crippling the party’s ability to unite early behind a single anti-Trump alternative. In a worst-case scenario, the GOP could reach the spring stretch with the party’s one somebody still ahead of a splintered field of nobodies.

By then, Trump’s Establishment nemeses, those who march to the beat of the Journal editorial page and Krauthammer and Will, will be manning the backroom battle stations and writing big checks to bring him down. The specter of a brokered Republican convention loomed briefly in 2012, when Romney was slow to lock up the nomination. Should such a scenario rear up again in 2016, the Koch brothers, no fans of Trump, could be at the center of the action. Whatever happens, there will be blood. The one thing Trump never does is go quietly, and neither will his followers. As Ross Douthat, a reform conservative, wrote in August, Trump has tapped into the populist resentments of middle-class voters who view the GOP and the elites who run it as tools of “moneyed interests.” If the Republicans “find a way to crush Trump without adapting to his message,” he added, the pressure of that resentment will keep building within the party, and “when it bursts, the GOP as we know it may go with it.”

Even if this drama does not play out to the convention, the Trump campaign has already made a difference. Far from being a threat to democracy or a freak show unworthy of serious coverage, it matters because it’s taking a much-needed wrecking ball to some of what has made our sterile politics and dysfunctional government as bankrupt as Trump’s Atlantic City casinos. If that’s entertainment, so be it. If Hillary Clinton’s campaign or the Republican Party is reduced to rubble along the way, we can live with it. Trump will not make America great again, but there’s at least a chance that the chaos he sows will clear the way for those who can.

*This article appears in the September 21, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Read the whole story
67 days ago
Knockout piece. Trump's political theater has really fascinating roots in pop culture.
San Francisco, CA
Share this story

11 things you learn in the first season of your TV show

1 Comment

FX's wickedly funny romantic comedy You're the Worst launched with a promising pilot, and over the course of its first season became one of the best new shows of the year, blessed with both boozy brains and an acrid black heart.

The pilot worked because it leaned heavily on romantic comedy tropes but inverted them. The meet-cute became the meet-nasty, and Jimmy and Gretchen, the show's central couple (played brilliantly by Chris Geere and Aya Cash), felt an obvious weight to their connection that was at once exhilarating and terrifying. Leaning on that gave the pilot its strength.

But what's been impressive since then is the way that the show has dug in even deeper. In tonight's season finale, the show finally bares completely its bleedingly romantic heart, and there are moments that are downright swoon-worthy. They work, however, because they're built out of the show's general world-weary attitude and realistic understanding of how relationships work.

Indeed, with a fall TV season arriving that's positively lousy with romantic comedies that don't seem to understand how human relationships work, it's good to pay heed to some of the things You're the Worst gets so very right. (And if you're so inclined, click over to my interview with creator and showrunner Stephen Falk to find out things he learned while making the first season.)

Finding the right person isn't just amazing — it's terrifying

Jimmy and Gretchen are just about perfect for each other. They laugh at each other's sick jokes, they both have a latent distrust of the rest of humanity, and they can't quite seem to get their lives going. Together, they're somehow better than they are apart, and even though their relationship starts as a casual fling, it becomes something real and serious far more quickly than either of them are prepared for. In a lot of romantic comedies, that would be where the story ends — two people who are perfect for each other finally realizing it and falling into each other's arms.

But on You're the Worst, that realization is the catalyst for things to blow up in Jimmy's and Gretchen's faces. The two of them are perfect for each other, but they're also ... well, look at the title of the show. Love is a wonderful thing, and finding someone who feels about you the way you do about them is even better. But it's also terrifying, because it means opening yourself up to someone who could very easily tear your heart out of your chest and stomp all over it. You're the Worst succeeds because it understands how scary it is to finally give in to that feeling.

Growing up is more than hitting a certain age

As Falk explains in his interview with me, he's tired of stories about man-children who find themselves married to thoroughly patient women who take care of everything in their lives and become pseudo-mothers to them, a critique You're the Worst makes particularly vivid. Gretchen isn't some patient mother hen waiting to swoop in and take care of her new boyfriend but, rather, a messy, disorganized person herself. The episode in which Jimmy finally visits Gretchen's apartment, only to find it a complete pit (and to be horrified by the notion that she watches TV on her computer, rather than a TV) was a season highlight.

But that episode also foregrounded the show's stealth storytelling structure. This is a show about falling in love, sure, but it's also a show about what it means to grow up, to finally accept that you're an adult now and have responsibilities both to yourself and to other people around you. Both Gretchen and Jimmy are depicted as people who attempt to keep their emotions as placid as possible, the better for anything bad to skip off of them like a stone. But that also reduces them to immature people, unable to care about anything all that deeply, much of the time. You're the Worst understands that adulthood is a slow progression of opening yourself up to the world around you.

Opening yourself up to one emotion opens you up to all of them

Jimmy's fling with Gretchen builds to a point where they're finally ready to call each other boyfriend and girlfriend (in one of the series' most winning moments), but very soon after, a package in the mail brings up memories of his father and sends him emotionally reeling. You're the Worst very slowly sketches in the deeper emotional lives of both Jimmy and Gretchen — as might happen with a person you were just starting to date — and it's here that the show reveals how hard it can be to realize the person you're falling for has deep hurt and pain, just like you.

But it's also indicative of the way that Jimmy's new relationship acts as a kind of gateway for these other emotions, even the unpleasant ones, to bubble up and resurface. It's impossible to only feel the good things and not the bad — just as it's impossible to only spend good moments with a person you love, and not the bad ones.

You are, at all times, part of a larger community

Jimmy and Gretchen meet at the wedding of one of Jimmy's exes, a woman whose ultimate rejection of him turned him into the misanthropic novelist he is when the series begins. (His pain allowed him to write, but it also turned him into an unpleasant person.) The idea of the writer as outside observer, wryly commenting on the things happening around him, is an old idea in our culture, but Falk and his writers eventually puncture this idea with the realization that Jimmy isn't just attached to Gretchen — he's attached to a whole community of friends and acquaintances, right down to the neighbor kid.

If You're the Worst's first season had a flaw, it was that some of these supporting characters could come across as broad types, rather than fully-realized figures in their own right. But by the end of tonight's finale, almost every single one of them — even a cat — is an important figure in their own right. It's an impressive feat of world-building and character construction.

There's still juice in the romantic comedy

Above all, You're the Worst works because it understands there's still something thrilling about two people admitting they love each other, even if they couch it in as many disavowals and sidebars as they can muster. Jimmy and Gretchen make each other better, somehow, and it's plain to most people who watch them. You're the Worst can play around like it's treating all of this nonchalantly, but when the two finally admit their feelings, it swoons just as much as we do.

You're the Worst hasn't exactly set the ratings world on fire, but Falk tells me he's "optimistic" for a renewal. Here's hoping FX realizes what a gem it has in this show and gives it another chance.

The first season finale of You're the Worst airs tonight on FX at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. Previous episodes are available for digital purchase or on FX Now.

Read the interview

Stephen Falk first became known to TV fans for his work on two of Jenji Kohan's series — Weeds and Orange Is the New Black, writing episodes for both. But those who get really into following the careers of TV writers might have known him for Next Caller, a sitcom he created that was to star Dane Cook. NBC picked that show up and produced four episodes, then declined to finish out its six-episode order or ever air said episodes. Falk wrote a semi-famous, blisteringly funny Tumblr post about the experience that made the TV fan rounds.

But this summer, he returned with his first "created by" credit to make it on the air, FX's brilliant You're the Worst. And to commemorate the end of the show's first season tonight, Falk talked with us about some of the things he learned over the course of making that first season. What follows is in his words, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

1) Trust the material, and trust your decisions

"What I mean by that is there's a point where we would start to film and maybe a scene wouldn't exactly work the way I thought it would, or maybe I'd get a note from the network about maybe the way an actor played this certain thing, and I would sort of get the yips. I'd go, 'Oh, maybe I'm wrong.'

"Because my last show that I created [Next Caller] didn't make it on the air, despite having shot four episodes and spent a lot of money doing so, I think there was a little bit of trepidation in me. Maybe I started to second guess. It didn't make me really change anything.

"But now, as the network starts seeing the cuts and as the audience is finally getting to see them, some of those things that, at first, were like, 'Is this too totally weird? Or is this actor maybe playing it a little big, or whatever?' those are the things that sometimes get the most reaction. Or some joke I wanted to cut. I thought maybe I should cut back with the dumb joke, or too silly, or whatever. Those are the things that people seem to really like.

"Not that I didn't make a single mistake in all the episodes — far from it — but I think I learned to just calm down and trust in my original decisions. Because even some of the casting decisions were not necessarily exactly what the network wanted. And in the end, they agreed that they were the right decisions, like casting our female lead."

2) Even a romantic comedy is about world-building

"There was some pressure, since it's a romantic comedy, to keep the focus almost all the time on Jimmy and Gretchen. I went through this battle with the last show, Next Caller, even more so. I was met with even more resistance [there].

"But I think what I stuck to was that we have to trust these side characters have to function as their own human beings and not just as sounding boards for the main characters, because that's a trope I hate in romantic comedies. I said, 'Look, I have to give these other characters more screen time and their own stories.' Even not just Edgar and Lindsay, but Becca, and Vernon, and Paul. I needed time to make them all full human beings and have their own little storylines, little arcs. Or Sam, or even the bookstore lady, or the shop cat.

"I wanted these elements to all be there because what I kept saying was, 'It's world building, you guys. It's world building.' And the more we actually build an inhabited fleshed-out world where people are real people and not just plot devices, it's going to only help the Jimmy and Gretchen storylines feel more impactful and real."

3) When fighting to cast an actor you like, it helps to have a network that knows what it's doing — and to give notes.

"To FX's credit, they're incredibly smart. They never said, 'Look, you cannot do this, or you cannot cast this person [Aya Cash]." They're not heavy-handed, but they have opinions. And I think they just didn't quite see it at first. And I said, 'Look, I think you're wrong. Let me bring her in again.'

"I gave her some notes that addressed their concerns, and she was phenomenal. So, they were just normal. They had a slightly different vision in mind. Nothing super specific. But I knew what a tremendous actress she was, and how she had both sides — the sort of harsher side of Gretchen, but also a deep well of emotion — and she's very, very vulnerable. And they saw that."

4) Learn how to better cede control on set to the director

"I had worked with tons of directors in previous shows, but [here] we had three different directors, and they each did three episodes, and then one of them also did the pilot. We shot them in blocks, meaning we sort of were shooting episodes two, three, and four all at the same time. One day we may shoot a scene from episode two, then we may jump right into episode four.

"I think I learned to trust directors more than sometimes I did, because it's a very strange relationship on TV between writers and directors, and it's very opposite in film. The writer is in charge [in television], basically, but it's the director's set, and you have to give them the space to deal with the actors and do that. But in the end, you can pull them aside and say, 'I don't like how this is going' or 'I don't like how you're shooting this. Let's do this differently.' It's a really fraught and weird relationship, and often, directors who come from features aren't used to that, and they have a big problem with it.

"Like, my pilot director, Jordan Roberts,  came from features. And it took us a little while during the pilot process to find that balance. But most of it involved me letting go of control. But also, I think it was very helpful for the show to let the directors really have the set and work with the actors. And I would address concerns directly to him. But for me not to feel like I had to be running around doing everything because I'm the only executive producer on the show, I created it, I wrote seven of the episodes. I have this very control freak nature, so it was great for me to find these wonderful collaborators and just let them fly."

5) Don't try to do it all yourself

"I hired a room of four writers. I'd written one, two, and, I think, three by the time the room started, so it was a thing that lived only in my head. I honestly considered just writing all of them, pulling like a True Detective or something and writing them all. But having that writers' room and having those guys to bounce ideas off, and for them to come up with stuff, it was incredible.

"And we functioned really well. They're all so funny. They really deepened a lot of the characters, and brought their own voices to it. I think the season is way, way better with their input and their hard work, than if I had just like sat in a room and did it all myself."

6) Be willing to change your mind on casting

"Right away, when I saw Chris Geere's tape from London, that fundamentally changed the character in massive ways. Not just the fact that he was tall, blond, and handsome rather than I had seen him as a little schlubbier and maybe not as traditionally handsome. But he is British, and I had not written him as being a Brit. But I was, I think, smart enough and flexible enough to realize that Chris was it. And I knew from the first sentence.

"And then, I realized, 'Oh, I've kind of written a British guy anyway,' because he's very verbal and eloquent. But he also says a lot of horrible shit, and British guys can just get away with it. It's completely unfair, but they get the bad teeth thing, so it evens out in the end. But they can sound charming. Hugh Grant goes on with his floppy hair after getting a blow job on Sunset, and America immediately forgives him. It's an unfair advantage, but it was a superpower they have that I immediately said, 'Oh, I can use this.'

"It didn't change, fundamentally, who he was, but it certainly changed the package he came in, and then allowed me to write in a very, very specific voice, because Chris has such a, not only literal voice, but he just has a demeanor that shifted a little bit. I could write 'wanker' and I could write these Britishisms that come out of his mouth really well and that are really fun to write."

7) Stories about goofy man-children are getting stale

"I think that it is maybe not super interesting any more to see a show where you have this goofy lovable guy, who just hasn't quite grown up. And then, the patient woman at home, who cleans up the bathroom, but is angry about it and lets him know. And then they make up. But I think that's an archetype that we've seen over and over.

"I think it's very much a function of the fact that TV writers are generally 25- to 45-year-old men-children, who get to work in their underwear, unless they're on staff [on a show], and don't necessarily know how to clean up after themselves, and think it would be fantastic to have a beautiful, patient wife at home who put up with their constant video-game playing, and Googling of ex-girlfriends. That was a factor in creating this relationship where Gretchen is just as 'bad,' if not worse, sometimes, and has none of those 'patient shrew' qualities, I would call it. She's allowed to exhibit the same sort of sexual, and vehicular, and alcoholic tendencies as the guys. I got that permission, I would say, directly from watching British sitcoms over the last 20 years."

8) Love is scary and accepting and weirdly beautiful

"I think the show is very much about the terror of giving yourself over to someone. I guess a lesson I did learn in writing this, at least in the pilot, I got to the end, where they had this phone call, and earlier she had tried to bond with Ty, the guy she is stuck on, but it suddenly doesn't look so good after spending this fun night with Jimmy. She tries to bond [with Ty] by admitting something horrible she did in high school, which she thinks is funny, and he thinks it's terrible. She says she burned down her school to get out of a math test. He thinks it's horrible. And the look on her face is of embarrassment and shame, and she immediately goes down on him to avoid that moment. When I got to the end of the script, [Gretchen and Jimmy] were on the phone, and she blurts out that exact same admission, and he laughs and says, 'That's genius,' and then moves on. The look on her face [of surprised happiness] captured it perfectly.

"I think the ideal of love is to find someone who doesn't judge the bad things in you, the scary, or not so attractive, or embarrassing, or shameful things you might have done in the past or that you might do in the present, or even the bad hat you may put on one day, or the bad haircut you got that should not have judgments from the person you're with, I think, is sort of beautiful, and free use, free deal. And then, what I realized, I find that moment to be the most romantic moment in the show. And I consider the show very romantic. The look on her face of, 'Oh, this guy gives me permission to be me, warts and all.' I think that is beautiful."

9) Seasons should be structured in three acts, too. And copy Breaking Bad.

"We had 10 episodes, so we approached it very much like a three-act structure like you would of a script, or really any story really has that structure inherent. We had this opportunity to use three different directors and, as I said earlier, have them direct three in a row, so I thought that would be perfect.

"We really crafted the stories to make very specific acts. The pilot's a prologue. Two, three, four is the first act. Five, six, seven is the second. Two, three, four is them having fun, them getting to know each other and tip-toeing, and bumping into the rules of what it is to date this other person. Five, six, seven starts with the Sunday Fun Day episode, and that's the more visceral, 'Okay, we're going to kind of have fun.' And it's a little more fun, and it sings a little more. And then, eight, nine, 10, again, a different director, are sort of where that kind of fun comes to end a little bit and it's the more emotional [story], where they realize they've gotten way closer and way more entangled in each other's lives than they need to, and dealing with the fallout of that.

"I think, with the writers' help, I really learned to see a season as a whole, rather than just individual pieces, because indeed, this isn't a situation comedy in the way that you just drop these funny characters into a situation and watch what wacky stuff happens. We don't have a bar where they're all hanging out and, 'Look who walked in,' and watch them all have to deal with the fallout of that. We ironically got a lot of lessons from Breaking Bad of really how to structure. I think that show is sort of a master class in structure. And so, while the shows couldn't be more different, I think we kept that in mind.

"Also, I really learned to trust human behavior and stay focused on what someone would actually do — even someone who's weird, and odd, and narcissistic, or a slut, or whatever. If you stay true to the honesty of human behavior, I think you end up having to search a little bit more for comedy, but what comes out, I think, is a lot funnier and resonates as funnier because it rings more true. I learn lessons every day in the writer's room, every day on set, every day in the editing room, and indeed, now that I'm done with that process, every day watching people react to the show and find the show, which really had a small marketing budget and no stars and really not a lot of word of mouth at the beginning. To watch an audience embrace that has been fascinating."

10) Releasing one episode a week is preferable to all at once

"One thing that struck me this morning about that is having just worked on the Netflix show, Orange Is the New Black, I think this is better than dumping a show all at one time. Specifically, for the reason that, when it's once a week, you get to watch the audience find it. And it gives, in a very, very real-time way that I think happens a lot differently with, like, Orange season one, where you dump them all. You don't get the pleasure of everyone watching the same episode at once, which you don't get exactly the way you did 20 years ago before DVRs, but it's just a lot more fun. I think it actually has helped the show get strong word of mouth, and get the recent attention that it has in a very different way."

11) Feel optimistic about renewal

"I think FX is a smart network, and they'll make their own decision. And I don't think anything I'd do would ever influence that, except what I've done is come in, pitch a show that they get, write the show that I promised, make 10 episodes of the show that I promised, have people really like it, and watch the numbers slowly go up, which they have. And the press has been lovely. I feel like I've done my job, and beyond that, it's completely up to them. But I feel optimistic."

The first season of You're the Worst concludes tonight on FX at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. The show is also available for digital purchase and on FX Now.

Read the story

Read the whole story
79 days ago
You're the Worst is pretty much one of my favorite things ever, and I highly recommend you watch it. (You can tell how great it is by how thoughtful the creator is, too.)
San Francisco, CA
Share this story

It Was Easier to Give In Than Keep Running

1 Comment

By Anonymous

In first grade, a boy named John— a notorious troublemaker—systematically chased every girl in our class during recess trying to kiss her on the lips. Most gave in eventually. It was easier to give in than keep running. When it was my turn, I turned and faced him, grabbed his glasses off his weasel face, and stomped on them on the hard blacktop. He ran to the principal’s office and cried.

In fifth grade, I was asked to be a boy’s girlfriend over email. It was the first email I ever received. He actually told me he wanted to send me an email, so I went home and made an AOL account. We went to a carnival and he won me a Garfield stuffed animal, and then he gave me a 3 Doors Down CD. A few days later, he broke up with me, and asked for Garfield and the CD back. I said no.

In sixth grade, a girl in my year gave head to an eighth grader in the back of the school bus while playing Truth or Dare.

In the summer after sixth grade, I kissed a boy for the first time at sleep away camp. He was my summer love. During the end-of-the-summer dining hall announcements, where kids usually announced lost sweatshirts and Walkmen, an older girl stepped up to the microphone, tossed her hair behind her shoulders, and proudly stated, “I lost something very precious to me last night. My virginity. If anyone finds it, please let me know.” The dining hall erupted into laughter and cheers. She was barred from ever coming back to the camp again, and wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to anyone.

In seventh grade, I told my brother I decided when I was older wanted a Hummer. What I really meant was I wanted a Jeep, but I didn’t know a lot about cars. My mother overheard and screamed at me for “wanting a Hummer.”

In the summer after freshman year of high school, I went to sleepaway field hockey camp with many of my close friends. One of them, named Megan, I had been friends with since kindergarten. One night when I was showering, she ripped open the curtain and snapped a photo of me on her disposable camera. I screamed. She laughed. We both laughed when I got out of the shower a few minutes later. After camp was over, her father took the camera to the convenience store to get it developed. When he gave the finished photos back to her, he said, “Your friend [Anonymous] has grown up.”

Sophomore year of high school, one of my best friends Hilary had a party in her basement while her mom was away. We invited some of the guys in our grade and someone’s older brother bought us a handle of vodka. One of the boys who came sat next to me in Spanish class. His name was Thomas. I remember playing a simple game, where we passed the bottle of vodka around in a circle and drank. I remember being happily tipsy and having fun, to suddenly being very drunk. Thomas and I started chanting numbers in Spanish, and he leaned towards me and kissed me. We kissed in the middle of the party, with all of our friends cheering. Then we went into Hilary’s bedroom.

Hilary’s bedroom was in the basement, on the ground floor, with a large window next to her bed. When someone went outside to smoke a cigarette, they realized it was a front row seat to what was happening in the bedroom. It was dark outside, and the light on was in the bedroom. They called everyone outside to watch. I don’t remember getting undressed, but apparently we were both completely naked in Hilary’s bed. A friend of mine told me later she tried to open the door and stop what was happening, but Thomas must have locked it. They said they pounded on the door. I don’t remember hearing them pounding. I don’t remember seeing everyone’s faces outside the window.  I remember Thomas holding my head down, and shoving his penis into my mouth. I remember trying to resist, pulling back, but he held his hands firmly on my head, pushing my face up and down. That’s all that I remember.

The next day, my friends and I went out to dinner at one of our favorite local restaurants. I couldn’t eat anything, and it wasn’t because I was hung over. Every time I tried to put food in my mouth, I felt like I was choking. Anytime a flash of the night before appeared in my mind, I felt like vomiting. My friends sat with me in silence. Then they told me a girl named Lindsey, who had briefly dated Thomas freshman year, had stood outside and watched the entire time. Even after everyone else stopped watching. My friends said they didn’t watch.

On Monday, Thomas and I sat next to each other in Spanish. We didn’t speak. We didn’t make eye contact. I went to the girls bathroom and threw up. I hear Lindsey and Thomas live together, now, ten years later.

Junior year of high school, my teacher for Honors Spanish was named Señor Gonzales. Señor Gonzales had all of the girls sit in the front row. Señor Gonzales called on any girl who was wearing a skirt to write on the chalkboard. Señor Gonzales asked a friend of mine, who had broken her finger playing an after school sport, if she broke her finger because “she liked it rough.” Señor Gonzales was a tenured teacher.

Senior year of high school, I got my first real boyfriend. His name was Colin. He was on the lacrosse team with Thomas. He told me that sophomore year, Thomas told everyone on the team what happened that night at Hilary’s. Everyone cheered. Colin said that, even then, he had a crush on me. Even then, he wanted to punch Thomas.

Colin and I lost our virginities to each other. Colin said if I got pregnant, he would make me have the baby. He didn’t believe in abortion. Colin said if I got pregnant, he would make me have a C-section. Colin said that if I didn’t have a C-section, my vagina would be too loose for him to ever enjoy having sex with me again. Colin said that he wouldn’t let our child breastfeed. He said his mother gave him formula, and that he turned out just fine. I didn’t get pregnant.

Junior year of college, I lived in Denmark for the spring semester and studied at the University of Copenhagen. Copenhagen is one of the safest cities in the world. Guns are illegal there. Pepper spray is illegal there. One night, my friends and I went to a concert at a crowded club in a part of the city I didn’t know very well. I brought a tiny purse with money, my apartment key, and my international cell phone. For some reason it made sense at the time to put my purse inside my friend’s purse. Maybe I didn’t feel like carrying it. We were both drinking. My friend left the concert to go home with her boyfriend. One by one, everyone I was there with left the concert, until I was suddenly alone and I realized I didn’t have my purse, or any money for a cab ride home.

I started walking in the direction that felt right. I walked for a long time. I had no idea where I was, and didn’t recognize the area. It was almost 4 am. I was on a residential street when a cab pulled up next to me. I asked the driver if he could drive me to an intersection down the street from my apartment.

I don’t have any money, I said.

I really need your help, I said.

I will do it for free, he said.

Sit in the front, he said.

I sat in the front. We drove in silence for some time, until he pulled over on the side of a dark street.

I don’t want to do it for free anymore, he said.

He locked the car doors and reached across the center console and slipped his hand up my skirt. He grabbed my vagina. Hard. I pushed his hand away and unlocked the door. I ran down the street and realized he had taken me a block away from the intersection I wanted. I walked to my apartment and threw rocks at my roommate’s window until she let me inside. She yelled at me for waking her up. I escaped. Nothing happened. I was fine.

The summer after I graduated college I helped Hilary find an internship. She was an art major and wanted something for her resume besides waitressing. We found a posting on Craigslist to be a studio assistant for a painter in the Bronx. It was listed as an unpaid internship. The toll for the George Washington Bridge was twelve dollars, plus gas, but she got the internship anyway. She wanted the experience.

The artist was a 38-year-old Canadian painter named Bradley. Hilary was 22.There was another intern there, an art student from Manhattan named Stella.  Bradley needed assistants to help him make bubble wrap paintings. Stella and Hilary would take a syringe and fill the tiny bubbles with different color paints until it formed a mosaic. Bradley always had Hilary stay after Stella left to clean the paintbrushes and syringes. He told Hilary she was beautiful. More beautiful than his wife, who he only married for citizenship. He told Hilary they had a loveless marriage. He told Hilary he wanted to have her beautiful children. They began an affair. He told Hilary has wife knew and didn’t care. He told Hilary he was going to leave his wife soon.

Everyday Hilary drove to the Bronx, cleaned Bradley’s paintbrushes, and had sex on the studio floor. Everyday she went home with no money, and everyday she paid the toll at the George Washington Bridge. She needed the internship for her resume, she said. It was too late to find a new job, she said.

I could go on. I could tell you a lot more. About the whistles on the sidewalk, the kids who sat at the bottom of the stairs in high school to look up our skirts, my friend who was a prostitute in South Carolina, the men who’ve cornered me in parking lots and bars calling me a tease, the unwanted grabbing on the subway, the many times my father has called me fat, the time I traveled to the Philippines and discovered Western men pay preteen locals to spend the week in their hotel, the messages on OKCupid asking to “fart in my mouth.” About how I wasn’t sure if I had been raped because I was drunk and kissed Thomas back. How he raped my mouth and not my vagina, so that must not be rape. How easy it was for me to escape the dark street in Copenhagen, and how that made it not matter since “it could’ve been worse.”

Men have no idea what it takes to be a woman. To grin and bear it and persevere. The constant state of war, navigating the relentless obstacle course of testosterone and misogyny, where they think we are property to be owned and plowed. But we’re not. We are people, just like them. Equals, in fact, or at least that’s the core of what feminism is still trying to achieve. The job is not over. We’ve made great progress. There are female CEOs, though not very many. There are females writing for the New York Times and winning Pulitzer prizes, though not very many.  There are female politicians, though not very many. But these advances are only on paper. The job won’t be over until equality permeates the air we breathe, the streets we walk and the homes we live in.

I think back to how easy it was for me, in first grade, to feel fearless and strong in my conviction to stomp on John’s glasses. I felt right in reacting how I did, because John’s behavior was wrong. But his was an elementary learning of the wide boundaries his gender would go on to afford him. For me, it would never again be so easy.

- Anonymous, age 25

Read the whole story
92 days ago
Heartbreaking and stunning.
San Francisco, CA
Share this story

What It Feels Like to Go Viral

1 Comment

Let's get some definitional housekeeping out of the way: There is no pageviews threshold for what a piece of #content needs in order to, as they say, “go viral.” It's a moving target that shifts from person-to-person, organization-to-organization, on a monthly, even daily, basis. If you normally have 2,000 daily readers, then you get 20,000, that's viral. If you're the New York Times and you get 20,000, something has gone horribly wrong. Pageviews matter, but relativity matters more.

The speed at which the audience is accumulated is also important: The phrase “going viral” is obviously linked to the rapid spread of a disease. Someone posts a link to the right forum that galvanizes a group of fellow posters to do the same, and so the spread begins. It's uncontrollable, unpredictable, uncontainable, untrackable. It's a goddamned outbreak.

It's also an incredible rush for any content creator—I'm not using it as a pejorative here, so much as a short-cut for “all posts, videos, articles, GIFs, Vines, Tweets, what have you”—when social media and pageview counts are skyrocketing. What does the rush feel like? And what are some of its ramifications?

“If you're doing this long enough you can ballpark something you know will get read,” says A.J. Daulerio. He's had plenty of experience with stories taking off, as the former editor-in-chief of both Gawker and Deadspin, and in his latest venture at Ratter. [Full disclosure: I've written for various Daulerio-run enterprises.] But there's a point when the narrative of how that story's being disseminated shifts completely. “It gets picked up by the slipstream of the Internet, and, more importantly, by outside of the Internet.”

“Once the story reaches a level where people are talking about it and they have no clue where they read it, or where they came from, or the origins of it, that's when you really know you have something super-big.”

In the realm of publications, there are two basic ways stories can hit this sweet spot. The first is through an exclusive, where the site trots out unique content that gets “picked up” by other publications. During Daulerio's time at Deadspin, a 2009 story about the outspokenly sober Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton falling off the wagon qualified in this category. “Obviously, it's not Watergate,” Daulerio says. “But you're doing something that no one else has seen before.”

Another huge story for Daulerio's Deadspin was a scoop about longtime-Packers, then-Jets quarterback Brett Favre sending scandalous photographs to a female sports reporter. The post ended up doing huge numbers (the tracker currently shows nearly six million views), forcing its way into the mainstream press, and putting Deadspin on the map for a new audience. “Once the story reaches a level where people are talking about it and they have no clue where they read it, or where they came from, or the origins of it, that's when you really know you have something super-big,” Daulerio says. “I don't even know if there's a word for that. It's beyond viral.”

But, it's not always the hard reporting that worms into the slipstream. In fact: “What was fascinating during that month, was that it wasn't the Favre story that had the most traffic,” Daulerio says. “There was this dumb, tossed-off thing that [Deadspin writer] Barry [Petchesky] had, from some golf tournament, where some dude behind Tiger Woods had a turban on. Everybody was talking about the Favre thing, that we had this monster month. The reality is that actually it was that dumbass post.”

Advertisement — Continue reading below

This is the other standard scenario for content that goes viral: something completely unexpected and random. This isn't always a good thing. “For the ones that you didn't do on purpose, it's frustrating,” Daulerio says. “It's kind of demoralizing. You realize, OK, great, I basically somehow hit the slot machine and won against the robot that is the Internet.”

This kind of unforeseen virality also has more concrete ramifications if you're in the business: During Daulerio's Gawker tenure, if something hit huge, it skewed the numbers in a way that made subsequent normal traffic look terrible in comparison. If you're tracking audience numbers from pieces you've worked hard creating, that's legit. If you're tracking Ice Bucket Challenge re-posts that, for whatever reason, are being shared at disgusting rates on Facebook, that's a fool's errand. To counter numbers that had been skewed by viral's thumb-on-the-scale, Daulerio instituted “Tank Months,” encouraging writers to work on whatever stories they wanted to.

As a senior editor—and resident Minions expert—at BuzzFeed, Katie Notopoulos' job is, essentially, to go viral. As such, the rush of hitting big isn't as pronounced. “The emotional experience is akin to that feeling you get when you know you did a good job at work,” Notopoulos writes in an email. “It's like landing 'the big account' or whatever. You go home and kiss your wife and say, 'Guess what? I just landed the Jenkins account!'”

“I remember I wrote something mean on Gawker about breaking up with California when Schwarzenegger got elected and I knew it had 'gone viral' because I heard Ann Magnuson was emailing it to friends. I was like YESSSSSS.”

It wasn't always this way for Notopoulos, though. Pre-BuzzFeed, she wrote an anonymous humor blog that went viral. “That was really a different feeling,” she writes. “I had never made something that people who didn't actually know me liked or paid attention to before. It was just immensely gratifying in a way I hadn't ever felt before. The feeling was something that was most analogous to situations that hadn't really occurred since high school: scoring a goal in soccer, or finding out your crush likes you back.”

There's crossover of a more nefarious nature too. Last year, the University of Albany released a study concluding that excessive usage of social media can lead to the same impulse control disorders associated with substance addiction. Researchers pointed toward problematic design, particularly the various notifications that “alert” users when someone responds to a post. If the notifications that come in our everyday lives are like small hits of caffeine throughout the day, having something go viral is like mainlining heroin.

“I mean yes I have found the experience of something 'taking off' disgusting and horrifying and anxiety-provoking, also a little thrilling,” Choire Sicha, of the Awl and, formerly, Gawker, writes in an email. [Full disclosure: I've written for Sicha too.] “I remember I wrote something mean on Gawker about breaking up with California when Schwarzenegger got elected and I knew it had 'gone viral' because I heard Ann Magnuson was emailing it to friends. I was like YESSSSSS,” Sicha writes. “Nothing has really matched that thrill though so it's been a long dozen years.”

The chase to go viral, then, has a lot to do with trying to chase after that first glorious fix.

On May 22, 2013, a comedy short entitled “Dadholes” was uploaded onto YouTube. After a few months online, it had received about 4,000 views. Not bad, considering this was a completely independent production with no promotion behind it. But not viral.

“The feeling was something that was most analogous to situations that hadn't really occurred since high school: scoring a goal in soccer, or finding out your crush likes you back.”

Then, after the video was online for about eight months, director Adam Forstadt received a text from its writer and star Chris Wylde. “He said, 'I dunno what’s happening, but Dadholes jumped from 4k to 17k views,” Forstadt writes in an email. “I immediately opened my computer and it had already jumped to 25K in that fraction of a minute. I hit the refresh tab about 20 seconds later and we were at 35K. And so began the wildest night of my social media life.”

Every 20 minutes, the hit count jumped around 25,000. When Forstadt packed it in for the night, the video had received more than 300,000 views and was listed on the Reddit homepage. On Forstadt's Facebook page, people were already writing to congratulate him for making it big. “It was surreal,” Forstadt writes. “When I woke up the next morning we were at 500K views and on almost every major social media site.” It currently has 1.2 million views.

Unless you're used to that kind of response—or really, really busy—there's not much else one can do than monitor the ongoing wave of attention. Going viral is like the praise pellets of Twitter at-replies, Facebook notifications, tiny Instagram hearts, and all the other social media triggers blended together with a hearty helping of crushed caffeine pills. “I was on my computer scouring the Internet for articles about it, fan comments, watching the views multiply,” Forstadt writes. “This was the safest crack cocaine money can’t buy!”

When the wave ebbed—all moments of Internet virality do—Forstadt and company felt justified in producing further videos. “My reaction was pretty simple,” Forstadt writes. “People like it, so let’s make more.” They've made four more “Dadholes” videos, which continue to receive decent view counts. “To be frank, I was super proud that we went viral on scripted content and not some random cat video or terrible accident caught on tape.”

Advertisement — Continue reading below

In January, writer Mark Lukach experienced a similar phenomenon with a piece published here in Pacific Standard. “My Lovely Wife in the Psych Ward” is the story of Lukach and his wife, Guilia, who has been diagnosed with acute psychosis.

By the time it was published, Lukach had traversed the territory previously in a 2011 Modern Love column for the New York Times. “When [the Pacific Standard piece] was published it was like, OK, it's out there,” Lukach says. “I'll post it on Facebook, a couple friends will be like, wow, nice story.” But on the first day it was published, he logged onto Twitter and had 50 at-replies. He logged in an hour later, and there were 60 more. When he checked his inbox, there were more than 300 emails about the story. The story had been picked up by Digg, the New York Times, and just about every kind of aggregator or publisher on the Web.

“I'm not going to lie, it was a huge shot of adrenaline,” Lukach says. “It was very validating as a writer, that people are reading this, and people care, and they're talking the time to reach out to me. This is something I put a lot of effort into. My wife and I both had to suffer through the process.” He was also overwhelmed by how many responses were positive. “I only had a couple people who were critical, everyone else was really supportive. That was really cool, for the Internet kind of shocking, to not find some angle to be mean.”

“It was like a bomb went off. You never know who's going to call, email, how long you're going to be on the horn, so you have to be able to have that availability.”

Lukach still, on average, receives two emails a day about the piece. And this is what informs Lukach's advice about how to handle something that unexpectedly becomes a big hit. “I would say clear your schedule,” Lukach says. “It was like a bomb went off. You never know who's going to call, email, how long you're going to be on the horn, so you have to be able to have that availability.”

The result of “going viral” has been ideal for Lukach. The piece got him in contact with an agent, who got him in contact with a publisher, and he now has a book deal for a memoir. It's what any writer dreams about when working on a story they're passionate about.

But the experience is not always positive.

“Content going viral is overwhelming, intimidating, exciting, and downright scary,” Roxane Gay, an author and essayist whose credits are too numerous and varied to accurately give them proper due here, writes in an email. “Work going viral is certainly an ego boost but it also opens the door to a whole lot of crazy. People tend to write me without having read the entire piece in question or only the headline. They try to 'convert' me to this way of thinking or another. Rarely are they legitimately engaging with anything I have actually written. There's a reason we call it going viral. It's not really a compliment.”

A year ago, after some time off from writing, Elyse Anders re-started her blog. On July 7, she posted—as she later called it—“a quick rant in a moment of frustration” titled “Men: A List of Shit I am Tired of Because of You."

The piece received a few thousand hits Sunday night. But when she logged in Monday morning, the post had received 20,000 views. And it was climbing.

“As the numbers started increasing, my anxiety became super high,” Anders says. “In my history of writing feminist pieces, I know what's coming.”

“It's like you took a wrong turn and all of a sudden you're standing in the middle of a stadium and everyone is yelling horrible insults at you.”

What came was an onslaught of horrific harassment. “They storm your comments, they harass you on social media, I had one guy with a sort-of veiled death threat the other night,” Anders says. Some of it is vile, disgusting stuff you can imagine. Some of it is vile, disgusting stuff maybe you can't. “I have one site of gun enthusiasts who are posting my picture and telling me how ugly I am.” As she succinctly put it on Twitter:

“We have this idea that most people go through the Internet not experiencing [abuse], or get a mean tweet and you can just block it,” Anders says. “But when it comes at you when something goes viral, you can't make it go away that easily. It's like you took a wrong turn and all of a sudden you're standing in the middle of a stadium and everyone is yelling horrible insults at you.”

Anders has been through this before, so she's cultivated tools to handle the sudden wave of horror that comes when pieces hit big. She takes time off, purposefully not checking her email in the morning. Sometimes, she'll have volunteers scan her comments to see if there are threats that seem legitimate enough to look into. But Anders, at this point in her career, has built up enough scar tissue to see these attacks for what they are: A kind of defanged terrorism intended to get her to stop writing. “They're designed to scare you into complete and utter silence,” Anders says. “That's the idea.”

This, then, is the dark side of “going viral,” one that's more often than not reserved for women. As Anders further put it: “Men and women experience the Internet in very different ways.”

Going viral can be exhilarating, it can be exciting, it can lead to opportunities you've been working your whole life toward. But not always, and certainly not for all people. Sometimes “going viral” is as serious and horrific as the process it borrows its name from. Sometimes condolences are more in order than congratulations.

The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.

Read the whole story
117 days ago
"This was the safest crack cocaine money can’t buy!"
San Francisco, CA
Share this story

Here's how this lion-killing dentist thing is going to play out

1 Comment

Look, I know it seems pretty wide open right now, but this lion-killing dentist thing is sailing along just as it’s supposed to:

The killer of the lion was revealed. The social media accounts of the Minnesota dentist who killed the lion in Africa have been mined for information. His Yelp listing has been defamed, his Facebook page has been deleted, his website has been attacked. Some terrible things he did in the past have surfaced. Many clever tweets have been fired off. Basically everyone has agreed that this was a terrible thing to do.

Now the fun stuff starts. The backlash to the backlash begins. Benghazi will be invoked. A right-wing radio host with an active following will start a GoFundMe page; it will raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in a few hours. Everyone will act surprised. Barack Obama’s birth certificate will be invoked. The Minnesota dentist will issue a formal apology through a lawyer. The Nuremberg trials will be invoked. Furious tweets will be fired off. The second amendment will be invoked, even though Zimbabwe doesn’t have a second amendment. Someone will ask Donald Trump for comment. Someone will ask Mitt Romney for comment. Someone will ask Dog the Bounty Hunter for comment. CNN will screw up a segment about the story, perhaps by mislabeling Zimbabwe on a map of Africa, or by mislabeling Minnesota on a map of America, or by mislabeling a lion as a baby hippopotamus.

It will be revealed that the Minnesota dentist who killed the lion is a supporter of a certain presidential candidate. This will prove embarrassing for the candidate, who will attempt to distance himself from the Minnesota dentist who killed the lion. Justine Sacco will be invoked. Neil Degrasse-Tyson will tweet something smart.

A brand will tweet something oblivious and atrocious. “You don’t have to be the Minnesota dentist who killed a lion to enjoy our sale on Crocs!” The tweet will be deleted. The brand will apologize. The intern will be fired. The brand will go back to tweeting to the void, to the vast nothingness it abuts.

Someone will suggest that we went too hard on the Minnesota dentist who killed the lion. The GoFundMe page will cross $1 million. Someone will set up a counter-fundraiser, for the lions. It will raise far less money. Someone will point out that there are far greater issues in Africa that we should be paying attention to. This person will be ignored. The Minnesota dentist who killed the lion will get a sympathetic interview with Sean Hannity. His wife will sit next to him, dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex. The “liberal media” will be invoked. Twitter will be blamed. The Internet will be blamed. George Soros will be blamed. Ernest Hemingway will be invoked. A Republican presidential candidate who is lagging in the polls and struggling to gain media attention will tweet a photo of himself with an animal he has just killed. The candidate will gain media attention and surge up the polls. The GoFundMe page will cross $2 million in funds raised. Someone will point out what this money could have been put toward, instead of a Minnesota dentist who killed a lion.

Sarah Palin will be invoked.

The story will begin to lose steam. CNN will apologize for labeling Thailand as Zimbabwe. Donald Trump will say something outrageous about Iran. Mike Huckabee will say something outrageous about the Civil War. Joe Scarborough will say something outrageous about pastry strudels. The Minnesota dentist who killed the lion will appear on The Hugh Hewitt Show. The Minnesota dentist who killed the lion will appear on The 700 Club. The Minnesota dentist who killed the lion will appear on the upcoming season of Blue Bloods.

But eventually, ultimately, the Minnesota dentist will go back to practicing dentistry. He will be able to purchase all new dental tools, with the $3 million he raises from GoFundMe. An intern at a large media organization will be assigned a nostalgic listicle, about newsmakers from the past year you may have forgotten.

The intern will invoke the Minnesota dentist who killed a lion. You will definitely have forgotten.

Read the whole story
121 days ago
Nailed. It. (As someone who is a small part of the professional outrage industry, this is almost too real.)
San Francisco, CA
Share this story
Next Page of Stories