My old Jedi master Kurt Andersen, whose assistant I was at Spy magazine, has written the cover story for this week’s Time, a thoughtful piece called “The End of Excess” that serves as a lovely complement to my Vanity Fair essay “Rethinking the American Dream.” Well, Kurt didn’t write his piece as a complement to mine but as its own entity; in fact, I’m told by a mutual friend that Kurt consciously chose not to read my essay, to tune it out, because he didn’t want it to infect his own thought processes. A good thing, too. Kurt’s essay is zippier and more forward-looking than mine–though, inevitably, since I learned so much sitting at his knee (almost literally; the original Spy offices were really small), there are some conspicuous similarities.
A reflective coda to this post: It’s funny, I grew up thinking that such institutions as Time and The New York Times were walled cities, impenetrable to suburban nowheresvillers like me. Yet now, it’s not uncommon for me to know the person behind the byline at either publication–and, in the case of the Times, to land an occasional byline there myself.
When I was a clueless neophyte of 22, I always wondered how on earth my elders in the office knew everyone: How were they all so connected?* Twenty years later, I get college kids asking me this very question. And the simple answer is: You age. As you get older, your orbit of known byline-holders naturally expands simply by virtue of your hanging around. Your original gang of callow-twerp contemporaries eventually disperses to new jobs, as do your original bosses, as do you. You keep in touch with some of these people, get to know their colleagues in their new places, and lo, before you know it, you are “of” the New York media. That’s all there is to it. There’s no secret-society induction ritual or special FastPass allotted to select East Coast Jews. (Or, if there is, I wasn’t privy to it; the Foer brothers might tell you otherwise.)
* I remember being especially awed by how all the older Spy editors referred to the esteemed journalist (and future Time editor) Richard Stengel, a person I had not yet met, as “Rick.”