Walking Home/Michael and Me @11:27 pm
I really enjoyed writing that story about Mr. Bard last week. Last year I didn’t write at all, because between 365 Bars and work, there was not enough time in the day. With MAD, I can do whatever I want, so I’ve decided every Tuesday will be Short Story Night. I’ll snap a few photos on the way home and then write a story when I get there. And that’s exactly what’s going to happen right now.
And we're off.
I've walked by this sign thousands of times by now and the hair part always freaks me out. Someday I'm afraid it's going to say, "Wigs & Hair & Thumbs."
The mannequins in the window always scare me as well, but I can't resist looking at them. It's like when a car crash happens.
Where there's smoke, there's fire!
Okay, almost home.
Okay, time to crank this story out.
Michael and Me
When it comes to filmmaker Michael Moore, people usually either love him or hate him. I happen to be a fan of his films and like the guy and not just because I think he’s a fantastic documentarian, but because of something he did for me once. Whenever someone is railing about how they hate Michael Moore, I tell them this story. Not that it would change someone's mind who hate’s Michael Moore’s guts, but just because I’m a motormouth and I like to tell stories. So, there! Here it is.
I think the year would’ve been about 1997 when I was still living on the Upper West Side. I had been publishing my magazine fishwrap for about three and a half years. I was proud of the work I had done with it and the magazine had gotten a decent amount of press through the years. Both the NY Post and the Daily News had written favorably about it, but it also got coverage in the Chicago Tribune, Folio magazine, the NY Press and my favorite piece of press was being the “zine of the month” in Sassy magazine. And I’m not kidding about that either, I made fun of Sassy within fishwrap and I thought it was cool that they got the joke.
The magazine had grown from a 12 page, black and white fanzine, to a 48 page glossy magazine with a four color cover. I got a distribution deal with Big Top publishing and while the print run was small at 5,000 copies, it was still being sold all over the country. And every time I put out an issue I’d lose about a thousand bucks.
I could never sell advertising for the magazine, even though it had gained a cult following. You need big numbers to sell ads and mine were small because I could only afford to pay for the printing of 5,000 magazines. Here’s the way the magazine business works: You print an issue and send them to your distribution company. Then you get your printing bill which usually would have to be paid within 30 to 45 days. The magazine retailed for $4.95, but you don’t get that, the newsstands and book stores get 50 percent of the newsstand sales. And there was nothing you can do about that, without them, no one but your friends would see the magazine. The magazine stays on the stands till the next one goes out. Fishwrap only came out about three times a year because pretty much it was just two of us putting the whole thing together and it’s a lot of work to put together a 48 page magazine with no staff.
I wrote 95 percent of it and my friend Clare was the art director and designed the logo, the covers and laid out most of the pages. When the deadline came close, I’d layout the rest. Then I’d ship the film (yes, this was back in the days when you still used film to print from) to the printer, the printer would send the issues to the distribution company who would ship them to the newsstands and then the newsstands would send back the returns and finally I could get paid for the issues that had been sold. But newsstands take their time to pay, for the same reason Oprah takes a shit on a solid gold, 24-karat toilet. Because they can. So usually it would take you at least a half a year to get your money, and then that didn’t even cover the printing bill.
I had tried to get backing for the magazine and had a business plan, but fishwrap never would’ve been more than a decent little niche magazine and people who back things aren’t usually interested in niche items these days or those days. That’s why slowly but surely everything is starting to suck and look the same, but that’s a whole different story and one I briefly touched on yesterday.
You can’t count on making money off subscriptions and newsstand sales, you have to make it by selling ads. In the seven year run of the magazine I had only been able to sell one successful ad. That was a back cover for Matador records. And they never paid their bill. Why they didn’t pay it is a long story, maybe one I’ll write up next week.
I tried selling ads but was hopeless at it and I barely had time to produce and write the magazine in addition to working my full time job. A rep from Absolut Vodka called me once when USA Today wrote about fishwrap within an article they published about the zine revolution at the time, but when I told him the print run was just 5,000 he told me to call him when it was up to 30,000 and they’d definitely be interested. But I couldn’t print that many without ads. I was stuck in a real catch 22. So I just plundered on and hoped for a miracle.
And that’s when Michael Moore enters the picture.
As I said, the year was 1997 and I was living on the Upper West Side. I was working nights at a pre-press place in midtown and took the subway there every evening. My shift started at 7 pm, so most nights I would head out around 6:15 pm.
I think this was in September of that year and I had an issue of fishwrap in the can. And it was a doozy. I had a cover story with the publisher and editor of High Times and had a great photo of the staff of High Times smoking a joint up on the roof of the building. I decided to make it a drug-themed issue and it was titled the “Just Say Dope” issue. We had some other dope-related stuff in the contents and since High Times had a marijuana foldout every month with the title of “Bud of the Month,” we had our own “Bud of the Month.” Ours was a photo highlighting Bud from “Father Knows Best.” I also had done an oral history of the making of “Please Kill Me” by interviewing the authors, Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. Legs was one of the first people I had met when I moved here and I loved that book. I thought I had done a good job on the oral history and couldn’t wait to get the issue out. The only problem was money. I didn’t have enough to cover the printing and was saving up so I could get the thing out. It was really frustrating waiting and praying for overtime at work so I could get this issue out.
Anyway, I was heading towards the subway station at 72nd and Amsterdam and I was almost there and looked across the street and there on the corner was Michael Moore talking to some guy. Moore lived on the Upper West Side at the time. I had a bag with some copies of fishwrap in it and really wanted to give him a couple. But I didn’t want to butt in when he was talking to someone. Plus I was running late for work.
“Aw fuck it,” I said under my breath and I walked into the subway. I had my token out (yes, this is back in the days when you still had subway tokens), I looked at it and then said, “Aw fuck it,” again, put the token back in my pocket and walked back out to the street.
Michael Moore was still there, but he was still talking to the guy. I figured I’d give it five minutes and if they were still talking, I’d give it up and go to work. Luckily about three minutes in they shook hands and started walking in opposite directions.
I ran after Michael Moore and when I got about a foot behind him I walked about a block and caught my breath and gained whatever composure I usually have.
I walked beside him and acted surprised when I looked in his direction and said, “Hey, Michael Moore! I’m a big fan!” Little did he know I had been stalking him for the last fifteen minutes.
He smiled and said, “Hey, thanks! I appreciate that.”
“Can I ask you something,” I asked him as we walked down the street. By now I had forgotten all about my job.
He stopped walking and said, “Sure, what’s up?”
“Whatever happened to Ben Hamper?” I questioned. Moore’s face lit up when I asked that. Ben Hamper is shown in the beginning of the movie, “Roger and Me.” He’s a friend of Moore’s and he wrote a great book called “Rivethead,” which was the tale of how he had had a nervous breakdown while working on the line at the GM plant in Flint, before they shut it down.
“You read his book?” Moore asked, squinting his eyes.
“Yeah, I loved it,” I told him, “I can really identify with that guy.”
Now Moore looked a little nervous. “Why, have you had a nervous breakdown?”
I laughed and told him no, but I could identify with him, because I was a writer who worked nights to get by. He asked who I wrote for and I told him I had done freelance writing in the past, but these days I was publishing my own magazine. I told him I knew he started out in print and I really wanted him to have a couple copies. He looked through them and was reading stuff here and there and it was nerve-wracking to have Michael Moore reading my writing. I felt great when a couple times he laughed out loud.
“This is great,” he said smiling while perusing an issue. “So, how’s it going for you?” he asked.
That question unleashed an avalanche of whine. I told him it was horrible. I explained I had gotten a lot of press and had a real loyal cult following, but I lost about a thousand bucks everytime I put one out, how I was working a full time night job, I couldn’t find backing and how I had an issue in the can, but couldn’t afford to have it printed.
When I finished my whine-fest he asked me the following question: “Would three thousand dollars help you get it out?”
I’m not sure, but I bet my mouth went into fly catcher mode as I said, “Well, yeah, that would just about pay for it, why?”
With this he took out a scrap of paper, and wrote a phone number on it and said, “I have a foundation where I give out three thousand dollar grants to filmmakers. You’re not a filmmaker, but I like what you’re doing and want to help you out. Call this number tomorrow and a woman named Melissa will answer. I’ll tell her about you and she’ll take your information. I hope you don’t take this wrong, but I don’t know you and can’t cut you a personal check for three grand. What I’ll do is send it to your printer, if you can give Melissa the information.”
I was stunned. It’s one of the few times in my big mouth life where I was truly speechless.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said taking the piece of paper with the phone number and his email on it. Below that it simply said, “$3,000.”
“You don’t have to say anything,” he said smiling and smacking me on the shoulder. “Just keep doing the good work!”
“I will,” I promised. “Thank you so much,” I said sticking out my hand.
We shook hands and he took off.
I went in to work and told the story to anyone who would listen and even those that wouldn’t.
That issue came out and since I didn’t have to pay for the printing, I was able to save up some dough to keep the momentum going till 2000 when I pulled the plug on fishwrap when the magazine had run its course.
Michael Moore is still making films and I’m still writing. After all, a promise is a promise.