Today's Times reveals the hellish life of a traveling magazine crews — you know, those kids who go door to door selling subscriptions to Reader's Digest and Rolling Stone "to earn points for a foreign trip." The sellers, mostly troubled teens trying to escape gang life, are wheeled from town to town in vans and given less than $10 a day in food allowance, their wages held hostage for later payment that may never come. At the end of a ten- to fourteen-hour shift, they're dumped in fleabag motels — the day's lowest seller sleeps on the floor — where they kill time ingesting industrial quantities of crystal meth and rutting like rabbits. If that is sounding in any way appealing, there's also this: Crew managers also administer savage beatings.
The image of one of our city's slickest imports being foisted on the rest of America by addled, indentured serfs is a pretty hair-raising one. Needless to say, Time Inc., Condé Nast, Hearst, and Meredith all deny using mag crews, with only the Reader's Digest Association fessing up to hiring "third-party agents." And the byzantine hierarchy of magazine distribution is so thickly interlaid with middlemen that it allows Manhattan to wash its hands of any and all wrongdoing. The publisher hires a clearinghouse, the clearinghouse hires managers, and so on. In the words of a former crew bookkeeper, "money is this industry flows up." After all, those Michael's tabs ain't gonna pay themselves.