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The Voice from Beyond the Grave

“Yeah,” Ken said. “It’s like the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands.”

It repeats. Like: A couple of years ago I was feeling extra crazy, so a friend gave me a shrink’s name. I called, and this deep Donald Sutherland voice came on the line. Yes, he said, he had time, I should come by his office on Tuesday afternoon. “Eighty University Place,” he said, sonorously. Sensing hesitation on my part, the shrink asked, “Do you have a problem with that?” No, I said. It was fine. The mere fact that I’d spent four years in the building working for the Village Voice wouldn’t interfere with my therapy, would it? Yet when I arrived for the session to find the shrink’s office on the fifth floor in the back, I had to demur. “Don’t think this is going to work for me,” I told the puzzled analyst.

“Fifth floor in the back, it was just too dense,” I told David Schneiderman when I went to see him a couple of weeks ago. Schneiderman laughed. After all, Schneiderman, whose brother Stuart is a leading American authority on the French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan, was well familiar with the fifth-floor rear of 80 University Place, circa 1979. That was where the editor-in-chief’s office was, the same glassed-in sector where I was hired by Marianne Partridge and, some years later, fired by David Schneiderman. (That should take care of any disclosure issues.)

Not that either of us was holding a grudge. The firing was passed over as a regretful misunderstanding, a product of youth. Schneiderman was a good sport about the whole thing. He could afford to be, since he’d gone from staff-mandated exile, to editor, to publisher (under Stern), to CEO, and now stood to make a rumored half a million dollars for brokering the merger with New Times. He didn’t even flinch when I told him I knew from the moment he walked in the door he was bad news, because if there was anything a 1978 Voice Person understood, it was, don’t hire anyone from the New York Times. Certainly not some deputy from the the op-ed page—and never, ever, make him the editor-in-chief.

That’s because back then a Voice Person didn’t dream of working up to some swell job on the “Metro” section. The New York Times was the enemy. You knew it could send out its mirthless Maginot Line of Princetonians and it wouldn’t matter. If you traveled light and right, you could still beat them to the spot. They could be had. Putting a Timesman, from Johns Hopkins, in charge of the Voice struck me as a sick Murdochian joke, a total capitulation.

Does the Voice’s new owner understand what he’s just bought? “I’m sick of that crap,” he says. “Like we’re from Phoenix or some Wild West dung heap and we’re hayseeds.”

But what did it matter now? Twenty-seven years later, Schneiderman was still there, still the boss. All those wild people, all those famous bylines, and he’d outlived almost every one of them. He was the dominant personality in the entire history of the institution.

He didn’t look all that different, apart from the gray hair. He was still that same lantern-jawed, hingey-looking neo-Dickens–Sephardim in a Brooks Brothers shirt. His status had changed, though. At 36 Cooper Square, he rode upstairs in what most people at the place referred to as “David’s private elevator.” Now the CEO of Village Voice Media, he’d become something of a ghost around the office. Longtime Voice people, including those he used to edit, said they saw him maybe once or twice a year.

“I don’t even know why you came over here,” Schneiderman said, smiling. “Because you’re going to write the same story everyone does, how the Village Voice isn’t what it used to be anymore. But those people say they don’t read the paper, so how would they know?” He could keep using that line to his uptown friends, but it wasn’t going to work with me. Because I read the Voice—every week, if only because there was stuff in there worth reading: my homey Hoberman’s movie reviews, the great Ridgeway, Wayne Barrett, and Tom Robbins, still kicking municipal butt. Still, it was so, the paper wasn’t what it used to be. But why was that?

We kicked around the usual rationales: the end of the left (Schneiderman said it was “a dead movement”), the demise of bohemia, changes in the youth culture, and the decision, in 1996, to go free, that is, give the paper away, as all “alt” papers are. Told that many writers felt that the impact of their work had been diminished when the paper went free, Schneiderman scoffed, adding that there was no choice. “We were below 130,000 circulation, down from a top of 160,000. Now the circulation is 250,000 . . . wouldn’t you rather be read by twice as many people?” Well, yeah, but I wondered where Schneiderman got this quarter-of-a-million number from.