“It is depressing,” says one critic. “I thought if I stayed serious, I’d create a body of work that might win me a Pulitzer. At least I had the hope. Now what can I show, these little postage stamps?”
Meanwhile, management, always legendarily cheap (Schneiderman once declared that no Voice reporter was allowed to use 411; the policy was dropped after people started calling 1-718-555-1212, which was more expensive), kept downsizing. Gary Giddins, only the best jazz critic in the country, was pushed out after three decades. Sylvia Plachy, who along with James Hamilton had given the Voice a very distinctive photographic look, was laid off, apparently to save her $20,000 stipend. Her son, the actor Adrien Brody, an office regular back in his toddling days, often making copies of his face by pressing his nose to the glass of the Xerox machine, came to help her move.
“He had this baseball hat jammed down over his head, demanding to know who fired his mother,” one observer recounts.
Hearing some of this, Michael Lacey frowns. He’d been ranting about how even though he’d come from a union household, and his brother, who helped build the World Trade Center, was the president of a midwestern boilermakers local, which was no “pussy union,” he had no use for organized labor. This didn’t mean he expected any trouble from the Voice union. What he hoped would happen, Lacey said with confounding plutocrat noblesse oblige, was that the Voice employees would realize a union wasn’t necessary, “because we take good care of our people.”
Word of bad morale at the Voice, however, brought Lacey up short. Although no slouch with the downsize scythe himself (mass-firing tales are legend in the New Times canon), Lacey shook his head at stories of layoffs. “You don’t get rid of good people just to save money. They’re too hard to find. You don’t discourage them. You want a lively newsroom, some action. Sturm. Drang. That place seemed dead.”
He couldn’t seem to get over David Schneiderman, his new partner, referring to himself as “a numbers guy.” He liked Schneiderman and had learned not to underestimate him. But “a numbers guy? . . . Sounds like death. I can’t even balance my checkbook. “It’s so sick the way most of the business runs. The top editors don’t edit. Never touch a piece of copy. What do they do all day, think beautiful thoughts? The way we do it, the editors have to write too. They should never forget how hard it is, the fucking agony of it. I make myself write and report. It kills me, but I do it.”
Then, loud enough for the other diners to turn around, Lacey declared, “God help me, I’m in a business of weenies!”
The next day, I was talking on the phone to Robert Christgau, the Voice’s archetypically thorny “Dean of Rock Critics.” He asked me what I thought of Michael Lacey. I said he’d probably turn out to be a nightmare, but so far I kind of liked him.
“What do you like about him?” Bob demanded.
“I don’t know . . . he’s got this bonkers sincerity about him. Who knows what he’ll do, but I got the feeling he genuinely wants to make the paper better.”
Christgau snorted. “I doubt if his conception of how to make the paper better conforms to mine.”
Then he hung up. Conversations with Bob Christgau have a habit of being truncated without warning. Often voluminous on the page, verbally he retains a compelling gift of concision. After Nelson Rockefeller reputedly died after sex with the young Megan Marshack, Bob said, “If I knew it would kill him, I would have blown him myself.” When John Lennon was shot, he bemoaned, “Why is it always Robert Kennedy and John Lennon, not Richard Nixon and Paul McCartney?” Personally, I’ve always treasured Christgau’s assessment of my work. During the era of the Reggie Jackson Yankees, I wrote a not particularly friendly piece about the team. Christgau, a Yanks fan, came over to my desk.
“Read your piece,” he said. “Really sucked.” Then he stomped away. I never even got a chance to thank him for his input.
Christgau’s comment about Mike Lacey seemed likewise to the point, a perfect Voice Person reply. To wit: Sure, Lacey and his crew could take over, as Leonard Stern, Clay Felker, and Murdoch had done before. They could fire everyone, turn the paper into a desert flatter than Camelback Road. They might temporarily own the paper’s little red boxes, its famous name. But they would never control its soul, never truly silence the legitimate keepers of the VV logos.