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August 15th, 2002 by

By Slidell Montgomery

MuckdogsIn 1969 a black nineteen-year-old pitcher from Los Angeles reported to the Pittsburgh Pirates’ single-A affiliate in Batavia for duty. He had had a couple of problems in rookie training camp in Florida with some of the good old boys that were still taking their cues from Ty Cobb and Cap Anson. Their casting of anachronistic epithets toward Ellis landed him in a few fistfights before he got out of there. After arriving in Batavia he was starting in his first professional game against Geneva, when some clown in the stands shouted something about “Stepin Fetchit.” Ellis went after him with a leaded baseball bat. Batavia’s manager and couple players had to go into the grandstand and get Ellis off the redneck.

Ellis went on to enjoy an exemplary big league career, most of in Pittsburgh. Pitching for the National League in the 1971 All-Star game in Detroit , he served a fatty to future Hall-of-Famer Reggie Jackson and Jackson hit the ball into the stratospherically high right field lighting rig for what has became a legendary home run.

That humiliation Ellis suffered in Detroit was evidently still smarting five elliscard.jpgyears later when he was pitching for the Yankees in a game against Jackson’s new team, the Orioles. Jackson shouted a challenge at Ellis from the dugout over a play they hadn’t even involved Jackson. When Jackson came to the plate later Yankees’ catcher Thurman Munson came out to the mound to make sure Ellis hadn’t missed Jackson’s slight. Ellis told Munson to get his fat butt behind the plate, not to bother with any signals and to him watch him work. Then Ellis threw a pitch at Jackson’s face that put Jackson on the disabled list for 28 games. Ellis claims there were three $100 bills taped to his locker after the game.

Pitching for Pittsburgh against Cincinnati one game, Dock Ellis, in what is likely still the record, purposely hit the first three Reds’ batters just because he wasn’t happy with the passive attitude of his own teammates.

ellis_acid.jpgMakes the Piazza/Clemens rivalry sound like Bobby and Peter Brady fighting over the last Popsicle.

Surely Ellis’ most impressive feat occurred in San Diego, June 12, 1970. Ellis had been in his hometown of Los Angeles during a Pirates’ West Coast road trip. He had lost track of day somewhere and woke up in Los Angeles the morning of the first game of a series in San Diego. It was Friday, the day of his next scheduled start. Ellis, thinking it was Thursday, took at hit of acid. Somewhere in route to San Diego Ellis came to the realization that he was working that day. He went on to throw an eight-walk no-hitter against the Padres. Something he didn’t admit to having accomplished while on LSD until years later.

What this has to do with today’s Muckdogs is clear. They offer a grand opportunity for us see future big league greatness before the players are tainted with the stain of greed and extortion at the expense of the loyal fans.

I asked Muckdogs’ starting pitcher Lee Gwaltney if he thought he could throw a no-hitter under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen, “I don’t know. I’ve never taken acid,” he announced. Then he turned and ran to the team’s clubhouse.

Muckdogs’ PA announcer Wayne Fuller, who used to do radio play-by-play for Buffalo’s indoor soccer Stallions, remembers the Ellis era in Batavia, “That was before the drug days,” said Fuller. Then he switches on his mike and smoothly reads an ad for a Batavia tavern, T.F. Brown’s: “For Fun, Fantastic, Food, it’s T.F. Brown’s. You can also see the girl give head to a bottle.” Only he had switched his mic off for the last part of that. Then he described, off-mic, a recent, fairly innocent impromptu performance by a young lady at said tavern. I asked him if he ever fucked up and left his mic on for one of his sidebars. He laughed as if to say “yes” but said, “No”.

Fuller also used to work for Trailways Bus lines and affirmed the authenticity of Tom Sartori’s Greyhound ticket to Indiana. “Did you guys really pay fifty bucks for that?” I admitted that we had and he squinted and said, “That’s nonrefundable.”

The Dwyer Stadium press box usually accommodates about six people, working the scoreboard, the sound system, covering the game for the local paper. They have more fun than most of the paying customers. While watching a 12″ TV they come up with alternate applications for T.F. Brown’s FFF theme, like Fabulous Fake Felatio. The sound guy, Paul Bisig, plays classic George Carlin routines over the PA when there is an unusually long delay in the game. When the other team changes pitchers mid-inning he’ll put on Aerosmith’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady”.

When the Pope was in Toronto recently, Fuller was watching a TV news clip on the visit and said, “You know that movie “Weekend at Bernie’s”? That’s what the Pope is like now.”

Despite the party vibe in the press box the ‘Dogs of the field can’t get their groove back of late. They seem tethered to .500 territory. They’ll take off on a four game win streak here or there but the bottom line is that they’ve lost 12 of their last 17.

Carlos Cabrera (7-1, 2.64 ERA) and Erick Arteaga (3-1 2.57ERA) continue to flourish on the mound. The offense has been here today and gone tomorrow for several weeks with notable consistency coming only from catcher and utility fielder Mark McRoberts, who leads the team in batting with a .313 average and HRs with 4.

The ‘Dogs are now three games below even and ten games behind the league and division leading Auburn Doubledays.

Upcoming Home games:

16- Jamestown (Florida Marlins’ Affiliate)
18-20 New Jersey (Cardinals’ Affiliate)
25,26- Mahoning Valley, OH (Indians’ Affiliate)
28 Jamestown
30- Lowell, MA (Red Sox’ Affiliate)

Mon-Sat game time is 7:05 PM; Sunday’s games are at 4:05 PM.


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August 15th, 2002 by

How to spot still more BEAST-written letters to Artvoice

They must not get a lot of letters to the editor at Artvoice. Of the six we’ve written so far, five have now been published [see here, here, and here]. That’s a pretty decent batting average. Even master prank letter-writers like Flann O’Brien and Don Novello usually struck out about half the time. Then again, they were penetrating much thicker armor. We got two more letters in last week:

avletter1.jpgExhibit A

Of all the material featured recently in Artvoice’s increasingly incoherent front section, none has been weirder than its apparent recent marriage with local raging asshole/eighth-rate Walter Winchell wannabe Dick Kern, whose psychotic and baldly libelous e-mailings have left even 1st amendment poster children like the staff of this newspaper tempted to endorse the castration and/or summary execution of obnoxious journalists. A few weeks ago, Artvoice put a smiling Kern on the cover and let him rant at length in the inside pages about James Pitts’s relations with white women. Given that Kern had already blasted our newspaper in his e-missives for our practice of writing fake letters in to Artvoice, we felt fairly sure that the latter’s editorial page editors would be on guard for a phony letter in praise of Dick Kern. No such luck. This one breezed through; read in sequence the first word of each sentence in the body of the letter.

avletter2.jpgExhibit B

One of the goals of this whole exercise was to change the makeup of the Artvoice letters section. We figured that after getting through enough times by writing phony blowjob letters, Artvoice might eventually become paranoid about printing ANY positive letters at all; and would, instead, eventually print nothing but negative letters. Which, of course, was great for us. Anticipating this, we decided to start sending nasty letters in the belief that they would probably now sail on through unedited. This first one, in which we posed as a black woman blasting cycling enthusiast/liberal columnist Michael Niman for being a racist, did.

To see the hidden message in this one, you just had to delete a few words here and there. The message reads, “This letter was written by a much funnier newspaper across town.”

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August 2nd, 2002 by


And wouldn’t you know it, Velma gets a gusher of a ‘monster’al period the night Gary was coming over. My ex-old man, Kermit–we went out (not too often, believe me) for almost a month, two Sabres seasons ago, when The Dominator was still here–used to say about my periods, “I’m afraid of anything that bleeds for five days and doesn’t die.” But, I really liked Kermit. He could be really sweet. Except he had this thing called CVS, or Cyclical Vomiting Syndrome, and I had saved up some money from working over to the plant and took us on a vacation cruise to the Bermudas. It was real nice and not even weird. Everybody talked English and had heard of all the same music from here and the TV shows and everything. So when we got to Bermuda and went to the hotel, Kermit starts throwing up like he had drunk twenty pitchers of peach schnapps or whatever. I mean he was fine on the boat and everything, when I all’s I wanted to do was puke, but he got really sick in the hotel room. I was like “Hey, I didn’t pay for all this shit to watch you curled up on the fucking bathroom floor like Rod Stewart or some fucking faggot who just had 20 guys jizz into his gullet or whatever.” And he was like, “Velma, I’m really sick. It’s this condition I’ve had since…” Then he’d go back to heaving again, making these animal sounds from way down in his guts, and all’s I was thinking was, wussy, pussy, sissy. I mean I could see if he had eaten some old, warm oysters or drank like two bottles of pure grain or something but “condition” and “syndrome.” Cut me a little for real time, loser. Do you want your mommy to come over and give you a hot water enema and wash your little pea pod nut sack off with a silk napkin?

I went out anyway and danced all night with this really cute guy from Tampa, Florida or somewhere who said he sometimes, in Florida, danced in girl’s clothes for money or whatever. I thought, whatever blows the gas outta your ass, fella. Fucking freak, if you ask Velma.

So now, Gary is on his way over and I was going to wear these really tight Lycra, crotch-hugger shorts but I had this huge pussy mop taped to my bloomers. So I had to put on this slinky black dress that I haven’t worn since I used to go to Bisons’ games cause everybody said that some of those ballplayers were going to get rich one day and they were from out of town and were all from the country someplace and were supposed to be married and have like five kids by now, to cover up the Kotex, but it still showed. And this dress has those, like, thin bra straps, so you can’t wear a bra–unless it’s black and then you look like a tramp–and don’t leave much to the imagination in the juggy region. But nine o’clock came and went and then ten o’clock went by and he didn’t answer his phone so I thought I would go over to The Tralf, which is where he said we were going to go cause, he said, it was a real classy joint, and see if his bald ass was down there.

So when I got there the cover was like twelve fucking dollars for this band I never heard of called Ike Turner (I mean, I could see it if it was Tina Turner or whatever) but these guys that I did know about, Willie & the Reinhardts, were playing too and I thought maybe they might remember me from when they played at The Mohawk Place after Pat Benetar at Thursday In The Square, so I tried talking to the door guy for a minute but this prissy little twit with an ass as flat as a used rubber kept butting in. So, I just paid so I could get away from them.

Big surprise, I don’t see Gary anywhere. And I’m drinking these Jaegermeister and vodka shooters and I see this guy I remember from high school, Paul Kosmk. And I says, “Hey, Mr. K. bet you don’t remember me.” And he looks at me like “Huh?” It was real funny. Then I said, “we made out together,” (I don’t think we ever did, but I always wanted to). “Don’t you remember me?” And this hoggy bitch on the barstool behind him rears up and says to Paul “Who’s your friend?” And now Paul gets squirmy, stammering and shit and says, “Uh, this is, um…” I says “Velma, honey” And all she says is “Oh” and looks away. Paul is friendly though and we talk and then he remembers me and I buy him a drink and the whole time Miss Piggy is pouting and acting all catty. Then, when Paul walked back to look at t-shirts by the front door, I went back and talked to him a little more and we were standing in the hallway by the restrooms and I was leaning against the wall and he reached out to touch my arm and Bertha Butt came rumbling down the hall and gets all bitchy with Paul and pulls him into the ladies’ john and I wait like five minutes and then Paul comes out and won’t even look at me.

So I push in the door of the john and Fatsack is in the mirror doing damage control and I say, “Hey, cuntscab, what’s your problem with me?” And she’s just like, “Oh, whatever do you mean?” So I just shove her into one of the stalls and grab her by the back of her bleached-out straw mop and push her over the toilet and turn her head toward me and say “I hate twats like you. You’re gonna lick my wad, you fucking cow.” And she’s all terrified and shit like some snively little cheerleader. But I just don’t give a fuck. I’m so fucking sick of these blimps running around spreading it for any guy drunk enough to pump them. And I pushed the heifer’s face down between my legs and pulled up my dress and …

Velma had a bad week. I hate those fucking hippos.


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[sic] OF IT ALL

August 2nd, 2002 by

[sic] OF IT ALL

Tom Sartori is the most misunderstood artist in Buffalo. His talent eludes the self-absorbed integrity snobs Buffalo gently suckles. With heartwarming baby rock, this one man musical molasses adheres to those whom enjoy excellent songwriting. To remove this aural gem from our wonderful city would be paving over a garden. Show a little class you fiendish posse of perverted invertebrates.

Fredrick Balloons

The Beast replies:

Dear Frederick,
You had us going for a second there, we’ll admit it.

Frederick responds:

Yeah, I know. It was hard to write with a straight face. The absurdity preserves its humor.


Dear Frederick,
An “A’ for effort. The “perverted invertebrates” was a nice touch.


Dear [sic],
Once again my heart has melted into a sloppy goo upon viewing one of your very own Beast employees. From the moment she walks in the door to the moment she leaves, my heart starts pounding to the point where I become short of breath. I start getting light-headed and I begin to trip over my own words like a nerdy 6th grader asking the class ‘hottie’ to the school dance.

For sake of embarassment, we’ll call her M. Hedberg, nah…that’s too obvious, we’ll call her Masha H.

I just want to know what my chances are of possibly going out on a date with her. Chances are that I would shake uncontrollably and make a complete ass of myself if there were even the slightest chances of a date. So let’s just forget I even mentioned it.

How about that mayor huh?


Dear d.t.m.,
Actually, Masha is a man. Check out her adam’s apple next time she comes in.


[Eds. note: The BEAST received the following pair of letters, one after another, within a few hours in the middle of last week]


To all you scum-sucking, punker-than-the foul, ass, ever-present stank, of pungent methane leak from your, rag you got there, fresh from your colon, and out on to the streets, and in to establishments of our beloved Queen City,

I am starting up my own publication, we will do everything in our power to be the antithesis of your ignorant sewage… Buffalo is a well-cultured city, a great many of us went to school here, and have spent a good deal of time in the area. This generation of local media must have high standards. You crossed a very sensitive line with your first issue’s little “joke” about hijackings, and murdering mass numbers of people, you have embarrassed your self, and you have NO HONOR…

Let’s just assume that we put that issue on the back burner (-and believe me, the stove is on high heat), but if we were to disregard your deficiencies, your comedically challenged disabilities, and the fact that you are illiterate, what do we have left in that piece of shit, that you have now subjected us to, for the last few weeks… With little 3 year old boys, that you have over there editing your “Punker than shit,” paper, that obvioissue’ss no invested intereshijackingsommunity, other than to mock it, while the biggest local story of our time, the fiscal crisis in the city budget, especially in tnbspftermath of 9-11, (remember that massacre that you like to joke about? -You slimy, bottom feeding, parasites). You have no credibility, you have taken advantage of this City’s businesses and insulted the vast majority of public opinion, and picked one hell of a time to do it you fucking ass hole, terrorist-tabloid, Shit suckers.

It is time to be professional. I know that word seers your skin,comedicallypire to the cross, but you must now apologize to the people of City of Buffalo, the people who you offended in their own home, then head back to the rock you crawled out from under…

And now for the second letter:

I love your newspaper. Can I marry into the Beast?

Oh yeah, I had a reason for writing… This guy sent you an email about how he hates you and thinks you’re insensitive ( he read one of your earlier articles that said you didn’t want to hijack a plane and crash it in to the HSBC tower… man that pissed him off, “after what happened on 9/11…”)and what-not, but he also said he wants to start his own publication to run you out of town, well could you annoy him as much as possible? I really get a kick when he gets so pissed off. It would really mean a lot to me.


ps.I know you aren’t worried about his publication,but it really will never exist. Trust me.

Dear Bekah,
This might be the most satisfying pair of [sic] letters we’ve ever gotten. Give us a call and we’ll send you some free paraphernalia.


Alright Beast.

I am a rather homely being that hasn’t tasted the sacred nectar tween a woman’s gams in ages. Just wondering if your rating system is based on personal experience or what your friends have bragged about. And to whom must I compare myself, looks-wise and “lines” or “game”, if you will. Do the ratings apply to all of us sloths? And another question, if a bar gets a 3 stars in fahkie and 3 in fracas, does that mean you have to kick some girl’s boyfriends ass to get a piece?

Desperately seeking sex

Dear Desperately,

For someone like you, three stars means that if you go to the bar every day for a year, a girl in a halter top will eventually ask you for a cigarette. As for us, all we have to do is show them our brand-new Dodge Viper, complete with brown leather bucket seats and neon running lights, and they’re ours.

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August 2nd, 2002 by


Cindy TillmanName: Cindy Tillman

Age: 44

Turn-ons: guys who cook, Pocono vacations, the 19th Amendment, pantsuits, divorced men, Anna Quindlen–or any of the authors on Oprah’s list!

Turn-offs: body odor, bad posture, slutty girls, Afghanistan, Bob Packwood, red meat, men who like “thin” girls, which is a relative term anyway and only based on sexist cultural traditions

How I became the BEAST Page 3 Empowered Woman: Well, my eldest son Spencer got an internship with The BEAST this summer, which is a long story in itself; he had a brief bi-curious period last fall, when he had a fling with a nephew of guitarist Robert Cray, who as it happens was in Buffalo this spring to do some studio work with a band The BEAST was developing. The band never made it, but numbers were exchanged and Spencer got a job. So when he learned the editors were looking for a Page 3 Empowered Woman, he came straight to me!

Future plans: I should be getting a promotion in the next six months, unless I’m passed over again for a less-qualified man. I have some periodenture I want to get done, and I have a film project about cats that I’m pursuing with Albert Sayles, who’s a great friend.

How I want to be remembered: As a fabulous mother who put her goals and ambition before society’s rules for what a woman should be. As an avid reader and a huge Paul Simon fan.

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August 2nd, 2002 by

How the BEAST was hired to build James Kopp’s beard
by Matt Taibbi

Light attracts moths. Fake beards attract comedians. Some laws of nature are simply immutable.

A few weeks ago, BEAST reporter and head coach Slidell Montgomery called me in a panic. He was manic, barely understandable on the phone. The right fake beard story will do that to a professional humorist. “Did you fucking read the newspaper?” he said. “They’re going to put Kopp in a fake beard for the lineup!”

“What?” I said.

“James Kopp, the guy accused of shooting the abortion doctor Slepian…”

“I know who he is,” I snapped. “What’s this about a fake beard?”

Slidell slowed down and explained the story, by now well-known to most everybody in this city. Kopp was to be placed in a lineup wearing a fake beard, fake mustache, and dyed hair to simulate what police say his appearance was four years ago, before he fled in anticipation of arrest for Dr. Barnett Slepian’s murder.

The decision by Erie County judge Michael D’Amico was immediately called “highly controversial” in the press for the predictable reason that the defense, led by legendary attorney Paul Cambria, considered the wholescale alteration of a suspect’s appearance for a lineup somewhat, er, prejudicial. After all, if you follow the reasoning behind this kind of technique to its logical end, you could conceivably end up with prosecutors dressing up suspects as the Hamburglar, and asking witnesses to pick the criminal out of the lineup. The whole idea seemed shaky, to say the least.

The lineup idea was made even more controversial by the delicate legal gymnastics needed to justify it. Whether or not it actually intended to do so, the prosecution, led by District Attorney Frank Clark and Assistant DA Joe Marusak, could not say that it wanted to make Kopp up to look like the witness descriptions of the person seen outside Dr. Slepian’s house in the days before the shooting. That would be prejudicial on its face, so to speak. And the idea of making him up to look like his pictures and mugshots from previous arrests seemed equally ridiculous. That concept reminded me of the old Joseph Heller joke from We Bombed in New Haven:

General to Lieutenant: We’re going to bomb them right off the map.

Lieutenant: Why don’t we just bomb the map?

If you’re making him up to look like a picture, why not just show the picture? And in general the whole idea of having a lineup after four years of intense press coverage of the case, coverage that had the infamous mugshots of Kopp on front pages and on national television about once every five minutes or so, seems ridiculous; it would appear an easy matter for a defense attorney to argue on appeal that the witnesses would not have been able to not know instantly which of the bearded men in the lineup was James Kopp, suspect.

But all of these were abstract legal questions that attorneys on both sides would doubtless argue over for years to come. The questions that came to our minds when we heard about the lineup were more immediate and concrete: Where the hell does an Erie County prosecutor go to find a fake beard? and On a scale of one to ten, exactly how outrageously funny-looking will Kopp’s beard be when they finally wheel it out for the lineup?

The range of possibilities was intriguing to consider. Independent of each other, Slidell and I had both immediately focused on the preposterous prop used by Woody Allen in the movie Bananas, in which the Allen character fleeces the entire world, including the analytical department of the CIA, by sporting a three-dollar costume store fake beard as he assumes the identity of a Latin American dictator. We both imagined Kopp in the guise of Allen’s Fielding Mellish character, nervously blowing the fake mustache strands off of his lips as he warmed up the United Nations crowd with a joke before a speech: “As I stand here before you today, I am reminded of the farmer who had incestuous relations with his daughter…”

There was also the Abe Lincoln model, an option that seemed too absurd to consider but would later prove not too far off the mark…

Law enforcement and clever disguise have always been contradictions in terms. There is no creature on earth less qualified to avoid the pitfalls of unintentional comedy than a middle-aged policeman or prosecutor grappling with the nuances of wigs and makeup. In all of literature there is perhaps no funnier passage than the section of G. Gordon Liddy’s autobiography, Will, in which Business Card
Liddy describes the “disguises” he and fellow White House henchman Howard Hunt used before their break-in into the office of Lewis Fielding, the psychiatrist for Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg.

Liddy and Hunt contrived to wear polyester lounge clothes and special braces on their feet that would make them appear to be walking with limps. Apparently this disguise in the garb of handicapped Floridan tourists would make them less conspicuous as they went about their business of burglarizing a California physician’s office at night.

Liddy and Hunt were the best and the brightest in the American security apparatus at the time. If that was what White House first-teamers will come up with in the area of appearance alteration, one can only imagine what an Erie County prosecutor will do when faced with the assignment of finding a fake beard. Unless someone stepped in to save the day, we thought, it was only a matter of time before someone caught Frank Clark roaming the aisles of a Spencer Gift store, rummaging for beards under a pile of magic 8-balls.

We at the BEAST were curious to see how desperate the situation was at the DA’s office. So we decided one afternoon last week to put in an exploratory phone call to Marusak, the prosecutor in charge of trying the Kopp case. As it turned out, affairs in their office were in such chaos that what started out as a simple phone gag, spurred by mere curiosity, ended in one of the more surreal episodes in our journalistic careers–with the District Attorney offering us, in a formal face-to-face interview, the job of making up the face of James Kopp.

Aaron's crowning achievementIn our initial phone call, we decided to just throw a few things against the wall, just to see what would stick. As is becoming increasingly evident, walls are very sticky in this town when it comes to pranks. Posing as “Aaron Wolfsheim,” a vacationing Hollywood makeup artist, I spoke first to a switchboard operator, then to attorney Jeff Hagen, and finally to Marusak, to whom I cordially offered my services:

Marusak:   Joe Marusak.

BEAST:   Hello, Mr. Marusak?

Marusak:   Yes?

BEAST:   Hi, my name is Aaron Wolfsheim. I’m a makeup artist.

Marusak:   Okay!

BEAST:   I’m actually a Buffalo native, but I work in Los Angeles.

Marusak:   Uh-huh.

BEAST:   I’ve done a lot of work in movies. I worked on Planet of the Apes. I don’t know if you saw the recent movie, but I did Helena Bonham Carter’s makeup.

Marusak:   [skeptically] Okay…

BEAST:   And I’m home visiting relatives, and I was reading about this Kopp trial. And I was wondering if you’d found someone to do the makeup for the lineup, and if you’d be interested in seeing some of my work.

Marusak:   Yeah! I would! In fact, it’s ironic that you called, because we’re in the process right now of trying to, uh, use someone. I had someone that I used on a criminal case, oh, God, it must have been ten years ago. And the telephone numbers that I have for her are no longer valid, so…

BEAST:   So you haven’t found anybody, huh?

Marusak:   So we struck out there.

A decade of Law and Order episodes had not prepared me for the reality of a District Attorney who stops at dialing an old telephone number when searching for someone who is not hiding. It seemed to me that any adult American male over the age of twenty who has ever been so hard up for sex that he’s been forced to look up an old girlfriend would know how to proceed past the “old telephone number no longer works” problem. Momentarily unnerved, I pressed on:

Marusak:   We’re in the process of looking, so yeah, I would definitely like to see something, uh, that you’ve done.

BEAST:   Well, if you just want something for a preliminary look, you can see some of the movies that I’ve done. I was in Splash 3, I did all of the costumes for that…

There never was a Splash 3. Marusak was unfazed:

Marusak:   Uh-huh!

BEAST:   And, like I said, I did Planet of the Apes, I did Helena Bonham Carter… and, uh [scrambling to think], I worked for Dino Di Laurentis for many years.

Marusak:   [impressed] Oh!

BEAST:   So I’m just home for a couple of weeks…

Marusak:   Oh, perfect!

BEAST:   I could come by any time.

Marusak:   Do you have your materials with you?

BEAST:   Yeah, I have a kit. I’m working on some models while I’m here.

Marusak:   Okay!

Genuinely freaked out by this point, I decided, in a panic almost, to throw something else out there:

BEAST:   There might be some things that I’m missing, but… I’m good. I’m so good, if I did you, they’d pick you out of the lineup.

Marusak:   [again impressed] Wowwwww!

BEAST:   [laughing] So when would be a good time for me to come by?

Marusak:   Well, how about… well, let’s see. Let’s take a peek about my calendar… Today is the 23rd. How is Thursday, the 25th?

BEAST:   Sounds good.

Marusak:   What’s good for you?

BEAST:   How about sometime after noon?

Marusak:   Okay. Let’s shoot for two o’clock.

BEAST:   Okay.

As soon as this phone call was over (Marusak spent an inordinate amount of time giving me directions not only to his office building, but from the elevator on his floor to his office), I hung up the phone and sat for a moment in stunned silence. There seemed to be no question that I actually had to go in to Marusak’s office for the interview. God’s vengeance is unerring when such rare opportunities as these are squandered. Little as I liked the idea of waltzing into the District Attorney’s office to pull this kind of stunt, I knew there was no way out.

But what would I do if he actually offered me the job? That was a trickier question, but after a heated discussion in the BEAST offices, we settled on a plan for that, too. In the meantime, we had a serious task before us: we had less than 48 hours to turn me into a plausible candidate for a job in a million-dollar, internationally celebrated criminal trial.

One of the ironic things about this story is that within about twenty minutes after our call to Marusak, we at the BEAST managed to track down a qualified professional makeup artist, with a degree in industrial design that included training in makeup and effects, who was willing to teach us the ropes of fake beard application. This was clearly the first order of business. If I was going to go in to the DA’s office and interview for the Kopp makeup job, I needed to sound like I knew what I was talking about.

It seemed impossible that a bunch of slackers running a two-bit humor newspaper would be able to instantly find the right guy for the job right here in Buffalo, when a mighty state apparatus with an unlimited budget couldn’t manage to find anyone, anywhere, qualified or not, in any length of time. But this was apparently the case.

FangoriaWhile I met with the Expert for my beard tutorial, our designers set to work making up the necessary props for Aaron Wolfsheim’s resume. Pressed for time, we focused on the essentials. Any reputable special effects artist, we knew, would want first and foremost to be able to show a picture of himself on the cover of Fangoria magazine, that blood-spattered Bible of the effects industry. We dug up an old back issue at Queen City Bookstore that featured a mangled latex head from the movie F/X; our nymphomaniac trailer-trash designer Velma Stark scanned it in, adding in one corner a doctored photo that featured my face on the body of an effects artist with a truly spectacular early-90s mullet. The picture could not possibly have been more ridiculous, but there was no question of not trying to use it. Underneath the photo, we added the dramatic headline: AARON WOLFSHEIM BREAKS THE MOLD.

Next step: the obligatory photo of a slightly older Aaron Wolfsheim with his arm around Robert Englund, a.k.a. Freddie Krueger. The original photo we found featured Englund with his arms around a man in his late thirties who had the awful haircut and hideously unhealthy body of a top-flight Hollywood cosmetic artist. I posed for a picture that imitated the expression on the man’s face, looking in mock fright down and to my right at Englund’s famous razor-bladed fingers resting on my shoulder. Velma morphed that picture onto the original, and there I was, sporting a prominent set of middle-aged man-titties and standing with my arms around Freddie Krueger.

FreddieWe made a few other pictures, including an 8×11 still of Helena Bonham-Carter in ape costume, which I was going to point to as my “crowning achievement” (I also planned to drop hints that I’d had an affair with the actress, but, sadly, the opportunity never arose). Then we drew up a set of campy business cards with a Planet of the Apes theme (Aaron worked for a company called “Modern Prosthetics” that specialized in “Meeting the economic prosthetic, mask, makeup, realistic recreation and effects needs of the motion picture, film, video and theater industries”), and set to work sketching out a believable biography for Mssr. Wolfsheim. Among other things, I planned to have him take credit for building the Sasquatch costume from a Carlsberg commercial from the early nineties, one which “didn’t get a lot of airplay” but was “well-received by people in the business.”

I got a good night’s sleep the night before the meeting. Then, in the morning, I met Velma to gather up the sight gags before retiring to our offices in the luxurious Statler Towers to get mentally prepared.

On the way out the door just before two, I realized I’d made a serious error. The previous evening, one of our other designers, who’d been in charge of making the business cards, had called me to ask what telephone number to put under Aaron’s name.

“Put Artvoice’s number on there,” I’d said reflexively, not even thinking.

“Done,” he’d said.

Now I had a stack of those cards in hand and I realized that they all bore numbers with 716 area codes–which didn’t exactly fit the profile of a Los Angeles-based effects artist. In a panic, I took a pen and frantically crossed out all of the 716′s as I walked across Niagara Square, replacing them all with the more appropriate 323 area code.

Confidence momentarily rattled, I walked into the DA’s office at 25 Delaware, passed through the metal detector, and headed for the third floor. I needed to take a leak, but I was afraid to ask anyone where the bathroom was. I was sure that the fraud was written on my face so clearly that the first word out of my mouth would get me shot with a Taser gun and dragged into custody. But I wasn’t able to stall for long before a short bald man in shirtsleeves and a tie caught me meandering in the third-floor hallway.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m looking for Joe Marusak.”

“And you are?” he asked.

“Aaron Wolfsheim,” I said. “I’m a makeup artist… I have an appointment.”

“Oh, hello, Aaron,” he said, shaking my hand. “I’m Jeff Hagen. We spoke on the phone. He’s expecting you.”

“Uh-huh. Do you have a rest room?” I blurted out.

Hagen led me to a rest room, right up to the door. For a moment I thought he was going to come in with me. But he backed away at the last moment, then waited in the hallway… When I came out a moment later, he led me into his office for what I quickly gathered would be some kind of pre-interview.

“Joe’s on the phone,” he explained. “In the meantime, I’ll just need to ask you a few questions.”

Hagen pulled out a fresh yellow legal pad and glared at me with a blank expression.

“So what’s your connection to Buffalo, Aaron?” he said, not smiling.

It took me about two seconds to grasp the perilous dynamics of the situation. On the phone, Hagen’s boss, Marusak, sounded exactly like what one would expect a grandstanding trial prosecutor would sound like: comically bombastic in tone, megalomaniacal, none too bright, and consumed with a fairly narrow range of predictably vulgar political ambitions, a man who, in all likelihood, owns four sharp suits and a carefully-attended anchorman haircut. Behind every such man in this world there is a less photogenic man who is usefully paranoid and is the real brains of the operation. This was the person who was interrogating me now.

I volleyed back each of his questions with my lame preconceived answers: I was born in the Buffalo area, but moved to Massachusetts as a small child. After retirement, my father had moved back to the city and settled in Allentown, where I was now staying for a two-week visit. I gave him an address and a telephone number, the former bogus, the latter belonging to co-editor Kevin McElwee’s mobile account.

“Do you have a business card?” he asked, still not smiling.

I handed him my card. “You’ll see the area code is crossed out…” I began.

“Why?” he asked.

“They added a new area code in LA,” I said. “My number used to be… in the 213 area.”

Hagen examined it, then put it aside before sitting up straight to face me.

“You understand the reason I’m asking you all of these questions,” he said. “You know the nature of this case?”

“Yes,” I said. “But only what I read in the papers.”

“Well, you see, the thing is, you know, there are some people who might want to create a provocation,” he said. “And you know, you called us, we didn’t call you. So obviously we have to check…”

“Obviously,” I said. “I understand, this is a sensitive case…you have to be wary.”

Hagen flipped closed the legal pad. A chilling idea which had occurred vaguely to me at the start of the meeting now rose violently to the surface of my thoughts. If Hagen did not join in during the meeting with Marusak, would he excuse himself to start conducting his background check right away? One phone call to the fictitious number on my business card, and I was dead meat. Again the visions: Marusak’s door bursting open, more Taser guns, dogs, carpet burns, the exposed out-of-shape journalist clutching wildly at a desk leg as he is dragged off…

“I think Joe’s off the phone,” Hagen said suddenly, interrupting my fantasies. “Please, come on in.”

Hagen and I walked into the office next door, and he closed the door behind us. He wasn’t going anywhere; I was safe.

Behind the desk sat a dazed-looking man with an anchorman haircut, who even when sitting, appeared to be standing with his hands on his hips.

“Aaron Wolfsheim,” I said.

“Joe Marusak,” he answered.

There’s never been any question in my mind that life is stranger than fiction. That’s why I got into journalism. The material is so much more challenging.

In my pre-interview, Hagen had, by way of asking me how long the process of applying a fake beard would take, given me a hint as to their earlier progress in wrestling with the whole beard issue. He showed me a fax some out-of-town outfit had sent him that included rough diagrams of various beard shapes. The fax was grainy and nearly illegible; the “beards” looked like Rorschach tests.

“We understand this is sort of a drawn-out process,” he’d said. “These other people we’re talking to were saying that what you do is take an Abe Lincoln beard, and cut it down…”

The image of James Kopp, right-wing nut case, standing in a lineup with an Abe Lincoln beard nearly felled me from my chair. I recovered myself in time to affect a convincing sneer of professional disdain and begin to explain the actual process of making a professional-caliber fake beard. Hagen had sat quietly, taking notes.

Now, in the meeting with both attorneys, I entered into my speech again. Marusak, a fit-looking man with a vague and unfortunate resemblance to character actor Fred Ward, sat at his desk in a pose eerily reminiscent of the classic reverse cutaway shot used in TV journalism–the one where the TV journalist is shown sitting with his hands folded on his lap, nodding seriously as he listens to his interview subject. Those shots are sometimes done after the fact, but this one was happening in real time.

Amazingly, my nervous astonishment in looking at him suddenly translated into an impassioned and utterly believable imitation of a Hollywood effects pro.

“No professional would ever just stick on an actual fake beard,” I said. “A realistic beard is applied hair by hair. For a short beard, the process is fairly simple. You apply spirit gum to the face. Then you take a human-hair wig that matches the color you want, and cut the hairs into small strips. You take those strips and you roll them up lengthwise and wrap them in a little blanket, so that you end up with something that looks like a little cigar, or… sushi.”

“Sushi,” repeated Marusak.

“Then you take the sushi and you dab it onto the subject’s face,” I continued. “The hairs will tend to stick to the gum straight out. Once you’ve finished applying the hairs to the whole face, you comb it in the shape that you want, and you’ve got your beard.”

“I see,” Marusak said, sounding not all that interested in the particulars. “Well, he has a short bear-…”

“For a long beard,” I said, ignoring him. I was in a zone.”The process is more complex. You take this stuff called slush latex and you apply it to the face, so that you have a sort of thin rubber coating. Then, with a needle, you apply each individual hair strand by strand, sticking it into the latex. The process takes a long time. When you’re finished, you pull each of the hairs slightly, so that they come out of the latex a little. The effect is to make it more realistic, because those little tugs will leave tiny indentations in the latex that look like pores.”

“How long will this take?” Marusak said, showing me a picture of Kopp. “He had a fairly short beard…”

I didn’t have the faintest fucking idea. “About two hours,” I said confidently. “If you’re looking at something shorter, like in that other picture, about an hour and a half.” I paused, coming to the important question. “Do you want me to do just him, or everybody?”

Marusak shrugged. “Nah, they’re bellyaching about us just doing one person, you know, like it’ll be obvious if there’s just one guy in a fake beard…”

No kidding, I thought.

“…so we’re thinking we’re going to have at least one other clean-shaven person in the lineup who get s a fake beard, maybe two, I don’t know. Can you do that?”

“No problem,” I said.

Going in to the interview, I was extremely curious to find out exactly how they wanted Kopp made up. Was he supposed to be given the beard that he would have been wearing on the day in question? That would be tough to do, since no one knows what kind of beard he was wearing that day; there are no photos, no witnesses who saw him. (Witnesses saw someone in a car outside Slepian’s home in the days leading up to the shooting, but none of them knew for sure that it was James Kopp). He might not have been wearing a beard at all, for all anyone knows.

If not exactly that beard, then, which one? Over the course of his life, Kopp wore beards of different lengths and hues. The mugshots of him show sharply various facial hair arrangements. Would they just pick one or the other? And if they did, choosing randomly, on the basis of nothing at all, how could that conceivably correspond to what he might have looked like on the day of the murder?

Marusak showed me a pair of old Kopp photos.

“Which one do you want me to do?” I asked.

Marusak shrugged. “Probably a combination of both,” he said.

I pointed to a photograph of Kopp wearing what looked to be a bright orange beard. “Is that a fake beard right there?” I asked.

“No,” Marusak said. “His hair color was usually described as reddish-brown… That’s his real hair.”

I shook my head. “The thing is, if I do that beard, it’s going to look like a fake beard, ” I said. “Not for any reason except that his actual beard looked like a fake.”

Marusak paused, then pointed to the photo of Kopp wearing a darker, more normal-looking beard. “Let’s go with that one,” he said.

Well, that settles that, I thought, taking in the depressing thought that Marusak might have just made me a witness at the trial. “Okay,” he said.

MugshotsWe talked a little bit more. Very quickly the conversation swung around to my
work. I opened a manila envelope and began handing Marusak my resume shots.

“This is me in, er, a less physically fit period of my life, standing with Robert Englund–you know, Freddie Krueger,” I said.

“Oh, great!” he said.

“I actually didn’t do his face,” I explained. “My job, believe it or not, was the sweater. It looks like an ordinary sweater, but it has all these moving parts inside.”

“Huh!” he said.

“And this is me on the cover of Fangoria magazine,” I said. “I had this great haircut back then. That bloody head I designed was my real career break.”

“Nice,” he said.

“And this, of course, is Helena Bonham Carter in Planet of the Apes,” I said. “That’s what I spent most of last year working on.”

‘So, what’s your timetable next week again?” Marusak asked.

Lost in professional pride, I didn’t hear him. “The funny thing about those masks,” I said. “The original Planet of the Apes masks were just masks. You stuck them on the face and that was it. But these new ones we designed are completely animatronic. There are little electronic parts in every section of the face. You move your upper lip, the upper lip moves.”

“That’s… interesting,” he said unconvincingly.

They asked me again about my schedule. It was clear I had the job. I told them that there was an outside chance that I’d have to be called back to L.A. immediately to do a project, but that, barring that, I was free to do it early the next week. Hagen told me that “we’re happy to have someone with your qualifications.”

“I hope we can all work together,” Marusak said.

“I think it will all work out,” I said, eyeing the exit.

We all shook hands and I left– in a hurry.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate those anti-abortion maniacs as much as anybody. As far as I’m concerned, if Kopp is guilty, he ought to be shot into space. And I think that every church in America ought to donate a million dollars apiece to Dr. Slepian’s family, so that even his great-grandchildren will never have to work a day in their lives. Jesus Christ! Shooting a doctor in the name of God! What’s wrong with these people?

But what if the suspect wasn’t an asshole like Kopp? What if it’s you or me in a drug case? You put a bunch of people like this in charge of the lineup, and who isn’t going to pick out the suspect? Left to their own devices, Kopp would be standing there in an Abe Lincoln beard!

And even if the guy is guilty, trotting him out there like that seems like far from a public service. Any sane appeals court judge might take one look at the transcript, decide the witnesses have been tainted, and throw out the whole case. Next thing you know, some abortion doctor in Pittsburgh is getting shot in his backyard next to his Hibachi. The whole thing is so nuts, it’s almost hard to laugh about it.

A few hours after my interview, I called Hagen. He wasn’t in. I left a message on his machine, explaining that I was being called away to Baton Rouge, to shoot a movie called Crawslaught (about mutant crawfish run amok) and would be unable to do the lineup.

Five minutes later, Hagen called Kevin’s cell phone number. The latter explained that he didn’t know any Aaron Wolfsheim. He called back, apparently in the hope that he’d dialed wrong. Same deal. They apparently didn’t look very hard after that. Let’s hope they don’t read the BEAST…

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August 2nd, 2002 by

Summer, Year of the UnHalfliving

Excerpts of journal entries made by Jonathan Harker, law clerk in the employ of civil litigants and personal injury law firm Cerrino & Baines.

Harker9:13 AM–Departed by train from Auditorium Station. It was running late, as the conductor seemed unable to ascertain in which direction from him lay the opposite end of the train line. Arrived at the Allen Street station about 9:18 AM. Many strange people at the sub-terranean depot. Nothing like the usual sorts gadding about the confines of my beloved student common area back at the Amherst campus. Must write Mina. Anyway, these unusual people were dressed in immeasurably oversized garments that ostensibly bore no relevance to a particular trade or artisanic endeavor. Two or perhaps three of them attempted, quite bluntly, to converse with me but I was able to dissuade their efforts by gesturing sternly with my hands that I would show no quarter. Upon making the ground’s surface again I chanced upon a man cloaked in a cumbersomely heavy overcoat made of cashmere wool. It was not unlike a smaller coat of the very same fabric under which I took shelter against the harsh gales scything in from the Erie Lake back at my Lewistown home. But this day it was quite, so very hot. How could he bear to remain blanketed in that bodyoven in this unmitigated swelter? At first he withdrew from me as I approached him to enlist his assistance. Reluctant as he was to indulge me I persevered and he eventually capitulated. I asked him if he could aid me in arriving in the center of a place called Allentown. He turned away from me to indicate an area behind himself and I saw that the backside of his coat was gravely tattered, even rotting and grotesquely soiled. And then, as if by will of The Almighty himself, a breeze blew across the withered and fetid body of this timeless soul and I caught, full-olfactory, the overwhelming stench of death-ages-gone-by. I nearly fell ill at the whiff of this and could scarcely find purchase in my stance. I staggered away from him, but he was now, more than yet, much eager to perpetuate our fellowship. As I reeled backways from him he seemed to gain momentum in his pursuit of our closeness, momentum eerily fueled by his delight in my disorientation. I fell backwards in the street, nearly being crushed by the otherworldly rush of a fantastic traveling machine. A vehicle greater in size than any I have seen apart from the docksides of the Erie basin where great journeys and seagoing cargo ships launch and land. He let out a madcap burst of hysterical laughter at my dismay. I turned to run across this hard-paved avenue, but just then a wave, nay an army, of those un-Godly land vessels rushed on me. I withdrew from their path and they stayed their course, leaving a berth of only a few feet between they and myself. When they had passed I was able to elude the maniacal, soiled man.

I wandered along the sidewalk of a street called “Allen”. Some of the land vessels moved along the middle of this street as well, but much more slowly, affording me some easement of mind. I looked into shop windows and bade “good day’” to habitants perched in chairs upon their porches and passersby on the avenue, but received, in return, only perplexed and sometimes disdainful glances.

I came upon a place that looked civilized. A place that reminded me of the comforts of familiarity back in Amherst. It was called, by their sign the very curious appellation of Frizzy’s, and I went inside to take repose and imbibe.

I asked the proprietor if he knew the precise location of the place from whence emanated the doings of a man called Moses, who concealed his personal deeds behind the faade of an endeavor called “Artvoice”. The name of his manor may well be titled “Artvoice”, I told him. He regarded me with one vacant eye and made reference to my removal from his establishment if I did not have enough money to buy a drink. I assured him, on the honor of the crown itself (as my employers fancied themselves regal) that I was endowed well and could pay at once for any goods or services rendered me by him.

I explained that I was in the employ of said firm of legal practicing and had been sent ahead to investigate circumstances surrounding a class-action suit on behalf of Allentown’s business community being brought upon Moses and his Artvoicians claiming recompense for the damages suffered by merchants, restaurateurs and residents of Allentown resulting from an alfresco fete within their environs. The contention of this good man’s neighbors, I explained to him, was that the Artvoice Manor had presented an event involving gaiety, revelry, the trading of sub-standard crafts (some of an occult nature) and loud, agro-rock, cover band and “extended jam” musics, all of which left a great deal of paper and food trash, debris of an un-comely origin (which decorum prohibits me from describing) and the lingering stench of “death-ages-gone-by”. As was the assertion of the “Allentown Consensus”, Moses and his faction made no attempt, nor did they take into their hire any party to make right the gruesome and revolting mess that their “festival” left behind.

I can assure you that the proprietor was rightly aghast and so taken aback at my depiction of this that he commanded me to find exit of his inn and as he suggested “take it down the street”.

Amid the confusion surrounding my egression from Frizzy’s I was able to inquire as to where I might find His Heinousness and was told to “go east till you smell him and north till you step in him. Now hit the fucking [not certain of etymology] road weirdo”.

town called "Allen"From this point further, my friends, I must tell you, things became strange beyond my darkest imaginings. I walked the streets and avenues of Allentown only to become less and less certain of my mission. I gazed into eyes of people who were lost and would never find their way. Everyone I spoke to, innkeeper, denizen or merchant shuddered at the word “Artvoice” and became positively apoplexic at the mention of the man Moses. Nothing could quell the fear in these people when I attempted interrogation concerning the events of the “fest” and its resulting atrocities. They behaved as if they wished to have never heard of “Artvoice” or Moses, some claiming never have to. But anyone, even the un-trained, could see by the depth and realness of the horror in their souls and I caught the overwhelming stench of death-ages-gone-by.that Moses swung a broad sickle. He had touched and tainted nearly every life in the region.

After a few hours I grew despondent. A pall had fallen over the landscape of Allentown and I was dread my inquest had been in vain. But just then a strange, hunched man spoke to me from the shadows in a labored voice, his breath rife with rasping, saying, “If Mosferatu be the demon ye seek, when night doth fall pursue the reek.”

And now I realized that hints had been recurring and I had heretofore not taken heed. This was the third mention of a “stench” or “reek” (the first reference being in my own mind). I realized I would find these sorcerers by cover of night.

(Seven hours later)

I awoke in the narrow passage of a walking alley. The details of how I happened here are too disconcerting to recount, involving consortiums and precursors to consortium as I had never considered Christian. Nonetheless, as I gained conciousness I was drawn to a peculiar aroma. It was at first only unusual or curious but as I rose and ambled feebly towards its source I recognized it as the same malodorous wallop I had encountered in the cashmere-cloaked man. The same nefarious odor of death of which I had thought and others had spoken. I travailed along what I now believe to have been the same Allen Street from earlier that day but now it was fogged over and still as a Mass. Light rarely suggested itself through the thickness of firmament. I groped along the ground and, following the stench, turned. Yes, I turned onto Franklin St. heading…NORTH! Just as the man at Frizzy’s had told me to do. “…North ’til you step in him,” he left me with. I now felt that I was quite close, but by God above I felt so unprepared, so short of the necessary faith in the prevalence of righteousness. There was a cold glow ahead of me in the mist. As I neared this diffuse imbuement I trembled within. Every ounce of me fought to turn and run, even back into the dense fog. Surely whatever horror that may hold in store could be no more evil than what lay ahead of me. I crouched low, as I could see there was a window in an edifice. Now, the stench was sickeningly overwhelming. It smelled as though the souls and innards of a thousand devilish warlocks had been burned in an immense pyre of all things dark on this very spot. As I approached the glass looking into the ominous structure I noticed lettering above. What could it say? I knew full well what it may say and should have had some inner-bracing prepared for the utter terror I felt when I saw that the letters spelled “ARTVOICE!!!”. I mean, an ice-cold bolt of frozen-hard iron shot through my heart at the sight of this word. Moreover, as though compelled against its will, my body was still moving toward the window that looked in. I had no choice now. I may soon see the source of all the terror, spite and consumption of will I had beheld in the streets. And I did. When my head had crested the level of the sill, I saw before me the comings and goings of a great many women. One, two, maybe four, five, six, I can’t be sure. They talked on voice-telegraph transmitters. They were all wearyworn and painted with make-up from fine store counters. I was appalled yet allured by these anti-sirens, these minions apparent, but just as I relaxed to regard them a most awful and appalling beast appeared along the back wall in the room of this place. He was green and crawled vertically on all fours, making his way along the vertical boundries of the house. He was something like a small man, with arms, legs, eyes on the front of his head, brows and deadish grey hair atop him, but he could turn his body this way and that. He could go up, down, sideways and other. It was the most disturbing and ghastly vision I have ever seen. I could not be sure he was real. If he was real then there could be no God, I dared to think. He went along the back wall, perpendicular to my vantage and then came to the corner where his wall adjoined another and he changed on to that perpendicular plane as easily I could have soiled myself. But just then he stopped, as though he sensed something. He was still; perched high upon the wall and all at once his eyes shot up from his chest and speared out the window at me, into my eyes, searing me unto my soul. His ocularia were lit from within by a crimson flame and he sneer-grinned a painful visage. I fell back as he and all his aides began a huge commotion directed toward the place where I was. I stumbled back and felt the touch of a cold metal machine under me. As I fell, back-of-my-head-first, into it I noticed it was a two-wheeled vehicle-scooter of Bavarian manufacture. Then my cranium met hardened steel and I was unconscious.

Here ends the first journal entry of Jon Harker’s journey into Allentown.

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August 2nd, 2002 by

By Matt Taibbi

Our national media has many favorites among the various types of news stories: plane crashes, celebrity divorces, sex scandals involving masturbating congressmen. But if you had to pinpoint the one type of news story that is guaranteed in every case to make every news director in the country pitch an instant, wind-catching tent, you wouldn’t have to look far. The mother of all news aphrodisiacs is unquestionably this: innocent human beings trapped in an enclosed place in desperate circumstances, their lives hanging in the balance.

There are a few caveats to this rule. The would-be victims have to remain alive long enough for satellite trucks to reach the site. Actually, they don’t have to be wholly alive, per se; it’s enough if they’re not yet confirmed dead and still possibly alive. The essential factors are really the ability to plausibly stretch out the drama, a colorful location in front of which live stand-ups can be done, and a complex means of attempted rescue, necessitating
the use of extensive graphs and diagrams and the input of a parade of scientific/technical experts. An additional bonus comes when the story occurs in an unusual climate, allowing reporters to wear (pick one) a) a state-of-the-art Gore-tex coat with numerous straps and pockets b) a turban c) a wetsuit or d) a vest and crampons.

Submarine rescue reporter in hair- 
testing climatic conditionsLast week’s story of the trapped Pennsylvania miners was a classic of the people-trapped-with-time-running-out genre. If the little girl trapped in the well was the first top-40 hit, and the Kursk Russian submarine disaster was the breakthrough triple-platinum album, the Pennsylvania miners were the latest solid gold single announcing the full maturation of a distinguished career. The TV ratings reflected the public’s final acceptance of the genre. According to the Associated Press, the ratings for both CNN and the Fox news channel were roughly six times greater than usual between 11 p.m. last Saturday and 3 a.m. Sunday, when the miners were being rescued.

CNN reported 2.3 million viewers during that time period, as compared to their average viewership for that slot of 319,000. At Fox, the numbers were 2.1 million against 306,000. Both networks ran live coverage of the rescue effort throughout most of the weekend. On the print side, the two major wire services, AP and Reuters, each filed over 100 stories apiece between Friday and Sunday, at times filing updates as often as every few minutes.

Asking why the media goes so bonkers over these stories is like asking why a dog licks its balls. The reason in both cases is: because it can. A life-or-death drama induced by accident is about the only kind of story that our media can cover these days without holding anything back at all; it’s the only thing that tests the design parameters of our media machine. Virtually any other kind of news story, even ones that involve other types of life-or-death dramas, require the American press to undertake at least some conscious deceptions and omissions.

Take 9/11, for instance. This was also a disaster story that involved a rescue effort, but it was also sharply politicized. Though the administration blamed Osama bin Laden for the attacks within hours, none of the major media outlets felt comfortable asking how the blame could be laid so fast, or describing in detail what the reasons for the attack might have been. Even Dan Rather admitted: “There are some things about this story that we just can’t cover.”

Same thing with Waco, and the Oklahoma City bombing. Both stories were natural suspense dramas whose scope as news stories were narrowed because of their politicized nature. In both cases an exhaustive treatment of the story would have resulted either in depressing excersises in national self-examination that would have reduced the stories’ entertainment value, or in too close a look at various dangerous and taboo themes (i.e. public disaffection with the government) that the news media stays away from as a matter of rule.

But accidents and natural disasters are ideologically neutral and therefore can be covered exhaustively. And they can be covered not only as breaking news stories, but as features, human interest “readers”, and as subjects for that full gamut of mawkish, sentimental, and hero-worshipping commentary pieces that pass for analysis on our opinion pages. That’s the irony of the whole thing; that the full attention of the analytical press corps is only focused completely when the subject is something that everyone, right from the start, is in obvious and complete agreement about.

That said, the orgy of saccharine self-congratulation in newspapers around the country in the wake of the miner rescue was startling even by the standards of the genre. Major news daily after major news daily served up the satisfying patriotic conclusion to the story in the primitive form of a TV sitcom’s 23rd minute: “You know, Billy, I learned something today…” Here are some of the highlights:

  • St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times: “Miners Taught Us What’s Important.” (Jul. 30) Defying the idea that America in the age of corporate scandal is an immoral place, the heroic miners proved to us that faith, courage, community, and the wise stewardship of leaders like Pennsylvania governor Mark Schweiker is the true face of our country. Concludes with a first-class Tony Robbins-ism: the miner story allows us to “focus on what is truly important,” i.e. not all that other bad news.

  • Seattle Post-Intelligencer: “We Cheer Together When Nine Miners Saved.” (Jul. 30) Again, defying the expectation that we might boo the news, we Americans cheered at the rescue of the Pennsylvania miners, who proved to us the worth of those particularly American qualities: “Skill, strong spirits, and faith.” Includes an homage to those other heroes of Pennsylvania’s Somerset country, the passengers of United flight 93, who overpowered terrorist hijackers on 9/11.

  • Christian Science Monitor: “Setting Miners Free.” This one touched on all the necessities: a recollection of 9/11(“Like the heroism seen on 9/11…”), a tribute to the wise leadership of Governor Schweiker (here paid the ultimate compliment when he is called a “Giuliani-like presence”), a reminder of the power of “immeasuable prayer”, and a cheery corporate plug (“They shared Lifesavers…”). God, heroism, leadership, and candy: the ultimate feel-good American story.

he baby in the well: the original deadly race against time storyThe news features weren’t much different from the editorials. Every conceivable angle from which to address the “love/faith/heroism” angle was covered. There was the feel-good story about the miners’ hometown of Somerset (“Pa. Town Wakes Up to Wealth of Heroes From Miners’ Rescue,” AP, Jul. 28), the feel-good story about the miners’ families (“Families Rejoice At Miners’ Survival,” AP, Jul. 28), even the feel-good story of an emotionally drained President of the United States (“Bush ‘Thrilled’ That Miners are Safe,” Jul. 28, Reuters).

A quick side note: none of the many stories about Bush’s elated reaction to the miner rescue noted that the United Mine Workers of America vigorously opposed Bush in the 2000 election, among other things because he favored a repeal of ergonomic safety standards in workplaces.

Probably my favorite feature headline was this one: “Pa. Residents Hope Coal Miners Safe,” from Reuters, Jul. 27. When I read that one, I thought: “Residents Hope Miners Safe… as opposed to what?” What are the alternatives to such a headline? “Residents Hope Miners Experiencing At Least Mild Discomfort?” How about “Residents Hope Miners Remember to Floss?”

It sounds like a bitchy criticism, but after a long enough exposure to this hysterical treatment of the obvious, one can get pretty frustrated.

Almost none of this would be objectionable at all, were it not for one thing: NO ONE IN THE MEDIA GIVES A SHIT ABOUT MINERS. When was the last time you saw a miner who wasn’t trapped alive underground in the news? In the week-long period during which this Pennsylvania story was news, there were no fewer than three major fatal mine accidents around the world: one in Ukraine that killed 19, one in China that killed 8, and a third in Zimbabwe that killed 15.

None of these stories registered more than a three-inch brief in most major dailies, and not only because the victims weren’t American. The main reason they were ignored is because the victims didn’t stay alive long enough for the networks to get a live shot in. After all, the Kursk sailors were Russian, and they made the news because they had the good sense to flail around for a while underwater before they croaked.

Miners die all the time. They work in horrible conditions all the time. They get screwed by their employers all the time. In May of this year, mine workers finally got a break when the federal government indicted a single coal mining company called KenAmerican Resources, Inc., on charges of falsifying safety records and manipulating equipment used to monitor coal dust records. It’s a widespread practice in the coal mining industry: rather than shell out the extra money to make sure miners aren’t working in conditions that will leave them dead from black lung disease by the age of 35, companies rig their monitoring equipment to make it appear that the mines are safe. The Louisville Courier-Journal ran a lengthy series on the issue about four years ago, but that’s been about the only hint of that story in the national media since then.

That kind of thing isn’t newsworthy because people who die over a period of years, as opposed to days, are not news. If you want to get on TV in this country, die within the space of one news cycle, die by accident, and die draped in an American flag, with your grieving nuclear family and your local pastor at your side. Otherwise, find a dime and call someone who cares.

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August 2nd, 2002 by

How to spot a BEAST-authored letter to Artvoice

We are beginning to be deluged with phone calls here at the BEAST asking us if this or that recent ridiculous letter to the editor at Artvoice was, in fact, written by us. At first we were happy to answer each call individually, but then we figured it might be better to give folks the tools to spot our work on their own. We did in fact make the Artvoice letters page again last week; here’s that letter, side by side with a real letter.

forgery v. the real deal

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