"Totally coup, yo."

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ZOO JOURNALISM

Jun

21

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ZOO JOURNALISM
Matt Taibbi

Remember that story about the mayhem at the Zoo a few weeks back? Imagine if it had been different…

Imagine that, instead of bending branches and launching lorikeets into the air, those notorious “underprivileged youths” had thrown a net over the whole branch, taken every lorikeet in the exhibit, and eaten them alive on the spot, gleefully spitting feathers into the air as they ate.

Then imagine that those same kids then go around the zoo and eat every single animal in the place. The slurping and smacking then lasts for three long years; huge piles of bones accumulate as meek zoo administration officials look on day after day after day. By the time police finally arrive to break it up, there are four or five kids there who each weigh fifteen thousand pounds, if not more.

The kids are so obese and engorged with rare species flesh that they are visible from observation towers at Niagara Falls. They’re so big that weather systems actually move around their huge, rippling bodies… When investigators get there, they politely tell the kids to leave, and the matter ends there: no arrests, no fines, nothing. When all’s said and done, there’s nothing left of the zoo but tumbleweeds, and all of Delaware Park is left submerged in massive piles of steaming human excrement. Try playing basketball in that.

Believe it or not, that story actually happened. It was called the Adelphia scandal. It should have made the actual zoo story look trivial. But you would never have known that from reading The Buffalo News.

Lesson #1 in how big corporate-owned media works in this country: When a bunch of poor black kids go nuts in a zoo, or trash a bunch of slum properties, you can expect a full nuclear response from your local daily. But when a gang of greedy white oligarchs pillages a multibillion-dollar company, wrecking not selected parts of one zoo, but the whole of your local economy… well, the response is a little different. In The News, the difference could have been expressed in a single pair of headlines–”Nigger Savages Attack Zoo” in the former case, and in the latter, “Adelphia Collapses and What a Shame: Rigas Family Heroically Braves Terrible Tragedy.”

The News jumped on the “Niggers Attack Zoo” story with both feet. In addition to Tom Buckham’s blistering May 29 news piece, “Mass Misbehavior Leaves Zoo a Mess,” the paper ran a good half-dozen angry editorials about the incident and a like number of outraged letters to the editor. The News never came right out and said that the vandals were mostly all black, but the articles were filled with transparent code words that made it pretty clear what it was talking about. My favorite was in Buckham’s piece–a little detail about the kind of alcoholic beverages that were being illegally consumed on the premises. He said that the violations included:

“…extensive littering of the grounds with beer and malt liquor containers sneaked through the gate in violation of the zoo’s ban on alcoholic beverages…”

When white readers in Amherst or Lackawanna see the words “Malt Liquor” in conjunction with vandalism, they know exactly what you’re talking about. Likewise, it was obvious enough what letter-writer Beth Kontrabecki was getting at when she wrote:

“This is what society has come to, folks. Respect and decorum are things of the past. Today, people can do what they want, when they want and almost always get away with it. I suppose we can thank our politically correct society for this uncivilized way of life.

“The Buffalo Zoo wanted to provide the opportunity to share its resources and activities with those in the lower-income bracket of Western New York. And now, due to the barbaric acts of some, those who couldn’t normally afford a day at the zoo may never have the chance to visit it again.

“These delinquents can’t pass a Regents exam, because they’re too busy going to the zoo and attempting to steal exotic birds, or urinating in the bushes. Who is to blame? For once, we really can’t blame the powers-that-be in City Hall or the federal government. “The blame lies solely with the parents. Of course, the parents will never own up to their poor child-raising tactics. They’ll blame it on the teachers, or in moments of desperation, racism, sexism, agism or any other “ism” they can manipulate as a scapegoat.”

I love it when upper-middle-class white people get angry. Worked up to the absolute summit of their passions, they still can never say what they mean. When they want desperately to say “Niggers from East Buffalo,” they instead have to say, “Those in the lower-income bracket of Western New York.” No wonder they’re so pissed off all the time. They have to use a Thesaurus to get nasty… their bedroom dialogues must sound like Dick Cavett reruns.

The News was a little more subtle than Mme. Kontrabecki. You had to read its editorials somewhat more closely to get the gist of its vilification of the zoo marauders. The June 3 house editorial, “Animal Behavior,” was a classic example.

That piece used a number of colorful terms to describe the zoo vandals, including “miscreants,” “cretins,” “animals,” and “herd of free-range idiots.” But although the newspaper theoretically speaks for the entire city, The News made it very clear that it was not describing a collective community failure here–instead of talking about how badly our children had behaved, it made it a point to talk about how their children had trashed our zoo:

“[The vandals] did more than abuse animals and zoo facilities–they abused a privilege, to the detriment of all of us.”

The News returned to the race theme just a day after this editorial, when it ran a front-page story on June 4 entitled, “Landlords Blame Tenants, Demand Accountability.” This story was a perfect follow-up to the “Niggers Wreck Zoo” piece; they moved a little East of Delaware Park for this one to make it “Niggers Wreck Rental Properties.”

Again, as in the zoo pieces, the paper never came out and said that it was talking mainly about black tenants and white landlords. But it threw in enough euphemisms to make it obvious, talking about “Buffalo’s blighted neighborhoods” and repeatedly referring to “bad tenants” who receive federal or county welfare assistance.

Of course, the tenants responsible for the “unchecked destruction” the paper describes (note how similar the language here is to that of the zoo pieces) are conspicuously absent from the actual article. The photos it ran, including one of an apartment overflowing with garbage and empty bottles, were both of apartments that no longer had anyone living in them.

Even in the article’s prose descriptions, the vilified residents are missing. In one deliciously heavyhanded passage, reporter Sandra Tan describes a bedroom of a ravaged apartment in which “a pristine Holy Bible sat beside a table of burnt marijuana stems.” Presumably the Bible’s pages should have been dog-eared and the marijuana unsmoked; in any case, there was no tenant there to explain the reasons for this blasphemy. As one housing lawyer I spoke to joked: “That couldn’t have been any of my tenants. They wouldn’t have left the stems.”

All in all, the paper extensively quoted four landlords in the piece, but not a single tenant. An article about tenants, without interviews with tenants. Even The New York Times would have too much shame to try something like that.

All of which would just be routinely offensive mainstream media stuff, were it not for the opposite response in The News to the Adelphia story. Informed that the corporate officers had looted Buffalo’s most prominent company for years on end, imperiling thousands of jobs, a downtown renewal plan, and even the beloved Sabres, The News never came close to calling the Rigas family “animals,” “miscreants,” “cretins,” or a “herd” of anything, much less “free-range idiots.”

Instead, the paper pulled on its hose and delivered to Buffalo the Rigas story in the form of a cruel Shakespearean tragedy, in which the kindly King Lear (John Rigas) was toppled from his lofty throne by heartless fate and a few regrettable but thoroughly understandable human frailties.

The most infuriating of the News Adelphia stories was the June 9 story by Lou Michel and Michael Beebe, “Rigas Sons Say Family Battered and Strong.” The lead to the story said it all:

“COUDERSPORT, Pa.–In their first public statements since the onset of their company’s financial crisis, the three sons of Adelphia founder John J. Rigas said in separate interviews with The Buffalo News that their family is working closely together to survive its troubles.

“It’s obviously a very hard time for us, but the family is holding up well,” said James P. Rigas, 44, the youngest of the three Rigas sons and Adelphia’s former executive vice president of strategic planning.

“Regardless of what comes out of this, the family unit will be stronger than ever,” he said. “We’ve always had a close family, and hard times draw you closer together.”

It takes some serious balls to try to convince readers that they should care how the Rigas family is “holding up” after being caught using Adelphia money to secure themselves a private golf course, among other things.

You notice that the paper didn’t track down any tenants to ask how they were “managing” after being thrown on the streets for dropping lit crack pipes on their couches. “Regardless of what comes out of this, the family unit will be stronger,” the story might have quoted the tenant as saying. “Right now, we’re living out of a shopping cart, robbing parked cars to pay for crack, but the experience is drawing our family closer together.”

The paper’s other Adelphia stories weren’t much better:

  • The May 28 sports piece, “Rigas Story Mixes Anger With Sadness,” describes the fallen John Rigas as a cross between the Pope and Tinkerbell, leading with a tale of the old man charming Miroslav Satan’s stick by rubbing it before a game in which Satan scored a key goal.
  • The June 2 piece, “Adelphia Probe May Lead to Charges Against Rigas,” played up the King Lear angle in the lead. “The idea of anyone accusing kindly, white-haired John J. Rigas of white-collar crime,” reporter Fred Williams wrote, “is unthinkable to many.”
  • The May 16 piece, “New Chief is No Stranger to Challenge” was a start-to-finish blowjob of new Adelphia CEO Erland Kailbourne, whom the paper described as a savior–despite the fact that he was on the board and presumably paying attention for all those years that the Rigases were pillaging the company.
  • The June 7 piece, “Leaks Add Volume to Adelphia Story,” basically blasted The Wall Street Journal for using unnamed sources to (a) whip the hair plugs off the News staff on the breaking-news coverage of Adelphia, and (b) smear the reputation of the Rigas family.
  • Two other stories, the May 25 “Reporting Depth Would Take a Big Hit if Empire Folded,” and the May 18 “A Blow to Western New York,” held faithfully to the doleful “Isn’t-this-a-shame” theme of the News Adelphia coverage. Again, a striking contrast to the “Let’s-lynch ‘em” tone of the zoo coverage.

There’s nothing new in any of this. When a poor person pisses on his own floor for whatever reason, he’s an animal who should be locked in a cage. But when a rich creep with kindly white hair steals billions of dollars and dooms thousands to unemployment, it’s just a darned shame.


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CORPORATE FANMAIL

Jun

21

by

Corporate FanmailCORPORATE FANMAIL
Life Imitates… Sarcasm?

 

We at the BEAST have come to believe over time that there’s no better way to get through a rainy day than to fire off twenty or thirty corporate love letters. With even the world’s largest companies, you don’t have a vote, but you do always have an audience. That’s particularly true if you’re writing GM to tell them how well the thrust of their airbags feels on your face, or sending Virgin Airways a note thanking them for reducing the size of seats in coach, because there was “just too much damn foot room before.” Companies will tend to ignore all but the most urgently serious (read: potentially actionable) complaints, but they tend to accept as genuine even the most psychotic expressions of praise, and with surprising frequency will even write you back to thank you for the kind word.

That said, we’ve always believed that it’s worthwhile to send companies a little bad news every now and then, just to keep their customer service people on their toes. Nothing violent or threatening, mind you, just a tale or two of profound disappointment with their product… wives leaving because you’ve grown too fat on Pop Tarts… Jiffy corn kernels that produce green popcorn… family parrots killed when they walk into your toaster… That kind of thing. Usually, the letters you get in response are more than worth a good laugh; the most common reply is a kind of abject corporate apology that is the closest thing we have in America to the face-saving self-mutilation performed by shamed Yakuza.

Last week, however, this ploy backfired on us spectacularly when a complaint we sent to the General Mills cereal company turned out not to be absurd beyond the realm of possibility, as we thought, but… completely and utterly true. What we wrote to them about our tainted Wheaties may not have been art, but whatever it was, life certainly imitated it. This sure is a crazy world. Here’s that letter, plus the rest of the replies from our first installment of corporate fan mail:

 

Wheaties Dear General Mills,
I am writing to you to express my profound disappointment about an incident regarding your cereal, Wheaties.

A week ago, I purchased your cereal in a supermarket here in my home town of Buffalo, New York. I eat Wheaties because it has a hearty wheat taste, and enhances my sense of self-esteem by allowing me to experience vicariously the triumphs of professional athletes.

But on this occasion I opened my box to discover that it contained a booklet of anti-Semitic literature. The material was of the most grossly offensive kind, but contained no publisher or author information. I was left to conclude that it had been produced by your company.

As a Jew I am obviously deeply offended by this incident. Moreover, my young daughter was exposed to the booklet; as a result, I was forced to explain to her the realities of anti-Semitism far earlier than I had hoped. My wife and I had planned to wait several years before having this talk with her. We have even experienced marital problems and difficulties with shared intimacy as a result of this incident.

I hope that you will address this matter in a manner befitting your professional reputation. I await your reply/apology.

Sincerely,
Morris Weinstein
Buffalo, New York

Dear Mr. Weinstein:
Thank you for contacting General Mills regarding the material you found in our Wheaties.

We regret to inform you that our food products have been used by a group in the New Jersey area as a vehicle to distribute literature. These flyers have been placed into ours as well as other manufacturer’s food packages at various grocery chains for the past several months.

General Mills is cooperating with New Jersey law enforcement agencies and other consumer product companies. Until this situation is taken care of, we extend our sincere apologies to those that this material is aimed as well as consumers who purchased product that this material was found in.

We would like to retrieve this pamphlet for our quality control department. A self-addressed stamped envelope will be sent to you for this purpose.

We apologize for the concern this has caused your family. In keeping with our quality guarantee a gift selection of coupons will also be sent to you.

Sincerely,
Sue Fenwick
General Mills
Consumer Services

 

Red Lobster Dear Red Lobster,
First of all, let me just start by saying a great big THANK YOU for inventing and operating the BEST DAMN RESTAURANT ON THE PLANET! You people should run the entire country, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve been a devoted fan ever since my parents took me to your Springfield, PA, location for my 7th birthday. I’ve spent many a sleepless night all these many years wondering what it is about your establishment that I’m so drawn to, but I guess it’s just the seafood lover in me, as your inspiring TV adverts so succinctly put it.

In fact, I’ve recently been going back over my day planners and have determined that I have visited an exciting and inviting Red Lobster restaurant at least once per week for the past 14 years and 8 months! I don’t know if you keep track of such things, but do you have frequent diners Hall of Fame to honor the accomplishments of devoted RL diners such as myself? Perhaps you could also organize regional singles groups so that the biggest Red Lobster fans can meet other like-minded folk in their areas. That would be totally awesome.

Thanks again and KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!

With very best wishes,
Kevin McElwee
Buffalo, NY

Dear Mr. McElwee,
Thank you for taking the time to contact us. Suggestions from our guests are taken very seriously, and I will be sharing your ideas.

Please be certain that Red Lobster takes suggestions from our guests very seriously, and the appropriate people will be notified of your recommendation. Again, thank you for taking the time to share your comments. Please do not hesitate to contact us, if we may be of further assistance.

Sincerely,
Roberto
Guest Relations
Representative

 

Tampax Dear Tampax,
I’m just writing to tell you that I think YOUR TAMPONS ARE GREAT! KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!

I am a professional chef, and I think you should find more applications for your product (pardon the pun!)! I find that there are many uses for them in a kitchen, and I make all of my staff use them whenever they can!

That’s right—they call me Mr. Tampax around here!

I say—let ‘em!

Yours Sincerely,
Matt Taibbi
Executive Chef
The Buffalo Club

Well, Matt, that’s interesting and I appreciate your input. But Tampax tampons are designed for women for use during their menstrual period. This is the only use we recommend.

Thanks for writing.

Sherri
USA Tampax Team

 

Sauder Dear Sauder Woodworking folk,
Thanks a bunch for making the easiest-to-assemble wooden furniture around! Never once have I opened up one of your products to find that a vital screw or bolt was missing, as happens so often with your competitors’ items. Whenever I need a piece of furniture to house my CD collection or to make hobbying interests more convenient, Sauder is the name I look to. In fact, if my first-born child (due in September) should be a boy, I intend to name him “Sauder.” However, Sauder is not a very good name for a girl, I think you would agree.

Please don’t ever stop doing those things you do,
Kevin McElwee
Buffalo, NY

Dear Mr. McElwee, Thank you for taking the time to write with your comments and compliments, we appreciate it.

Letters and e-mail such as yours puts a “smile” in our day!

Thank you again.

Sincerely,
Tanya R. Howell
SAUDER WOODWORKING

 

Connecticare Dear Connecticare,
I’m just writing to tell you how impressed I am with your company and to say KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!!!

I think HMOs get a bad rap, and from what I hear of your company, it would be MORE THAN INAPPROPRIATE to lay the misdeeds of a few at good corporate feet such as yours. I definitely think that you are one of the top three HMOs in Connecticut!

I no longer have health insurance, but when I find a way to get it again, I plan on doing everything I can to make sure that I am covered by CONNECTICARE!

Thank you!
Matt Taibbi
Danbury, CT

Dear Mr. Taibbi:
Thank you for your recent positive feedback. ConnectiCare continually strives toward service excellence and a level of commitment to our Members that sets us apart from other health plans. We are particularly pleased to know when we’ve achieved that goal.

Please let us know if there is any way to be of further assistance. We can be reached via email through our website at www.connecticare.com or by calling toll-free 1-800-251-7722.

Sincerely,
ConnectiCare Member Services


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NHL TAKEOVER GOOD FOR BUFFALO

Jun

21

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As The Beast went to press on Thursday, the National Hockey League held its annual meeting to discuss tactics for selling their un-watchable product to a blase nation of “Survivor” viewers. Rumored to be among the potential items on the table at the meeting was the prospect of the NHL intervening in the dire financial situation in Buffalo and the league even taking over control at HSBC Arena.

We at the Beast say, Great, whatever it takes. Let us examine some of the ramifications of there being NHL standards and guidelines imposed on Buffalo: Anyone in violation of the helmet rule, excepting of course those exempt through a “grandfather” clause, would be removed from the streets of civic activities. Now that may seem a difficult condition to accept, however, big, tough, fat, ugly bikers in like forty-six states have learned to live with the ignominy of wearing head protection, right alongside pantywaists like optometrists on $20,000 Harleys and alternative newspaper publishers zooming about on Bavarian cafe scooters.

Phil Esposito driving a zambonie
Phil Esposito driving a zamboni

Beer prices would rise dramatically from their now third-world levels, pricing many people, who have no business getting drunk enough to fuck and potentially procreate anyway, right out of the arena. Ridiculous, oversized, and exorbitantly priced “authentic” teamwear would be the only available clothing, but we would at least know where everyone’s allegiance stood.

In Buffalo now, as in much of the rest of the state, the penalty for icing could be up to a lifetime in prison. By NHL standards, icing results only in a do-over in the offender’s “zone.” So we would all have to watch our steps and mouths a bit more closely and the meek be damned.

The NHL has long been in the practice of expanding its interests in unlikely geographic areas like North Carolina and Phoenix, Arizona, while forsaking its loyal fan bases in places like Winnipeg, Manitoba, and Quebec City, Quebec. If they were to take that approach in Buffalo they may move the Albright-Knox Art Museum to Riverside, making room for some titty bars and OTBs along the Olmstead Crescent. Then maybe that fruity Shakespeare-in-the Park crew would fly the coop and we could put a long-needed thoroughbred racetrack in the center of the metropolitan area, Delaware Park. Who knows, if enough of those snoooty I-wish-Buffalo-were-Paris blowhards were to haul ass we might be able to attract some NASCAR/Winston Cup action to town and not have to drive over to Watkins Glen or out to Brooklyn, Michigan, and whereever the hell else all summer through.

There would certainly be drawbacks to an NHL-run city. There would be theme nights, ad infintium. Gordie Howe, Stan Makita, Guy Richard, Tim Horton in one long, grim death march… skateless, slipping and sliding around on makeshift patches of ice prepared for each’s appearance. You may wake some mornings, look out your window and see, maybe, Phil Esposito perched high upon the back of a slow-rolling Zamboni, wearing a strained but fatuous smile, pathetically waving toward the upper-floor windows of the houses on your street. That’s no way to start the day.

On the other hand we could all probably get used to a town where, when a guy gives you a bad check, you just knock his teeth out and are only given a two-minute minor. All personal injuries would be handled promptly by the league and would usually result in token fines and brief suspensions. Hell, unless Cellino & Barnes can make dentures, plates, bridges, and such, they would be out of business.

We all know the old joke–Q: Why do Canadians do it doggy-style? A: So they can both watch the hockey game.

The Beast would worry that our sometimes not-so-acute neighbors (to the North) may misconstrue the implications of the nature of our potential arrangement with the NHL and they, expecting a spirited round of four-checking and two-line passes, may position themselves ever so unsightily along the banks of the Niagara River, opposite our fair city, hoping to catch a glimpse of our nightly game.

Could we endure that visual? Would the children of our sexually repressed community understand the inherent beauty in the tender acts of our softer bordermates?

Desperate times call for desperate measures. We need to decide now if these times are desperate enough for us have our police force ride three to a car and surrender those cute little arm patches with the lighthouse and the boat for the more internationally recognized black-and-white “zebra” stripes.

Moreover, there are larger issues that loom. Will an NHL-controlled district mean the systematic exclusion of black people? Is that a loss we can bear? In that eventuality, would Luther Vandross or Ol’ Dirty Bastard even route their subsequent tours through Buffalo? Would an NHL regime mean the virtual extinction of Americans from our streets? Would packs of enigmatic Eastern Europeans control our passing lanes? Would statuesque Scandinavians be entrusted with our defensive schemes?

These are all questions that need closer examination as we await the developments that will ensue from the meetings yesterday.


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Refuse the Breathalizer

Jun

21

by

Sports Crimewatch

Refuse the Breathalizer

JJune just wouldn’t be June without a Sebastian Janikowski DUI incident, and this year was no different. After his disastrous foray into the world of GHB and unwilling dates, the Foul Pole decided to go back to the bread and butter pleasures of vodka mixed with German performance cars and immediately hit paydirt. Janikowski was arraigned in Leon County Court in Tallahassee, FL on June 10 after being pulled over on May 18 for driving “erratically” in his maroon Mercedes. Police immediately issued a citation for the DUI, but declined to prosecute Janikowski for buying a maroon car. Law enforcement officials said records showed he had been cited for DUIs at least seven other times, including three times in Tallahassee. However, they made it clear that no favoritism was shown in the decision to let him keep his license. “Not only NFL stars, but ordinary people may drink and drive as much as they like here in Tallahassee,” one police spokesman said. “We just pull you over if we run out of beer ourselves.” Janikowski, who was oncearrested for attempting to bribe a policeman, reportedly had no liquor left in his vehicle at the time of the citation.

One of the problems with professional sports is that there’s no way to completely isolate the athletes from the general population. No doubt they’re working on it: vast practice facilities that come complete with whole artificial population centers… Fully automated discos and bars manned by robots, lots of papier mache parking meters and light poles to safely drive into, and a never-ending supply of real high school girls, red rubber balls strapped in their mouths, imported through a special loading dock at the edge of the territory. No other human interference would be necessary; even the record producers who arrive to offer rap album deals could be automated… That’s the way it ought to be, but not the way it is. In the real world, there’s no way to remove completely the extraneous human beings from the pro athlete’s existence. Case in point: the parking lot attendant.

Hardly a year goes by without a violent incident involving a pro athlete, a $90,000 vehicle with a dent, and a parking lot attendant who sooner or later surfaces on television with a cheap lawyer and a neck brace. Mike Tyson used to fill the yearly quota with admirable regularity, but this year the job fell to Chicago Bears wide receiver David Terrell. Terrell was arrested on June 13 on the classic sports charge of simple misdemeanor battery after he and two other men had a “disagreement” with a pair of Chicago parking lot attendants. Punches were thrown, and one attendant was struck in the face, although he stupidly declined even fictional medical treatment after the fight ended. The ACLU has yet to protest the exorbitant $100 bail set for Terrell after the incident.

Former boxing champion Pernell Whitaker earlier this month had some advice for young people who are considering experimentation with cocaine: don’t hide it in your wallet. The key with coke is to work up enough of a resistance that you can swallow your whole load if you have to. When police pull you over for driving into a light pole, toss the foil packet into your mouth. Then try to keep as cool as possible while they decide whether or not to make an arrest or issue a ticket. That’s the key moment right there, the difference between be able to keep doing tons of coke indefinitely and not being able to do any at all for at least the next 21 months. Whitaker screwed it up back in March. He only had a few more months to go before a previous cocaine charge would have been dropped when he was pulled over for a moving violation in Virginia Beach. While police were processing him for a four-day jail term on the traffic arrest, they found a packet of cocaine in his money roll. Now he’s looking at ten years if convicted for violating the terms of a previous drug sentence. “It has not been a good day for me,” Whitaker said after the hearing.

Finally, a story you’ve heard on the radio more often than a two-for-Tuesday double-shot of Aerosmith: Dwight Gooden arrested in Florida for driving with an open container of alcohol. In an unusual twist, Gooden appeared to not actually be drunk at the time of the arrest; police video showed him passing the field test with flying colors. Gooden’s attorney, Joseph Ficarrotta, jumped all over the tape and get the charge knocked down. “Law enforcement did the right thing and reduced the charge to reckless driving,” he said, stressing the words right and thing. The Doc almost got off this time, but the age-old unpaid previous unrelated traffic violation did him in, and he was sentenced to 21 hours of community autograph-signing. “I couldn’t find a stamp,” Doc explained.


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Why We Always Wight

Jun

21

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By John Dolan

Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism
By William Bennett
Doubleday, 2002

Why We Fight

William Bennett, former Drug Tsar, specializes in teaching moral lessons of the nastier sort. His last book, The Death of Outrage, was a 200-page scolding of America for not being sufficiently scandalized by Clinton’s blow-job. Bennett’s own outrage never falters. He once denounced from the podium a child wearing a Bart Simpson T-shirt. Bennett’s first claim to fame was informing on his Harvard roommates for using pot. They went to prison to be raped, and Bill was instantly a made guy with the Nixonians, quoting and quoted by every other sclerotic Phalangist on the far-right Op-Ed list.

Why We Fight, his latest book-length scold, steals the title of WWII propaganda shorts, and claims the same purpose: steeling American resolve for the great battle with Osama. But a better title would be Why We Iz Wight–and anybody who doesn’t think so is just wong as wong can be.

These naysayers are the villains of the book: those “elite” Americans who won’t put flags in their windows. The “elites” Bennett names are always academics from snotty Bohemian trust-fund schools like Brown. God knows there’s nothing wrong with hating those people. I hate ‘em myself, and I have cause, real, personal cause far stronger than Bennett’s.

But let’s introduce a little reality here: a professor making $65,000 a year may be many things–a nuisance, a noisy pompous ass–but part of an “elite”? That’s a lie. Nobody with an income like that makes it into the American elite. And it’s not just a matter of money; American academics, by comparison with those of any other Western culture, are utterly excluded from political as well as economic power. The present Prime Minister of New Zealand is a former Sociology professor; half her advisors are academics too. You get that kind of crossover in many cultures–but never in America.

That’s why American academics sulk and whine about the regime so endlessly and boringly. Nobody even listens to their jilted grumbling–except rightwing propagandists like Bennett, who must subscribe to an online clipping service called “Obnoxious Remarks by Leftist Professors.” This dry old rhetorical dung is useful to him in the same way it was to the prairie pioneers: he uses it as fuel. After stringing together dozens of unpatriotic utterances by people like Susan Sontag (shit, is she still alive?) and Stanley Fish, Bennett spends the second half of the book reassuring the reader of the “superior goodness” of American culture.

By the way, that overloaded phrase “superior goodness” is typical of the appalling prose produced by this self-appointed cultural guardian. Redundancies are something of a specialty for Bennett, who informs us that our enemies may employ “fake facades.” For the most part, he wisely abstains from any attempt at humor; but when he gives in to, er, mirth, the results are painful–as when he says the US has been “…a mecca [sic], if I may be permitted, for [Muslims].” Droll, eh? His wit is matched only by his modesty; he describes the “sheer effrontery” of those who disagree with him, and reports in disbelief that one liberal had the nerve to disagree “to my face.”

Bennett’s purpose in writing this odd little book isn’t nearly as clear as he asserts. Why should it be necessary to convince patriotic Americans (the only sort likely to buy a Bennett book) to feel patriotic? But here’s Bennett, working away as hard as an Alabama cheerleader to whip the crowd into a red-white-and-blue grand-mal seizure.

To adapt another WWII slogan: Is this rant necessary? After all, humans quickly come to worship whatever little clique we form. As Brendan Behan said, most groups are “…very popular with themselves.” And if you were going to pick a nation which didn’t love itself sufficiently, would America be your first choice? Americans are nationalists to the core, far more than any other western people. But their patriotic fervor went far beyond normal levels after the WTC disaster, which led to a frenzy of hysterical patriotism: flags, anthems, the disgusting Kid Rock in red-white-and-blue videos….

Yet Bennett writes in worry and frustration, as if his readers were far too lukewarm and needed massive injections of staunch love of country. It’s as if all Bennett heard, in the roar of patriotic chants after September 11, were the scattered, frightened grumbles and half-hearted cavils of a few old professors. He constantly warns his readers that “We are under attack, and have been for some time.” And he doesn’t mean attacks of the WTC sort; he means attack from within, by seditious whisperers.

The question which interests me is this: is he just using the Leftie quotes to stir up his readers, or is he really so frightened that Americans will lose their nerve?

I suspect he really does fear this. And I think this strange partial deafness, in which only one’s enemies, only bad news, can be heard, is a fundamental characteristic of American right-wingers. Even when they’re winning by a landslide, they’re wretchedly unhappy, convinced that their enemies are only laying low, planning something terrible. Nixon’s paranoia was by no means a mere individual pathology; it’s the occupational disease of his span of the ideological spectrum. He was leading McGovern by the biggest margin ever recorded in a presidential election when his goons got busted at Watergate. All he had to do was coast, but he couldn’t see it; he felt only terror and vindictive rage.

That’s why the rightwing crazies loved having Reagan around to front for the cameras: because he was the only one who didn’t wear fear and hatred on his face. He simply lacked the attention span a paranoiac requires, and that vacancy made for a lovable canine smile.

Bennett is one of the bedrock nutcases; it’s never enough, for people like him. September 11, and the week that followed, were clearly bliss for him:

“In the wake of September 11, the doubts and questions that had only recently plagued Americans about their nation seemed to fade into insignificance. Good was distinguished from evil, truth from falsehood. We were firm, dedicated, unified. It was, in short, a moment of moral clarity….”

Do you hear the longing, the desperate nostalgia in that paragraph? If only there could be a mass slaughter every day! Then that “moral clarity” might last a bit longer, and give Mister Bennett the high he obviously craves. But the high never lasts. Sooner or later, people start arguing–and for all Bennett’s lip service to “democracy,” dissent is something that drives him into a genuinely pathological rage.

It’s unbearable to him that a handful of tenure-hungry jargon-mongers are saying snide things about America. Theirs are the only voices which really come through to him. To any sane listener, the sound of America after the attacks was one huge roar of outrage–but for Bennett, there is only “the Death of Outrage.” In the middle of an 80,000-seat stadium roaring out the anthem, Bennett would scan the crowd for the one or two cranks who refuse to rise from their seats–and he would follow them, collect their bitter grumbles, paste them together, and use them to make himself and his readers even angrier and more wretched, as he has here.

It’s madness, of course. But it’s a very adaptive madness. After all, Ladies and Gentlemen, who won the war? Bennett and his like are the true elite now. Their imaginary “liberal” enemies are a demoralized remnant, useful only to whip the victors into new kill frenzies.

This book is the rhetorical equivalent of a rock wielded by a paranoid schizophrenic. The imagined “enemy” has been ambushed, knocked down, battered to a pulp. He’s already dead, his head smashed–but the madman goes on battering the crushed skull, moaning, “Leave–me–aLONE! just–leave–me–aLONE!”


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BASEBALL LIKE IT OUGHTA BE

Jun

21

by

By Matt Taibbi

Muckdogs

The BEAST will be keeping a full-season diary throughout the summer of the Batavia Muckdogs, a single-A farm club in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. Forget the big leagues. Forget the upcoming strike. This is sports the way it should be.

“God, I’m so fucking glad to be back here,” Mike Nacey says. He’s a youngish guy, around thirty, thin and with a red goatee and a baseball cap. He’s standing serenely at the beer booth like it’s his own personal barcalounger. It practically is. He lives around the corner from Dwyer Stadium in Batavia, home of the single-A Muckdogs, and has been coming to games for over twenty years. He’s run the full fan cycle; he worked the scoreboard when he was seven, now he works the brew stand. He’s seen it all here.

“John Elway’s first professional home run,” he says. “I was here. He hit it right out there to left.” Elway played for the Oneonta Yankees back in the early eighties. Another future football star had a cup of coffee with the Muckdogs a few years back, and Nacey remembers him, too. “Yeah, Ricky Williams was here, I remember him,” he says. “He was good. I kept waiting for him to have a play at the plate, so that he could wipe out the catcher. Never happened. He was fast, though. He stole some bases.”

Maybe things were different back in the days of the Polo grounds, but no one can possibly feel the way Nacey feels about Dwyer Stadium in a major league park these days. Dwyer park is his house, you can see it. Big league parks, with their luxury boxes and their impossibly complex leases and building deals, manifestly belong to nobody, not even the teams they house.

Muckdog ball is different. “Simple pleasures, man,” Nacey says, looking around. “That’s what it’s all about.”

This is probably what baseball was like way back when, when America fell in love with the game. The local ballpark was an extension of your front yard. The players were talented kids who toughed it out every night and made as much playing ball as you did pouring concrete or doing frame work, if not less. You could catch the manager hanging around the hot dog stand before the game and ask him how the new lefthander was coming along. And you cared who won because you knew these kids and felt like you were part of the team—not because they wore the same name as some dot on a map.

And the players are still damn good. They’re throwing one-hop strikes to home from deep right field every single time. They’re laying off sliders down and away. And they don’t have millions yet. They’re regular guys like us—only much better at baseball.

It’s the day before opening night. It has been rainy all afternoon and the tarp is on the infield. The team’s press guy has mud on his pant-legs from working the grounds. The opening-night starter, a promising 6’7″ Venezuelan named Erick Arteaga, is throwing heat off the bullpen mound. You can hear the ball popping in the catcher’s mitt all the way out in the parking lot. A few other players are long-tossing in left field, but most everybody else is already in the clubhouse. It’s pretty quiet out there.

Barthelemy, left, playing spades with three pitchers

The team has only been together for a few weeks. About half of the players were only just drafted, and three or four only signed a few days before. The guys are just getting to know each other. Inside the clubhouse, a brawny Florida St. infield prospect named Ryan Barthelemy is crossing vocational lines to play Spades with three pitchers. They’re useless when the conversation turns to bat trends.

“Hey, who else makes the maple bats?” he asks.

Bobby Korecky, a righthander from Michigan, winces in mild disgust. “We don’t know,” he says.

Beau Richardson, a lefthander from Tulane, points in a circle. “Pitchers,” he reminds us. Spades is a team game and he seems mildly annoyed that Barthelemy, his partner, is not paying full attention. Worse, Barthelemy is showing me his hand, which I make no sense of. I’m going to have to learn this game.

Ryan’s a genial, laid-back guy who I was told was one of the team’s best prospects. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s going to be batting clean-up on opening day tomorrow. He’s only been with the squad a few days. I grew up playing catcher and as such can spot one from a hundred yards off—all catchers can, for some mysterious reason—but it isn’t until I see Barthelemy’s trunk-like forearms that I can tell he’s a first baseman. I ask him if he’s a Marlins fan, being from Florida.

“I’m an East coast fan,” he answers diplomatically.

The Muckdogs are a Phillies organization.

“How would you feel about playing in Philly?” I ask.

He doesn’t miss a beat. “I would feel outstanding about playing in Philly,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a bad big league destination.”

He asks me where I’m from. I tell him I’ve just moved back to the States from Russia. “Russia? Damn,” he says. “So you speak Russian?” I tell him I do.

“Well,” he says. “I’m trying to learn Spanish. I’m going to have to.” He points over at a Dominican pitcher named Carlos Cabrera, who’s standing over in a corner next to Arteaga, who’s just walked in. “These guys are going to teach me. Right?”

Cabrera turns his head, nods. They’ve got 78 games to get the language thing right. I make a note to get Cabrera to test Barthelemy’s Spanish before every issue.

Opening night. The hour before the game belongs to the people working the various concession stands and attractions inside the gate. There’s a reading center for kids, a table belonging to the local newspaper,

Rock: I got eighty balls last year

The Batavia Daily News, and a merchandise stand where I buy a Muckdogs dog bowl, a quality item, for five bucks. A 10th grader named Andy Rock is working the speed-pitch game; guess your speed on the radar gun, and win a free helmet. Andy’s making minimum wage, which is a promotion from his previous Muckdog profession; turning in foul balls for hamburgers.

“I got eighty last year,” he said. I lose the radar game and give him a dollar.

Hunting down foul balls is a big deal around here. It makes sense; fewer fans, just as many foul balls. Everyone you meet has his career numbers ready. Two kids named Nick and Steve, who are in a band together (“We’re the next Staind”) and are inside the gate here working an amusing gig in which a sign invites you to ask them for their worthless autographs, both have a good figure from last year.

“I got about a hundred,” Nick says.

Nacey has never turned his in for burgers. He’s got twenty years’ worth. “I’ve got a whole trash can full of them,” he says.

You can tell a foul ball is coming in this park even if you’re behind the stands. The announcer cues up an ad for a detail shop called Select Collision that features the sound of a baseball hitting your parked car. “Select Collision, Route 33, Batavia,” he says, as the ball flies over your head. “They’ll make your worries and dents disappear.”

The Muckdogs used to be the Batavia Clippers. Five years ago they changed their name. Local fans voted on the new title. The team is named after a nearby field that has a lot of muck in it; the vicious dog was apparently an afterthought. Before the game starts, there’s a strong smell of manure around the field, but by the second inning or so, it goes away.

The game is a heartbreaker. Arteaga pitches a gem; seven shutout innings, only one walk. The team is winning, 1-0, going into the ninth, but a series of defensive miscues lets the Jamestown Jammers tie it up in the last inning. After a close play at home that would have won it for the Muckdogs in extra innings is called an out, the Jammers come back in the twelfth and rough up Mexican reliever Maximo Reyes for two runs.

The crowd got ugly toward the end of the game. The blown home plate call clearly made the 62-degree evening feel a lot colder all of the sudden.

“Damn it, its freezing, the game goes on an extra hour, and we’re going to lose!” a fan shouted as Reyes gave up his second run.

A full inning after the blown call, a fan on the first base side was still giving it to the umpire. “That’s the jerk play of all time!” he shouted. “Of all time!”

Ryan had a rough night at the plate, although he drove in the only Muckdog run with a sacrifice fly. Other than that, he was 0 for 4 with four groundouts to second base, plus a booted foul popup in the ninth. I try to find him after the game, but instead run into Warren Brusstar, the former Phillies reliever, who’s in his first year as the Muckdogs’ pitching coach. He shrugs over the tough loss.

“It’s a learning experience for them,” he says. “They’ll get better.”


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Arabic Seek-a-Word

Jun

21

by

Arabic Seek-a-Word

We have a saying in the West: give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. But teach a man Western values, and he will get a job with a multinational company, possibly even incurring credit-card debt and declaring bankruptcy some day! With that in mind, we provide you, our backward Afghan brothers and sisters, this fun way to learn new, Western concepts that will open up a world of prosperity to you. First peruse the word list below, giving the Arabic equivalents of some concepts which you may at first find to be quite foreign. Exciting concepts such as “toilet paper” and “Viagra.” Once you’re comfortable with the Western terms, try to find them among the jumbled words at left. Remember: while in your primitive language, characters are read from right to left, in this “Seek-A-Word” puzzle, they may be read leftwards, rightwards, upwards, or downwards. Good luck!

Puzzle

democracy    democracy

relativism    relativism

Jesus    Jesus

soap    soap

toilet paper    toilet paper

blondes    blondes

Viagra    Viagra

progress    progress

disposable income    disposable income

usury    usury

pork    pork


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BILLS OUTLOOK

May

31

by

by James R. Miller

I know it is customary for the opinion writer to save the exegesis of his column’s name for the farewell installment, but given the potentially painful associations of the phrase “Wide Right” for many Buffalo sports fans, I thought it best to make my intentions clear from the outset.

There are of course those who feel that the ghost of Scott Norwood is best left stowed away in the attic of our collective mind, that dredging up such bitter memories at this late date will only lead to ever greater bitterness. I could not disagree more. Such a head-in-the-sand attitude will only leave us woefully unprepared when such a moment of truth once again presents itself.

In fact, we would do well to take examine how Mr. Norwood himself handled the situation following his 1991 Super Bowl failure. Rather than replaying the situation over and over in his mind and letting it become an obstacle to his future development, the place-kicker went on with his life. He left Buffalo later that year, and today is a well-contented insurance agent in the suburban Washington area of Virginia.

Buffalo, meanwhile, muddled on rather aimlessly in the wake of Mr. Norwood’s missed field goal. Although the Bills made it back to the Super Bowl in each of the three following years, each time they were systematically demolished by representatives of the then-dominant NFC East. Salary cap woes and a roster of aging veterans led to even more woeful results in the years since.

The lesson here is obvious: the sensible player knows not to throw good effort after bad and recognizes when it is time to get out of what is quite clearly a bankrupt situation. As the wise carpenter says, better to tear down and start anew than to perform superficial cosmetic repairs on a structure whose foundation is ruined. The rat who flees a sinking ship may seem selfish and cruel, but only from the perspective of those foolish enough to stay behind and slowly perish.

Still, it is not too late for this city and its beloved football franchise. And the way out lies in the true meaning of “Wide Right.” In short, we must adhere to traditional, conservative values while subtly adapting them to meet the requirements of modern realities. Nothing can alter the fundamental truth that strong defense and veteran leadership wins championships. But now that free agency is no longer in its infancy, we must adopt a slightly different approach in our off-season transactions. The signing of high-priced marquee players must be balanced with bargain pickups of key role players.

This of course is an approach that worked wonders for the New England Patriots, a divisional rival and, until last season, a team that had good reason to feel every bit as jinxed as our own Bills. And yet that team rode all the way to the championship on the shoulders of an untested backup signal caller and an unlikely assortment of free agent pickups that no one else seemed to want. And surely it is no coincidence that Adam Vinatieri’s field goal on the Super Bowl’s final play to beat the heavily favored St. Louis Rams was from 47 yards out—just like the one Mr. Norwood missed those 11 years ago.

The Bills and their fans would be wise to view this as a positive omen as we head into the upcoming season.

Was the Bills’ Losing Season Really Bad?

I know that a lot of people were disappointed with the Bills’ 3-13 regular season mark last year, but where did the expected victories disappear to? I’m not sure exactly what happened with the Bills, but I suspect that many of those 13 losses were the result of imprudent trades on the free-agency market. This means that the victories the Bills failed to achieve were not wasted, but rather transferred to someone else.

Consider two hypothetical NFL teams that experienced disappointed losing seasons. One team wasted tens of millions constructing useless luxury boxes that no one will ever use and signing aging veterans who can no longer compete at a high level. This team reduced the value of the franchise and its supporting community by wasting resources.

Now consider a second team whose season went down the crapper because it made a free-agency market bet with another team (let’s call it the third team) that certain players’ effectiveness would rise when it really fell, and vice versa. The second team did not waste resources, because its expected victories were enjoyed by this third team.

While I’m not entirely sure which team more closely represents the Buffalo Bills, I suspect it might be the second. Likewise, the third team appears to be a reasonably good approximation of the New England Patriots. For example, Bills castoff Antowain Smith was a key element in that latter team’s unexpected triumph.

Thus, the way to that elusive championship is elementary: the Bills must turn the tables on the Patriots, who now have nowhere to go but down. The much ballyhooed signing of quarterback Drew Bledsoe must then be a key element of this strategy.

But Is Bledsoe the Solution?

This, unfortunately, is a question with no easy answer. The eternal optimist will surely be quick to point out that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure, but I’m inclined to be a bit more skeptical on the matter. Is it really reasonable to expect that New England, which was so flawless in its decision-making last year, would now be so frivolous as to give up the player with the skills to carry a division rival to victory? Probably not. But then again, stranger things have happened when a perennial underdog has suddenly found itself the king of the hill.

We may argue back and forth on the subject all we like, but ultimately the victor is decided on the field of play. As for which will be the last team standing at the end of this upcoming season, only time will tell.

Born and raised in Hamburg, James R. Miller is currently doing post-doctoral work in economics at London School of Economics. His column on the Buffalo sports scene will appear in this space each issue.


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SPORTS DESK

May

31

by

 

Sports Crimewatch
Anyone who still wonders why it is that foreigners complain that Americans don’t understand them need only look at the elaborate security preparations undertaken before this past week’s Indy 500. According to numerous news reports, security at the race was heightened “in the wake of the events of September 11,” and the city of Indianapolis even assigned a special “terrorism preparedness coordinator” named Peter Beering…
Wide Right
I know it is customary for the opinion writer to save the exegesis of his column’s name for the farewell installment, but given the potentially painful associations of the phrase “Wide Right” for many Buffalo sports fans, I thought it best to make my intentions clear from the outset. 
Bledsoe vs. Johnson
According to FCC statistics, approximately 4,386 hours have already been spent on talk radio in Buffalo in the month since The Trade debating this city’s new Eternal Question— who’s Better, Drew or Rob? The FCC also reports that not a single new point has been made since the 411th hour of the debate. From where we stand, it seems like the hometown crowd is failing to grasp the real issues… Maybe the reason we’re all at an impasse is that we’ve got the wrong Johnson. So the BEAST decided to ask: how does the Patriot Missile stack up against the star-crossed 17th President? 

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MAYOR TO STAR IN GANGSTER DRAMA

May

31

by

Tony Masiello Rolls Out the Red Carpet for the BEAST

by Matt Taibbi

Masia and CrewIt didn’t seem like much of an idea at first. Co-editor Kevin McElwee and I, newly arrived in Buffalo from our previous home in Moscow, Russia, were hiding inside at a friend’s house during an April snowfall, toying with prank ideas for our inaugural issue. Mayor Anthony Maseillo’s name came up…

We’d only been in town for a few weeks, but it was hard not to notice that Buffalo had clearly… well, to put it as nicely as possible, it had clearly seen better days. A once-mighty industrial city now had boarded-up storefronts right in the heart of its downtown. Vast tracts of what in any other city would be prime real estate were empty and undeveloped… And the city planning seemed to have been achieved through a sort of accidental process; highways bulled through waterfront areas, a public university had been built way too far out of town to have a serious impact on the city economy, and the chief plan for urban renewal was intimately connected with an utterly insane but apparently sincere decision to give an Enron-like company, Adelphia, public money to build a fictional skyscraper in a district already overflowing with empty office space.

We asked around. The general consensus among friends in town was that the chief reason for Buffalo’s problems was that city leadership was corrupt and incompetent. As for the Mayor, he appeared to be a human being without much of a basic life plan at all. He had achieved power through the most ideologically unspecific means possible, running as both a Democrat and a Republican… and once he got into office, his plan to revive the city had remained as vague and ineffectual as his actual persona–a persona captured perfectly by his splotchy, career-weary face and half-hearted comb-over. “He’s not doing anything,” one friend told us. “God only knows what he’s doing with his time.”

Interesting question, we thought. Then it occurred to us to wonder: what if we could find out just exactly what the Mayor is doing with his time? We played around with a few ideas, then zoomed over to our office in the luxurious Statler towers to make some phony stationary. We had decided to offer the mayor a part-time job.

I should digress here to explain something. We here at the BEAST are expert and experienced pranksters. For five years, we were senior editors at one of the world’s most notorious newspapers–the Moscow-based eXile. Four years ago, we conned Mikhail Gorbachev himself into accepting an offer to be an assistant coach of the New York Jets under Bill Parcells. A few years after that, we had the caretakers of Lenin’s body offering us their services when we called as Kennedy family representatives seeking help in mummifying the disembodied foot of John F. Kennedy, Jr. And just last year, we laid siege to the Moscow office of The New York Times and threw a cream pie made of horse sperm in the face of Times bureau chief Michael Wines, one of the biggest assholes in all of vast Russia.

We have a military sensibility about our pranks. It’s not even so much that we enjoy it; it’s just what we do. So when it came time to start up a newspaper here in our new home in Buffalo, there was no question of not locating a practical joke target immediately for our first issue. Our first joke on American soil had to be grand in scale, and it had to meet our high professional standards.

Our plan for the Mayor almost seemed too primitive at first to be all that interesting. We decided to pose as executives for the HBO show The Sopranos and offer the Mayor some ridiculous and vaguely humiliating cameo role. The plan was to push it as far as possible until his office, or the Mayor himself, blinked. We had no plan for what to do, however, if he didn’t blink, not believing this to be possible. We have a lot to learn about Buffalo, it turns out.

The First Step

The first step was an exploratory phone call by “location scout Jeffrey Baines” to the Mayor’s press secretary, Matt Brown. Brown at first seemed dismissive and curt on the phone, which was about what we expected. After all, one would think that the leader of a major industrial city would have more pressing concerns than the possibility of scoring a bit part in a cable series, in particular one celebrating gangsters. His aides would be busy, impatient to get to the point… Nonetheless, Brown told us to follow up with our proposal in writing:

Listen to the call.  (2:01)

Brown:   Matt Brown. May I help you?

BEAST:   Hi, Mr. Brown. My name is Jeffrey Baines. I’m a location scout for the HBO television series, The Sopranos. And I had a question for you. I’m up here in Buffalo. We’re going to be shooting part of an episode that’s going to run next fall in the Niagara Falls area. And our senior producer, Sam Weiss, has been in consultation with the writers, and they’re interested in getting Mayor Masiello to appear in a cameo… and we wanted to know if there’s a possibility of speaking to Mr. Masiello, or at least sending him a letter.

Brown:   (unimpressed) Uh, you can send a letter.

BEAST:   Okay.

Brown:   You can send a letter to, obviously, the Mayor, Anthony Masiello, care of Matthew Brown. It’s 65 Niagara Sq., room 201, Buffalo, NY 14202. Let me give you my fax number.

BEAST:   Yeah. I was going to say–it might be better if we do this by fax.

Brown:   Yeah.

LetterWithin minutes after this call, we had our designers putting the finishing touches on our mock HBO stationary. It wasn’t very convincing–any 17-year-old Miramax intern worth his eyebrow stud would have been able to spot it as a phony from 200 yards away–but we figured it might be good enough to get past a professional political operative or two at City Hall. Once that was done, we typed up a letter to the Mayor from “Senior Producer Sam Weiss,” which included the following summation of the proposed plot:

“The storyline is very simple. Our lead character, a mob boss named Tony Soprano, has discovered that Jackie Aprile, Jr., the young man who has recently proposed marriage to his daughter, has a ‘goomah,’ or mistress, in Niagara Falls. In a rage, Tony books a ticket on Jet Blue to fly up to the area to confront Jackie. It then occurred to us to introduce a scene in which, by coincidence, Tony finds himself sitting next to you, Mayor Masiello, on the plane.

“Over the course of the flight, Tony–who himself has a mistress–unburdens himself to the friendly mayor about his own marital problems. Always ready to offer advice to a stranger, you urge Tony to reconcile with his wife, and offer suggestions on how to rekindle the romance. What suggestions you offer would obviously be something we’d like to consult with you about, but one direction we were thinking of going in would be urging Tony to discover a love of the arts with his wife–painting, poetry, music. “The episode could then conclude later on with a visit to the Albright Knox Art Museum, during which you explain to a bewildered Tony–who is still unaware that you are the Mayor–the beauty of the post-impressionist school of painting.”

Now, in the real world, this letter should have been sufficiently ridiculous to scare off any even mildly cogent public employee from taking it seriously. But when we had a female BEAST staffer call back as “Danielle,” Sam Weiss’s bubbly personal assistant, we found otherwise:

Listen to the call.  (5:49)

BEAST:   Hello, may I speak with the press department?

Mayor’s Office:   (female receptionist’s voice) I’m sorry. Mr. Brown, the Mayor’s director of communications, is off until Monday.

BEAST:   Oh, I see, maybe you can help me then. This is Danielle, from HBO films.

Mayor’s Office:   Mmm-hm!

BEAST:   We sent Mr. Brown–er, the Mayor, care of Mr. Brown–a proposal for a cameo in The Sopranos show?

Mayor’s Office:   Yes.

BEAST:   And I wanted to make sure that the fax was received.

Mayor’s Office:   Hold on, I’ll connect you to Bernadette.

The receptionist disappeared for a moment, giving us an opportunity to adjust the levels on our tape recorder. In a flash, she was back:

Mayor’s Office:   Hello?

BEAST:   Is this Bernadette?

Mayor’s Office:   Um, no, this is still the receptionist.

BEAST:   Okay.

Mayor’s Office:   Yes, he did receive the information, and he’s very happy about it.

BEAST:   He’s very happy about it?

Mayor’s Office:   Yes.

BEAST:   Excellent. Would it be possible for Mr. Weiss to speak with Mr. Brown on Monday, then?

Mayor’s Office:   Yes.

Before we let the receptionist off the phone, we decided to try to up the ante. Every good practical joke should contain one element of utter absurdity, so that after the fact, the victim has no excuse for falling for the trap. In this case we decided to offer, on behalf of our fictional cigar-chomping Jewish producer, a peculiar gift. Once we broached the subject, the receptionist connected us to someone a little higher up on the Masiello chain of command–the Mayor’s personal bodyguard, Juan Phillips:

Phillips:   Good afternoon. Officer Phillips.

BEAST:   Uh, Good afternoon. I’m sorry. This is Danielle Kuczkowski from HBO films.

Phillips:   Yes.

BEAST:   Um, I have a somewhat strange question.

Phillips:   Okay.

BEAST:   Mr. Sam Weiss was hoping to send the Mayor a small gift. And I’m just curious to know whether the Mayor would like… a porcelain unicorn. It’s autographed by James Spader, the actor. He makes them in his workshop in Westchester.

Phillips:   Okay.

BEAST:   It’s a bit of an unorthodox gift, so…

Phillips:   Wait a minute–what was the type of gift it was?

BEAST:Spader's Unicorn It’s a porcelain unicorn.

Phillips:   A unicorn?

BEAST:   A unicorn.

Phillips:   You’re talking about, like–the horse, with the…

BEAST:   The horse with the one horn?

Phillips:   Right!

BEAST:   Basically, I don’t know if you know this… James Spader, the actor…

Phillips:   You know, I’m not familiar with him. You know, that’s strange, because I am myself a movie buff, a play buff… James Bader?

BEAST:   James Spader. Maybe you remember… Sex, Lies and Videotape? Also, I think, White Castle…[eds. note: our bad. James Spader was never in a movie called White Castle].

Phillips:   Yes!

BEAST:   Crash, also, I believe…

Phillips:   (lying) Sure! Okay!

BEAST:   He makes these wonderful porcelain unicorns at his workshop in Westchester…

Here, Phillips entered into an impassioned soliloquy about the Mayor’s sensitive side:

Phillips:   Let me tell you something about our Mayor.

BEAST:   Mm-hmm.

Phillips:   Our mayor is a man of art.

BEAST:   (incredulous) Is a man of… art?

Phillips:   He loves all types of art.

BEAST:   Really?

Phillips:   From paintings, to sculptures…oriental rugs. He spends a good portion of his time at antique shops [!].

BEAST:   Oh, that’s just terrific!

Phillips:   He loves promoting our city. I’m the officer assigned to him. I just drove him around looking at the neighborhoods. He loves seeing trees and flowers in bloom. He has a thing about clean and green, he believes in that. He spends a lot of time at the art gallery himself… He loves it, he loves everything that deals with art. So if it’s something that’s being made by another actor [eds. note: another actor?], where he himself is making it, the Mayor will love it.

BEAST:   Oh, that’s wonderful.

Phillips:   You’ve got a great following here, there’s a great following of The Sopranos series here. In this office alone, we watch it… I don’t want to use the word religiously, but we watch it every week.

BEAST:   Wonderful! Do you watch it yourself?

Phillips:   Oh, yes. When The Sopranos came out on CD…

BEAST:   Yes?

Phillips:   I bought the whole set.

BEAST:   Well, it’s a great, great success. We’re very proud of the program.

At this point, Phillips digressed, filling us in on the Mayor’s recent appearance in a locally-produced movie that starred legendary camp TV actor Frank Gorsham (or, as Phillips put it, “Frank… I don’t know what his last name is, but he played the Riddler”). After hearing about the Mayor’s film history, we briefly worried that we might have to pay him Screen Actors’ Guild rates, then asked once again about the Mayor’s interest in our show:

BEAST:   So you think he’d be amenable to appearing in a cameo?

Phillips:   Oh, yes! He already stated that he was very excited. He showed me the letter the other day. He was very excited about it.

It took us a while, after the end of this phone call, to fully take in and appreciate the image of Mayor Masiello proudly showing off our cheesy home-drawn knock-off letter to his staff… But we couldn’t sit still for long:

The Ball was in Play

The next day, still in disbelief, we did the only logical thing: we went ahead and actually sent the Mayor a unicorn. We had a BEAST contributor in New York buy a pair of piece-of-shit, made-in-Taiwan, not-quite porcelain unicorns (one for us as a souvenir, and one for the Mayor), crudely inscribe the letters “J. Spader” on the side, and send one of them to City Hall from a Manhattan Post office.

Two days later, a phone rang in the apartment of our Manhattan intern, whose number we’d used on our letterhead. Our intern was not home, but her roommate, who’d been briefed for this eventuality, quickly asked to take a message when she heard the voice of Matt Brown, calling to thank us for the gift.

It was now time to bring Sam Weiss onto the stage. The next day we had Danielle call Matt Brown back and patch through the heavyweight senior TV producer–actually our thirty year-old slacker co-editor Kevin McElwee, sitting at home smoking a Kools in a Bills t-shirt–for a serious talk:

Listen to the call.  (4:15)

BEAST:   Mr. Brown!

Brown:   Hi, how are you?

BEAST:   Yeah, Sam Weiss here. Good talking to you.

Brown:   Good talking to you. I called your office yesterday to thank you for the, uh… unicorn.

BEAST:   Oh, you got that!

Brown:   Yes, that was really nice.

BEAST:   Yes, James Spader is a great man. He does some good stuff for us. We’re very happy with him…

Brown:   That’s very thoughtful, very thoughtful. The Mayor’s in Albany today. He won’t be back until tomorrow morning. Um, he, we received your letter. He’s very interested in participating. And would like to, uh, you know, we’re just following your lead, for you to tell us how to proceed.

BEAST:   Uh, well, how did the Mayor feel about the general storyline?

Brown:   The storyline, he was very comfortable with it. The people in our internal staff kind of looked at it. You know everybody’s psyched about it. They think it’s great, great for Buffalo. [Eds. note: Great for Buffalo? How?]

BEAST:   Okay. Well, obviously, it’s just in the planning stages, in terms of a script. If there’s anything he’d feel uncomfortable about, we’d take that into consideration.

Brown:   Sure.

BEAST:   Well, that’s great. Great to hear. Do you think that it would be possible to speak to the Mayor at some point? Personally?

Brown:   Certainly.

BEAST:   Yes?

Brown:   Certainly!

BEAST:   You say he’ll be back tomorrow?

Brown:   Yeah. If there’s a number where I can have him contact you. That number [that I called the other day], is that a good number to reach you at?

BEAST:   (nervously, unconvincingly) Not generally. Right now I’m travelling. Yesterday, I was held up on the island. And I’m heading down to the D.C. area today. Could you tell me a good time to call? I’ll have my assistant conference me in.

Brown:   Um…Let’s see, he’s not back in Buffalo until ten… Why don’t we say three o’clock?

BEAST:   Three o’clock.

Brown:   Right.

BEAST:   Okay.

Not expecting to get hold of the mayor so quickly, we hesitated after this call, no longer sure of what to do. To give us more time to think, we invented a little accident for Mr. Weiss, hinting vaguely in our return call the next day that the senior producer had been involved in a ghastly car wreck and was now in traction (we would have added that he was also facing charges for running over two small black children, but the Mayor’s receptionist didn’t press the issue). In the meantime, we asked if we could come by and pick up a head shot of the Mayor.

Mr. Brown, in a voice that suggested that such requests were common at City Hall, said by all means; we made a date for a “location scout” to pick up a photo at City Hall.

Having been largely shut out of the acting up to this point, I dressed up as “location scout Geoff Winestock” and went over to City Hall two days later. While waiting in the Mayor’s reception room for the photo to be delivered, I took out my cell phone and loudly conducted a pre-arranged conversation with “Mr. Weiss” on the other end of the line. The gist of the conversation was that our “star,” James Gandolfini, a.k.a. Tony Sopranos, had rejected the Bradford bar on Chippewa as a location because “it was too light” and might make him look too fat on camera.

“Too fat?” I shouted into the phone. “Who does he think he is, Joan Crawford? We can’t do this scene in a basement!”

After a few minutes of this, a door opened at the side of the room, and Mayor Masiello poked his head out. I was momentarily caught off-guard by the Mayor’s height. A tall person and an ex-basketball player myself, I was dwarfed by the lanky exec, who drifted over to the receptionist’s desk while I conducted my call and appeared to silently eavesdrop while pretending to rearrange some papers on her desk. Once the call was over, he ducked back into his office.

They gave me the head shot and I went home.

Sometimes the reason for pulling this or that practical joke is obvious. If you send George Bush a $1000 campaign contribution on Nazi party stationery and he cashes it, it’s pretty clear what you’ve got, and why you did it. But sometimes it requires pulling back and getting some perspective on things before the point of a joke really becomes clear.

Think of it this way. If you’re broke and you don’t have a job and you’ve maybe got a child or a relative who’s dying–because the city is too busy negotiating casino deals with creeps from Southeast Asia, and helping huge companies pay for their private palaces, to give you health care–well, you can try forever and a day to get a public official with any responsibility at all on the telephone, and you never will.

But if you call up and pretend to be a Hollywood big shot, and dangle a silly little part in a trendy gangster show… Well, you can fly into town from halfway around the world without any friends or references at all, and you can have the Mayor of the city himself eating out of your hand in no time.

You know what politics is? It’s not about taking care of people anymore. It’s show business for ugly people. And when real show business comes knocking, even in the form of a show that celebrates gangsters and racketeering, almost any of our leaders these days will drop his “day job” in a second for a chance at the real thing. The rest of us, meanwhile, are left to suck eggs.

We Get the Mayor on the Phone

On Tuesday, May 28, we got the Mayor on the phone. Mr. Weiss, we explained, had recovered from his accident sufficiently to conduct business, and wanted to speak to the chief.

The resultant conversation was remarkable for its extreme awkwardness and for its many different paranoid undercurrents. But on the surface, it was exactly what we expected it to be: a Mayor of a major city–a city mired in a major financial crisis, and reeling from the collapse of one of its largest companies–abjectly expressing his desire to appear on a hit cable TV series. It should be noted that the Mayor’s receptionist offered to set up a meeting with the Mayor within fifteen minutes after we first called back.

That was too fast for us; we made it an hour. When the time came, we pushed “Sam” back to the phone for the climactic call:

Listen to the call.  (6:31)

BEAST:   Hi, Mayor Masiello!

Masiello:   (bursting with enthusiasm) Sam, Tony Masiello! Mayor of the great city of Buffalo, New York!

BEAST:   Great to talk to you, sir.

Masiello:   My pleasure. And thank you very much for your interest in Buffalo and Western New York.

BEAST:   Absolutely, absolutely. [irrelevantly] So I understand that you got the unicorn that we sent?

Masiello:   (not taken aback at all) Yes I did! Thank you very much. It’s so nice of you.

BEAST:   Yes, James Spader is a great… a great fella.

Masiello:   (pained) Thank you, I appreciate it.

BEAST:   We just had a few questions…

Masiello:   Sure.

BEAST:   As far as setting up the production and the planning of the episode, really…

Masiello:   Great.

BEAST:   Just wanted to ask you a few things. Did you ever sing any Karaoke?

Masiello:   (laughs) No, I, uh… I can’t sing a lick.

BEAST:   You don’t play any instruments or anything?

Masiello:   No, I do not.

BEAST:   Huh.

Masiello:   (hopefully) I can dance.

BEAST:   You can dance?

Masiello:   Heh, heh, heh.

BEAST:   Well, we can all dance a little, I guess.

Masiello:   That’s right. Is that… needed?

BEAST:   (distracted by laughter in room, ignoring him) Um… what about squash or flyfishing, anything like that?

Masiello:   Uh…No, I played basketball in high school and college. I was in my college hall of fame for basketball… I was drafted by the Indiana Pacers.

BEAST:   Really?

Masiello:   But I do not, um…I was not good at squash–or fishing.

BEAST:   And what about golf?

Masiello:   Yeah, I play golf, but I stink.

BEAST:   Well, we can all be a little better.

Masiello:   That’s right.

BEAST:   Um, okay, I think that’s probably just about it…

At this point, a weird volley of racially charged comments passed between ourselves and the Mayor. We had decided to ask about the Mayor’s heritage in the hopes that he might somehow connect it to The Sopranos show, but he took it the wrong way–and his response appeared loaded with implications that the obviously Jewish Weiss should have caught:

BEAST:   Maseillo… are your ancestors from the Abruzze province?

Masiello:   They’re from the region of Potenza. They’re not far from Naples.

BEAST:   Right, the home of pizza.

Masiello:   (venemously) Do you have family who are Italians?

At this point, Kevin was distracted because I was signaling to him to ask the Mayor about the casino deal… We wanted to see if he would be willing to expedite the building process so that we could shoot inside the new facility. As I was reminding him of this, Kevin simply ignored the Mayor’s question about Sam’s Italian relatives. Nonetheless, he waited patiently on the phone.

Masiello:   Hello?

BEAST:   Yes, yes. Well, we’ve been following this casino thing up there. When do you think this thing is going to be built?

Masiello:   Well, there’s several issues that have to be resolved first. While it did pass the reservation vote, it has to go to the Bureau of Indian Affairs first for approval. Then there has to be negotiations with local developers and operators, along with the local municipalities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. So you’ve got two facilities in both cities that we’re looking to renovate as temporary casinos. And I think that’s 6-8 months away.

BEAST:   Oh, really. Because we’d love to shoot in there. But I don’t think it’s going to be done…

Masiello:   No, I don’t think it’s going to be in time…

BEAST:   Right.

Masiello:   What do you expect of me?

BEAST:   Well, we’d like to make it sort of as fast as possible. It would probably be one or two days in all.

Masiello:   Oh, that’s fine, I look forward to it.

BEAST:   And once we have a script… We’ve got a couple of other candidates we’re looking at, but we’re pretty excited about Buffalo, so…

Masiello:   Oh, that’s great. Have you made a decision to do it in Buffalo?

BEAST:   No, we haven’t made the final decision to do it yet. We’re looking at a couple of other candidates.

As expected, the Mayor at this point quickly let us know that he was willing to go the extra mile for the show:

Masiello:   Is there anything I can do to help in that process?

BEAST:   Um, not really. Really it’s out of my hands. I’m just a producer. It’s in the hands of the creative folks to really make the final decision about this stuff…

Masiello:   When do you anticipate this being done?

BEAST:   We want to make the decision sometime this week.

Masiello:   No, when do you think that the shooting should take place?

BEAST:   Um, the shooting we think would be later in the summer. So, probably August, something like that.

At this point, the Mayor went off on a poetic digression. In the middle of this section, he is clearly reading from the letter we had originally written to him:

Masiello:   You know, it’s interesting, in the letter you wrote me about the segment, you mentioned taking the “bewildered Tony” to Albright Knox. I live right next door to the Albright Knox gallery.

BEAST:   (totally unimpressed) Oh. Really.

Masiello:   Yeah, so….Um.

BEAST:   Yeah. I haven’t been to Buffalo for a long time, myself, but I’ve seen the pictures. It looks like a lovely place.

Masiello:   Yeah, it is a great place. But you know, Buffalo being right next to Niagara falls, there’s a lot of great older neighborhoods, a lot of great Italian neighborhoods. I think it will augment whatever you’re doing.

BEAST:   Right. Right. (an unbelievably long and painful silence follows)

Masiello:   Okay.

BEAST:   So, like I said, we’ll be making a decision later this week. Because we need to get rolling on the specifics of it. So we’ll get back to someone in your office at that time. We’ll let you know.

Masiello:   (ominously, perhaps just now catching on that the thing is a farce) I’m looking forward to working with you–and meeting you.

BEAST:   Great.

Masiello:   Thank you.

BEAST:   Thank you.

As the BEAST went to press, we were calling the Mayor’s office to inform him that he’d been passed over for the part in favor of Graham Richard, Mayor of the great city of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Richard, we said, had agreed to appear shirtless for the show, and that was the deciding factor.

We were glad we weren’t there to hear how Tony M. took the news. But somehow we have a feeling we’ll find out soon enough. At least we know now how the Mayor spends his time…


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