Who are these guys talking to? It's addressed to me. It falls through my mail slot. It gets carried into my kitchen by my dog in exchange for a cookie. But when I open it up, someone seems to be talking to somebody else.
Actually, they are talking even before I open it up. You know how junk-mail advertising starts right on the envelope. Andy Rooney did a piece on this, probably made more money in five minutes than social security sends me in a year. But that's all right. I'm always glad to hear from someone, anyone; sometimes whole days, seems like weeks, go by without I talk to anyone other than the one person I do talk to, and she ain't always in the mood. Especially in the morning when she's likely to start off with "Will you stop that banging around?"
Banging around? I only opened the door and picked up the mail. The dog did the rest. Who taught him that stupid trick? Not me.
I feel like I've seen this letter before. Right on the envelope it starts off, THIS YOUNG WOMAN HAS A PROBLEM. Huge huge type, like that, which goes on to say the problem is a happily married man, a former United States senator, no less, even a Republican, lying dead in her apartment with his shorts on backward!
The mail carrier gets to read the best part of the letter before I do.
But speaking as someone who's had his shorts on backward a time or two, I don't see what the big deal is supposed to be. Oh, I see it all right, but come now, really, a Republican? I thought those guys were busy blocking health care.
It's just some bad short story that's supposed to make me want to subscribe to another magazine, in this case Esquire, only you have to open the envelope to find that out.
"Dear Reader, The dilemma described on our envelope?
"It's fiction! Fantastic, fabulous fiction!"
Good thing they told me. I'd never have guessed.
But I don't get too many letters lately, and I'm a man who likes letters. So I read on. I read about the 12 fat issues for $7.97. I read about the owner who is famous for publishing great magazines. I read about how Esquire is even better than I remember.
Then I read about the editor who is our age and outlook. Our? That's when I begin to wonder who these people are talking to.
Esquire, they tell me, may be the place where my grandfather learned how to pour my grandmother a Rob Roy, and first set his heart upon driving a Pierce Arrow. My grandfather? Who voted for Eugene Debs and communicated with grandmother by throwing furniture down the stairs? Who was deaf and mute and dug graves for the archdiocese of Chicago? I check that gaudy envelope again. Yes, it's still addressed to me.
Esquire, the next paragraph says, may be where my dad first heard about a singer named Elvis and wondered how he himself might look wearing bell bottoms. My dad? Who went to burlesque shows in order to catch the piano player? Who should have known how he looked wearing bell bottoms after helping save the world for democracy in 1918?
It seems Esquire has me mixed up with somebody else, somebody even younger than my sons. A third generation, they say, your generation and mine, which gathers every month to "learn how to get more out of life."
Your generation and mine. Oh yeah? Maybe the guy who wrote this belongs to a generation that looks for Esquire to tell it how to get more out of life; other generations looked for better reasons than that to buy a magazine.
I don't have to read on, but of course I do. When I start reading something, I'm pretty hard to discourage and I've already finished the corn-flakes box. I once read every single page of Peyton Place, line by terrible line. But I know, even as I read this letter, that I would not read the magazine it wants to sell me.
Learn how to dress like a million for less. How to improve my serve, my swing, my stride. How to fend off a paunch (too late). How my sex life compares. How to hype it.
Esquire wants to add to my fun. Tell me where to shed my stress. Mountain hideaways, seashore spas, places like that. Wants to tell me why I should try Silver Oak's '85 cabernet next time I want a steak. Huh?
Today's Esquire wants to keep me conversationally current. Wants to let me preview the new novels, exposes, and film scripts everyone is talking about. Like the senator with his shorts on backward?
Esquire even gives me a lively new anecdote to tell at my next dinner party. About an old gent who totters into his club and asks the inattentive waiter, "Do you know who I am?" And the waiter, claiming he's new, suggests the old boy get one of his friends to tell him that instead.
I'll bet my dad heard that one at the burlesque. Between piano players.
Now I remember why I stopped subscribing to Esquire in the first place. And a lot of other magazines. They not only want to tell me what to wear and where to go and what to read and see, but even what to say when I'm wandering around on my own. They want to do everything for me except the one thing I expect a magazine to do, which is, of course, to be a good magazine in the first place.
So Esquire now defines itself as being for the literate if not the literary, and for the intelligent if not the intellectual. In other words for those weenies who like to think they're just as smart as anyone else, only humbler since they've never troubled to prove it. And if this sounds like you, says Esquire, you can extend your savings by subscribing for 24 months and save a whopping $44.06.
Signed, cordially, Ron Evans.
So here's my answer.
I know you won't quit with the letters because I'm in your data base. The fact is, however, I know firsthand what kind of magazine Esquire once was, and that's too bad for you. Putting aside all that garbage about Pierce Arrows, Rob Roys, button-down shirts, and Elvis, Esquire once was a magazine people bought because they wanted something good to read. Let me define "something good to read." James Joyce I am not talking about. The critical edition of War and Peace is not what I have in mind. "Good to read" simply means stories, essays, and articles that stand on their own, that run in a magazine because they are the best stories, essays, and articles the editor can buy, and not because they are tailored to a certain audience advertisers hope to reach. Something good to read adds up to a magazine that does not have to be sold as something that is good for the reader. Is it good for me to know the latest styles? Is it good for me to know what is going on in the world of entertainment? Is it good for me to update my sex life? I won't argue any of that. But Ron, since you're a young fellow, maybe you will understand if I put things this way:
Suppose you approach a young lady and this is your line. "Sweetheart, you should go out with me because I will help you learn how to get more out of your life." Unless she's an utter wimp of a young lady--in which case you may well deserve each other--she's not really going to jump at the opportunity. More probably she'll pick up on some other guy she actually likes. And the chances are she is going to like him precisely because he's not promising to teach her how to get more out of life. That's the way of the world, Ron. Believe it or not.
A magazine should be something more than a guide to stylish living, something a busy young man needs to keep up with the latest trends. All that human effort, all that goddamn money, all those poor trees, it's got to add up to more than that. A magazine, can I say this, ought to have a soul. I won't pretend there was ever a golden age in which publishers put out magazines just for the fun of it. But there was a time when editors had a little more class than to snuggle up to total strangers, saying things like "our generation" when what they really mean is "market research." There was a time when editors and writers and, yes, publishers had ideas of their own, and readers got to choose among those ideas. There was a time when there really were magazines for men, magazines like True, and Argosy, and Bluebook, and Real Man, and Man's Real Adventure, and I could make up pages of names just like that and more than half of them would turn out to have really existed, and each and every one of them, even the cheapest newsprint bimonthly, had some kind of personality of its own. There were stories about giant anacondas slithering out of trees, and head-hunting pygmies, and lost continents that someone rose out of the mists, and there were tales of the old west, of famous crimes, of historical disasters, or wars, or explorations that took you to the ends of the earth, or faithful hunting dogs that dove into flood-swollen rivers, or beautiful young women kidnapped into harems, or Indian tribes who knew where to bury that hatchet, and some of them were true and some of them could have been true, and none of them had anything at all to do with what I should be wearing at the office or what I should be talking about at the party tomorrow night. Esquire, of course, always was above these commoners, even though it did have the Vargas girls, but when all was said and done it was a real man's magazine, one of the best, and if it published Hemingway, Irwin Shaw, and Scott Fitzgerald, it wasn't because they were the hot new writers people ought to know about, but the kind of writers people really honestly wanted to read.
I realize now that I'm starting to sound like what I am, a grumpy old man. Someday, Ron, I hope you will have lived long enough and well enough to have earned the right to do the same. By then there may no longer be any magazines, but I somehow doubt it, not after walking through Dalton's last Wednesday and seeing the sheer tonnage of stuff being churned out today. That being the case, a gray morning may come, and I say this without bitterness or irony, when you will sort out your mail, and learn that someone actually thinks you will be delighted to read about a senator who can't put his underwear on right. But that letter won't really be talking to you, it will be talking to someone whose dad not only discovered Lyle Lovett in the pages of Esquire, but wondered how he himself would look with his hair combed that way.
Then, as you head toward the toilet to chuck up whatever remains of last night's supper, remember me.
Very cordially, even sincerely, p.p.