Like most people my age, I’ve had my share of awful jobs. Lunch cook in a hospital cafeteria when I was 16, coming home from my shift reeking of fryer oil. Cocktail waitress during college, in a ferociously busy French Quarter bar, where I had to pay in cash for all the drinks I got from the bartender, then try to collect from the drunken revelers who had ordered them. Most of these jobs lasted just a few days or weeks before I quit.
But nothing prepared me for launching a magazine with a psychopath.
It was my own fault, of course. And it’s not like all the signs weren’t there. My new boss, a well-known wine expert whom I’ll call Dwight, interviewed me at the magazine’s “offices” — his giant, rambling apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, cobbled together from several smaller residences and filled with a lifetime’s accumulation of strange African art and expensive modern furniture. Bottles of wine were everywhere.
Dwight himself was a stone dweeb, with a hunched-over, tippy-toe way of walking in his dark-purple velvet, embroidered smoking slippers, and an odd habit of snuffling as if he was about to hock up a loogie — the result, as I later found out, of having his septum surgically deviated in the belief that it would help him taste wine better.
But I was 29 and ambitious, and it seemed like too good of an opportunity. I failed to do any due diligence and signed on the dotted line.
To say this was a bootstrap operation is a vast understatement. Typesetting was accomplished via an ancient Scitex machine, and took forever. We had to carry good lightbulbs from one lamp to another to work. For office supplies, the stationery shop downstairs kept an account. Dwight would be out of sight for hours at a time, although he could be heard snuffling from somewhere deep in the netherworlds of the apartment. Before too long, I was having nightmares about being chased around a room without windows and doors, by a cackling old man in a motorized wheelchair. I was so stressed out that I started getting nosebleeds.
The art director was an equally naïve young woman named Robin, and we clung to each other like survivors in a lifeboat. We knew our boss did something else vague in publishing, but weren’t aware of its exact nature until Robin opened a door to what she thought was a closet and found his bedroom, complete with round bed, mirrored ceiling and photos strewn about depicting women doing unspeakable things with handheld hairdryers. The other publishing enterprise was porn.
Yet there were some great parts about the job, too, including the opportunity to write about food, and to do offsite photo shoots with some of the best photographers and stylists in the city. And there was no end to the wine that came into the apartment, some of which I got to take home after Dwight had sampled it.
And so it was that when I gave notice, the day after the hair-dryer incident, I agreed to stay around long enough to get the first issue into print.
Was I ever really that dumb? I reasoned that it was like throwing good money after bad to not at least have the launch on my résumé, and I was meeting all sorts of people in the world of food and wine, including a well-known consultant who was using her considerable contacts in the wine world to put together a high-ticket tasting event for the new magazine. So I sent the final bluelines off to the printer, and then went back to the safety of the job I’d had before I’d ever heard of this particular magazine.
But it wasn’t over yet. I shouldn’t have been surprised when I found out that Dwight never actually sent the tax money that he took out of my paycheck to the government, and I had to hire an accountant — I was just glad to be out of there.
Then I heard from an assistant in the New York County District Attorney’s Office. It seems that Dwight had not bothered to get the necessary insurance and licensing for the wine tasting, and all the wineries pulled out. He brought lawsuits against the wine consultant and many of the wineries, all of which were dismissed as frivolous.
When the consultant began getting obscene phone calls — hundreds of them — she changed her phone number and moved on, but she was finally moved to contact the D.A. when some suspiciously corked bottles of wine that were sent to her tested positive for human urine.
Robin and I were asked to testify that anything could have gone on in that vast apartment without our knowing it, including hundreds of phone calls. Dwight represented himself in court, on tippy-toes in that stifling-hot courtroom where he refused to have the windows open because it would affect his ability to taste wine. The sweating jury turned in a guilty verdict, and the judge sentenced him to public service.
The magazine struggled on for a few more issues before disappearing.
I still drink wine.