Note: A version of this book was first published in ’80s Mix Tape, an anthology published by Pink Kayak Press.
There’s no such thing as a lost cause.
Jenny Fields is a crusader. As the editor of her college newspaper, she’s never met a cause she couldn’t get behind. So when the administration announces it’s tearing down the historic art building, she’s on the case. All she needs to do is get Matthew Townsend, the art department’s revered boy wonder, on board. They say he his talent is unbounded. It turns out so is his ego.
Matthew Townsend cares about art. And that’s pretty much it. If he has a reputation for being moody and aloof, that suits him just fine. He doesn’t have a family worth speaking of, and as a scholarship student, he can’t afford to goof off like the preppy rich kids at his school. He certainly doesn’t care about the art building. Or about the preternaturally perky Jenny, who looks like she was barfed up by Rainbow Brite. What will it take to the relentlessly cheerful girl with the massive savior complex to leave him alone?
I am going to save the art building.
I am going to save the art building.
I am going to save the art building.
I let the words become a mantra, encouraging them to spiral through my mind, hoping that if I whispered them enough times as I trudged across campus to the newspaper office, I might actually be able to do it.
Because God knew, the art building wasn’t going to save itself.
You know what else wasn’t going to save the art building? An impassioned series of editorials in the student newspaper. Oh, those meticulously researched arguments delving into the history of the Gothic Revival beauty that had housed Allenhurst College’s budding artists for more than a hundred years! It killed me, but they weren’t working.
It wasn’t like I was so idealistic and/or naïve that I thought I could single-handedly make the administration reverse its demolition decision with the power of my words. But I had kind of thought that the articles would bring the issue to the forefront of campus politics. Maybe just enough that people would come to the sit-in I had organized in the president’s office last week.
Nope. It had been just me and my roommate Vanessa and a handful of the Allenhurst Examiner staff who, frankly, were jockeying for the editor-in-chief job that would fall vacant when I graduated this spring. We tried to take up a lot of space in the president’s suite of offices, but mostly his staff just walked awkwardly around us until someone called the campus cops and Officer Artie talked me into closing up shop. “Come on, Jenny,” he’d said. (Officer Artie knew me well.) “You can’t save everything.” (But obviously not well enough.)
So, okay. It was time for Plan B.
I just didn’t know what that was yet.
“Morning, you guys,” I said as I dumped my stuff on my desk in the newsroom. We had an editorial meeting this morning, so pretty much everyone was in.
Vanessa, the production coordinator—and my roommate—flashed me a tired smile from the large worktable in the center of the space. The paper came out twice a week, and Nessa was in charge of the pasteups. That meant late nights before we went to press for our Tuesday and Thursday editions.
Occasionally, she pulled all-nighters in the office, though in my two years as editor, I had made it a mission to streamline operations so that everything was more predictable. You couldn’t control the news, of course, but processes could always be tweaked and made more efficient. There was always room for improvement. The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism wasn’t just looking for good writers: they were looking for people with vision to lead newsrooms.
So when Vanessa called last night to say she wouldn’t be coming back to our room because the mechanicals had arrived late, I only pretended to believe her. If she really had been working on pasteups late into the night, we both knew I would have been there with her.
Which meant we both knew she had spent the night with her loser boyfriend, Royce. It almost made me shudder. But, hey, as Nessa had pointed out several times in recent (increasingly tense) weeks, I was not her mother.
If only the college administration would turn its attention to getting rid of Royce Waldorf with the same vehemence with which it was attempting to destroy the art building. Unlike Royce Waldorf, the art building had never done anything to hurt anyone.
But one cause at a time.
I shed my jacket and moved over to the dusty blackboard on which my section editors had already scrawled their proposed lineups for next Tuesday’s paper.
“What’s this?” I said, trying to keep my tone casual as I pointed at an item that said, “Editorial: National Drinking Age Act—anti.”
No one answered. No one met my eye.
“Seriously? You’re proposing an editorial defending the rights of teenagers to drink?” I wasn’t a Pollyanna—at least not a total Pollyanna—but really? That’s what they thought was important?
“It’s not about drinking, Jen,” said Beth, a freshman reporter who was pretty much my smartest staff member. I respected the heck out of her despite her relative inexperience. “It’s about civil liberties, the nanny state.”
No one else said anything, but I knew what they were thinking. We’d already devoted three editorials to the art building. That was a lot of real estate for one topic. But if I could save the building with the newspaper, my chances of getting into Columbia for grad school would skyrocket. Heck, they’d probably give me a prestigious fellowship.
But, I reminded myself, great editors didn’t use their papers to further their own agendas. And the drinking-age editorial was topical and just controversial enough that it would get people talking. I sighed, the fight leaving me. “All right.”
“Maybe we can think of something else for the art building,” Nessa, ever the people pleaser, said. “An editorial cartoon, maybe?”
“Or maybe you need to think outside the confines of campus,” our photographer, Tony, suggested. “Are there any celebrities you could get on board with your cause?”
It wasn’t a bad idea. “Are there any alumni who have gone on to be successful artists?” I wondered aloud.
“Emmanuel Curry,” said Tony, who was minoring in art.
“Never heard of him. But that doesn’t mean anything. I’m not much into art.”
“Just art buildings,” Nessa teased. “I’ve heard of Emmanuel Curry. I saw some of his stuff at the Met last summer when I was in New York.”
I had heard of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hmm.
“Well, good luck with Curry,” said Dawn, our gossip columnist and occasional entertainment writer. “He supposedly never does media. I’ve been trying to get him to agree to a profile for the entire time I’ve been on staff.”
All eyes swung to Dawn, whose column was our most popular offering, much to my chagrin. She’d built kind of a cult brand on campus with Dish with Dawn. I was surprised to learn that she’d been chasing someone like Curry for a serious profile. But maybe I shouldn’t have been, because her social connections had yielded a huge story for us last year, when she’d reported on a football player who date-raped a bunch of freshman girls.
“Anyway,” she went on, filing her nails and oblivious to the collective bewilderment in the room, “he never replies to my letters, and his agent keeps saying no.” She stared into space and sighed. “It would be so gnarly if we could just get him. You always see him in those nightlife pictures at Danceteria with Madonna and New Order and stuff.” She sniffed. “Though I have to say, he dresses atrociously.”
Ah, that made more sense. The fact that Curry was hanging out with Madonna explained Dawn’s interest in him.
“What about that Matthew Townsend kid?” Tony said. “They say he’s some kind of prodigy. Like, the art department is losing their shit over him, he’s supposedly such a phenom. Dawn is right about Curry—he has a reputation for being standoffish—but somehow the art department managed to get him to agree to mentor Townsend. All the senior majors have to have a mentor to advise them on their senior portfolio.”
“Matthew Townsend.” I let the name roll off my tongue slowly, considering.
A “prodigy” art major with a pipeline to a famous alum?
I had found Plan B.
There were two more messages taped to my door when I got back early that morning.
“Jenny Fields—867-5309,” said the first one.
The second: “Call Jenny. IMPORTANT. 867-5309.”
This chick didn’t know how to take a hint, apparently. She’d called yesterday, too. Jenny, whoever she was, could eat my shorts. If it wasn’t Curry or the registrar’s office calling about a bounced tuition check or some shit, I didn’t want to talk. Not that I wanted to talk to Curry or the registrar’s office. But they were necessary evils, and so for them—and only them—I would drag my ass to the pay phone in the common room. I didn’t have time to dick around. I had four courses and a job, which wasn’t anything new. But this semester I also had a senior portfolio I seemed maddeningly incapable of producing to Curry’s ridiculous standards—and I wasn’t going to graduate without it.
So, yeah, unlike the rest of the rich dweebs at this school, I could not afford to waste time chatting on the phone.
So then why the fuck had I gone out again last night? Did I want to flunk out? To spend the rest of my life flipping burgers? Was eighteen hours a week for the past three-plus years not enough burger flipping to last a lifetime?
I dumped my backpack on my bed, and the remorse came flooding in as it always did once I was back in my room. My shame was never strong enough to deter me, though. Even as I wallowed in it, letting it sink its persistent claws into my exhausted limbs, I unzipped my portfolio and removed last night’s stencil—of Ronald Reagan wearing Mickey Mouse ears—and slid it behind my dresser to keep it safe and out of sight.
I knew I would be back out there. Not tonight. Not even tomorrow night. But within a week, guaranteed.
I upended my backpack so I could refill it with the books and supplies I would need for classes and studio time today. Sorting through the pile of aerosol paint cans, I stashed the ones that were still good in the bottom of my closet. The two I’d used up, I stuffed into a garbage bag so I could throw them out in the Dumpster at work.
Then I crumpled up Jenny’s phone messages and chucked those in too.