Went to a Literary Gala, Interviewed Jann Wenner, Jann Wenner's Son and Tom Wolfe Sang to Me

by “David Shapiro”

right now i am inside the restaurant Cipriani on 42nd St. in Manhattan for a gala celebrating the Norman Mailer Writers Colony and honoring some literary figures and young writers and i am standing 20 feet away from Jann Wenner, the founder and publisher of Rolling Stone Magazine, and i want to ask him some questions about the music website Pitchfork but he is talking to some other people and i don’t want to interrupt him. i am standing with my friend mike who is a reporter, who brought me to this gala and who is also keeping an eye on Jann Wenner to swoop in and ask him some questions when he extricates himself from his current conversation. me and mike are watching him as he dips his middle finger into his glass of water, swishes the ice around in his glass with his finger, puts his finger into his mouth and sucks the water off the finger. even from twenty feet away we can hear the slurping sound he makes when his finger comes out of his mouth. i don’t know why he did that, i’ve never seen someone do that before

the reason i am here is that three hours ago mike asked me if i wanted to go to a literary gala tonight, he is reporting on it for his magazine, and i said “yeah totally” and then half an hour ago i met him outside and he said “you’re underdressed” because there were men in tuxedos and women in ball gowns streaming past us into the restaurant, and he looked me over and i was wearing skinny jeans and a ratty flannel and a fitted cap, and he thought for a second and took his own coat off and handed it to me and i put it on and it is a little small but at least they didn’t turn me away at the door. i said “should i take the hat off?” and he said “yeah, i think that would be a good idea” and then we went inside and the coat check people who were waiting by the door wanted to take my coat and put it in coat check but i couldn’t let them because i am just wearing a flannel under it

we walk inside and mike checks in at the press table and the writer Gay Talese is getting his picture taken in front of a banner that says Norman Mailer Writers Colony. he is old and has white hair and looks frail but he still looks elegant and moves gracefully, like he’s an actor playing an old literary giant in a movie, and it makes me think that if charles bukowski was here he would say “that guy has STYLE!” because he wrote a poem about things that have style, and after Gay Talese finishes getting his picture taken he dashes off to escape the press but mike catches up to him and i see Gay put his arm around mike as mike asks him some questions and i stand among a group of reporters and photographers. the only other person i know here is nate and i find him and tell him that i am trying to come up with ways to accurately describe Cipriani, the restaurant we are in, but not go overboard about it, and nate says “don’t overwrite it — just use four or five descriptive words”

okay so this restaurant has ceilings that are maybe 100 feet high, from the entrance to the back wall it is about as long as a football field, it’s probably about as wide as a football field too, and there is gold light streaming from everywhere and huge marble columns lining the room. in the center 80% of the room there are banquet tables set up with white tablecloths and all around this center area there are people shmoozing as my mom would say. i am not trying to be hyperbolic but it is the most opulent room i have ever been inside

okay so as i said, i just watched Jann Wenner do that weird thing with his water. a cocktail waitress comes by and offers me and mike goat cheese on an endive leaf and we decline but then another cocktail waitress walks by and offers us little rectangles of beef tartare, i’ve never had beef tartare before, and we both try it and agree that it is okay but a little dry. also the cocktail waitresses give you a weird look if you don’t take a napkin with your hors d’oeuvre, they think you’re uncivilized, so i have three balled up napkins in my pocket. finally Jann Wenner gets up and goes over to the bar to greet some people, including a tall woman with garish makeup

jann wenner is about 5’5″ or 5’6″ and has a close-cropped and very neat gray beard that he strokes when he speaks sometimes. when he is done talking to the tall woman in garish makeup i go over to him and say “hi i write a blog about music — can i ask you a few questions please?”

he seems impatient and says “okay fine” and peers around my shoulder and looks at the table that he was heading back towards before i got to him

i say, “do you read the music website Pitchfork?” and he says “no” and i say “why not” and he says “i don’t have time”

i go, “does pitchfork impact what you do?”

and he says “yeah, it impacts everyone” and i say “how?”

Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone Magazine and current media titan, is maybe making a mental list of things he would rather be doing than talking to me right now. in response to my inquiry as to how Pitchfork impacts what Jann Wenner does, he just replies “i don’t know” and looks at me like i should get out of his way. if you are reading this right now Jann Wenner i want to say i understand your frustration, you are a media titan and i am a squirt, you are here to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award and i am here for the complimentary meal and to talk to you for 25 seconds

i say, “okay one more question: what current bands or records are you listening to?”

he tells me he is listening to Tom Morello (former Rage Against The Machine guitarist) and Bruno Mars, and then i thank him and he walks back to his table and i walk around the restaurant and find mike, who is interviewing media titan Tina Brown, and i stand a few feet away from him and wait for him to finish. a photographer walks up near me and takes a picture of Tina Brown’s feet and sees me looking at him as he takes the picture and i guess he felt embarrassed that he had been caught photographing Tina Brown’s feet because he leans over to me and whispers half-jokingly, “i just don’t have anything better to do at the moment”

then someone on the loudspeaker announces that cocktail hour is over and we should proceed to our assigned seats. me and mike and nate are assigned to Table 31 and we walk around looking for it for a while, and we see molly and she is sitting at the Daily Beast table and i tell her i am nervous about being underdressed and she tells me not to worry about it because people will think i am super rich/powerful if i look like i don’t care about getting dressed for this. then we find our table and i sit down next to a man who is at least 80 years old and he is rhythmically chewing on a breadstick and making the blank expression that old people make sometimes, like they have been configuring their face in a socially appropriate way for however many decades but now they are checked out

3 tables down from me, Tom Wolfe is actually making the same face. the man next to me doesn’t greet me when i sit down but the woman who is sitting next to mike, who is on the other side of me, greets me and mike and nate. her name is veronica and she is maybe 55 and she reminds me of my mom because i think people might describe her as a practical woman. mike texts me that we are sitting at the Rejects Table because there is no cohesion in literary affiliation among the guests at our table, it’s just like the leftovers. Veronica says she works for Viking Press and i try to envision what she would look like if she was wearing a viking helmet with the horns sticking out. she asks us what we all do and then says “i don’t mean to seem anthropological” and then indicates that she has an innocent curiosity about what young people are up to these days. we tell her we write on the internet and she tells us that people her age in her industry are sometimes resistant to the internet, they are “occultists of the book”, and also she tells us that she edited 6 Norman Mailer books and ghost-wrote 3 books by somebody else whose name i pretend to recognize. and then she names an online publication that she writes for and after she names it she puts her index finger to her lips and says “shhhhh!!” because i guess her writing for that publication is a secret

then the emcee comes on and starts talking about the gala and the virtues of the Norman Mailer Writers Colony but it looks like most of the people are pretty focused on their appetizers, which are fried pears and some cheese and slices of meat and some small green leaves that i think are baby spinach. so far all the food here has been very small. the speech is boring and i feel restless and it reminds me of the other day when beau told me about “church giggles” which is when you are in church and you start laughing and you can’t stop and your mom has to take you out. i am envisioning what would happen if i stood up on the table and started pounding my chest like tarzan and screaming “FOOD! FOOD! FOOD! FOOD!” then the emcee says “this is a remarkable night — where else can you find three UN ambassadors that were brought together by writers from their countries?” the ambassadors are from bulgaria, israel, and one other country that i didn’t write down. later i am introduced to a kid who says that the Israeli ambassador to the United Nations has been keeping him abreast of the score of the Yankees game

as the emcee is finishing and they have given out some awards to some young writers, i see Tom Wolfe eat something off his fork and then put something into his mouth with his other hand and chew them together, then he wipes stuff off the corners of his mouth, takes a bite of a roll, and stares blankly towards the entrance of the building, wipes his mouth off again, and finishes his roll. a few tables away i watch Tina Brown as she waves at Tom Wolfe and smiles. she does that dainty wave where you hold your hand up and wag your fingers around, not the wave where you move your forearm back and forth. she is radiant

Gay Talese gets on stage and says some stuff that i don’t write down except that he makes a factually inaccurate baseball joke when he says “AJ Burnett (Yankees pitcher) will be showing up later, he’ll be knocked out in the third inning by the Tigers and then he’ll be here” but the Yankees are playing the Rangers, not the Tigers. i look at nate and he is smiling and i whisper “do you think anybody noticed?” and nate whispers “oh yeah definitely”

then Gay Talese finishes talking and the first part of the gala is over and dinner is served, it’s seabass, and the reporters and photographers get up and start walking around and interviewing the people they couldn’t get to during cocktail hour. we go to the bar to get drinks and mike and nate see a guy who they both interned for named Jesse, who mentions that his tuxedo pants don’t have pockets so he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. then nate points out that a kid who looks like he is about my age and is sitting at Jann Wenner’s table is Jann Wenner’s son, named Theo, and he suggests i ask Theo some questions about pitchfork and also tells me that Theo was dating Liv Tyler even though he is like my age and she is much older and has a son. he must have definitely gotten some big high-fives for that

i go up to Jann Wenner’s son who has one knee on his chair and one foot on the ground and both hands on the back of the chair, you know, one of those chair-assisted standing positions, i don’t know if there’s a better way to describe it, and i say, “hi i write a blog about music, can i ask you some questions for my blog?” and he looks hesitant but he says “okay”

i say, “do you read pitchfork?” and he says “yes” and i say “how often?” and he looks puzzled for a second, he is trying to discern my motives for asking him this question, and then he goes, “wait! who do you write for?” and i say “it’s a tumblr blog, it’s called Pitchfork Reviews Reviews” and he looks like he is thinking for a second and then he says “oh… i know about that… okay i don’t want to answer any more questions” and then i say “okay i understand”, i guess he thought i was gonna try to make him look dumb or something, but that’s not what i want to do and i should take this opportunity to mention that he was very amiable as he told me he didn’t want to answer my questions and he seemed reserved but not cold. and as i am writing down what he said he goes, “but, like, what questions were you gonna ask me?”

and i say, “beside the questions i already asked i was gonna ask what bands you listened to and if you talk to your dad via Gchat or Gmail”

and then he says, “do you know the band Salem?” and i say “yes” and he says “well i’m going to see them after this”, i guess he was answering my question about what bands he listens to, and then i say “that’s cool, i like their record, it got a 7.5” and then he says “they deserved higher actually” and i ask why and he says “it’s an amazing album” and then i thank him and go to the bathroom and in the bathroom there are no paper towels to dry your hands with, but there is a really old hand dryer. i have never seen one of these before, the only hand dryers i’ve ever seen are the ones at the movie theater that look futuristic and the other ones in bathrooms that are like as loud as lawnmowers and have stickers of evergreen trees on them. this old hand dryer is a big wooden box that sits on the ground, maybe 4′ long by 2′ wide by 3′ tall, it has some vents on the side and a thick tube coming out of the back of it that leads out to a window and then two smaller tubes sticking out of the front that you put your hands in front of and it blows the water off your hands. there is a man next to it who is operating it. i didn’t even know they made hand dryers like this

then dinner is over and everyone goes back to their seats and the emcee comes on and says some stuff and then Jann Wenner wins his Lifetime Achievement award and gives a nice speech, including a vague mention of introducing Tom Wolfe to acid. then some other people win awards, and then dessert is served and everyone gets up again and starts shmoozing again and me and mike go over to Tom Wolfe, who is wearing a white suit and a black bowtie and has wispy white hair and is talking to a blonde woman. mike waits until he is done talking to the woman and then introduces himself, asks Tom Wolfe some questions, and then finishes his questions and introduces me to Tom Wolfe and i ask him if he listens to any pop music

Tom Wolfe says that right now he is quite fond of this song called You Are The Only Exception and i guess i make a quizzical face to indicate that i’m not familiar with the song so he starts singing it to me, he sings “you are the only exception, you aaaare the only exceptionnnnnn, youuuuu are the ooonly exceptionnn” and he snaps his fingers to the beat and i giggle and he smiles and keeps singing, and then he stops singing and says “i also like country music. i like the song That Ain’t My Truck In The Driveway” and i say “i don’t know that one either…” because i want him to start singing again, but he continues, “i like that one because it presupposes that there are no other kinds of vehicles beside the truck: no sportscars, no sedans, no minivans…” and he thinks for a second, “…no motorcycles…”

i ask if he uses an iPod and he says he doesn’t and i say “a CD player?” and he says “oh yeah, a CD player — that doesn’t really get me into the 21st century right?” and i go “no, it sort of does, my dad uses a CD player and he’s in the 21st century” and then Tom Wolfe says that he really likes this composer named Astor Piazzolla who he went to Argentina to see, twice, and then i thank him and smile and he smiles

mike is talking to Gay Talese again. the night is almost over and people are leaving. i come over to them just as their conversation is ending and Gay Talese turns to mike and says “i hope they’re paying you for this!” to indicate he is impressed by mike’s reportorial vigor, and then he turns to me and says “are they paying you?” and i say “nope!” and he goes “well then good thing you’re rich!” and i say “yeah thank god for that.”

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“David Shapiro” is 22 and lives in New York City and has a Tumblr.

Photo by David Shankbone from Flickr.