Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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I had the privilege to meet the talented young writer Ben Bass after the Steve Martin event at the New Yorker Festival this past weekend. Ben was kind enough to send me his report from the impressive—in length and in fervor—line that formed on the festival’s opening day.

When advance tickets for the eighth annual New Yorker Festival weekend went on sale online, events sold out quickly. Happily, more tickets were released on the weekend in question, and so it was that a line formed outside Metropolitan Pavilion on West 18th Street on the first day of the Festival.

First in the queue was Eileen Fishman of North Caldwell, New Jersey, who arrived four hours before tickets went on sale. Unlike others in line, who stood or sat on the pavement, she surveyed the landscape from the nylon comfort of a Tanglewood-appropriate collapsible lounge chair. Someone observed that Fishman looked like a hardcore fan camping out for Bruce Springsteen tickets at the Meadowlands. “I bought this chair around the corner at Bed Bath & Beyond,” she explained. “My kids are coming in from Boston and I want to get Calvin Trillin tickets.”

Arriving early was a wise move. There was room for only thirty people at this year’s version of Trillin’s popular gastronomic walking tour, and magazine insiders were rumored nearly to have cornered the market. Tickets to it are an October tradition not unlike the post-season base hits of Alex Rodríguez: more talked about than seen.

The Festival also evoked Yankee Stadium in the way that it brought families together. Lisa Kittrell of Mississippi, seventh in line, chose this weekend to visit her daughter, an NYU film student. “She told me she’d go to Miranda July with me if I went to Judd Apatow with her,” said Kittrell, who was attending her fourth straight Festival.

As the line slowly lengthened in the bright October sunshine, people settled in for an afternoon of purposeful idling. One might have expected to find some of them reading this magazine, but iPod listening and text messaging were the distractions of choice, and the most prominent magazines on display were Us Weekly and InStyle. “When you go see a band, you don’t wear their T-shirt,” explained Angie Rondeau, 28, an Oxford Press production editor who nonetheless was furtively perusing a New Yorker article on Elizabeth LeCompte.

Not everyone agreed with Rondeau’s fashion mandate against bringing coals to Newcastle. Suzanne Undy, a freelance writer fifteenth in line, was clad in a New Yorker T-shirt emblazoned with a George Booth dog drawing. She was waiting to buy tickets to see Jeffrey Eugenides and Oliver Sacks. “Everything sells out so quickly,” said the first-time Festival attendee, sounding like a veteran.

Wearing a Los Alamos National Laboratory polo shirt, Columbia M.D.-Ph.D. student Sean Escola, 26, whiled away the time working on a full-page theoretical neuroscience problem resembling the contents of a blackboard in a Pat Byrnes cartoon. Blithely unaware of the attractive fellow student forty spots behind him in line with an “I Love Nerds” button on her backpack, Escola (who, in fairness, projected a certain Weezeresque charisma) was third in line, well positioned for tickets to the Icelandic music group Sigur Rós. Their two Festival concerts had sold out online in seconds.

Hoboken’s Carter Frank, thirty-eighth in line, was buying tickets to see a panel of television writers. “I’ve got a soft spot for David Milch since he hired my daughter as a writing intern on John From Cincinnati,” she said. Asked whether she’d read the magazine’s recent Milch profile, she replied, “They got his bad back right. He interviewed my daughter lying flat on the floor.”

As the sun beat down and ennui mounted, patrons become more forthcoming with their petty New Yorker grievances, both Festival and magazine. Josh Frankel, 19, a Drew University economics major, complained that The New Yorker had attracted too much attention to his favorite hidden gem, the Brooklyn Heights restaurant Noodle Pudding.

“They ruined it,” he said. “They put a profile right in the front of the magazine and now you can’t get a table there after 5 p.m.” Princeton senior Amelia Salyers, twentieth in line, expressed dismay that Salman Rushdie and Junot Díaz were appearing at the same time; they represented two-thirds of her thesis topic, along with Vladimir Nabokov.

Less conciliatory was Marty Katz of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a perennially frustrated online Festival ticket buyer. “It sucks,” he said. “They should get a bigger venue.”

Predictably, the media-centric weekend spectacle also attracted Fourth Estate types, though relatively few from breakaway former Soviet republics. Shorena Shaverdashvili was covering the Festival for a literary magazine in Georgia, “the country, not the state.” Shaverdashvili, the magazine’s publisher, winkingly disavowed any conflict of interest in awarding herself the New York City weekend gig. “I just subscribed to The New Yorker because they added Georgia,” she said. “I used to have to buy it in airports or get my friend to send it to me.”

Shortly before tickets went on sale, the door to the Pavilion swung open and patrons were ushered inside. As the line started moving, a burly security guard tried to maintain open space in front of the building next door, where an Hermès sample sale was attracting a steady stream of customers. “You wouldn’t think these Hermès ladies would be that tough, but they are,” muttered the guard. “One lady this morning almost knocked an old man over. She said she was a columnist from the Post so I should let her in early. I told her to come back when we were open.”

Finally it was 3 p.m. and the ticket counter opened for business. The Festival was underway. Ben Bass


Love it, Ben. Avenue Queue indeed.

interestingly enough… every event i attended had empty seats, and people outside selling or even giving away tickets, which leads one to think…dare i take the chance next year, and simply show up?


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