An Imperfect 10by Theodore Hamm
I first became aware of “a perfect 10” when I was 9. I was watching the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics, where the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, five years my elder, kept reaching the magic number. It was the first time anyone had ever achieved the highest possible score, and Nadia reached it no less than seven times in ’76. The announcer’s words still ring in my head—“It’s a…perfect 10!”—and thenceforth the bar was set really high (note: that’s the first gymnastics joke I’ve ever told, and I’d be lucky to get a nine for it).
Now, in the 10th month of 2010, the Rail is reaching double digits. Dogmatic chronologists may debate whether the first decade of the 21st century C.E. actually ended last December. But this month clearly marks the end of the initial 10 years in the first century A.B.R. (Anno Brooklyn Rail). Unless, that is, you count the pre-history of the Rail, when it was a circular and/or web mag at the end of the Clinton age. Yet by any calendar, we’ve now reached the end of our first decade as a full-fledged print publication. And yes, we’re ready to party like it’s 1999.
In the temperament of the times, I’m calling this anniversary “An Imperfect 10.” As the current lead character in our national drama likes to remind us, these our imperfect times full of imperfect reforms. And he would certainly know, for if there is one campaign promise Obama has clearly kept, it’s to be imperfect. But short of young Nadia, few of us have ever known the true meaning of perfection. Thus, in the spirit of ’76, I shall now submit the Rail’s first decade in print to the same rigorous standards once applied in Montreal.
Degree of Difficulty
The initial incarnations of the Rail—the Xeroxed version, and the web-only mag—required very little money. In early 2000, Phong convinced the rest of us that if we became a nonprofit, we could get enough donations and grants to become a full-fledged print publication. The office of Greenpoint’s city councilman at the time (Ken Fisher) then helped us with some of the initial paperwork and gave us $5k, which took a while to get, so we borrowed money from a friend to pay for the first print issue. I’ll spare you more of the mundane details, other than this one: our very sour original accountant, who is thankfully no longer in our employ, once assured me that, “This will never work.”
But Phong quickly made clear his determination to prove such naysayers wrong, and so kept pulling rabbits out of his funny hats. At many brainstorming sessions (see next page), we kicked around various ideas—charging a cover price, bolstering our local advertising, even going the smut ad route. But these were not our hustles. Phong was also determined to keep the Rail “pure”—free, with only limited advertising. Such virtue has had varying degrees of rewards. Had we become dependent on ads, we likely would have collapsed during either the post-9/11 or more recent downturn. Then again, if we had more steady streams of income, we could pay our editors and contributors more than an occasional stipend. Thus, amid the Great Recession, when people ask how the Rail is doing, I usually say that we’re okay, “Because when you’ve never had a boom, you’ll never have a bust.”
There are, of course, other roads to financial stability than the ones I’ve mentioned. Cozying up to real estate developers is one way (and the Brooklyn gold rush was clearly on by mid-decade), and currying favor with the rich and powerful is another. But while those paths may have been in our best interest, we’re not here to comfort the comfortable. Hence Phong has kept the Rail running via grants, small donations, and art auctions. Rather than name some of the many publications that started up and sputtered out over the last 10 years in Brooklyn, let’s just say that the Rail is the little engine that did. And if you’re looking to start your own publication today, my advice is to seek out an upbeat accountant.
Life without parole is a better sentence. (Okay, that’s not the first death penalty joke I’ve ever told, and I’ll settle for an 8.5.) An easy position would be that since we stuck around for 10 years, we must be doing something right. But our goals have been somewhat loftier than that. Since we cover so much ground in the Rail, it’s hard to say what unites all of our different editors’ visions—other than the desire for each section to be a presence in the cultural and intellectual life of the city. And that score we have settled.
It would be foolish of me to say that we’ve never made any mistakes, in terms of our choices of pieces, our copy-editing and production, etc. But not even A-Rod bats 1.000—surely Geoffrey Canada would, but he doesn’t play baseball. Still, publishing is not baseball, and even though our salaries and ticket prices are considerably less, there’s not much leeway in terms of strikeouts or errors. I do know that we have plenty of fans, and as one told me a few years back at the Bowery Poetry Club, “Your batting average is pretty high.” I only wish that I could say the same regarding my softball season this summer for Pete’s Candy Store.
I’d love to tell a sculpture joke right now but none is taking shape. (I’ll let you score that one.) There are two aspects of the Rail to evaluate here: writing and design. As this column suggests, we’re pretty much open to any type of writing. Except, that is, for pieces about celebrities, fashion, food, or other such puffy stuff. We let our writers write, and for the most part, our editors prefer to be curators than traditional hands-on editors. The result is a really wide collection of styles, not all of which are in fashion. And we like it that way.
Our design is also never static, and neither do we cling to the rules (you shouldn’t even give me five for that one). Sometimes you can’t even find our logo on the cover. And there are now four different covers for each issue, making the search sometimes even more fruitless. But the layout is always crisp, like an upstate apple. Our man Walter has inherited the torch from Fernanda, Alvaro, Amelia, and his buddy Kiu. If this were a relay race, they’d win the gold.
10.0 + 9.9 + 10.0 = 29.9/3 = 9.96 = An Imperfect 10!
Call it a victory for the home team, grade inflation, or shameless puffery—or let’s call it all three, then call it a decade. But before I go, one final note: Starting with the 2008 Games, the perfect 10 no longer exists. Honestly, I really didn’t mean to Shanghai you. After all, the Games actually took place in Beijing.