In which the esteemed editor of The Lowbrow Reader goes down on the corner. In a matter of speaking.
BY JAY RUTTENBERG
For eight and a half years, my wife and I lived in a squalid hovel on West 15th Street in Manhattan, just large enough for the Census Bureau to avoid categorizing us as vagrants. We paid handsomely for the apartment. I adored living there.
Alas, there existed a downside. Residing in the neighborhood meant that I regularly found myself at the intersection of 14th Street and Eighth Avenue: the worst junction of New York, if not the hitherto explored reaches of our solar system.
Each patch of the area presents its own unique disgrace. To the southeast is a sleekly annoying glass behemoth designed with the sole purpose of housing the wealthy. If memory serves, the building began construction roughly around the time that Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan from the Canarsee tribe, and was completed only in the last couple of years. Abutting this building sits a gloomy space, generously labeled a “delicatessen,” which counts among its clientele some of America’s most aggressive riff-raff. Once, when walking by, I overheard a bloodcurdling row and began to call the police, afraid that the establishment was finally being torched to the ground. Upon closer inspection, I discovered two of its employees irately throwing food at one another while customers cheered.
Cater-corner to the deli stands an imposing structure that, at any point in its history, seems to capture whatever is ugly in New York’s zeitgeist. It was built at the turn of the 20th century as a muscular bank, a glorious shrine to avarice. When I moved into the neighborhood, the building housed a ghastly carpet shop; this was replaced, during what future historians will no doubt regard as the Sex in the City–era, with a millionaires’ grocer, every piece of produce handled as if it were a dictator’s infant son. In the thick of the recession, the building sat conspicuously empty. And now, this grandiose structure is leased by a corporate drugstore, aisles of tampons and toothpaste sadly arrayed beneath the heavenly domed ceiling. “Sorry,” society says with a demoralizing shrug, “but we really cannot do any better than this.”
The corner’s deepest failings, however, lie not in its stores, but in its streets. I have long suspected that the bohemian chestnut about refusing to travel above 14th Street had less to do with an aversion to uptown squares than the lack of hipness intrinsic to getting hit by a car. Years ago, a traffic cop was briefly stationed in the middle of the intersection. It is my assumption that she did not survive her shift, as she quickly vanished, and the police ceded the crossing to anarchic motorists.
The area’s style of driving favors maniacal turns and flamboyant stops, as if each vehicle is returning from the same driver’s ed course, and it is taught by Popeye Doyle. On weekend nights, many cars bear the words “garden” and “state”—so innocuous when taken separately yet chilling when encountered together on a license plate. While in Manhattan it is unlawful to take a right turn on a red light, this regulation is gleefully flouted, along with those rules about not using one’s automobile as a racing device, weapon, or quadraphonic hip-hop broadcasting system. George Washington crossing the Delaware once was brave; me crossing 14th Street for nearly a decade as half the population of New Jersey swerved towards my person was heroic.
After a handful of terrifying near-misses and at least one letter to the mayor’s office proposing that an aerial tramway be erected over the intersection, I am happy to report that my wife and I eventually moved a few blocks north. It is best not to ask my thoughts on West 23rd Street.
Despite writing the classiest, most tactful TMFU entry to date, Jay Ruttenberg is the editor and publisher of The Lowbrow Reader (online at www.lowbrowreader.com). Early last year Drag City’s publishing arm dropped an anthology of the mag’s best stuff, aptly named The Lowbrow Reader Reader. For more information, peruse the below interview with Ruttenberg, originally published in BLURT #12, then check out a pair of way cool videos. THEN, get off your ass and go get the book. It’s a hoot.
Stooping to the Level
Jay Ruttenberg’s Lowbrow Reader, anthologized and analyzed.
The New York Times called Jay Ruttenberg’s Lowbrow Reader “A smart little magazine about dumb humor.” Sure, it lionizes Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison, and gives the Queens of Comedy (Mo’Nique, Sommore, et al) a venue to discuss their sexual proclivities – not exactly the most edifying topics. Then again…
Everybody fucks, everybody poops, and many of us have been drunk enough to hallucinate giant arctic birds. Doesn’t that universality make it relevant?
“I think a lot of great comedy draws its strength from addressing base topics in an intelligent way – and, conversely, looking at lofty topics from the perspective of a moron,” says Ruttenberg. He points to Chris Rock, “far and away the smartest standup of from the past 15 years. When he talks about, say, politics, it can be with faux man-on-the-street ignorance; when he discusses sex or relationships, he speaks as an exalted philosopher, using the preacher’s cadence of his grandfather. I should point out that Chris Rock is also the favorite comedian of the President.”
Ruttenberg started the Lowbrow Reader with “the vague notion of covering what was generally perceived as ‘lowbrow’ comedy in a hopefully smart and funny way.” He also wanted the magazine to “come from a heartfelt place” and to steer clear of ironic praise and disingenuous approval. “It always gets my goat when a critic fawns over something that is conventionally bad, but you can kind of tell his admiration is insincere… If the accolades smell false, it cheats the reader.”
And so it is that The Lowbrow Reader Reader (Drag City) compiles cartoons, commentary, essays, fiction and verse from Patton Oswalt, Neil Michael Hagerty, Gilbert Rogin and David Berman. It also includes an ardent and lengthy look at Billy Madison from Ruttenberg himself. “If you have only seen Adam Sandler’s later movies, that may look stupid or phony,” Ruttenberg says. “But after giving this way too much thought, at least for a mentally healthy adult, I can report that Billy Madison really is my favorite movie.”
However, he defers to Margeaux Rawson’s interview with the Queens of Comedy –originally conducted for Glamour, which rejected it as way too blue – as the book’s masterpiece. “All I can say is, if a person is to read only one article in the book, I hope it is that one. Unless that person is my mother-in-law.” –RANDY HARWARD
Videos: ADAM GREEN – “You Blacken My Stay” and “Give Them a Token” (Live at the Lowbrow Reader Variety Show)