In the superstar world the most corrosive virus is permission.
Prologue-impale the Children
july 4, margate, new jersey
"Shamelessness is the lubricant of damage control."
I'm the pollster you hire when you can't win on the merits. My clients don't have merits. Case in point: The borough of Hopkins Pond, New Jersey, just fired me because I couldn't persuade their community to demand more hazardous waste burial at the KinderTots Day Care playground. They also stiffed me on eighty-three grand in polling fees. Had I done my job right, the logic goes, mommies and daddies would be clamoring for jagged, blood-caked syringes from Lenape Hospital to be entombed on the playground where their urchins played duck-duck-goose every day.
While I'm not responsible for the defeated bill that would have boosted the dumping of nasties in Hopkins Pond, I am responsible for my career choice. I am a rare breed of pollster: unlike the cavalcade of academicians and smartass pundits who make their livings passing judgment on how those of us in the line of fire screwed up, I am hired to actually impact the direction of events that are already heading south.
When you've got a case that has no merits, the trick is to speak with force about things you know nothing about. Shamelessness is the lubricant of damage control. My latest feat was getting a priapic nimrod elected to the United States Senate by creating a campaign for hiseffete opponent that riled New Jersey voters. I conjured up thirty-second TV spots ostensibly supporting our blueblood adversary (I showed the poor bastard playing squash) using slogans such as STRENGTH THROUGH PANACHE and LEADERSHIP WITH ELAN. As one Camden bricklayer said in a focus group, "I dunno what it means, but I can't stand that guy's ass."
Sometimes, as in the campaign to impale preschoolers with contaminated hypodermics, nothing works, even if it's damned brilliant. The work I did this summer for the rocker Turnpike Bobby Chin was spectacular (forgive my swagger), but it ended in abject disaster. As depressed as I am about his immolation, I feel compelled to confess to how I almost pulled it off even if I'll be accused of spinning. Which is what I do.
I used to pride myself on my lack of shame, but after a quarter-century in the spin racket, I've come to feel as if a balloon payment of compunction is due. After enduring the occupational hazards of a renegade pollstermy debacles have been showcased at Princeton, my successes go unsignedI had the good fortune to begin slowing down. I had no remaining fuse for getting fired, blamed, and stiffed on invoices; traveling to the outhouses of America on prop planes; subsisting on vending-machine cuisine; cloaking my improvisational hucksterism in the chin-scratching respectability of "public opinion research"; and enduring media exposes placed by enemies that inevitably contained footnotes about my gangland lineage.
These days, I took only cases that I either believed in, or paid very well. Still, getting rooked for eighty-three grand was a problem because I had subcontractors to pay.
Raised in Atlantic City, I had lived in the Washington D.C. area for sixteen years after graduating from college. I knew I had to leave Washington when more and more of the advertisements in the real estate section of the Post described homes for sale as being "just minutes from the White House." As if you'd have to get there REALFAST. This grandiose posturing sent me over the edge, the way a couple that's been married for twenty years finally decide to get divorced because they hate the way each other chew. I had worked in President Reagan's White House when I was in my twenties, and did not need to be reminded that my proximity to the big time was in the distant past.
The main reason why I moved my wife, Edie, and our kids back to South Jersey a few years ago was because Edie's dad had hip replacement surgery, and hadn't healed as quickly as we would have hoped. Edie wanted to be near her parents as they aged. I, having lost my parents as a little boy only to be raised on the lam by my grandfather the mobster, understood the need to nest. We moved into a cottage on the grounds of my in-laws' farm in Cowtown, about forty miles inland. My business, Jonah Price Eastman & Associates (the "associates" were a laptop and cell phone), could be operated from anywhere. I began to teach a course in Postmodern Deceit at Rowan University a few days a week during the school year, taking on the occasional corporate assignment or speech, and enjoyingmore than I ever imaginedraising my family.
As a compulsion, I compile my Big Theories on life, which I record in a diary that will probably be worth nothing someday. Nevertheless, I share them with my students when the opportunity presents itself, which I always make sure that it does.
I came up with my Big Theory on terrorism while watching TV at a bar overlooking the Margate beach: Terrorism works because everybody needs it to work. The terrorists need to terrorize, the public needs a vessel in which to pour its free-floating anxieties, and the news media need to fill a geometrically expanding universe of time and space with something.
Since the blockbuster of September 11, 2001, the Armageddon industryhad been predicting that the next big U.S. terrorist strike would come via private aircraft on an important date at a significant place. So it was that two F/A-18 Hornet jets from Maguire Air Force Base in South Jersey were commanded aloft when a Gulfstream V approached the twin Liberty Place towers in Center City, Philadelphia. The very spectacle of stray jets and twin towers in the city of our nation's founding swung the lens of the global media to the Pine Barrensthose haunted woodlands and birthplace of the Jersey Devil comprising one-fourth of our statewhere the aircraft appeared to be heading on a jubilant Independence Day about two hours before the evening news.
I was on the beach with my children, Ricky, seven, and Lily, five. I liked to watch them play in the water, but I rarely went in. Not one of life's big enjoyers, I preferred playing scout. Chief Brody in Jaws. As the kids attempted to bury each other in the wet sand, I read a special edition of Philly! magazine, which ran a feature on the "Top 100 Philadelphia Bar Mitzvahs." (According to the feature, Jared Shandel-man of Ardmore "won" with his parents' rental of Veterans Stadiumand the entire offensive line of the Philadelphia Eaglesfor his affair. The giant Torah scroll unraveling from the goalposts was a nice touch, I thought.)
Lily emerged from a sandy hole she had dug for herself and announced, "God needs me to have a Coke or some-ping." Never a man to provoke the Old Testament, the three of us walked toward the indoor-outdoor bar to fulfill the Almighty's will.
As we approached the bar, I noticed a crowd slowly migrating toward a television that was suspended from one of those fake palm trees indigenous to the Jersey Shore habitat. As I ordered our sodas, KBRO-TV in Philadelphia broke in with the wobbly footage of the Gulfstream V tickling the towers of Liberty Place. The aircraft vanished behind one tower.
But there was no sound. A primal groan of relief could be heard around the bar as the plane emerged from the shadow in between the buildings, and whispered across the Delaware River into South Jersey. The news talent, a fossilized local hack named Al Just, Lord of the Furrowed Brow: "We must take pains to underscore that at the present time, we have no evidence that, in fact, we are confronting ... an act of terrorism on America's birthday."
Bless Al's heart. He had managed to inject the flashpoint words into the region's bloodstream: EVIDENCE. FACT. TERRORISM. AMERICA.
"Is it the bad people again?" Lily asked. A 9/11 reference.
"Nobody knows yet," I said, self-satisfied with deliberation.
"I just know it's the bad people," Lily decided. Ricky studied me for cues of affirmation, having long ago accepted that the Drama Queen would reach the most hysterical conclusion available. I winked at him.
Within minutes, the Liberty Place vaudeville had bounced from local KBRO to global Fox News and CNN. By the time we finished our drinks, Fox News had secured data from the tail number of the aircraft. The plane did not, in all likelihood, belong to a terrorist. In fact, it was entirely possible that something even more culturally seismic was happening:
The plane belonged to a celebrity, and a cranberry farmer in Tabernacle had called KBRO to report an engine flameout, then a fireball in the Pine Barrens.
TURNPIKE FLAMEOUT. Copyright © 2006 by Eric Dezenhall. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.