April 12th, 2008


The sting

Last week someone played a cruel hoax on me. Out of the blue I got this email from some guy calling himself "JP" and purporting to be an editor at the New York Times's T magazine. This "JP" told me he loved my blog, and asked if I'd like my own regular weekly slot on The Moment, T's blog on the New York Times site.

Now, this was already stretching credibility pretty thin, considering that the New York Times -- in the shape of a book review by David Kamp -- had just described Click Opera as "dullsville". Then again, the "Gray Lady" is "a many-tentacled animal", as I wrote in my riposte to Kamp the other week. (Are octopuses animals? Well, are newspapers ladies?) The scenario wasn't totally impossible. I decided, cleverly, to play the dupe role, but resolved not to say anything on Click Opera.

Some premature trumpet-blowing announcement was surely what my hoaxers -- if that's what they were -- wanted. Their plan was obvious: to show that, mere days after dissing a Times reviewer as "snobby" and the Gray Lady's style commentary as "fumbling" and "percolated", I was eager to grab at the chance to write for the paper. Mere days after declaring myself against hypocrisy, I'd be a great big fat yellow one with dollar signs for eyes and a long gray lady's gown. Mere minutes after I'd trumpeted this "new job" to the world, the hoaxers would strike, declaring that they'd made the whole thing up.

Of course, I was on to them from the get-go. I wasn't born yesterday. For a start, when you looked at the long headers in JP's mail, you found that what was ostensibly a New York Times address was actually a gmail account with a different reply-to address. What's more, the account was on Pacific District Time, not New York time. I mean, I guess Google runs on PDT, so maybe that's possible too, but, you know, oops, guys!

Still, I played along. I could have fun with this, at least. After checking out The Moment blog -- lots of stuff about rooftop pools, watches as expensive as houses, and a wine review column about perfume (simply divine decadence, darling!) -- I decided to pull this "editor"'s leg. I proposed a regular slot in The Moment called "The Post-Materialist". The American economy, I said, was sliding into recession, and soon all this luxury bling stuff would be painful to read. It would have people jumping off roofs rather than bathing in rooftop pools. Instead, I said, why not stress eco and ethical design, and make cheapskate lifestyles look glam? That way, people can lose everything and still feel they're gaining.

Well, "JP" seemed to go for that idea (though he rejected another one in which I proposed taking weekly photos of Berlin down-and-outs wrapped in tramp blankets and repackaging them as, in Salvador Dali's term, "concentrics" -- people with enough personal style and magnetism to make the world accept whatever rags they wore as "a strong statement").

So, anyway, I wrote a little article, 300 words or so, about a designer who remixes football scarves, some posters for the Jewish Museum, and a series of stark philosophy paperbacks issued by a Berlin publishing collective. All legit, and illustrated with snaps I'd taken. It read rather well -- I almost wished a real newspaper were publishing it. Maybe I'd try flogging it, later, to the Arbroath Gazette.

I began to realize what a formidable team of hoaxers I was up against when, two days ago, a genuine-looking contract arrived from "The New York Times". The care with the logos, the fonts, the legalistic language that went on for pages... I had to credit these guys, they were master forgers. The world lost a great team of lawyers -- not to mention graphic designers -- when they decided to become scammers. Then yesterday came the most extraordinary development of all. There was my piece, Berlin Generics, published on an exact replica of the New York Times website, somehow doctored to display the actual web address of the New York Times!

The work they'd put into this replica of The Moment was extraordinary -- almost as much work, in fact, as editing and publishing The Moment itself. They'd written all these pieces, taken all these photos, tasted all that perfume, just for my benefit. It was touching. These were some of the hardest-working, most talented scammers around. Dangerous people to have as your enemies, that's for sure.

So far these guys have been good -- very good. At this point they've almost got me believing in the whole set-up myself. I wouldn't be surprised if they now go on to offer me some kind of cash payment, just to keep me sweet, keep me playing along, and make the sting sweeter and bigger when it comes. But they'll make a slip eventually. Nobody's perfect, not even these smooth criminals. So I'm going to stay cool and smooth too. I'm going to keep writing real-looking articles which appear on that real-looking New York Times site. We'll see whose poker face cracks first. Let's just hope they don't read this, or my little game with their little game will be up, buster.