The Worst Thing About Writing a Column for The Voice


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
July 4, 1968, Vol. XIII, No. 38

I Didn’t Know You Were Hip
by Walter Troy Spencer

The worst thing about writing a column for The Voice, I’ve learned, is that it turns you into a traitor in the eyes of your friends. Suddenly I’ve become a tattle-tale invading their privacy by writing about things that have happened around the saloons.

It’s amazing how paranoid they get, even when I disguise their names; and even then there’s somebody like Bruce Sloan who comes up after seeing an anecdote in the paper and says, ” Look, if you’re going to quote me, you can at least give me credit for the line by spelling my name right.”

When I just got back from a long vacation, this girl with whom I’ve sometimes been seen around said that while I was gone a bar owner of our acquaintance asked her, “Where’s Leonard Lyons these days?” Then she begged me to take up dope addiction, child molesting or any other hobby instead of writing more, and if I do write, “please don’t put in anything about me.” Well, it was nice knowing her; at least I owe the bar owner too much money for him to 86 me.

But the worst thing was walking into the White Horse the other night after a month in the country. Eddy Anderson was pouring an ale for Hank Peevey when Hank looked up and saw me. His words of greeting: “You son of a bitch.” I had to buy him four cognacs before he broke his vow never to speak to me again.

“It was that last piece you wrote before you went away,” he said, “the one about my income taxes and how it’s driven me to staying home in front of the telly every night smoking dope.

“Look, I’m not worried about the cops seeing through my alias and coming over to bust me. I don’t even mind the letters The Voice forwarded to me from some nut who wants the name of the accountant who got me out of that tax mess. It’s what it’s done to me in that lotus-land ad agency where I earn my daily bread.

“You’d be amazed at the weird straight people who read The Voice, and a lot of them are at the agency. Before, I had them thinking I was just some quiet middle-aged schnook who avoided talking to any of them when I didn’t have to. They probably thought I went home to a rented room every night and fondled pictures of little girls. Now you’ve convinced them that I was the model for ‘The Secret Swinger.’

“Even our chief market analyst reads the goddamn Voice and called up one of the other copy writers to ask if it possibly could be me who had his name faintly rearranged in the paper. This little secretary — one of the kind who lives in Brooklyn and has rock-star centerfolds from Eye magazine pasted all around her desk — she comes up to me and says, ‘I didn’t know you were hip.’ I told her, ‘I used to be, but now I’m old.’

“Another one, she’s about 17 years old and straight out of secretarial school, got a mother who’s a policewoman in Queens and looks herself like she should be swooning over Pat Boone but instead is reading ‘The Story of O’ and practicing to learn to talk like a junkie jazz musician. She comes up to me the other day and whispers, ‘I see you got some new shades — sunglasses. Dynamite, baby.’ Good Christ, I’m terrified she and all these other people are hanging around expecting me to take them down to the Village some night and show them Real Sin, on the hoof.

“But the worst thing is the pot business in that piece you wrote. You really can’t image how degradingly respectable grass is getting these days uptown. And how you’ve got all these people thinking I’m some sort of undercover Tim Leary.

“For me, grass is something like the first time you ever got to ball a chick when you were a teenager. You expected it to be the Ultimate Experience and so it turned out to be a flop, but you eventually came to appreciate it for its own virtues. Same thing with grass. Besides, it was hip five, ten years ago to get stoned with some musician or somebody you ran into who was holding. Guys who go around still making references to ‘muggles,’ they speak with authority. Nelson Algren was in town a few weeks ago, and he kept calling it ‘tea;’ anybody who goes back that far has the cachet of authenticity.

“But I threw a party a while back, just started calling people up and said, ‘come on over tonight.’ This one little cat I don’t even know very well automatically says, ‘You got enough grass, or should I bring some?’ — just like ‘You bring the potato salad to the PTA meeting, Mabel, and I’ll bring the dessert.’ Man, that’s when I knew it was all over.

“Marijuana is just too much of an in-thing with all the straight people. This art director I work with at the agency has a friend — a typical Bruce Jay Friedman with-it Jewish intellectual type — he works for Lindsay and talks about nothing but how there’s a whole cult in the basement of City Hall who’ve turned him on and have a regular underground railroad traffic in the stuff. It’s ‘opened the doors of enlightenment’ for him, no more pickling his liver in alcohol, blah, blah, blah…

“And there’s this copy-writer chick at another agency who’s a friend of my boss. One day at lunch she’s proselytizing him on the wonders of grass and she’s appalled when he, straight suburbanite family man that he is, says he’s never tried the stuff. Next day, she mails him a matchbox filled with some really bad, dry, green pot — seeds and all — with elaborate instructions on how he should smoke it. When he calls her up and says, ‘What a hell of risk sending something like that through the mail’, she says, ‘Well, I marked it personal so your secretary wouldn’t open it,’ and she’s genuinely surprised when he points out that she could get busted several ways for mailing the stuff.

“It also leaves him with this tremendous burden of guilt trying to hide the stuff around his house, afraid the kids will find it — worse than dirty pleasures. One night after everybody was in bed, he did sneak down to the kitchen and try to smoke it, but while he’s fumbling around spilling it all over the kitchen table, the family dog came in and licked all the papers she’d sent him to roll it with.

“When you get to scenes like that, you can see the kind of turnoff I get to the stuff these days. Grass loses in a simple case of guilt by association.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]