(This is chapter 30 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)
I wanted my life to change in a major way after the big exciting IPO of March 19, 1999, which put $100K into my bank account and made me look smart to all my Silicon Alley friends. I guess I was happier about looking smart than about the money. I especially relished the amazed congratulations of my friends who remained at Time Warner, or who’d left for other companies like TheStreet.com, StarMedia and Organic.com that hadn’t made out quite as well in the stock market as iVillage had. For years I’d been protesting that Pathfinder was going nowhere, and I’d finally voted with my feet, and now even those co-workers of mine who’d disagreed with me on particular points had to admit that my instincts looked pretty good.
So now I had my little victory, and I was ready to feel happy, except that feeling happy wasn’t in my repertoire and I didn’t really know how. So instead I decided I’d had an epiphany. I wasn’t going to be a frustrated and angry person anymore. I was reborn, I decided, and my problems were over, and from now I would be a calm, mature and even-tempered person. March 19, 1999 would go down in history as the day I got my act together.
I also decided, soon after the IPO, to begin planning a big party for the upcoming fifth anniversary of LitKicks.com. I’d now participated in a second excellent poetry/music jam at the Living Room with Brian Hassett and David Amram, and I wanted to put on a show like this for the July 23 LitKicks birthday. I hired Brian to be my event arranger, because I wanted to do this right and I had the money to throw around.
I had a great idea to make this event special. John Cassady, the very likable adult son of Beat Generation legend Neal Cassady, had told me that he’d be happy to jump on a stage and talk about growing up in a Beatnik household and maybe play a song or two on guitar, if I could ever arrange the occasion. What if I offered to fly him into New York? John lived in San Jose, California and had never been to New York City, and since he’d never spoken in a public forum about his father or his past I knew this could be a big event. Brian and I called John up and told him the plan, and he immediately signed on.
I had a few other big ideas. I’d been corresponding with punk rock pioneer and poet/novelist Richard Hell, a real hero of mine who’d recently launched his own website and seemed to like what I was doing on Literary Kicks. I offered him $500 to be at my show and he agreed (after this, I decided to stop throwing money around, because after all Meg and I had household expenses to deal with). Hell and I met in Madison Square Park to talk about the planned event. I blabbered at first about how much I liked his music and his books, and then we had a nice chat once we got that out of the way. We strolled around while we talked, and I liked it that he paused to admire the Flatiron Building — he said he hadn’t been to this part of Manhattan for a while. He was also curious to see what iVillage’s offices looked like, so I took him up and gave him a tour.
With David Amram, John Cassady and Richard Hell on board, Brian and I had a real show. This was too big for the Living Room, so Brian scouted out a bunch of clubs and came up with a gem: the Bitter End, a legendary spot on Bleecker Street in the heart of Greenwich Village. Things started coming together: Christian Crumlish and his partner Briggs Nisbet agreed to fly in from San Francisco, Lee Ranaldo was in, Bob Holman said he’d show up, Herschel Silverman would come in from Bayonne, New Jersey, Charley Plymell would come down from Cherry Valley, Ron Whitehead would come up from Louisville, Kentucky.
I also invited some of my favorite New York web writers and creative people to perform: Leslie Harpold, an innovative proto-blogger who ran sites like Smug.com and Motherfucker.com, Xander Mellish, Sorabji.com’s Mark Thomas. Meg made plans to perform a moody jazz poem with the help of a neighborhood friend who played piano. Phil Zampino, my “Underground Man” from my Dostoevsky phase, agreed to put on a play, as he had three years earlier when we’d done our first web writer’s reading in Tribeca.
To help with funding and publicity, Brian arranged a co-sponsorship with Rolling Stone magazine, which was putting out its Rolling Stone Book of the Beats (I actually felt jealous that Rolling Stone would end up taking over my event, and wasn’t completely comfortable with this arrangement, but it did help us defray costs and gain publicity). I designed a poster for the show, choosing a Midsummer Night’s Dream theme, and worked on it in Photoshop for about two solid weeks. I put copies of this poster up all over Manhattan.
At work, meanwhile, the tech team was going through a rough transition. We had to begin behaving like the technology department of a major stockholder-owned corporation. We also now had millions and millions of dollars to invest in technology infrastructure, and unfortunately every web software or hardware startup knew that we had millions and millions of dollars to spend, and they began calling. This was most unfortunate to me personally, because it was my job to field their calls.
I was a bad choice for this role. I hate telephones, for one thing. It was also my deeply-held belief that websites like Pathfinder and iVillage spend too much money on too many different projects at once, and would do better to slow down and nurture a few of their existing projects to success instead of hysterically jumping from one to another. For instance, our internal Verity-based search engine software had never worked correctly, and I was responsible for making search work. Several ambitious venture-funded search start-ups came in to tell me why their software was better than Verity’s, and probably a different manager in my place would have picked the vendor with the best product and the best pricing. I had a different approach. I looked into why our current Verity installation wasn’t working, and realized it had never been developed correctly in the first place. So why, I asked, should we replace a search engine package we had already paid for with another when we had never made the one we had work correctly? And if we hadn’t been able to make Verity’s software work correctly, how could we believe we’d make any other vendor’s software work correctly? So I told all the eager salespeople who kept calling me to go away, and we fixed our Verity search engine and made it work.
I was proud of the way I’d handled this, but in fact I was not playing the game correctly. Some of these vendors were funded by investors who also funded iVillage, and they were offended that I didn’t give their products a fair chance. I also wasn’t friendly enough. I made sales people feel alienated, because I didn’t want to go to expensive lunches with them, and I certainly wasn’t interested (please) in Yankees tickets. It took me a while to figure this out, but I eventually learned that my disinterested response to various companies that wanted to partner with iVillage pissed off many people associated with the company. Word got around that I was the wrong person to be playing this role.
I was flopping at my new job. I also flopped when I tried to conduct a negotiation with a hardware vendor for a high-performance storage system. My innate trust in human nature and my Buddhist sense of universal harmony had always been strong points when I was managing software development projects. But it turns out that these are exactly the qualities that don’t help when, for instance, hammering out interest rate schedules with hardware vendors wearing thousand-dollar suits.
It was one of iVillage’s official “rules of play” that employees were encouraged to change responsibilities within the company until they found the spot where they fit best. I began to cook up a really crazy idea. Our Director of Product Development, a nice young man named Tony Morelli, had just announced his resignation. He reported in to the marketing department and was responsible for our message board, chat, email, newsletter and home page community features. What would happen, I wondered, if I volunteered to take a sideways move out of the technology team and into the marketing department? I’d always wanted to be on the product side, the creative strategy side.
I was determined to reinvent myself. I proposed this idea to Rich and Alison and Craig, and they all agreed to consider it. A new beginning? My reinvention seemed to be moving along at a good pace.
But the problem is, you can’t really decide when to have an epiphany, when to be reborn. In the years building up to this moment, I’d been holding in so much tension, so much frustration, that I now made myself believe that I could make it all go away. I’d decided that I was somebody new. But I wasn’t. Not quite yet.
I also had some dark issues to deal with at home. The sudden burst of money hadn’t made things smoother between me and Meg. I didn’t honestly know what was on her mind a lot of the time, and she didn’t know what was on mine. Years earlier, when we went through emotional events we went through them together. Whatever I was going through during this transition to this new job, and with this crazy Bitter End party I was putting on — I was going through all of it alone. I couldn’t really think about the obvious next step at this point, I didn’t want to think about it, but it lay there ahead.
I was now spending two or three nights a week hanging around Brian Hassett’s apartment, plotting our big show.
I was reading a lot about the French Revolution at the time — I’m not sure why. On the subway home from Brian’s pad one night, I had a flash that the LitKicks Summer Poetry Happening was my version of Robespierre’s spooky Festival of the Supreme Being, a highly experimental and intellectual celebration of the revolutionary spirit the idealistic politician staged in terror-stricken 1794 Paris. According to accounts of this mysterious event, Robespierre created this large outdoor festival as a deeply personal symbol of his own loftiest beliefs. He had vanquished his enemies, ascended to the top of his nation’s government, realized his dreams; he truly believed that France had now been cleansed of its sins and was entering a higher plane of human virtue.
The Festival of the Supreme Being was Robespierre’s party, and his party alone. His head would be in a guillotine two months later.