To say that I failed to find favour with the city’s editors
gave rise to a question from the rancid depths of rejection: How badly
had I failed? I needed to know. The question — the putrid, stinking question
— consumed and immobilised me. All four hundred eleven city editors had
rejected my submission, and not one of those rejections was personalised.
So, clearly, I’d failed with a certain sais-pas-quoi. But how badly?
Despairingly? Pathetically? Adverbs swam around my head, flipping over
and out of sight like screensaver dolphins.
So I called them — all four hundred eleven editors — and got every last
one of their voicemails. I left my message — the message that would become
the message — “This is H.R.K. Sommers. How badly did I fail?” (I
used the pseudonym so as not to confuse authorship of this submission with
others which carried my actual name or one of my other pseudonyms.) Every
reiteration of the message down every telephone line was fuel on the fire
of my desire for knowledge, and the fire grew — that baby blazed. My desire
for knowledge became a campaign; it morphed in the night from Tuesday to
Wednesday, whereupon phase two, email, began. “This is H.R.K. Sommers,”
I wrote. “How badly did I fail?” One reply arrived almost immediately,
from the editor at Big City Quarterly Review. He would be out of his office
until the seventeenth and any urgent business should be addressed to his
assistant, a certain taub AT bcqreview DOT com. I redirected
and sat in wait. And sat in wait. And. Bored, I googled taub, and
found that it means deaf in German. How very drole. By three p.m.
no other replies had arrived; by five, two. Both of them adverbs: “Badly,”
read the first and “Badly,” read the second. I wondered had they conferred.
No more replies arrived, not on Wednesday and not on Thursday when I began
phase three of the campaign and rented the office building opposite City
Editor Central and painted the message, letter by letter, in the building’s
windows. I went with upper case, each about three feet square, over two
floors. “THIS IS H.R.K. SOMMERS: HOW BADLY DID I FAIL?” I’d finished painting
before I realised I should have written back-to-front but I’m sure they
understood, being editors and all. My actions attracted attention from
the street and onlookers stood and pointed, but I felt like the guy trying
to show people the moon and all they can see is a finger, pointing. Not
one city editor appeared at the windows of City Editor Central. Blinds
shuffled here and there, but not enough to suggest it was orchestrated.
It was like they didn’t care. Nobody left the building through the front
exit. I thought hard about phases four, five and six of the campaign. I
needed to know.
“This is H.R.K. Sommers. How badly did I fail?” read the full-page ads
in the next morning’s papers. A couple more mails trickled in: “Awfully,”
“Horribly” and “Excruciatingly,” but the numbers weren’t enough to suggest
any type of consensus. I could sit and wait for more replies but there
was so much to do, and I was going to need back-up. I called Manpower and
they sent over Rick and Janine. By two that afternoon I had briefed them
in full. These weren’t kids just along for the ride, they took notes and
asked questions, nodded and made good eye contact. And then they got stuck
in. They had the T-shirts ready by five — ten thousand of them — and, by
six, an army of volunteers mobilised to distribute them to rush-hour commuters.
“This is H.R.K. Sommers,” read the T’s, “How badly did I fail?” “Dreadfully,”
read the latest mail. Four hundred four city editors had still not replied,
or was it four hundred three? Rick ran up an Excel sheet, it was vital
that we get our numbers right. U2 arrived in our War Room just after six,
unexpected but made welcome by all present. We were being heard, no doubt
about it, but — frankly — I had to check my cynicism, concerned as I was
that they would steal our thunder, that they would be a distraction, that
Larry would hit on Jan, that Bobo wouldn’t quit reciting the Beckett thing.
In their defence, I have to say, the defining moment of the campaign became
their impromptu rooftop concert. Their rendition of Satisfaction teared
me up. Light aircraft circled overhead, banners trailing behind (Rick’s
idea). The banners read, well, the message hadn’t changed. We were headline
news at eight. Larry King called and I gave my first interview. “What message
do you want to send to the city editors?” he said. That guy cracks me up.
I had Charlie Rose on two and Letterman on three.
The campaign spilled over the borders that night. While we slept, demonstrators
took to the streets of Seoul and Melbourne. In New Zealand a sheep farmer
sprayed his flock with the message and even if they wouldn’t stay in line
it was pretty clear what was going on. Kind of. News came over the wire
that French rail workers were striking in sympathy. We marched on Government
Buildings on Friday. People cared, people wanted to know. How badly? Responses
continued to trickle: “Desperately,” “Outrageously,” “Pompously,” “Despairingly
(×4).” Only a fool could fail to see the trend but trends are sometimes
misleading — and often inconclusive. I hired a statistician and more kids
from Manpower; I hired a web guy, a Web 2.0 savvy dude who spoke in code.
In Berlin, an estimated two hundred thousand punks, hippies and whores
and took to the streets — the pictures of them stripped at Checkpoint Charlie
would go on to win a Pulitzer. But somehow I wasn’t sure if the message
was translating as it should. The responses trickled some more and we put
the results on the Web for all to see. Transparency was hip, it was the
21st century. My favourite response — if we can talk about favourite adverbs
— the one I least despised and thought best surmised how badly I’d failed
was… “Exquisitely.” Failing exquisitely was failing with cojones.
That weekend, true, things slowed. It was becoming difficult to carry
through on the gravitas we’d grown, to find a next level. The French rail
workers striked again, which was nice, but with it being weekend maybe
fewer people noticed. In England, Manchester United played Chelsea on Saturday
evening and the players stood around the centre circle in a minute’s silence,
but a lot of people weren’t sure why. The War Room was slow — Jan hadn’t
showed in a couple of days, and wasn’t taking her phone. People started
talking about Oscars and Super Bowls and — if ever we needed confirmation
that the campaign was faltering — people started discussing The Economy.
Rick zapped through the TV: we were nowhere, not a mention. City editors’
responses had crawled to a halt; seventy four. I heard whispers, “What
now?” but only that, whispers. I considered resending the submission and
discussed the implications with Rick. Maybe use another pseudonym. By this
time a lot of the world was in Sunday afternoon and that’s exactly how
the campaign felt. Of the three diehard campaign workers who hadn’t returned
to their lives, only Rick wasn’t doing Sudoku. I wasn’t sure what to do
next. I thought about washing the windows, admitted to myself that that
was maybe the thing to do — move on — to start the cleansing. I ran some
water into a bucket, started looking for rags. Dish soap.
Then it happened — the phone rang. I picked up. DalaifuckingLama. Or
some guy who said that’s what he was. His accent though, was really, really
good. “What now?” he said. “People still want to know.” He said other stuff
about Sam and Sara that went right over my head. And I was distracted by
the phones which had begun to ring again — slow and intermittent, then
hopping, and there weren’t enough ears to take all the messages of support.
The whisper roared: “WHAT NOW?” I felt something new inside, smelt something
new — my fingers itched for a pencil, a story was coming on. Rick and I
withdrew to my office, closed the door. We ordered Chinese and I opened
up a legal pad. It was going to be a long night.