21 March 2006

O Tempora, O Mores

I left New York City after living there eleven years. It’s hard, I must admit, but it is “a good thing,” as someone else might say. Anyway, not long after taking up residence in the heartland, I got an envelope from the Times at my next address. Hmmm.

“We want you back,” it said, imploring me to subscribe from my new home. I had seen it in around town, in a couple of street boxes and even the YMCA. Of course, it wasn’t the Real Times, the one with the City Section and its review of the detritus of the five boroughs. It won’t have the Real Estate section that always brings maniacal laughter about what people will pay for space of almost any kind, or the Dining In/Dining Out section with the reviews of boits and bistros that serve fantastic food at penthouse prices in outré settings like lawn chairs in warehouses while drinking from carved Styrofoam cups.

But it will be “The Times,” which I can then carry visibly under my arm as I walk to work – yes I can and do still walk to work as a true New Yorker would – here in my sturdy Midwestern city of respectable size and demeanor. And having the Times will tell people that I am in their world but not entirely of it, able to speak and understand references like “IRT” and “Turtle Bay” and “Bridge and Tunnel.” So I go on-line, connect with NYTimes.com and click over to Home Subscriptions. I put in my zip code and am quickly escorted through the choices and the prices, and then sit back to wait for my paper.

A week passes. I am about to call when I get email. “We could not process your request at this time…. it is inactive due to your being situated in an unroutable location.”

So I call the 800 number: “… but when I put in my zip code it said you delivered there. What’s the problem?”

“Can’t say sir, I only see an 02 code that means unroutable.”

Sigh.

I love the Times, especially the Sunday Times. I want to peer into the neighborhoods I knew, and see the social climbers and fashionistas, read book reviews that are as close as I will ever get to the book, pile up the classifieds in my kitchen to be recycled. The nearest Sunday paper is at a local book store five miles away. Yes, I can read it on-line, but that’s like listening to the Philharmonic on a transistor radio – all the information but none of the experience. And now, a lot of the on-line paper is only available if you pay for Times Select. Not only can I not subscribe I must pay to get a thin gruel that was at least free. “Please sir, I want some more!”

Then, some weeks later, I get another letter, again addressed to me here, at my new house on my new street. I contain myself while I call.

“When I signed up before, I was told it was unroutable.”

“It says here that we deliver.”

Joy, Rapture, it will be here on Sunday. Were I not a preacher I would stay home and roll in its abundance, its downright surfeit.

Sunday morning came. Sunday afternoon. Sunday evening. Perhaps it will come next week, but I am dubious. “Hello, I believe I subscribed to the Times recently, but it was not delivered.”

“It’s unroutable to your address.”

“But you sent me a solicitation, at this address, ‘for only $5.75 per week for eight weeks, with an extra four weeks at the same low price, a total of 12 weeks of home delivery at half the regular price, if I use my credit card…’”

“I’m sorry sir.”

“Well, could you tell me who distributes the Times in my area, so maybe I could ask why he does not or even whether he might someday?”

“Can you hold while I get my supervisor?”

“…We’re not allowed to give out that information.”

“Well, could you tell me if you use local newspapers as distributors?”

“Whenever possible. You might call them…”

“Hello, I am a subscriber to the Grand Rapids Press, but I want to know if you also distribute, that is deliver, the New York Times.”

“I don’t know. Let me put you on hold”

…“No, we don’t.”

“Do you know who does,” figuring newspapers stay on top of each other.

…“No one in the office seems to know. You might call 1-800- 555-1212 and ask for the Times…”

“I started there, thank you.” I am now seriously rethinking the journalistic powers of local paper.

On-line, I google “New York Times+distributors+Grand Rapids.” I get sports scores, ad cards, and yes a page of local news agencies. I call the Associated Press, maybe they know. No.

I call another distributor. No.

I then think: Why not call the store where I see it on sale?

“Schulers, 28th St.”

“Hi. I want to know if you can tell me who distributes your copies of the New York Times.”

“I don’t know. Let me ask around.”

… “The lady who knows that has left for the weekend.”

“Is there a main office I could call?”

… “They’re all in a meeting for the rest of the day.”

Hmmm. I am sensing a pattern here. The Times won’t say, the Grand Rapids Press “doesn’t know,” and neither does the AP. The lady at the bookstore has “gone for the weekend,” and the whole management team is “in a meeting for the rest of the day.” Clearly, the paper is being distributed. I even have friends who get home delivery about four blocks from here. But for some reason, who delivers and where they deliver it is a closely guarded secret.

I grasp for a reason in the pitch black of ignorance. Karl Rove? Tom Delay? Michael Bloomberg? Rupert Murdoch! My mind careers between Al Qaeda and the USA Patriot Act. What if the Grey Lady is hiding a terrorist front? Or posing as a terrorist front hiding behind a newspaper? Or - the hairs on my neck now curl with dread - a wholly owned subsidiary of Microsoft which is itself now a secret subdivision of Wal-Mart.

If only I could find out. But how?

… “Hi! I’d like to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal…”

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