The Breakfast Table

The Taste of Hate Mail

Dear Michael,

Thank (I hope this doesn’t seem like anti-Catholic bigotry) God! You’ve given me a chance–no, you’ve invited me–to share, for the first time in print, my favorite alt-press-feedback story ever. I think it’s time to confess, first of all, that for four peerlessly happy years, I had the same job that Michael now has at City Paper. (You know what this means, don’t you, Michael? Before long you are going to have two children, live in Arlington, and ride the Orange Line to work, and before you do that you are going to be pouring chocolate milk into SIPPY CUPS and dropping the kids off at WEE WORLD.) And yes, my God, I learned quickly that if you wrote a decent story you enjoyed, basically, silence, but all you had to do was make one tiny mistake buried in the middle of a 10,000-word feature, and suddenly all these eagle-eyed pedants were writing triumphal letters, which my boss, Slate’s own Jack Shafer, would inevitably print in the most prominent position he could. But yes, just as you say, I got very, very used to the fact that after pretty much anything I wrote, somebody would be calling on the phone to yell at me.

As I said, I got used to that. One day, though, a guy rode up on the City Paper elevator and asked the receptionist if he could see me in person. He was holding a file card in his hand. She said I wasn’t there, or was busy, or something, so he turned back around and went to wait for the elevator to go down. As he was waiting, he slowly tore the file card into little tiny bits and just as slowly … ate them.

Thank you for letting me relate that.

Here at the Post, funnily enough, you get fewer people calling to yell at you. I thought there would be more. I think at the City Paper they feel closer; maybe they think at the Post the operator won’t let them through or something. But e-mail has changed all that, too. As a columnist, I have gotten pretty accustomed to the ease with which the Internet lets people fire off insulting missives. I’ve also gotten used to the fact that pretty much anything I say will prompt a comment that somehow, I am just SO, SO Washington Post, I confirm EVERYTHING they already thought about the paper, I am (as the Fray observed) the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the Post (like, hey, it’s not MY fault they don’t get the late-night ball scores in the “Sports” section, though even my husband gets on me about this!): Godless liberal, whining woman, suburbanite, etc., etc. I mean, all you have to do is publish your byline and they are writing to tell you how you confirm the Washington Post stereotype. Or the female stereotype. Or some other stereotype.

For example, I had this incident where I had a flat tire down at the Smithsonian: I’d been at the museums with my kids, emerged, and pulled away from the curb to find that my tire was flat. Luckily, there was this really nice guy who helped me change it. I wrote a column about Good Samaritans, and as a result of that, I learned that lots of other people had had their tires go mysteriously flat at the Smithsonian. This guy was a scammer who flattened your tire and then hung around to help you in the hope that you’d pay him. So I wrote a second column about the scam. What I got, both times, were these really, really mean letters from people who were not at all interested in the scam but wanted to flay me for not being able to change a tire. (In fact, I can change a tire, but with two little kids in rush-hour traffic, there was no way I could do it safely.) To wit, one letter-writer opined:

After over 50 years of trying, I long ago gave up on finding or even hearing about a white American female who could do much of anything for herself except complain about men and life in general. To them, everything wrong or bad, it seems, has to be blamed on a man somewhere and one or more excuses have to be made.

Anyway. I don’t know what other people here at the paper get. But I do think the Internet fosters this culture of hostility, and I think those people in the Fray who think we are so self-absorbed, in debating the morality of the cultures we’ve chosen to live in (urban vs. suburban) should ponder awhile the morality of the culture they’ve chosen to live in.

On the other hand, I wrote a column about that Krispy Kreme down on Route 1, and thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I got letters from doughnut lovers all over the country: There is this whole culture of people, in the Midwest and Oregon and elsewhere, who get somebody they know to MAIL them Krispy Kreme doughnuts, because they can’t get them where they live. The response to this column proved to me something that I once heard Joyce Carol Oates say: “When in doubt, write about food.”

Meanwhile, one other story, today in the Wall Street Journal, that provides a new way to think about the money culture we were discussing, and all this new money that is bring printed, apparently, in some factory out there in Seattle. Happily, it’s not all ending up in the politicians’ campaign funds. The WSJ piece profiles a Polish woman in her 50s, Zofia Bydlinska, who for years was an anti-Communist agitator and an editor at Poland’s then-banned opposition newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, a position for which she earned basically nothing. Since the fall of the wall, liberalization, etc., etc, Gazeta Wyborcza has become the country’s leading newspaper, and when it went public, employees got shares based on longevity, and the upshot, ultimately, is that Ms. Bydlinska is now worth $2.3 million, a Gates-like fortune in Poland. And she’s not the only one. The result is all these intellectuals and agitators and people with social consciences sitting around figuring out moral ways to use their money: counseling centers, playgrounds, etc. “You learn that 80 percent of life’s problems can be helped with money,” a colleague of hers is quoted as saying.

A cautionary reminder.

It’s been a pleasure. Come out sometime and I’ll introduce you to Arlington. Or we could find neutral territory like, say, Bethesda.

Yours in solidarity,