“Damn.” I muttered, as I examined the contents of mailbox 3G, St. Marks Place, number 18. “Wrong again.”
Aside from various bills, I held a New Yorker, addressed to me, Adam Shaw. That’s normal. I’ve been a subscriber since my birthday, eight months ago. My girlfriend signed me up to counter the embarrassment she feels when I skim Us Weekly. What was unusual was the date. The cover read October 20, 2003; and today was decidedly the 13th.
You see, since the start, I’d been receiving next week’s New Yorker. Not some early printing delivered by mistake, but an actual copy of New York’s foremost cultural and literary magazine—from the future.
The first hint of something strange came months ago, when I happened to remark upon a cartoon that tickled me. When speaking with friends at a bar, I said, “Hey, anyone see that Koren comic with the bumpy, furry guy, and he says something like ‘I had hoped you’d love me in spite of my flaws’? Cracked my shit up.” There was a deafening silence. I attempted to recover. “No? Well then you simply must have seen Roz Chast’s page on the 11 kinds of mother worry.” I could tell by their faces that they had not. I was about to forge ahead, when I felt my girlfriend’s hand, gently, on my shoulder. I shut up, and my friend Phil changed the subject to the Yankees’ recent loss.
Still, it stuck with me, the sense that something was amiss. The next evening I was walking home from work, when I passed a newsstand. The New Yorker was front and center, but instead of Art Speigelman’s whimsical pastel portrait of orthodox rabbis and Muslim taxi drivers waltzing together (which graced my copy) there was an issue I’d never seen before, sporting a watercolor of George W. Bush at a dog run, the dogs caricatures of the Democratic presidential candidate.
“Good God, what’s happening?” My head awhirl, I ran home, snatched the New Yorker from its place on my mantle, and sped back to the mysterious newsstand.
“What’s the meaning of this?” I demanded, shaking my 101 pages of essays, arts, and in-depth reportage.
The vendor narrowed his eyes. “I ask you same thing.”
“Is this, or is this not the New Yorker I have in my hand?”
“Maybe is, maybe isn’t. Give to me to see.” I handed him the offending magazine. He glanced at it, then knit his brows and fixed me with a furious stare. “Get away my stand.” he growled.
“But, sir…” I said.
“We deal in honest New Yorker here.” He struck the stack of magazines, sending one skidding into the gutter. “Honest. No phony!”
I struggled to regain my conversational footing. “Sir, I don’t know what you mean…”
“Get away! This is law abiding stand. Take counterfeit and go! Go before I call Richard Avadon, and have you arrested.”
Faced by this threatening prospect, I ran.
Over time, the truth became clear, A whole month of showing up to Whitney exhibits one week early, convinced me that I had been selected for a special destiny. I had been granted a window into the future, and this was both my blessing and my curse.
Dropping my keys on the end table as I entered the apartment, I swept aside old pizza boxes, napkins, photos of myself in the nude, the accumulated detritus of my counter to make room for the latest issue. I opened it, flipping past the performance notes until I found what I was looking for—The Talk of the Town. I skimmed the columns. A whimsical black and white line drawing portrayed an owl in a concierge’s uniform holding a pair of binoculars. The looked down at some men in suits, who pointed up, agog. Above this, a red headline reading, “Department of Wildlife” followed by “Checking Owt” in black. I read:
Visitors to our city have always been dismayed
by its lack of aviaries, particularly in
metropolitan areas. Earlier this month a group
of philanthropic owls took it upon themselves to
correct this oversight by moving into the
condemned New York Grand Hotel on the
corner of 14th and Broadway.
The owls in question, beyond their impeccable
taste in luxury accommodation, are distinguished by
their rarity. These are spotted owls, a breed
traditionally confined to the Northwest, preferring,
as they do, old-growth forests (old-growth deco
interiors do not count). Their miraculous appearance
has created a new Mecca for conservationists on 14th
street, and has stayed, for the moment, the Grand’s
planned demolition.In fact, the hotel has become
a moneymaker for the first time in years, offering
expensive birding tours. Reports suggest that room
service is also doing a brisk business in mice.
"Not on my watch.” I muttered, as I grabbed my keys and strode, with a new sense of purpose, toward the door.
* * * *On the way to 14th and Broadway I checked my cell phone, discovering (with no surprise whatsoever) that Fisher had left another pleading message.
Fisher’s been a buddy since college, when he convinced me not to major in business management, so in a way, he saved my life. I’ll always be beholden to him, but lately he’s become difficult to bear. In school, his first words to me were, “I’ll bet you I can drink this bottle of Schnapps,” and gambling and booze have been his twin obsessions ever since. Ever since I’d begun receiving magazine-shaped missives from the future, he’d been working every angle. I didn’t even know he’d ever seen a New Yorker until I heard he’d made a mint in Vegas, from betting the rag would pan Alice Sebold’s latest novel. I thought he’d worked it out of his system until I heard he got in trouble with some mobsters for choosing to bet against Michael Chabon. Since then he’s been on the lookout for the next literary long-shot, but I’ve kept an eye on him—for his own good. The ‘Yorker is not to be used for personal gain.
“Adam…” He sounded nervous. “Adam, you gotta let me see the new issue, you just gotta. Listen.” A pause. “I’m in a bit of a jam here. I got so used to having the inside information, I got greedy. I had to bet on something, even if I couldn’t be sure. So I put a little money—just a little, y’know?— on George Plimpton contributing in September. Turns out Plimpton writes for the Paris Review. Plus he died. So now I gotta try and make the cash up. I put some dough on ‘Shouts and Murmurs’ being more clever than funny, but it turns out the Nevada odds on that are 1-1. Time’s running out… I gotta get something Adam, that’s all. A scrap. They’re gonna break my toe!” The message cut off.
So he was in trouble again. Well, he was just going to have to deal with it. A month with a cane might do him some good. I had owls to visit.
Getting into the old hotel was easy. After all, no-one knew about the owls yet, so there weren’t that many people around—just a security guard, and no guard gets paid well enough to worry about a condemned building. I snuck right in. The birds took a little while to find, but I wasn’t in any hurry. Floor by floor I made my rounds, until I heard a suspicious scuffling in the dumbwaiter. Owls aren’t too hard to scare off, especially when they’re out of their element. I opened every window and door, and one by one, I lit the firecrackers I’d brought with me, tossing each one strategically for the maximum scare. There was a great flapping of wings, and for a moment it seemed as if I was surrounded. Then, like the last kernels of popping corn, the noise slowly died out. Owls, about twenty of them, could be seen out the window, flying into the distance. “That’s one more thing the town won’t be talking about.” I said to myself.
“What are you doing?” said the confused old security guard, standing at the top of the stairs.
“Only my duty, old man. Only my duty.” I said.
The October 20th newsstand copy of the New Yorker made no reference to any bird hotel. In fact, the only mention of the hotel on 14th street was a brief blurb in the back of that Sunday’s Times, noting that the old hotel had been demolished, as planned. I didn’t care. I’d already received the October 27 New Yorker. It told of a reunion, 50 odd years later, of three jazz musicians who had happened to serve in the same company during WWII. By sheer coincidence, the old comrades-in-arms had run into one another on the A train, and were planning a special concert at the Vanguard the following week. The theme would be wartime standards. “Not on my watch.” I muttered.
Sometimes my girlfriend asks me why I do it. “Why,” she says, “do you care if these things happen or not? They’re fun stories—neat examples of all the little anecdotal things that happen in this great city every week. I’m sure they enrich the lives of all the people involved, and people certainly enjoy reading about them. Jesus. I just don’t get why you have to run around the city stopping them. Why, Adam? Why?”
I never answer; I just shrug. Then she shrugs, and makes a face, and leaves.
If she has to ask, she’ll never understand.