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New York, New York

Ronald Reagan and Reading Proust

In a town of A-list-worship and ever younger, hotter scribblers, the New Yorker Festival is a two-day freak-out for all things scribed. Our reporter braved the lit-sters for every reading he could schmooze his way into, including the now-infamous Wolfowitz riots.

Friday

12:30 p.m. When Rosecrans, my editor at The Morning News, told me The New Yorker was having a weekend-long festival, I thought, Whooo! I love me some festivals! I remember so well the festivals of my youth. Late at night you’d spy the hot carnies welding the ferris wheel together, pausing to leer and massage the massive bulges of their sideshow crotches, then the shiny Def Leppard mirrors to be won in the arcade games, the plushies waiting to be snuggled, the inevitable sawdust under your tongue after a surprising oral incident…

I smell my shiny golden tickets; I have hungry hopes.

3 p.m. I take a long lunch at the club to meet S. for the first time, a writer I admire incredibly. I feel stupid representing myself as a writer to a person of his accomplishment. He tells me I’m a good writer. This is something that I am A) perhaps becoming willing to believe and B) perhaps becoming willing to think is worthwhile.

Through an investigation of its website, I have found out that The New Yorker Festival has no rides, but mostly consists of well-known writers and some popular artists reading from or discussing their work. Madonna is not among them. More oddly, neither are Joan Didion or Janet Malcolm, perhaps the two most brilliant living writers, both in fact residents of New York City.

5 p.m. S. and I go see a show of allegorical paintings by F., a friend who died last year. I refused to go to his funeral as I refuse to go to all funerals. They’re terribly depressing, after all. S. is wandering around, really absorbing the work, and I’m trying to hide the fact that I’m crying a little. I am wearing a totally good outfit though. Words to live by: KFOF. Keep the Focus on Fashion. Shallow never hurts.

It seems strange to me that F. is dead and his paintings are still here.

6:30 p.m. I have scored Dave Eggers tickets from my pal N. for later tonight. Eggers sold out in 30 minutes (his reading, not his career), and I was pissy that I couldn’t attend, as he’s certainly the superstar of this alleged festival.

In my Romeo Gigli suit I march sweatily across Tompkins Square Park. My phone rings. It’s J.—turns out she is pissed that I recently published something concerning her. I’m stunned. At the time I didn’t think twice about writing one tiny throw-away clause that now in retrospect clearly appears to be a massive betrayal. I am an ass. How the fuck am I supposed to be a writer? Why are there writers anyway?

Around me the audience is white, and many have little wine glasses that sometimes make noise as they are set down on the floor. E. L. is schlumpy, like a hephalump. 7 p.m. I am in Chelsea in some odd building. The big yellow New Yorker Festival signs annoyingly employ two different fonts. I am sweaty and wracked with self-loathing. Alice Quinn, The New Yorker’s poetry editor, begins extended introductions of Grace Paley and E. L. Doctorow. ‘Writing,’ Ms. Quinn tells us that Ms. Paley has said, is about ‘finding the best way you can to be a truthful person.’ Crap. I had always hoped writing could be like a Halloween costume, as fraudulent as possible.

Ms. Paley looks eerily like an older version of my mother. They have a similar fashion sense; untroubled with the styles of the day but in love with rich earthy colors. Very Seventies Sapphic.

She reads a story that I hazily recall, about her father instructing her on aging. It has an amazing line for the father: ‘Excuse me, also about Turgenev.’

E. L. Doctorow is up shortly; I’ve never read anything by him, but I find Doctorow to be very famous and likeable. Around me the audience is white, and many have little wine glasses that sometimes make noise as they are set down on the floor. E. L. is schlumpy, like a hephalump. It’s hard to believe how people sit in these readings. All attentive, their little faces white and round and open. They chuckle appreciatively. Oh, clap clap clap.

8:15 p.m. There is a Q&A session. There are no Qs. Finally someone asks, ‘Why do you think you two were paired?,’ and Doctorow says, ‘Because we are both very beautiful people.’ The reading was lifeless—Paley in particular is a goddess but we have come, they have read, and now, quietly, off we go. What actually transpired? Why did we do that?

It occurs to me that today is Talk-Like-a-Pirate-Day. I’d kill to hear Grace Paley yell ‘AVAST!’ at Doctorow.

8:30 p.m. I go to pick up D., a new friend and a handsome young actor with an incredibly advanced sense of irony. Before I got the Eggers tickets, we planned to order Chinese food and watch Ruthie the Duck Girl. D. has actually visited Ruthie in New Orleans where she lives in an insane asylum. When I arrive at his apartment complex, I realize that in my first weeks in New York City, 10 years ago, I had been there for a party. It was hosted by a famous writer in honor of a less famous writer. (Maybe Ed White for… ?) I had arrived on time to meet my friend A. Six or seven strangers milled around in the small apartment, with no A. to be seen. I told the host I had to go to the deli and I left and never came back. Writers, real writers. I was terrified.

8:45 p.m. D. and I grab pizza on 7th Avenue—the Avenue I always try to avoid, the ugliest Avenue of them all—then cab it to the Bowery Ballroom. Inside we choose seats up front, but on the aisle. I stare at the audience: it is not all white—there are some Asians here. Everyone is 27. Who are they?

9:33 p.m. The reading begins promptly. David Remnick, The New Yorker’s fabled editor-in-chief, bounds onto the stage. He is handsome, but he wears his off-label jeans too high and I am worried about the size of his ass. He is totally likeable—the nice boy on the high school wrestling team, a bookish Matt Barney. He says of the readers Dave Eggers and ZZ Packer that although some say The New Yorker made them, ‘they made themselves.’ He asks us not to bombard him with manuscripts and self-addressed stamped envelopes. With that little bit of schtick, ZZ Packer sauces out onto the stage.

ZZ is hot. She is wearing some sort of shiny gold top with a pattern? Her outfit is complicated and it totally works on her.

She’s reading from her new book, and it’s a story from The New Yorker that I’ve actually finished about a son going with his no-good father to the Million Man March. Here’s the freaky thing: despite its permanent publication in both magazine and book form, chick is editing the story as she reads. Also she skips parts, kind of off-handedly summarizing what happens. She totally hates this story! Perhaps she is recognizing an essential difference between writing-on-the-page and writing-read-aloud, but it suggests a very weird lack of confidence or at the very least a failure of literature as entertainment.

10:05 p.m. The baggy jeans of Dave Eggers appear on stage. The kids go wild. He is that rare Gentile who naturally rocks a relaxed Jew-fro. He has us give a big hand to ZZ. He bends over to pick something up; he has nice lats under his blue shirt. He talks about the high-school writing projects they’re running out in San Francisco—he credits ZZ with bringing politics to the McSweeney’s crowd.

Uh, why? Because she writes about black experience? And didn’t Neal Pollack break with the Eggers posse because he got too political for them? Fishy.

Dave reads something he’s been working on for the last three weeks. He says he’s been making edits on it backstage during ZZ’s reading. It’s some type of character study about, uh… an unwilling politician and his sleazy Russian campaign manager. Nothing much happens. It’s actually a pleasant comedy, with lots of those Generation Y gently pleasing ironic jokes about people playing Desperado accompanied by hammered dulcimer and the like. A character makes a remark about moving to Maine or Vermont—’somewhere with towns with the prefix ‘New.’’ I think he means Connecticut or New Jersey, but still. He lives in San Francisco.

10:20 p.m. My balls are really sweaty. Dave has sort-of dimples, and kind of ruddy cheeks. I bet he doesn’t smoke; I bet he likes himself better than that. His face has a really low fat content. He makes an Elian joke, which gets the biggest laugh of the night. (It was funny, but.) Suddenly Eggers realizes he’s been reading for a long time. ‘Wow, this thing keeps going and going,’ he says and it’s true, he still has a sheaf in his hands. So he stops right there, apologizing muchly.

Between half a story out of Eggers and Packer’s editing, I’m starting to feel a little ripped-off, even though N. gave me the tickets for free. For ten bucks I could have gone to see a movie actually finished by the director, and the theater would probably even play it to the end.

10:35 p.m. Q&A: Some stodgy dude asks about the William T. Vollman book that Eggers & Co. are publishing. It sounds great—a 3,200 page, seven-volume meditation on the question ‘When is violence justified?’ It will weigh 60 pounds and have the reasonable price, Eggers points out, of $120. That’s gonna sell super-well.

Dave does the chatting. He says Lorrie Moore is one of his heroes, and I think, oh fuck, she read earlier tonight, and I should have seen her. Moore wrote one of the most haunting, upsetting lines I’ve ever read: somewhere in her hilariously-titled novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? a character recalls seeing a man naked, and remarks on ‘the hairy kiwi of his balls.’ I want to have gender reassignment every time I think about that.

[In fact, just now I attempted to look up the exact full quotation; but in the book I realized there was no search function, no Google. I am ruined.]

The evening closes with Dave reading from a screenplay written by a special ed class, about how the President needs 14 trillion dollars. It’s actually pretty good.

The reading done, my accomplice D. and I watch the kids mosh toward Dave. He kneels to talk to them one at a time, giving blessings. I want to interview some of them but I don’t know what to ask: Did you know he wrote a second book? What sort of job did they give you in your work-release program? And also: Dave Eggers, hot or not?

In the crowd, D. spots a black woman, and with this evidence of diversity in the literary world, we limp home up the Bowery. I crash out hard.
 

Saturday

11 a.m. I stumble up 44th Street past the Mansfield Hotel. Cressida, a New Yorker editor in a supercute stripy dress, slides her way in front of me into the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. The room is incredible; it looks like a Tomb Raider set. Four stories of library stacks border the antique central room. I want to get married in here.

New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman is moderating a panel on Literary Immigrants. Ms. Treisman is of the opinion that trends are ‘assigned retroactively,’ but that if there was a recent trend in fiction it’d be writers from other cultures writing in English. I spy a fresh trend for her: the overlap in the New Yorker and McSweeney’s author lists.

Already we’re in trouble with the introductions: Treisman speaks of the ‘softness and longing’ of Haiti while introducing Edwidge Danticat. That would so totally be Orientalism… if Haiti were the Orient.

I wonder: will there be a lot of literary Missed Connections on Craigslist next week? You: pencil skirt, angry about Sontag. Me: big glasses, allegorical chip on my shoulder. The Bosnian dude is pretty foxy. Edwidge is also adorable—you want to drive around with her in a giant Haitian-mobile and smoke a little weed. Gary Shteyngart is the superstar of the panel—he’s fucking hilarious. He says in the U.S. he writes for the ‘blue states’ and ignores the red ones, because ‘there is nothing I can do for those people.’ He professes to watch Blind Date to better understand Americans in captivity. In general, although the Bosnian has lived in Chicago, the gang is fairly phobic of middle-America, and their politics are uniform: like America, dislike American foreign policy.

I get bored and start to clean out my manpurse. Who ate all these Clif bars? Who emptied all these packs of Winstons?

12:30 p.m. N. and I walk down Fifth Avenue towards the public library, where he’ll attend the panel on political bias in the news. Oo! A Sean John store is going to open soon at 43rd and Fifth!

What’s the story in this festival?, I ask N. The story is the audience, he says. That’s unfortunate for all of us. The audience is a bunch of unattractive nobodies. But I wonder: will there be a lot of literary Missed Connections on Craigslist next week? You: pencil skirt, angry about Sontag. Me: big glasses, allegorical chip on my shoulder.

Maybe the story is the difference between the writers on the panels and the writers in the audience. That story is the creation of a celebrity class. That story is the fine line between jealousy and envy: I want everything you have versus I want everything I can have. Or is the story simply vanity?

12:45 p.m. I go to work at my real job. In fact I spend two hours computing sales tax. Kafka.

7:00 p.m. Unfortunately for me I’m in Brooklyn but it’s for the annual Morning News party, so it’s OK. On the subway there is a PSA against littering—it reads: ‘When it rains you don’t go to the beach, your litter does.’ The syntax makes my teeth itch.

7:30 p.m. At the party, Meg and Jason give me the low-down on New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin’s ‘Lecture with Snacks’ at the Intercontinental. Why the fuck didn’t I make Rosecrans get me tickets for this? They ate like a 20-course meal while the always-entertaining Trillin cracked witty urbane jokes. All sorts of up-town ha-has were had—Trillin dismissed people who use ‘party as a verb’ and restaurants with people who appear to be recently expelled from their frats. Fuck. It all sounds so Frazier!

7:45 p.m. Fuck me twice. Rachel, Rosecrans’s wife, says they went to see George Saunders and T. Coraghessan Boyle on Friday night. She says the writers were a crack comedy team, and Rosecrans asked the first question in the Q&A: What does George Saunders watch on TV? In short, Saunders said: not much. Buh.

8:00 p.m. I finally finally meet Morning News writers Josh Allen and Paul Ford. I love them; I also have nothing to say to them. I am saturated with real writers and I’m about as witty as a… see? I can’t even think of a joke for that. Just when I realize the awesome Sarah Hepola is there too—I realize that because she’s reading on the stage—I have to go. Just like ZZ Packer, Sarah likes to edit as she reads: ‘I’m skipping a bunch cuz I start to pontificate,’ she says. Fair enough. Off I go to the now-dreaded festival.

8:40 p.m. Tonight’s subway ad reads ‘It’s tough keeping something like rape inside.’ Horror. Double alert: syntax and content.

8:50 p.m. As I exit the train, a man struggling down the stairs with a heavy suitcase is grumbling how no one ever helps him. ‘No one likes a whiner,’ I tell him.

This is bad: I too am a whiner.

Wyclef Jean comes out and then there’s real applause. I wonder who he is. He announces that he is drinking cranberry juice and Grand Marnier. It’s like he’s trying to simultaneously cure and inflict a urinary tract infection. 8:52 p.m. I’m in TriBeCa, my most-hated neighborhood ever. These tickets get more expensive every night; I’m about to see Wyclef Jean talking with Jeffrey Eugenides at the Knitting Factory, a $25 show; that would buy my editors a lot of arugula.

I’m starting to question my outfit. With my checked brown suit, my pink shirt, and my green dotted tie, I’m pretty sure I look like a giant gay Easter egg. Vanity?

9:01 p.m. Hey, what’s up with those people who blink with their entire face? Is there a name for that? I just saw two of them and I wonder if they know it’s not fucking normal? On a scale of 1 to 10 of high-school shaming, where 10 equals ‘retarded’ and 8 equals ‘giant fag,’ where do they fit in?

9:02 p.m. Yay! Black people!

9:03 p.m. I find my galpals E. and C. up in the balcony. I squat on the floor behind them with my dinner of one (1) apricot Clif bar and one (1) Panda black licorice bar.

9:12 p.m. Jeffrey Eugenides comes out and people clap. Wyclef Jean comes out and then there’s real applause. I wonder who he is. He announces that he is drinking cranberry juice and Grand Marnier. It’s like he’s trying to simultaneously cure and inflict a urinary tract infection.

This Wyclef guy is hilarious. He says he grew up in the black Partridge family, he and his siblings were the entire church to his Haitian father’s preaching. He talks about the Bible, Jesus and his Disciples, just like how he runs with the bad ones today: ‘Christ moved with an Eminem or a 50 Cent.’ He talks about the evils of the world that scare his father: ‘The alcohol that I’m drinking, the Bentley that I rolled up in…’

Then the band comes on stage and they start playing like the Hispaniola godchildren of Stevie Wonder. They’re fucking great. Wyclef freestyles about George Bush and the Iraq war in three different languages; Dave Eggers should be here studying up. But who could care about writing now? I want to play nasty soul guitar over my head and behind my back.

11:00 p.m. E. and I bail out during the encore to catch Gogol Bordello at Irving Plaza. Traffic is totally ass though: the San Genarro festival—an actual festival—is busting up our flow. I’m still excited about Wyclef—there was a medium, there was a message, and there was theory and politics behind it. Everything else pales… no pun intended.

11:10 p.m. Still in the cab, at Centre and Walker streets, a paddy wagon and a cop car are trapped behind a shitty white Ford. ‘C’mon, Jersey!’ a cop shouts through his megaphone. We die laughing.

11:30 p.m. E. and I roll up on Irving Plaza, the show just over. My new writer friend S. from Friday’s lunch is there, with his boyfriend R.; R. has two instances of other people’s blood on his white t-shirt. We are super-jealous.

4 a.m. I haven’t stayed out this late in far too long. There were jokes and potato pancakes and dancing to Central European folk music at the Bar Without Irony Which Must Not Be Named until all hours. I danced with my arms in the air, and I never felt better, single, confident, free. Just as I am rolling off to sleep, I think: ‘On rainy days, you never go to the beach, but your litter does.’



Sunday

9 a.m. I think, ‘You never go to the beach when it rains, but your litter certainly does.’ Hmm. The ‘certainly’ is too fey, but it’s better. I go back to bed.

Noon. Today is my last event of this purported Festival, and it is by far the oddest: Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in conversation with journalist Jeffery Goldberg. I spend an hour reading up on Wolfowitz to prepare. My page of notes reads, in its entirety:

Abu Musab Zarqawi.
AEI
PAC
JINSA
87 Billion.
‘Iraq could do 50-100 billion of oil revenue in the next 2-3 years.’

I am now Joan Didion.

The ‘conversation’ is at 3 p.m., but it’s free and first-come, first-serve, so I get there by 1 p.m. There is already a short line, but I’m in the first 50. I rock.

1:26 p.m. Outside the New School Auditorium there is a giant yellow New Yorker balloon with the words ‘Sponsored by Kate Spade.’ The wind picks up and the balloon assaults some people. Interns spend the next 30 minutes hilariously attempting to deflate it. A passer-by asks ‘What’s going on here?’ The cute Young Republican in front of me in line says ‘Wolfowitz.’ ‘Oh,’ says the passer-by, ‘What’s he doing?’ ‘Spreading evil,’ I butt in.

1:50 p.m. Totally hot Secret Service guys—yes, with the little curly wires behind their ears, just like X-Files—cruise up and down the line, profiling. Blue blazers, their little oh-so-secret lapel pins, they are blindingly-sexy. I realize I haven’t had a free second to jerk off since this damn fool Festival began.

The crowd literally erupts in screams and boos and applause and I am completely scared shitless. The Zionists on my right are giving him a standing ovation. The long-haired leftists behind and a row ahead scream ‘MURDERER! NAZI! MURDERER!’ 2:15 p.m. Some gay fella hits on me while I’m smoking on line. ‘It’s Wolfowitz,’ I say. ‘Who?’ he asks. ‘Deputy Secretary of Defense. Creator of the Iraq War. He’s doing a cabaret number.’ The Young Republican’s girlfriend, recently arrived, notes that everyone talks to me. It’s my face, I tell her. ‘People ask me for directions and information all the time. They are obviously misguided about my essential nature.’

2:45 p.m. The line begins to move into the Auditorium. My friend J. saunters by. ‘I’m so excited,’ I say. ‘Oh me too,’ he says, patting his backpack and wiggling his eyebrows. Wha? That was more than a little alarming. What the fuck?

3:20 p.m. My body is searched, my murse inspected. One chunky middle-aged guy is refusing to have his cargo shorts checked. ‘You think I’m dumb enough to come in and attack someone?,’ he yells. We all shrug and nod affirmatively. He yells, ‘Constitutional rights blah blah blah.’ We sigh as one.

3:25 p.m. There are video cameras inside the auditorium. Just as I notice them, the guy behind me says ‘If this is on C-Span, why did I just wait in line for two hours?’

3:30 p.m. Great. The cargo-shorts-bomb guy is sitting right behind me with his 8 or 9-year-old kid. I’m going to die in here. You can feel anxiety ricocheting around the oval room. The kid asks, ‘Is Bush here?’ ‘No,’ his dad answers, ‘a guy who works for Bush and who invests money with him is here.’ ‘Is Bush bad?’ asks the kid. His dad answers, ‘He’s one of the worst people on the planet.’

3:37 p.m. God I’d love to be in the Secret Service, always being so… secret. Two guys on my left are discussing the radical book Alice in Wonderland and the World Trade Center Disaster. The four guys on my right are radical Zionist Wolfowitz fan-boys. We are going down. We are all going down together.

3:44 p.m. I am still fixing subway ads in my head. ‘Rape is a terrible thing to keep to yourself,’ I try. ‘Whenever it rapes you, your litter goes to the beach.’ Who wrote that copy, and for how much? Was it finished at 2 a.m., after one-too-many cups of coffee? Was it a pale black-haired girl in her East Village share, smoking and thinking, this is the one fucking hour I have set aside every night for my novel, and I’m writing fucking PSA copy? Furthermore, fuck Fannie Mae in the ass. But was she also thinking fuck Zadie Smith?

3:46 p.m. The New School head of security makes a really scary announcement about what to do in the event of a fire. I can’t really hear him because everyone is rumbling. Then, a woman leads Wolfowitz and Goldberg onto the stage. The crowd literally erupts in screams and boos and applause and I am completely scared shitless. The Zionists on my right are giving him a standing ovation. The long-haired leftists behind and a row ahead scream ‘MURDERER! NAZI! MURDERER!’ I start laughing hysterically from the stress. It’s fucking bedlam and I am completely sure that there will be an assassination attempt or at the very least An Incident. A young Asian woman in front of me turns around, relieved that I’m laughing too. I want to hug her.

3:47 p.m. ‘Turn off cell phones and beepers,’ the New Yorker woman on stage says and ruckus subsides. She introduces Goldberg—who came up through New York magazine—adding credence to my friend E.’s claim that every journalist started either at New York or the New York Observer. Then Goldberg begins Wolfowitz’s bio, pretty much repeating the Vanity Fair interview I read that morning. There is much cackling from the audience, then screams of derision, accusations of genocide. Someone calls Wolfowitz a fascist. Somewhere a woman screams back, ‘You’re the fascist because you’re denying someone else the right to speak.’ Half the room applauds. Another woman shouts out, ‘Change your medication!’

Wolfowitz sits quietly on stage like a scaly mute cancer.

The head of security, a very stock-sitcom black man, returns and says he’ll be removing dissenters. The Secret Service men flank the stage, half-hidden behind pillars, like Roman sculptures in niches. They are backlit and spooky. ‘I think I’m glad to be here,’ Wolfowitz says debonairly. You, sir, are no William F. Buckley, I think to myself.

Wolfowitz has said no more before the first person shouting ‘Murderer!’ is removed.

After a little bit of banter with Goldberg, Wolfie says ‘I’m glad that the Iraqis are free so that they can speak the way we do,’ and that sets off two more screaming people. They get led off to wherever. I am so tense I may never crap again.

Goldberg begins again: ‘You’re considered the intellectual architect of the war on Iraq,’ he says, and then a man in the audience charges the stage shouting, ‘Bush should be tried for treason, you fucking Nazi!’ The Young Zionist in the yarmulke next to me hides his head in his hands.

Wolfowitz takes up the Nazi theme. ‘This is what the Nazis did,’ he says, referring to shouting down dissenters. We all look at each other in puzzlement. Uh, no it’s not, not in the slightest.

Throughout the chaos, Wolfowitz stays on tone and hits his talking points. His reported lifelong goal is to prevent nuclear war and conventional war. He thinks America should not be ‘impatient’ with the democratization of Iraq. He refers to ‘9/11’ as a wakeup call no fewer than three separate times. He claims he did not support an actual military incursion into Iraq until after September 11th, 2001. Of terrorists, he says, ‘punishment after the fact is not enough.’

Goldberg is a suave interviewer. ‘Are you a Neo-Con?’ he asks with just a hint of ironic insinuation.

Wolfowitz: ‘I don’t like labels.’ Often, he says, ‘Neo-Con is code for nefarious Zionist conspiracy.’ Wait, that’s supposed to be code? Wolfowitz decides that he is a ‘Democratic Realist,’ settling off a vast wave of bitter cackles from the audience. Then he crosses the line:

‘Kennedy would support Bush’ in this war, he says, to a collective gasp.

I can’t stop laughing. I’m not made for this kind of pressure.

Goldberg keeps at him. On the question of links between Al Qaeda and Iraq, Wolfowitz profoundly says ‘it’s a murky world.’ And later: ‘oil is a canard.’ And then: ‘human rights nightmare.’ And ‘support moderate Muslims.’ And ‘brilliant military plan’ and ‘overwhelming majority of Iraqis’ and ‘liberated.’ And it’s all so very similar ‘to Eastern Europe.’ Contradicting himself a bit he concedes that Iraq, well, ‘it’s not a free environment yet for people to tell us what they know.’

A woman gets booted for screaming, ‘What about Palestine! Go ahead, drag me out, I’m ready to go!’ The Bush-hating man’s son is literally snoring behind me, his sweet little face nuzzled up to his father’s arm. ‘Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!’ screams a young man near the back, quickly forced to exit stage left. We look around puzzled at the relevance of this as Wolfowitz rejects Goldberg’s loaded phrase ‘occupation of Iraq.’

Unbelievably, a Q&A session begins. A kindly-voiced young man begins a sensible question, which segues into, ‘Who’s going to resign first, you or Cheney?’ People applaud loudly. Sadly, the guy continues with ‘Because Lyndon Larouche…’ and the wave of mocking laughter drowns him out.

‘And what happens,’ Goldberg asks a bit later, ‘when Arab countries become democratic and then elect Islamists?’ There is silence for the first time in the auditorium. Wolfowitz has briefly choked, and the crowd turns on him completely. Screamers get hustled up the aisles. My acquaintance J. stands up in his seat with a cardboard sign, which is evidently the thing in his backpack that he was indicating outside. It says ‘On Stage! Not On Trial’ on one side and, on the other, ‘Like Goebbels and Lord Haw Haw.’ A mass of photographers coalesce behind him, their lenses stretching out to shoot J.’s back and his sign in foreground, and in the landscape beyond, Wolfowitz coiled malefically on the stage, now ready for his escort back to the secret bunkers of Washington. The perfect still has finally been composed, ready for the news package of Monday morning’s Times.

5:02 p.m. We shuffle out to daylight. A lone leftist bangs too loudly on a bucket in front of a Free Palestine banner. Someone blows a whistle endlessly. We are all glad to be alive. The nice girl who had sat in front of me turns out to be a poli-sci student at Columbia. I smoke cigarette after cigarette and a little clump of us gather. We laugh with sincere relief and make small talk.

This afternoon was one of the scariest experiences of my life, and not just for the unpredictability of the crowd. There was this: while art is a luxury we are almost physiologically compelled to indulge, what place does it have in a world with such awfulness? Wyclef and his fun if slogan-based critiques of global politics made me feel good, for a while. Edwidge had said: ‘Learn what’s being done around the world in your name.’ Well, of course, but then what? Leave? And what use are the gentle politics of a ZZ Packer, or the comic art of a Dave Eggers? Worst of all Grace Paley, longtime ‘combative pacifist,’ her life’s work peace and justice, and our world letting her age without any satisfaction. Why write at all, because who can hold his artistic practice up to the skilled mastery of a Wolfowitz?

‘We only really face up to ourselves when we are afraid,’ wrote Thomas Bernhard, but he also wrote, ‘We can only exist by taking our minds off the fact that we exist.’ It may be necessary to be such escapists occasionally, but to live and write in that fear and detachment is not; that is to ignore the billion angry benday dots in the morning papers, each buzzing people die and die.