The Best Pranks at North Atlantic Books

by Richard Grossinger on March 14, 2010

Chapter Twenty-One
The Best Pranks at North Atlantic Books

In truth there were really only two great pranks that I can remember at North Atlantic, but they were both incredible.  When I asked among the staff recently, a few minor ones surfaced.  For instance, Paula recalled that, on an April Fool’s Day during the time when Sam was working for us but had pretty much fallen out with everyone, I announced to an editorial meeting that we were doing three new books.  The first two were legitimate; the third was a new illustrated masterpiece by Sam on a belching goat.  Looks of astonishment were followed by groans.  I quickly added, “April Fool’s Day.”

Paula’s jogging of my memory brought back other mild “acquisitions” pranks.  As the overseer of unsolicited manuscripts down through the years, I have perused some bizarre submissions.  My three favorites have been: Dreams, Astral Journeys and Near Death Experiences of Pigeons (channeled and illustrated by a woman in Argentina), “My Life” as told first-person by a very chubby and poorly-drawn Persian cat, and the handwritten scribblings of car thief from prison comprising a treatise on how to steal anything and get away with it.

Sometimes these unbidden submissions come adorned with artwork or photographs and, when there is a combination of no request for their return, no email address, and no postage, we invariably toss them in the recyling bin.  On a few wide-distanced occasions in a playful mood, I have extracted a striking photo or painting before trashing and, unmarked, put it in a random person’s box.  This has led to puzzled queries, as the recipient tries to figure out the source and/or the relevance.

I know, it’s a bit perverse, and I don’t fully understand this sort of prankishness, which has been with me since childhood.  I have an intermittently inspired trickster streak which rarely surfaces anymore.

Lindy, by the way, hates pranks of all sorts, even on April Fool’s Day, and considers them mere cover for passive aggression.  To her mind they are always cruel, and I agree, they are.  But they do serve some purpose, maybe letting off steam, purging incipient hostility and reducing anxiety,.  They manage to increase comaraderie through shared laughter and a mode of negative intimacy that is still an intimacy.

They are, to me, like brief myths or shadow healing events, invoking maybe an imp in lieu of a shaman.  I think that alienation is always developing in social situations, and one has to take periodic steps to address and neutralize it.  That is the reason for the imp.  Of course, there is not always a match between unconscious motive and actual prankish mood.

I remember slipping a pretentious formal photographic headshot of a middle-aged male in a suit, wannabe author, into an employee box, and the prank gained momentum as it ended up being displayed above the mailboxes with a question mark and then various offerings at its altar.  Everyone wondered who our “visitor” was until I confessed at a staff meeting.

Though not exactly pranks, Bates Method author Tom Quackenbush (Relearning to See) made hilarious appearances at our office in the late nineties while he was still local to the Bay Area.  With a kind of rapscallion street theater, he’d be wearing his trademark “Breathe, Blink, Brush” t-shirt, highlighting the three “B’s” of better vision (“brush” meant to wave your imaginary nose feather over objects in order to clarify them instead of straining your eye muscles to render them lucid).

Tom would look around for anyone wearing glasses, ideally an unsuspecting new staff-person or intern, go over to them, and either remove them or ask their permission to remove them, saying something like, “I’m going to help you improve your poor vision, and the first step is to get rid of the main thing that’s causing it, this ridiculous machine, this contraption that you’re wearing.  You, my friend, are the victim of the conspiracy of optometrists to keep you from the natural eyesight you were born with.”

He’d then hand the offending object back to the shocked person, usually with his card and trademark line, “You only have to practice my method twenty-four hours a day.”

The first of my two best pranks at North Atlantic involved another author wildly enthusiastic about his system: Dana Ullman, founder of Homeopathic Educational Services, our original copublisher.  Dana has always been an enigmatic mixture of loud homeopathic huckster and charming goofy naïf.  His everyday conversation rattles and jangles with factoids about homeopathy and the results of recent studies.  Like a walking Chamber of Commerce, he spouts these unasked and unrestrained.  They are usually educational, often fascinating, but coming nonstop from an irrepressible enthusiast, eager to proseletyze, they can be irritating and invasive after a while.

Dana also used to have a tendency to say everything twice: “Hello, hello”; “Terrific, terrific”; “I told you, I told you so”; or “Check out this new study, why don’t you check out this new study.”  So people on our staff began comparing him to a character in a TV ad who double-spoke similarly.

This incident was hatched in the mid-eighties, long before North Atlantic even had a staff.  I was operating out of our living room on Blake Street.  We had been copublishing with Dana for almost ten years by then; yet over this time, while providing us with many successful books, he had always given his own manuscripts on homeopathy to other publishers (J.P. Tarcher mainly) because he got large advances and was sent on book tours by them.  Thus it was a matter of some celebration when he finally told me that he had elected to copublish a book with us: Homeopathy: Medicine for the Twenty-First Century.

This was partly because he wanted my help as an editor in getting the manuscript together, something I was delighted to provide in exchange for his offering us the book.  He would periodically bring me sections of the work in progress for corrections, rewrites, and commentary.  He very much came to enjoy retrieving each next batch to see what I had to say, so I made sure to include some compliments each time.  He would grab the pages from me and quickly riffle through them, looking for the praise.  He was so hungry for kudos and so childlike and disingenuous at the same time that, when he found one, he would beam and chuckle.

Now on this particular day a number of unrelated events converged and conspired for the perfect storm of a prank:

1. Richard Russo, the local author of a forthcoming issue of Io on dreams (Dreams Are Wiser Than Men) had very much wanted to meet Dana, and Dana had likewise wanted to meet him.  For over a year I had been trying to get the two of them together without success.

2. Dana was a real gallivanting Don Juan in those days before his marriage, and he tended to blurt out erotic confessions with a candor that was both unusual and embarrassing.  A blend of sex-positive, hippie, Los Angeles Jewish playboy, and old-fashioned loose-lipped bombastic salesman, he would boast shamelessly and even graphically about his sexual exploits, though in a kind of offhand and unabashed way that rendered the tales utterly innocent and harmless.

3. A few minutes earlier the postman had delivered an unsolicited submission from the unlikely wilds of Nova Scotia.  It was a very strange manuscript indeed, for it was about male impotence and punctuated by florid, Victorian-style odes about frustrated love with chants and spells for the limp cock.  And the hook was that it happened to be in virtually the identical typeface of Dana’s manuscript.

While I was trying to get a bead on this submission, I could see Richard Russo leave his car down the block; I had not been expecting him, but I imagined he was coming to see me about some matter of business.  I was expecting Dana who was due soon to pick up his latest installment.

Yes, there he was too, further down Blake Street, also exiting his car.

Everything came together in my mind in an instant, a flash of recognition; the demonic persona in me recognized the potential for all-time greatest prank of pranks and went into action.

The pigeon drop: I grabbed Dana’s homeopathy manuscript and carefully shuffled the pages of the newly-received book on impotence into it.

My homeopathic colleague arrived just behind Richard Russo and, once I introduced them, they were cheerily chatting and Dana was beginning to lecture on dreams as a diagnostic rubric in homeopathy.  I patiently let them stay engaged, waiting for opportune moment to pounce.

Dana finally provided the opening.  He turned to me and, with his new comrade as his audience, asked, “How was that last batch?”  Looking proud as punch, he was expecting a public accolade.  “Pretty great, wasn’t it?” he continued, extending his own faux conceit.

“I don’t know, Dana,” I said.  “I think you’re getting into some strange stuff, much too far afield of the topic.”

“What do you mean?” he asked, disappointment and sudden alarm on his face.

I shook my head and handed him the pages.  He looked at my marked-up version for a good while before his eyes lit on one of the new pages.  You could see them open as wide as pies.  “What the—that’s not—I don’t—” he stammered.

“What is it?” asked a curious Richard Russo.  “Let me see,” he teased, as Dana immediately covered the pages.  He folded the stack and held it close to his body but then peeked at them as if they were irresistibly compelling.  When Richard started to shift to behind him to look, Dana hid them again so that he couldn’t see.  Then a page with a mind of its own dropped on the floor, and Richard elfishly picked it up and began reading a spell for the limp cock out loud.  It was the perfect page!

“This isn’t my problem!” Dana cried out, but Richard by then was giggling so much he could barely continue.  The spell was in the metaphor of a rooster asking to be roused by the sun.

“You can ask any of the women who have been with me in the last five years,” Dana exclaimed.  “I have the hardest and longest erection of anyone they ever experienced.”  He went on and on in this vein, more and more gross and yet guileless, stuff you’d never expect or want to hear from anyone, let alone someone you just met.  I couldn’t stop laughing; I couldn’t regain my voice.  There were tears running down my cheeks.  Finally Dana declared, “I know who put these pages in my book.  It was Bruce.”

Bruce was a bisexual, cross-dressing Madison Avenue dropout.  He had worked for Dana as his assistant for a couple of years, having been originally referred in fact by us, as he had house-sat briefly for Lindy and me.  We knew him through Paula’s ex-boyfriend t’ai-chi teacher for whom he had also house-sat.

“This sounds like the kind of thing Bruce is into with all his male-empowerment groups and gay friends.”

It was years before I told Dana how those pages got into his manuscript.  It happened at a roast the night before he got married.

For the record he met his fiancée not long after this episode at a goddess talk; he actually stopped at my house for more edited manuscript en route to the lecture while enlightening me, “It’s the absolute best place at which to meet open-minded women.  Every guy should know to go to goddess talks.  It’s better than singles bars or parties.”  That was Dana.

When the Internet and cultural sea change hit a decade later, his brother and mother would start a trend-setting dating firm called Great Expectations.

I stood before the gathering of friends and family of the bride and groom, very late in the lineup of speakers, and divulged the whole episode with its back story.  While the wedding guests howled and whooped in honor of the beloved groom, Dana simply turned to Bruce, who no longer worked for him but was present, and, loud enough for everyone to hear, called out, “I thought it was you.  All is forgiven.”

His wife later then said, “That’s Dana for you—sweetest man in the world and also the most gullible.”

She was the daughter of a doctor.  While Dana may have considered himself a happy bachelor well into his thirties, I think she considered herself slightly long in the tooth for the single life.  From what Dana told me, her father certainly did. “That’s why he allowed her to marry a homeopath,” he used to joke.  “I mean he’s a real power in the AMA.  Ordinarily he wouldn’t let the enemy in the door.”

When the AMA dude gave his roast that night, he cited innumerable absurd statistics, for instance studies of walruses in the Middle Ages, to prove that homeopathy was better than AMA medicine, a good-humored and biting parody of Dana.

He bettered that the next day after the marriage ceremony.  As the car pulled away with its writing scrawled on the windshield, tin cans rattling, and bride and groom in their seats, this doc abruptly raced forward, threw his hands over the hood, and temporarily stood there blocking the car’s path, shouting, “No, no never.  Not my daughter.  Not to a homeopath.”

It was a showstopper

The second great prank occurred some ten years later at our Woolsey Street house and involved our archetypal-psychology author Charles Poncé.  Considered quite renegade in Jungian circles for his critiques of the abuses of analytical psychology by over-zealous practitioners of mandalas and myths, he was likewise brilliant in his inquiries into the continuous transfiguration of therapy itself.  He was also particularly astute on the archetype of the shadow and some of the more obscure and undiagnosed archetypes representing time and space.  Half-Panamanian, half-Greek, he was a long-time resident of Greenwich Village, once in fact a scenic fixture there at coffee shops with his handsome Hispanic figure and long ponytail.  He looked more like a musician than a therapist.  (See also “My Teachers” on this website.)

Soon after moving to California in the mid-seventies I met Charles through our literary author Diana di Prima.  After that I began a year of dreamwork with him at his old office on Uranus Terrace in San Francisco.  Lindy, he, and I also became good friends, and we got together regularly for meals.

Charles was a marrying man, I think five different wives or de facto wives in the first decade and a half I knew him.  He once remarked, “I always make the same mistake.  You can’t save someone else, ever, even by love.  And yet I always think I can.”

At a book-signing we held for him once at Shambhala on Telegraph, a former girlfriend of his showed up and made quite a scene, yelling big-time at his present sweetie.  Our son Robin, then a teenager, remarked, “Gosh, and you’re a psychologist.”

“It doesn’t help, Robin,” Charles confided, “I promise you that.”

One day in the mid nineties Lindy and I were having Charles to lunch in our house on Woolsey Street.  By the sort of fluke that makes you wonder how the universe operates, I got a phone call that morning from a former buddy of his in the Army.  He was helping to get together their battalion from the Korean War and he was seeking Charles Poncé through his publisher, wondering how to get a hold of him.  We weren’t even Charles’s main publisher or the publisher of his best-known books, but this guy was calling us on the rare day, one in maybe ten thousand, when he was coming to our house for lunch, the only time in my memory when, instead of going to a restaurant on such an occasion with him, we were actually serving a meal.  That was the one time he got a phone call at our house—and its source went back fifty years.  It’s like hitting a hole-in-one across ten miles.

“Could you call back at about one?” was my enigmatic response.

“Sure,” the guy replied with surprise, not expecting something so immediate and direct.

We were all at the meal when the phone rang; I jumped to answer it and then told Charles it was for him.  He looked puzzled: “I can’t think of anyone who knew I was coming here.”

I handed him the receiver.

More than two decades earlier, in 1972, something happened that involved more a synchronicity than a prank or, if it was a prank, it was a prank by the universe on me.  Back then, in the days before North Atlantic Books, Io was our sole publishing venture, and its records were all kept in a giant hardcover oversize accounting ledger that I had liberated from the storeroom of my parents’ hotel.  It wasn’t created for my kind of record keeping, but it had lots of lines and boxes.  To my view it was a combination of grade-school sheets and graph paper, so I adapted it for my system as if it were meant for that, keeping subscribers in the front and bookstores in the back.

Our subscribers were, unfortunately, too often ephemeral, not renewing after receiving the four copies on their maiden subscription.  We did, however, have a coterie of loyal subscribers including many libraries, so the ledger moved forward slowly, with me numbering the subscribers as they joined.  I got past 100 with only about sixty of them still active.

At that point, to keep from using up the paper—an overly optimistic and compulsive attitude since there was space for at least five thousand—but perhaps also to make the book a more representative snapshot of our actuality, I began using Liquid Paper to white out defunct ones and replace them with new subscribers.

In our Ann Arbor years we had had a subscriber from Southern California who was over-the-top enthusiastic and sent us lots of loony letters.  He started out as a naïve teenager who loved our stuff, a wonderfully fresh and precocious youth.  In fact, he was starting a rock band and writing lyrics based on material in Io.

Sadly, as the years passed, he turned darker and began to get too into Aleister Crowley.  Even his band turned Crowleyite.

In 1968 he was writing cheerful alchemical conceits and Gnostic epiphanies.  By 1972 he was channeling demons and spirit entities of unknown vintage, obscurely and inappropriately rendered by him out of our pages.  He remained a subscriber, and by 1978 he was writing us in Oakland about murders he ostensibly committed, Manson-like rituals releasing dark entities into the world.

We would receive occasional boxes of his magical accoutrements and relics, for he wanted to show us how he was using information from our publications to aid in his rituals.  The contents we received seemed neutral enough on the surface, maybe—photographs of landscapes, rags and pieces of clothing, pamphlets, chunks of wood and metal.  But I knew better and began throwing the boxes out without opening them.  Finally I invited Sheppard Powell, my former Goddard student who had moved to the Bay Area and was teaching ritual magic at his own occult and psychic academy, to come to our place to neutralize the most recent box.

He walked in a well-informed circle around the object, irregularly tossing salt over his shoulder on it—a moment viewed and memorialized by our kids in later reports on their childhood with weird parents.  Then Shep took the carton with him for purification and later told me he shipped it back to the guy with a note saying something like, “We mean no harm to thee or thine, but trouble these folks no longer.”

That subscriber never resubscribed again.

Anyway, back in 1972, this incipient madman was happily directing all his friends to us.  Typically they would subscribe, find the journal drab, and fall off the list after one round.

1972 was the year we moved from Portland, Maine, to Plainfield, Vermont, as I began my teaching gig at Goddard.  We were not even a week in our new house in the village when the incident I am about to describe occurred.

There is a magical law that states, if you want to invoke a person, write and then cross out his or her name.  Well, I had gotten a check in the mail from a new subscriber that day, and I chose to carefully white out the name of one of our California fan’s friends who had not renewed from a couple of years earlier.  It was a curiously graphic name, and I’ll call him John Rhino for anonymity.  He lived in the western Pennsylvania.

I whited out the circles and x’s marking his filled subscription and confirming sent issues.  Then I painted over his name.  As soon as the last vestige of ink was gone, the doorbell rang.  I charged downstairs and answered it.

A pleasant young man wanted to know if we had a room to rent for the summer, as he was enrolling in the Goddard Social Ecology program.  We didn’t, but I got to chatting with him.  One thing led to another, and yes, this was John Rhino.

One addendum: I told this story to our daughter Miranda in the mid-eighties when she was around eleven, and she immediately scribbled down the name of her best friend and erased it.  Within a minute the phone rang; it was Courtney.

I don’t think Mir ever quite got across to her what had just happened.

Chapter 22: The Best Lines Spoken at North Atlantic Books | Table of Contents

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