The Conde Nast Fishbowl

by

12/23/2001

4 Times Square Plz, New York, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Midtown

1.

Here in New York I have been put in charge of a small tropical fish. Its owner has gone to Los Angeles to organize Vanity Fair’s annual Oscars party and won’t be back until the end of the month. Her parting instructions were minimal. I was just asked to sprinkle a little fish food on it from time to time. That was all. I wasn’t told how much food to give it or how often (if at all) to change its water.

I have never looked after a fish before, and everyone tells me it is a difficult task. For example, fish do not know how to stop eating: if you give them too much food, they burst. And changing a fish’s water is a delicate operation. Not only is the fish easily lost in the process, but the water has to be the right temperature or it may die. It may well die anyway, of course. Fish usually do.

This fish has so far contented itself with occasionally pretending to be dead. At other times it is quite frisky. But it has very little space to be frisky in. Its home is a square glass jar on the top of the desk–so small and square that it cannot even do circles. A visitor to the office the other day said he thought that its owner should be charged with fish abuse. But I don’t suppose he knows any more about fish than I do, and the size of the jar is probably just right for a fish of this particular kind.

It is not a colorful fish. In fact, it is completely black. But it is curious to look at, having several seemingly superfluous fins almost as big as its little body. It’s a bit like several fishes stuck together. This appearance suggests rarity–and therefore considerable expense if it should die and have to be replaced before its owner returns from Hollywood. Maybe it is a million-dollar fish and we will have to sell the house in London.

When I aired this anxiety to Chris Garrett, the managing editor of Vanity Fair, she told me a cautionary tale about a dog that was flown recently from Europe to New York to be re-united with its lady owner. It traveled in a crate in the hold, but turned out on arrival to be dead. The airline staff could not face the idea of presenting the owner with a corpse, so they rang her to say that her dog was now arriving on a later flight and spent the time thus gained searching the pet shops of New York for one that looked the same.

Returning triumphant from their mission, they replaced the dead dog in the crate with a living one and told the owner that her dog was now ready for collection from the airport. When she arrived and saw it she shrieked and then fainted. Her dog had died in Europe, and she had been bringing it home for burial. There is little relevance in this story to my dilemma, but I was much amused to hear it.

I suspect that fish anxiety is widespread. In the 1980s, when President Reagan was about to hold his first ever meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Switzerland, he rented a villa from the Aga Khan on the shore of Lake Geneva. One of the Aga Khan’s children had left a note in the house asking him to keep an eye on the goldfish. At the appointed time, the President’s Chief of Staff, Donald Regan, came by to pick him up and take him to the historic summit.

He found Mr. Reagan standing gravely in front of the fish tank. “Don, we’ve got a problem,” he said. One of the goldfish was lying dead on the bottom. So, as the peace of the world hung in the balance, members of the President’s staff were urgently dispatched to find a replacement. If only the fish in my care were a humble goldfish, instead of this strange, multi-finned specimen, I would have rather less to worry about.

In case you are wondering how I find myself in this situation, the answer is that I am spending a month in New York working at Vanity Fair, thanks to the kindness of its editor, Graydon Carter. By the time you read this, he and all of his senior staff will have gone to Hollywood for the great Oscars extravaganza. It is the most popular party of the year, and Mr. Carter writes in the current issue of his magazine that he has been besieged by people angling for invitations.

I haven’t been one of them, though. I am perfectly happy where I am; and anyway, I have an onerous duty to perform here in New York.

2.

The worst possible thing has happened. The fish in my care in New York has died. A day after I filed my column last weekend about the stress involved in looking after somebody else’s fish, the little creature snuffed it. This wasn’t my fault, I promise. An assistant to Sara Marks, the fish’s owner, who is away in Los Angeles organizing the Oscars party for Vanity Fair, took it to the coffee alcove to change the water in its glass jar, and I followed him there to get myself a cup of coffee. I saw him pour the fish into a cardboard coffee cup, change its water in the sink, and then pour it back into the jar.

I don’t know whether the water was too cold or too hot, or whether he decanted the fish too roughly, but it dived headfirst into the gravel at the bottom of the jar and expired. I have yet to speak to Ms. Marks, the Director of Special Projects at Vanity Fair whose office I am temporarily occupying, but I gather she is not well pleased. She is said to be particularly distressed that nobody had the courage to tell her what had happened for a couple of days. She had had the fish for a year, which is quite a long time, so she has every reason to feel a little upset. However, I have decided against looking for a replacement, since I have grown convinced that people oughtn’t to keep fishes in their offices, especially when they are not there.

For some reason, the dead fish was returned to my desk in its jar, where it remained for a day upside down with its nose in the gravel, slowly changing color. A day later, when I was beginning to wonder whether I shouldn’t give it a formal burial somewhere, perhaps in Central Park, I returned from lunch to find it gone. To my surprise I slightly miss it. The good thing about a dead fish is that it is the antithesis of the Buzz. There is nothing “hot” about a dead fish. And since New York is ruled by the Buzz and “hotness”, there is something rather comforting in that. I even kept its death secret for a while, like countries with dictators do when their leaders have died, just to enjoy the peace of being with something dead.

Vanity Fair, where I am working this month, became the citadel of Buzz when Tina Brown edited it and has maintained, even strengthened, that position under the editorship of Graydon Carter. The current issue devoted to Hollywood and the Oscars is the biggest ever published, an enormous thing stuffed with advertisements and photographs of celebrities. It is symptomatic of the Buzz that I don’t recognize half of them. The Buzz is as restless as a firefly. No sooner has it declared one person “hot” than it switches its allegiance to someone else.

Bars and restaurants seem to have a longer life in the Buzz. The king of Buzz in the restaurant world is Keith McNally, the British cockney lad who has somehow discovered how to tickle New York’s belly and drive it crazy. A friend of mine wanted to go downtown the other day to experience his new “hot” restaurant Pastis. I said it was pointless even to think about it, but we telephoned the restaurant all the same and were told by a very welcoming voice that it didn’t take reservations but would be delighted to see us if we dropped by. When we got there, an enormous bouncer blocking the entrance said it would be at least two hours before we would even be allowed inside as far as the bar, so great was the crush. A seat at a table would obviously be out of the question.

Of course you can book at Pastis. That is the only way anyone ever gets in. The claim that it doesn’t take reservations is a cruel pretense. It recognizes a secret hierarchy of “hotness” among its clientele that makes even a restaurant as fashionable as The Ivy in London seem open and democratic. Last night I ate at Balthazar in SoHo, another McNally restaurant where people kill for a table. It was packed and buzzing loudly. I have no idea how a table was obtained, but I went with some savvy New Yorkers who must know how this awful freemasonry works.

An even deeper mystery is what makes one restaurant so much “hotter” than another. Keith McNally’s specialty is the French bistro. He finds a good location, does it up agreeably with lots of old mirrors and other fixtures imported from France, has “Buvez” and “Mangez” printed in faded gold letters on the glass doors, and serves bistro food like steak frites. Then comes the stampede. The sad thing is that I know that if I did exactly the same thing no one would come at all.

March 2000

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