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Crash and burn

by Greg Swann

Vinnie Giordano was a man trying very hard to get fired. He wanted to crash and burn, like his son.

He worked for Brahmin, a stuffy, venerable Boston magazine that was caught in a losing battle with a New York upstart called Knickerbocker, barely sixty years old but much more popular--and much more profitable. Vinnie was the assistant production manager, and though he had worked there for twenty- four years, his name had never once appeared in the masthead.

And even though he did all of the work of the production manager and most of the work of the flaky, often coke-crazed art director, he never once resented it that the magazine did not acknowledge his efforts to the public. Not until "crash and burn"...

And then, carefully, methodically, with the strict attention to the smallest of details that was his trademark in the production department, he had set about to get himself fired.

It was 'Words on Words' that finally did it, a column published on the back page of each month's issue. Vinnie had always laughed at that column, because it was forever heralding as "new" words he'd been hearing for years. He thought of the editors of the magazine as people with four eyes and no ears, people who had no way of knowing that a word was a word until they saw it printed in The New York Times or The Washington Post or the ever-dreaded Knickerbocker.

But "crash and burn" was just too much...

Those were the words Vinnie Junior had used, when he had come home on leave the week after winning his wings. "Papa," he had said, so solemnly proud, a modern gladiator in a rumpled leather flight jacket, "I know it can happen. There's no way not to be afraid of it. But for a pilot it's really the best way. When I go, I want to crash and burn..."

And five weeks later he had, in a P-38 trainer. He had crashed. And he had burned. And only twelve years after that, Brahmin was willing to allow that "crash and burn" might be a part of the language.

And so Vinnie let himself into the office late one night. He went to the flat files where the mechanicals for the next month's issue were stored, the stiff white boards he fussed over day upon day. He took them to his drafting table and began to work.

He knew he wouldn't have much time, so he altered only a few of the boards. There was an ad than ran in each month's issue that deeply offended him, so he changed that first. When he was finished, it read:


In the Middle Ages, meat was so expensive that some peasants could afford to eat it less than once a year. Factory Farming has changed all that, and now even the poorest of Americans can have fresh meat with every meal. Your contribution will help to restore the proper balance--both to the diets of the poor and to the sensibilities of the rich.


There was an article by a Harvard professor, a regular contributor to the magazine who had the writing style of a mandarin diplomat and the soul of a thug. Vinnie didn't have time to change the text of the article, entitled with a delicate vagueness, "Restructuring Corporate America." So he changed only the subhead, bringing it into conformity with the true spirit of the treatise:


You vill do as you are told, exactly as you are told, and you vill ask no questions! Or you vill be shot!

The books section of the magazine was a source of special delight for Vinnie. It featured dull reviews of books that subscribers bought but never read and flashy ads for books they read but would never admit to buying. He pasted in one small ad that seemed to him to encapsulate the whole messy fraud:


in the style of literary plunder perfected by






the exciting new paperback by Hackney Blandwords

And last but certainly not least, he vandalized 'Words on Words'. When he finished, the page was adorned with these entries:

editor, noun, see "gin-swilling incompetent".

silence, noun, the mellifluous American language, as spoken by a printed page.

growl, noun, the sound produced by an editor on the rare day that he deigns to attend to his job.

gin-swilling incompetent, idiom, see "editor".

crash and burn, idiom, see Vincenzo Giordano, Sr., Assistant Production Manager.

He worked slowly, carefully, and it was nearly dawn when he finished. He bundled up the boards in heavy brown paper, then left a note on the desk of the secretary of the production department. "Gone to the printer," it said. "Won't be back today. Have a good one!--Vinnie."

He had always liked being at the printing plant. The thundering presses and pungent smells had always seemed to him to embody the real power of the word. It wasn't the clackity-clack and yakkity-yak of four-eyed bastards who couldn't tell a new word when they heard one, and who never listened to anyone anyway. It was Stanislaw Janski, Master Printer, who after forty-one years in America still could barely make himself understood unless he was swearing vehemently, colorfully, always inventively. Janski hated everyone who wrote and everyone who read, and absolutely everyone who did not do their jobs as well as he did his. Which means he hated everyone, period, except for Vinnie and a few others.

It was Janski, though, who almost caught him. Vinnie had waited while the negatives were cut and the blues burned. He had gone over them carefully, marking each spot, each scratch, each place where the color-key had slipped a hair off register. Janski and the other printers had a special term they used when they meant "hair", a coinage Vinnie was sure would never be acknowledged to exist in 'Words on Words': "cunt's hair, unit of measure, an interval of space of exceedingly small extent." He smiled about that as he signed off on the blues, signed off for the two-hundred-and-ninety-first time, and the last...

And he thought he was done. But then Janski had come come trundling over, bearing one of the huge, gently arcing aluminum lithographic plates. He laid it down gingerly on a table and, without touching the emulsion-coated surface, pointed to the entry for "gin-swilling incompetent". He said, "Dumbfuck kid was ready to print this. You sure you want that, boss?"

The word "dumbfuck" resonated in Vinnie's mind, and he wished he had time to add it to the issue. But he didn't, so he said, "That's what I brought, Stan. You and me, we just do what we're told, right?"

"Like hell I do! But I do what you say, boss." And he had stormed off, swearing at editors and dumbfuck kids and assholes of every kind, everywhere. And in a few moments the presses had thundered to life and Vinnie felt the pounding power of a world made fresh in words made flesh. His words for once...

On Monday, when the new issue of Brahmin hit the newsstands, nothing happened. And nothing again on Tuesday or Wednesday. Vinnie watched and waited. He knew what he was waiting for. First the phones would go crazy, lighting up like frenzied fireflies. Then there would be a great scurrying about as editors, sub-editors and junior-assistant-sub-editors--gofers, really--did the one job they understood completely: Cover Your Own Ass First. And then his own phone would ring, and a secretary with fear in her voice would ask if he would be so kind as to come at once to the office of the publisher.

But that call didn't come until Thursday, and Vinnie was surprised. He knew the contempt the editors had for their own work--he shared it. But he had expected them to notice sooner than that...

But he didn't go to the office of the publisher. Instead he grabbed his jacket and the bag of personal effects he had put together Monday morning and left the building. Left it for the last time. He had gotten himself fired. He had crashed and burned. And he agreed with Vinnie Junior, god love him: it was the best way to go...

He stepped out on to Arlington Street a free man, free to laugh, like Janski, at dumbfucks everywhere. He thought he'd go over to Copley Square Park, a huge slab of grimy concrete accidentally littered with a few dying trees. He wanted to watch the lice-infested pigeons shit on the whiney tourists. After twenty-four years, it was something he thought he could understand...

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