Monthly Archives: October 1899

Lights On in Bridgeport

So, OK, how many people does it take the city of Bridgeport to change a lightbulb?

Two mounted police (and their horses, T-Bone and Napoleon). At least five other uniformed cops, plus some in jackets and ties, including Chief of Police Hector Torres. The fire chief and three or four firemen in formal white shirts. City councilman Patrick Crossin. City councilwoman Auden Grogins. About ten executives and PR people from United Illuminating (UI), including President Nat Woodson, who said “Bluefish” instead of “cheese” at the photo ops. Maybe twenty more from Bridgeport City Hall, most prominently mayor Joe Ganim and his shiny green suit. The guy in charge of the PA system, not that Ganim needs one. The people behind the coffee and cake table. A couple photographers. Two cherry-picker trucks full of burly UI guys with yellow hardhats. The children, let us not forget the children: Somewhere around 80 fifth graders and 50 kindergarteners from the Longfellow School, along with their teachers and principals. And nine-year-old Brittany Murphy, who, left all alone on the outdoor stage in her plaid dress, rallied with a robust rendition of the chestnut “City Lights,” customized for Bridgeport by Downtown Cabaret Theatre co-founder Stan Wietrzychowski (“I love Bridgeport, it’s Park City/Main and State Streets are the hit-with-me”) as the streetlight was finally lit in front of Longfellow on Ocean Terrace, just across from the boarded-up Evergreen apartment complex. After a round of applause, the light was turned off because it was only a little past noon. The children were employed in the requisite photo shoot, then lingered to shake Ganim’s hand.

“I’m gonna shake his hand, and then never wash it again,” someone said from the back of the line.

“Is he the mayor of Connecticut?” asked his friend. Neither of them made it to the mayor, who slipped inside the school as if he were Paul in A Hard Day’s Night, only to return after the throng of children was shuttled back to class.

Granted, this was a special occasion. The ceremony on Oct. 27 celebrated the 4000th streetlight refurbished since July under UI’s “Lights On” campaign, wherein all of Bridgeport’s 11,000 yellow-glow sodium-halide lamps will receive new bulbs and photo cells. When UI is finished in Bridgeport, they’ll take the project to the other cities in their 55,000-streetlight empire. By the time they get to North Branford, four years will have passed, the Bridgeport lamps will be on the verge of flickering again, and UI will be back. The cycle will start all over, and will continue into the forseeable void of eternity.

Let us hope this does not cause the UI road crew undue existential angst. At least they have the prospect of free cake every four years in recognition of a job that most municipalities take for granted. And if they didn’t get to shake Ganim’s hand this time, it’s a pretty safe bet he’ll still be around for them to have another chance then.

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The Dudleytown Project

Thrill-Seekers Go Home: Cornwall locals exhibit a palpable tension and animosity toward visitors that may be the only real manifestation of the Dudleytown curse.

As I drove north on Route 7 toward Dudleytown on a bright autumn afternoon last week, I could have sworn that massive words were cut into the blue sky above me. It almost looked like a skywriter’s work, but there was no plane in sight, the script was somehow more graceful, and, strangest of all, the letters came into sharper focus as I drove, rather than dissolving into wisps of illegible smoke. And though there are no signs to Dudleytown anymore, I knew I was on the right road when the words in the clouds finally locked into place: They said “Go Back.”

I didn’t, but later it would seem that everyone I’d meet would wish I did. You’re not supposed to go to Dudleytown anymore. It could be argued that this has been the case for hundreds of years.

Dudleytown is now little more than a few stone foundations, leftover root cellars from a colonial community in the dense woods of Cornwall, a town of about 1,400 in northwest Connecticut. According to the many–and often at-odds — legends about the place, the Dudleytown area was first settled in 1738, rose to a peak population of about 35 families in the 1820s, then slowly fell apart until, by the turn of the 20th century, it was entirely deserted. Just empty forest, except for a thriving horned owl population and the Dudleytown curse, which has seeped deep into the land and continues to haunt the community around it.

It started in the Old World, where the Dudleys were no lightweights in the political arena. Edmund Dudley was beheaded for attempting subterfuge against King Henry VII, but his son, John, the Duke of Northumberland, was essentially acting ruler of England from 1550-53 after locking the lord protector of 12-year-old King Edward VI in the Tower of London. Losing popularity and struggling to maintain power, the Duke convinced Edward to place his son, Lord Guilford Dudley, and his daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, next in order of royal succession. After Edward died of tuberculosis at 15, Lady Jane was queen for nine days — then Mary I came into power, and Grey and both Dudleys were guillotined.

The remaining Dudleys laid low for a few generations, not getting into too much trouble other than bringing an unidentifiable strain of the plague to England from France (Lord Guilford’s brother’s little uh-oh) which killed thousands of troops and English peasants. Always extremely sensitive to knowing when they weren’t wanted, some Dudleys then jumped onto a ship which, oddly enough, actually made it to the colonies. William Dudley settled in Guilford. His great-grandsons, Abiel and Barzillai Dudley, moved to remote Cornwall in 1748 and were soon followed by other members of the clan and their collective curse.

“Dudleytown seemed destined to be a typical New England community,” says Fessenden S. Blanchard inGhost Towns of New England (1960). “But dark forces were at work, bringing to the inhabitants of Dudleytown more than their due share of misfortune.” Though located in a scenically beautiful part of the state, the land proved ill-suited for farming: thin, already damned rocky soil in the Litchfield hills, a location selected more for its vantage point against Cherokee attack than for its fertile virtues. Years of agricultural frustration ensued, and, as far as industry went, Dudleytown settled for chopping and preparing charcoal for the iron furnaces on nearby Riga Mountain (which is also supposed to be haunted). Abiel Dudley’s rapid mental deterioration is often cited as the first proof that the royal curse had made its way from London to the Connecticut hinterlands. He died mad in 1799, a 90-year-old homeless town charge.

In 1764, Dudleytown residents Nathaniel and Sarah Carter moved to Binghamton, N.Y., and were killed, along with their baby, by members of the Cherokee nation. An unknown epidemic killed off the remaining Dudleytown Carters in 1774. Scores more were reported dead after another epidemic in 1813. Gen. Herman Swift, an advisor to George Washington and a Dudleytown native, saw his wife killed there by a bolt of lightning; he went mad. Another Dudleytown celebrity, Mary T. Cheney, hanged herself the week before her husband, Horace Greeley, lost the 1872 presidential election to Ulysses S. Grant.

By this time, the populations of both Dudleytown and New England as a whole were rapidly shifting to the cities and the west: Cornwall’s population was more than 2,000 in 1850 but had dropped to less than 900 100 years later. By 1900, Dudleytown’s last permanent residents, the sheep-herding Brophy family, met their doom: The two sons skipped town after being caught stealing sleigh robes, Mrs. Brophy died of tuberculosis, and Mr. Brophy, all alone, lost his mind, his sheep, and, finally, his home to fire. He then disappeared without a trace.

Dudleytown remained empty for about 20 years, until New York City physician William C. Clark built a summer home there with his wife, who, due either to a gap in the record or to the swashbuckling style of the mostly pre-1960 writers who tell the tale, apparently had no name. Judging from the descriptions of David E. Philips inLegendary Connecticut, the Clarks’ house was a hand-made piece of paradise, connected to ice-cold, refreshing well water, and leading to a brook teeming with trout. The Clarks happily summered there for more than a decade, until the fateful night that Dr. Clark was called away to the city for an emergency. His beautiful wife begged him not to go, and stared longingly at his train as it pulled out of the station. When Dr. Clark returned the next evening, she wasn’t at the station to meet him. Distressed, he ran to their home on Dark Entry Road, the owls staring in silence. The house was dark, but the door was ajar. As he slowly opened it, its hinges squeaking, Philips writes, “he heard a sound that he would never forget. From an upstairs room came the maniacal, uncontrolled laughter of one who had taken leave of her senses. During his absence, his wife had gone quite mad.”

After that, nobody moved back to Dudleytown. But the stories will always be there: In the library, in a well-worn manila folder decorated with ink drawings of a full moon rising over a barren forest; in old books about ghost towns, occasionally turning up in the antique shops up and down Route 7; on the Internet, and from the mouths of area teenagers; and in the eyes of ordinary Cornwall citizens, who are just dreading that you might ask them about Dudleytown.

In the folder of articles at the library, I came upon a series of color copies, showing photographs apparently taken in the woods around Dudleytown. Some are just blurs. One shows an animal skeleton of uncertain identity, a woman in turquoise jewelry sadly examining the carcass. There’s a business card stapled to it: “For Dudleytown slide shows, call…” I called the number the next day and learned that the gentleman who took the pictures had passed away.

I was using a Connecticut guide book to find Dudleytown, which is situated in the Dark Entry Wildlife Preserve in the southern part of Cornwall. But all of the signs I was looking for seemed to have been removed, and it was only through accident that I eventually found myself at the gate to the preserve. I parked the car and walked to the entrance. It was festooned with “No Trespassing” signs. Like any blue-blooded American, I was ready to take such warnings more figuratively than literally. But as I dawdled, preparing myself mentally for the horrors that would greet me within, I heard the sound of a motor directly behind me. I turned to see a woman behind the wheel of a Jeep Cherokee, giving me that Cornwall stare, asking me if she could help me, but really meaning, “Get the hell out of here and never, ever, come back.”

So I left. And I can’t really blame her for feeling that way. Since last summer’s release of The Blair Witch Project, Dudleytown has gotten pretty trashed. It had always offered a certain lure to intrepid thrill-seekers, but that film’s lifelike depiction of a haunting in a remarkably similar natural environment led to a massive increase in late-night Dudleytown excursions. And that translates to traffic nuisances, noise problems, litter and graffiti in the woods, potential injuries, and, worst of all, fire. After a July 28 blaze destroyed four acres there, the fire department recommended that the Dark Entry Forest Association put up signs barring all public traffic. (The local papers said it was a lightning strike, recalling Herman Swift’s poor wife; the neighborhood isn’t so sure.) When the fire hazard was lifted, the signs stayed up. “After all that, there’d been quite a few campfires set in the woods in the middle of the night,” the association’s Jean Leich says. “And we thought, this is enough of that.” Now, the woods are under the eye of the state police, and being caught there means a $77 fine for simple trespass.

The Dark Entry Forest Association is the largest private landowner in Cornwall. It consists mostly of residents on Bald Mountain, Dark Entry and Dudleytown roads whose properties are contiguous with the 750-acre property, a parcel purchased in the 1920s by a temporary allegiance between a logging entrepreneur and a group of local bookish residents whose ranks included none other than the Dr. Clark of Dudleytown lore. The logger left and the land has remained untouched. The residents have stayed. And though the Dudleytown Curse is not something that they take seriously, to them, the curse of the Dudleytown Curse is no joke.

Despite its private-property status, the association allowed the land to be used by hikers, birders, historians and the carefully curious for more than 70 years. The Appalachian Trail actually ran through the Dudleytown site until the early 1980s, when it was rerouted to the other side of the Housatonic River. Now the blue-blazed Mohawk Trail is there instead. This complicates matters, since the trail remains open even when the land it’s on does not. But in general the problem hasn’t been hikers, who usually respect trail markings and litter laws. “If they’re going through hiking, we’re not bothering them, basically,” says Connecticut State Trooper Don Gelormino of Troop B in North Canaan, which serves the Cornwall area. “But if they’re going in just to see Dudleytown and the ghosts…they get a ticket for simple trespass.”

Though Gelormino can recall at least 15 trespass tickets on his shift alone, he still sympathizes. “They’re just kids looking for the adventure,” he says. “Standing there looking scared. They go in with all kinds of knives and stuff because they think the ghosts are going to get them–I’m serious. The last time we arrested somebody, we had to arrest a kid for carrying dangerous weapons. He had this big machete. That doesn’t work on ghosts.”

Anne Pener, a not-too-far-removed graduate of Housatonic High School in Falls Village, might be $77 poorer if she were just a few years younger. She hasn’t been up to Dudleytown in a few years, she says, but she represents group No. 1 of the Dark Entry Forest Association’s Top Two Most Wanted List. The association wants to stop tourists and people interested in black magic. But they’re not so crazy about local teenagers getting rowdy in their woods, either. “Kids from all over have heard of the place,” Pener says. “They come up and they’ll bring a group of people and they’ll walk around and try to scare each other. I guess it’s pretty well known.”

One question that arises, though, is whether shutting the woods down is the most effective way to curb the imaginations that blow a small string of unrelated events into a full-blown curse. The association folks do not want people messing up their woods, but they also don’t want to talk about it: Any attention is the wrong kind of attention. But if they were more forthcoming with their position that the Dudleytown curse is only a story, it might take some of the wind out of potential explorers’ sails. Forbidding access to the forest is like putting another curse on it. And even if that’s a stretch, it can’t be denied that the less people know, the more they make up.

“I’ve heard a bunch of stories,” Pener says. “You’re not supposed to take a piss up there. You’re supposed to piss in a bottle. And there’s some rock supposedly up there that cries. Like a baby was killed on a rock up there. It’s called the crying rock. And every night at 11 o’clock it’s supposed to wail or whatever, but I’ve been there at 11, and nothing happened.”

“What would have happened,” I ask, “if you pissed there?”

“I did that also. And nothing happened. You’re supposed to be cursed or something.”

“I get calls all the time,” says Michael Gannett, Cornwall’s town historian. “I remember one lady called up some years ago and complained bitterly that she had wasted a whole afternoon sitting on the Sharon side of the river, staring at where she thought Dudleytown was located, and didn’t get any vibes at all. She was looking for vibes. She was a believer in vibes. But she wasn’t getting any response.”

People come to expect vibes after hearing what Ed and Lorraine Warren, Connecticut’s foremost ghost hunters, have to say about Dudleytown. The Warrens’ web site presents a simplified — and fairly inaccurate, if one is prone to quibble — explanation of the Dudleytown history: “The Dudley family was besieged with horrible occurrences the minute they moved there because of an 18th century curse on their family.” The Warrens claim that Dudleytown gives off an unusually high amount of negative psychic energy. But that’s all they say. It’s all they need to say. Using vague language, they’ve planted a suggestion for their readers’ imaginations. Then they add a you-show-yours, I’ll-show-mine sucker punch. “Rather than tell you what to expect,” the web page reads, “I’d be curious to hear what you report when you get back. So, I’ll make you a deal — I’ll tell you about Dudleytown phenomena after you tell me what you experienced — OK? I don’t want to influence your experience.”

The fact is, they have told us what to expect. “Horrible occurrences.” “Your experience.” If not the occurrence or the experience itself, then vibes of it. And this is how a curse is created, from the Hope Diamond to the Red Sox (the Kennedys really are cursed). “If someone believes that they are cursed,” says Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society, “they may become so anxious and stressed…that they are more likely to become ill or have accidents.”

“It’s called confirmation bias,” says Stuart Vyse, associate professor of psychology at Connecticut College and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. “You have a tendency to give greater weight to events that confirm your prior beliefs and you give less weight to those that don’t.”

That might account for freak accidents happening there. But other Dudleytown visitors would gladly testify that their watch stopped there, or that they have tapes of eerie, originally unheard noises that their recorder somehow picked up. And you frequently hear that, immediately around the old foundations, there’s an eerie silence, as if the birds know to stay away. But scientists have offered possible explanations for these “phenomena” as well. The region is known to be iron-rich. That means there might be a mild, naturally occurring magnetic field there. Watches wouldn’t stand a chance. Tape recorders wouldn’t operate properly. And birds, who use magnetism to navigate, would head for fairer frequencies.

If the Dudleytown curse can be broken down into rational explanations, wrapped up like the very tightest Scooby-Doo episode, then why won’t its story die? There are two reasons, according to Novella. The first is that people don’t look at curses the way a scientist would look at a controlled experiment. The criteria for validation are open-ended. The definition of a bad, curse-worthy incident is fluid — 90-year-old Abiel Dudley’s “madness,” for instance, when he may only have been senile, or, in the words of Gannett, “probably a loser” — as is the time period in which the bad thing can happen. There are gaps of decades, even centuries in the Dudleytown chronicle, but there is no time limit: If something bad happens there 200 years from now, it unquestionably will be added to the saga.

The second reason we haven’t heard the last of Dudleytown: “People love good stories,” Novella says. “Humans are story-telling animals, and there is a well-documented tendency for stories to become more interesting, more meaningful, and more exciting with each re-telling. Stories, especially when given an enthusiastic audience, tend to take on a life of their own.”

A problem the Dark Entry Forest Association faces is that their current strategy is not as far from the Warrens’ methods as they might like. Despite the tacit encouragement they might give by printing directions to Dudleytown online, if you asked the Warrens if you should go up there, they’d say no. Emphatically. This is a strategy that’s worked for them, too. By “forbidding” a place, they heighten people’s interest in it; when people finally do break down and visit, they’ll have mulled over the Warrens’ warnings enough to have internalized them, to believe they’re in a cursed place, to see the things the Warrens suggest they might see. I do not claim to be resistant to this myself. The Warrens are hypnotic storytellers.

But at press time the association awaits an Oct. 22 town meeting, during which the town will undoubtedly pass an ordinance banning all parking on Bald Mountain and Dark Entry roads. Any car there will be towed, which should help control the number of people who, rather than hiking through Cornwall, elect to visit at three in the morning on a whim. After that, if all goes well, the preserve may open up during daylight hours again. “We’re going to see how that goes for a couple of months,” Leich says. “We hope eventually to work out some kind of system with some way of identifying bonafide walkers. We do all this with great regret, but this place is inhabited, and it’s very distressing and kind of scary.”

“It’s a dilemma,” Gannett says. “How to be a broad-minded citizen on the one hand, and how, on the other, to prevent yourself from being abused. I would encourage you not to spend any more time trying to suggest a truce in which the private owners, or the town, would do any more than they’re doing now.”

It seems like a fair compromise, but it’s not clear whether the association is convinced that everything will wrap up with a happy ending. Maybe happy endings don’t exist in Dudleytown, but the words “people like you” (be sure to emphasize that you) did get thrown around fairly often. The Dark Entry Forest Association does not want, in fact greatly resents, coverage of any kind. “People will read your article,” Leich says, “and come with a six-pack in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other.” (She then asked for my editor’s name and address, and for a moment I thought she was going to call my mother, too.) It’s perfectly understandable for people to want to live quietly. But now there’s a palpable, if polite, tension about Dudleytown that a fantasy-prone person might confuse with a curse. A shame, considering that the woods have real historic value, not to mention natural beauty. But maybe they’re not so crazy about leaf-peepers, either.

Driving out of Cornwall, I passed Dark Entry Road and thought I’d check it out. I pulled into an empty parking lot, turned around, and faced the highway again. Just as I was pulling out, a pickup truck slowed near the driveway. The driver, big and mustached, leaned out, glared at me, and said, “Can I help you?” Before I could respond, he was rear-ended by another pick-up. Furious, he turned into the lot, blaming me for the entire incident. “If assholes like you didn’t get lost and make U-turns, this wouldn’t have happened!” he screamed, leaning out his window. “Go back to…etc.” I decided to leave. I decided to forego that final drive down Dark Entry. Summation of the Cornwall experience: At least one person there wants to kill me, and I never even made it to Dudleytown.

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Lost in the Labyrinth

Stripping away layers of self-consciousness.

I am perpetually lost. And in the course of correcting the uncanny number of wrong turns I make, I often have to resort to traffic tactics that aren’t exactly pretty: Friday evening, it involved two illegal U-turns, a wrong way on a one-way, and three irate Saab owners who felt I cut in just a little too close. I was driving to New Canaan. On the roadside, tall buildings gave way to medium-density apartments. Apartments became houses. Yards grew bigger, then the woods took over, and when I reached my destination I was pleased. But self-congratulation over my navigational aplomb would have to be cut short: I was about to enter another labyrinth.

I mean this literally. Since 1993, The Labyrinth Project of Connecticut has hosted walks on their hand-made, purple-paint-on-canvas replica of the thirteenth-century labyrinth infixed in the stone floor of Chartres Cathedral. This time, the forty-foot by forty-foot piece of canvas was spread on the floor of the First Presbyterian Church on Oenoke Ridge, but Helen Curry, the project’s founder and executive director (and “recovering insurance agent”) also rolls up the labyrinth and takes it on the road. Thousands of people have walked it, from the East Coast to Russia. And every one of them has found their way out, frequently to transformative effect.

The idea is that labyrinths, unlike mazes, aren’t put on this earth to confuse us. The Chartres model has only one path. Granted, it twists and turns around 11 concentric circles, but you can’t get lost in it. The path faithfully leads to the labyrinth’s center, leaving the walker unhindered by directional concerns and free to meditate, consciously or not, on the metaphor of the journey.

So they said, at least, but my first concern, considering that we had to remove our shoes, was that my feet didn’t smell very good. But I was game: I figured that was just one of the layers of self-consciousness that would be stripped away as the evening progressed, and when I got to the center of that labyrinth, baby, I’d be a new man, and all I’d smell would be roses.

The modern church, set among shady trees, was hushed. People, largely from the immediate area, filed in slowly, paying a suggested donation of $10, which, by evening’s end, left the collection basket fat with cash. Many seemed to know each other, but everyone was very friendly. We all took seats facing the altar, slipped out of our shoes, and quietly reflected as candles were lit to halfway encircle the labyrinth. At 6 p.m. sharp, with the gallery about 25 strong, Curry stepped forward and invited us to join her on the canvas for an opening blessing.

The blessing, from the Essene Book of Days by Danaan Parry, borrowed from several religious traditions, not to mention other versions of nondenominational pluralism. Since this particular walk fell on the autumn equinox, there were words about the balance of daylight and night-time hours, yin and yang, inward and outward, creative and physical. It was also something of a pep talk for the looming labyrinth walk — a call for contemplation, but also a call for calm, since the project’s printed notes say in no uncertain terms that walkers have been known to feel overcome. “We also suggest a couple of Kleenex for your journey,” they say, “as it can often be very moving.”

“Consider what you must do to prepare your creativity to flow,” Curry concluded. “What is it that you need to take on, or to let go of, to set your affairs in order?” Amen was murmured, then there was a long pause and I wiggled my stinky toes and thought about my credit card bill.

The live harp music kicked in. One by one, people stepped up to the entrance of the labyrinth. Many first stopped before Curry to receive a Native American feather blessing, a melange of creeds typical of the proceedings. Curry’s feather replaces the burning sagebrush of the original Native ceremony, but it is used to repair a person’s aura, as well as stimulate the body’s seven chakras, or energy centers. After the feather blessing comes a long bow, and then the labyrinth awaits. I, of course, ended my bow too soon; rising, and seeing Curry still bent at the waist, I quickly returned to bow position just as Curry straightened. It was a mildly awkward situation. I hated to enter the labyrinth with my chakras all in a ruffle, and I wasn’t entirely convinced that something coiled into 11 concentric circles would iron them out. I decided to take a breather before going in.

Watching the others in the labyrinth was a meditative experience all its own, even if it did vaguely resemble that scene in Awakenings when Robin Williams swung open the treatment room doors and all the sleeping-sickness patients were shuffling around in their slippers. The labyrinth walkers were different, of course, because they were following a path that has been paced, at least in this form, for 800 years. Watching the walkers’ deliberation, their consideration of each other, their occasional long pauses, their calm stares once they’d reached the center, I thought, “It doesn’t look so hard.” I stepped to the labyrinth’s entrance.

I didn’t do so well. Even though I knew there was only one path, I couldn’t help feeling like I was walking in the wrong direction. I caused multiple gridlocks. I kept stepping on the lines. I looked across the room to the smaller, Cretan/Roman seven-circuit labyrinth in the corner, and thought, I started too big. I did the Scream Machine before trying the Willy the Worm ride. The harpist’s melody started to sound eerily like Tom Waits’ “Cemetery Polka.” I had made it through two rings, had 20 more to go, including the way out, and I suddenly felt exactly the way I felt in fifth-grade presidential fitness tests, hanging from the chin-up bar, just knowing, from the deepest fathoms of my soul, that it simply wasn’t going to happen. I stepped over the lines to leave. I did not walk out the way I came in.

Well, that was probably just it. I could only take away so much, if I arrived with expectations and scratched observations on a notepad along the way. And, I later realized, that didn’t mean I did it wrong.

“There is no right, and whatever happens is meant to happen,” Curry told me later. “We’re not trying to tell people what to do, or what to think. This time, you came as a reporter.”

Even the quickest peep at the project’s guest book uncovers scores of warm reviews for the experience: “A journey worth taking.” “Love and magic.” “Why do I always cry in the center?” But more than anything, these are just reactions — and not quite getting it is just as legitimate a reaction, if a little less fun. And I wouldn’t have been thinking about any of these matters in the first place if it hadn’t been for the labyrinth. Plus, I can always go back and try again. They’ll be walking to celebrate the harvest (Oct. 21), the winter equinox (Dec. 21), and, of course, New Year’s Eve, which promises to be especially dramatic.

The day of the walk, Curry mentioned that she can read a person’s aura, the field of energy that surrounds all of us. She can tell, for instance, if that energy is broken, if the aura is somehow torn. This made me worry.

“How did my aura look?” I asked nervously afterward.

Curry laughed for a long time. “I really don’t usually pick that up,” she finally admitted, “and if I do, I usually don’t tell people about it.”

On the way home from New Canaan, I got lost, but it didn’t really bother me.

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The Great Alt-Weekly Crap Shoot

No matter how you roll the dice, the sale of Stern Publishing’s stable of alternative newspapers marks the end of an era.

This is a story about the sale of a premium stack of alternative newspapers. It’s also a story about speculation. And we, your pals at the Weekly —a link in the New Mass. Media chain, which recently became a division of the Hartford Courant, which is owned by the Times Mirror Corporation—want to give it the friendly face you’ve come to expect from the very finest in alternative journalism. So read what you can stomach here, then contact us with your best guess about what the hell is going on, and if you turn out to be right, we’ll send you an official Media Wizard hat, purple satin with little TV sets sewn into it. We promise.

The background is pretty simple. On Sept. 22, Leonard Stern, owner of Stern Publishing and major domo at Hartz Mountain (pet food, flea collars), announced that he intended to sell his chain of seven papers. Simple, alternative weeklies from simple little hamlets, written by simple, idealistic folks. The Cleveland Free Times. The City Pages in Minneapolis-St. Paul. The Seattle Weekly. The Long Island Voice. The OC (Orange County, CA) Weekly.

Oh, and also the Village Voice and the LA Weekly.

Back in 1985, Stern bought the Voice from Rupert Murdoch for $55 million. It was a neighborly deal, and unsubstantiated rumors have it that Rupert threw in a Tupperware container of homemade potato salad. Under Stern the chain expanded, revenues grew to a total of more than $80 million, total circulation got to almost 900,000, and now pundits predict that somebody’s going to fork over $200 mil, maybe more, for the privilege of continuing a relationship with those readers and their estimated 2 million collective body pierces. That’s if the papers are sold as a bundle. If they’re broken up—a possibility, according to the brokers handling the deal—they’d probably bring in still more money for Stern.

The Voice and the LA Weekly “are the two biggest, most successful alternative newspapers in the two most important markets in the country,” says Richard Karpel of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies in Washington, D.C. “There’s going to be an ego premium.”

Why would Stern sell such a goldmine? The official word is that his three children, all in their 30s, said “no thanks” when he offered them the keys. Only the youngest, Andrea, is currently involved in publishing at all—she’s the creative marketing director at the Voice now, a position created (creatively, one might add) just for her. So now Dad is selling. It probably didn’t help that some of the papers were reported to be struggling financially, while the robust flagship Voice, though raking in ducats to cover everybody, has suffered through a slipping editorial reputation.

“The Voice is pretty lost,” says a longtime contributor who asked not to be identified. “[Editor-in-chief] Don Forst actually stopped letting people use the first-person—the ‘I’ point of view—which completely stagnates the alternative weekly voice. In his mind, we’re competing against the Daily News. It’s so lost and misguided.”

“As we’ve noted before, the heart and soul of the alternative weekly was lost long ago,” says Josh Mamis, editor of the New Haven Advocate. “The Voice is currently owned by the guy who got into trouble at Hartz Mountain, for Chrissakes. It has already been destroyed, and long ago ceased being an informative, entertaining, enlightening, en-anything publication.”

It’ll still make a lot of money, though, due in large part to its listings section: Places to go, things to do, all efficiently linked to how to buy, buy, buy. Not surprisingly, it’s this aspect of Stern’s papers that spurs the salivation of Internet companies, who have made a strong showing on the aforementioned pundits’ Who Has Two Hundred Million Dollars short list. The other major contenders include newspaper chains large and small, as well as mammoth entertainment conglomerates. Your friendly neighborhood mammoth entertainment conglomerates.

“How can a paper be alternative if it is owned by a daily or a big chain?” asks Bruce Brugmann, editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which remains independent. “The Voice sale, I fear, is the next step in the consolidation and monopolization of the alternative press, which was set up to compete with the daily monopoly press.” But there’s still hope, according to Brugmann’s Law: “The worse the chain-owned alternative paper is, the sooner it will be opposed by a strong local alternative competitor.”

Brugmann’s Law comes as good news to the small, independent papers who might just as easily be squashed by a major chain’s seemingly infinite resources. Resources that can turn out to be infinite in every conceivable way apart from vision.

So now, without any further ado, the cream of the New Mass. Media crop will step up to present their own various idiosyncratic visions of who will show/already has shown the money in the Stern deal. Join them in positing. Tell us who you think will buy the papers. Your guess, you will see, is surely as good as ours.

 

Obvious Option No. 1: Alternative Newspaper Chains

What the pundits say: Of all the alternative newspaper companies, New Times, a chain of alt-weeklies 10 papers strong (including one in LA), has been rumored to have the strongest interest in Stern. “New Times doesn’t have that kind of cash lying around,” Karpel says, “but they’d maybe find a way to come up with it.”

Response of David Schneiderman, president of Stern Publishing: “I don’t think so.”

Still, if they can pony up the dough, the acquisition would be especially profitable for New Times: Currently, their national advertising—the ripest revenue fruit—is handled by a company called the Ruxton Group, while the Alternative Weekly Network (AWN) secures national advertising for most of the other associated newsweeklies, including Stern’s papers. If the largest papers in the bunch suddenly swung to Ruxton, “we’d take a hell of a hit,” says the AWN’s president, Eric Benjamin. “New Times purchasing these papers would be devastating for AWN,” he says.

Your local forecast: President of AWN is only one of Benjamin’s hats. He’s also the publisher of the Fairfield/Westchester County Weeklies. His prediction for the deal’s outcome could be bad for the AWN, but not the worst-case scenario. He foresees a split-up of Stern’s papers: “Probably an alternative newspaper company, like New Times, Phoenix Media Group, or New Mass. Media will be willing to pay multiple earnings value for the LA Weekly and both Voices. The remaining papers are not big money makers, and could go singly or as one bundle.”

Odds: Longshot. We’ll generously say 15 to 1.

 

Obvious Option No. 2: Larger, Daily Newspaper Chains

What the pundits say: Karpel places his bets here, based on the Hartford Courant’s (and parent company Times Mirror’s) springtime purchase of our humble newspaper chain. “Times Mirror makes the most sense to me because they’ve already signaled their interest,” Karpel says.

Martha Goldstein, speaking from Times Mirror’s headquarters in Los Angeles, says: “No comment.” And that might have been off-the-record.

A buyout by an already major newspaper player is especially feasible because start-up costs would be lower. A company like Times Mirror, Gannett, or Hearst “can just buy twice as much newsprint and get a better deal,” says Jim Naureckas of Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR). “They can print the paper on the press they already have. They can deliver it with the trucks they’re already using.”

Your local forecast: No one on our panel weighed in with this option, probably because it’s so sensible. We’re alternative, remember?

Odds: 4 to 1.

 

Obvious Option No. 3: Internet Companies

What the pundits say: The mainstream press’s obsession with (and paranoia over) the encroaching role of the Internet led to many early reports of a web buyout. Some of the flung-about names included America Online, Microsoft, Yahoo and CitySearch-Ticketmaster Online. The reasons why aren’t too hard to discern: They’re rich corporations, at least on paper, and they’re interested in listings, the anchor of many alternative newspapers. If AOL, for instance, could get control of the Voice’s New York calendar, its site would suddenly be bookmarked by a major chunk of the coveted 18-to-34-year-old audience Stern has been serving.

So the logic goes, but there are two flaws. The first: The Voice, at least, hasn’t been filling the post-boomer niche nearly as effectively as everybody says. “All that about youth marketing—it’s a joke,” our Voice source says. “They can’t capture 20-year-olds. It’s for people older than them. [The Voice is] not tracking music, technology, or movies the way people in their 20s would want. It depends on a lot of legacy writers with incredible reputations to keep the project afloat. It’s a place where young writers can’t really rise.”

Second, taking on newspapers would be an enormous expense for companies accustomed to the low overhead of the Internet. “Two hundred million dollars is not a huge thing for a Yahoo or an AOL,” Karpel says, “but it’s not insignificant. Are they really going to pay it for listings, and then be left with newspapers to manage, which they have no experience doing?”

“Internet companies don’t have a lot of cash, and people are starting to question the value of their stocks,” Naureckas says. “Is Stern really going to be happy with $200 million of Yahoo stock that turns out to be worth $20 million?”

Your local forecast: We’re alternative, but not that dumb.

Odds: 8 to 1.

 

Obvious Option No. 4.: Major Entertainment Corporations

What the pundits say: “The most obvious buyer would be a large entertainment company, a Sony or a Time-Warner,” Naureckas says.

It’s a grim but highly logical scenario. “You can’t help it. You start to see it through their eyes,” Naureckas continues. “You start to think it makes sense. But you have to remind yourself that synergy is a conflict of interest. Say you own a record company and the Voice. You’re putting at risk one of the most important reviewing systems in the music industry. And you can say you’ll keep them separate. But at some point, your stockholders will say, ‘Why aren’t we using our properties to increase profits?’ ”

So are we looking at a future when the Voice music section links up to Sony’s PR site? John Mancini, outgoing editor of the Long Island Voice, doubts it. “The secret to these papers is to leave them alone,” he says. “They’d be squandering their investment if they messed with them. And the case has been made that the more people you offend, the better for sales.”

Your local forecast: Janet Reynolds, editor of the Hartford Advocate, predicts “God via his earth partner, Disney, which as we all know will soon own the world.” Lorraine Gengo, editor of the Fairfield/Westchester County Weeklies, agrees. “The world just isn’t a wholesome place, and the Voice used to reflect that,” Gengo says. But the paper’s decline makes conditions ripe for a big, fat, sunshine-smile takeover. “They lost their edge, and there are no edges to Disney.”

Mamis, who won the Media Wizard hat last spring with a perfect prediction of New Mass. Media’s sale to the Hartford Courant, falls into the same camp. “I’ll take the long odds and go with Rupert Murdoch,” Mamis says. “Official figures will come forward at more than double the salary that Mike Piazza gets for making the last out in the Mets collapse.”

Odds: 3 to 1.

 

Not-So-Obvious Option No. 5: Famous Local Philanthropist Actors and Trading Card Companies

What the pundits say: Famous local philanthropist actors have not been mentioned in most reports. Neither have trading card companies. Nonetheless, when he bought the Voice from Rupert Murdoch in 1985, Stern was a dark-horse candidate. As Schneiderman told the Chicago Tribune, “usually the probable ones are not the ones who buy it.”

Your local forecast: Dan Caccavaro, editor of the Valley Advocate: “I’d like to see Paul Newman buy it, and operate it the way he operates the rest of his business, with all profits going to charity. That would put some truth in the notion that alternatives exist to perform a public good. Of course, the reality will probably be much more cynical.”

But Paul Bass, associate editor and grizzled staff reporter for the New Haven Advocate, predicts “the buyer will be Topps—which will distribute bubble gum with each free issue.” He goes on to foresee a deal worth two 1968 Carl Yastrzemskis (about $10 each, according to Critic’s Choice Sports Cards in Wilton) and a Hank Aaron. He did not specify which Hank Aaron, or the cards’ condition, which may prove to be a sticking point during the later stages of the transaction. “I think Topps looked at the Courant sale and said: If they think they can run alternative papers, anybody can,” Bass says. In the end, however, his vision turns bleak, even though Topps pulls in annual revenue of more than $260 million and would have more than enough resources to provide job security for its new employees. “I predict we’ll all be shipped to Cleveland,” Bass says. “Go Browns! Do they still play there?”

Odds: About as good as an acquisition by, like, Alpo, or something.

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