When the fall 2004 Crate and Barrel catalog arrived last month, consumers flipping among the Padova Leather Recliners and Jute Herringbone Rugs came across a curious addition to one of the spreads. Page 89 features the “Hideaway Home Office,” a raven-hued armoire ($1,799) whose doors are pulled open to reveal an iMac perched on a desk, stacks of magazines neatly filed in boxes, and notes tacked to a corkboard. But on a large whiteboard affixed to the Hideaway’s right-hand door, beneath a handwritten reminder for “Furniture Delivery Sat 10:30,” there appears an enigmatic invitation in red: “Dinner w/ Marc,” followed by a 510 phone number.
What Crate and Barrel didn’t know—and is only just learning—is that the note had been placed there by a freelance photo assistant and conceptual artist named Marc Horowitz. Last January, while working on a photo shoot at Crate and Barrel’s Chicago headquarters, Mr. Horowitz embedded his name and cell-phone number into the catalog’s pages to promote his latest art project, The National Dinner Tour II, in which he travels the country and solicits dinner dates from strangers to create a “social sculpture.”
Mr. Horowitz—who is 28 and lives in San Francisco (for a recent project, Coffee in the Park, he doled out coffee in San Francisco’s Alamo Square Park with a coffee pot powered by 1,300 feet of extension cord plugged into his apartment wall)—said he scrawled his number on the whiteboard without the company’s knowledge. “It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing,” he said. “When I was on the shoot, I saw that I could post my number and thought, ‘Hey, this is free advertising!’ So I jumped on it. The day the catalog came out, my phone started ringing. It hasn’t stopped since. I have more than 75 dinners set up on this tour; last time, I only did 15.”
Mr. Horowitz will arrive in New York in February, when the National Dinner Tour II kicks off. Already, the city’s single women have found his number and, sans even a Friendster profile, are lining up for dates.
“I hate all the 555 numbers they put in movies—they’re all fakes,” said Kelly Chilton, a designer at O magazine who has a date with Mr. Horowitz in February. “I call numbers I see—if I think they’re real. That’s why I called this one. And then I read on his Web site about what he was doing, and I was worried he was already booked up. But he didn’t have anyone from Brooklyn, so I made it in!”
Ms. Chilton, who recently got out of a long-term relationship and has begun dating again, said she doesn’t often go out with strangers, and that her last date was at Megu about two weeks ago.
“I went on this date a few weeks ago. It occurred to me then: I can go out to dinner with anyone. Especially if it’s a stranger. I love talking to new people! When I heard about this dinner date, I wasn’t nervous at all to sign up.”
Panayiota Bertzikis, a 20-year-old F.I.T. grad who owns a cosmetics store in Mount Kisco, spotted Mr. Horowitz’s number while perusing the Crate and Barrel catalog on the Metro North commute back to her home on the Upper East Side.
“I thought it was a company promotion when I saw his number and called,” she said. “So I agreed to go out with him. I mean, it made it into Crate and Barrel, so he has to be safe, right?”
“I just got back from San Francisco, and I recognized the 510 number as a San Francisco number,” said Jill Wittnebel, a project manager for a graphic branding firm who lives in the Gramercy area. “I thought, That’s weird—why would Crate and Barrel have a California number in there?” Ms. Wittnebel is a member of two Internet dating sites (Lavalife and eHarmony), which she described as “not very inspirational,” and became determined to join Mr. Horowitz for dinner. She dialed and redialed his number.
“I called twice!” she said. “I felt, I just have to be this guy’s dinner date!”
Evelyn Figueroa, a social worker from the Bronx who last went on a date in August, had her teenage daughters sign her up for an evening with Mr. Horowitz.
“They are always looking for someone for me. They say I work too hard and that I hardly have time to date,” said Ms. Figueroa. “So when we called, I didn’t think it would be a real person. I thought it was some advertising incentive, put in there to see how closely people look in the catalog. Kind of like a Where’s Waldo? thing—what are the chances of it being a real person? I thought it would be an answering machine and I’d been hoaxed.”
Mr. Horowitz is no stranger to creative advertising. A native of Westerville, Ohio, he holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the University of Indiana and is somewhat adroit at coaxing his wacky eccentricities into the media. With his Crate and Barrel spot, he has constructed a powerful viral marketing ploy. Fueled by Crate and Barrel’s seven-figure circulation, and now a word-of-mouth and blog campaign, Mr. Horowitz’s latest effort has pushed the second installment of his dinner tour well past the scope of the original project, a modest effort with a $1,000 budget that included only four cities. This time, Mr. Horowitz will crisscross the country trailed by Clark Caldwell, a documentarian who has produced films for CourtTV. Mr. Horowitz hopes to net a movie or book deal.
“I wanted to take it to another level, so I popped it into the Crate and Barrel catalog to see what would happen,” Mr. Horowitz said. “I wanted to reach a larger audience—as an independent artist with a limited budget, it’s not easy to put yourself out there. And when the opportunity presented itself to piggyback on Crate and Barrel’s existing marketing network, I combined my own nonprofit network with their commercial interests.”
Kathy Paddor, Crate and Barrel’s director of marketing and advertising, was unaware of Mr. Horowitz’s presence in the catalog when contacted by The Observer, and she quickly added that Mr. Horowitz’s posting was not sanctioned by the company.
“This was the first time we heard about this,” she said. “Are we going forward with this kind of marketing initiative? No. This is not something we would go forward with.”
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Columbia J-School Students Terrify Locals
A few weeks before graduating from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism two years ago, Shelley Preston was asked by the yearbook committee for a quote capturing her Columbia experience. “It was an easy choice,” said Ms. Preston, who now works for a Florida newspaper. “Being a student journalist covering big-city news, you feel like you’re playing make-believe. It’s like, ‘Hi, I’m a pretend journalist writing a pretend story—do you mind taking a few hours out of your day to talk to me?’”
Ms. Preston chose a quote she’d gotten from a secretary for State Assembly member Joseph Lentol, who had cut off an inquisitive Ms. Preston after she identified herself as a Columbia student. “Oh no, no, no. Oh, God help me,” said the secretary. “It’s that time again? You people come around and bother us every year and don’t write shit.”
As loath as some students might be to admit it, the secretary has a point. As part of the required Reading and Writing 1 course, new Columbia J-schoolers have to put together a “beat note”—a long and detailed memo outlining potential sources and story ideas. The only way they can complete the assignment is by working the phones, pestering community activists and public officials in a particular neighborhood for information. Since multiple students are often assigned to the same neighborhood, officials and activists face a torrent of calls. One community board chair, Martin Collins, said he’s heard from about 50 students so far this year.
“Every fall it’s like—what’s that movie?— The Day of the Locust,” said Walter Delgado, president of the Audubon Partnership in Washington Heights. “At one point, I almost called the school to let them know it was getting out of hand.”
Mr. Delgado never called, but the school still got the message.
“We know people sometimes get hugely irritated at J-schoolers,” said Bruce Porter, special assistant to the dean of Columbia’s J-School and author of the nonfiction book Blow, later made into a film starring Johnny Depp. “We labor over it every fall; there’s just no way around it. The only people who actually want to talk to Columbia students are people who are oppressed and getting screwed and need somebody to complain to.”
Last year, Mr. Porter sent an e-mail to the student body asking students to “not hound” the New York Police Department for materials, such as press releases, that they could get elsewhere. “The police are going through a stage of trying to be nice to the school,” Mr. Porter wrote, “and we don’t want to irritate them needlessly.”
Around the same time that Mr. Porter sent the e-mail, a police supervisor accused a Columbia student of stealing a detective’s notebook. (The student denied the theft, and the conflict was never resolved.)
And then there are the everyday issues. “I went out to Mott Haven, in the South Bronx, to do a ride-along with the police,” said J-schooler Richard Morgan. “I got all the way out there, waited an hour, and then they decided they wouldn’t take me out.” Why? “They said they’d run out of bulletproof vests,” he said. His efforts at rescheduling didn’t go particularly well, either: “They don’t like it when you say, ‘I can’t do it that night because I have class.’” (Ultimately, he did get to go on a “watered-down” ride-along.)
While some students have been able to talk to individual detectives, official channels are drying up. “At this point,” said Mr. Porter, “we don’t encourage students to contact [the NYPD public-information office], because they likely aren’t going to deal with them at all.”
The J-schoolers have some tactics for keeping their low-on-the-totem-pole status obscured. “They tell us to say we’re reporters from Columbia University—not students,” said Wendy Leung. “But people want to know where a story is going to be published, and so you end up telling them you’re a student. And then they don’t want to talk to you.”
The hardest people to deal with, many students said, are those on community boards. After filling up a cup of coffee in the J-school lounge, student Mara Altman described her experience. “You go up to them after a meeting, and when you tell them the story isn’t going to print, they’re like, ‘Mmmmm,’” said Ms. Altman, adopting an exaggerated frown.
Zead Ramadan, former chairman of Manhattan Community Board 12, said the students sometimes expected too much. “They’d come in, and I’d sit there for an hour answering a slew of very obvious questions that they could have gotten from a pamphlet,” he said. “Some of them would get offended if you weren’t immediately responsive, because they think you’re pompous, that you’re caught up in your power.” Like many people who regularly deal with J-school students, Mr. Ramadan learned to organize one meeting per semester to which all students were invited. If a student missed it, he said, they were out of luck.
Mr. Ramadan, however, isn’t unsympathetic to students who have to depend on the kindness of strangers. “You get frustrated sometimes,” said Matt Goad, who worked for newspapers in North Carolina before enrolling at Columbia. “You’re sent out on these stories—the professor wants you to do this, talk to this person, and you just feel like you’re not being taken seriously. It’s hard to go from working somewhere and getting paid and being productive, to paying and having people not take you seriously.”
“There’s this pressure of being in school in New York and being flooded with this sense that you’re doing this very important thing,” added Mr. Morgan. “The faculty sends you this message that you should earn your keep by doing really gritty street-level reporting. But the students are unfamiliar with it.”
Many Columbia students hail from neighborhoods that don’t look much like those they’re assigned to report on. “You get to your neighborhood, get out of the subway and look around, like: ‘O.K., now what?’” said Ms. Leung. Not surprisingly, they tend to approach potential sources with relatively broad questions, at least at the beginning.
“They’re told to look for a story on sanitation issues or gang violence or something like that,” said Michele Morazan of Alianza Dominicana in Washington Heights. “And they really don’t know what to focus on, or what’s going on in the area. It’s not like where they are on campus, maybe. They’re not sure what to ask.” Ms. Morazan said she tries to be accommodating, but it isn’t always easy, particularly when she gets multiple calls from students each week: “I mean, we don’t have a press office—I’m the press office.”
Mike Fitelson, editor of the Washington Heights–based Manhattan Times newspaper, said some of the more industrious students have called to pick his brain. “They want to know everything about the neighborhood,” he said. “And I’m happy to help.” The only problem? “I’ve had people [in the community] ask me to not give their name to students anymore.”
A couple years ago, representatives from Sustainable South Bronx gave Columbia students a bus tour to let them know what was going on in the neighborhood. “Since then,” said Elena Conte of Sustainable South Bronx, “we’ve been pretty popular. We didn’t realize the Pandora’s box we were opening up.”
In the Bronx, however, many residents welcome the students, in large part because they put out a real weekly newspaper, The Bronx Beat. “One of the things I like about The Bronx Beat is that the students are expected to get their facts correct and their quotes correct, so they really make an effort to be accurate,” said Margaret Hetley, a librarian in Hunt’s Point. “They cover a lot of stuff which is not covered in other ways, and any way we can help that out is great.” Ms. Hetley sees so many students, she joked, that the school should pay her for it.
Projects like The Bronx Beat and the Columbia News Service (a news wire affiliated with The New York Times), which both run in the spring semester, get students’ work read outside Columbia’s rarefied halls. But that’s little solace to those who feel like they’re just treading water before grabbing their credential and moving on to bigger things.
“There aren’t a lot of aspiring Jimmy Breslins at Columbia,” said Corey Pein, who graduated last year and now works as a fellow at Columbia Journalism Review. “Most of them would rather write 6,000-word epics in The New Yorker than hang around some City Council meeting in Queens.”
Of course, upon graduation, many will be hanging around City Council meetings—if not in Queens, then somewhere else. Until then, they’ll keep asking strangers to talk about their lives, alternatively adopting the pose of a big-city reporter and of a kid just trying to do his homework.
“We’re supposed to act like professional journalists, but we’re not,” said Ms. Leung. “We can’t say, ‘You’ll see your name in print.’ All we can say is, ‘I’ll read it, and so will my professor.’”
(Brian Montopoli works for the Columbia Journalism Review. He didn’t go to journalism school.)