Does Society Matter? Ask Existential Arbiter David Patrick Columbia

Last Thursday, David Patrick Columbia, 65 years old, went from Michael’s to Le Cirque to Swifty’s, and then on Friday, he was at Swifty’s again, for lunch. It was awful quiet in the restaurant, just a friend of Brooke Astor’s having lunch with a young woman, and then Robert Caravaggi, one of the owners, dressed in pincord, sat doing sums at a table. Everyone else was out of town, because they couldn’t take the heat. Mr. Columbia doesn’t even have air conditioning, once because he couldn’t afford it but now because it would take up too much of his window and block out the light.

He’d left his BlackBerry in the cab on the way to lunch. Boy, he really hates that BlackBerry. He’d come from Zabar’s. Outside that shop he’d seen a homeless woman, a really manky, stooped-over one. She had found a ham-and-cheese sandwich on the ground and she was feeding it to a dog, a husky and malamute kind of mutt. The dog was just really thirsty, it was so hot out, and it was just panting and panting. He gave the woman five bucks. And Mr. Columbia thought, “We’re all that dog now, we’re all that dog at the mercy of crazy forces. And the Israelis this, or the Christians that …. God knows, but we don’t.”

The popular attitude, he said, is such that nothing affects anybody anymore. The dog thing bothered him, and then he got in a cab.

On Aug. 1, on his Web site, he’d described the anxieties of our time. “Some people crumple. It’s hard to forget about, no matter what you’re doing. It also makes bad news worse. The oil spill in the Mediterranean affected me almost as if it had happened to me. The war is bad but the oil spill in that sea will affect the food chain for millions and millions of people, including all the warring factions.”

Mr. Columbia’s best childhood friend is an astrologer who doesn’t like to be called an astrologer because he’s married to a real astrologer. Still, back in the 1960’s, this friend and amateur told Mr. Columbia about what the future would hold. There would be wars over religion, and privacy as it was then known would not exist, due to technology. He said the children being born in the 60’s would laugh at violence. They’d go to a film and judge the violence. Was it good? Bad? Funny? Everyone would take their cues from the proletariat, and we’d first know that from clothes, because fashion always portends. It would be an extremely creative time, but some people would live in fortresses. And then in December of 2012, something maybe extreme would happen. Not in a place, but in the whole world, something the likes of which had never happened before.

And if we made it through—and why wouldn’t we?—there’d be 2,000 years of peace.

At the supermarkets, Mr. Columbia sees people buying chips and soda with credit cards, and he laughs. When he laughs, he looks like a Kennedy playing Captain Kangaroo. Debt! And real-estate prices, and all those brokers raking in money off the poor and living like warlords. Every day on the way to lunch at Michael’s he passes Abercrombie & Fitch, with its open doors blasting freezing air onto the street, and all the girls running in with their credit cards to buy up the gay scene. He calls them shop-o-terrorists.

He does think about food chains a lot, about how the oceans are dying, and how we can peer down this ladder from up here and watch the source of all life die. And at the same time, he can watch the food chain of Manhattan disintegrate. Where are the Basses? Where is Pat Buckley? (Oh dear, where is Mrs. Buckley?) Brooke Astor has been forgotten, though she is not gone. Now there are publicity girls aiming for the social tops. Fine. This means a little something.

He published something about those girls last Wednesday. He began: “Lloyd Grove in the Daily News went after Melissa Berkelhammer last week for being herself.” He explained her: “Melissa Berkelhammer is one of those girls, plain and simple—a young woman in New York who likes to get around, likes to go to parties, likes to dress up and likes to make friends, and who likes to be photographed.”

People get mad and swear at him, literally, when he talks about the troubles of the world. He stands with people who stand to lose the most when it all comes crashing down. He likes them.

On July 30, a Sunday, Mr. Columbia sat down in his sensibly hot apartment in front of his computer. He didn’t have a column for the next day yet, and so at 7 p.m. he started writing about the Astors. Six thousand words and not quite five hours later, he had written, from memory, without any reference, a pointed history of that family.

“The development of the public persona Brooke Astor was a phenomenon for several reasons,” he wrote. “It was not achieved without the help of others. And that ‘help’ was not accidental: she sought it out. Principal among these advisers was the late George Trescher, the public relations/event planner .… Brooke Astor totally trusted him. It was through his guidance that she built a public image and reputation that she could wear like a suit of clothes.”

Brooke Astor was a consummate actress to the final curtain, Mr. Columbia believes. And now there’s her daughter-in-law, the old preacher’s wife. The bitch comes in—like at the end of Zorba the Greek, they are stripping her of everything, the bedclothes. Now this is the backstage story. Unlike the Rockefellers, unlike the Fords, now the money has left the Astor family proper.

Sometimes people ask Mr. Columbia how he knows so much. He says: For chrissakes, it’s because I read sometimes! Does anyone read? Not in a world where the blogs describe any piece of writing of more than 1,500 words as “long.”

In the early 80’s, a woman said to him: I always wondered what would end the sexual revolution. And I never thought, she said, it’d be disease! And here, sometime very soon, the money’s going to stop. Can you imagine how? It’ll be a surprise. Everyone thinks he’s crazy.

Someone finally asked him not long ago, well, if they have five billion dollars and lose four billion of it, so what?

He asked: Why are we in this lifeboat? The ship is already sunk, or at least is sinking. No one eats at home anymore; they open take-out containers in their $200,000 kitchens. It is 1789 in France. But with the Internet! The Internet is just marking time as history goes by, and on it, documenting nothing but attitude. Not civilization.

I am watching it change the way you watch a river rush by, he said.

And also on Aug. 1, he wrote: “But … have you ever been confronted by the very real possibility of death? I have.” In 1982, on Good Friday, a woman collapsed and was dying. Everything in a person is designed to encourage them to get away, he found out. Sure, we always see that on a global scale. He helped resuscitate her, but couldn’t help but dwell on that impulse of wanting out. Her doctor, in the final check-up, described her condition as “Sudden Death” on her chart, something he said he’d never had occasion to do before for someone still alive.

I think we live in a dangerous time, Mr. Columbia said. I remember when nobody went out at night. And Anna Wintour! Seating movie stars in the middle of the Met Costume Institute Gala, and society by the bathrooms. One day Anna Wintour will walk down her hallway and suddenly it’ll all be over for her, he said.

Well, it’ll all be over soon. Oh, no, it won’t be 15 years! Two, five, something. It’s overdue.

Most people have only debt. People are scratching themselves bloody. But people can survive, Mr. Columbia said. They’re survivors, even the meek and mild. The cab driver came in all the way from Astoria to Swifty’s and returned the BlackBerry. He was dressed nicely and was super-jolly. He had refused to turn on the meter for the trip, so Mr. Columbia pressed on him a wad of bills. The cab driver said that he thought the phone was terribly complicated, and that he himself certainly didn’t need one like it. Mr. Columbia doesn’t think people are bad. Even if everyone does have a complete lack of courtesy—except that cab driver, and he’s an immigrant, from somewhere with manners. In 1944, Mr. Columbia said, during a different war, everyone had a victory garden, everyone grew vegetables for the country and for themselves. Even if all they had was 10 feet square.

Wholphin Sighting

Brent Hoff is the editor of a magazine called Wholphin. It is the latest periodical from McSweeney’s, the boutique San Francisco publishing house founded by writer Dave Eggers and pals. The magazine has no pages, and no readers. It does throw release parties, and, at one of them last Thursday, Mr. Hoff sat in a white-tiled “steam room” in the basement level of Happy Ending, a Chinatown brothel turned lounge, enjoying a quiet moment.

“When you walk in, they show surveillance video of this place when it used to be a working brothel,” he said, surprised by Happy Ending’s futuristic décor. “You see the prostitutes walking in and out. It’s crazy. It’s great!”

Mr. Hoff has curly blond hair. He was dressed in a striped shirt, jeans and flip-flop sandals, and he moved his arms excitedly, somewhat resembling an aged surfer describing a half-remembered wave. He clearly likes videos.

Incidentally, a wholphin is a hybrid marine mammal, formed when a 2,000-pound false killer whale impregnates a 400-pound female bottlenose dolphin. There are presently two wholphins alive in captivity, though legend has it that they also exist in the wild. Likewise, there are presently two issues of Wholphin available, though the party Thursday was for the third, to be released in the fall. It has no pages and no readers, because it is only available on DVD.

“It’s called a ‘DVD magazine’ because we can’t think of anything else,” explained Mr. Hoff. “ Wholphin is a collection of short films that you can’t find anywhere else, that don’t fit in video stores or theaters.”

Mr. Hoff was interrupted by a guest about to leave and looking to congratulate him on the new issue.

“Wait, you’re not going to stay to see Dennis Hopper blow himself up?”

“When’s that?” asked the guest.

“Oh, maybe around 9.”

The rare Hopper footage, from the actor’s 1983 performance of the so-called Russian Dynamite Death Chair Act, is one of the main draws in Wholphin No. 3. Wholphin No. 2 featured an experimental Errol Morris film involving Donald Trump and an “instructional video” titled How To: Poke Pole a Monkey-Faced Eel. Wholphin No. 1 included a Miguel Arteta adaptation of a Miranda July short story, along with a rough documentary about Al Gore directed by Spike Jonze. Everything comes shrink-wrapped in familiar McSweeney’s packaging, with quasi-old-fashioned typesetting and sturdy materials that vaguely smell of gasoline.

In the next steam room over, partygoers discussed the publication.

“ Wholphin’s cool,” observed Mark Dupree, a friend of one of No. 3’s contributors.

Added Chivas Devinck, a sometime music-video director, “There should really be more outlets like this.”

Mr. Hoff would likely agree. After all, the editor’s joie de video extends even to YouTube, to which Wholphin might uncharitably be considered the upscale, self-consciously intellectual older sibling. “It’s great,” he said of the oft-maligned Internet viral-video depot. “There are all these great moments in life, you know, and it’s great to see them, like, all out there now.”

Back upstairs in Happy Ending’s main lounge, dimly lit with pink overhead lights, great moments were being had by creative-looking types in snug, faded T-shirts and loose vintage dresses. Wholphin issues were being projected on the wall, occasionally interrupted by the solemn blue rectangle of the DVD player’s on-screen setup menu. No one complained when that happened; everyone seemed used to A/V mishaps.

But who was this crowd, exactly?

“A friend called me and asked if I wanted to hang out at Happy Ending,” explained John Drady, a foppish fellow who bears more than a passing resemblance to the musician and social truffle pig Moby. “I like this place—I almost had my 40th birthday party here. And my friend said it would be the McSweeney’s crowd. I said, ‘What’s that?’”

Yes, what’s that? The McSweeney’s crowd has suffered its most recent roasting by, of all people, Megan Mullally, the awesome former Karen of the former Will & Grace. In the August issue of Los Angeles magazine, we find Ms. Mullally in a hip store, confronted by the latest McSweeney’s Quarterly. “They think they’re cool,” Ms. Mullally told Los Angeles, “but I don’t know what’s backing it up. The whole thing is overrated. It’s a groovefest.”

Anyway. Mr. Drady remembered once stumbling across a copy of Wholphin No. 1 and loving it, though he knew nothing of its publishers; by the end of the night, the growing McSweeney’s empire—which also includes The Believer—had picked up another professed convert. Room for one more!

In a dark corner, two young women with asymmetrical haircuts turned their backs away from the projection screen to play Boggle. They shook up letters and scribbled down words; it all looked very quaint.

But the sharpest criticism of Wholphin was leveled by a partygoer from a traditional publication—a journal with physical pages that are physically read. Colleen Kane surveyed the scene from against a wall. She was with a plump friend in a black, lacy top who looked particularly out of place. Both held vodka martinis.

“I came looking for some hot literary guys,” said the exasperated Ms. Kane, a senior editor at Playgirl. “But where are they? There’s none here.”

Her friend rolled her eyes. “There are only gay guys here!”

Dennis Hopper blew himself up a few minutes later, and Brent Hoff laughed.

—Jonathan Liu Does Society Matter? Ask Existential Arbiter David Patrick Columbia