by Pat Holt
Tuesday, October 23, 2001
EDWARD ABBEY LIVES: THE BOOK THAT STOPPED A PASSENGER
So it's finally (already?) happened. A passenger on a United Airlines flight was prohibited from flying because of the book he was reading.
On October 10, Neil Godfrey, 22, told the Philadelphia City Paper (see http://www.citypaper.net/articles/101801/news.godfrey.shtml ) that he didn't mind when a United ticket counter clerk explained he had been selected for a random baggage search. Once he left his luggage with the search grew, he got his boarding pass and prepared to walk through the metal detector by placing the novel he was reading and a copy of The Nation magazine on the conveyor belt.
At that point an airport security guard looked worried: The book Godfrey put on conveyor belt was "Hayduke Lives!" Edward Abbey's sequel to his hilarious classic of environmental activism, "The Monkey Wrench Gang."
On the cover of the sequel, the illustration shows a man's hand holding several sticks of dynamite banded together with a clock taped to the side. Looking at the cover through the guard's perspective, Godfrey told reporter Gwen Shaffer, for the first time, it occurred to me the book may be a problem."
Indeed, by the time he sat down at the gate to wait for the boarding call, a National Guardsman, along with Philadelphia Police officers, Pennsylvania State Troopers and airport security officials descended on Godfrey to question him about the book and his trip to Phoenix.
Worse, for the next 45 minutes, a dozen officials examined and took notes on the contents of "Hayduke Lives!"
They must have come upon scenes in which George Washington Hayduke commits acts of sabotage - burning tractors, blowing up bridges - to save the environment. But the book is, after all, a novel, and "eventually," Shaffer wrote, "one of the law enforcement officials told Godfrey his book was 'innocuous' and he would be allowed to board the plane."
Not quite. Ten minutes later a United employee, according to Godfrey, told him that he couldn't fly after all, "for three reasons" - first, there was the book; second, Godfrey had purchased the ticket on September 11 (yes, Godfrey explained, he got it from Priceline.com at least 8 hours before the World Trade Center was attacked) and third, Godfrey's Arizona driver's license had expired.
Wait, said Godfrey: The date to which the United employee pointed was not the expiration date - it was "the day the license was issued."
The United employee then pointed to another date - February 17, 2000 - as the expiration date. "Godfrey countered that the date identified him as 'under 21' until then. 'Too bad, it's too late,' the flight attendant informed him."
So Godfrey went home, and "did what a lot of guys do when they need consoling," write Shaffer - "he phoned his mom."
Suffice it to say that Godfrey's mother was told by a central reservation clerk that "her son was not banned from ever flying United again," yet on the flight she booked for him later that afternoon - at which point he had exchanged his "Hayduke Lives!" book for "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" - a police officer, a national guardsman, a security escort and about 15 other law enforcement officials all converged on the scene.
Eventually he was told by "the supervisor of airport operations for United," says reporter Shaffer, that "he would not be allowed to fly." When his father called, a spokesperson told him "his son was banned from flying United because he cracked 'a joke about bombs.' "
Godfrey insists he never joked about bombs. If he had, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations stipulate that "any passenger who jokes about explosives be arrested on the spot," writes Shaffer. Godfrey was never charged nor arrested for such a violation, nor did local police file an incident report.
What's the point to this story? Perhaps it's time we all recognize what is at stake during these tightened-security times. Looking at it from law enforcement perspective, Edward Abbey's "Monkey Wrench" novels DO look suspicious - eco-terrorism, however comedic and "safe" in fictional form, is still terrorism, and a check of the novel's contents, as officials tried to do, surely couldn't hurt. As an official said, it only proved the book was "innocuous."
At the same time, this is the kind of episode in which Americans and their way of life are being tested every day. Philadelphia International Airport representative Mark Pesce told Shaffer that "stories like Godfrey's are likely to become increasingly common," perhaps because we have yet to lay out to law enforcement what free expression, freedom to read and a free expression of ideas mean even during a period the president has defined as wartime.
"We don't stop any books," says the supervisor for Aviation Safeguard, the company hired by United to handle security checkpoints in the Philadelphia airport. "The only ones who determine who can't get on a flight is the airline."
Maybe so, but until we know what our standard must be in situations like this, chaos will reign as long as officials from the local police, airport security, state troopers, National Guard, airline operations and FAA react in fear.
YOU WROTE WHAT? ON A BOMB?
You've probably read the news stories about military personnel writing messages on bombs before dropping them on Afghanistan.
For example, initials "FDNY" were used to dedicate the bomb on which they were written to New York firefighters; "Anthrax THIS" was a bit more aggressive in its assumption that anthrax-laden envelopes are being mailed by terrorists rather than by "copy-cat crazies," as Susan Sontag put it.
But did you hear about the Associated Press photo that went out on the wire October 11 but was "quickly pulled when voices rose in protest," according to Bob Roehr of the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender newspaper Bay Area Reporter?
The statement that was photographed - scrawled in large chalk letters on the nose of the bomb aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, which was cruising in the Arabian Sea - read "HIGH JACK THIS FAGS."
Hm. Not one of your more articulate statements - certainly the word "hijack" might have been submitted to some kind of bomb spellcheck, and use of a comma before FAGS might have turned up on grammarcheck, but the message was clear:
To really rile 'em in the trenches - in case the enemy looks up in time to see the bomb descending and can read English well enough to figure out misspellings and omissions of punctuation - our fighting forces couldn't accuse Osama bin Laden's followers of anything more hateful than being a bunch of fairies in the desert.
Of course, "the message is insulting and inappropriate," and "in clear violation of the United States military's stated policy on harassment and morale," according to Saharra E. Greer, legal director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which led the protests against it.
And, too, "the Navy was 'stupid' for having let the photo be sent off the ship through its communication facilities," Roehr quotes openly gay Arizona state Representative Steve May.
But what incensed GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, was the hasty manner in which Associated press pulled the photo off the wire. "This image should be explained and discussed, not hidden from view," said GLAAD executive director Joan M. Garry.
"By pulling the photo rather than exploring its content and context, the AP sends the message that anti-gay bias should be swept under the rug, not exposed and confronted."
If we're gonna have freedom of expression, let's go all the way. It's interesting that the really foul racial epithets weren't used; apparently they were even too reprehensible for Navy personnel - or at least in terms of showing them to Associated Press photographers. But it's meaningful why "fags" got through, so let's talk about it. What could be the harm?
During several exchanges, GLAAD tried to convince AP that a real story existed in a behind-the-scenes report on acceptable vs. prohibited slang on an armed missile, and how photographers from a wire service like the AP are invited to take pictures of it without anybody "noticing" that something might be wrong.
"If a picture's worth a thousand words," Garry said, "the one word in this picture is certainly worth a story."
Dear Holt Uncensored:
In regard to Fran Baker's (Delphi Books) letter regarding invoices that don't get paid by independent stores, I have two comments: First, please stay with the 40% discount. Nothing is more frustrating than to try to special order a $15 book for a customer and receive a 20% (or less) discount with a $4 s&h charge. Those small presses who do offer the 40% ensure more likelihood of repeat business for restocks and the like. Secondly, either require all stores to pre-pay or just those with difficult payment histories. Simple as that.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I felt I must respond to Fran Baker's totally justified complaint on independent bookstores with slow-pay policies (Letters, #274). As a small bookseller myself, I have run across this issue often, been guilty of slow-pay policies several times, and feel like I see both sides of the issue pretty well after 16 years in the business.
Accounts payable procedures remain one of the few areas of the business that have not been standardized. Ordering can usually be done electronically using BISAC formats. Receiving and Returns contain a few predictable steps. But when it comes to A/P procedures, everyone seems to have their own ideas. Returns are credited at different rates, statements issued on different dates- invoice numbers don't match packing list numbers. The result on the bookseller end is that accounts payable tasks are the MOST time-consuming chores that go into running a bookstore. And since every hour spent in the back office trying to reconcile shipments received with invoices due is an hour not on the floor selling books, many small bookstores have adopted the policy of ordering only from a few wholesalers to keep the A/P tasks as simple as possible.
Of course, that is hard on small publishers since it is much more expensive to sell through Ingram than direct to the store. (And it is expensive to deal with Amazon and the National Chains as well, who may have paid Delphi Books, but don't always pay everyone on time, or all that the publisher feels is owed). It is a catch-22 situation. Fran said, "We extend a 40% discount (30 day, returnable), pay the shipping, and then we ... wait for payment."
Free Freight is a serious incentive, but I would still think twice about ordering direct from her company, Delphi Books. Most booksellers would say that 30 days isn't enough time for a book, especially a small press book without a lot of marketing initiative behind it, to have a decent chance to sell. So after the 30 days you can return it - earning a credit with a company that you may not use for weeks or months (if ever), hence a credit that isn't doing you any good as salable inventory. Or, you can delay, in the hopes of giving the book in question a decent chance on the sales floor.
Larger publishers like Random House usually have a 60 net policy, or at least a de facto 60 day net policy, perhaps understanding that a book needs that much time to gain an audience.
I don't know what the answer is to the vicious circle. As I said at the beginning, Fran has a legitimate complaint. But something about the business model between small publishers and small bookstores may have to change before it is viable again for both parties. After all, if a book can't be sold in the time it takes the seller to pay for it, where does that leave the publisher and bookseller? We may as well go to an industry-wide no returns, net-priced policy (although it is questionable whether Bristol Books or Delphi Books would survive such a change).
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I read your latest with interest, as usual, and would like to respond (at length, I'm afraid) to Fran Baker, who writes of her dealings with independent bookstores:
"We extend a 40% discount (30 day, returnable), pay the shipping, and then we ... wait for payment.
"Currently we have three invoices outstanding that the owners of the bookstores simply will not pay."
Wow - you pay the shipping? That seems particularly kind! And only THREE invoices? I work for a small textbook company that has thousands and thousands of dollars in unpaid invoices. Admittedly bookstores are not the main culprit - school systems and the government have done their share - but this is definitely a problem that we have, too.
You mention that you have invoiced these stores and sent collection letters. Have you tried calling? I understand if you don't have the resources to call every delinquent store. But I am under firm instructions to call every store that we put on credit hold, and this method is very effective.
I'm not trying to excuse the bookstores that are giving you trouble, but independent bookstores are trying to stay alive, just like your company and mine are. In my experience, the person who pays the bills isn't unscrupulous, but just juggling a lot of invoices. I used to work at a bookstore and vividly remember the comptroller's assistant showing me how she went through the list of overdue invoices each month and decided which to pay, based on her knowledge of the publishers and how insistent they would be. She couldn't afford to do it any other way.
As a result, the typical conversation I have with an independent bookstore runs like this:
--Hello, I am so-and-so from thus-and-thus, and I'm calling about an overdue invoice
Barnes & Noble, On the otherhand, pay on time and in full if they place a special order. As does Amazon. Both of these corporations are supposed to be the "bad guys." And yet, they pay their bills.
I would like to add to this. B&N Trade does pay its bills fairly promptly. We have found that B&N College, however, does not. We had to put them on prepay status. Amazon is an even more egregious offender. Because they are so large, and because the buyers don't talk to the receivers who don't talk to accounts payable (I have this from an Amazon informant), they can be very difficult to deal with and have disputed charges we made which were perfectly valid.
Well, I know I wrote a mouthful but I spend all day dealing with these problems and just couldn't resist.
A Toiler in the Small-Pub Trenches
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I think the real issue with Amazon is that they don't have a business model that is generating viable profits under any, no matter how dubious, accounting system. The strange book suggestions probably follow from payments from publishers more than any other factor like the book chosen by the customer. However the company may have started, their current issue is survival, not love of books and ideas. They will make any short-term decision that they believe will help them survive.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Re your quote of Susan Sontag referring to Osama bin Laden and "that Flintstone set of his."
Maureen Dowd of the New York Times said in her column that when she saw the Osama bin Laden tape, her first thought was "My God, we're at war with the Flintstones!"
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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