I was getting married in a few months and wanted a handmade suit from the online men’s shop I’d been ogling for a year. It wasn’t just that the guys in their suits looked like rock star dandies and cosmopolite men of taste. The shop offered prices that, while not exactly cheap, sat well below those I could find in the joints along Soho, and certainly places like Bloomingdale's and Barneys and Saks. Now that I had a reason to justify the cost, I called the number on the site and left a voicemail.
“Hey there. My name’s D., and I’m stoked at the possibility you guys can make me one of your fancy suits! I’d love to have a conversation with you about this and look forward to hearing from you.”
Four days later, having heard nothing but crickets, I called again. Four days after that, having got the same dead zilch, I wrote an email to the shop with the subject, I want you guys to make me a suit!
“Hi,” I said. “I’ve left two messages on your voice mail, one last week and one on Monday, but haven’t got a call back. I’d really, really, really love for you to make me a suit! How does this happen? Email or phone is great, any time. I look forward to hearing from you.”
It wasn’t until another two days had passed that I received an email from the shop’s owner that said (and this was it): “We’d be happy to make you a suit. Let us know some of your available times next week and we’ll send our tailor to help you find the fabric, style and fit that best works with your personal aesthetic.”
OK, I thought, at least he wrote back.
I asked if we could chat on the phone for a few minutes before booking the appointment, and waited to hear back, vainly, as it happens. There was no call, no email, nothing. I waited, and waited some more, and after a month I’d still not heard a peep.
I couldn’t understand. I’d been enthusiastic, exceedingly so. I’d been clear. I’d been very, very nice. The shop’s website advertises such amenities as “24/7 White Glove Service” and “Unparalleled customer service.” It was impossible, I thought, that the men in the photos on the shop’s site had received anything remotely like the treatment I’d been receiving. There had to be an answer, I knew, and to get it I’d have to write the man again.
“Our last correspondence, hard to believe, was over a month ago. I like to give folks the benefit of the doubt that they always make their best effort to do what they say they’ll do, which is to say, I trust you’ve had some sort of an emergency that’s prevented you from running your business according to the standards touted on your website . . . Your suits are nice, and though I’ve now been in contact with a number of other ateliers, all of which have responded both verbally and in writing, I’m still interested to hear from you.”
A few hours later, I received the following:
“How can we help you? Do you have any specific questions about our clothing or fitting process/philosophy? Let us know and we’ll do our best to answer them.”
That’s it? I thought. “How can we help you?”
Something in the dullness of this reply, in the man’s feigned ignorance of my previous communications and his lack of apology for failing to respond, inherent to which seethed an air of supercilious evasion — Mr. Darcy with Asperger’s — burned me to the core. I felt a little like a simp with a penny before a master tailor on Savile Row. How else was I to take this “How can we help you?” as anything but, “Go away, little worm, and don’t come back”?
“Ah, X,” I wrote the man. “Based on that reply, after my emails and calls and the note I just sent, I don’t think you can help me at all. Good luck, sir.”
Before the Internet came along, a civilized recourse would have included a letter of complaint to the Better Business Bureau. Octogenarians might still do this, I thought, but the rest of us have the power of Yelp.
When I first heard about Yelp a few years back, I didn’t think much of it. Then I learned that a review complaining about a bedbug found in Hollister’s flagship Soho store had gotten the place shut down in under a week. That was proof enough to see Yelp might help me out when choosing new restaurants and services and such, which it did. It wasn’t long before I’d written a number of my own reviews, most of them positive, because I like helping people who seem both good and good at what they do, though a few posts were tepid and one in particular, of a local video store whose clerk had gone ballistic in response to a complaint, was flat-out negative.
By the time I was confronted with this man and his travesty of a business, though, it had been maybe a year since my last review. I wasn’t yet aware that Yelp had lost its standing, owing to its widespread abuse via malfeasance, fraud and downright pettiness. What I was aware of, acutely, was my anger. That’s it, I said to myself as the notion popped into my head, I’m writing this guy up.
Little did I know what lay in store. Until this moment, day after day had rolled by in silence. Now — within actual minutes of posting my review — I received an email from my man in which he announced:
I was just made aware of your yelp review . . . When your book comes out on amazon I will persoanlly make sure our entire staff reviews in kind [sic, sic, sic].
That’s the other part of this charade. I’m a novelist whose debut, “Made to Break,” is forthcoming next year from the indie publisher Two Dollar Radio. The other part of the other part is that I’m a 49-year-old novelist who, though I’ve written numerous books over the course of more than 20 years (“Made to Break,” in fact, I penned in ’98) has labored in the shadow of perennial, if utterly cliché, obscurity and lack. The man from the shop, in other words, may as well have threatened to maim my bride-to-be or, if I had a child, to kidnap it. My book, returned after all these years with a smile behind its scraggly beard, was born of me as surely as a baby. It is mine. I love it still and will do most anything for it. In my younger, considerably wilder days of debauchery and violence, such a threat would likely have elicited a considerably wilder response, the details of which I’m uncomfortable to speak. And though these days I work hard at doing the right thing, in this case, what virtues I’ve managed to restore had left me in the lurch. I was paralyzed with rage.
I wrote the man that if he felt the need to throw a tantrum because he couldn’t take responsibility for his actions, he’d have to do what he had to do.
“Deluge of awful reviews unless that post comes down,” he shot back. “Going to make it top priority.”
I asked the man how old he was. I told him to get a life.
“Yep,” he said. “I eagerly look forward to your book coming out. Going to make sure it’s flooded with scathing reviews.”
I was swimming with demons in a tar pit now. Every breath was noxious, every thought a squirt of acid to my brain. My bride-to-be was out, I was alone, ambushed by some vicious phantom of a jerk I had no way of confronting past the pixels on my screen. In a sort of panic, I logged onto Facebook and shared this bizarre episode with my pals.
“Give me his name,” one friend commented, gangster-like.
“I believe,” wrote another, “that what he’s doing is illegal.”
Ron Charles, a fiction editor at The Washington Post, wrote, “You have fallen into a Seinfeld episode!”
The response was assuring in the feeble way Facebook commentary often is, but I remained as powerless as ever to restore my balance. On the one hand, I wanted to find the man from the shop and inflict on him grievous bodily harm. On the other, I felt compassion for him in the pain of his depravity. Then I got the bright idea to seek wisdom from some friends, both of who, unbeknownst to the other, strongly suggested I take down my Yelp review and Facebook post, and tell my man he had no further worries.
I knew when I heard it that the counsel was sound, but that didn’t mean I liked it. Taking down my posts was the last thing I wanted to do. The man was a villain. Villains oblige comeuppance. I would administer to this villain his comeuppance, I swore to my pals, copiously and profusely and with smiles of brutal glee. Besides, I said, my “honor” was at stake, and with it my “reputation.”
“Sure,” said one friend, “and so is your career.”
“What career?” I said.
“The one you’re about to have,” my friend said. “And you’ve got to consider your fiancée. Whatever harm you stand to bear in the potential failure of your novel is her harm, too. And what about your publisher? You stop to think of them? They’ve invested in you considerably. You jerk off now, you could fuck up all kinds of shit.”
I told my friend I saw his points, none of which till now had so much as tickled me.
“And besides,” my friend said, delivering the final blow, “do you really want to carry all this anger around for the next six months? You really want to wake up every day fantasizing about revenge? It’s not worth it, man.”
My decision was plain. I couldn’t have been the first guy to receive threats from this charlatan of a man. He could have his perceived victory. I was no more the universal arm of justice than a stork. With or without me, he’d continue to get his in the future as surely as he was getting it now. This, I well believe, is universal law. This is the way things are. Removing my negative review of his “business” wasn’t submission to him but to pathos and to reason. I took it down and with it my Facebook post, as well.
“X,” I wrote. “On further consideration, I see it’s just not worth it to contend with you. I've taken down my post.”
Any other day, that would've ended the show, but The Powers That Be weren’t finished, because the plot thickened, if that were thinkable, when Mr. Charles asked me via email whether I’d mind if he wrote about my little drama in The WaPo. To that point, it hadn’t occurred to me that a farce so ludicrous as this could be worthy of even a line in a local rag, much less interesting to any but my friends, and yet, thinking further on Mr. Charles’ quip that I’d “fallen into a Seinfeld episode,” I saw he was right: This was the script of a 21st-century soap opera, and I, King of the Buffoons, had in the space of a few hours somehow become its star.
“I also wanted to let you know I took down my review,” I wrote to Mr. Charles. “I’m not really comfortable knowing that that sort of mojo is on the loose out there, and that I’m part of it, some poor schlub who’s got it in for me before I’m even out of the gate. I have to admit, though, that I learned a good lesson. I stand behind every word of my review. It’s all true. The man was and is not nice. (Turns out that some other people on Yelp had difficulty with him too.) That, however, doesn’t mean I need to run around like some universal hand of justice trying to make the scales stay true. Nor is it to say you shouldn’t write about the matter if you like. I’d just ask you do me a great favor and keep the man’s name out.”
And two days later, just like that, there it was, as Mr. Charles had promised, a squib in the paper’s Style section, with both my picture and the cover of my book, “Authors beware: Bad reviews don’t suit you!” An article about me and my screwy affair was itself a thing to cope with. What twisted me more, though, was the range of crazy opinions that popped up in the comments section like addicts at a dealer’s open door. These, I saw, together with the piece’s near viral spread via Twitter and other media such as The Denver Post, The Millions, and even a wacko blog called Ethics Alarms, were at once clear evidence of the fascinating complexity of our lives in these ultramodern days and of the rotten spectacle that constitutes an unacceptably giant portion of it.
Pretty trippy, I’d said to a friend who wrote that the article’s comments made “good reading.”
Just as I’d had trouble believing this farce would be worthy of a news piece, I couldn’t imagine once such a piece was written that many people would read it, much less spend time adding their opinions to it in the comments section, and then to the opinions of opinions, too. Pretty trippy, all right, I thought again as I made my way through the briar patch the section had become. Pretty freaking trippy.
The feeling in that moment was bewildering. There I was, for the first time ever, seeing myself as an abstraction. Somehow, oh-so-bafflingly, I’d become a novelist-cum-caricature-out-of-tabloid-sitcom. And the more I read, the better I understood just how weird this life of ours has turned, and just how bizarre the nature of online “communities” is, to say nothing of the extent to which online reviews have transformed the way we navigate the world of commerce. The fence between that world and the others we inhabit has been blown to smithereens. The artist has always been fodder for scrutiny and attack, but now I saw how much the reasons have changed. In the way your average cheap “celeb” is no longer rated by her talent, skill or genius, but by the size of the demographic that consumes that celeb’s image, it’s no longer simply for her art per se that we attack the artist, but for her status in the marketplace. “Art” is for all intents and purposes no different today than any other product or commodity. And the same holds true for the rest of us. We’re all the same now. We’ve all become tantamount to any cheap “celeb.”
Online provocateur, critic, and host of "The Bat Segundo Show" Edward Champion spoke to this concern in a recent Facebook post. “There once was a time,” he said, “in which media producers killed the careers of prominent figures by playing a soundbite over and over . . . without additional context . . . Today, we are all ‘prominent figures’ and we’re content to write someone off for life over any 140 character tweet that displeases us.” The sham I’d just helped to craft shoved the truth of this remark, and of its repercussions, into a clarity at once disgusting and precise.
As for the comments section itself, it was chock-full of every imaginable opinion about my predicament. “Foy just caved,” read one. “What he decided is that he wasn’t comfortable with the threat. I'm not saying I blame him.” Others suggested that the incident had never happened, but that, like money, I’d minted it to buy some good old PR. (“Are we sure the tailor ever existed? This guy is a novelist, so he makes up stories for a living.”) Still others questioned my integrity, and slammed me for having folded to the will of an extortionist. (“What happended to standing by your convictions?” [sic] And: “What a wimp! He deleted his review? Well then, jerks win. Idiot.”) On and on the opinions went, until I couldn’t read anymore and stopped.
But if only the episode itself had stopped, which, as in Kafka’s nightmare, it didn’t. The day after I told the man from the shop that I’d removed my post from Yelp, he spun me yet another turn:
“Are you available this Sunday eveningish?” he wrote. “We’re going to send our tailor to your residence to measure you up for a custom shirt. I’m paying for it.”
If before I’d had any doubts as to the man’s soundness, they were herewith dispelled forever and a day. This guy’s insane, I thought, as in certifiably. After everything he’s done, he thinks I’m actually going to pal up with him, like some stooge for his master’s lollipop, much less give him my address? He really did have no idea. Doubtless I would’ve liked to tell him this, with a generous helping of what-to’s and how-for’s besides, but instead I wrote:
“Thanks for your offer, X. I do appreciate it. I don’t think you need to go out of your way on my account though. Maybe pass that offer on to the next guy?”
The accusations I suffered are easy to see, given our current state of affairs. On the whole, most acts shy of outright aggression are seen as weakness, and weakness is despised, punishment favored, cosmic justice scorned. We’re taught moment by moment, amidst the fray, to seize opportunities for advancement and reward and to crush impediments to them. I know these to be true because I myself have lived decades by their creed. For a moment even now I’d been nearly seduced by the song of these old laws. Their gremlins had danced through my ego, and when my ego paid no heed they crapped piles in its bed.
This, I believe — my ego — is the true motive behind my harsh review. Having received no response from my man after that long month, I knew (in retrospect at any rate) that I wasn’t dealing with a professional. The best course of action would have been inaction. I should simply have let the matter pass and got my needs met elsewhere, as I did in the end. But I wanted something from the man, an apology, perhaps, for his behavior, or perhaps even simply an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of my request. Or maybe I wanted to prove something to the man, to show him I wasn’t to be dismissed or toyed with, and the like. Or maybe my review was inspired by a little bit of each. I was angry, that much was sure. My compulsion to vent that anger, and to punish the man who’d incited it, had done its work and bested me.
But whatever the reasons, my review had been a mistake, and the farce it provoked a lesson of the heart, and of listening to the heart. I really am uncomfortable knowing I’ve set bad mojo on the loose. I really do believe in karma. And I really do have faith in the power of self-recovery, and in our ability to change in the face of truth perceived anew. Nor am I the first to hold as much, nor was Emerson, who said, “Every personal consideration that we allow ourselves costs us heavenly state. We sell the thrones of angels for a short and turbulent pleasure.” Nor were all the sages before that eminent man, and the sages before those again.
It doesn’t matter what others think of what we do. What matters is how we feel when before ourselves we clearly see and hear. Can I live with what I’ve said and done, or will I need to scurry about behind my words and deeds with words and deeds to guise them? I made a mistake, and then I saw I’d made it. I had a choice. I made a choice. Today I feel good. Tomorrow I’ll recall what kept that good at bay. There’s more in the world, surely, but who knows any better?