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Hanging Out With Martin Scorsese’s Bodyguard at the n+1 Gala

He tells me that people at galas are usually a bit more social than at the stalwart literary magazine's 20th anniversary fundraiser. We do things a little differently in Brooklyn.

Martin Scorsese with founding editor of n+1 Keith Gessen. (Katya Gimro / n+1)

The cellular service is spotty at "N Plus Ultra," the fundraiser gala celebrating the 20th anniversary of the stalwart New York literary journal n+1, and I resent being made to live in the moment. Fran Lebowitz's eyes were the first I met when I walked in. Uh-oh, I thought, but then I remembered I write for a mere two-year-old current upstart publication myself, and she doesn't even own a computer, so, whatever. When I next see her she’s huddled in the shadows with her bestie, Martin Scorsese. The rest of the party are stylish members of the literati who I know from the internet but who don't know me, with tattoos poking out from their cocktail dresses and blazers. Look at you, I think to myself. Some party reporter, profusely sweating and pretending to take a shit so you can check Instagram and not get noticed hovering awkwardly by Hanif Abdurraqib.

I check for my seat at what I thought was my table, but Christian Lorentzen's name is there and mine isn't. A book editor interrupts my hovering to take my business card, and he says we'll get lunch sometime. A lady with white hair asks me what the t-shirt under my jacket says (the lyrics from "That's Us" by Arthur Russell). Her husband turns out to be Ronald Barusch, the lawyer on n+1's board. I ask him if he's ever had to get them out of any binds and he says not really. He tells me that his partner in their law firm is one of the founding editors' dad. I realize I always thought of n+1 as this esteemed institution, the great literary magazine of the 21st century. But I guess at one point in 2004 they were just young writers trying to start a publication at the twilight of print media, asking their dad's friend to get them legal advice. 

Rolls and salads emerge from the kitchen, and I finally find my seat, at the table next to the one with Scorsese, Fran, and Hanif. The man next to me keeps his gaze fixed on the adjacent table. His name card reads "Peppi," he shakes my hand and I notice a script tattoo along his fingers. A waiter comes to fill our wine glasses, but he opts for a Diet Coke. I ask Peppi what his relationship is with the publication, and he says, in a low whisper of a New Jersey accent, "I work for Mr. Scorsese." Yeah, I tell him, I knew before I asked. You're 6'5", have a tattoo on your hand, and you're staring at Martin Scorsese like you're in the secret service. He chuckles obligingly.

Within a few minutes, though, Peppi starts to ease up. Normally at things like this, people are a lot more social, he tells me. He notices that writers tend to just stick to their friends. Damn Peppi, you clocked our tea, so to speak. (I don't actually say that to him.) He accompanies Mr. Scorsese to a lot of things, but even at a gala with cops, people would be roving around more—he's a retired cop from New Jersey. He takes his tie off. He's worried that he sticks out, he tells me. "I'm like the only one wearing a suit." I tell Peppi we do things a little differently here in Brooklyn, and between that and the crack about his hand tattoo, I start to worry that I might be micro-aggressing this 6’5" white former cop.

Dinner is served. I ask Peppi how the food compares to the Met Gala, and, piling a few pieces of steak on his plate, he says it's better. The Met, he says, "has no food for me." 

The editors of n+1 take the stage, and introduce a glossily made video. Famous-to-me writer after famous-to-me writer appears on the projected screen. A writer talks about feeling like she made it as a writer when she began writing for the magazine, another writer describes the place that n+1 has developed in the "food chain of ideas," and how you can watch discourse that originates in the magazine's pages traveling through the media like dye. Jia Tolentino, says the quiet part about n+1's place as a proving ground for legacy publications out loud, then caveats: "People shouldn't just go on to the New Yorker. They should keep writing for n+1," which gets a loud cheer, despite the irony. By the time Doreen St. Felix (another writer that went on to the New Yorker) shows up people are over the clapping thing I guess, but I woop anyway because that's my GOAT. 

I wonder, if Hell Gate lasts 20 years, whether we'll have a gala like this, with Scorsese in attendance too, maybe. Maybe if we do, by then we'll have a glamorous writerly aura around us. Mark Krotov, one of n+1's current editors-in-chief, says he thinks Scorsese will still be around if we are. I tell Krotov that I find this whole thing very inspiring, that you can last 20 years being supported by readers and chisel away at the industry until your product is something that can't be replaced. He tells me it hasn't always been easy, and that when they couldn't afford to keep the lights on, they wrote in the dark. 

The glitz of the event, too, tells of the journal's success. At the time of its launch, contemporaries scorned n+1 for its…orneriness. In its first issue, un-bylined writers sneered at the "juvenile" sentimentality of their competitors at McSweeney's, and the lack of expertise they found in the pages of the Believer. In every issue, it publishes the haughtily-titled diagnostic, "the Intellectual Situation," in which Chad Harbach once took a torch, kind of, to the entire MFA machine in "MFA vs. NYC", (the style of New York writers, he wrote, "might be better understood as the result of fierce market pressure toward the middlebrow") in an essay that, 10 years into the magazine's existence, they built their first book around. N+1's brashness, its self-appointed coolness, was taken by many as a towering elitism, yet to be earned. But as the 21st century has stretched on, the proof mostly turned out to be in the pudding.

There was a short break in the action, and Peppi has sort of become the main attraction, as news of his presence has traveled through the party. An editor from Atlantic Books tells me he had cased the joint earlier. But the crowd poses no real threat to Mr. Scorsese, we're all too shy to even try to talk to him. Peppi, on the other hand, attracts handshakes and giggles. He tells me he had a  former job at the New Jersey Attorney General's office that involved a decent amount of writing, though of a different kind, and he said he liked it, comparing it to working out. He asks me if I'm worried about AI, and I tell him not yet. Like everyone, Peppi has played with ChatGPT, but he says when he asks it to write a Scorsese script, it can only deliver something derivative of what's come before, not the next thing. For now, I tell him, publications like ours should be safe, so long as we keep providing something fresh, and people continue to decide that it's worth funding things like that, as n+1 has proven for two decades now.

The main event begins, and critic-at-large for New York Magazine Andrea Long Chu is presented with the n+1 fellowship. In her speech, she noted that n+1 is a vital nourishing ground for the next generation of writers, and only they would take a chance on publishing her when she had “nothing but a paper on Hegel to her name” (this is a huge laugh line for some reason). She's since won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism. "Please give them your money," she concludes. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I see Mr. Scorsese clapping.

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