Ten Years Ago in ‘Spy’
Reliving one’s formative years of logrolling, short-fingered vulgarians and Separations at Birth

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‘Spy’ May 1988 cover

May 1988

Well, Spy didn’t publish any July issues, nor, apparently, any Augusts. So, just like last month, I’ve had to troll through the archives. Hardly a burden at all. In fact, I looked up the earliest unreviewed issue I could find. Yes, it’s the one bearing the still-astonishingly-fabulous cover shot of passé fashion model Carol Alt hamming it up with actual rats!

You know, kids these days just don’t know how to have fun.

The Bank Machine Question

To my regret, January/February 1988 is one of the many Spy issues I do not have. I vaguely remember flipping through it at the newsstand. How can I have such a specific memory? Graphic design, people! In the article “The Canadians Among Us” (still living in infamy 14 years later), a parenthetical page accent showed a rushing curling rock, complete with little motion lines.

I mean, that’s the sort of detail you just don’t forget.

“From the Spy Mailroom” this month dissects the nine letters dutifully posted (“Not all of the recent mail was delivered in envelopes festooned with moose and beaver stamps”) by students of Henry Wise Wood High School in Calgary. Already its own punchline, shurely?!

But the only issue upon which virtually every Henry Wise Wood High School student commented is, of course, the Bank Machine Question.

There opinion was divided. “I have never seen a Canadian say thank you to a bank machine,” states Jennifer Kauffeldt flatly.... On the other hand, Lorraine Price’s slightly defensive “There is nothing wrong with... talking to our bank machines” seems to throw the issue wide open and suggest that things in Calgary are neither as simple nor as innocent as they seem on the surface.

Now, in a case of life imitating long-dissipated meme, two years ago I did in fact witness a dumpy nebbish thank a bank machine. Once. And I’ve been playing with these things since the first Bank of Montreal behemoths were installed, MIRACLE OF TOMORROW TODAY–style, in Les Galéries Taschereau in Greenfield Park, Quebec.

So, I mean, come on.

I do, however, routinely curse at my computer.

You’re stepping in it!

Fucking Wellies. I recall a great many bored afternoons in the 1980s flipping and re-flipping idly through my only copies of Spy because I had nothing else to do. And I could never ever get away from the horribly irksome two-part advertisement for Welly rubber boots – 1/3 of a page on the left side, another 1/3 of a page on the right. Could anything be more poncy than a Pom in a knee-high green rubber boot with a too-small inset high heel and a little strap and buckle on the top inboard side?

Oh, and here’s the clincher:

The ads use a bad cut of Times Bold Condensed and feature a leg model clad in brown corduroy pantalons.

No wonder the British are all bottoms and enema fetishists.


I suppose I should have mentioned the advertorials for Dom Ruinart champagne that masquerade as Spy’s own “Party Poop” section, though the latter is in tasteful black-and-white and uses Metroblack type, while the former is in hot pink and can’t tell the difference between Metro and its own Futura. (Here in the 21st century, the question the Dockers-outfitted marketing executive would ask is “But that’s Arial, isn’t it?”)

Four out of seven photo vignettes carry cutlines that mention either Dom Ruinart or champagne. In 1980s New York, this quite possibly constituted a soft sell.

“Sips & Spills,” it’s called. Let’s do neither.

Opponent colours

I still don’t have an answer about the difference between opponent and complementary colours – even after interviewing two experts in colour vision for the colourblindness chapter of my book.

But I will definitively state that it takes guts to put pink and red type on the same page. Even if you’re Alex Isley.

In fairness, the colours are more like Mint Julep and Grape Juice.

Maybe Isley was just warming us up. Along with the infernal Wellies advert, I strongly recall the half-red, half-green full-page layout for “The Mafia Entrance Exam” (“Vincent ‘The Chin’ Gigante, Come On Down!”), complete with severed horse’s head.

Now all one needs is a frigging scanner. Why valourize Alex Isley if I can’t back it up?

Too bad the orange overlay was out of register with the matte black background of page 72, causing what should be orange type to look like white type badly filled in on a page from some kind of type queen’s colouring book.

WATS a WATS line?

My capacity for phone-number fetishism was rewarded in this month’s issue. “ ‘I’ve Never Even Heard of Fifi, and If I Did, It Was a Business Call’ ” by Godfrey Ablewhite (emasculated, trainers-wearing cult leader, shurely?!): “Anyone with a Touch-Tone phone or a WATS line can now be entertained, informed and stimulated during business hours – and still look like he’s working!” It’s a service piece (as far as service pieces ever went in Spy) for telephone diversions like “Chicago’s Tales of Terror, 312-976-4444, and 900-660-UGLY[,] deliver[ing] stories of giant leeches, chainsaw maniacs, and cannibalistic baby-sitters.”

At work, I used to just call up Manline. Or perhaps that’s a false memory.

En tout cas, much later the irrepressible Joe Queenan writes a fact-filled and eyebrow-raising exposé of reverse snobbery among Manhattan’s leading co-op boards, where applicants never seem to be exactly the right kind of person they’re looking for.

Your phone number has a lot to say about you, too; 988, 288, and 744 are all good prefixes – since they indicate the old YUkon, BUtterfield and RHinelander exchanges and, therefore, longevity at the East Side addresses that those exchanges covered.... The Hamptons too have their own pecking order...down to the telephone exchange (283 is the one to have in Southampton, never the parvenu 287; 324 in East Hampton, never 329).

Two kinds of stock

Now I see where the Spy board game concept came from: This month’s issue gives you the lucky reader a set of nine “All-Star Chefs” trading cards printed on good heavy stock. And not one of them is a name you would recognize 14 years onward. I suppose a female entertainment writer at a major metropolitan newspaper, had she ever heard of Spy on MTV when growing up, might cite this gimmick as an antecedent to Iron Chef. In reality, the Orientalist chef in the set, David Keh, is pinched, old, and ugly (“David claims to have been the first to use Szechuan in an American restaurant’s name,” unleashing a flood of pretentious mispronunciations [“sishwahn”]).


No wonder I was bored in the ’80s. Apparently mistaking Spy for Ad Age, Time runs another three consecutive right-hand full-pagers with sexy come-on ads presaging “Nothing comes between me and my Jockeys”:

“When Mikhail Gorbachev first spoke to the Western World he started with a four-letter word”
Hirsute wrist and balled fist in suit jacket partially obscures Time logotype too-obviously photostatted in place
“When America’s most influential leaders were asked to name America’s most influential magazine, we won hands down”
Outstretched fingers cover even more of the logotype, plus part of the ultraconvincing tagline THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE
“60 Minutes. L.A. Law. Cheers. NBC Nightly News. Not one of them reaches as many professional/managerial adults as we do”
Roman type sic; red-sweatered wrist joins to hand gripping ancient Sony remote control that yet again covers Time logotype

Rat City!

The magazine’s anchor article, “Rat City!” by Philip Weiss, is dead solid. And pages and pages long.

I saw my first rat only three years ago. (No shit! Almost the same time I witnessed a Canadian thanking a bank machine.) But boy, was I primed for the event, having read this piece a decade before.

“Rats ‘R’ Us” is a rather fascinating sidebar, however, showing us eight photos and about twice as many lines of text listing “America’s first roster of America’s Rodent People,” complete with trademark Spy adjective chains:

  • Self-loathing homosexual thug Roy Cohn
  • Much-assisted novelist Jerzy Kosinski
  • Singer-dancer-temptress-survivor Joey Heatherton
  • Forgetful Nazi Kurt Waldheim
  • Smarmy talk-show host–vulgarian Geraldo Rivera
  • Pathologically libidinous actor James Woods

Licensed decorator, shurely?!

“The Fewer, the Merrier: New York’s Desperate, Demeaning Addiction to Exclusivity” by George Kalogerakis tells us: “Only a licensed interior decorator’s card or an appointment made for you by a decorator will get you into one of the better furniture showrooms in the D&D Building on Third Avenue.”

Hold the phone!

Weren’t we recently uncovering the sordid truth behind the claim by the most superspecial Trump of all, Ivana, to hold an interior decorator’s license?

[S]omewhere along the way, Ivana claims to have picked up an “interior design license.” Exactly when and where is unclear. Also how, because according to the American Society of Interior Designers, interior-design licensing only became available in 1982 – and only in five states, and only after a demanding, days-long exam – and Ivana doesn’t have a license anyway.

Is New York one of those five states or isn’t it?

We who are about to hit the big four-oh salute you!

Will Joe Queenan please shut up? “Television”:

The [National Coalition on Television Violence], based in Champaign, Illinois, is headed by Thomas Radecki, a psychiatrist and research director of the International Coalition Against Violent Entertainment (ICAVE).... A recent ICAVE press release also mentioned an organization called Canadians Concerned About Entertainment Violence, another called Canadians Concerned About Violent Entertainment, and a third called Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment. From Moose Jaw to Halifax, the terror spreads.

“Review of Reviewers” by Michèle Bennett (yet another presagement of a late-20th-century trope, media coverage of media coverage, hammered to death in a previous article):

But on with the new, again! Lear’s, the bold new magazine for the over-40 set who do not wish to be put to death, is welcome. As a woman who’ll be 40 one day, I appreciate the wise introduction written (all by herself, I understand) by Lear’s millionaire-owner-shrew, Frances Lear: “Happily, one usually changes for the better by virtue of the act itself, with its pumping of stilled juices, flexing of feelings and flesh, inventive migrations of thought.”

God, I’m glad I’m a fag.

You are here: fawny.orgTen Years Ago in SPYArchives → July–August 1992

Updated: 2001.09.024

See also: Interview with Alex Isley, former Spy art director