MY TIME IN THE INDEXING TRADE
MEMORIES OF AN ANCIENT KINGDOM | December 19th 2007
The Sydney Wolfe Cohen index was a thing of beauty, crafted in a warren of rooms on lower Fifth Avenue. Enid Stubin joined this small colony of publishing souls in purgatory. She recalls her toils in Bartlebyland ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Somewhere between copy-editing and serving drinks at corporate Christmas parties lies my stint at Sydney Wolfe Cohen Associates, the pre-eminent indexing service in New York City. I take a certain pride in the excellence of SWC: of the making of books there is much chazzerai, but when Knopf or Cambridge or Simon and Schuster wanted to flog one in particular—shuttling the author onto "The Today Show" or Charlie Rose—the index was always contracted out to SWC.
Printed on 25-pound bond, tapped into crisp alignment, jacketed in heavyweight cardboard. The disk, neatly labelled, enveloped and centred, four extra-heavy rubber bands gartering the stack. There you have the Sydney Wolfe Cohen index. It is a thing of beauty.
Sydney himself was a dapper, beautifully-spoken man in his seventies, who looked like a more soigné version of the character actor Jack Gilford. Sydney bought his jackets at Paul Stuart and held avuncular court in a warren of rooms in an office building on lower Fifth Avenue. (Ben Katchor might have immortalised the site as the "Vutsdepoint".) Upon entering the hush of this small colony the first time, I recognised that I'd ambled into Bartlebyland, replete with airshaft-faced windows. But quiet was the point at SWC Associates: tones were muted and tempers tamped. This was true whether you worked in the library, where we toiled at a big square table surrounded by reference works (the internet seemed so tacky and unreliable then); the computer room, where "imputers" typed out the actual indexes (double-spaced, Courier font); the front room, where the bella figura ethos reigned; or the sanctum sanctorum, Sydney's office, where he rarely sat.
Sometimes, during a tricky job, Sydney would take one of us into his lair, set us up at a narrow console table, and spend a long morning and even longer afternoon in debate over an entry. Authors had things to say, sure, but we determined how easily a reader could navigate them in a 600-page biography: Henry Kissinger's dog Blackie was hand-fed hamburger and string beans by Kissinger's mother (pet, diet of, 113). We worked under constraints: 1,100 lines was a sizable index; 780 lines meant we'd have to slash away. Balance, too, was a concern: a half-column on the mistress and only four entries for the missus? Maybe not. (Prudence, exercising of, 243)
I never dreamed of becoming an indexer. Such skills belonged to Randy and Grady, outwardly placid but impish fellows of a puckish disposition. David and Fred were more serious, arriving about once a fortnight carrying several 1,000-count cartons of 4 x 6-inch index cards (their original function), or to pick up blank ones. More rarely we steeled ourselves for the arrival of L., the son of someone famous, who was a crack indexer and an amiable fellow, but who'd gotten into some trouble for making obscene phone calls and spent some time on Rikers. (Employees, abilities of, 63; criminal records of, 66)
Most specialised were the abilities of Laura, whose cookbook indices were masterpieces of anatomy. If you were paying $35 for a regional Italian cookbook and wished to whip up a zucchini, tomato and Swiss chard frittata, you'd find your recipe under "vegetables", "zucchini", "tomato", "Swiss chard", "eggs", and "buffet dishes." I understand that computer programs do that sort of thing now, but in the early 1990s, Laura did it. She was one of the reasons Marcella Hazan, Rick Bayless and Maida Heatter sold so many books: her indices led you to where you needed to be. Around the office, Laura used vanilla as her signature scent and looked fierce—I was careful not to antagonise her. She alone of the associates had a key and could come and go as she pleased. (Favouritism, evidence of, 34)
A day or two after an index was typed up, I'd be asked to proofread and proofcheck—to verify spelling and to confirm our accuracy against the book galleys. One could handily absorb an entire book in the process, which Sydney knew and hated. If you were reading, you weren't doing something more important to ensure the quality and elegance of his product. (Drudgery, enforcement of, 78)
Worse, should you have the temerity to look up, say, "tapenade" in an encyclopaedic Barbara Kafka tome (in search of a chic and inexpensive dinner-party appetizer, say), and get caught at the photocopy machine cannibalising from an SWC galley, Sydney would look pained. (Manuscripts, potential exploitation of, 43)
Everyone guzzled coffee, so anxieties about spills and stains loomed. And while associates could bring their lunch to work, one needed to abide by a set of unspoken rules. You learned them by indirection: for reasons of sensibility, tuna was verboten (a shame, as the version cranked out by the Fifth Avenue Epicure down the block was tasty), while chicken salad passed muster. Mustard was okay, but not ketchup; rosemary was well-regarded while garlic—ah, garlic was a problem. Of course, you could obviate these regulations by offering to fetch Sydney "something" from downstairs: if he accepted a half-pound of, say, roasted potatoes with garlic and rosemary, you could bring in a leftover lamb navarin and he wouldn't say a word. (Food, ambivalence toward, 138)
It was my unofficial job to tempt the boss with something fragrant enough to give everyone clemency for a mid-afternoon slice of pizza. I wasn't half-bad at convincing Sydney that ratatouille was not only nutrient-dense and low-caloric, but would also clear his system of cholesterol. Twice a year, when he was due for a physical check-up, he foreswore dairy and fats, and we all paid the price. Cranky and yearning, he'd follow you around with his eyes, his chin tilted up to catch a whiff of hummus on the air. "Hmm, that smells...nice," he'd intone wistfully. I genuinely feared for Grady's tomato and cucumber on whole-wheat pita. (Sandwiches of others, desire for, 139)
We all liked each other, or at least got along. If Sydney overheard us making plans to get together after work, he'd intervene. An impromptu date for Friday evening drinks turned into dinner at Portfolio, with Sydney presiding over the long table and none of us too sure about what to order, as he'd be picking up the tab. In this way he was much like Fezziwig: genial and generous, but nothing could happen without him. (Centrality, possible insistence on: amiable, 256)
I never thought of Sydney as lonely. In fact, my one effort to fix him up—with the mother of my old high-school flame, a beautiful, smart, funny and accomplished woman of roughly Sydney's age—went badly. "He looks exactly like Jack Gilford!" she exulted. The trouble may have been that she knew Jack Gilford—and that she played the violin in chamber groups, and was a practising therapist, and had portrayed Hedda Gabler in a Brooklyn College showcase production, among other things. "She's done everything I ever wanted to do," he said mournfully after their first date. He never called her again. (Women, attracted to, 119; attractiveness to, 116-18)
Sydney was the best in the business—if he knew it, who could blame him? Like another ne plus ultra, he referred to his professional nemesis as "Moriarty." I never learned whether such a figure existed or was merely a cardboard cut-out of Sydney's, the yin to his yang, the Eisenhower to his Stevenson. Talk of Sydney retiring, all of it from Sydney, sounded like so much static to me.
But attentive to the rush of the Reichenbach Falls, Beth contemplated a move: "What if we bought Sydney out? We'd have his name and the business; we could keep all the people here and maybe even get health insurance." I was dazzled by her ambition and brio, the visionary gleam of her plans. But then Beth finished her doctorate and moved west for a tenure-track job; Grady became the first curator of The Museum of Sex; Fred, freelancing, indexed Beth's book on Virginia Woolf. Neither gifted in the heavy-duty skills that editing demanded nor possessed of the patience for Sydney's mandarin gamesmanship, I was phased out. (Employees, relationship with: guarded, 141-42)
Perhaps a year later I got a phone call from Sydney asking if I was available to "do some work" on a new Wordsworth biography. Expecting a nostalgic welcome, I arrived to find instead a slender Barnard graduate student seated alongside him. Down the table sat a stack of proofs with a dog-eared index atop: Naomi Wolf's version of Weltanschauung. Wasn't I working on the Wordsworth? "Oh," Sydney sighed, slyly, "there's always another Wordsworth..." The sylph smiled too, a Gioconda smirk. Stung, I laboured for two grinding days on the postmodernofeminist manifesto and swore never to return. (Bait, switching of, 387)
I heard that Sydney retired to Chappaqua just before the Clintons showed up, a fact that must have pleased him not a little. I should really dress up and invite him to lunch at one of the Murray Hill Italian places he liked or somewhere posh in Grand Central. (Growing up, as revenge: best, 247) We could talk about the old days.
(Enid Stubin is assistant professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, and writes a New York diary for The Reader magazine.)