I did everything I could to avoid her. She'd been leaving message after desperate-rape-victim-voice message on my answering machine. What could I say? You were your own worst enemy, Marina. You let your old boyfriend screw you over time and time again, and you never learned. You had your chance to sell Living Here, and you balked. I couldn't think of anything nice or comforting to say, and since I never disliked her, I thought it was best to avoid it all. Finally, about a week and a half ago, I caved. I agreed to meet my former LH boss, Marina Psch-, at Sally O'Brien's for a drink. I guess I owed it to her to tell her in person why I, and the staff, all left Living Here. She broke into tears several times, which, I have to admit, gave me a lump in my throat. It's why I hate talking to people. There's no winning with humans-it's a lose-lose situation, every time: either humiliation or pain, no in-betweens.
Marina had lost $35,000 on Living Here. And Manfred Witteman, Living Here's publisher, had stolen the hard disk drive to her PowerMac computer, and confiscated another $6,500 that he owed to her.
"I just cried and cried for the first three days after I found this all out," she told me. "I could not move, I could not do anything. I feel so horrible."
Then she shyly made me a proposal. Would I take over Living Here if it was revamped as an open joint stock company? I put my head down and shook my head no. It was so sad and desperate, I gave serious thought to doing to her what humanitarians do to a horse with a broken leg... point to the rabbit farm in the distance, lift the revolver, and pop a mercy cap behind its ear...
Stalking For Dollars
By now, you, the reader, are unnerved, and perhaps even faking a sneer at the fact that you're getting yourself into a petty, sordid article, full of mud-slinging, vicious accusations, and wounded egos. But let's face it. It's a lot of fun reading this kind of stuff. That's why mean-spirited gossip is more popular than The Economist. Facts are okay, but watching someone get drawn and quartered in the market square is ten times funner. So long as it isn't it you. Besides, this story has everything that the great coups of Russia has: threats of violence, intrigue, theft, attempted suicide, raw evil, rape, kompromat, and a whole lot of unintended comedy. And the best thing is... it's all true.
Let's go back a bit in time, to the fall of 1995, when Living Here was first being conceived. "Conceived," of course, is not quite the right word. Raped in her sleep is more like it.
The rapist was Manfred Witteman, a failed musician from Holland who worked for several years at the Moscow Times as a computer technician. During those long days on Ulitsa Pravdy, he dreamed of breaking out of his routine. To be "somebody cool," as he later put it. So he called up his ex-girlfriend, Marina Psch-, and asked her for money, promising her riches and fame. The girl was lured into the bushes with promises of sweets and sugar...
In order to gain her interest (and money), he sold her on the idea of creating an English-language real estate newspaper (Marina worked in real estate, so it was a good way to lure her interest). Without doing any solid math, he came up with the following proposal. She would contribute $10,000, in return for 50% of the shares; he would invest his intellectual input [sic] (in addition to which she would have to pay him a monthly salary of $1500 dollars), and get an equal 50% share. He told her that she would begin to realize a profit in three months, recoup her investment in six, and, by promising her a split-percentage of any future publications he put together, she would finally be able to buy herself the flat of her dreams. The weirdest thing is, she bought it. Two months after Living Here was launched, Marina found herself the proverbial victim of a foreign scam. She had already sunk $35,000 into Living Here, there was no hope for a profit in sight, and key personnel was taking flight. But that's only the beginning.
The idea for an English-language real estate paper in Moscow was of course idiotic. Well before Living Here's launch, the fledgling paper was beset with problems. The first editor-in-chief-designate, Daisy Sindelair, bailed without a phone call, and the first sales manager found a better job even as Witteman was trying to coax another potential editor.
Living Here Body Count: 2 people quit before the launch. Then luck arrived in the form of "John Evelyn." Expats, he delicately explained to Witteman, were not dying to read yet more real estate listings and articles on building sites and lease contracts. With verbal finesse, Evelyn convinced Witteman that expats wanted to have fun. And for fun, they needed a nightlife paper. Evelyn's advice was like the voice of God (or reason), and Living Here was transformed from Witteman's hokey real estate/community paper into Evelyn's Time Out-ish nightlife paper. In order to keep Marina (ie: the money) interested, one-quarter of the editorial would still be devoted to real estate. Now it was time to get the writers.
The Ego and Mister Smithers
This is where I come in... First, I should explain a little bit about what I was doing at the time that Witteman was dipping into his ex-girlfriend's purse. In the fall of '95, I had a job. A real-world job. Making expat-world money. I was a "personal assistant." How would I describe this job? Best to refer to how my co-workers talked about me behind my back. I was variously known as "the headless chicken," "the lackey," or simply, "boy"... a grotesquely obsequious lieutenant who chased after his Indian boss from one building to the next, Psion 3a in-sweaty-hand. I was the Oliver North of the investment banking world. You know the old saying, "When his boss said 'jump!' the guy said 'how high?'" Well, that was small-time stuff in my books, this jumping business. With me, it was more like, if my boss told me to round up potential rivals, I'd've said, "How many cattle wagons, sir?" I learned a valuable lesson about myself: I'd make a damn good camp guard. I'd've made Himmler proud. I'd be promoted to field manager in the camp guard business... Just whack me with a stick and give me strict orders. I'll eagerly follow!... Jawohl!
But then something changed me. It was a quip from an obese, loud-mouthed Mexican I knew back in Salinas, California. After hearing about my Moscow job, she began to refer to me as "Smithers." As in the cartoon character. Now it's one thing to be likened to Great Lackeys in History, but another to be compared to a cartoon character... and so accurately, too. My initial response was a Homer-esque "doh!" Then depression. Then long evenings staring into the mirror, going, "Jesus, god... Who am I?... What have I become?"
Right around this time, the strangest thing happened. An old article of mine appeared by mistake in the Moscow Times. I'm sure that editor Marc Champion, even as he's packing his bags and preparing to eXile himself from Russia, will look back on that one slip-up as the biggest mistake of his life. Damnit! How did Ames' piece sneak through my quality control?... If only I could go back in time, do something about it, change it... if I could just get my hands on the golden fish... I had actually submitted the article in question, "The Rise and Fall of the Expat Aristocracy," to the Times almost eight months earlier, but Champion sort of half-spiked it. But then I got lucky-a change of the guard in a lower-rung editorial position-somehow, my article slipped through. It wound up becoming, in Champion's own words, the most controversial piece they'd ever printed.
Just like that, my ludicrously oversized ego, which long before had fallen off the wall like Humpty-Dumpty, was being glued back together with every passing week of angry letters to the editor, dirty looks, bitter comments and a general sense that I wasn't liked.
But Champion wasn't interested in having me write anything more for the Times. He'd already told me a year earlier, after considering me for the job as their sort of "wild/comic" columnist, that I was "too wild." As in, not the safe, fake, quirky version of "wild," but a little too much of the real thing. The personnel leak that allowed my piece onto the Opinion Page was patched with the appointment of uber-beigist Michael Kazmarek as the Times' new Opinion Page Editor. The lock-out of Mark Ames from the Moscow Times was complete. I had nowhere else to turn.
The Pink Knight
That's when Witteman called me. He asked me to be the feature columnist for a nightlife paper he was trying to put together, Living Here. I winced at the name, but figured, he's Dutch, they like that kind of thing. I agreed to write upon two conditions. That he pay me a hundred dollars per column. And that nothing I write is ever tampered with. Witteman gave me his word.
About a year later, in early January, 1997, Witteman broke his word. I shouldn't have been surprised. Over the previous year, he'd lied to me about money, but never about creative issues. When a person you've known and worked closely with breaks his word, it's sort of like rape-you never think it can happen to you... afterwards, you feel somehow that perhaps it's your fault for not having taken more precautions. You sort of blame yourself.
What he did to Marina, by driving her into financial ruin, dwarfs in comparison to what he did to me. But still, I'm me. As one Frenchman put it, how can the deaths of a hundred thousand people from an earthquake in China compare to the pain of a splinter in my little finger... I'm very sorry for what he did to Marina, and I did my best to warn her. But still, he lied to me, damnit. And I can't accept that.
What happened was this. Manfred came up with the whacky idea of doing a calendar of predictions for 1997 entitled "50 Ways To Leave Your Liver." The theme? Alcoholism and sex. Dutch humor. Wicked stuff.
Even Witteman knew it was shit, so he called me up in a panic two days before the paper was to go to print, and begged me to clean it up. I couldn't believe what I saw. Predictions like, "You meet Sergei, he sticks his fist in your ass," or, "You meet Irena at a kiosk, and she shoves greased ponchiki up your ass"... Biff the Kappa Sig meets the Todd the bathroom-stall nerd... Witteman always had an anal fixation, which he let people know in order to prove his decadent, I'm-on-the-edge credentials. Last summer, he hired a young gay prostitute, Andrei D-, to work underneath him in design for Living Here. Only, there was a hitch: Andrei had never touched a computer in his life. And he didn't speak a word of English. And he was dyslexic. The upside to this was that, with a subordinate so grossly underqualified, Witteman's job at Living Here couldn't be threatened (by this time, Witteman's role had been effectively reduced to that of designer). The downside was that we lost advertisers. See, poor Andrei couldn't get the wording or design of the ads right. I got to know Andrei, since he drew all the pictures for my "Boris and Baht-khed" cartoon. He was a nice, fucked-up kid, eager and full of hope, but doomed to fail. On the surface, Witteman's intentions may have been good-to help a street hooker, and semi-boyfriend of a Dutch friend, turn legitimate. But as the Russians say, "The path to hell is paved with good intentions." Witteman never considered the consequences to Andrei if the latter failed-which, of course, he did. Andrei blamed himself for the fact that he couldn't do the job. It was physiologically impossible for him. Dejected, Andrei tried to commit suicide, spent several weeks recovering in a hospital, and is now back on the streets, wrongly convinced that he has no hope in the legitimate world.
Living Here Body Count: 3
Anyway, I tried to fix the calendar, but it was useless. Meanwhile, Witteman was trying to furtively steal the newspaper away from Marina, who was on vacation in Kenya. Witteman planned to re-launch Living Here under another publishing house. He harbored dreams that the Moscow Times' parent company, Independent Media, would buy us out and keep us all gainfully employed. He told me all about it on a few occasions, but I didn't pay attention. Once, he backed up his proposal by offering to pay me money in-advance for designing a twenty-page issue-money, in fact, that he owed to Marina. $6,500, sitting pretty in his personal Moscow bank account. Of course I'd take any money he threw my way and head straight to Night Flight or the soft-and-pockmarked-arm-of-Buddha, but I knew that when it came to money, never believe Witteman. And his dream of selling Living Here to his old bosses at the Moscow Times, which Witteman proudly saw as his coup de grace, was unbelievably... well, unbelievable.
I became convinced that Witteman had lost it for good. The next day, I called him up at the office, and asked both him and Kino Kevin to take my name off that issue of Living Here, and for them to attach their own names to the calendar. They agreed.
Two days later, the newspaper came out. And there, on the calendar, was my name and picture. I went ballistic and called Witteman up. As expected, he denied everything.
I've heard a lot of horror stories about editors changing crucial parts of a journalist's story without telling them; about record companies secretly remixing alternative bands' recordings; or about movie studios altering films to give them happy endings... But I've never heard of someone falsely attributing his own bad work to someone else, especially after he specifically agreed not to.
"I had no idea that you didn't want your name on the calendar," Witteman cried. "Kevin never said anything to me."
So I called Kino Kevin, who wearily explained to me the truth. "He told me, 'I'm the publisher, I know what I'm doing,'" Kevin explained. "I tried to stop him, but he said he had his reasons."
Why did Witteman do it? I don't know... Here I should mention a little something about his highly underrated ego. Look, I know I have a big Ego. I love my Ego. I'm proud of it. I give it a capital "E." I take my Ego out for walks on sunny days. I lull it to sleep every night, and serve it breakfast-in-bed every morning. Witteman, however, believes that he is salt-of-the-earth. He plays the role of feckless bohemian, and comes across as so slouched and alcoholic-charming that you couldn't imagine he'd do anything bad.
He once said to a friend of mine, in all seriousness, "Prove to me you're cool. I'm the publisher of Living Here. Who are you?" My friend thought of smacking Witteman in the face, but when I mentioned the possibility of hepatitis-B and warned him to make sure that none of Witteman's blood got in his eyes, he cringed and backed off.
Witteman's jealousy of my growing fame at Living Here came to a head last fall. I'll never forget my Forbes Magazine interview. I was sitting with Forbes' editor Paul Khlebnikov in the Abacus bar, where he spent an hour interviewing me (later to hilariously misquote me). Witteman sat at another table, nervously smoking a cigarette and sipping a beer, pretending not to be hurt by being left out. Finally, he couldn't take it; he came to our table, with that affected, feckless slouch of his, and opened up by saying, "I know I'm not so interesting as Mark here and I don't have so many good quotes for you to say as he does, but since I'm the publisher of Living Here, you can ask me any questions you want." Khlebnikov clearly didn't want to, but Manfred pushed it. Khlebnikov finally got out of it by saying that his tape recorder had broken. When Witteman saw the issue of Forbes with my picture and quotes, he grimaced. "It's because I'm Dutch that the fucking Americans left me out," he griped.
After the calendar back-stab, I thought a lot about revenge. I could write something nasty, but that would only hurt someone with self-respect. I could take a crow bar to his head, but the thought of Witteman's blood getting in my eyes made me queasy. So I thought about what Malcom MacLaren would do in my shoes. Money. He'd demand money. Money always hurts the Wittemans of the world more than words or violence. So I demanded four hundred dollars, the fee I'd have received for editing the calendar issue. He told me he didn't have the money. When I pointed out that he was holding $6,500 dollars that he owed to Marina in his bank account, he paused, stared coldly, then said, "Yeah, but I can't give it to you. If I do, I'll be so angry, I'll never be able to work with you again."
And that was that. Within a week after my resignation, Kino Kevin, the accountant (Living Here's second) and the production manager, Masha Irmakova, followed suit. Only Witteman remained.
Living Here Body Count: 7 people
Two weeks ago, Witteman's ex-girlfriend, Marina Psch-, returned from a long vacation in Kenya, looking tan, healthy, and sporting a Bo Derek braided do. She was in for the shock of her life. Not only did she lose Living Here, and the $35,000 she'd wastefully invested. The night before she returned, Witteman snuck into the Living Here office and stole the hard drive from the main computer. A computer that Marina rightfully owns. He phoned her up the next day, told her that he had the hard drive and her $6,500 dollars, called her all sorts of rude names, and blamed her for everything. He told her he was keeping the money as compensation for his work. And the hard drive would only be returned if she agreed to give him the name Living Here.
As I said, I met with Marina last week. It was one of the saddest, most painful meetings I've had.
"I know I was stupid and I made a lot of mistakes," she told me, tears in her eyes. "But the most incredible thing is that he doesn't admit to doing one wrong thing. Not one wrong thing. He called me a 'fucking bitch' and that I 'fucked everything up,' it was all my fault, using such language. I don't understand."
I told her to call the police on him. The thought of Witteman trying to prove his bohemian I'm-on-the-edge credentials to a bunch of hardened convicts is something I'd pay good money to watch. But Marina is in that class of women who are always doomed to being taken advantage of. She said she wanted to give him more time to come around. As of this writing, Marina has given in to her former lover yet again, having"loaned" Witteman the name of the newspaper in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to save it from ruin. Witteman still hasn't relinquished to her the $6,500, but at least the hard drive is back in her computer. For now.
The sad truth is that Marina was always her own worst enemy. She never signed a contract with Witteman to legitimize his stake in Living Here, which kept him bitter and always plotting. She treated her staff poorly, leading to several resignations and low morale, and no loyalty when it came to crunch-time. She fought bitterly and openly with Witteman during several disastrous attempts to organize Living Here staff meetings, meaning that no more meetings were called, except those to try to oust her. And she never paid her staff or journalists on time, if at all. Kino Kevin is still owed $1,400, Vijay Maheshwari $300, Don Kipines $250, I'm owed $200... and so on... What's worse, two sales managers and the first chief accountant accused Marina of stealing Living Here's money, an accusation which contributed to their resignations. It would make sense-after all, Marina lost so much, she probably felt that she had the right to pocket what she could before it collapsed. Besides, the paper was legally all hers. The weirdest part is that she rebuffed a buyout offer last December which would have recompensed her for all the money she'd lost in Living Here. Her reasoning? She was "insulted" by the offer, since, in her mind, the paper was worth $70,000. It was because of the two partners' antics that they earned such epithets as "Dumb and Dumber," "Twiddle-dee and Twiddle-dumb," or just, "those two clowns."
Les Coups des flops
The first attempted Living Here coup took place in late January, 1996, just two months after the first LH issue. Marina came to John Evelyn and me and told us that she'd run out of money. We added up how much she'd invested thus far (she didn't keep books), and realized, to our collective horror, that she'd lost roughly $35,000 dollars. So we called a meeting to try to decide how we could save the paper. Evelyn, then-sales manager Dina Gordon, and I all agreed to defer our salaries until the paper was back on its feet. Then Witteman arrived.
"I have to have my salary," he insisted.
We told him that the paper was already bankrupt, and that no one could take any money.
"But I have to have my salary," he said, as though deaf to the problem. As if trying to take the girl back into the bushes for another jam session, even though her vagina had been so badly mangled, that there was nothing left to penetrate.
His response to the crisis was so shockingly self-centered, that the entire staff agreed that he had to be cut out. After all, he'd been singularly responsible for the debacle thus far-and, paradoxically, he was also drawing the largest salary.
Evelyn wanted to save what was really his conceptual baby. He found a potential investor to take over Living Here, but the problem was, the investor didn't want to deal with either Manfred or Marina. "Those two are the problem, and until they're out, I'll wait," the investor said.
Then Marina asked me to take over. I declined.
The paper was dead. No one else wanted it. No one. There was only one person left who could take it. Manfred Witteman. So he re-inherited it by default. But not before Evelyn quit out of disgust. That's when I took over as editor, deferring my pay for three months.
Living Here Body Count: 8 People
The second failed coup took place in late November/December of last year. Living Here was onto its fourth sales manager, second accountant and third editor by then. And sales manager number four, Kara Deyerin, was already getting so worried about her own reputation, that she was preparing to quit. An investor offered, via Kara, to take Living Here off of Marina's hands and to repay her lost money, so long as both she and Witteman were out of the decision-making process.
Marina waffled over a week's period. Witteman had meanwhile quit, demanding that Marina sign a profit-sharing deal with him on the newspaper. He was sending her letters and faxes full of four-letter expletives, hanging up the phone on her, and threatening her. Then Witteman found out that Marina had received a buyout offer, and he panicked. He grovelled, appealing to her heart and their long friendship. He broke her down, and drew her to tears. The girl was led back into the flattened bushes for a drawn-out molesting session... and eventually, Witteman got his way. Marina turned the investor's offer down. Kara, afraid for her own reputation in Moscow by linking her name with Witteman and Marina, quit the newspaper. Once again, by default, the paper fell back in Witteman's hands; he quickly proceeded to try to take it to another investor, hoping to cut Marina out once and for all.
Living Here Body Count: 9 People
The last coup de grace finally occurred early January, when the rest of the staff walked, and started this newspaper, "the eXile."
Death of a Sales Manager
Living Here lost its first sales manager even before the paper got off the ground. It wasn't easy finding a replacement.
Dina Gordon was the savior. Or rather, she was the only choice available after a month-long search. She had been fired from a previous job selling liquor, and was looking for work. Any work. For her, Manfred and Marina were the perfect bosses.
During Dina's 10-month tenure, she concurrently worked for at least one other firm. She was able to get away with working two jobs because no one at Living Here managed her. Occasionally, they yelled at her. But that was it. Finally, last September, Dina confided to me that she'd already started work a few weeks earlier with Young & Rubicam as an account manager, even though she was also still officially the Living Here sales manager.
Manfred and Marina still had no clue. I was shocked, and broke my promise not to say anything, which led to Witteman firing her. At the same time, the first accountant, Olga, also quit. She told us in a meeting that the disorganization, and the disappearing money, threatened the reputation of her fledgling private accounting firm. She was afraid of getting in trouble. So she resigned.
The next sales manager, a young American woman, lasted only a few days. She too was taken aback by the disorganization, and by the fact that Witteman spent 15 minutes yelling at her one day for not meeting him on time. She rolled her eyes, made a phone call, and took a different job with a multinational. After her, Kara Deyerin, who was fresh off the American boat, joined Living Here. For the first time, the paper seemed to run smoothly. These were the golden days. I was on leave, but I was tempted to return. For that brief, wonderful month and a half, everyone received their salaries, journalists were happy, advertisers were happy... and then, Witteman hit the fan. He walked out of the paper, demanding that Marina sign her shareholder's agreement with him (almost a year after the first issue of Living Here!). Concurrently, it became known that Living Here got stuck with a phone and rent bill to the tune of $6,500 on behalf of a magazine that Witteman had started up with a foreign partner. Witteman couldn't pay the bill, and if Living Here didn't cover for him, we'd be thrown out of our offices and have our lines cut. See, Witteman had earlier convinced us that his magazine would pay Living Here's bills. Now we were stuck. We paid his $6,500. When Witteman's magazine partners wired the sum to him a month later-money that Witteman owed back to Marina-he kept it for himself. It was the last really juicy rape he performed on his ex-girlfriend... I have to admit, there's something almost impressive about it: after all he'd done, he was still able to drag her back into the bushes.
Deyerin didn't want any part of this mess, so she submitted her resignation.
Living Here Body Count: 13 People
So there you have it, the sordid truth. I stand by all of the facts in this piece, and I challenge anyone to prove me wrong: the amount of money lost and stolen by Witteman, the staff flight, the theft, the internal accusations, the disorder, the childish acrimony... I've left a few of the most damaging facts out, saving them for a rainy day.
The worst in fact was yet to come. This past week, as their desperation grew to a head, they resorted first to threats, then to mass-faxing an "anonymous" business letter to all potential clients smearing Kara's name.
The threat came in a phone conversation between Marcus Deyerin and Marina on Tuesday at 2:30pm, which the entire offices here at Ne Spat' witnessed. It went as follows:
I have to admit, while all this intriguing business gives me a knot in my stomach, threats of violence are the stuff of my dreams. Tatum-Schmatum, I love this shit. She unleashed a tidal wave of hormones, testosterone and adrenaline that felt like a mixture of pure crystal meth with a kicker of E. As of this writing, the ominous phone call has not arrived, and I assume that she was bluffing, because she also threatened Witteman with a crew of rebyata if he didn't return her hard drive... and we saw what happened there.
What I do know is that Low Life Patrick Hyland, the hideous bug-eyed freak who started, then abandoned, a gift checks scheme with Witteman, penned the smear letter himself. Hyland is one of the most reviled slimeballs in the expat community, a pariah even within the lowest English-speaking circles. He was drawn to that circle of besieged losers this week because they were all sharing the same fate: a sinking shit. Hyland owes all kinds of local establishments an enormous amount of money for High Life, which he'd promised to print last November. It will never be printed.
As Marina falls back into the brush one last time, and Witteman goes through the familiar old routine of tearing her tattered, bloodied panties off, one can only hope that there is a just god out there who will pay him back for all the wrong done.
Witteman has been spreading the word that he's got a few nasty tricks up his sleeve to keep the eXile from reaching you. As of this writing, Witteman is also falsely leading people on to believe that a certain famous women's fashion magazine-where he works now in his old Moscow Times role as computer technician-is about to back his newspaper up. He has a lot of reasons to want to believe that's true. Marina has been strip-mined beyond repair; her resources have been exhausted. A women's fashion magazine offers not just a solid partner, but the potential for an entirely new, fresh body.
Candy and sweets, anyone?...