Gedney Goes Underground

s
t
o
r
i
e
s

Extreme.

Gedney Market typed on his Powerbook as the elevated train plunged into the ground just before Division Street on its journey to the Loop.

The scrotum-spifflicating gtr of Luftboffer’s frontman/boy-toy Dirk Polnschlaeger strafes the global village with white-hot rounds of incendiary homocore, leaving only women and children to glean the ruins for traces of …

Gedney paused, struggling to round off this metaphor. The deadline quickly approached for the second issue of his new zine, Labor of Loaf, and Gedney had spent the entire Halloween weekend finishing record reviews. It was futile. His mind elsewhere, Gedney abandoned the effort to the deafening racket of the speeding train. His reflection stared back at him haggardly from the window. “We’ll be under the river soon,” Gedney thought. “River.” The word snapped him back to the somberness of his impending mission.

Gedney had received the news over the phone the night before. “River’s dead,” his cousin Jeff had told him with a throaty chuckle.

“Wha … ?” Gedney had been stunned.

“Yeah,” Jeff had gloated. “He kicked it, buddy-boy. River Phoenix. You know the guy. Listen, this is gonna be fuckin’ huge.

Gedney sat in confused silence.

“It’s gonna be Freddie Prinz, if not James Dean. The international youth culture markets are gonna soar like nobody’s fuckin’ business. Ten times bigger than the Lollapalooza rally back in ‘91. I’m gonna be watching the Tokyo market tonight, and I’ll give you a call in the morning. Tomorrow I want you to be cocked, locked, and ready to rock.”


Ever since the unhappy schism with Bratislava and the violent anti-Seattle rampages that had shook the Czech capital in early 1993, Gedney had known that his lifestyle trended elsewhere. The bemused hospitality of the Prague’s citizens had turned to suspicion, then to outright hostility. When a local waitress at a Moldau-side coffee house called “Sequim Native” had intentionally spilled a double-latte over his new rollerblades and refused to apologize, Gedney had resolved to leave Prague forever.

His bags were packed, but the question was, as always, where to go. Gedney perused the stack of fashion and music magazines that his image broker overnighted to him each week. These offered no counsel—the lifestyle industry itself cast for worthy successors to last year’s played out scenes. Pundits sighted the peripatetic indie animus in a succession of cow towns: one week it was Lawrence, Kansas, the next it was Chapel Hill, North Carolina, or Champaign, Illinois. Gedney’s spirits sunk to an all-time low when, in June, Strawberry Statement named Cleveland the new American home of hip. But at last, somewhere near the end of that muggy and windless summer, the commentators came to a consensus: Chicago was It.

Gedney knew instinctively that Chicago, with its provincial ways and flat terrain, would be fertile ground for the lifestyle innovations he—and he alone—could offer. The flight was a direct one, and upon arrival Gedney was glad to be finally rid of the Slavic accents he had once found so charming. By studying the various Urge Overkill videos he had aptly versed himself in what he believed to be the Chicago look, and yet he was somewhat surprised to find himself the sole traveller in O’Hare to be clad entirely in velvet.

Gedney wasted no time finding his lifestyle bearings. Wicker Park, he soon learned, was the place to be, and through family connections he acquired a bargain second-story loft on Division Street just east of Damen. Within two weeks he had launched his own zine, Labor of Loaf, and had transformed his property into a gallery, coffee house, and performance space.

Gedney decorated the space, which he had dubbed “Studené Kladivo,” in an original high camp style admixed with a Czech communist theme (no one, he understood, was interested in the looks of the new, liberated Prague). He accented corners with Lava Lites perched atop plastic statues of happy, muscular Czech laborers, and filled the floor with the shapeless modern furniture of the 1950s. Gedney reserved the area over the bar for the latest and most disturbing works by Art Institute friends: a painting cycle on the theme of sharp objects; a cluster of plastic fetuses that, he was told, antedated the Nirvana album In Utero by some months. One wall was plastered with paint-by-number renderings of Elvis, another with idealized official portraits of Lenin. The pièce de résistance was “Lelvin,” a video installation that was to become the space’s trademark. Three enormous video screens played tape loops morphing the images of The King and The Commissar at the critical moments of their careers: a brilliantined pompadour exhorted Petrograd mobs not to be cruel, while a pointy-bearded, jumpsuited Slav crooned to Vegas weekenders about three-year plans. Gedney’s friends loved this appropriation of history.

So did the Wackenhut Corporation, sponsor of Wicker Park’s annual “Sleeping Around with the Jackals” arts festival. Studené Kladivo was named a “Mandatory Site” by the festival’s judges, and Gedney was deluged with admiring visitors. Gedney’s lifestyle venture met with quick success. He staged regular poetry “slams,” after the local custom, and was happily surprised by the enthusiastic turnout. The space had also become the favorite of a small subfaction of the Chicago “Gothic” clique. These surly, enigmatic types habitually hunched over coffee late into the night—dark clothes, eye shadow, elaborate hairdos—comforting one another after painful tattooing sessions. As his space became better known he had even marketed a line of T-shirts and jeans that bore Studené Kladivo’s characteristic Lelvin face logo. “Plus revolutionnaire que toi” was the slogan, a phrase which also adorned the cover of Labor of Loaf. The first issue of the zine had been enthusiastically received, and Gedney filled hundreds of orders from major-label A&R executives anxious to understand the arcane workings of America’s hottest underground.

Gedney’s maternal grandparents still inhabited an ancient, ramshackle mansion on Chicago’s South Side. After moving to the city Gedney had made a practice of dining with them regularly. On one of these occasions he had met his cousin Jeff Pfingsten. Gedney had not seen Jeff since 1974, when Jeff had returned from duty in Vietnam. Gedney and his cousin were complete opposites. While Gedney quaffed smart drinks at exclusive nightclubs, Jeff liked to make himself ill with cheap bourbon. While Gedney typically spent his money on expensive designer labels, Jeff liked to blow his wad on the ponies. While Gedney found difference and heterogeneity subversively alluring, Jeff heaped scorn on anyone whose complexion was darker than a paper bag. Jeff had served briefly with the Chicago Police, until he was forced to resign amid charges of brutality. He then took a job as a runner at the Chicago Board of Trade, and by dint of his sheer truculence and imposing physical stature, he rose through the ranks quickly. He now ran money for a phalanx of institutional investors.

Although he feared an imminent clash of personalities, Gedney was pleased to find that his cousin took immediate interest in his Wicker Park operations. All through dinner Jeff queried him about real estate investment opportunities in hip slums. As the evening wore on Gedney perceived himself sliding into a strange back-slapping bonhomie he had never experienced in his own social circle. He began to see his cousin as a man not unlike himself—a man with similar passions, fears, desires. “The only difference between us,” Gedney mused, “is an expensive education and a subscription to Details.” As they left their grandparents’ house, Jeff suggested beers at a local tavern.

“Gedney,” Jeff slurred as he poured out the last of their third pitcher of Englewood Special Pale, “I’ve never had any use for you artsy candy-asses. But I have to respect you for the fact that chicks seem to dig your shtick. Admit it, dude, with those sideburns and that earring you must be gettin’ more play than Shakespeare.”

Gedney muttered what he thought was manly assent.

“But I’ll tell you,” Jeff continued, “I’ve got this problem, and you may be the guy to help me. I recently acquired a seat in this new deviance futures pit they got at the Board. The guys are talking about how much coin a fella can make there, and the money I got behind me really wants in. The thing is, I don’t know a Pearl Jam from a hole in the ground.” Pfingsten proposed a partnership: he would supply the capital, and Gedney would put his lifestyle savvy to a more mercenary use by trading deviance contracts. “I need a ponytail out there,” Jeff confided, “and I think you may be my boy.”

Despite his keen lifestyle perspicacity, Gedney’s first few months in the deviance pit had seen some signal mistakes of judgement.

Daunted by his own innocence of the Byzantine ways of high finance, Gedney had been doubtful at first. But under Jeff’s tutelage he quickly learned the technicalities of the business. He would be buying and selling “deviance” futures, contracts based on what the Board of Trade called the “Youth Culture Marketability Index,” or YCMI, a weighted arithmetic average of the stock prices of various advertising, media, and music publishing conglomerates. The YCMI could be counted on to respond to corporate profit forecasts for YCMI-listed companies, as well as to the extraneous “sociocultural dysfunction indicators” reported biweekly by the government agencies. Some deviance traders developed sophisticated data-driven trading systems, while others favored gut instincts. With time Gedney developed a trading style that balanced the two orientations. As Jeff had put it, all a trader needed was a killer instinct, a little inside dope, and faith in a simple trader’s maxim, “The Trend is Your Friend.”

Despite his keen lifestyle perspicacity, Gedney’s first few months in the deviance pit had seen some signal mistakes of judgement. His inability to separate fact from rumor had lured him into a number of unwise speculations. Gedney had been badly burned when he took a bullish position after an ad exec had showed him tapes of a soon-to-be-aired Dr. Pepper spot featuring Smashing Pumpkins. The campaign had been scuttled only days later, costing Jeff’s backers a considerable sum. A few weeks afterwards he had missed the obvious short play following the Michael Jackson pedophilia disclosure: while the Youth Culture Marketability Index plunged, Gedney was stuck in an embarrassingly long position he had taken on a rumor that Madonna was undergoing a sex change operation. And last month he had barely suppressed what would have been a fatal impulse to go short based on specious reports that Tabitha Soren had been seen entering a D.C. abortion clinic on the arm of George Stephanopoulos.


Today Gedney struggled with self-doubt. His world had darkened with the death of one of his generation’s brightest stars. River Phoenix was gone. His thoughts disordered by the bittersweet, erotic pangs of popstar bereavement, Gedney alighted from the train at Jackson Boulevard. He shuffled slowly on the platform as rivulets of London Fog streamed past. “What pathetic style,” he mused coldly, pondering his fellow commuters. “These pale corporate mandarins of the Midwest. Never to be dangerous, never to be entrepreneurial.” Gedney wondered what River, now viewing this tableau from Valhalla, would think.

“Extreme.” The word raced through his mind again and again. “What is the image of the rebel? Rebel is as rebel does.”

Gedney felt the sullenness drain from his soul as he mounted the stairs to the sunlit street. “This is no time to mourn dead heroes,” he resolved. “This is the time to rock and roll.” Today Gedney would inscribe his own name on the city’s illustrious roll of speculators, bag-men and chisellers; he would leave this flat burg of ham-fisted hog butchers and belching wheat stackers millions of dollars poorer. And he would be doing it for River, for his anguished, misunderstood generation, as much as for himself.

The Exchange was frantic as Gedney walked onto the trading floor. With forty-five minutes to go until the day’s official opening, coiffed and earringed clerks shouted into telephones and the ponytails of traders bobbed furiously as they scoured industry newspapers for details of the idol’s untimely demise. Buzz Binyon, the pit boss, was tearing his dreadlocks. He paced back and forth in the throes of the compulsive craving for information that had earned him his moniker. “Gus, Gus, chill out,” he screamed into his phone. “This is crucial: I’ve gotta know whether it was coke or crank!”

“Buzz,” someone yelled from the phone bank. “Chip’s got Keanu on the line!”

Gedney related how Johnny Depp had been shot and had been seen staggering, horribly injured, into a Los Angeles hospital.

A plan of action came together quickly in Gedney’s mind. He knew this much: the market would rally and trading volume would be brisk all morning. Like everyone else, Gedney would go long on the opening. By afternoon the YCMI would have gained ten, maybe twelve basis points. After all, nothing moves youth culture product like youth culture scandal. But the question was, when would the market become skittish and turn the other way? Remembering the reaction to the death of one of his earliest idols, daytime drama actor Jon-Erik Hexum, Gedney knew that any rally would be fragile at best. Hexum had been quickly, almost instantaneously forgotten; in obituaries he had been ridiculed rather than lionized. Recalling what Jeff had told him about “market bubble” theory, Gedney knew that the best way to pick the market’s turning point was to cause it. He would circulate his own rumors to prop the market artificially. Then, while other traders were maintaining wildly optimistic positions, Gedney would take profits on his morning trades and go short. He would sell “calls” as the market reached its peak, then cover them for more profit after its inevitable collapse.

Trading began with an immediate three-point leap in the Index and continued briskly and steadily through the morning. Gedney knew it would likely soften towards mid-session, since lunch affords traders an opportunity to gather more information and reassess their strategies. By eleven o’clock the index had reached an apparent plateau with a gain of about eight points. Gedney had made out well so far, but he expected a correction early in the afternoon. Something would have to be done to drive the market higher.

Gedney lunched at Parvenoo’s West, the favorite haunt of Lasalle Street’s up-and-comers. This morning it teemed with exuberant deviance traders. Buzz Binyon’s lackeys strutted and preened idly as they awaited his instructions. Gedney took a table by himself and signalled to a waiter he knew from all-night raves at Studené Kladivo. “Say, Federico,” he confided in low, conspiratorial tones, “have you heard the latest.”

Gedney related how Johnny Depp had been shot and had been seen staggering, horribly injured, into a Los Angeles hospital. Within minutes he could hear the waiter passing on the news to other traders in anxious whispers: “It looks like a suicide pact gone wrong.” The rumor travelled quickly. Ten minutes after Gedney had made the initial disclosure, the bartender left his station to tell him “something that you might find useful.”

Seconds later one of Gedney’s clerks approached him, red-faced and excited. “Gedge. I caught the buzz from one of Binyon’s dudes. Guys are saying now that Johnny Depp—check this shit—slipped River a mickey! There’s a warrant out for his arrest.” Everywhere traders were calling for their checks. Two men on the far side of the restaurant simply abandoned their meal and bolted for the door.

Gedney remained calm. After a few minutes he walked unflappably to the phone bank and placed a call to Kurt Loder in New York. Representing himself as a well-known Geffen executive, he whispered, “Kurt. Owen Hatteras here. I’m not sure if I should be telling you this, but we’re having some doubts about releasing the record that River’s band made last month. We played it backwards at thirty-three and, during that noise interlude—you know, that grungy part?—we could hear it distinctly. He says, ‘Johnny, Winona, I’m sorry. This is the only way out.’”

“Jesus H. Christ.” he could hear the low electronic squeak of Loder’s whistle from a thousand miles away. “You haven’t told Christgau about this yet?”

“No way, babe. But Kurt, I’m torn on this one. Do whatever you think is right.” Gedney hung up, paid his bill, and sauntered deliberately back to the Exchange.

Madness now reigned on the floor. Gedney could see Buzz Binyon’s sassy dreadlocks bobbing above the sea of flailing limbs, his head thrown back in a deep primordial shriek of acquisitive frenzy, both hands clutching wads of pink “buy” slips. Grown men were screaming like children to be heard, pushing one another violently aside, gesticulating uncontrollably, scribbling orders and flinging them into the throng of roiling, grasping fingers. Gedney glanced at the board. The index had jumped eight more points since he had left for lunch. He noticed that, for the first time ever, the visitor’s gallery above the trading floor was jammed with spectators, the adjoining hallway full of excited tourists waiting their turn to gawk at the imbroglio below. At the periphery of the pit stood a cluster of bond traders who had wandered over to watch the seemingly unstoppable deviance rally. Gedney spotted Jeff among them and the two exchanged a spirited high-five.

“Choice,” Gedney mused to himself. “But not yet extreme.” It was one o’clock.

Gedney returned to his office, hurriedly typed up a short dispatch, and summoned one of his clerks, a chisel-featured young Pilsenite with sideburns and jewelry worthy of Luke Perry himself. “Ramon, haven’t you got a friend over at Rubicam & Rubicam advertising that owes you one?” Gedney asked.

“Sure.”

“I want you to go over there and get your friend to fax this on company letterhead to the advertising directors of Spin, Details, Rolling Stone, Sassy, Cosmopolitan, Interview, Esquire, and … oh, yes, Inside Edge.”

The message was simple. It read:

Our client Benetton has acquired the rights to a photograph of the late actor River Phoenix being loaded into an ambulance in front of the Viper Room after the unfortunate incident of October 31. As you know, Benetton advertising has long used “disturbing” images not only to highlight the company’s brand name in the minds of upscale consumers, but also to problematize routine paradigms of consumer desire. Naturally, we have been the victims of considerable criticism for so doing. We are planning to run an ad featuring the River photograph in our December campaign; please advise as to your willingness to print such an image.

Gedney handed the bogus missive to Ramon and walked to the bathroom. He gazed into the mirror for a moment at his handsome face. “Fifteen minutes,” he thought. “Thirty at most.” He cocked his head at an oblique angle and stroked his right sideburn longingly. “Farewell, trusty steed,” he uttered wistfully as he plugged in his Norelco Groomer, “but we must part.”

At two-twenty a clean-jowled Gedney returned to the trading floor. The index had ascended a staggering twenty-seven points since the morning’s opening bell. The pit now undulated in orgiastic, Lollapaloozian moshing. Men climbed over one another, ululating and crying in increasingly hoarse tones, their parti-colored jackets torn sleeveless. The clawing hands of the traders had long since destroyed their colleagues’ neat ponytails of that morning; now they hung limp and depleted. Hair was everywhere on the floor, hashed by wildly churning Doc Martens with discarded paper and crumpled fax transmissions. The audience cheered each advance, and there seemed to be no end in sight.

Coolly, diabolically, Gedney waded through the pit, seeking the newest, least experienced traders. Quietly he began to sell his calls. With ten minutes left until the three o’clock closing bell Gedney had closed out the last of his morning positions. Now, he knew, was the time to throw the gears of the market into reverse. Abandoning all subterfuge, Gedney threw up both arms and started shorting in-the-money calls at an eighth discount to the market. Pandemonium erupted anew. A bewildered but eager throng swarmed to answer his offer as Gedney feverishly scribbled “sell” orders. As he tore the last slip from his pad and proffered it to the crowd, he looked up to find himself face to face with Buzz Binyon, simmering with incredulous outrage. He stared at Gedney in unmoving contrast to the surrounding hubbub. “Gedney … ,” he stammered, “what do you know?”

Gedney could gauge the thin membrane of self-control which now held back the pit boss’s rage. He smiled nonchalantly and said, in the local idiom, “All I know, Binyon, is what my mama told me: you snooze, you lose.”

Binyon’s last restraint burst. He spun on his heels, his dreadlocked visage suddenly pale, crying “Five hundred Dece three-forty calls to offer … to offer, goddammit!” His voice cracked and trailed off into a falsetto of desperation. Other traders stared open-mouthed. But before anyone could move, the bell rang ending the day’s trading session.


Jeff met Gedney as he strode off the floor. “Masterful, motherfucker, masterful. Tonight I’m gonna set you up with the best trim in town.”

The two repaired to the Buckette Shoppe, an aftermarket trysting spot for deve traders and their slags. Gedney loathed it. But that did not matter tonight: all eyes were upon the bar’s TV screen as a familiar tune signalled the beginning of “Entertainment Tonight.” Gedney clicked off the stories as they came: the first dealt with Loni Anderson’s reputed bulimia; the second story introduced the Horushaku-jin, the outrageous members of the Japanese neo-Sweathog movement. As the broadcast proceeded, seemingly oblivious to River’s demise, the crowd of traders in the bar became restless. During the second commercial break some began to murmur about ET’s lack of journalistic responsibility.

The Phoenix story was third and last, the place Gedney knew his generation would always occupy in the minds of his countrymen. He could hear his fellow traders gasp as the program’s host, John Tesh, attributed Phoenix’s death to a congenital condition that the star exacerbated by spending his final day furiously edging the entire perimeter of his estate’s gigantic lawn. Not cocaine. Not lovelorn suicide. Not even crank. It had been lawn edging. The bar full of besotted traders bore witness to their affliction in a plangent communal wail. Men hung their heads weeping as Tesh archly intoned, “Why the millionaire idol of the twenty-something outsiders was engaged in a lawn-maintenance chore so characteristic of anally-retentive suburbanites remains unclear.”

Tesh was followed by “Siskel & Ebert,” who devoted their entire program to reviewing the dead star’s movies. To place his works in perspective, though, they had decided to “compare Phoenix’s oeuvre to that of the late actor”—everyone held his breath—“ … Jon-Erik Hexum.” Gedney beamed in vindication as another gasp arose from the assembled speculators. It got worse as the show progressed. Not only was River Phoenix being compared to a hack soap-opera actor, but he was coming off as distinctly inferior! Siskel and Ebert had apparently decided to use the star’s death as an opportunity to vent their annoyance with all the “twenty-something” hype, to declare the “young people of today” to be “bogus rebels,” their stars unworthy of the exalted position of Peter Fonda and Dustin Hoffman, “idols of a real generation.”

A trader standing near Gedney clapped an elaborately tattooed hand over his mouth and ran for the door. Jeff howled with delight and pounded Gedney on the back. “You’re gonna find chunks of those chumps in your stool tomorrow morning when the market tanks, buddy boy,” he chortled. “Now how about a victory lap at Hooters?”

“Uh—sorry, dude,” Gedney responded distractedly. “I’m bushed, and I’ve got a big day ahead of me tomorrow.”

At the far end of the bar Gedney had spotted a waifish girl who, despite the tumult, stared intently into a copy of Labor of Loaf. She wore an expensive black leather jacket over a black satin bra embroidered with the names of various hardcore bands from the early eighties. Rods, rings, fish hooks and carabeeners pierced the flesh of her ears, nose, brow and midriff. Gedney thought he recognized her striking profile and Dorito-colored hair. Yes—she had been pointed out to him a few weeks ago at a party. It was Leek Brewer, daughter of the legendary drummer for Grand Funk. At the tender age of nineteen she was a scenestress of some note, as well as the publisher of a rival fanzine, Polly Want a Chainsaw.

“The Pork Sword review is an experimental classic,” Gedney smirked as he pulled up a stool next to the intriguing female. “I limited the vocabulary of the text to only those words used in Gap ads and the lyrics of the Degiiello LP.”

She looked at him blankly.

“Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Gedney. Gedney Market.”

As they talked Gedney’s head filled with fantastic visions of revolution, girl style, and the exotic fashions it could entail. Sewing scissors. Fondue forks. Safety pins. No—staples. Big, industrial ones dyed in dayglo colors. Corn-on-the-cob skewers as earrings. The possibilities were endless. After a few drinks they decided to hop a cab to the Jesus Martini show at the Grot Boîte.

As the taxi flew west over Goose Island, Gedney drifted again into reveries of the great River, whose immolation restored the flower of life to the dessicated floodplain of culture. Glimpsing the lambent, red-orange sun sinking behind the West Side’s jagged industrial skyline, Gedney imagined the sainted Phoenix riding a flaming chariot to a distant, more radiant bohemian paradise, far from the gentrifier Death. Lifestyle firmly in control, beautiful rebel girl by his side, Gedney donned his shades and intoned,

Extreme.

Thomas Frank is a political analyst, historian, journalist and columnist for Salon. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal, authoring “The Tilting Yard” from 2008 to 2010, and a founding editor of The Baffler. He is the author of a number of books, most notably What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2004). His newest book is Listen, Liberal.

You Might Also Enjoy

Syzygy

Bill Holmes

Reuben stared up at the posters. “That’s a strawberry popsicle, right? And what’s that your friend’s got there?”

stories

Baffler Newsletter

new email subscribers receive a digital copy of our current issue.

Further Reading

Heads Up: We recently updated our privacy policy to clarify how and why we collect personal data. By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand this policy.