back to the Black Table

Swag. Graft. Comps. Freebies. Goodie bags.

Celebrity culture's swag phenomenon -- the $30,000 VMA gift bags, the ostentatious "hospitality suites" stuffed with haute goods for the


grabbing -- is well documented. "We're living in a time when people won't go to the bathroom without getting a goodie bag," says Simon Doonan, Barney's creative director and bon vivant -- a man who recently recieved a 35 lb. Allure goodie bag brimming with $2,500 worth of beauty products, a gift that prompted him to remark: "In centuries to come, our epoch will be seen as the Golden Age of Swag."

That's a level of graft few of us will ever encounter. But it did get me wondering: just how Golden is this swag age? What, exactly, can one get for free? Where, precisely, are publicists willing to draw the line on ridiculous requests?

To answer those questions, I recently decided to try to live one workweek in Manhattan, Monday through Friday, without spending a


single cent. Every hotel, hostel or B&B -- free. Every meal -- no charge. All of the week's parties, clubs, libations -- gratis.

As part of the experiment (and in the interest of survival), I set only two rules:

  1. I would keep three PR lunches already arranged through my day job as a men's magazine editor (and for which I wouldn't be paying, anyway). All other meals would be hustled for during the week.

  2. I could use my previously purchased monthly subway card for transportation.

Other than that, I would arm myself with only seven made up magazines and their corresponding business cards, replete with taglines, the better to test the swag seas. These, I could guess, would be my biggest go-to cards: DEETS: "For the Stylish Guy Who Doesn't Have Time for Details;" and Party of One: "For Those Who Travel and Dine Without Baggage." While these were the ones I figured would only get me laughed out of the room or worse: Ebony and Ivory: "Because Interracial Dating Isn't a Black-and-White Matter;" and, most embarrassingly of all, Jew York (yes, in New York magazine font): "Because the City Is Ours -- All Ours!"

In the end, I would be repeatedly surprised at the reactions the cards elicited -- surprised, that is, because each card, and its corresponding endeavor, was universally, and enthusiastically embraced.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some calls to make.


By 8 a.m. I'm furiously working the phone and email. Topping my list, of course, is food and water for the week and a place to stay tonight. Within a few hours, I've convinced Glaceau to send a case of 50 Cent's Vitamin Water, Formula 50, to DEETS magazine and Power Bar to deliver a box to Yum!, for a story on the "Best On-the-Go Foods!"

By early afternoon, I've already put out some 25 requests for products. Among them: Hypoxico's altitude chamber, a Ping-Pong table, a BabyBjorn kiddy potty (scored it!) and a Smith & Wesson handgun (amazingly, they seemed happy to oblige for a Ten-Hut! military magazine story). A free colonic appears, unappetizingly, likely for DEETS' story, "50 Things You Never Wanted to Do, But Should Anyway."

With sustenance secured for later in the week, I focus on tonight's sleeping arrangements.

A Hilton rep tells me, "Well, I'd love to see us included," in the Party of One story "Sexy in the City," about everything…sexy in the city. Unfortunately, though, she can't get me in until early 2006. It's a refrain I'll come to despise.

By mid-afternoon, with no place to stay, I'm starting to panic just a little. But then, at 2 p.m., the manager of a hostel on 106th Street near Central Park West offers two nights to Party of One. The best part: a private room and bath!

Now, about entertaining myself. High-end socialites the Hearst sisters -- Lydia, Amanda, and Gillian -- are throwing a costume party in an Upper East Side mansion in honor of New York Social Diary's David Patrick Columbia. Chances of an open bar and a stylish buffet? High.

I call paparazzi photographer Sam Sachs (not his real name) for advice on getting in.

"Only an idiot like Shaggy would give away these secrets," Sachs barks, referring to another ubiquitous guest on the party circuit. When I ask him how I might reach Shaggy, Sands says, "Just go to a party and look for the ugly guy with blonde hair hitting on pre-pubescent girls."

Before hanging up Sachs does give up the party's address and one helpful nugget: "Okay, you want a tip? Grab a mask, go to the party and figure out a way in. You're smart and, remember, publicists are dumb."

Emboldened by the Jedi Knight of gate crashing, that's exactly what I do.

At 10:30 p.m., I'm bounding up a flight of marble stairs wearing a ridiculously overdramatic bird mask -- a gift years ago from my eccentric dad. I hand a party publicist a DEETS card and insist I'm on the list. Of course she can't find my name, but when I mention "emailing with David" earlier (this is, technically, true), she lets me pass.

Within minutes I'm rubbing feathers with Ivana Trump (dressed as a witch), Denise Rich (dressed as God knows what), and Fabian Basabe, wearing only a white T-shirt and white boxers.

By this point I'm feint with hunger. I hit the bar for a Jack and Coke and a caterer hands me a plate of chocolate mouse. I fear removing my mask, so I must awkwardly shovel mousse through my very furry and narrow mouth-hole. This proves…disgusting. Each bite comes coated in hair, as if I'm kissing the vagina of an Eastern European feminist circa 1974. I change strategy and begin pounding beers -- both to quickly fill my stomach and because a bottle fits easier into my mouth-hole.

Columbia walks by and points: "Great costume!" The next day I'll be featured prominently on his website.

I wander into one of many crowded rooms, where a DJ is spinning and begin dancing alone to George Michael's "Freedom."

A fun party, but I have to go. Heidi Klum is also hosting a costume ball downtown and I'm curious to see just how far DEETS can take me.

As it turns out, not far enough. I wait an hour behind the velvet rope before approaching an oversized bouncer while clutching a DEETS card: For the Stylish Guy Who Doesn't Have Time for Details. He seems slightly impressed -- or maybe just confused by my mask -- but won't let me in.

I head back to the hostel, stopping off at Jay-Z's 40/ 40 club to pee. It's hard to see inside the darkened bar, especially with this mask on. I do, however, make out enough unamused gazes to know I should split before I'm mashed into confit.


Today begins with a comped cold bagel and coffee at the hostel.

I make more product calls and look into Wednesday's accommodations. Hickory Farms' beef jerky, Triple Five Soul jeans, and Brooks Brothers' cashmere socks appear to soon be mine. A dog spa wants to know more about Heavy Petting magazine.

For lunch, it's a publicist meeting at the Gramercy Tavern, Danny Meyers' restaurant that recently nabbed one of the new-to-New-York Michelin stars. I enjoy a gratis meal of goat-cheese ravioli (I'm going pasta-heavy this week, like a marathoner), pork tenderloin and the Tavern's famous cheese plate.

I cut lunch short to make an appointment on the Upper East Side with a celebrated plastic surgeon. The doctor has agreed to see me for a DEETS story on lipo, which I explain to him is a growing trend among our young, urban, male readers (I'm totally making that part up). "Oh, it's bigger than you can imagine," he bellows.

Two hours after lunch, I'm filling out patient forms. The waiting room looks like what you might expect if God opened a private practice in Las Vegas: all Corinthian columns, white furniture and custard yellow paint job. The forms seem fairly typical, except for this question: "Have you ever had an adverse reaction to adhesive tape?"

Soon, I'm shirtless and being prodded by the doctor's strong fingers. Then it's into his office -- eight shelves of books and the requisite African folk art favored by certain New York sophisticates.

As he describes the procedure, I squeamishly tune out words like "incision," "tube," and "fat." Then, there's no avoiding it: I bring up a "journalistic arrangement" on the fee.

"Tell me more about -- what is it -- DEETS?" the doctor says.

I launch yet again into my schpiel: we're a new national men's lifestyle magazine, starting as a bi-monthly in 2006, before going monthly in '07. He narrows his eyes, says he's never comped the surgery, and tells me to get back to him with what my DEETS budget will allow.

I leave his office and race across Central Park back to my hostel room and its Almodovar-on-Adderrall bright red walls.

The rest of the night is a boozy, brilliant blur. Dinner and drinks at the trendy club and restaurant BED, celebrating the opening of an Atlanta outpost. It's there that I learn the name of the host at that night's party in the celeb-heavy club, Marquee.

I slip around the corner and present a DEETS card to a doorman. "I'm on Danny A's list."

This shaved-headed hulk finds his more slender, hirsute colleague. "I'm on Danny A's list," I say again.

"Oh, really?" says slender, stepping back and sizing me up. "Because I'm Danny A."

The alcohol keeps surprise off my face and without missing a beat, I reply: "I know. I think my assistant must have emailed you."

Danny A inspects my DEETS card. The jig must be up, right? I mean -- DEETS?

"OK," Danny A says, and waves me in.


After two nights of partying, I'm ready for a quiet evening of culture. Earlier I'd secured two tickets to the show Broadway's buzzing about, a chic new production of Sweeney Todd. I'm attending with my wife for DEETS' HoTopics front of book section. I scored the seats via email in about 35 minutes.

But first, where to sleep tonight? Boutique hotels The Mercer and the Hudson are checking on availability, and even the mighty Mandarin Oriental is considering my request.

But as the afternoon fades, I'm still without a bed.

At one point I pitch my heart out to the Hotel Roger Williams' sales director.

"Party of One?" she says. "Sad."

Me (desperately): "No, not sad. Happy. It's a good thing. A party. You know -- fun."

Later, while on the phone with a bewildered Times Square B&B, my cell phone beeps. It's Brooks Brothers wondering if they should still overnight the cashmere socks.

This can't be. According to the tourism association, NYC & Company, there are 70, 639 hotel rooms in New York City -- one of them must be mine!

And then it happens. A friend reminds me about a story she did on a quirky, Western-themed B&B hidden inside a Ft. Greene apartment building. An incredibly sweet and eccentric black woman from Oklahoma runs the place. After a short phone conversation, Party of One has a room.

My most modest dinner of the week: fruit I've squirreled away from the hostel with bread and cheese left over from Gramercy Tavern. I devour it outside the Eugene O'Neil Theatre before we take our seats, 12 rows from the stage.

Sweeney Todd resonates deeply with me. On the one hand it's a story of revenge. But on the other, it's about doing whatever it takes to survive. It's also about marketing a new product -- in this case, meat pies made from human flesh. It's about entrepreneurship.

Mid-way through act one, the down-and out demon barber of Fleet Street is asked how he plans to survive without any money.

"I'll live," Todd insists. "If I have to sweat in the sewers or in the plague hospital, I'll live." My wife squeezes my hand. I look at her and smile.


I wake up on sheets adorned with drawings of saddles, lassos, cowboy hats and boots.

Refreshed, I enjoy a breakfast of cereal, coffee and bacon, while chatting with an elderly couple from Northern England. They are intrigued by the idea of Party of One magazine: For Those Who Travel and Dine Without Baggage. They think it could work and wish me luck on the launch.

Then, its' back to the office, lugging my overnight bag. At least tonight's accommodations at a second Brooklyn B&B are secured.

Early in the evening, I enter the old school Pierre hotel near the Plaza. I've been granted red carpet access for a screening of the HBO documentary, "I Have Tourette's, But Tourette's Doesn't Have Me," but not for the ensuing dinner, cocktails, and -- seriously -- silent auction. That's the most Ebony and Ivory magazine gets me.

Entering the pressroom with my photographer, we hear a rumor of appearances by Julianne Moore and Edie Falco.

I find the publicist, a classy looking fifty-something lady, and introduce myself. I'm hoping against hope that she doesn't ask for my business card. No luck. I hand it over with dread and an absurdly large rictus. I watch nervously as she reads the magazine's tagline: Because Interracial Dating Isn't a Black-and-White Matter. I want to disappear. Or maybe die.

"Interesting," she whispers.

Soon, I'm interviewing Falco and HBO president Shiela Nevins, who interrupts to ask her assistant, "Is this a disease? Do you say tourette's is a disease?" She's the film's executive producer.

Next I wander into the forbidden reception area, order a Dewers rocks and begin shoving fresh sushi and thinly sliced roast beef into my mouth.

Though already stuffed, I'm off to the Chelsea Piers bowling alley for an all-you-can-eat-and-drink pizza and beer press event, hosted by a company called Intec.

To this day, I have no idea what Intec does or makes. As an Editor at Large for Technically Speaking magazine (If it Beeps or Bleeps, We've Got it Covered!), I should probably find out.


The Vitamin Water and Power Bars have arrived; that'll be today's lunch.

In the end, this proves to be an action-packed last day. But first, a word on trust.

I' m amazed to report that not once all week did anyone call bullshit on me. Not once did the people from the New York Comedy Festival say, "Jew York magazine? Yeah, right." Not once did anyone tell me that DEETS is a ridiculous name for a new publication. New Yorkers, and publicists the country over, want to believe. Only one person requested more information from me in the interest of making sure I didn't plan to make off with their goods -- a $500 Palm handheld device called the LifeDrive, which, had I more time to follow up, would surely have been sent to DEETS.

By late afternoon I've contacted roughly 40 hotels in Manhattan and am yet to land a room. Out of desperation I do what any New Yorker in my situation would do: I call my agent. He agrees to represent Party of One. Immediately calls are returned by some who've ignored me all week.

Suddenly there's a flurry of activity: the Hotel on Rivington offers a room at their discounted media rate, and both Trump and Atlantic City's Borgata are close to comping me.

Needing to check in somewhere before Shabbat dinner at the 92nd St. Y (for a Yum! story on the country' best Shabbat dinners), I take the Rivington offer. On the way to the hotel I have an epiphany: Had I pitched hotels on a DEETS story, rather that just Party of One, I just know in my swag-poisoned heart I'd have spent my last night at the Four Seasons -- free of charge. Yes, the world loves DEETS that much.

I check into a $375 room for $295 with the idea of making up the difference in comps once inside. That objective is made infinitely easier when, upon entering the room, I encounter sludgy brown bubbling matter already occupying my toilet bowl. I delicately explain to the concierge how awkward this is, as my Party of One story is "on the sexiest hotels in the city and I've just seen perhaps the least sexy thing imaginable in the bathroom."

The hotel is mortified. Within minutes a bottle of wine arrives. Then another. "Hand-crafted" chocolates available only to VIP guests. A round of drinks in the bar. And, lastly, a complimentary $160 massage in the morning by the hotel's "superstar masseuse," who later tells me she works with Elizabeth Taylor, Ivana Trump, and Don King.

Dinner is delicious. And odd. The kid's rock group the Funky Monkeys, two of whom wear their monkey costumes, are in attendance. I pour cup after plastic cup of cheap Merlot while the Monkeys lead 18 hungry Jews in a traditional folk song to the tune of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." Everyone is pumped for the Yum! story.

That night I sleep like a wasted baby on the hotel's Temper-Pedic mattress and immaculate Italian linens.

Galina, the superstar masseuse, works me over on Saturday morning. I pack my bag, sign for the room (the first money I've spent since last Sunday), and, as I head for the door, swipe a complimentary New York Times.


By the end of the week, I simply couldn't keep up with the volume of responses I'd received. With more time, I am fairly certain I could have acquired that Smith & Wesson pistol, a karaoke machine, hockey equipment, Trojan condoms, a night at a sleep therapy lab, McDonald's hamburgers and a Canadian bird flu vaccine, among many other things. At several points, I badly wished I had an assistant to help return calls and emails. Or, better yet, an entire magazine staff.

The following week, both Atlantic City's Borgata and the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan offered me complimentary rooms.

Oh, and the free colonic? Still waiting to hear back on that.


Mac Montandon is a writer and editor who, against all good sense, remains a big fan of his hometown baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles.