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Ideas

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TRUE STORY

What the ultimate merry prankster can teach the media about hoaxes

Brooke Allen
By Brooke Allen

Founder, Q54Club.org

One of the things I love about New York is Stuyvesant High School, and one of the things I love about Stuyvesant is that Frank McCourt once taught there.

Another is that one of their students, Mohammed Islam, was able to convince the New York Daily News and New York Magazine that he’d made $72 million trading stocks during his lunch break. I hope Stuyvesant puts pranking the media on the syllabus (if they haven’t already) because we need more people like Islam now that The Colbert Report is going off the air and one of the all-time greats, Alan Abel, is dead.

Welcome to New York

I met Alan in New York right after I arrived and I didn’t even know he was a trickster because he was that good.

In 1977, I was living in suburban New Jersey when I landed my first job in New York City. The first week during my commute I heard on the radio that Omar’s School for Beggars was teaching underpaid New Yorkers how to supplement their incomes on the street. When I told my new co-workers about the School for Beggars they didn’t believe me at first, so I found it in the phone book and soon I was talking to Omar himself.

He explained that he had an 18-month wait-list for his NYC classes but he was holding a session in Boston soon that had a few empty seats. I believed him but I did not sign up. However I was convinced that New York City had everything I could possibly want and the next week I moved to Manhattan.

My wedding hoax

Later, in 1986, I was working for Merrill Lynch when I mentioned the School for Beggars to some friends. It was still in the phone book so I called again and this time Omar had space available and gave me the hard sell for perhaps 20 minutes.

Then I asked, “Are you for real?”

He asked, “Are you a journalist?”

I said, “No.”

He said, “In that case I’m not for real.”

He explained that his name was really Alan Abel and he loved to perpetrate hoaxes against the press. He gave me the details of some of his pranks that included: The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, the Is There Sex After Death mockumentary, the Super Bowl Hoax, and Females for Felons (my favorite). His portfolio contains even more.

That evening I told my fiancée about my phone call.

She said, “I wonder if he does weddings?”

It turned out that he does.

Alan Abel “married” us dressed as “Chief Thunder-Berg”—an American Indian who had converted to Judaism and was empowered as a chief to join us in an ancient ceremony that includes the use of Chinese finger traps instead of wedding rings. His young daughter, Jenny, was an accomplished lutenist and she entertained our guests with a selection of songs about failed relationships: The Way We WereFifty Ways to Leave a LoverBreaking Up is Hard to Do, and so on. (Note: we also got married at City Hall just to be safe.)

A wedding is a public expression of a solemn commitment and I hope we conveyed that to our friends and family. But it is difficult to make a marriage to last if you take yourself too seriously and we thank Alan for helping us remember that.

You can recognize a masterful artist’s work from miles away

Later, in 1990, I was trading stocks for Merrill in Tokyo when across the wire came news that a beautiful young woman claiming to be the winner of a $35 million dollar lottery checked into a posh hotel in New York City and started throwing dollar bills out the window.

My wife bet that Alan Abel was behind it and she turned out to be right. We could recognize his artistry from across the ocean but most reporters couldn’t see it from across the room, and soon the story was all over the tube, the tabloids, and the Times.

Still kicking 20 years later

By 2006, Abel’s daughter, Jenny, was all grown up and she had created a documentary about her dad called Abel Raises Cain. She and Alan gave us a private screening for our friends at our 20th wedding anniversary.

Today our marriage is intact and Alan is still kicking as far as I know. But he lives in his own world of Heisenberg uncertainty and my prior claim that he was dead is based solely on his obituary in the New York Times. But the New York Post begs to differ and the Daily News hedges its bets by reporting the story both ways.

Are we all voyeurs now?

I love New York City and had I not moved from 08812 to 10128 my life would have been very different.

But there is one thing that I did not like about New York.

Back when I was single in the city I was constantly asked about my salary and how much I paid in rent; often on the first date. I grew up in a family where such questions were considered rude and I never knew how to respond. Later I’d entertain myself thinking up retorts but never mustered the courage to use them: “I make a million or so a week and my rent-controlled apartment is so cheap I hardly notice. Now may I inspect your breasts?”

But that was then and this is now. I’d hoped that New Yorkers might outgrow their ways but now I think everyone in the US is way too far up in each other’s business. This is not good, and I blame the media.

Is the media evil? I’ll report the facts and you decide

If it bleeds it leads, if it’s chintz it prints, and if it puns it runs.

But if it’s of any use it gets the noose, not into the news.

In the early 1980s I received sales training from a septuagenarian insurance salesman named Jules Marine. He said that ethical salesmen act in the customers’ best interests.

He also told me to be careful about reading the news because salesmen face rejection on a daily basis and if you slather the top of that with what the media feeds us then you might conclude that life isn’t worth living.

That is when I stopped paying much attention to the news and my life has improved immeasurably since. I like to go to bed exhausted from my work or stay up celebrating my accomplishments rather than feeling like I’m not successful enough or fretting because I imagine the world sucks and there is nothing I can do. The news-industrial-entertainment complex might not want people to feel hopelessness but it is the result nonetheless. Watch this TEDx video about solutions journalism movement. Read The News—A User’s Manual. Then decide for yourself.

A case in point

Mohammed Islam, a senior at New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, has a net worth of $72 million from trading stocks, was written in the Daily News on Dec. 14.

The story begins, “Don’t feel too bad if you didn’t earn $72 million by age 17.”

See what they are doing? Rather than run the risk that you’ll forget to feel bad they lead with the suggestion.

OK, Daily News, now I feel bad because I’ve been a professional stock trader for 30 years and I haven’t made $72 million for myself.  So, exactly how bad is bad enough for you? And now that I feel bad, what do you want me to do about it? Should I start trading stocks more aggressively, or should I buy some “retail therapy” from your advertisers?

In this instance an apology is neither needed nor accepted

Now read the apology from the Daily News. While you are at it, read the apology from New York Magazine as well.

See what they are doing?

Apologies are in order when you intentionally hurt someone—and the media does that every day unabashedly—but in this instance nobody got hurt except for them.

When they thought the story was legit I’m sure they knew they weren’t running hard news anyone needed to rely upon; it was entertainment and nothing more. Now, when the circus brings out a clown who slips on a banana peel the management doesn’t apologize because that is what we came to see. Instead we hope the clown dusts off his big red nose and then steps on a rake. So too with the media.

These rags are apologizing so as to give the impression that they take their jobs seriously and that their stories are relevant to your life. It is ludicrous to imagine that a prankster is responsible for what the news media prints, and that is why you should take whatever explanations they proffer as excuses and nothing more.

Listen guys, the joke is on you, and if you can’t laugh along with us then at least you can suck it up and shut up. We don’t need your apology because you’ve done us no harm but rather a service by reminding us of your fallibility. What we need is more people like Mohammed Islam, and when they do you the favor of getting you more attention you deserve then you should thank them, not blame them. After all, I had to pay for Alan Abel’s services at my wedding and you got Mohammed’s help for free.
And, while they’re at it, in 2015 perhaps the press could make it a resolution to get over itself.

An earlier version of this post twice identified Abel’s daughter as Jeanne. Her name is in fact Jenny. The sentences have been corrected.