A couple of times a month when I have evening events in New York City, I choose to cadge a bed at my daughter’s apartment rather than trying to return home late at night. If I catch a seriously early train out of Penn Station, I can still get back to Princeton in the morning in time to be at the gym at its 6:30 opening.
The train departs at 4:51 and seems to have a pretty regular clientele well known to the conductors, judging from the level of somnolent bonhomie displayed on all sides. The already sparse population of the cars as we leave New York is halved again by the time we are pulling out of Newark Airport.
I cannot sleep on trains. I have to be reading — but there is reading, and then there is reading. The book I had with me for the trip up was "The Life of Moses" by Gregory of Nyssa — a patristic text of considerable importance to my current project on the literary origins of Christian asceticism, but perhaps not exactly light fare. The chances of engaging with it profitably in my pre-dawn daze were not good. I long ago learned that the proper literary level for this milk train was one of the New York tabloids. As the Post is a quarter cheaper than the Daily News, I went for the Post.
The best part of the Post, as also of some of the English tabloids of decades past, is the headlines, which often exhibit a power of poetic concision to rival that of an Emily Dickinson. Nowadays at the cashier’s post in mercantile establishments, the various Hollywood and television fan tabloids tend to monopolize the rack with a somewhat limited, long since hackneyed vocabulary of scandal — “Cheatin’ Hearts,” “Love Child,” “Pants Down,” etc. Post headlines often still have crackle.
There are certain headlines one encounters in one’s daily rounds — such as “Avis Important,” “Terms and Conditions,” “Statement of Limited Liability” or “How to Get the Most Out of Your New Suk-o-Vac” — apparently designed to quench any desire to read any further. The tabloid headline, when properly done, removes any need to read further.
In the good old days in the grocery stores, any number of the News of the World alone could be counted on for two or three typographical outrages. Two from my youth have stuck in my memory. The first — “Dead Mom Gives Birth to Child in Coffin” — practically made me gag right there in the checkout line, and for several years I thought it must surely be the gold standard of the journalistic grotesque. A second actually induced me to buy a copy: “The Filth You Eat in Your Bread!” in at least 48-point type. The suggestive powers of a sentence fragment are often irresistible.
But these days the New York Post seems nearly alone in its noble mission. Certainly I was richly rewarded by Wednesday’s edition. There was a squib headed, “Spouses, you post, you’re toast,” devoted to the interesting sociological fact that in England, Facebook postings are now cited “in a third of all divorce cases.”
More interesting still was the following meta-headline: “We’re ‘head’line news!” On the off chance that you are not familiar with my curious use of the Greek prefix meta-, I should explain that I take it from the gobbledygook of current literary critical theory. The meta maximizes self-involvement. Indeed, the meta is to ideas what the “selfie” is to photography. You have, perhaps, read a novel about a novelist who is writing a novel about a novelist who, etc.
Such is the genre of the Post story. Its headline, “We’re ‘head’line news!,” actually introduces a celebration of another headline. It’s a story from Down Under. A young Australian journalist, whose name is Nick Buttery and whose physiognomy and attitude remind one slightly of Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman, was forbidden by a security guard from entering the Parliament House in Canberra — roughly the equivalent of the American Capitol — on sartorial grounds. According to the Post reporter, “The Department of Parliamentary Services said Parliament forbids offensive messages on clothing in the House.”
What offensive message? Mr. Buttery was at the time wearing a T-shirt adorned with the classic Post headline, “Headless Body in Topless Bar” — a headline that, according to several eminent scholars expert in the genre, may be the greatest tabloid headline known to man. “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” nearly perfect in its syntactic balance and grotesque juxtaposition, displays the peculiar elegance of wit demonstrated in the titles of two memorable mid-19th-century novels by Emily Eden, "The Semi-Detached House" and "The Semi-Attached Couple." These, too, are worthy underground classics, though incapable of generating a potential international incident.
According to journalistic theory, reporters are supposed to cover the story, not be the story. Mr. Buttery’s own cover defeated that sound principle, however, and his story, if not quite viral, has proved to be at least amusingly contagious.