by Edie Jarolim
It is 10am and I am sitting in a tiny mid-Manhattan office, contemplating penis sheathes. I'm not talking about the latex variety, though my fantasies of spontaneous, sweep-the-papers-off-your-desk sex always end with concern about sexually transmitted disease.
No, I have just started reading the manuscript of Frommer's Dollarwise South Pacific, the first book at Prentice Hall Press I’ve been assigned to edit from scratch. On the second page, I come across a sentence describing "steep mountain valleys inhabited by peoples still wearing nothing more than grass skirts or penis sheathes." Hmmm.
I'm no prude. A child of the Sixties, I've had more close encounters with penises, sheathed and unsheathed, than I can remember. But it is 1986, a time when privates are more private and male members don’t tend to turn up in travel guides.
More to the point, it’s only been a couple of months since I started working as an associate travel editor at Prentice Hall, a division of Simon & Schuster. I don't want to screw up.
In pondering the penis sheath problem, I consider National Geographic and its tradition of photographing bare-breasted native women, thrilling adolescent boys everywhere. But the Frommer's guides seem less, well, anthropological. And it's more acceptable to talk about female body parts than it is to discuss male organs.
Some things don't change.
Not only don't I know the rules of editorial decorum, but I don't know whom to consult about them. Not Bill Goodwin, the South Pacific guide's author; I want him to feel confident in my editing abilities, even though I doubt them myself. Not Marilyn Wood, the editorial director of Prentice Hall Press-Travel and the one who entrusted me with the manuscript. I'm not yet ready to talk about penises with my boss.
I definitely don’t want to ask Gracie Rubio, the greasy-haired editor and mapmaker who has been assigned to train me. She has nitpicked every bit of work I've showed her, preying on all my feelings of inadequacy. In addition, because of her poor personal hygiene, she emits puffs of BO as she waves her arms to point to places on the page where, she claims, I have messed up. Not until later do I discover that she has far exceeded her mandate to show me the ropes, and that she is a pathological liar (never a good quality in a mapmaker). At this point, I just know to avoid Gracie whenever possible.
I decide to take my dilemma to Gloria McDarrah, the most experienced of the three editors in my division and the one with whom I’ve formed an instant bond.
In some ways, New York is a small town. When I told Gloria that I had edited The Collected Poems of Paul Blackburn for my dissertation, she said that she was married to Fred McDarrah, the longtime Village Voice photo editor who took pictures of Blackburn and other downtown writers for the classic essay collection, The Beat Scene. Blackburn wasn't a Beat poet--he doesn't easily fit into any niche -- but the Beat Scene was a huge help in establishing Blackburn's New York milieu. Tall and soft-spoken and—as I later discovered when I met Fred--an elegant Jewish yin to her husband’s fiery Irish yang, Gloria quickly became a dependable office ally.
Gloria isn't sure about the penises, however.
I decide not to take the risk, so I call Bill, the author.
More than 25 years later, he still remembers that conversation. "We spent quite some time on the phone trying to come up with a euphemism or another way to explain it, without any luck whatsoever," Bill emailed. "For example, we couldn't say 'private parts' because it covers only one of the three private parts. And if we said it covers one of the private parts, we had to explain which one!"
We ultimately decide, after consulting Marilyn, to leave the penis sheathes alone.
Bill wrote, "I believe it was the first time the word 'penis' appeared in a Frommer's guide. A historic moment!"
Edie Jarolim is a freelance writer who is working on a memoir of her days as a guidebook editor in New York and London and Tucson-based international travel writer. It’s called Getting Naked for Money and this is an excerpt from it. If you want the book to see the light of day, please help her finish and publish it by supporting her Kickstarter campaign.