After moving to New York in early 1999, Johnson attended a reading/Chinese buffet that was being thrown by the then-fledgling editorial staff at McSweeney's. He began submitting articles to the publication, finally landing on the Web site with a collection of crime reports that were heavy on mules, Ford Taurus accidents, and moped collisions involving geriatric drivers--purportedly from Wisconsin. Since then, in addition to writing the football picks, Johnson has contributed two batches of bad names for professional wrestlers ("The Vegan," "The Plum-Eating Bastard") and a series of articles on fictitious summer camps. Among the featured possibilities for vacationing kids: "Von Luxembourg's Water Treading and Proactive Mule Euthanasia Camp." "In Taos," according to Johnson's online brochure, "each camper will take several days in the mountains to track, stalk, kill, and dismember his/her own mule."
Author Dave Eggers, who founded McSweeney's, cautions that his publication's relationship with Johnson is only happenstance. "We do a thing with an area prison-furlough program," Eggers quips in an e-mail from Costa Rica. "That's how we get much of our staff and some of our contributors. It's a hassle, and most of the people they send don't work out too well, but Jeff has been a prince."
Johnson actually gets paid less than an average prisoner on furlough. He offers his services for free. But the affiliation has led to other opportunities. Last year, for example, the New Republic commissioned Johnson to write a piece about what he believed to be the greatest invention of the millennium: the nacho. ("I never cook," Johnson explains.)
To subsidize his freelancing, Johnson works as the music editor at Jane, a glossy magazine for young women. The job has cut into the time he has available for football meditations, though. For most of last season, Johnson paid the rent by working at the publishing house Scholastic. He estimates the job required "9 hours a week of work and 35 hours of Internet surfing, personal phone calls, and personal writing time." Since moving over to Jane he often puts in 60-hour weeks.
The increased workload has not chastened Johnson, however. In recent months he has written in McSweeney's about running through the streets of New York in a thong (Jets beat the Bills) and chatting with Wu-Tang Clan member and then-fugitive Ol' Dirty Bastard outside a New York nightclub (St. Louis over New Orleans). Both incidents were based on fact. The thong jog was undertaken on a $500 workplace dare. "It was worth a lot to them to have one of their employees be in a thong," Johnson observes.
Matt Olson, Balloon Guy's former front man and lead singer for the local rock group Smattering, theorizes that his close friend finds himself in peculiar, writerly situations because of his eclectic interests. Olson recalls that while on tour with Balloon Guy, Johnson would be discussing Japanese noise bands with some hipster one night, then arguing hoops with a college-basketball scout the next morning. "Since he's got such a strange bunch of information floating around in his head, and he's such a charismatic fellow, he just winds up in these situations," Olson explains. "I can discuss the New Yorker with him, as well as porn."
Since leaving Minneapolis, Johnson has maintained a well-seasoned loathing for the Vikings. "I've never liked any team as much as I hated the Vikings," the Bears fan says, attributing his antipathy to vague childhood recollections of Fran Tarkenton eluding opposing defenders. His animosity for the purple is so deep, in fact, it extends to sportswriters who cover the team. "Minneapolis sportswriter Sid Hartman is delusional," Johnson wrote last year before a Vikings-Falcons game. "He blurs the lines of journalistic ethics, calling people like George Steinbrenner close personal friends. The Vikings are much the same way....Like Hartman, they've feigned coolness, but never been laid."
As for this year's team? "I think the Vikings will make it to the conference championship game again and lose."
Why? "Because they always let you down."
Correction published 1/3/2001:
Owing to a reporting error, writer Paul Demko misstated Jeff Johnson's relationship with the group Nashville Pussy. While Johnson was working as tour manager for Gaunt, that group toured with Nashville Pussy, but Johnson never worked for the latter. Additionally, Johnson was indeed a sports writer for the Associated Press, but not in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The above version of the story reflects the corrected text. City Pages regrets the errors.