[CW: vulgar language in context of vulgar situation]
Though Al Gore's reinvention as a Nobel Peace Prize-winning environmentalist has led to many accolades, Roberts said, he eventually has to come home where “his wife knows he puts his pants on one leg at a time.” [ABC News June 1, 2010 “Al, Tipper Gore Split: Subtle Cracks in Storybook Marriage.”]
Johnny Billionaire’s creative conference was gaining more steam with each iteration, bigger names on wider spreadsheets designed like hangtags on sportswear for the casually interested corporate creative, looking not so much for new ideas as new packaging of familiar ideas. I no longer had anything to do with what was now an entire division of the White Paper consultancy we had formed ad hoc six months ago in the wake of my disastrous screed against the TED Talks. I was reprimanded, but was ultimately able to protect my role as a copywriter because of “the Hypernet”—a neologism I invented under my breath that I’d live to regret for as long as I saw it, on signs in the office, in strategy decks, branding exercises, white papers… I’d see words I’d strung together for “the team” and hear them with disbelief, as they were uttered back to me, like the surprise of seeing lipstick on your face first thing in the morning mirror reflection because you forgot you got cute last night.
For better or worse Johnny believed I needed to be kept on projects, to come up with “gems” like “Hypernet” even if it meant learning to compartmentalize the entire atmosphere of disdain I chose to carry around with me in what was now relegated to private blogging, which I hadn’t done since 2003.
I was simultaneously resentful without a proper byline and mortified by the very writing I did not receive credit for.
I clearly articulated questions to myself to walk away from the edge. I tried to find purpose in my life as I started my morning commute to the day’s off-site meeting: What would it take for me to leave this life behind? How big of a risk would it be to refuse immediate and compensatory work for an audience of commercial interests? How many more seasons of affected disorder till I jump in front of the train.
What was it about the subway that mesmerized me into suicide I had no tendency for otherwise? As the C train slowed into its chute, I backed away from the edge, silently judged the commuters who refused to wait for passengers to exit before boarding. I squeezed myself between two men as if daring them to yell at me, but didn’t quite own my space, merely perched on the edge of the bench and let myself lose focus staring at the man across the aisle. He was muttering lines to himself, looking down at index cards framed by his hands, framed by his knees, as he hunched over on the bench not unlike me—perched forward to make room for those sitting adjacent to him. I felt the relief in his lumbar. He had a clean but nervous demeanor, a crisp but cheap suit. He looked vaguely like Nicolas Cage circa 1990 and I would correctly assume he was preparing for a speech, as opposed to learning lines as an actor.
“What’re you reciting?” asked an anemic older man in a threadbare Lion King cap, charitably asking out loud what I’d wanted confirmed myself. Lion King was clutching a nylon thermal lunch sack embroidered WNYC. The sack must be empty or he’d have set it right side up instead of squished sideways on his lap.
“Or is that none of my dang business?” he added.
“Oh no, I don’t mind,” said 90s Nick Cage, clearly minding. “I’m giving a talk at a start-up conference,” he said.
The word “start-up” made me reflexively bite my lips. He’s not just talking, not giving a speech. He’s giving a talk. He’s bequeathing a series of vocalized words. I would guess this also made him “a creative”—neither describing himself as creative (adjective) nor assigning himself the title Creator (noun). Neither marrying himself to a specific career nor attributing himself with traits of creativity, but anthropomorphizing an adjective to lend gravity to his work in mid-management purgatory; to give levity to a job that pays in multiples of jargon.
“My brother is an actor. He’s always rehearsing lines,” said Lion King. Nick Cage and I shared a tacit glance of “oh boy.” The nuisance of my nuisance is my friend.
Lion King continued.
“New York subways are the only theater I need. I figured that out from 20 years building stages. And I mean it! New York City is the best show on Earth isn’t that right?”
His incompetent taste in dramaturgy proved how little attention he paid to his surroundings, but I knew these were rhetorical questions. Sometimes we ask strangers questions because even though bring our lunch to work, we find no one else hired to share space with you wants to talk.
I keep forgetting to make my own lunch, and still pretend I want to budget.
No one probes Lion King any further. We make some eye contact back and forth, my casual acknowledgement of receipt of information. I give consolation smiles to each of them for remaining civil.
“I’ll let you get back to rehearsing. None of my business, right?” Lion King looks down and away from Cage, who isn’t audibly practicing talk-giving anymore. At the next stop, Lion King got up to exit.
“Break a leg!”
“Thanks…” said Nick Cage, relieved. As the train moved on, I scanned the new passengers, and stare past the windows in the doors connecting to the next train car.
In the next car, a threadbare Lion King cap floated in the crowd.
I’d been hired to come up with a clever name for a video app developed by Nero Projects, or more precisely, I’d been farmed out by White Paper to work on this video app, into which they’d invested, but not so heavily that they can send their A Team of famous creatives, i.e. Johnny et al. No, the A-Team wouldn’t waste their time on a stupid app if they knew the stupid app couldn’t afford to send a stupid car to pick them up. They send me in, because I am taking the subway straight from home and won’t bother to expense it. I’m the cheap consultant. Having worked with him for almost two years now, I don’t even care that everyone thinks I am jealous of Johnny. Who wouldn’t want to be paid twice as much and command so much respect with two hundred pairs of the same sneaker. Someone without any comprehension of general politics, world history, contemporary art or the difference between the Coen Brothers and the Wachowskis, a fact I learned when he told me “No Country For Old Men was directed by tr*nnies.” I told him not to say “tr*nnies” anymore but did not explain who he mixed up. I’d let him figure that one out the hard way.
No, today, I didn’t have to deal with The A Team. In a testament to the brief enlightenment of my employer, I was farmed out for this project because Nero Projects is a brother duo of tinkerers who also recognize intellectual pulchritude. I will almost certainly fit in better with their lot of quirky yet entrepreneurial misanthropes.
Nero Project’s application is brilliant, actually, and I risk naiveté, being too enthusiastic about a client, but I am not just saying this. The as-of-yet unnamed app that we’ll call Video App 1 is brilliant in its utter uselessness. Video App 1 is a .gif generator like so many others we have seen, with one very small perk. It loops with traditional VCR effects—fast rewind, fast forward and pause occur with sped up audio, snowy magnetic strips, and the slight fog of quality in the initial split-second of footage after a loop resumes. Like so many other visual display toys, the principal value of the app is to give your over-performing device a sense of diminished quality of bygone technology. The word I’m avoiding is “nostalgia.”
The developers have worked full-time for the past nine weeks fine-tuning the market-ready version. I remind myself to stay focused on branding their product, in today’s meeting, and not say a single thing about any problems I experienced in demo. There are a few of them. I’ll regale them with anecdotes about Aaron at Kim’s Video and all the crap we used to rent from the Japanese deli, and everything that’s wrong with HD.
As I exit the subway I text Helen all of my complaints as if to exorcise the negative energy. I become self-conscious of pedestrians tut-tutting me for walking with my head buried in my phone. I like to think I have better peripheral vision than most, and am getting away with this, but it was very much not long ago I silently yelled at people reading their phones while they walked. I stop at the Northeast corner of 24th and Broadway with deliberate attention to the crosswalk blinking a hand. Did people still say “talk to the hand” I wondered.
They did the tutorial in fluorescent green.
What is this, a rave?
I’m such a hypocrite. I constantly complain about designers who try to write. Here I am, a writer complaining about design, a field I know nothing about. I am being that jerk who wants to have an opinion just to be noticed. But the green hit a small important nerve. I’d come up with a great name for this—Betamax—but it wouldn’t work if they wanted to harken to the UI of a Commodore-64. Right era, wrong nostalgia.
The whole app is in fake MS-DOS font. I’m like, just cuz it’s supposed to feel old doesn’t mean it has to be DOS.
You mean like The Matrix?
The Coen Brother’s movie? LOL yes exactly like The Matrix.
Hahahaha are you gonna call it the oracle?
Hahahahaha for sure
I cross the street after allowing a couple cars to slowly wedge their way through foot traffic jumping the gun. I think of it as penance for pedestrian privilege, for I so loved the city that I gave my only advantage to save the traffic-weary drivers, even the Denali with Connecticut plates. I focus on my phone again, this time willfully indifferent to the text-shaming bloggers that may be taking pictures. Who am I kidding. No one is going to take text-shaming pictures of a nobody.
I rub through a scroll of notifications from a personal email account, carefully avoiding work. I’m creating a healthy work-life balance and refusing to open anything before I’m physically at work. I decided to put myself on the clock for Nero at the end of my commute.
Approaching the Hapsburg-style building with the opulent CVS on the ground floor, I replace the wallet in my pocket with my phone, and pull out ID for the front desk as I approach the revolving door. I know at the front desk will either be the disaffected fat man of color or old janitor listening to talk radio on a small portable, filling in for the fat guy. Today it’s the janitor. He doesn’t even bother with my ID.
I get out at the 8th floor and wave at the receptionist behind glass plate doors so she’ll unlock the magnets. I wonder if she’ll recognize me or if I have to introduce myself again, and announce who I’m here to see. I don’t want to challenge her focus on whatever she does at her Dell computer to idle away 8 hours of ushering start-up engineers and venture fund flacks like me, so I just tell her in the declarative mode that I am going in to see Justin at Nero.
“You can wait here while I call him, Alice,” she said, clearly having remembered my name and reminding me that unlike the front door clerk she is not just some disaffected person of color stuck in this job with second class status. She has a title—Office Manager. I realize at this point, I don’t know her name.
“Thanks… what was your name, again?” I ask.
“He’ll be right out,” she said, still not offering me her name.
I sit on a taut foam chair upholstered in purple micro-suede. Wondered if I’d ever furnish a home, mine for that matter, with furniture like this. I wouldn’t. I look at the office manager, whom I’ll call Pam because her existential state in career purgatory is such that she can’t even intercourse with me by reciprocating a real first name. Motherfucking Pam won’t even look at me. I can tell by the intensity of her gaze into the computer screen, however, that she can see me looking at her. I know she knows I am looking at her. I know because it’s the feeling I had walking down the street, head buried in phone. I am wondering at this point why Justin is actually coming to grab me. I know where his office is, and Pam usually just lets me walk back there on my own. I text Helen again to kill time.
Dude, did you read that article in VICE about knockoff fashions?
I dunno. I guess not lol.
But you’re talking about the article about cheap vittles fakes in Chinatown ducking with the economy
Yeah. Notice they said jack shit about cheap white brands that knock off high fashion?
Like, is no one going to confront Zara over their Celine bag,
Or all of Williamsburg for ripping off Alexander Wang?
put a zipper on it.
lol hard-core goth fashunz.
Tory Burch goth
Justin appeared out of nowhere.
“Hey, Ali. Sorry to keep you waiting,” Justin said.
“Alice, and no worries. I wasn’t really waiting, more like rudely talking to my friend” I reassured and waved my phone.
He offered me some pod coffee and for some reason, I went into a short rant about the pods—their wastefulness and inferior drink quality, the plasticity of an unbroken beverage system that I thought deserved another hundred years of ubiquity. My way of proving I was actually a marketing strategist with a soul. Not some free market mongrel without a moral compass who’d do something so morally repugnant as drink a Nespresso. Not even for its extraordinary crema.
This was going to be a long day.
Justin guffawed, being gracious or lazy. I’d never tell the difference. Surely I was gloating in the hubris of having a great name for their app, and overcompensating with some treacly politicking about coffee. At least I wasn’t soapboxing about fair trade beans. I looked at Justin. He seemed content. Yeah, Justin definitely understood me.
If I was putting him off with some political position on coffee pods, it was only because I was trying to impress, not demean him, but I was certain I only liked him because he respected me; vaunted, even. This suggested a sort of codependency between myself and the so-called client, but given how much I hated my job and my agency colleagues, I was willing to take a little power trip.
I followed Justin around the corner and just as we approach his office and I start to unload my shoulder bag, he notices a shift in my tempo and turned back and said,
“We’re actually in the conference room today, just up the hall.”
“Oooh, fancy,” I said.
“I know right? And we get to expense catering.” He rubbed his hands.
Catering? There should only be three of us today.
Justin pulled open the conference room door, a fogged plate glass deal with chrome handle, and I felt the air pop straight through my ears. What I saw inside the office caused a knot in my throat. I silently gasped for air trying to swallow it. I really wish I had that coffee right about now. I look at the 12-seats around the long table and see in the one at the head, a Hannibal. I manage a look that hides my complete disbelief, ingratitude, desolation or failure. It’s a look one could only describe as “resigned.”
“Johnny. What are you doing here?”
Johnny stood up. I was dumbstruck. Stuck in my stance, I recover quickly and scan his outfit. It’s urban clown pastiche, but I had to hand it to him, he owned it. The word BILLIONAIRE n high-density ink printed on the chest and embroidered on long-sleeves.
“Who makes that shirt, Johnny?” I joke.
“You want one? I can get you one,” his assistant Ken asks.
“No. But seriously who makes it?” I repeat the joke.
“Sup, Alice.” Johnny says, and gets up to hug, not handshake or high-five. I put out a fist to bump him, something I’ve literally only ever done once with him. He reciprocates.
“Alright. We got a non-hugger here. That’s cool.”
He turned back to Mike and continued his thought.
“Messi is overrated. I’m telling you, it’s going to be Germany again.”
I find a seat diametrically opposed to his. Along with Johnny and Ken came June, the CFO of White Paper. After my debacle with the TED-Lord white paper debacle my opinions weren’t to be trusted alone with clients.
Here I’d thought I’d been trusted to deal with the very important job of directing a corporate brand identity and strategy all on my own, and now I was feeling equal and opposite humiliation for believing anyone I hated working with that much would ever delegate so much power to me. Why would that ever be how they recompensed my loathsome contempt for them? I heaved a sigh sitting down, and when Mike asked if I wanted something to drink, I asked for coffee, water and juice, just to make my presence extra obvious.
Mike picked up the nearest phone and dialed a number.
“Hey Gayle. Can you bring us some waters and hold on… anyone else want coffee?”
“I’ll take one. Just sugar,” said June.
“Two coffees and a juice… Whatever is in the fridge, I guess… Thanks.” Mike hung up. I wondered if Gayle was the office manager. June, the CFO, started the meeting by asking if everyone had access to the Basecamp agenda she’d sent out in the morning. I opened the agenda and saw right there at the top, a list of participants that included Johnny.
I hadn’t checked my work email because I promised myself not to do that until I got to my job assignment, like a fucking genius. “Work-life boundaries” she said. Ugh.
Johnny leaned over to Mike’s laptop and asked to look over at the screen with him. I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t read this agenda, but I was the only one pretending I had.
“Let’s start with your books. What’s the weekly spend. How’s the burn rate?” June asked.
Justin joked they could always use more money, but that they were doing fine. He offered to show AmEx statements from the past nine weeks and suggested it might be easiest for an accountant to look at the numbers, rather than waste the precious little time we’d had with “the whole creative team here,” then looked to Johnny and me. Was I a fucking creative, now?
Gayle walked in with drinks. It was Pam the Motherfucker, as I’d predicted.
“Here you go, ladies.”
I’m disappointed in you, Motherfucking Pam. Everyone else chuckled.
“Gayle’s the real boss here,” Justin said. Gayle rolled her eyes and chuckled. Which gesture should I believe?
We waited for the door to close all the way before resuming our discussion, as if trading state secrets. June, who looked exasperated, historically and presently, took a quick breath and said,
“OK, let’s save the whole first half of the agenda for a day when you guys can come to our offices, then. Why don’t we start with how you want to organize the board, then. As we discussed, we need a couple members of your board to be White Paper members, but we’ve also asked you to consider where we can provide the most value-add without interrupting your culture.” She was a poet with jargon.
Mike looked at Justin and started, “Well… we think what we really need is just a lot of press. Tons of it. So I guess we want to take advantage of your networks and your PR savvy.”
It was a strange feeling, anticipating their asking to adopt Johnny instead of me. On the one hand, I’ll have lost this ridiculous game to him if it’s about leveraging a Rolodex. Remember, Johnny is besties with Kanye. And yes, that made me a little sad. On the other hand, I absolutely did not need to prove myself in the context of PR. I’d rather be the actress in a Valtrex commercial than call myself a publicist again. In fact, I’d rather have raging Herpes than work in PR.
“We definitely want to tap into Johnny’s A-list celebrity network, but I think we really need Ali, sorry…Alice, to help us build a press campaign.”
There it was. The bright red herpetic sore I was so sure was just a tickling sensation from wearing pantyhose all day. It had metastasized into a phone call I’d now have to make, previously as a writing peer, currently as a shill.
“I’m not a publicist,” I said, blankly.
I felt distant empathy from June and Johnny’s head cocked. Don’t do it, Billionaire. Don’t fucking ask me to explain what’s wrong with being called a publicist. Do not do it. He cocked his head the other way and squinted his brows. Bad signs.
“Wait… you mean because you specialize in PR and not publicity?” Johnny asked. June answered smartly,
“A publicist gets you consumer reviews in magazines. PR means introducing the app to Mark Zuckerburg?”
“That’s all true but that’s not what I’m saying. The problem is… I am a writer and my contacts are peers, not targets. It’s just a little weird if I’m selling when I’m usually the person being sold to, if I’m being totally honest. I can write your press release and come up with a plan to be executed by someone with real connections.”
“Maybe Gayle can do it,” Ken said. “Not like she does much at the front desk, anyway.”
Oh what I’d have given for Ken to have said that while Gayle was here.
“I thought Gayle was the boss,” I said, adding, “guys, I just don’t want the title: Publicist or PR rep. I don’t care for it.”
Johnny snapped and then clapped, a redundancy to emphasize he was having an epiphany. It didn’t matter which gesture I believed with him.
“That’s genius. Nero won’t have any titles. It’s punk rock that way.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Johnny had indeed experience a revelation, but I’d fed it to him. I hated the words “punk rock” in his mouth.
I started laughing psychotically.
“What’s funny?” Johnny said, giggling along like he wanted in on the joke.
“Guys. I am not a publicist! I ran a fucking magazine before this. I haven’t done PR since…shit, since 2002.” Then it hit me. I snapped, and then clapped. Thank you, Mr. No Titles.
“Johnny, you know what? You should be the publicist/PR guy. I’ll give you all your lines and you can go do your magic with your Rolodex. That is the role Nero needs filled. That is the job you’re exceptional at.” I felt a rush of confidence I hadn’t in years. I was executing a perfect comeback.
“You should be the publicist,” I concluded.
I felt enormous power. The kind you need to land a huge punch. Not some bitch-faced slap, but a punch worthy of some white dude calling it pugilism. Johnny scrunched up his face and paused a second before responding.
“Nah, I can’t do PR. I’d lose my rep with fans if it said anywhere that I was now doing PR or publicity. Besides, I’m not a hot chick,” Johnny said. He’d dodged me. Suddenly I was flailing in the middle of the boxing ring falling face-forward from the momentum of my own fist. Why wouldn’t he stay down? I staggered and let my disgust propel me forward.
“So it’s ok if I lose my rep and do a job you think is supposedly not good enough for a dude? You think just cuz you’re a guy and I’m the fucking chick that I have to be the one shilling this fucking app to editors and celebrities…people whom, by the fucking way, you love hanging out with name-dropping on the regular?”
“I said hot chicks.”
I can feel my throat closing in except it’s actually a knot. I feel the lump return in my throat. Gaaaawd, why is my response to this situation the urge to cry?!
I am crying in a Starbucks bathroom. I am sitting on a filthy toilet with just enough intelligence not to actually use the facilities, sitting on this toilet seat in my nice clothes, with my professional makeup. A classic hobo or tourist is waiting impatiently to use the only public bathroom in a ten block vicinity. Why aren’t there more goddamn public bathrooms in this city. Some of us need crying cabins!
Crying. I can see my reflection in the scratchy metal mirror and hate to admit it right now but Johnny’s right. This is not hot.
It’s a miracle I didn’t rush across the conference table and set Johnny’s face on fire, or run out of the room making anime sounds of sadness articulated with fountains of tears.
After Johnny suggested neither of us was a hot chick, the room had fallen silent. We waited for either Johnny to apologize or for me to laugh. June got impatient and resumed the meeting.
“We can circle back to titles later in the meeting.”
Poor June. After all that meticulous planning, she had to postpone everything on the agenda.
Say whatever else I might about June, who I was certain would register as a psychopath as she’d never demonstrate anything resembling non-machine human affection, I would’ve done worse if it weren’t for her. While she refused every one of my attempts for a raise in pay grade, she was also the one who convinced me I had the iron heart and empty stomach necessary to take this high pressure job, and the intelligence to leave once I’d figured out what I wanted to do in life, and made enough money to be able to do it full-time. When Johnny told me I was an ugly cow who deserved nothing more than to answer emails from pimply tech blog editors, I’d discovered my life’s mission: to apply for a gun permit, and buy a million bullets, then spend a bullet on each and every individual sperm in Johnny’s testicles, in vitro.
Jesus, I really needed to cool it with my gun jokes.
June let me wallow and redirected focus of the meeting toward the men in the room. She physically shifted herself so people would look at her without seeing me.
I kept my mouth hermetically sealed from the inside for the rest of the morning session of our meeting, clenching my jaw and pursing my lips, keeping my mouth hidden behind a thoughtful fist. I don’t remember what anyone was talking about at that point, but I’d hear Ken agree with Johnny with an emphatic “totally” or “exactly” every 2 seconds. I kept thinking of how ugly I must be, if I am so smart. If I weren’t hot, could it be I at least had a good personality?
I’m in high school again.
When we decided to break for lunch, my exit was past tense it was so fast. I made up something about double-booking a conference call and needing to take it outside. I didn’t even have the strength to make it past the block, I ran into the adjacent Starbucks and hyperventilated the septic air of hundreds of shits New Yorkers had taken just this morning. I eventually pulled myself together and splashed my face with water. The bathroom didn’t have a paper towel dispenser despite mountains of it piled up in a trash can. A total mystery to this day.
I clicked on the air dryer, which hadn’t yet been upgraded to the extreme leaf-blower models making their way into most chain restrooms. The slow 1.0 fan had the effect in this putrid bathroom of redistributing all the farts of the day into my face. I came out of the bathroom wet and red. The angry patron banging on the door for me to hurry up no longer had anything to say to me.
After calming down outside, I went back into the Starbucks and bought an overpriced coffee I’d never finish and a pastry I’d never start, to make up for sitting in their bathroom for so long without so much as pissing all over the seat. I sat on the curb opposite the Hapsburg-style building. I don’t smoke but bummed a cigarette from a passerby. Pretending I’d already quit the job I’d just decided was my only logical recourse, I stared at the passersby, remarking upon which ones were buried in their phones, ceding right of way to drivers.
I realized then, that I still wasn’t ready to quit. More accurately, I couldn’t afford to. I had no sort of savings, and aside from my plans to stab Johnny’s dick, I did not, as June suggested, figure out what I wanted to do with my life. That, however, could be easily fixed. I texted Helen.
I need to find another job.