YANKEES 7, PHILLIES 3
Back on Top, Yankees Add a 27th Title. [Tyler Kepner, The New York Times. November 5, 2009]
White Paper was a godsend. When XX folded, the drummer from one of the bands we profiled mentioned to their aunt that it was this cool internet magazine but mostly talked about the suicide, like anyone would. This aunt (or was it an auntie?), Jennifer Hou, was the CEO of White Paper, which from what she said in an initial email to me, was either an ad agency or Ponzi scheme but I didn’t care because she said all I needed to hear: that I was her favorite “emerging writer.” She offered me a job without an interview, much less a single question about my intentions, as if I could just walk into her office and pluck any job. She knew I had been very publicly left without work when my partner shot himself in the face in the wake of the financial crisis. It was not as obvious to me that I should work for her even if it was obvious to her. Of all things, I was put off by her email signature. It included a large image attachment of a low-resolution logo of her company, four different phone numbers and a Ghandi quote.
In a gentle way, you can shake the world.
I suspected she could have just been looking for gossip about Peter. News of his death shook the restaurant world, and I blamed no one their natural curiosity. Perhaps she initially used this job opportunity as an excuse to make an appointment for digging up information. She wouldn’t have been the first to do so, and seven months after the fact would make her incredibly late. But she cited specific references to my writing, and at this point I would have composited video of Peter and me fucking the gun he used. I’d give anything for attention.
What exactly I had to offer her was yet to be ascertained but she insisted I be the one to offer it on my own terms. She reiterated several times that she was not one for procedure, and “not a formal person” and that she just wanted to make sure I was doing what made me happy. It was enough for her that I would be doing what I wanted to be good at doing, she said. She’d read somewhere that I was a “take no prisoners sex/music columnist,” which while flattering, came to me as a shock. No one knew my own reputation as well as I did, so how did I miss such a profound statement? Maybe it was just something someone told her about but was just a comment on a Giant Robot forum.
Despite my initial reluctance to sound immodest, I P.S.-ed her “btw not to sound like a complete narcissist but where did you read that I took no prisoners?” in responding with some open dates to meet. She immediately responded with a confirmed date and a link to The Music Reporter magazine.
OK, so not a Giant Robot forum. How did I miss it.
She invited me to sushi and insisted I call her Jen like everyone else, but never “Jenny” or I’d get fired.
Inviting me. Specifically. To sushi. Specifically…always meant something. I had to decide if I was going to play along to the extravagance of ceremony or actually enjoy myself. When she told me to meet at Megu in Tribeca I trembled. She would definitely have to be paying, and I would have to order in moderation.
I went in a blousy dress made with kente fabric and an expensive pair of leather riding boots that verged on smelling too much of storage mildew, in case anyone wondered whether I belonged at a Wall Street “dining institution.” The hostess put me in a corner and asked what kind of water I wanted, whether I wanted a hot or cold wet towel. I asked for cold just because I’d never thought that was an option.
Jen arrived ten minutes late and waved from across the dining room, thankfully, as I didn’t think to look her up or ask what she looked like, and therefore wouldn’t have known whom to look for and couldn’t assume a middle-aged Asian woman would be easy to spot in an Asian restaurant. Neither would a 28 year old music writer.
She sat down and immediately told the hostess to bring her a sake menu, asked if I liked sake. I said I did though I don’t, and ended up inhaling the carafe of whatever it was she ordered, because it turned out to be delicious. When the waiter came for our order she asked if I was OK with omakase, and then added an order of their in-house tofu.
We were well into our meal and making small talk about Japanese food—I admitted to being a snob about rice and her to spending too much on small batch sencha but ultimately preferring iced oolong in plastic bottles—before she broached work.
Jen said she wanted me to consider White Paper a sort of rehab, if I’d permit her the candor, an incubator facility. A playground for me to start writing again, and to make her some money by writing a little for her.
Paid writing. Sure. That was the dream.
The waiter paused between the clam and sardine entrees, to serve salmon skin hand rolls courtesy of the sushi chef.
“Masa knows I’m a plebian sucker for these,” Jen said to me and the waiter. I found myself delighted for once, at not having to portray any sort of identity in this sushi experience, and simply eat what was being fed without translating or ordering for an entire table of fascinated white people. The hand rolls were perfect.
“The thing is,” Jen resumed.
“Most of my portfolio is managed by a hot shot streetwear entrepreneur, and I know nothing about streetwear, but he’s practically printing paper for me, as they say. I’m rolling in Benjis.”
I pursed my lips, and she saw the effort it took me not to correct her jargon.
“I guess I’m showing my age,” she said.
I guess we both were. She went on to explain that though I should feel free to write what I wanted when I wanted, I’d be doing a lot of my “wordcraft” for the individual companies run by her portfolio Svengali, but I’d also get plenty of time to bring in my own leads and hopefully eventually run my own team. The only catch was that I’d potentially be writing without credit in this context, and it was all supposed to be worth it to see my work living in public while I continued to harness my so-called writing talent for music journalism.
Writing business plans for private companies was never off the table but having work passed off as the brainchild of some piddly brand I’d never personally endorsed, was never supposed to be in my purview. Even if the writing were composited like hot dog meat filling made of platitudes. What I had more than integrity at the moment, however, was a debt aggressively taxed by grief. I told myself I’d only seriously consider this offer if I trusted Jen’s Svengali.
“Who is this infinitely bankable streetwear king anyway?” I asked.
“Don’t laugh, but he calls himself Johnny Billionaire,” she said.
“You know him?” she said.
“Yeah. We called the cops on a wife-beater at one of his store events,” I said.
She laughed so hard she cried.
I started a new email and was somewhat surprised Johnny’s address auto-filled in the recipient data field. I searched my archived inbox for conversations with him to find exactly one thread. “Re: Thanks” was about the night we saw his employee Charlene get beat up by her boyfriend, Matt. He’d thanked me for helping him out in that awkward situation with his employee. At the time I’d said simply that of course I was there to help as the situation really required it of any decent human being.
I went back to the new draft email I was starting to Johnny and deleted it, opting instead of respond to this last line of communication with him. I wrote:
Funny to think this is the last time we talked to each other. I just found out you’re joining White Paper along with me as a fellow…what are we calling ourselves? Consultants? LOL Looking forward to working with you. -Anne
P.S. Whatever happened to the ass hat Matt? Did you call the police after all? How did Charlene make out?
Despite any misgivings I might have had about the industry in general, I applauded the general idea of young Asian men aspiring to something other than functionary prowess. I may not have ever understood “street culture” but it created a lot of heroes.
Johnny responded via a Google Chat ping.
Hey, you’re online, he started.
Yeah, I kind of live online.
Ha. I’m never here.
It’s a flook.
Anyway, small world.
But whatever did happen to Charlene and Matt?
What do you mean nothing?
They eventually broke up. She’s dating some other bobo now.
One who doesn’t hit her, I hope.
Ha, no. This dude’s a total pussy. No game.
Uh…cool, I guess? And Matt?
He’s probably found someone younger, hotter.
Whaa? He hasn’t been banished from the world?
Nah. People like him will never go down.
Well it doesn’t help that no one pressed charges.
I remembered his sister Sabrina who insisted on not calling the authorities.
If we did press charges, if anything, Matt woulda beefed with me and last thing I need is for him to have a warrant on my head. Anyway, he hasn’t had an incident since.
I blinked rapidly, and sat staring at the screen trying to rationalize Johnny’s last message. I couldn’t understand that not reporting a man publicly beating up a woman was an option. I started and stopped several reactions, leaving an active ellipsis.
See you in LA? Johnny recapitulated.
“Yep,” I said out loud.
May Day is a Laborer’s Holiday
Jenny insisted on having me attend an off-site team building trip for the company on my first official day on the clock. It was strange enough that my first day would fall on a calendar Day 1 (Friday) rather than a work week Day 1 (Monday), but I supposed this would explain the timing of a local field trip, dressed up in an unglamorous chartered bus that took all 62 of us from general headquarters in Gardena, to downtown Los Angeles. Most of us would’ve preferred to drive independently straight from home, but the team building began at single-filing into a vehicle with a toilet. And I was not told it was mandatory, but found that as an initial task, being invited to join “the family” would be thought of as a rewarding excursion. This was an inclusive gesture by defense—if I weren’t invited and started work in an empty office, I’d no doubt feel maudlin.
We arrived at the beautiful modern Museum, but corralled into a small conference room designated a media theater. Unevenly distributed mobile chairs faced a pull-down projector screen, where Jenny took audience from the level dais of a plastic picnic table. Everything in the room was mobile and plastic, and I wondered who would let their work get exhibited in this room, how they’d feel about such a glamour-free presentation in a prestigious museum. Was it worth inviting friends and family to such a theater, or was the value of such projection merely in the credibility of a flyer that included the name: Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
Jen was handed a live mic by a museum employee, though the room did not require such acoustics. The mic was connected to a full sound board and amp system. I realized that the prestige of film projections in this context would not depend on the cosmetic misinformation of cheap Uline furniture, but on the darkness, and the darkness would depend on the high fidelity of a full sound system. What would happen if Jen turned off the lights in this room before speaking to her employees?
“I want to welcome everyone to our bi-annual off-site, and hope you all have fun. More importantly I hope you feel like you’ll have learned something new or whatever art is supposed to do…enrich your senses I guess. I know you all came for the David Choi-catered lunch and open bar,” she started. The room illuminated; people shifted in seats and smiled at each other.
That’s why she made us come in a bus. I realized too that she must have thought I’d appreciate the attention she paid to food and bar. And I would. Still. I felt had.
“I also want to just let everyone know that this isn’t just an excuse to fuck around. Pardon my French. You don’t think I notice but I see when you take advantage of us, of me. You can’t bill for hours you spend on long lunch meetings and think I won’t notice when nothing materializes from those meetings in the way of any substantial work.”
The room became still. I glanced at Mike, sitting next to me. He gave a knowing smile with relaxed eyes as if to say, “don’t worry she always gets like this at our offsites” or “I wish she’d stop humiliating us.”
“I have just fired five people because I could. They thought they could jack off at work all day and that I wouldn’t notice. Well, I do. I might not remember all your names, but this is my company at the end of the day and you can’t get lazy around me. I see what goes on. Just don’t pretend around me. If you are finding yourself bored at work and needing to take advantage of the time I pay you to do it, please tell me. I will find something for you to do! Is anyone here today bored working for me.”
She paused for effect. Not long enough to let anyone answer.
“This doesn’t mean I disapprove of you being on the computer, on Twitter or Facebook. In fact, if you don’t have a Facebook account you should quit. I am not afraid to tell you I’ll fire you if you have some principled reason not to be on social media. Seriously, just quit right now. I don’t have patience for idiotic scruples. I don’t want to friend classmates! I don’t like sharing my personal information with corporations. You work for a media communications company. We can’t be the Number 1 agency in the region and be out of the loop because you don’t trust eyes on you. You want to have all the eyes on you!”
I thought of Tupac. I tried to remember if MySpace existed while he was alive, and more specifically when he was assassinated. I gripped my notepad nervously because I didn’t have a Facebook account, for all the reasons Jen had just supplied. Her assumptions felt so much like an invasion of my mental privacy I actually felt fear. Was it possible she was actually able to read my mind? I returned to focus when I heard her mention Johnny.
“I expect you all to aspire at least to the level of an interested netizen, if not a full-bown influencer, like Johnny Billionaire…”
I looked at Mike again, who was our shared assistant, and whispered to him.
“Is Johnny here?”
“He’s in LA but isn’t coming to this. Had some meetings,” Mike answered almost inaudibly.
I knew that Johnny didn’t have a Facebook account either, and I surmised it was the same idiotic scruples, which didn’t help me feel better about refusing to be a joiner. A non-joiner in a fake theater being inculcated by her new tyrant. I was suddenly mad that I hadn’t thought to opt-out of this excursion. I could just picture Johnny’s reaction to the invitation. I’d find out everything I needed to know about Johnny, over the course of the day, in murmured reverie I only interpreted as a long con of personality.
Johnny Billionaire used to be a hedge funder and his last name used to be Wang. His father named him after John Wayne. He thought the way Americans pronounced Wang it sounded enough like it. He’d been hired into a middling law firm as a paralegal and specialized in corporate real estate, but a week into a business trip to Bangalore, he found himself trapped on a 37th floor of a building he’d help sell, due to a city-wide blackout. Johnny in this dark night of reflection in the middle of India, looked at his phone, waited for updates from friends, when he realized he wanted more in life than peddling space. He wanted to make a difference. With streetwear.
Johnny has told thousands of people in the dozens of Career Day conferences he’s been invited to, that the worst thing for one’s health was “looking back.” He talks about the need to cut one’s losses, ignore financial liabilities, other people’s opinions. He claims no one should work for popular opinion and that a critic is a creative’s best motivation. He’s fooled so many bright-eyed, kids into believing carpe diem isn’t just a euphemism for “don’t be a fucking pussy.” He joked over dinner once that Rome was in fact built in a day—the day someone decided to write about Rome.
He thinks history only takes one day to write.
His greatest talent is the supreme facility in his ability to celebrate his own popularity by insulting himself.
“I don’t know a tenth of the 800 thousand people who follow me on Twitter. I still don’t get how it works. Like, are we supposed to be friends?”
“It’s embarrassing when Kanye leaves comments on my pictures, because he’s just trying to guilt me into going out.”
“The last thing I need is for a wife beater to get on my case.”
Johnny is a gifted speaker, and has never been held accountable for the hundreds of thousands of dollars he’s invoiced his clients each month, because above all, he is a spokesperson; an emblem. The most important aspect of his work is that he works at all. He spends most of his day becoming popular, and making businesses succeed by sitting in the same room when their work is done. I suspected we might agree on one thing today. Why the fuck would I want to go to a museum with a bunch of strangers who don’t care about art.
I focused back on Jen again when she started to introduce new employees.
“I’d like to introduce the newest member of our content team. Alice Shimada. I want you all to feel free to introduce yourselves to her and show her the ropes.”
I stood up halfway and tilted into an agnostic bow. I was put off by the fact that I wasn’t name-dropped in the same way Johnny was. I quickly got over it when I remembered I also did not give a fuck what a bunch of strangers who don’t care about art, thought about a dilettante who didn’t have a Facebook account.