Friday, January 26, 2007

Global Warming.

So, I was on my lunch break today. It is a balmy 20 degrees in New York City today, with wind gusts topping 40 miles per hour. As I stepped out to buy a cup of coffee, I was accosted by two canvassers who were trying to get people to donate money to a cause to help fight global warming. Given the weather today, all I can imagine is that these guys have heard a LITANY of the lamest global warming jokes ALL DAY DAY LONG. "I could use some global warming now, HAR HAR HAR!"

Luckily, even though I am loathe to pass up low-hanging fruit when it comes to humor, I was able to resist the initial urge as it worked its way through my brain. I tell ya. That sort of temperance is a sign of maturity.

I was young and needed the money.

So, I moved to New York in late November and things have not gone as planned, per se. I have spent the past two-plus months unemployed, and only in the last couple of weeks have I washed up on the margins of employment: temping. At a scant $11 an hour for dreary data entry, and given that this temp job only came about last week, I have spent a fair amount of time looking for other avenues to generate some cashflow.

Frustrated with feeble attempts to sell my labor, I first looked into selling my body. Not quite ready to Midnight Cowboy it up (I still have some pride), I looked into selling stuff I produced in abundance. Sadly, no one wanted my gutter Pollack blood, nor my gutter Pollack sperm.

At an impasse, I feebly wandered the "gigs" section hoping something would arise. Very quickly, I learned that unlike my blood or semen, there WAS a market for my gutter Pollack opinions. No market for my body, but plenty of market for my soul. AND THAT'S HOW I JOINED A FOCUS GROUP!

For $85, I spent two hours discussing a brand of ROT GUT brandy (that shall remain nameless) that is more commonly associated with men warming their hands on garbage fires under highway underpasses than it is with, say, snifters and cigars. They're looking to class-up their image. That's why they called ME in. Well, me and several other middle class males aged 21-35. (We're a good demographic.)

So, after work I road the 4 train up from Union Square to Grand Central, to go to Focus Suites (slogan: "Our focus is on YOU!") on Lexington Ave. and 41st St. After being screened in the lobby, having my ID checked, and being ushered through a turnstile (recorded by video cameras all the way), I took an elevator up to Floor 13. Entering the Focus Suites was something like being in a juror pool. They took my name and assigned me a specific color for your specific focus group. I then sat in this holding pen, with all the other colored groups awaiting word from whomever was conducting your particular focus group. Luckily, unlike jury duty, they had refreshments! For free! If there's one lesson I've learned on this earth, it is ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS abuse free swag when it's offered. Two little sandwiches, three cups of coffee, and a couple of tasty Danish butter cookies later, the green group was called. For some reason unknown to me, two guys from our group were bumped at the last second. I wonder if they were still paid without participating. If so, I'm insane with jealousy. Some guys get all the breaks.

We were ushered down the hall, our party consisting of a very tired (and possibly stoned--very bloodshot eyes and quick to chuckle at anything) Asian man in his mid 30s; an effeminate 20-something business consultant of mixed racial heritage; a very angry and tired looking Latino man in his early 20s; a very tall and charmingly disinterested African-American student in his early 20s; an incredibly relaxed, saracastic African American tow-truck driver from Queens in his 30s; an African American middle manager with a garish take on business attire (pinkie rings, gaudy paisley tie, cream pinstripe pants, vibrant blue shirt...imagine if Superfly worked at a bank and was TRYING to tone it down, but not quite succeeding...); a white, late 20s airline agent with several bracelets of the "Livestrong!" variety, 5 o'clock shadow, and spikey hair, who seemed to find himself VERY amusing; and ME, an out of work, college educated whiteboy from the country whose allowed his embitteredness to take over in venues such as this.

We assembled ourselves around a board room table and the first thing I noticed was the obvious one-way mirror that comprised the whole of the back wall. It was corporate-board-room-meets-store-managers-office-that-you-got-dragged-to-in-Kmart-when-you-got-caught-shoplifting-GI-Joes-when-you-were-nine. The nice thing, though, was on the sidebar....there were more cookies and coffee! And the classiest touch of Focus Suites was that rather than having chintzy, environmentally unsound styrofoam cups, they had honest to God stoneware mugs (all of which reminded me that their "focus is [me]"). Hanging above the board room table were several microphones, and we were instructed to direct our name placards toward our facilitator. Coincidentally, this also pointed them right at the one-way mirror, behind which, it was immediately apparent to me, stood the corporate toadies. Watching our every move. No doubt taking very bland notes peppered with bland and meaningless buzzwords like "actualized consumer," and "new market potential" and other things so specific and dreary I couldn't hope to know or understand them.

Sitting at the head of the table was Ron, an African-American man in his mid-fifties. He was, at least in the beginning, likeable enough. Corpulent, slightly amusing. There was a hint of Al Sharpton about his appearance, but if Al Sharpton had taken a different turn and began conducting focus groups. He was decidedly less "corporate" than I had expected. He wore a sweater and slacks and looked comfortable, letting his sizeable belly hang slack. There were no ostentatious flashes of wealth about him or even about projecting "standardized norms of professionalism." His language seemed generally genuine, with only a few brief moments of that syrupy ersatz-sincerity that is the hallmark of the contemporary corporate world. Still, he straddled that awkward position of trying to be both professional/corporate while still being streetwise/accessible/charming. That being said, he rang a lot truer than most people I have met who were acting on behalf of a corporate interest. So much so that he hardly masked his disdain for certain members of the group (read: me) as the evening went on, but there's more on that later. Regardless, I'd rather him dislike me than continually flashing the Pepsodent smile and nodding vigorously with faux interest at everything I said.

After a perfunctory round of demographic collection--names, ages, occupations--around the table, we settled into discussing booze. QUESTION: What was the last brown spirit YOU purchased? Quickly it was determined that I was the only scotch drinker in the room. That's fine, I'm one of the few scotch drinkers under sixty. This, however, was the first step in determining my continued irrelevance to the advertising agency that was handling this paint thinner of a booze. Nope, they were into brandy. Brandy that is shamefully marketed toward poor and working class African Americans. HOWEVER, they are undergoing an image campaign, so it became abundantly clear that the upshot of the ad campaign was that this particular NEW, FANCY, UPSCALE version of drinkable kerosene was a tool, apparently, of upward mobility.

We began to look at possible print advertisements for this particular booze. Always in groups of two, always similar in theme, always eerily sepia in color, presumably to mimic the color of the brandy? All of the ads but one featured young, attractive black people who were appearing varying states of upper class, in spite of the fact that this brandy (I was made aware by my African American focus group brethren) is, in Harlem, generally associated with paper bags and panhandling. (I was unaware. Most of the poor drunks in Chicago drink malt liqour.) One set of ads featured a white male, 20-30s, adjusting his cufflinks. He had the far off, distant smile that is ONLY found in alcohol and tobacco ads, as though he was transcending the quotidian anguish and ennui by being A) rich and chic and B) by drinking shitty brandy that was posing as something better. The caption read, "Graduate to X.O." (X.O. being the new, shmancy version of this swill.) It's counterpart featured a picture of hiphop artist Cee-Lo (to people as unaware of contemporary hip hop as me, the short, squat, bald guy of Gnarls Barkley fame) wearing an ostentations white linen double-breasted suit, complete with muted pin-stripes, a silk tie as wide as a soccer field, and a tri-folded pocket square. It screamed hip-hop ostentation.

Something about these ads offended me. They flicked the guilty, white, liberal node in the deep recesses of my brain. I could not put my finger on preciscely why, but I found these ads racist. I suppose it was that they were contextless. Needless to say, had I been reading the New Yorker, I wouldn't have found the bourgeois honky all that surprising. Nor would I find Cee-Lo surprising in Vibe any number of youth or black-targeted publications. Which is precisely WHY I found them vaguely racist. Because, immediately, I could pick just which publications these ads might be in. I knew their correct context. They both were targeted narratives of upward mobility, targeted racially. With booze as a symbol, and even cause, of status.

Moreover, there was no subtlty to their fallacies of upward mobility. It reminds me of a joke wherein a black man rubs a lamp, finds a genie, and wishes to be "White, up tight, and outta sight!" He is, of course, turned into a tampon. Still, the ad with the white man is an aloof, exquisitely, yet simply, dressed man who is ignoring the camera while smiling a transcendent smile of arrogance and exclusion. As if he knows something that you don't, and it has to do with his superiority.

On the other side, the black symbol of upward mobility was an entertainer. He's garishly dressed demanding attention. This is a continual fallacy of black upward mobility. Entertainment is the only way up, and once one gets there, be sure to wear your wealth ostentatiously on your sleeve! I suppose it plays into an opinion I have, and one I often keep mute for fear of being accused of racism. That being said, I will out with it. I think consumerism is being sold to Black America in a way that does a great disservice both culturally and economically. Look at the ostentation of Sean Combs or Russell Simmons or any number of African American athletes. I am not passing judgment. These people are as much a product of this "get-rich-or-die-trying" aesthetic as they are perpetrators of it. It's just...there's a big focus on getting rich and showing it off in contemporary hip-hop culture...and I cannot help but feel like corporate marketers PREY on this mercilessly.

It struck me part way through that this brandy probably had NO intention of ever being sold to wealthy people. Oh no, far more insidiously, I think their plan was to convince their usual poor customer base to spend five extra dollars a bottle on this X.O. rot gut so they CAN FEEL AS THOUGH they're partying with Jay-Z. It's the same thought I've had about Mountain Dew's EXTREME SPORTS ad campaign. I realized at one point, that they have no intention of getting snowboarders to DO THE DEW. Oh no, they just want the fat-compulsively-masturbating-35-
year-old-virgin-who-still-lives -in-his-mom's- basement-and -plays-D&D- every-weekend base to FEEL like badasses by drinking that stomach-pickling antifreeze.

So, I put a toe in the water. I hinted about the difference in the representations of race. THIS quickly made me a non-entity to Ron throughout the rest of the evening. He DID NOT find it funny when I waved at the men on the other side of the glass. He didn't even let me discuss the tension between flirtation and seduction I saw in the last pair of ads. Which is fine. I was of no use to them, and they were certainly of no use to me.

What I appreciated is most of the people in the group were only there for the money. Most of us saw right through the bullshit. But...there was one the end who actually said, "I dunno...I think I may go buy a bottle of this X.O. They've really stepped up their game..." I didn't know if I wanted to slap him...or cry for the millions of Americans who are so blissfully sold to. Put a new image on the same schlocky bill of goods, and someone will show up, cash in hand.

Still... $85 is pretty good money for a scant two hours of frustration.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Self Discovery is a Crock.

Catchy title, huh?

I don't mean to say that we can't learn about ourselves. Self-discovery, it seems to me, is a process and very legitimate, but there is no terminal point. The only person guaranteed to every be continually surprising is one's own self. Sometimes I'm surprised, even, by how unsurprising I am in certain moments. To say I've learned a lot about myself of late would be an understatement, but to say that I've reached any concrete understanding is so far from reality tha it's laughable.

Life and thought and selfhood is never one thing. It's myriad aspects, thoughts, aspirations, frustrations, questions, emotions all flying a once. Suffice it to say that this is a cheesy cliche, but I'm willing to bear the burden of talking in cliches, should they prove to be true.

I seem to remember something in a literature class in college about how the high-modernists (Faulkner, Joyce, et al) were focussed on the self. On understanding the self. The post-modernists, if I recall correctly, tended to be more focussed on the obliteration of the self.
My Marxist synthesis of these two is that we try to understand the self, but the self is already obliterated. Or rather, that it never hung together as a ONE in the first place. Our brains are very Dada places. Or mine is. It's merely a loose amalgamation of knowledge, experience, pain, joy, love, hate, et al, et al, LOOSELY tied together by spit and used chewing gum and ego.

Hence, I often sit and think, "What am I thinking at this moment? What am I feeling?" So rarely do I get any sort of concrete answer.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

What an Exciting Town!

I just stepped out to see two prostitutes and a John getting busted by the always valiant NYPD. How exciting!

We had hookers in my neighborhood in Chicago, too. It's just that the cops didn't really come to my neighborhood.

I feel bad for the two women involved. I saw them allowing a search of their vehicle on sight, which I have learned ANYTHING in my 24 years... YOU NEVER CONSENT TO A SEARCH WITHOUT A WARRANT. EVER. NEVER EVER.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Must be gettin' old...

...or hangin' out in the wrong crowd. I just realized I have more friends in grad school than I do who are in rock bands. That didn't used to be so.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Dispatch from an Island off the Coast of America

I live on an island off the coast of America. I wish I could take pseudonym for the isle of Manhattan, but alas, I am cribbing from Spalding Gray. I crib because I love however; it kicks the shit out of "The Big Apple."

There is something outside of America about New York City. It IS American in many ways--some of the worst, if you've ever walked through Times Square on a Saturday--but it's self-consciously made itself an "other." I both love and hate this.

I hail from a region where Chicago was the platonic ideal of city. As Nelson Algren once noted, "Living in Chicago is like being married to a woman with a black eye: there may be lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real." I do miss that hog butcher of a town. Much of what I love about it is its perfect balance of provinciality and cosmopolitanism. I miss working class taverns on every corner (and, yes, bridges that smell of chocolate, too.) The working class seems missing from this town. Sure in the outer reaches of the outer boroughs, but for the most part Manhattan seems to be the playground of the hoi polloi.

On the other hand, there's so much going on here. It's hard not to romanticize the culture of New York. The desire to be seen while pretending you don't care that you're being seen. The desire to be hip without seeming. But what's truly great about New York are the few people who are NOT self-conscious. Those who you see on the subway who are truly presenting whomever they are without the cockiness of the MANY who are trying to hard. I dunno...I ramble. To bed for me. Tomorrow is another work day.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Ah, New York, New York! It's a hell of a (parody of a?) town...

So...I started blogging. And my initial intention was to avoid first-person accounts of my life...but the hilarity of my situation was too glaring.

I swear to God, I'm living in a poorly written, hackneyed, cliche movie/play/book ABOUT being a 24 year old to New York. Thus far I've had the obvious heartbreak, the expected urban isolation, the over-the-top poverty. I feel like I might just bust out into song, musical-style at any moment. "I'm just a humble small-town boy...from the rural Midwest! But I've moved to the big, big city to make my fortune. I didn't know it would go like this!"

Seriously. I live in a tiny, railroaded tenement apartment. I'm trying to write. My roommate writes music. We're very "New York" in a way that I find both charming and troubling.

We have a bathroom that's smaller than most bathtubs; we fight a war of attrition against mice.

I do not, after two months of trying, have a job. Instead, I start temping on Tuesday.

The woman across the hall is afraid of mice in a way that I thought was reserved only for black and white sitcoms. She gives me coffee. I, in trade, pick up mice off her floor in various stages of death.

I haven't seen Rent (good God, why would I want to? Lord knows I've heard the goddamn songs when my brother was into it in high school...), but I have a hunch this is how the first act goes. Seriously. It's time to start a novel so I can tell people that, "I'm a writer. I just temp to pay the bills!" I can become THAT guy in this town full of THAT guy.

It's uncomfortable to be trapped in a cliche. But have it be real. Every morning when I wake up. (Ok, ok...AFTERNOON when I wake up.)

What a joke. It makes me want to drink, but I can't afford to. Yay, poverty! Hooray for accidentally healthy livers!

Well...Act I and II of my New York parody seem to be almost's intermission. After the break I'll either A) learn a valuable lesson, B) ride off into the sunset, or C) get cancer.

Monday, January 8, 2007

David Bowie Turns 60 Today!!!

Oh, David! You put the "sex" in sexagenarian!

Five Great Songs to Listen to While Walking Around Manhattan in the Rain

1.) Tom Traubert's Blues by Tom Waits
2.) Days of Wine and Booze by The Minus Five/Wilco
3.) Jacking the Ball by The Sea and Cake
4.) Stay Out of Trouble by The Kings of Convenience
5.) ANYTHING with both Django Reinhart and Stephane Greppalli (seriously, you'll feel like in you're in a Woody Allen movie...a good one, Annie Hall or Manhattan)

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. I'm looking for suggestions.

A Musical Assertion

I have been listening to some old Simon and Garfunkel this evening. I have an assertion to make: if "groovy' were not such a hopelessly cheesy and dated word, Simon and Garfunkel's song "Feelin' Groovy" would be a timeless pop hit. It's hooky as shit, yo. And Art's castrati harmonies are infectious like ebola.

Got Myself a Brand New Blog!

Hi. I decided to start blogging. Too many cobwebs in my brain, need to rid myself of clutter. Here goes.