I’ve always envied people who could bring their dogs with them everywhere. Old coon hounds sitting in the back of a farmer’s pickup. Fashionistas with their Pomeranians in their purses. Airport cops with stoic German shepherds on short leashes. Hip entrepreneurs writing code in old warehouses, with mixed breed companions named Woman or Copernicus or 8-track sitting under their Ikea worktables.
Finally, I have joined their ranks. Every morning, my hairy coworkers report to the garage with me. First, they make sure no one has accidentally left any bacon or chicken bones on the floor during the night, then flop down to supervise me while I work. That supervision is very trusting as Tim and Joe generally fall asleep within minutes and leave me to carry on unattended.
Every hour or so, something or other will pass outside our fence and they will leap outraged from their slumber and hurl themselves down the drive to bark angrily through the cracks. Then, huffily, they strut back to their stations, exhale indignantly and return to dreams of New York sidewalks and slow moving cats.
If I have to go into the house to freshen my martini or buy another ream of typing paper, they escort me to the door and wait by the kitchen steps. When I return, usually seconds later, they are delirious and insist on asking me all about my absence. Then back to bed. I mean, work.
In a masochistic fit, I have been reading the comments people have been making on YouTube about my commercials. People are so extreme. Some complain about the interest charges Chase put on their card, others link them to some fictional Nazi past, others cry or write paeans to actors playing minor roles. Some just dispute the commercial’s claim:
“This commerical suck balls no atm in the world that quick what a bunch of liers “
Some just plain hate my client:
Chase is an enemy institution that every town should vandalize with bricks and spray cans.
The most recent frenzy has been around the fact that I had Peter Murphy of the band Bauhaus cover “Instant Karma” by John Lennon.This strikes people as a betrayal on about six dimensions and they have filled five pages of comments on YouTube.
“Oh, come on, Pete, are you really that strapped for cash? “
“i could imagine Peter appearing on that commercial as a cute dolphin [sic] to the sea.”
“I hate this song, initially sounds like he’s trying to squeeze one out…”OOOONNNN and OOOOOONNNN and OOOONNNN”
“I owe chase $600.00. I love this commercial so I might consider paying them back.”
“Brilliant! … Nice to see such esoteric luminous creative for a freaking bank commercial. It’s about time things were bumped up a notch!”
I just like the song, and I like Bauhaus, so I am a bit mystified by the fuss. But then, I’m just an ad guy.
Another phenomenon is when people who are involved with some aspect of the commercial, adopt it as their own. For instance, people who like one of the actors or in, one case, a dog, who appears in the spot.
There’s grumbling though, even among the fans:
“dangerous!!!! Chase is encouraging young people to break the laws and run a muck!!!:
Sometimes the reaction is positive. Like, in this case, when a song I used in a spot became a pretty big hit and “100 Years” by Five for Fighting was back on the charts.
dude can u plz tell me the name of this song ive been lookin for it for like 2 years now -.-…
“i love this song. it’s soooo amazing. i want it played at my wedding.”
Sometimes there are a lot of positive scomments, like the ones for this mawkish spot I did a few years ago.
“This is like one of the most touching commercials I’ve seen to date. Wow, I’m sold! The power of commercials cannot be underestimated!”
Then there’s the really fantastic post where someone took one of my commercials and endeavored to prove that it was seeded with hidden swastikas, proving that Chase was trying to bring back the Third Reich. I kid you not.
If they make fascism look warm and fuzzy who wouldn’t want it?
its great to know others notice the obvious swastika in the Chase logo. The fact that they even shift the logo to show the swastika shows that they are trying to get us sheeple to get used to the logo again.
Yeah and Kermit the frog is a alien transported to brainwash us all. Damn dude take your medication, I dont give a damn about Chase but that is about the strangest connection Ive ever heard.
And one final spot from
a scum sucking rat turd.
I love the Internet! (This post is for my pal, Richard Hall)
http://www.db798.com/pictobrowser.swfI have just arrived at the last page of my office sketchbook, the one I carry to meetings and use to write down my ‘ideas’. Flipping through this most recent volume, I came across lots of little drawings. They are generally utilitarian things, designed to record a thought or to communicate it to someone else. It’s funny, looking back through the scrawled pages, how mysterious these drawings seem now, out of context and stripped of their original purpose. Roll over the “notes” to see my annotaions of each important piece of artwork. Or should it be “Work Art”?
I like nice. I like sweet. But even more I like raw. I like real. And Ilove Charity Larrison. She and I have been corresponding for a couple of years ago and she always cracks me up and take my breath away with her honesty. Charity’s story is pretty different from Trevor’s and it is far from resolved. I won’t say much more in the way of introduction but to say, Charity is the real thing. We can all learn a lot from her bravery, creativity and independence.
The Fundamental Distraction by Charity Larrison
At 18, the idea of going to art school, being a real artist, whatever, you know – seemed basically useless. My family was poor – college was not even an option really. And college for something as abstract as “being an artist” – ha ha. I might as well not even think about it.
I remember spending my whole senior year of high school in a corner of the art room working on paintings - buying extra time here and there doing the whole fluttery-eyelashes thing, “Oh come on, *please* Mister Whatever Stupid Teacher - I finished the assignment in five minutes! Can't I *please* go down to Miss McKannicks' for the rest of the period?? - i'm working on A GREAT PAINTING!”
So like any good comic book loving skateboard punk rocker with no way out of small town America hell – I joined the army.
I remember when I was in basic training my drill sergeant secretly pulling me over to the side and saying: “ONUSKA, take these markers and these flags up to the latrine and draw E-328 Predator faces on them so I can give them as prizes at the end to the other drill's. If you get caught you're in trouble, so don't get caught!”
And then there was the Sunday afternoon when I was in advanced training, learning my 68G10 - Aircraft Structure Repair crap; I was walking through the platoon area on my way to the smoking table when I was accosted by my Drill Sergeant to report for detail to the enlisted club, where I ended up spending the rest of the summer assisting his wife painting a mural of a bunch of Blackhawk helicopters landing on the wall in front of the dance floor.
She yelled at me one day: “YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!” Then it was a few really a lot louder sentences in Korean that I am still glad that I couldn't understand & I remember shrugging my shoulders at her and saying: Don't worry, Sun, I have it all worked out.
I got married. We had fun for a while. I got pregnant. He got kicked out of the service. I decided to opt out and follow him home. Our marriage didn’t survive the strain. I packed my baby and what belongings I could fit into his gold Fiero (dear god) and never looked back. I was twenty. Worked and worked and worked. Lots of crap jobs. Night shifts at the convenience store. Short order cook. Bank teller.
I remember it is two am and I am standing under fluorescent lights in an all night convenience store slicing endless little piles of lunch meat, passing the time wondering who it was that got to have the job where you made all the dumb signs. I would be good at that job.
I remember hanging out at my teller station when I worked at the bank, copying pictures out of comic books every moment of time where there were not incredibly crabby people in front of my face blaming me for all their money problems.
I remember lucking into a seasonal civil service gig with Pennsylvania state parks. Where I got to take care of the computers. Burning another boring afternoon clerking it in the office, doodling on post-its when Kevin, the Assistant Boss Park Ranger dropped a stack of instructions in front of me and said: “Larrison: if you can figure out how to network all our computers and make it work, you can have the internet. (THE INTERNET!!!! FINALLY!!!)
I decided I needed to cave in and try to go to college. To get out and get something better. Thinking to maybe get some kind of IT certificate, as I was so swell at computers and all. Looked it up on the Internet. Looked halfheartedly at stuff, then saw it. The graphic design program. You know: the “oh, that’s what i’m supposed to be doing” moment. (omg – like art school! But like – you could actually GET A JOB) (try not to cry laughing at me :D) anyway – once i saw it, it was too late. I had to do it. So i did. It was insanity. I worked five million jobs and went to school and somehow held everything together with just, pure will. (because seriously, this was the stupidest gamble of all time WHAT ARE YOU THINKING etc.)
See – I loved graphic design. I loved it more than anything in the whole universe. There was nothing like it to me. I knew how to make the pages talk. Then i learned how to make the pages sing. I made pretend magazines and taught myself how to make web pages, and I demanded that i get a REAL internship at a REAL place. Because even though i was just some jackass with an Associates’ degree from a tech school – that didn’t make me not THE BEST. (quit laughing :D)
Anyway, i got my internship. They hired me right out of school. Their art director moved to Atlanta, and I got his job. I was never, ever, ever, so miserable in my entire life than how miserable i was for those six months. I remember my favorite part of the day was whenever I could go down and sit in the restroom just so that I could spend five or ten minutes not having to be in the same room with those people. I mean, holy shit – these guys were some serious assholes. I was so depressed. I mean this? This is what graphic design is for? Lying? And lying and lying forever? GAH. And I’d spent so much of myself learning and it felt like, all for nothing.
I lasted about six months till they fired my ass. I remember dancing up the street Fred Astaire style the afternoon they fired me. Sure it sucked and I was doomed, but lunchmeat at two am was better than that crap.
Not to be thwarted, once i finished celebrating being fired from the ninth circle of hell, I threw my resume up on monster.com and got a call. Some company needed someone who could use Photoshop. Okay. I can do that. Went. Interviewed. They ended up hiring me on the spot. Was a small engineering company. Tired of getting raked over the coals from the ad agency that was doing all their stuff previously, they wanted just someone who could use Photoshop to fix some images for them.
I was all like, well, you know, i can do everything those bastards were doing for you, except better, and cheaper. So they hired me and gave me a million raises and built me a giant office and bought me every toy I asked for. It was fantastic for about a year. I made everything for them from out of nothing. I was like a great hero, rescuing my company from the tyranny of the great evil of advertising agencies.
I suppose you see what’s coming by now. I mean, there’s only so much you can do. After a while my job started to consist of just updating and tweaking and pressing buttons. I joke that it is my George Jetson job. I just rush in push a button then put my feet up on the desk. Which everyone says is so great. Which I suppose it is, but what happens if you are crazy and actually LIKE to work, but have no work to do? It sucks. But you can’t leave your great job when you are the sole support of your tiny family. You gotta just suck it up and go to work.
So, I sit in my giant office in the middle of nowhere America and spend my days floating around the great now of the Internet. I don’t know that I had a plan really when I started out. I mean, I just did the things I already liked to do. I followed comics websites and comics artists and followed their advice about how to learn how to draw, and i just kept trying to learn how to draw. Because that’s what I wanted more than anything. To learn how to draw for real. So i could draw comic books. For real. So i just kept drawing. I made myself websites to put my drawings on, cause that kind of made it feel like an activity. I made horrible comic books. I made friends and enemies.
I have some friends who are writers, they asked me to draw their stories, so I did. Because I love them, and I love that they write stories, and I love making words into pictures, and the challenge of making the pages read and flow. Figuring out just the right thing to draw to make the story move the best way. It’s the funnest game ever. It makes me work hard. I could do it till the end of the universe.
And slowly I started to learn how to learn.
It’s funny about learning. It’s never what you expect. I am starting for the first time ever, to actually get the hang of it, and make some things that are kind of cool and that i really love. I am starting to learn how to see the world, and my heart is constantly in like this odd vice of joy. I want to draw everything all of the time. But time is precious – which things to spend the time on? I want to draw that tree – but really shouldn’t I be working on something serious? I mean, that is the kind of thing I have been thinking to myself lately.
See – honestly, I hate my job. It’s awful. I am all by myself all the time. There is no one to talk to ever, except the dumb internet, and I want out. Having basically one client only for the past four years, my portfolio is utter crap. And, Jesus, I don’t want to be a graphic designer anymore anyway. I want to draw. But how do you make a living from drawing? How do you make a living from drawing without starting to hate drawing, is the main thing i think. I have been trying to figure it out. Trying to figure out what way to push so that I can still love it, and still get out of here.
So I have been trying to remember why I started this. Why I am here. What did I want when I began? To maybe find some kind of clue that will help me figure out what to do. What is important? Why do i do all these things that I don’t actually care about anymore when I would really rather be out drawing trees?
These days I just wake up every day and do what I have to do to buy the extra time down miss mckannicks' to work on the paintings. And think it is pretty awesome that I get to stay here this time and don't have to go to the Army again, because that sucked.
Above: Notes taken during a really important meeting I no longer remember.
One of the chief obstacles many creative people face is how to cope with the intersection between our creative and our professional lives. Is drawing, painting, photography, music, whittling, just a hobby? Or are we serious about it and wiling to throw ourselves over the cliff’s edge and base our livelihood up on it? Anxiety over this issue is what derails a lot of us when we are young. Do we go to art school or a “real” college? Do we spend the rest of our lives in a split-level ranch or a garret? Do we break our parents’ hearts or become accountants?
Like most things in life, it’s not that black and white. People who make money doing creative things usually reap a varied harvest. It’s never 9 to 5 and the paychecks are rarely steady but there are more and more ways to sell your creative products. It’s not about getting your slides accepted at a New York gallery. And your patrons may be people just like you, not just investment bankers looking for investable art. For example, the internet means you can show and sell posters of your work and never leave the farm. You can sell drawings and jewelry and t-shirts and greeting cards and zillions of things.
And most importantly, you can call yourself an artist, regardless of how much money you make or how many pieces you sell.
I make a smallish percentage of my living from my personal work. I write books, I write articles, I do illustrations, but the lions’ share of my income is from my job in a company, working for the Man. I am pretty comfortable with this arrangement. It means I don’t feel desperate, I do the projects I want to do, and the extra money keeps me in 24 karat fountain pens and hand-bound unborn-calf-velllum sketchbooks.
Recently, I asked two successful illustrator to share some of the details of their lives, particularly to explain this issue of commitment and financial survival. First, Penelope Dullaghan, whom you may know as the originator of Illustration Friday. She took the leap from advertising into full-time illustration a Notes from a really important meeting I no longer remember.
A few years ago, I temporarily detached from the ad teat. It had been a good run. Ad agencies had provided a good steady income, kept my family health-insured, taken me on some all expense-paid junkets to interesting places. But the experience has often been depleting, humiliating, demoralizing, and I had to see what it was like it cut loose. Eventually I got sucked back in but I still question the wisdom of succumbing.
I’m not alone in wondering. Most advertising creatives would like to break free. A few brave ones do. A couple of weeks ago, I asked some pals who had jumped ship to tell me what drove them to do it, how they did it, and how they feel in retrospect. I was going to gang them together in a single post but when the first one arrived, from Trevor Romain, it was so good, I had to get it to you right away.
Have you had a similar or completely different experience? Please let me know, either by posting a comment below or by writing me a longer description. And stay tuned for more in this series.
The Very Moment by Trevor Romain
I’ll never forget that day.
It was the morning after I had pulled an all-nighter creating an advertising campaign for a client. The campaign was a good one. I felt great about it. With a number of Clio awards and dozens of Addy and One Show awards under my belt I felt confident that the client would love the ideas we were presenting.
The cigar-chomping, excessively-sweating client – who I created the campaign for – was reviewing the work. He was looking over the ad campaign with disdain.
He said. “This is bad. I hate it. Why don’t you just take the logo and fill the page with the entire thing? Now that would be branding.”
My heart sank. Then I felt anger. Extreme anger. Not at the client, but at myself. I remembered a promise I had made to myself twenty years before. A promise I had not kept.
It happened when I was in the army in South Africa. I was walking through a field hospital filled with kids from small rural villages who had been brought to a clinic for treatment from the army medical corps. The conditions were abysmal. There were almost six kids per bed, it was nauseatingly hot and there were flies everywhere, especially around the corners of the children’s eyes and mouths.
As I was walked down the center aisle I caught sight of a little boy who was about five years old sitting on the edge of one of the hospital beds. I looked into his huge brown eyes as I walked by and then noticed with shock that he had no legs. Instead I saw dirty bandages wrapped around two stumps. The boy had lost his legs in a landmine accident on the Angolan border.
As I walked by, the little boy put up his hands and said “Sir, can you please hold me.”
I will never forget the haunting look of sadness in his eyes. Huge tears rolled slowly down his cheeks and dropped to the floor, their significance lost in the dust and grime of war.
The Sergeant Major, who was walking alongside me, grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the child.
“Romain,” he grunted. “Leave him alone. Don’t get emotionally involved. We’re here for security, not child-care.”
As the Sergeant Major pulled me away the little boy, in a broken chocked-up whisper, spoke again. His voice tugged at me from behind.
“Sir, please, please can you just hold me?”
Something happened to me that moment that I will never forget. My life changed instantly. It felt like a hand came out of the sky, reached inside me, and flipped a switch that turned on my soul.
I pushed the Sergeant Major’s hand away, turned, walked back and picked up the little boy. I have never been held so tightly in my life. His trembling little body clung to me for all it was worth.
He put his head against my chest and he began to cry. His tears ran down my neck and inside my shirt. I held that little boy with my arms, my heart and my soul and every ounce of compassion in my being. I never wanted to let him go, ever.
At that second I promised myself that I would never waste a second of my valuable life. That I would use my creative talents to change the world for children.
But I didn’t.
I went into advertising because it was safe and the money was good and everyone told me that it was almost impossible to make a living writing and illustrating children’s books.
I believed them.
I got sucked into the advertising vortex. I allowed client after client put my work down, destroy my exciting ideas and turn me into a cynic, who spent every day, using my talents to convince consumers to buy things they didn’t need.
The inner explosion had been building for months. The cigar-chomping client wasn’t the reason I quit that day. He just lit the fuse.
My wife and I discussed the situation and both decided that I HAD to follow my dream.
I woke up the next day, sat in front of my yellow pad and started my new job as an un-published children’s author and illustrator.
Although getting started was difficult and sometimes frustrating, the sheer passion and joy of doing what I love was there. And it still is. I have been hungry, rejected, under-appreciated and often ignored but I LOVE what I do. I have been writing full time for ten years now and I am one of the happiest people I have ever met.
During my journey, after every book rejection I received, I heard the little boys voice in my head saying, “Sir, please can you just hold me.
And in my heart and soul I did.
And I still do.
I now have 30 books in print with over one million copies in circulation in twelve different languages.
And I’m not done yet. I still hear the little boy’s voice.couple of years ago and I remember how suspenseful but ultimately very satisfying the whole process was for her.
Second is Torontian Alana Machnicki. I like her drawings a lot and am inspired by the broad range of ways she applies them. I have learned a lot from both their stories. I hope you find them useful too.
I think that leading a creative life is both rewarding and really really hard. It’s not just creative painting and being messy all the time. It is a real business, like any other. (Well, maybe not like any other. I think this is way more fun.)
To manage a creative life, I think first and foremost you need to be a good planner. You are not guaranteed a paycheck or steady income, so sometimes it gets really thin and you have to adjust accordingly. If you have a bad month, you better have some money left over from a good month to float through it. The people who work at the phone company and the power company have steady jobs and will not understand if you tell them you’ve had a bad month. :) So you need to budget!
But planning goes beyond financial. Time is also yours to plan. A good balance of work and gathering inspiration and personal time is important (I struggle with this a lot). Being an entrepreneur is hard. No one makes the rules for you and no one is there to tell you to work (or to stop working). If you decide to take time off and accidentally miss a deadline, you’re in trouble. At the same time, if you work around the clock and burn out, that’s no good either. Balance is in planning.
Secondly, I think it takes faith. Faith that the next job will eventually come, even if it sometimes feels like no one will ever call again. If no client has called with a new job or assignment, it can be really scary. Self doubt creeps in and you start to wonder if you’re really cut out for this. Working at the mall starts looking really appealing. But this is something to be waited out…and not sitting down. If you are bored, you’re doing it wrong. If no paid work is coming in, do something for your business. Start working on a new image for self-promotion. Update your website. Write some thoughts down about avenues to get your name out there. Work on personal work for yourself, while at the same time, bettering your skills. Give yourself an assignment…challenge yourself to think conceptually. Read a business book to hone that side of things. There’s always something you can work on. Always room for improvement.
Or, if you are a workaholic like me, try to relax and take some downtime. Go to a movie (a matinee to save money) or go for a walk in the park. Fill your well. By the time a client calls again (and they will!), you’ll be ready and inspired to do the project at hand.
And thirdly, it takes a lot of plain, hard work. I have a lot of things going on all the time (maybe too much) to help me pay my bills as well as keep the creative fire burning (for both me and others). But it’s work I enjoy doing. I get a lot out of having fun little contests (just finished up a “Draw a Witch” contest for Halloween) and doing free things like Paper Doll Mix n Match to help promote my new tshirts. I have an online store to sell prints and stuff to help financially and just for fun (I like thinking up new tees and postcards to print).
I also started Illustration Friday as a way to challenge myself…to grow my portfolio and force myself to think conceptually. Then I opened it up to others because I figured they would like the challenge too. And now it’s a huge, fun thing that many people participate in each week. I love seeing all the new names pop up in the column and checking their illustrations to see how their minds work. It’s also become a great form of self-promotion… even though that’s not why I created it (I think of it as a perk for running it!). The site was recently named a HOW Top Ten Website, which I thought was cool not only because it’s good promotion for the site, but because it kind of speaks to the creative community at large… maybe we’re not all isolated artists, but we seek to be a part of something bigger by supporting each other and talking to each other. Illustration Friday helps with that.
I’m also a part of a local illustrators group. I look forward to getting together with them once a month to chat about the industry, ask questions, give answers and just be with like-minded people. Part of a community, again…
I’m going to be honest and say that it is sometimes really hard to have so much going on. I get stressed out and unbalanced. Keeping up with my normal workload, Illustration Friday, doing self-promo, creative-community things, running an online store, gallery shows and trying to maintain a personal life… can be a bit much. I sometimes miss having a regular job with regular hours and regular paychecks. But I really can’t imagine giving it up. I feel like it’s kind of built itself…each thing I do is a part of me. It’s good for my creative spirit and hopefully feeds my business, too.
More on Penelope here, here and here.
As a creative I’ve always found it important not to put all my eggs in one basket, so to speak. I like to have a little going on in different aspects. I have a tendency to get bored really easily and having a cornucopia of outlets to choose from keeps me happy.
I also find it much easier to live as a creative when I’m not under financial pressure. Because of this I’ve come to accept that having a part time job in the background is essential for me. Also, having the foresight to keep the job, even when I’m having a particularly profitable month, is even more important. I never know when a dry spell is going to come along and leave me scrambling to pay the bills.
I try to promote myself as best as I can. I hand out business cards at every opportunity, even if it is to someone who will never need my services. There’s always that chance they’ll pass the card or my website on to someone who does. I also travel to Comic Conventions with my fiancé where I sell prints of my work. This has lead to jobs, commissions and sometimes the print sales add up to more than what I would have made selling the original. It’s also a great way to expose my work to the masses and hand out more business cards.
I also sell my prints online, but I’ve found people are quite wary of the whole system. The orders I have processed have been through email and the “I’ll mail you a cheque” method, rather than Paypal. I guess people prefer to deal with a real person.
I rarely turn down any job that comes my way, unless I’m totally swamped. Even those with a lower budget could be seen by another art director who wants to offer me my dream job. I’ve also done a couple “sample” jobs where I’ll work on a piece just to show them what I can do for them. Sometimes I get the job (this is how I got my Absolut Vodka ad) other times I’m left with another piece in my files. A few of these filed samples have lead into other jobs.
I do a little graphic design here and there. I design websites occasionally. I used to even have a part time job where I altered travel photos to make grey skies blue and erase trash from the street. I think it’s just a matter of being open minded and knowing what you’re capable of. I’m also a very quick learner, so I usually know if people just give me a chance I’ll pick up on the skills needed.
A lot of artists have issues with being labeled a “sellout,” especially when working commercially. Personally, I think I’m very lucky to be able to do what I love and get paid for it.
Currently I’m trying my hand a sculpting my wedding cake topper (maybe this could parlay into some kind of wedding topper business), and have plans for a line of t-shirts. I’ve also been thinking of different things to sell at the comic conventions, such as smaller pre-framed prints. I’m also working on a children’s book for Scholastic that features intricate paintings of carousel horses, as well as 400 spot illustrations for a Kitchen Dictionary.
I have been working fairly hard since coming back from vacation and, between that and trying to wedge in some drawing (and absolutely hating my ultra-expensive-from-the-tube watercolors as opposed to my tried-and-true Grumbacher set) and not doing enough guitar practice or going to the gym or telling my wife that I love her (in fact, she left yesterday morning to fly to Los Angeles for the Poseidon Adventure convention ( don’t ask) and various new book matters including signing my new contract and gearing up the Change Your Underwear publicity tour (apparently, I’ll be on CNN morning news, Good Morning America, Today Show , etc. after Labor Day), this blog has moved to the back of the pack. So, sorry about that.
A propos of nothing much but the fact that it’s summer and I’m working, I’ve been thinking about summer jobs I had as a kid.
My first summer job was when I was eleven, and wanted desperately to be a veterinarian. I got a job working for the town vet (this was in a small Israeli town called Kfar Saba) who worked in the pound and the adjoining slaughterhouse. My job was basically to clean out cages and feed the dogs and cats but I also helped out where needed. I remember the sickly sweet smell of the gassing room and the stiff dog limbs sticking out of garbage cans in the back.
Someone once brought in a skinny dog that was entirely covered with shiny green ticks. He looked like a bunch of grapes and we had to shampoo him and pour kerosene on him then shampoo him again; slowly the ticks dropped off, squirting his blood onto the cement floor. A week later, the dog joined the others in the garbage cans in the back.
I was as ghoulish as any prepubescent boy and loved to hang around the slaughterhouse. The cows would be herded up a ramp and would meekly follow the cow ahead until they got close enough to smell the blood of the abattoir. Then they would raise their heads and roll their eyes and try to back down the ramp or climb over the rusting railing. One could have painted a line on the floor to mark the point at which they all realized their fate.
Once inside, men converged up on each cow and shackled their hooves. Motors mounted to the ceiling raised the shackles on chains and the cows would soon be dangling upside down and then lowered into a long metal tub. A board was put under the cow’s head and a rabbi stepped forward to slit her throat. To be properly kosher, the knife had to be so sharp that a piece of paper dropped onto the blade would be cleaved in two.
Next, the shackles were removed from the dying cow’s front hooves and the motor would hoist her up to be dressed by the butchers. A minute or two after crossing the imaginary line, the cow would be unrecognizable, a side of beef.
Occasionally I would help out in a two-story shed behind the slaughterhouse. Cow intestines were brought in by the barrelful and we would slide them through v-shaped boards that would squeeze out the contents into gigantic metal sinks, leaving us with empty sausage casing. The cow shit would run down to the first floor and into a cart tethered to a balding donkey. Without looking over his shoulder, the donkey knew when the cart was filled and would then trudge out of the shed and across the courtyard to a deep pit. He would back the cart against a pole upending the contents into the stinking pit. Then the donkey would trudge back to its post in the shed.
One afternoon, the rabbis discovered they had unwittingly processed a pregnant cow. I was called in to haul the purple fetus away and carve it up. The dogs ate it with relish, untroubled that the meat wasn’t kosher.
The vet’s thirteen-year-old son would occasionally hang around the office, snacking and picking his cavernous nostrils. One day, he announced that his father didn’t like me ‘ as a person. I was so upset by this first ever job review that I never returned to work. The vet called my parents, who were a little horrified by my daily descriptions of my job, and they decided for me that it was for the best that I spend the rest of the summer playing marbles and swimming.
At sixteen, I went to work at the McDonalds that had just opened on Court Street, rotating through all of the jobs in the restaurant. I worked the grill making Big Macs and burgers, twelve at a time during the lunch rush, toasting and dressing buns, searing frozen patties and stiffing them all into Styrofoam clamshells. Every few hours, I would scrape down the grill and then slide out the steel grease traps and carry them through the back door and into an alley. I would pry open one of the three steel oil drums that stood in a cloud of flies and dump in the grease and chunks of burnt meat. A seething bed of cream-colored maggots floated on the entire surface of the liquid within and would converge quickly on my offering. The smell was thick and alive and I would frantically slam down the lid.
I worked the register too, filling bags for sullen customers and praying that my register drawer would balance at the end of the shift. I made French fries, my arms slowly roasting under the heat lamps, my grill-burns stinging under showers of salt. Every week, an 18-wheeler would pull up to the curb outside and I would have to empty it contents into the freezers in the basement. I would pull a case of frozen burgers out of the refrigerated truck, carry it across the scalding July sidewalk, then down the stairs and into the store’s freezer, then up the steps, back out into the heat, into the frozen truck, back and forth, forty times. It was like training for a Rocky movie or the Iron Man triathlon.
The job I dreaded the most was working the lobby. The first part wasn’t too bad ‘ I pushed a little broom around and emptied the trashcans every ten minutes or so. I would drop the full bags through a steel door marked ‘rubbish’ and into a chute that dropped through to the basement. But twice a day or more, I would have to go downstairs and gather up everything that had come down the chute. This included all the bags I had dropped but also all the detritus that customers, confused by the sign on the chute door, had tossed down. Half eaten burgers, cups of ketchup, sodden French fries, dirty napkins, and diapers floated in ankle deep greasy water. All of this mess went into the trash compactor in the corner. Sometimes, I was so overcome by the smell and the vileness that I would rush over and throw up into the compactor, push the button to compact it and continue working. When I was done I would have to wrap wire around the bale and muscle it out of the compactor.
One day the owner took me a side and told me that since I was the only white employee, he had decided to send me to McDonald’s University to train to become a manager. I explained that I still had another year of high school to go and he told me I could get a GED later. I told him I was flattered but my parents had their hearts set on my going to an ivy league college. He looked at me like I had crawled out of one of the oil drums in the alley and told me to go down and compact the trash.
The next summer, after senior year, I worked in a record store. It was the summer of ‘78 and hald the albums we sold were the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever. More modest hits that summer: George Benson’s Breezin’, Steely Dan’s Aja, and Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors.
I spent a lot of time studying the bins of records and soon knew the inventory cold. I developed a roster of regular clients who would come in on Fridays after work and they would usually walk out with a half records I’d recommended.
There were two phones next to the cash register and Peter, the owner was adamant that I not answer the white one. Occasionally, by accident, I would. The callers would invariably say they would like to ‘order a limo’. Whenever I passed such a message onto Peter, he would be irritated with me and tell me not to answer the white phone again. Other wise, our relationship was decent and he would give me occasional spot bonuses when I he saw me moving a lot of merchandise to my regulars.
Towards the end of the summer, Peer took me aside and asked me about my plans. I told him I was going to college. ‘Forget that, man,’ he said and told me that he would make me an assistant manager if I stayed. Besides the various girls who worked the register, I was the only employee so the promotion didn’t seem reason enough to cancel my plans to go to Princeton. ‘Come on, man,’ he hissed, ‘ I didn’t go to college and look at me now.’ I thanked him for the tutelage and again blamed it all on my parents. They had their hearts set on me going to an ivy league school. Peter glared at me and told me to get back out front.
The next morning he gave me an assignment. He had a wall covered with steel milk crates packed with records and he wanted me to move to his apartment, I spend the better part of the afternoon lugging them across the street and up to his fourth floor walkup. Halfway through, I realized that I would probably only be working for him for an other day or two and that if I quit now I could stop this back-breaking work.
Peter was in his bedroom with the door closed. I knocked and he said, ‘Don’t come in,’ so I went back to moving crates. After three more trips, I knocked again. ‘I need to talk to you,’ I said through the door.’ ‘Don’t come in!’ Three more crates. ‘Listen, Peter, I have to tell you something important.’ I said and turned the doorknob. Peter was sitting on his bed, which was completely covered by hundred of joints. He had a machine on his lap and was in the middle of rolling another one. Apparently this was the true nature of Peter’s ‘limo’ business.
‘Why’d you come in?! You’re fired,’ he roared. ‘I came in to quit,’ I said. ‘Well, you can’t because you’re fired! Just finish moving those crates.”
I went back to the store, selected copies of all my favorite albums and left the crates where they were.
After my freshman year, I got a job working for my congressman, the Hon. Fred Richmond. Fred had been arrested a couple of years before for soliciting a young boy but, in a style that would seem very out of place today, admitted his guilt, did his time, apologized to his constituents if he’d embarrassed them and the following year was reelected with a huge majority. I was his assistant press secretary, writing press release on how appropriations were being spend in the district and inserting various ridiculous things in the Congressional Record: “Mr. Chairman, the 14th district of the great stat of New York would like to acknowledge 23 years of productivity from the Waldman Tool and Die plant on Nostrand Avenue….”
The next summer I became an intern in the White House. My joke about the experience is that Jimmy Carter lusted after me, but only in his heart. I worked for National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezinski and occasionally helped out in Vice President Mondale’s office. The coolest thing about the job came each morning as I pushed past the tourists, waved my pass and strutted through the huge iron gates.
Despite the glamour, it was a shitty time. Each night I would take the bus way up north to Chevy Chase and sit in my rented room listening to my landlord scream at and then mercilessly beat his children. I was restricted form the main part of the house beyond my room and so I cooked on a small electric plate and washed my dishes in the bathroom. It was the summer of ‘80n and Carter was getting whooped in the polls. All of the political appointees were busy updating résumés and so I had only career bureaucrats to learn from. I spend most of my time in the White House library writing a paper on the War Powers Act that described how the president could commit troops to battle without congressional permission. This was during the Iranian hostage crisis and when the helicopters that Carter had secretly sent over the border crashed into the Iranian desert, my project tanked.
I decided to leave my internship but my mother and second step father were adamant: I was not allowed to come back to New York unless I had a paying job lined up in advance (I didn’t know it at the time but they were in the last months of their marriage). I was furious and decided to stay in DC and get a job.
I went to Georgetown and walked into the first French restaurant I saw. I was interviewed by the owner: “Have you any experience?” (I lied). “Do you speak French? “(Mais, oui) have you a tuxedo (I’d brought mine to DC in anticipation of the State diners I’d be attending). I started the next day, poured an entire dish of Boeuf Bourguignon on a patron’s Chanel suit and was immediately dismissed.
The next day, I went to a French restaurant on the other side of Georgetown. Same questions. with one addition: Where have you worked? I mentioned the place I’d worked the night before but not the terms of my departure. “Tres bien!” said the owner. ”That’s my cousin!” As he dialed the other restaurant, I slunk out the door. The following day, I was hired as a busboy at a Spanish restaurant. After lunch, the all Chinese kitchen staff asked me what I planned to do until the dinner shift. “Come with us!” the dishwasher said magnanimously. He had just bought a Camaro from the other busboy who had acquired a new Corvette from the waiter. I discovered their secret at the racetrack where they turned my $12 in lunch tips into $200. Clearly, I was onto a good thing.
Back at the restaurant, I discovered some sticky politics. The Maitre d’ who’d hired me was th partner of the chef who had been absent during the lunch shift. It turned out they absolutely loathed each other. When the chef discovered I’d been hired by the maitre d’, he fired me on the spot.
My next job was at a sandwich and ice cream store. I worked my ass off and ate all my meals for free at the restaurant. I didn’t speak to my mother for the rest of the summer and ignored her letters. By Labor Day, I had put aside $600, all in one dollar bills which I packed in to a suitcase and took back to New York. When I arrived home, my mother and stepfather asked me where I had been. With a dramatic flourish, I unlocked the valise and flung the contents into the air. “I’ve been making money like you told me to!” I cried, gesturing to the shower of green. They weren’t terribly impressed by my gesture.
The next summer I had one more restaurant job, this time at the chic River Café at the the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was celebrity hangout of sorts: I peed in the urinal next to John Belushi and watched a waiter perform the Heimlich maneuver on Elizabeth Taylor’s escort.
Once a month or so, this mobbed-up guy would come in with a thick wad of bills and announce to the maitre d’, “I’ve got sixteen large on me. Help me spend it.” He sat with the stack at his wrist, tipping every member of the staff that came by. Each time he flicked his cigarette, a busboy would present him with a fresh ashtray and he would reciprocate with a fifty dollar bill. He even went into the kitchen and tipped the dishwashers and the sous chefs. By the time the night was through, his stack was gone. He thought he was big man. We thought he was a dick.
Our shifts would sometimes stretch from lunch till 4 am and the restaurant soon became my whole world. I was buddies with the Chinese busboys who would sleep on metal shelves in the pantry, nesting on the fresh linen. They lived together, squirreled away by the dozen into tiny walk-ups in Queens, and saved every penny they earned. After a couple of years, they planned to return to the Mainland to open restaurants of their own. My pal Phillipe was the valet and I would nip out when I could and we pile into a Rolls or a Bentley and cruise the BQE.
Tokoyama-san was the sushi chef and he would make me secret spicy tuna. One hot afternoon, as I worked on the outside cocktail deck, he made me a bowl of sashimi which I stashed under the bar. I would return to pick at the snack, not noticing that the raw meat had spoiled in the August heat. Soon I had a near hallucinogenic case of food poisoning and didn’t eat Japanese food again for a decade.