1999: Special Ed.
In April, I packed up my Ford Ranger with whatever would fit in the truck bed and drove from Raleigh to Piermont, NY, where my old college friend Dave was living at the time. I remember it raining a lot on the way up. I fishtailed off the Beltway in DC and then blew a tire on the Jersey Turnpike. I'd brought $400 with me to New York and had already spent $80 of it on a new tire.
I stayed on Dave's couch the whole summer, hunting through his railroad apartment for loose change and going to Manhattan in the day to find work as a writer. I'd rattle around midtown in my truck, desperately trying to locate a parking spot ten minutes before an interview. I went to about a dozen headhunters and dropped off my "book," which was an old, paint-streaked leather art case my artist friend Kerri gave me. I got turned down again and again. One headhunter gestured to a stack of beautiful portfolios in her office and explained how poorly my book rated in comparison.
"If you're serious about this, you'll take a portfolio-building class at NYU or SVA. It's really the only way anyone will give you a chance."
"Of course, I would need a job to pay for something like that," I said. I'd been living on pizza and tap water for the last month. She smiled, lifting a hand to adjust her square-framed glasses, and told me to come back after I took the course.
I kept answering the want ads. I played a little poker at a local bar called the Sidewalk Cafe, winning, then losing, then losing again. During the week, the bar offered skinny glasses of Sam Adams for a dollar. Dave and I would get there at three or four in the afternoon and hang around until whenever. He was a writer, too.
I set up my computer on Dave's kitchen table and wrote a few online self-help articles for various dot-commers, getting paid anywhere from nothing to $100.
Some afternoons, we'd pop a Ritalin pill (Dave had a prescription--he called them "cuckoo pills," or "kooks," for short), and then go to our computers to peck out crazed fiction for hours. One of my stories was about a bitter magician who'd lost an arm in WWII ("The nub poked out of his sleeve like a fat summer sausage"). Another was about an old, morphine-addicted ex-Nazi officer who was haunted by drug-induced hallucinations from his criminal past.
I'd write a couple of stories, then take another kook and write some more, until the inevitable cuckoo pill crash hit, putting me down for ten hours of twitchy sleep. I had no sleep pattern. Sometimes I'd awake, slick with nervous sweat, as hot afternoon sunlight spilled through the living room window and onto my face.
Meanwhile, Dave was trying to start up a company with a couple of friends. His plan was to produce and sell instructional kits to schools that specialized in teaching basic life skills to mentally challenged adults. By the time I'd arrived, he'd already begun the first kit: A comprehensive CD-based course that would teach kitchen safety to institutionalized men and women who were just functional enough to get work as a restaurant janitor or dishwasher. I decided to join the team.
As the only one of us who had ever worked in a restaurant, it was agreed that I would act as chief factual consultant for the project. My first job was to review the structure of the program. The syllabus, which Dave had set, comprised a series of challenging lessons, such as why it's important to wash your hands, and how mopping up spilled liquids helps us all to avoid taking a nasty fall. It looked pretty solid to me.
The all-inclusive instructional kit contained a booklet, a map of a hypothetical restaurant kitchen (drawn by Kerri from my recollections as a waiter) and a CD that featured the character "Gary Cleanberg," as voiced by Dave. The idea was that Gary and his friends would spend a fun, fact-filled hour or so outlining the essentials of kitchen safety and cleanliness. We figured an hour provided enough instruction to render employable the kind of people who required months of patient classroom study to learn how to count change correctly.
In addition to my consultant duties, I also played the part of Professor Plimpton on the CD, who was a safety expert with a vaguely Bostonian accent and a penchant for making withering remarks about Gary Cleanberg's intelligence. ("Here's a couple of dollars, Gary. Why don't you pop out and get me a cup of kava-kava tea? And treat yourself to a couple of Snickers bars while you're at it.")
I was provided no script and had to improvise most of my lesson, which consisted of me posing questions like:
"You see that someone has dropped food on a countertop. What should you do?"
To which I would invariably answer: "Ask your supervisor."
I figured we couldn't get sued for providing false or dangerous advice if every correct answer was: "Ask your supervisor." I must have said that phrase ten times throughout the lesson, and just to be sure, I ended the whole segment with: "And remember: Always ask your supervisor."
The narrator was voiced by Seth, a friend of Dave's who drove a Hazmat truck and whose father had once been a D.J. (Seth soon dropped out of the project--mysteriously disappearing from the CD after the first ten minutes).
Though the course material was disorganized, the facts questionable and the narration abandoned, the CD was full of cool sound effects and catchy songs that drilled home key learnings. One such lesson was sung to the tune of Iron Man, by Black Sabbath. It went something like:
Always wash your hands,
In a dirty house or by a dingy lake.
Of the hour allotted to the entire kitchen safety course, twenty minutes were devoted to reminding students to always wash their hands.
But the real creative coup was the addition of original music. Dave and I convinced two musician friends of ours, Mike and Jim, to write songs for the CD. I can only hope that some of the lyrics to those classics find their way into the comments section of this post.
After the CD was complete, Dave packaged the whole thing and sent out notice to a catalog that sold educational aids. The project was complete. We sat back, popped a couple of kooks and waited for the orders to come pouring in.
It never happened. Dave did eventually manage to sell one copy, but it didn't pay for the expense of the two-dozen kitchen saftey kits he'd produced. Those sat in a box in his own kitchen (which, by the way, was filthy) and were subsequently trotted out to impress potential girlfriends.
With no job prospects coming from the city, and no money from our joint venture, I figured I had to get some kind of job. So I drove to a brewpub about 20 miles north of Piermont and applied for a waiter position. I went one day -- got trained by a 20 year-old girl who kept talking about a party she was going to that night -- then came home and found a message on the answering machine. A financial magazine needed a writer. Was I available for an interview? Yes I was.
To say that the job sucked would be an understatement. But I'll say it anyway.
That job sucked.