Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Tough Times and Prayer Meeting Bagels

A year ago yesterday, I started what may be the last 9-to-5 job I’ll ever have (because, through no fault of my own, I’m ancient, and the economy’s in woeful disrepair), as art director at Dada Entertainment in New York City. After not having been officially employed since August 2000, I was pretty exhilarated about the prospect; as you read a couple of days ago, I was excited even about the daily pair of two-hour commutes, on foot, train, and foot again. I found that I actually enjoyed squeezing myself into the heated waiting room on the platform at Beacon station with my fellow employees at 6:50 each morning. We were all headed…to work! And I especially enjoyed that, during my three-month probationary period, Dada would be paying me $60/hour.

I didn’t like the already-there putative designer I was supposed to be supervising, petulant and talentless as she was, and you could have spread her reciprocal resentment of me on toast. I didn’t like that, when my boss, a dour little Italian woman of around 40, was in the big, messy room in which around nine of us sat at our respective computers around a huge table, nobody actually spoke; instead, though we could have leaned over and removed one another’s glasses, we communicated via Skype instant messages. I didn’t like that when she headed downstairs to smoke — and she must have gotten through a couple of packs a day — the place turned into hip hop kindergarten. My co-workers chattering excitedly about hip hop figures of whom I’d never heard made me feel old and excluded. Why did they never talk about the Dave Clark Five, or the Bobby Fuller Four, or even the Three Degrees?

I didn’t like that when the dour little Italian woman encountered me downstairs, where she did her smoking, she gave me the look she’d have given someone she’d just watch murder everyone she’d ever loved. It became clear very quickly that one was expected to have his lunch at his desk — or, more accurately, at his portion of the big table.

I loved that every Tuesday morning there was what I came to call — because doing so amused me — an employee prayer breakfast, at which the most delicious bagels in the world were provided, and one of the company’s higher-ups would explain the workings of his or her department, sometimes in an intelligible Italian accent.

I have neglected to mention that the company was mostly in the business of selling ringtones for mobile telephones. Because they were selling exactly the same ringtones, at the same price, as countless dozens of other, better-established companies, it seemed to me that, instead of agonizing about miniscule differences in the numbers of new subscribers attracted by different color “landing pages” (the Web page someone would get to by clicking a Dada advertisement on another site), the dour little Italian woman ought to be thinking in terms of increasing brand awareness. The big picture, you see, as opposed to the narrow.

Toward that end, I had a variety of glorious brainstorms. It was freezing outside, and I suggested that the company distribute blankets bearing the Dada logo to New York’s homeless. It would be brazenly self-promoting, granted, but would also keep the blankets’ recipients warmer, and engage the press. I suggested that we make a series of wry videos for YouTube.

On hearing that the company wished it could call itself dada.com rather than dada.net, and that the person who owned the desired domain name lived down in Greenwich Village, I felt sure that the company should charter a couple of buses to take us all over to picket in front of his home, to chant, “No justice, no peace,” and wave zany placards. I felt certain the press would love that too. But the closest the little Italian woman came to trying out any of these ideas was to give me $150 to hire the actor seen here.

Even worse than her lack of vision was her lack of taste. In her eyes, the generally very good work I was doing was indistinguishable from the dire C-minus work they’d gotten from freelancers before my hiring. Their existing logo looked like a bad soldering job, and wasn’t even competently kerned (that is, spaced). They were perfectly content with it.

The work quickly ceased to be fun, no small accomplishment in view of how much I love digital design. When I wasn’t designing yet another landing page that proclaimed “10 bonus [they weren’t allowed to describe them as “free”] ringtones” with a numbing catalog of design restraints in mind, I was designing microscopic banners for cell phones. Very soon, a combination of Herself’s lack of discernment and the tediousness of the job had me thinking what I’d known I mustn’t allow myself to think, and what I always seem to wind up thinking — that I was too old and too talented to be stuck doing what I was doing.

Every morning on the train, I’d remind myself not to be an idiot. The Poughkeepsie Journal’s front page would invariably have a headline like “IBM To Lay Off 150 More,” and here I was being paid nearly $500 a day. Then I’d get to work and discover that the 25 Fall Out Boy banners I’d designed the day before would all have to be re-done because the act’s record company had a newer photo they wanted to use. Or the little Italian would be in a tizzy because my latest landing page had enticed two fewer subscribers over a similar period than the one before it.

I got pissed off, and my disgruntlement led inexorably to inattentiveness, which led in turn to some frankly imbecilic mistakes on my part (like not noticing that I’d been viewing something I was putting together in Photoshop at 67 percent, with the result that the actual image was way too big). Which of course led finally to my being invited to spare myself the long commute.

I missed neither the microscopic banners nor the little Italian’s dourness and myopia very much at all. I missed the devil out of the big bucks, though, and the wonderful salads I’d been getting myself for lunch on E. 35th Street, and even dashing through the snow, not in a one-horse open sleigh, but on foot, from Grand Central Station to 34th Street every morning. And of course the prayer meeting bagels.

In the nine months since they gave me the bum’s rush, I’ve applied on line for approximately 50,000 jobs, and been invited in for exactly one job interview, by a mattress company in Poughkeepsie that wanted me to do a big design project on spec to affirm that I deserved the princely $14/hour they proposed to pay.

Times is tough.

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