Thursday, December 17, 2009

Body Doubles [2002]

[I wrote this hilarious little satirical piece in 2002, but, like so much of my work, it is as fresh and zingy years later as on the day it was composed.]

See him clothed, and you'd have no reason to imagine that 21-year-old Kevin Levine, a sophomore business major at DeWayne State University in Dearborn, Michigan, is anything other than an ordinary American college student. He enjoys the music of Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park and favors preposterously baggy clothing. When conversing with others like himself, he begins every sentence with the word "dude," and finds a way to work the adverb "totally" into his every utterance. He vaguely aspires to a sexual relationship with Pamela Anderson, though he acknowledges that he will probably never have one, and identifies Vin Diesel as the living American he most admires. He maintains a B-minus average, a pierced left nostril, and a fractious relationship with his parents, who he believes love him, but don't understand him. The fractiousness of their relationship doesn't keep him from calling them an average of twice a month for money.

But where his average classmate earns $5.75/hour making unbelievably overpriced coffee beverages at Starbucks, or flipping hamburgers, Keith Levine makes $1800 a month without lifting a finger. Where the average American undergraduate has 2.7 tattoos, you see, there isn't a square millimeter of Kevin Levine between his waist and neck on which a bellicose, unintelligible, or unintelligibly bellicose pronouncement isn't tattooed.

Therein lies his remarkable earning power. None of the sentiments expressed on his epidermis is his own, but rather that of DeWayne sophomore guard Sh'niquaa Hairston. Kevin Levine is one of a growing number of so-called body doubles, persons who, for a monthly retainer of between $200 and $2000, walks around sporting tattoos for which their student athlete clients have no more room on their own persons.

For Levine, who, after failing to make his high school team in his freshman, sophomore, and junior years, and pretending in his senior year to disdain the whole idea of high school basketball, the arrangement could hardly be more ideal. "Ordinarily, Sh'niquaa totally wouldn't even speak to someone like me, dude," he exults, "but as one of his three body doubles, I'm like totally a member of his 'posse,' which like totally elevates my social standing on campus, especially during basketball season."

A product of the same Oakland mean streets that produced the Seattle Supersonics' Gary Payton, Hairston ran out of tattooable skin two weeks into his remarkable career at Skyline High School, where his stellar play inspired no fewer than 302 institutions of higher learning to tender scholarship offers. "If not for people like Kevin," he admits, "my self-expression would be substantially attenuated. Know'm sayin'?"

The idea for Body Doubles was originally that of senior economics major Josh Morgenstern, who, since recruiting body doubles for all of De Wayne's most notable student athletes, has put his own studies on hold and begun to recruit for such National Basketball Association notables as Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson. "The sky's the limit," he predicts. "Tats have actually become more, rather than less, de rigueur the past five years, and there's no end in sight."

The ideal body double, Morgenstern notes, is stout (the more skin, the better), but not flabby. "When you get folds, the tats get hard to read. It's a real balancing act."

It isn't only athletes he's signing up nowadays, but rock musicians too. "As the biggest names in youth culture run out of places to have pierced," he predicts, "you're going to see more and more Morgenstern Body Doubles in rock and rap entourages."

Body doubling isn't without its downside, of course. Many of the sentiments an athlete or rock star may ask his double to express elicit very strong, and often even violent, reactions. Kevin Levine recounts "chilling" with Niq one afternoon in Dearborn recently when the athlete decided to go to the lakefront with a female admirer and his two other doubles, leaving the shirtless Levine to get back to this dormitory on his own power. Hitchhiking, Levine attracted the attention of an off-duty homicide detective who took umbrage at his/Hairston's Fuck Da Police tattoo and beat him into unconsciousness.

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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 rather than, 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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Monday, December 14, 2009

Last Thoughts on Tiger

After this, I promise to say no more about Tiger Woods. But don’t deny an old boy his parting shot.

Nike and all the rest of the corporations that pay him obscene amounts of money for his endorsement will probably all forsake him now. Because the few compensatory endorsements he’s sure to be offered by the manufacturers of prophylactics and antifungal crèmes won’t pay nearly so well, he might have to offer on eBay one of the Third World countries Nike gave him.

I honestly don’t get it. Golf is very much the preferred sport of corporate wheelers and dealers, a great many of whom are surely unspeakable dickheads who, learning that Tiger cheated on his gorgeous young wife, felt envy rather than distaste, and wondered how they might cheat more effectively on their own gorgeous young wives. They’re going to stop buying preposterously overpriced Nike products manufactured in Third World sweatshops because of the scandal? I strongly suspect the opposite would be the case, though I understand that Nike might tarnish its glowing reputation by being seen to exploit that realization.

We’re quite comfortable as a society with politicians condemning Special Interests even while welcoming their campaign contributions, but we become all discombobulated when they lie about sex. I’m all in favor of the lives of homophobic gay hypocrites like Larry Craig being ruined when they’re discovered playing footsy in airport restrooms, but must confess that I don’t really see much point in reflexively trying to banish to perdition someone like Elliot Spitzer, the disgraced governor of New York, when he’s discovered to have patronized a whore. Had I liked Bill Clinton a great deal more than I did (centrism sucks), I wouldn’t, in view of his not having made condemnation of extramarital fellatio a cornerstone of his presidency, have minded in the slightest his getting blown by Monica Lewinsky.

I want in office non-hypocrites who are also effective politicians, regardless of how kinky they may be on their own time. If there’s somebody out there who can, for instance, implement universal affordable health care, what do I care what he or she does in the bedroom (or atop the dining room table, or in the shower, or in the back yard (assuming impressionable young neighbors won’t see), and with whom (over the age of consent)? If somebody can revise our insane drug policy, or make legal abortion inviolable, or offer tens of millions of underprivileged children genuinely equal opportunity, it’s A-OK with me if he wears a butt plug to work, or chases chubby, or likes crosseyed Asian women in latex catsuits to use his mouth as an ashtray. As who, if we're being honest with one another, does not?

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Race Relations in America

So, anyway, my sensationally spotty employment history. Before we get into what a perfectly rotten – mouthy, defiant, passive-aggressive — employee I’ve traditionally been, we’ll look at race relations in America as I’ve observed them during a couple periods of rare non-unemployedness.

A few months after our daughter’s birth, I persuaded her mom to move with me to the northern California wine country. After 37 years there, I’d come to loathe LA, with its phlegm-colored air and police helicopters and leering hotshots in expensive sports cars they’d leased with their recent development deals. My Kinks book had been published a couple of months before, but showed every sign of generating no royalties, so I did the responsible thing and got myself a job as a word processor at San Francisco’s biggest law firm, which was mostly in the business of defending a big oil company against environmental and other plaintiffs.

Aside from my brief friendships with the extremely tall attorney son of the implacably iconoclastic former attorney general Ramsey Clark, and with former Janis Joplin guitarist Sam Andrew (how heartbreaking to see one of his former stature reduced to proofreading legalese!), I can honestly say I hated nearly every second there. Boredom made me rotten at the job, which comprised such exhilarating tasks as transcribing the taped mumblings and dronings of attorneys and, worse, legal assistants, and trying to decipher the sub-infantile handwriting of newly ordained junior associate attorneys, few of whom were capable of writing a coherent English sentence, and nearly all of whom were hugely self-infatuated. As one of three straight word processors in the firm, I was the target of much subtle heterophobia.

My inattentiveness and increasingly open disdain for those I was ostensibly there to serve resulted in my being banished from a succession of assignments. At one of them, I objected to one of my co-workers, a Ms. Jan Broadnax, regularly taking 45-minute 15-minute breaks. “I’m prepared,” I affirmed in a memo, “to do 100 percent of my fair share of the work, but not 50 percent of Jan’s fair share too.” I was essentially told to shut up, the reasons being that Ms. Jan Broadnax was (a) black, and (b) a woman. The same forces — primarily, fear of an embarrassing lawsuit — that kept them from firing me even after I began deliberately to try to provoke them with my dangling earring (‘twas 1986, you see), eyeliner, and garish clothing kept them from firing a black woman.

La Broadnax had her revenge for my memo. My daughter had begun going to preschool, and there had learned a children’s song called Three Little Monkeys, about a young primate who, against doctor’s orders, jumps up and down on the bed and suffers a presumably painful head injury. I’d amused my daughter, who of course didn’t know him from Cookie Monster, but who thought my imitations of feedback and so on were pretty zany, by trying to imagine the Jimi Hendrix version of Three Little Monkeys. After I regaled La Broadnax and two fellow takers of very, very long cigarette breaks with this, they reported me to Personnel, accusing me of calling them monkeys.

Then there was Destiny Telecomm in Oakland in 1996 and 1997, the first place to hire me as a graphic designer. The company, the brainchild of a vaguely Elvis-ish evangelical, turned out to be an elaborate pyramid scheme; it didn’t actually sell telecommunications services, but rather the idea of selling others on the idea of selling whatever the company might have on offer at any given moment. When I was hired, they were mostly selling phone cards. By the time I was given the old heave-ho, it was salad dressing and skin lotion; many of us believed it to be the same product in different bottles. My boss was a roly-poly hyperneurotic who framed the otherworldly landscapes he created in a briefly fashionable software program called Bryce (take it from me — inconceivably uncool), and ingested enough Valium to pacify a small Third World country, and who hired another designer every 48 hours or so, seemingly so he could give them pretentious titles like Studio Manager, but I became big pals with several of my fellow employees.

There was Paddy, an evangelical who looked exactly like Homer Simpson, except with smaller eyes, who didn’t mind being teased mercilessly about being an evangelical, and who fervently signed onto every zany prank I, the eternal brat, conceived to exasperate the Valium-gobbler and others higher up the food chain. There was Alison, a female bass player with blindingly bright blonde hair and the weight of the world on her shoulders, but much, much healthy disdain for the Valium-gobbler and others higher up the food chain. There was Vinod Abeygunawardena, s Sri Lankan techie/troubleshooter in whose name I loved answering the office telephone. “Mr. Abeygunawardena’s office,” I would purr. “How may I help you?” There were Thorn, an unreconstruct, self-renamed hippie who was bubblingly positive about everything and everybody, and impossible not to like, and a salt-of-the-earth type racer of motorbikes, and the Taiwanese Jesse Wong, whose excellent work in Illustrator inspired me to up my own game.

Unfortunately, there was also Dre, a, uh, brother from the ‘hood who had no perceptible talent as a designer, but who was absolutely brilliant at…playing Those Higher on the Food Chain, winning their patronage by pretending to have detected their inner blackness. He’d call them dawg or homeboy and they’d nearly burst into tears of joy. He wouldn’t sneer if they asked him, “Yo, wassup?” or shook his hand ghetto-style. One of the design department’s chief antagonists, a female vice president who’d been promoted out of all proportion to her competence, and who could be counted on to hate anything any of us designed, would come down to upbraid us, and he’d fire up Illustrator so she could show him just what she wanted. While the rest of us bit our lips to keep from guffawing, she’d draw a straight line, and he’d rhapsodize as though she’d just recreated the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “Yo,” he would marvel, shaking his head in wonderment, “you’ve got some serious talent, girl.” They adored him, and it made me sick.

As you’ve noticed, I don’t do “African American.” I think it’s PCspeak at its silliest, and would feel, using it, as though jumping through a hoop. I don’t refer to the Greek neighborhood as the Greek-American, or to the Italian as the Italian-American. Most of my black neighbors’ families have been in this country for seven or eight generations, and thus could be said to be very much less African than I am Russian, German, and Latvian, my grandparents and great-grandparents having come over probably 150 years after the Africans from whom my black neighbors are descended. Would not a white immigrant from Johannesburg be more an African American than a person whose antecedents came here in the eighteenth century?

Anyone who infers that my reluctance springs from racism is exactly as accurate as La Broadnax when she ascribed to racism my unwillingness to pick up the slack resulting from her 45-minute 15-minute breaks. Let’s deal with one another as genuine equals.

[From the blog For All in Tents and Porpoises. Enjoy the archive and subscribe at]