Nick Anderson Apr 30, 2016
I was told in art school that I would be a prostitute for art. The statement had been directed at Abby, but was meant for all of us. Our professor Tim held a copy of her midterm project up - a full-page magazine ad - and grimaced. Abby had definitely strayed from the assignment in quite a few areas, but now adamantly defended her choices in the name of the greater artistic good.
"That's my own blood," she said, pointing to a dark patch of liquid that appeared to have been scanned into the composition from one of the school printers.
"You're a prostitute, Abby," was exactly what he said. "I'm the client, so you do what I want."
This was how Tim was fired. Officially, Abby had brought it to the administration as a sexual harassment issue, but we knew this was more an excuse to remove a thorn from the side of the university - a man too honest and too severe to appease the dreams our tuitions funded. The dreams signed the checks, after all. The admission counselors knew that. "There's plenty of jobs in animation," they would say. "Of course people will pay you to draw!"
Tim did not speak the same language. He told the graphic designers they'd have to learn programming languages, and they laughed. He told us we'd have to compromise to make money, and it was a standup routine, the bitter ramblings of someone who hadn't made it in the real world, so had come back to his alumni to roost, to selfishly stifle the ambitions of others.
A lot of us were relieved that Tim wasn't at our graduation - like he might have stood up and started booing as we walked forward to receive our diplomas. Still, I wished he'd been able to see my final presentation - just to know what he hated about it the most. He once rubbed a small cube I'd made around in his hands, complaining that if I hadn't handed it to him, he would have no desire to touch it. It was comments like that that got under my skin - why should he want to hold what I created? Because it was his job, because I told him to? He got inside my head then and stayed there, reminding me from time to time that what I was doing was wrong.
* * * * *
Jackson called me from a train.
"Oh Europe is beautiful, thanks. Sorry I had to push the meeting, my iPad hasn't been able to get reception."
At the time, seeing someone with an iPad was similar to seeing them mounted on a pegasus. He didn't have to mention what device he was on, I could already tell he was rich. You could hear it, just in his voice.
"I was thinking." He paused the way important people do, when they know they hold a part of you in their hands. "Hmmm. Would you want to come in and get started on . . . March 14th?"
"Sure," I said casually. I'd been unemployed for almost two weeks, and had already maxed out my credit card on rent. That's how a lot of us "young professionals" were making it - out of my entire (albeit small) graduating class I was the only one who landed a job in the industry. Everyone else had gone straight back to bagging groceries, or took under-the-table jobs they couldn't add to their portfolio - blackhat SEO hacks, banners for porn sites. Money and skills training, sure. But if you couldn't add it to your portfolio, you might as well not even bother. No one cared where we went to school or what our G.P.A. was. They wanted to see our work, what we'd done recently. They folded our business cards in half to see how thick the stock was, tried to smear the ink - I swear to god, if I wrote my email on a cocktail napkin it had to be in cursive with perfect kerning. We were what we had done.
"We'd have you . . . Hmmm. On the website first." I could hear Jackson stroking the rough stubble of his chin, tapping information into his screen. "We get a lot of complaints about the site not being very clear. Sounds like our users are not getting the core messaging of our business."
I'd looked over the website for Jackson's company - the layout was a bit dated but it wasn't a template or a hack job; a real designer had made it. But it's true, I had no idea what they did. I could tell they were building some kind of social web app, or something close to it, but from there the details got fuzzy. Jackson had assured me it wasn't porn.
"So - full redesign, it needs to be - like what you did for the most recent one in your portfolio."
"Great." I paused on what I was about to say - knowing that I'd say it anyway, that subconsciously I was willing to risk any opportunity for it.
"I just want to make sure - that I'd have complete creative control."
"Of course!" Jackson sounded almost glad that I'd asked. "Why else hire a designer? Alright. Come in the 14th, we'll start the paperwork. I think you're going to be a good addition to the team - we only hire Rockstars."
That was the new word people in the industry were starting to throw around, and I wanted to snatch it out of the air and pin it to my chest. There was a reason Keith Richards was allowed to destroy hotel rooms and I wasn't, and it was that one little word. I was halfway there - trashing my surroundings came naturally to me. I should have told Jackson about the extensive experience I'd had with social media when I used it to publicly shame my last boss - she told me that Facebook ads wouldn't reach our target demographic, so I showed her she was wrong by generating over 3000 unique views on my post calling her an idiot. Most of the views were from our clients. That afternoon the man who'd hired me tapped my final paycheck in his palm and told me, "The experiment is over."
I knew the experiment wasn't my role, or my job title - it was me. I didn't care. I had decided after graduation that if there was going to be blood on my canvases, not all of it was going to be mine.
* * * * *
Jackson was, above all things, ambitious. When I showed up at the office, I learned he'd rented some space in an 'up and coming' industrial park on the edge of the city, in a building I had seen before from a distance and had assumed was abandoned. But it was a good place to build up a company on the cheap - the plan was to slowly buy out the other offices in the building as we grew, then the building across the street, eventually creating a Google-like complex occupying several city blocks. Transportation would be convenient - it was so close to the adjacent train station that conference calls had to be paused when a freighter pulled in. Their whistles seemed to blow from the base of my skull, shaking unattended mugs from the tables. Nothing about the place felt professional, and I loved it. Even the chair.
"This is why I asked you to bring a laptop," Jackson explained, pantomiming in the space where a desk should be. All that occupied my work space was a single metal folding chair, with a stack of stapled documents on it. "If we see the returns we're expecting from your new site, you'll have a desk in no time."
It's stupid, I know - but my last job had been in a well financed, pseudo-corporate office, with two monitors attached to the company-issued computer. And that place had managed to bounce my paycheck twice. When I complained I was sent door-to-door to various managers, trying to find someone who could reissue it before my bills went through. So there was something exhilarating about working on my own computer, bent over in a corner like a hacker in a CSI episode, just a few feet away from the CEO. If I screamed everyone in the company was within earshot. I think Jackson knew the aesthetic he was playing at, or at least did a good job of embracing whatever aesthetic he could achieve.
"This is a bare-bones operation," he explained with practiced sympathy. "I'm not going to play coy with you. But this is OUR operation." Jackson retrieved the papers from my chair and held them up to me, pointing to a bold "10%" on the bottom line.
"Everyone in this room owns a piece," he explained. "We all get a share of the profits when we go public. In addition to your salary of course, this isn't some kind of bait and switch. I'm paying you enough, right?"
He was. More than the last place, enough to get caught up on the credit card payments within the year.
"Alright then." Jackson nodded and sat down at his desk, which I'll admit was a little too close to my chair. He rummaged through a folder of design files, until he found a PSD the previous designer had put together. Like I'd thought, this guy had been no amateur - not only were the layouts crisp and bright, but the functionality of the app, what it did - it was so smart. It was something people would actually use. In fact, it would be stupid if I explained it now, because in a few months every app was doing it - but at that exact moment, it was perfect, unique, and new.
"This is what you're building?"
"This is what we're building." He said, patting me on the back.
When you write code all day, even the people you work with start to see you as a sort of extension of the keyboard - they input commands into you and get frustrated when the results displease them. At my previous job everyone's wrists were constantly itching to reach up and grab my skull like a mouse, drag it around until the image on the screen reflected what was in their heads. They talked to me in the kind of voice reserved for a drive thru speaker-box; loud, sharp, and accurate - always sure something would be wrong on the other end if they didn't shout.
Every morning Jackson would gather us in a circle and do a little chant. It was the company name broken up into awkward syllables, our hands all in the center like a little league game. It was me and maybe five other people, all young and fresh out of school, and we raised our eyebrows at each other as it happened, trying to mock it without saying anything. We couldn't without laughing. None of us wanted to like it as much as we did.
* * * * *
The website I'd been hired to build had to launch by April 18th. There was a huge tech convention in Berlin, and Jackson had already bought booth space for it. Our clear, one-punch message needed to be displayed on a monitor in the center of the table - every person who walked by it without stopping was a user, investor, or word-of-mouth brand-awareness-generator we would miss.
Jackson gave me a list of images he wanted to see right underneath our logo, that would encapsulate what our app did. They were very specific.
"President Obama shaking hands with the President of Iran. In black and white. And it needs to be a behind the scenes photo - intimate and candid. One no one has ever seen before."
I went to iStock, and started looking.
Obama + Ahmadinejad + candid + handshake + B&W
The site suggested that I try something less specific. Jackson suggested I try a different site. I went to Wikipedia, which confirmed that the event I'd been looking for press photos of wasn't just poorly documented, but entirely fictional. I had to walk my laptop over to Jackson and show him the paragraph on the strained US relations with Iran. He shook his head into his hands, as if I was personally responsible for the past fifty years of conflict.
"That was gonna be the centerpiece," he confided softly.
"Why not use images of the app?" I asked. "That's what people want to see. Get four or five good shots up there."
"We only have the one."
"What about screenshots of what we've built so far? I can clean it up in Photoshop."
"We can't do that."
Jackson would have these moments where I could see the unbridled bravado fade; his eyes became wide, as if searching for the next drop of confidence to power him to the end of his sentence.
"I have my son's baseball game," he told me, "In about an hour. Gonna be out of the office for the afternoon. When I'm back in tomorrow though - let's have some shots. Maybe not the President of Iran. Could be Steve Jobs or somebody."
As he left I made a few half-heated searches for more pictures, but I had already resolved to leave the office about fifteen minutes after him. The trains were getting too loud for me to concentrate, and without Jackson around I could do just as much work from a coffee shop.
I rode my bike down Larimer, and for a moment I felt like I had really left the office. I never got to commute in the afternoon - the sun was bright and promised Spring, and all over the streets were people working through their lives in average and envious ways - buying coffee, unloading band equipment at the Larimer Lounge. And then there was Jackson, walking out of a corner liquor store carrying a tall brown bag. I didn't slow down, I feared that any deviation from my course would only draw more attention to me. Didn't seem to matter - Jackson got back into his merlot-colored Mini Cooper with his eyes down, darkly turning a screw-top lid inside of the tinted passenger-side window.
* * * * *
I walked to Bender's to see my friend Torre's band, Extreme Turbo Smash. We had worked together at my last agency - he was still there, but moonlighted as the frontman of an animal-themed hardcore band. I was a couple whiskeys deep when he approached me at the bar and handed me his drink tickets.
"How's the new gig?" he asked. "You got one, right?"
"Yeah, its so great." I handed the bartender the tickets together, pointing to my empty glass as reference. "The guy who runs it - well it's super small, to begin with. Just five of us. And the guy running it has this great vision for the app we're making. And I get to make all of it. I'm the Lead Designer."
Torre was fading in and out of what I was saying, as his bandmates readied a piñata on the table next to us.
"It's a real commitment," I conceded. "And its taking its toll on everybody. Small team. New product. But everyone is all in, because we get to do it our way."
"Do you want to hit the piñata after the second song?" Torre asked, offering me the handle of a wooden baseball bat. "You seem amped, like you need to hit something."
"Is the old Creative Director still there?" I asked. "The one that got me fired?"
I laughed into the ceiling. "She fire Melissa yet?"
"Nah, her and Melissa seem to get along."
I grabbed the baseball bat from Torre.
"You guys still aren't doing apps, huh," I said. "Mobile is happening, like it or not. You guys are gonna miss the boat if you don't get on it."
Torre shrugged. "I'm just QA. Every time I tell the devs to do something different they shoot me with a Nerf gun."
"Well still, you should tell someone," I said. "Just so that they know."
* * * * *
I'd been in the office three weeks when Brian quit. His name wasn't Brian, I can't remember it. He was already dead to me anyway.
"Glassblowing?" I asked in too-loud a voice.
"I want to be an artist again," he replied.
"We are artists!" Brian was so fucking stupid. "Have you not seen the designs? Do you not understand what we're building?"
The other devs had congratulated him on his new direction and gone back to work, but I couldn't let it stand. I must have stood there for twenty minutes trying to convince Brian to go back in to Jackson's office and un-quit. It was crucial to me. But a few days later we were having a going-away party for him, and after that no one saw him again.
Jackson didn't have to ask me to remove his photo from the website, I struck it from the design instinctively. First I put a little banner over it in Photoshop that said TRAITOR, and showed it to one of the other devs, but he didn't laugh. Maybe Jackson would have. Every time he walked by Brian's old seat at the folding table, he gave a sad look to the empty folding chair. In a company that small, it was hard not to feel like you'd been abandoned when someone simply moved on with their life.
"He had all but stopped working late. I would tell him to change something and he'd fight me on every little thing." Jackson shook his head. "He just wasn't a Rockstar. He wasn't like . . ."
He didn't have to say it. It was after seven, and we were the only two still in the office, as usual.
* * * * *
The window in front of Brian's old spot opened; it was the only one in the long line of old single-pane glass that wasn't painted shut. I got into the habit of crawling out of it at night, after everyone left, to sit on the roof and watch the trains while I worked. I became intimately familiar with the different worlds that passed through the train yard as the sun began to set. In the afternoon long box cars filled every set of tracks, which split off into half a dozen paths like open zippers. At night, there were fewer trains but more people - dark, murmuring freighters arriving with hours of cargo to unload; tired-looking men moving boxes in and out of the cars. I made a playlist for running away on the bed of one of them; songs about freedom and escape and looking at stars. I imagined shutting my laptop and leaving it on the desk with my wallet and my keys, passing through the narrow slit in the chainlink fence and crawling into one of the train cars unnoticed. Where it went from there was inconsequential - I had imagined a new life for myself in every direction the tracks pointed.
* * * * *
The night before the website launch, Jackson and I sat bent over my laptop screen, inspecting the culmination of my month-long employment. Almost all the problems had been fixed - for the homepage we'd settled on a large picture of mountains instead of Steve Jobs; Brian's photo slot had been filled with another employee's dog. Jackson was now packing up his bag, confident I could handle what few technical details remained from there.
"Almost forgot -" he pulled a white, brick-sized box from his bag and placed it on my desk. I opened the top flap to reveal a neat row of at least two hundred business cards. I pulled one out and inspected it -
Lead Designer / Rockstar
"You've more than earned it," Jackson beamed. "Thanks for sticking through it."
The next six hours flew by as I tightened every nut and bolt on the site. It took about an hour to force myself through the unforeseen roadblocks that arise every time you try to launch a website - files can't be named this, things can't be placed there, etc etc. Then I got right into phase 2, tweaks we'd planed for May. I couldn't wait to see Jackson's surprise when he loaded the site in the morning.
It had gotten too cold to work on the roof so I moved back inside to Brian's place at the folding table. That office got darker than any place I'd ever worked before, and quieter too, save for the shuffling of boxes in and out of train cars and the quiet, idle hum of massive engines resting. I refreshed the site a couple of times, still convinced I missed something, then sent Jackson an email to let him know that - just barely - we'd made the deadline. He'd stopped responding a while ago, but I felt like I owed it to him.
I carried my bike down the stairs of the office and began to ride out of the darkness towards the lights of the city. It was 1am - I had skipped dinner, which was becoming more common, but I'd never gone out this late looking for food. The nearest place I could find was a dive but it smelled like cheeseburgers, so I slid into a dark booth and ordered one with a whiskey.
My phone buzzed in my pocket. It was an email from Jackson.
Spacing seems a bit off. Maybe try 27px instead? We're very close.
I pulled my laptop out of my bag and set it onto the sticky wooden table in front of me.
"You guys have wifi?" I asked the bartender. I could tell that, on any normal day, they didn't - not for customers. Maybe because I was the only person there, and at such a strange time, he seemed more than happy to share what he had with me.
"Sure, you got something I can write it on?" he asked.
Without hesitation I reached into my pocket to retrieve a stack of business cards. He could have eight of them - one to write the wifi password on, one for himself, six to distribute to his friends. There were so many in my pocket that they got stuck at a weird angle and refused to come out.
"You guys with the laptops, you're the only ones I see at this hour, besides the strippers." He gave me a wink - "And the prostitutes. What do you do?"