Authors: Arjun Basu
HERE COMES THE SUN
It was as if I were floating. This was what I first noticed. The original thing. This floating business was a sign. Of something going on inside my head. I would find myself off the ground, hovering, and then moving, slowly, effortlessly, seeing my own self encumbered by the normal laws of physics, everyone and everything still governed by the rules and regulations that make things run. I was part of it and was apart. My floating self felt new and improved. Smarter. Fresher. More alive.
But it would never last.
I would be in a meeting, again, thinking up ideas and products, dreaming up the inconsequential things that make the world go round. Thinking up the reasons and pathways and trajectories of desire. Creating desire. And I would leave the meeting. And then I would return. I would hover above myself and observe my own ticks and mannerisms and then return to the normal operations of things. This began happening with an alarming kind of regularity.
It was the floating that started me off. The dreams didn’t come until later. And by the time the dreams took over, I was well on the path. My road. To wherever. To this place.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I’m a simple person. Everything follows from this truth. Simplicity is a state in which my life has been lived. I grew up in a fake Tudor home in the deepest suburbs of New Jersey, the only child of immigrant parents. I went to a good high school; achieved good grades; attended college; got the degree; landed a safe, conventionally challenging, well-paying, and vaguely sexy job in advertising. Our next-door neighbor knew some people at a boutique agency and helped me get the position. I moved to Manhattan. I was creative. I could make people laugh. I was sufficiently cynical. Engagingly sarcastic. It’s the only job I’ve ever had. The only one I remotely wanted. My father never made me work while I was in school. He wanted me to get good grades. I missed out on flipping burgers, working as a lifeguard, selling shoes, rites of passage in my community. Learning exploitation as a child is a license for abhorrent behavior in the future, I think. I missed that. Being exploited. I worked long hours at the agency, the kind of schedule that precludes a social life. I jumped into this thing and I never thought much about it. I was relatively successful. I was good at thinking up ways to sell things to people. To consumers. To instill want where there had been none. To make the essence of a brand match the core of your being.
I wasn’t the kind of person who defined himself by his work. I didn’t know many people who did and the ones who did were all older. There is a generational divide in this kind of self-definition, though the quality of the work has more to do with it. Perhaps in our age, there are more jobs but more bad jobs as well. When asked, I did not tell people I was a copywriter or in advertising. Even to the question of “What do you do?” I would describe myself as a frustrated Mets fan, as a drinker of a particular beer, as a lover of uncommon passion. I was sarcastic. I answered this question, as common in this city as “Hello,” with sarcasm. I’m not sure if that was shame or a defense mechanism of some sort. It was a sign, surely. What else could it have been?
My work was something that should have offered more. Perhaps I should have accepted what it had to offer. For a long while I did. And it rewarded me very well. And this sense of reward, and the obviousness of it, protected me from the real world. From the real world as it existed around me. I worked within an energy, the kind of energy that came from satisfaction, youth, and the knowledge that we were going to survive the recession, or whatever it was being branded lately, because we were small and nimble and successful.
I was without a plan, I did as I was told, I showed the proper level of ambition. I drank with the right people. I received promotions and raises and these things made me work harder. I figured this was the key to the system. To how things functioned. The circle of life. It’s an instinctual way to live. We live unimpressive lives in order to be impressive. And we do impress people. That’s the thing. And when we stop treating this with any kind of amazement, one can feel the confirmation of a successful career. One can have things, be the person, wear the clothes. We win. And that’s what matters in the end. Winning. Ensuring that everyone knows you have won.
The office was a modern space in that area where Chelsea becomes Hell’s Kitchen. Hardwoods and steel and modular desks. Glass. Open. Beams of natural light bathing the place in a modern whiteness. Half a floor in an old building and close enough to my apartment that I often walked home at the end of the day if the weather was right. The agency was growing. Amazingly. Despite everything. There weren’t that many of us. Thirty, I think. And that, too, was probably a part of our salvation. Our owners were veterans, refugees from the multinational world; they had experienced the waste and the timesuck of bureaucracy and attempted to avoid it. We dreamed up dreams to move stuff. That’s what we called anything we could sell: stuff. We even had George Carlin’s great bit about “stuff” running in a loop on a video screen in the reception area. That told everyone we were in on the joke. We were that good. And smart. A bunch of smart people sitting around being smart and doing smart things. And if you signed on with us, we’d do smart things for you, too.
I spun tales. My life appeared more interesting than it felt. To me, at least. It had the trajectory of some chop suey kung fu fighter, flying through the air, impervious to gravity. I was glib and irreverent because I was paid to be and because I could afford it. And because I didn’t know better.
I felt like I was contributing to something larger than myself. To the running of the world.
My first campaign was for a government agency public service announcement aimed at exposing racism. That’s what the brief said. “Expose racism and its aftereffects.” As if racism were hiding somewhere. Whatever. I had studied something about the consequences of hate on human health. And the campaign was simple. A slide:
Racism = Hatred
And then another one:
Hatred is harmful to your health.
And that was it. White letters on a black background. And it was assembled and crafted for television and as posters and was put in the subway and on the sides of buses. My first campaign and I saw it while going to work. And I thought I was doing something noble. And even when my next account was for diapers, and the one after that was for sunscreen, I still felt that nobility. And that feeling of nobility lasted for a long time. Years.
So if the work ever got bogged down in idiocy, as it often did, there was the work, that first campaign, and the idiocy of the moment dissipated and whatever I was doing became important again because I had told the entire city that racism was bad for them.
But self-importance only lasts so long.
And I would go out and would be asked what I did, because you always get asked that, and I would mention that campaign. Everyone had seen it.
But there was only so long I was going to coast on the nobility of my first effort. The creative director at the office, an unnaturally lanky Dutch man who lived on Long Island, threw smaller campaigns at me and dared me to come up with something as intelligent as that first campaign. He would hand me a brief about, say, a new brand of soft drink and say, “Make it sing,” and I would have to make it sing. I made up slogans for things that didn’t exist, for products that I saw in an elevated light and I would imbue in them qualities that were ephemeral, unshakeable, like mist. I would render a spirituality, an inner life, for inanimate things, like soda. Or running shoes. Or beans. I would develop backstories for cans of beans. Because every brand was a story and every story needed to be told in the right manner. Because a story well told meant our client would sell a lot of beans. And I was the storyteller.
My most successful campaign: I once convinced a brewery to name their new beer “Berlin.” Even though the beer wasn’t German. They were looking for something Irish and I convinced them to go with Berlin because it sounded cool and the bottle would be cool and cool is something you just don’t come across every day. And they bought it. I created an obnoxiously loud, MTV-inspired ad campaign consisting of one word: beer. The TV spot showed a bunch of frat boy types playing touch football and then piling on the local dweeb. Who then yells, “Beer!” Online, you could click on anyone in the pile and they’d yell the magic word. A fraternity in Kansas shot their own version and put it on YouTube. Copycat ads. Viral marketing. A Twitter campaign with one-word tweets. T-shirts. And that was just half the campaign. Berlin was everywhere, long after the German city had lived its fifteen minutes. The campaign appealed to both urban hipsters and college males. We sponsored jazz festivals and poetry readings. The literati meets the tailgate party. My year-end bonus that year was the source of much envy. The entire Berlin team was written up in trade publications. I spoke at conferences. The agency won an award at Cannes. It was a successful campaign and it elevated the agency and attracted business. Because success is like a pile of shit to a bunch of insects. Everyone wants to eat it, to play in it, to live a little. Because success means more toys. And it means you’ve won.
So I became the urban hipster guy at the agency. I wrote copy for dog food and created a new market segment: urban hipster dogs and their owners. I made the dogs cool and the owners of cool dogs even cooler. The Kennel Club gave me an award for that one. I created nice things for stupid things. There is an astonishing level of creativity and thought in the movement of objects, of product. Energy. Humanity even. And then one day I suffered from a paradox I noticed more and more around me: the more successful I became the more I hated my work. This seemed cliché and I tried to outrun it. By working even harder. Which was stupid, in hindsight. But a growing paycheck always made up for self-loathing. Especially a healthy paycheck. At least I thought it did.
My neighborhood bar down the street was in a basement space under a lingerie wholesaler. A long counter ran down one side of the room and rickety wooden tables down another, and the light in the bar was always just this side of pitch, and after work I would go there and sometimes I’d stay long and get drunk and I’d talk with the regulars about sports and politics and sex and sometimes that talk would lead to me waking up with someone in my bed, sometimes a nameless woman whom I would find in the morning rifling through my kitchen in a vain search for something edible. I would walk into my kitchen and there she would be in one of my T-shirts and she’d say something like, “You really are a bachelor” or “What do you eat normally?” and I’d shrug and I’d try to bring the conversation around so I could get her name somehow. That’s if I cared. When I cared quite a bit, I would ask what she was doing for dinner. But usually I couldn’t get them out of my place fast enough.
I was not good at consummating relationships in the sense that I would have one. This caused my mother, especially, considerable grief, because there seems to be something in mothers that makes them want grandchildren the moment their own children move out. This genetic predisposition has obvious evolutionary advantages.
The day I turned thirty-five, I kind of panicked. I had a party at work on a Friday and went out with my coworkers and woke up in a college student’s apartment near St. Mark’s Place. Then on the Saturday night, my friends took me out and we ended up at my bar and I woke on Sunday with a hangover that felt like it belonged within the landscape of someone not my age. And that night I went to my parents’ house and my mother made some exquisite food but nothing felt right in my mouth and my father claimed I was having a midlife crisis and I said, “I’m only thirty-five,” and my father said, “Sounds about right,” and I could not leave their house fast enough.
And on Monday, my actual birthday, I woke with a start, before the alarm clock had even gone off, and I had to admit that, yes, perhaps my father was right. The age hit me like hay fever. And I asked myself, What did it mean? To be any age? It’s supposed to be relative. There are so many clichés about age that to discuss it is boring. And ultimately futile.
Perhaps it wasn’t a midlife crisis but it was something and it didn’t feel right. It was a crisis. But not a midlife one. It was a crisis of self. I arrived at work and I looked at my desk and the notes on it, and my to-do list, and the timbre of the day was lost on me, sour, off.
I suffered through this for an entire week and this suffering depleted me.
I wondered if I hated myself.
I slept more.
I ate badly. Or worse.
And later that week, I realized what was causing this. Or so I thought. It may have been a “midlife crisis” as my father had suggested, but more than that, I was put off by the normalcy of what was happening. I had a good, satisfying, well-paying job and it wasn’t satisfying me. I had just turned thirty-five. I was tired of a lack of significance in my life. I was not proud of the banality of my suburban upbringing, the life as a whole that had brought me to this point, to the paint by numbers aspect of it, the dullness of it, the universality of the problems and the path I had followed. I had chosen this life and now I was thirty-five and I finally realized I was not only nothing special but I was like everyone else. And that was the crisis.