Let’s not sugarcoat it; Corporate America does not care about us. They don’t care about you, and they sure as hell don’t give a damn about me. It’s true. We are nothing more than producers and patrons. We are not people. We are demographics, and target markets — we are numbers. As corporate soldiers we marched the line for our piece of the pie – our little chunk of the American Dream. We did what we were raised to do…we consumed. We bought and sold for Corporate Charlie keeping the machine oiled and working. Settled into a dynamic world of e-commerce, geek-sheik glasses, and black turtlenecks, there was an air of indestructibility about those of us working in the advertising arena. We all felt ten feet tall and bullet proof–until the atomic bomb of the cola wars hit…the recession. This cyber-depression produced a backlash of failed dot.coms littering the internet by way of dead links. One year they’re buying stadiums and sponsoring the Superbowl, the next, their website is gone, and their office furniture is for sale on ebay. We call them the “404’s”…When you go to a website that no longer exists, the purgatory it sends you to is a blank page with the words, “http://404—error.” They created a ripple that tore through the advertising industry, leaving many corporate casualties to contend with a saturated job market and ridiculous credit card payments left over from a lavish lifestyle defined by “things” we bought after being lulled into a false sense of security by the dot.economy. Do I sound bitter? Just wait.
It’s Wednesday morning, 8:30 am – I’m sitting on my balcony drinking a cup of coffee, as I do everyday. And just like every day for the last four months, I’ll follow this up by checking my online account balance, to see how much of my severance is left. I’ve had to make some changes since being laid off–Folger’s instead of Starbuck’s, Budweiser instead of Guinness, Hamburger Helper instead of a cute waitress flirting for a better tip. My lifestyle is gone. Like a photo album in a house fire, it all went up in smoke.
I really wish I could take better advantage of my unemployment… sleep in, sit around in my bathrobe…but I just can’t. I’ve been programmed; I need to work. I need the safety of my cubicle, the awkward hello’s to coworkers I could care less about as they pass me in the halls, and above all else, a bi-weekly paycheck that allows me to drink imported beers and eat out every night. I need my routines.
Before I go on, allow me to try to piece together who I am and how I got on this balcony drinking Folger’s, watching cars zoom by en route to jobs that aren’t mine. My name is Escher Smallwater. I’m 2 years shy of 30, and I’m mad as hell. Being underemployed has given me a chance to reassess my life, and it’s left me more bitter than this dirty sock water I’m drinking—I will never be a rock star, or date a super model. I don’t get carded at bars anymore, teenagers now think of me as creepy, and I prefer VH1 over MTV. More and more I am guaranteed a hangover if I indulge in four or more beers the night before, and little by little, music is becoming too loud and angry for my tastes. I’ve stopped trying to live each day as if it were my last, because I’m too busy worrying about ten years down the line. It seems like my entire life is a formulaic process to determine some unknown end result. Pragmatism has never been my forte. I often feel like a very stupid game show contestant trying to phrase my answer in the form of a question. What is fulfillment, Alex? Somewhere between my first joint in high school, and my last cup of coffee, I quit trying to find an answer and left my fate in the cold, clammy hands of target markets, Ikea catalogs and a bitter piece of pie called the American Dream–At least I still have my hair.
They began programming me at an early age. I was born a consumer. Television and peer pressure gave me that hunger. Being middle class only fueled my desire for more. I can’t blame my parents, though. They were programmed, too. The price of being American: free from tyranny, enslaved by an evil of our own creation. It’s not my parents’ fault they understood the value of a dollar. They tried to teach me, but to this very day, money is still nothing more than a piece of paper one person gives me for one reason or another that I, in turn, hand over to someone else. I don’t understand the value, per se, but I know what a dollar is. I also know what it is to want, what it is to need. Even now, the smell of a freshly-printed J.C. Penny’s Christmas catalogue as thick as a phone-book means new toys I can’t live without even though I never before knew they existed.
How do you fight something that’s been programmed into you from the beginning? It’s like a fish that doesn’t want to swim…I fought the trite ideals of the American Dream, and sought freedom at every turn while I was growing up, but little by little I was buying into it without even noticing. I still went to college to prepare myself for the future. I still entertained the thought of marrying my high school sweetheart and making some grandkids for my parents. My rebellions were always in a controlled environment with a safety net. I didn’t storm the gates of the castle; I tripped acid in my dorm room. I went to college as an art major, but all I learned in school was how to roll a proper joint – a skill that to this day comes in very handy. What can I say– I’m too young for Prozac.
When I joined the ranks of the corporate soldier as an advertising designer, it was strictly as an escape from the menial world of the service industry. A way to stop serving people. When I was in school, I wanted to be a painter. My fellow fine arts majors and I turned our noses up at the commercial artists who shared our building and designated smoking area. We labeled them sellouts. While we sat outside, smoking pot and painting flowers, they rushed to class to learn about typography and layout principles. I later found out that “fine arts major” was a polite way of saying service industry, while “sellout” meant financial security. I spent the last 2 years of college, and first 3 after graduation working on the wrong side of a coffee counter serving up half-caff double tall nonfat lattes with a splash of vanilla to self-absorbed, over-medicated, bored housewives and store bought beatniks carrying around German philosophy books as fashion. It drove me to new levels of disgust for the human race. It was while I was working the midnight shift at an especially soul-taxing coffeehouse full of sketchy characters that looked like they could kill a puppy without blinking that I bumped into an old friend from college. He was one of the sellouts learning about fonts while I was busy getting stoned and kicking around a hackey-sack in the quad. He was also on the right side of the counter ordering a fancy espresso drink in a little cup from me, disgruntled and coffee stained. He was an art director for one of the many thriving ad agencies in town, pulling down three times what I was making as a coffee jockey. He worked half as hard. Being both lazy and greedy, as is the nature of my generation, I put away my paintbrushes, bit the bullet, and sold my soul to Corporate Charlie. The internet was a booming industry making it all too easy to fall into a career. I began designing web pages, and ordering the coffee instead of brewing it. I like to tell myself that I didn’t sell out, I merely bought in. Whatever it takes to sleep at night, right?