Oh, Look! A Shiny Thing!

My friend has a theory that ADD and ADHD are bullshit. His belief is that there are too many distractions in modern life for children to grow up without an inability to focus. Basically he thinks that we all have ADD and ADHD, and it’s due to the amount of glittering, whirring gizmos we welcome into our lives. Between HDTV, 3-D movies, the virtual reality of home computers, and Smartphones, it’s impossible to keep your eyes on one thing for long enough to blink twice. I only bring this up because this week presented the kind of project that required the monotonous tasks of cutting, pasting, and thinking up four-hundred headlines for a travel-related iPhone app. It was the kind of work that was creative and enjoyable, but it caused a sort of drone-like trance state, where motions became routine. The only way to prevent drool spilling out of my mouth and onto the keys was to succumb to the siren song of the Internet. Which is a job hazard wrapped in the lingerie of a job perk. Internet distraction needs to be carefully dosed, lest freelancing begins to take the "glorified" out of glorified unemployment.

The Internet is my office. I work using mainly Google Docs, I run Chrome for browsing and use Live Writer for blogging. We use Basecamp for projects, and primarily conduct correspondence through Gmail or Gchat versus the traditional conference call. I’m not disciplined enough to sit at my computer all day, knowing that a world of wonder is one tab away, without peeking behind the curtain. Sometimes it feels a bit like I’m a drunk working as a bartender, only the analogy goes kaput once I recognize that, if that were the case, tiny relapses wouldn’t be discouraged, they’d be welcomed.

See, for me, fucking around on the Internet is my coffee break. Facebook is my break-room. Tumblr is my cigarette. Twitter is my extra long pee and conversation about last night’s CSI with Cheryl from accounting. The problem is, as with any gig, you can’t let the breaks get the better of you. Most of us have worked desk jobs where some sorry asshole (hopefully not you) started getting too caught up in enjoying their downtime, hitting up the MySpace, or bullshitting with their buddies. One day they were called into the boss’ office, and ten minutes later they were carting their belongings down in a box, possibly with a security escort. Every job requires discipline.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that working from home, in your pajamas, with the creature comforts of your television, tea kettle, and comforter a mere arms-reach away, makes that battle for focus slightly more difficult. Working on the Internet ups the interruption ante. But I’ve learned that a taste of the forbidden fruit of free time isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’ve written before about the benefits of fucking around for a little bit each day. It’s like that guy who used to work two cubicles over, the one who never seemed to leave the office until the day he disappeared. Eventually you heard he was rumored to be in a hospital suffering a breakdown, six years later he’s living on an ashram and going by the name Tandralu. Burn-out is a real thing. But here’s the tricky, sticky part of the Internet being your main means of diversion: you can’t tell if your cigarette break is going to turn out to be a three-hour meth bender. In the "real" world, there are concrete means of getting some time away from your screen. Most of them involve consuming food, drink, or chemicals, and most of them are fairly mundane. To extend the metaphor, if Facebook is my break-room, I’m never sure whether I’ll walk in and grab a quick cup of tea or if I’ll wind up studying the fabric of the couch for a few hours. Getting distracted on the Internet requires vigilance and brute strength to keep it brief, at least for me.

For example, this week the Internet was good for several respites. I took ten minutes to locate an old friend and find out that he’s attending a Masters program for English. I discovered that the guy who passed me his email at the gym is actually a married performance artist from the Midwest. I located the greatest cheap Thai restaurant in our neighborhood. I ordered Sriracha and a wedding gift. All of these things took less than fifteen minutes and helped me to get my brain back on track.

What didn’t work was my quest for a new book, courtesy of a still unused Christmas gift-card from my cousin. Looking up countless tomes on Barnes and Noble ate up the better part of an hour, and amounted to nothing but frustration. (Really, what I keep hoping is that Mary Roach will release, like, six books at once. Somehow I imagine that she’ll either channel Stephen King or develop a speed problem and start writing books the way I complain. By which I mean incessantly.) Also approaching productivity from the opposite corner was a short story competition. Although I wholeheartedly believe that writing for competitions is a vital part of my upkeep as a professional, it can drain a lot of energy, especially when I’m working under a deadline. It doesn’t allow for any real downtime either, since downtime spent crafting a story isn’t exactly the same sort of time suck as, say, looking at pictures of Lady Sovereign on the web. Email is also a fucking Molotov cocktail thrown at the window of my ambition. Sure, I’ll get to those other 175 headlines, right after I write back my friend who is going through a breakup, my pal who is dealing with the ice storm in Oklahoma and wants to know a good app to kill time, and my very favorite yoga instructor who is just "checking in." Those emails only took…well, the truth is that I can’t tell you. I didn’t respond to all of them, because when I noticed how close to the wire it was, I abandoned that second email mid-sentence. It’s still saved in Drafts.

I don’t know if I can say that there are hard and fast rules to budgeting your breaks. I believe that, as with all things freelance, you have to design your own system. One of the greatest graphic designers we know works from his basement from midnight until 4AM every day, getting buckets of stuff done. Other developers take hourly breaks to eat Pringles and smoke. (I’m leaving the specifics of that last detail to your imagination.) When it comes to using the Internet as a method of recreation while also using it as your mode of work, it bears repeating that if you throw moderation to the winds, the greatest pleasures bring the greatest pains. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a deadline to meet.

Super Soaker

As a result of an overprotective mother and being brought up in a quiet suburb, relaxation is about as difficult and foreign to me as rocking out on an oud. If I am happy, I immediately start examining what can go wrong. If things are truly peaceful and filled with the kind of joy that conjures up images of tiny, fat cherubs stroking teensy-weensy harps and floating around my skull, I start creeping around, glancing over my shoulder like I’m in some sort of poorly lit noir film. And of course, as is inevitable, life eventually will wield a complication crowbar at the windshield of my happiness. Last weekend that rusty jimmy came in the form of a sink.

Content as a clam while simultaneously as high-strung as a hamster, I watched the Jets game at my dad’s house along with Simon and Snack. Somewhere around the third quarter I got a phone call from the building’s managing agent, the super needed to get inside the apartment, pronto. There was water leaking through my downstairs’ neighbors’ ceiling. It could only be coming from one place. (No, not heaven.)

The faucet had been loose since I’d moved in. Although Simon complained that it was pretty rickety, I was just grateful to be living someplace that wasn’t my mother’s old house. I’d shrugged off the sink issue, though looking back on it I should have given it a little more thought. After all, that cabinet space below the kitchen sink is there usually for one reason: to cover up the pipes while still providing access to them. It is not a regular cabinet. It is a magic cabinet, discreetly hiding the Wizard of Oz known as interior plumbing. If only I’d taken a moment to apply my one frenetic brain cell to that observation, maybe all of this could have been avoided, but alas.

As a kid, if guests remarked that my room was clean, my dad would tell them to open the closet. That often led to me being regarded as borderline disposophobic or crazy. Since birth, my protocol for cleaning was this: if no one can see it, it isn’t there. So messes of all varieties (excluding food refuse) would be shoved under my bed, inside drawers, and behind the fantastically useful closet door. Known as "closet-cleaning," in Ainsley’s version of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe there would be no Christ references, just a lot of swearing and terror when those British brats opened up my closet to clamber inside. Needless to say, my cleaning m.o. has not altered one iota as an adult. And in this apartment, which is big enough for approximately 1.5 Bhikku monks and their six belongings, cleaning became a game of hide-the-stuff Tetris that  has teetered on the fringe of mania for me. When it came to finding a location for my two blenders, dustpan, five rolls of tin foil, three rolls of Cling Wrap, trash bags, six bags of dog treats and a ten-pound bag of dog food, among other dog-and-cleaning supplies, the minuscule cabinet under the kitchen sink was the only available real estate where the massive amount of unnecessary shit I’d accumulated but couldn’t bear to throw away could find a home. It took a little bit of effort, but it fit. So when both valves exploded into mini Niagra Falls, one could only assume it was just old plumbing and that it had nothing at all to do with the six cubic feet of crap I had loaded into a space the size of a shoebox. Right.

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Needless to say, the super shut off the water for the sink and promised to return on a day that there was no football. Meanwhile, my neighbors below were obviously peeved. They didn’t even know someone had moved in above them, and yet their ceiling turned into a cascade during a Chargers’ possession. When all was said and done, the Jets were victorious and my neighbors’ ceiling had water damage. Of course it was my luck to start off on the wrong foot. Instead of sending a pie and a note to greet them with a friendly hello, they wound up with a kitchen that could have been the set for a Kevin Costner post-apocalyptic flop and a pusillanimous, apologizing teacup poodle of a human on their doorstep offering to scrape, paint, and test the electrical outlets. (Not on my own. God only knows that would solve their problem of having an upstairs neighbor in the first place.)

The following day the super arrived with a bucket full of tools and a hearty handshake. It should be noted that we still hadn’t met in person because nothing short of Maynard James Keenan camping out on my fire escape would have brough me home during that game, and also because the rest of the city, including my super, was watching it with rapt attention. He was able to fix the sink in the amount of time it takes me to urinate, so I started asking him some questions. Turns out he’s worked as a superintendent for twenty-five years, first in Brooklyn, then moving to Manhattan for the money. This building is a "union building," and it’s down the block from an auspicious public school, so the relocation was perfect for him and his family. I’d never really thought about building superintendents before. When I’d lived in New York years ago, it never crossed my mind to call anyone but my dad when my fridge conked out or my toilet got clogged. In Portland, the only thing I had that resembled a superintendent was the Google search engine and a peyote consuming roommate whose dad was a janitor. By contrast, Oklahoma was filled with individuals who considered themselves superintendents, they were known as men. To have a human being technically living at the same address as me, whose sole purpose is to fix what gets fucked up, is pretty awesome. And yet, probably pretty difficult for the human being under examination. This was illuminated when I inquisitively stated that I thought the metal pump device attached to the floor of my bathroom probably had something to do with the tub?

"You just saved me a phone call," he said. "You don’t know how many people ring me up, telling me that the water from their shower isn’t going down when it’s really the drain right there."

"You get a lot of those calls?" I asked, incredulous.

"Dozens," he said.

The man troubleshoots teaching people how to use their bathtub. Even if he’s in the middle of a sandwich, or a Jets game, he’s on the clock. Although he’s living rent free, that’s pretty hard work. Some supers get rent discounts, others live rent free, and still others get a salary in addition to free rent, it depends on the situation. I’d educate countless irate tenants on the intricacies of their bathroom if I could live in my apartment for free.

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On average the salary for a superintendent is $35,000 in smaller buildings outside of Manhattan. Of course, if you head into the city, this number only goes up. The average salary for a New York City super ranges from $60,000 to $80,000 a year, not including tips and the perks and packages that come with some of the more high-end luxury buildings. The union for superintendents provides a pension and healthcare, which is why a building like the one I’m currently causing leaks in is so coveted.

Moreover, while researching the numbers, an article cited that one superintendent in particular was living rent-free in a two-bedroom, 1.5 million dollar apartment in the city. And I can almost guarantee that he’s not the only one fixing pads high on the hog. New Yorkers are notorious for hiring other people to do jobs that, in Oklahoma, are relegated to family. Unlike Uncle Burt, superintendents need to actually have acquired knowledge of how to fix things like sinks and electric outlets. They also have to be capable of organizing and subcontracting labor. Some superintendents are in charge of collecting rent and making sure that the rules of the property aren’t broken. There’s really no requirement for education, other than a high-school diploma, though some supers have a bachelors degree in property management. Training and certification in different vocations can be helpful, the more that you know, the more tony your gig as a super can be. Although it wasn’t mentioned in any of the articles I read, and although my super didn’t say anything from beneath the belly of my sink, I assume that a lot of their job is calmly and patiently managing complaints, some of them irrational, others plain old silly. They’re likely the psychologists of the building as well, or maybe that’s just my fanciful imagination who would like to put Lorraine Bracco in some overalls tinkering with my under-mount. Again, fielding complaints and manual labor are a fair trade-off for prime New York real estate, and I think that nearly anyone in this city would agree.

All of that said, my super is living across from my laundry room. I haven’t seen the inside of his pad, but I know he has a family, so I can only assume he has enough space and that their laundry days are wildly convenient. This is in stark contrast to mine, which require hauling all of my wares up and down five flights of stairs and through an outdoor hallway. I’m glad that he’s compensated well for his work, fixing my sink and tightening the faucet so it went from rickety to rock solid only cost me $65. Given that the last time a plumber visited my mother’s house I was charged practically double because it was on a weekend and required some sort of fancy part, I was pretty happy. (For the record, the average salary for a plumber is $38,709.)

bath

Tomorrow I’m having the crew that fixed up my mother’s house come in and repair the damage to my neighbors’ ceiling. I can only hope that all goes smoothly and that they accept my apology. Hopefully Peyton Manning will eat a bad pancake on Sunday morning and another Jets victory will bury the leaky roof in the proverbial closet where I hide all of my unfortunate and mortifying memories. Otherwise Mark Sanchez will be doing a little closet-cleaning of his own.

Please Hold

Times are tough. After the Styrofoam-laden dust settled and Simon and I were sufficiently unpacked we realized that we have no new clients. None. And while dry spells are common around the holidays, this one feels particularly discouraging. So what’s a freelance copywriter to do? I thought of getting a side job, one that doesn’t bore me. One of the common complaints I had as an office drone was the way life seemed to pass like molasses on top of a frozen pie tin. Florescent lights robbed me of my sense of time. Pantyhose cut off my circulation, often resulting in my my labia falling asleep. The only fun I had was making copies, which I often fucked up, or answering the phone, which I often fucked up even more, depending on my state of grogginess. Grogginess caused by lack of sleep, lack of sleep caused by anxiety about work, anxiety about work caused by being in a low-level job that didn’t involve words, editing, or creativity. Going freelance might have meant forfeiting a regular paycheck, but it also meant tasting the soft-serve frozen yogurt of freedom. I will try to find a way to make copywriting work, up until the terrifying last penny. In the meantime, I’d best explore other ways to keep my brain and my bank account active, while preserving enough time to dedicate to Ministry of Imagery.

I’ll take a minute here to admit to putting ads on the site. I put ads on the site. Because I’m making no money. And maybe, just maybe, putting ads on the site will afford me some groceries to put in the pantry of the new apartment. Or at least make me feel like I’m going legit.

 

Other than clogging your eyes with ads, what can I do to raise some revenue? I thought about different varieties of writing that I’d like to try, catalog discriptions and professional wrestling scripts came to mind. But if I write as a side job, then what about what I actually want to write? Would that wither and dry up faster than a normal person’s sex drive when presented with an 8×10 glossy close-up of Mickey Rourke’s new face? I assume I should try something that could be relatively simple and stimulating, that doesn’t require a set schedule or dressing up and playing office. Something that could be lucrative, and possibly secretive. As I wracked my brain I finished a novel that I had to read in place of television. (One of the nuisances of moving is that you have to cut cable on one place and install it in another. At least in New York this feat alone takes roughly as much time as becoming a veterinarian.) The book was called Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips. I’m not going to spoil the plot, but in it the goddess Aphrodite is a phone sex operator. It was then that I remembered that this was a go-to gig for fellow freshmen in the brief year that I went to Sarah Lawrence.

There was one girl in particular, a butch lesbian with a lazy eye named Ariel. Pudgy, aggressive, the kind of girl who could provide you with a bodyguard or a dimebag of weed, she wasn’t exactly what I’d describe as a male fantasy. But what she lacked in heterosexual charm she made up for with a husky voice. She operated a phone sex line out of her off-campus room and proceeded to put herself through college with little more than a phone line and an occasional marijuana retail business. And it was this hazy college memory, coupled with the fictional goddess of love purring into a Bluetooth device, that suddenly got the clam-craving cogs in my brain turning.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, phone sex hotlines experienced an upswing in popularity due to the 900 number. Callers could choose their ultimate phone fantasy partner, using lines that advertised "no taboos" that allowed for those looking for particular kinks to know that they’d be welcome, so long as they had a method of payment and time to kill. In 1996 the FCC rained on the paid calling parade by changing regulations in order to prevent fraud or abuse of the lines by minors. Party lines, which differed in price and access from hardcore lines, were forced to comply with a list of euphemistic restrictions. From an account of her time as a PSO (as industry insiders call it) Joyce Ventimiglia writes:

“The "party lines" were not considered "hardcore" and the FCC was spot-monitoring to make sure we didn’t say anything obscene. This is a little like ordering a full course meal in a restaurant without mentioning food; it’s really hard to get the point across. For example, we euphemistically replaced the usual dirty words with code phrases like "pussy-cat," "brown-eye" or "man-meat." A typical line would be something like "Oooh big boy, take your man-meat out of my pussy-cat and put it up my brown-eye."’

Other regulations included a prohibition on simulating sex itself, leaving it only as a topic of loudly moaned conversation.

As of 2007, there were only two large chat line companies operating in the United States, one being Sweet Sensations, who are in charge of PhoneSex.com, and The Providence Telephone Company. The Providence Telephone Company changed its business model by providing free chat services that had advertisements that lonely callers were forced to listen to prior to being connected with another person. Other methods of operation include call-back services, where a caller will ring up a secretary who will coordinate a phone call back between them and a willing pay-per-minute person who fits their specific criteria.

The phone sex industry rakes in nearly $500 million a year according to the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. In order to start dialing up a piece of that pie you can begin by getting hired or going independent. If I were to choose flying solo I would basically be signing up for the same sort of dedicated daily grind that I endure as a writer. I’d have to set up a website, promote myself, advertise, manage payments, somehow utilize active database marketing, and troll chat rooms for sad sacks willing to shill out some bucks for a human voice.

Working for a company is a little easier.  First you prove that you are over the age of eighteen. Then you have to make sure that you have a quiet place to work and a land-line with a corded phone. Lastly, and most importantly, you have to be patient and able to engage people in conversation for as long as possible. It also helps not to be prudish. I have a quiet place to work so long as Simon has a bag of Goldfish crackers. Snack doesn’t bark much so that’s not a problem either. Setting up a land-line might be a little bit of a pain in the ass, but considering how badly phone companies need to make money I have faith that it could get done. And, hey, maybe I could even invest in that Garfield phone I always wanted.

Things to keep in mind include making sure that your number is protected and that you can get out of the work without any trouble should you decide that it isn’t your cup of smutty tea. As with any job, don’t sign anything until you’ve read all of the fine print, and never, ever pay to work. Be aware that a lot of these companies have become gateways to other Internet-based sex endeavors, mainly web cam performances. The first company to unite the Internet with phone sex was Sweet Sensations back in 1996.

The pay days are varied, with some phone fantasy actresses only pocketing nine dollars a day, some less than $2000 a month. (I’m not going to say anything, but, compared to the amount of work we have right now, a G this month would be peachy keen.) Some girls have flat fees starting at around $20 for ten minutes, with the cents-per-minute going up exponentially after that.

Some savvy phone sex operators make about $60 to $100 an hour, depending on the amount of calls they take and their rates. Because girls are often paid for their "talk time," and not the amount of time they’ve logged in, it’s imperative to talk like a lonely cat owner on a grocery store line. Rates vary but average about .12-.15 cents per minute for the first five minutes, with an increase to .30 cents for the following five, and a jump to .40-.60 cents per minute if the caller stays hooked for over that initial ten. More or less this is the kind of industry where it pays to be a windbag. But at the end of the day, it isn’t a guaranteed steady living.

Payments are usually once a week, with companies demanding little more than a certain number of hours "logged" per week (usually around 10 or more.) According to that old stalwart, Providence Telephone Company, the average length of a call for gay callers was about twenty minutes per call, while straight callers would only gab for ten minutes or so. Interestingly, roughly 30% of all callers were physically challenged or housebound.

I’ll be honest, after reading about it, this isn’t the best line of work for me. I’m sarcastic, cynical, and very, very shy. Things like dumb blogs and Twitter are perfect for a coward such as myself. I hide behind the written word because it allows me the introspection to edit what I say and not actually lend it my high-pitched, often-grating voice. Besides, I pronounce certain words funny, like roof, mirror, and fire. Not as if those are hot button sex words, although perhaps they fall under that FCC euphemism jurisdiction. Moreover, I don’t think that I would be able to tolerate such blatant displays of loneliness. I’m not judging those who call phone sex lines, I’m simply recognizing that I’m not at my most comfortable when confronted with the sad, dejected, rejected, and alone, unless I’m sitting on a folding chair in a Church basement discussing my drinking. Making a profit off of the withdrawn and isolated wouldn’t seem fair, especially if they were imagining tying me to a bedpost and pouring Hershey’s syrup all over my make-believe breasts.

Some people think it would be the best kind of job for those of us with overactive imaginations and potty mouths. Maybe, but I’d still rather explore the option of writing the storyline for professional wrestlers. At least then I wouldn’t have to worry about the Feds watching my language.

NOTE: I occasionally put up links or resources to help out those of you who are interested in the kinds of work posted on the blog. With this one I felt weird linking to outright porn. If you’re looking to explore becoming a phone sex operator, Google SexyJobs, Sweet Sensations, or PhoneEntertainers. But, really, if you want to do this kind of thing it’s not that difficult to find a way in, according to everything I read. Certainly it’s not as tough as trying to get new clients as a freelance copywriter. Good luck. Talk ain’t cheap.