Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Start Me Up

The drive was longer than I remembered from my interview1, maybe because my head felt like a block of concrete threatening to topple off my shoulders. No sleep the night before my first day at my first real(meaning salaried) job had me hoping new-experience adrenaline would rocket me through the day. Counting down until five - one day and already a typical office drone.

High Speed Internet Access was a start-up partly funded by Paul Allen, one of the original Microsoft founders and lover of recreational submarines(a venture of his I wish I had worked on instead). Befitting a start-up, there were only six other people in the office. Steve, the lead web developer, Mike the copywriter, a visual designer whose name I don't recall(let's call him the guy who got caught looking at Blacks On Blondes), a manic and unstoppably moronic middle-manager whose name I also don't recall(let's call her Cathy), RJ the tech lead with the fantastically deep voice, and our boss, another woman whose name has been replaced in my memory by my gym locker combination(probably).

They were very friendly people. Steve, in addition to being a web developer, was a very talented visual designer as well2. He was the only Mac guy in the office, in the time before the iPod and Justin Long would convince many Americans to join him. Blonde and balding, he was a cool, grown-up nerd - a glimpse, maybe, into a possible future. Steve was also a musician, recording his own songs, mainly heavy metal. He gave me shit(partly deserved) for liking Metallica's Black album after knowing me for all of two weeks.

Mike wore leather jackets, listened to Danzig and Iron Maiden, acted in plays, had a super-cute red-headed girlfriend and generally seemed like the coolest guy I had ever met. It's a little embarrassing how I became his sidekick; a kid brother trying to tag along and emulate his superior, older sibling. One day RJ left a repeating loop on my computer playing 'Hey Mike' because that phrase came out my mouth at least a dozen times a day.

Fuck RJ.

To my credit, Mike and I became friends pretty quickly. He was into a lot of the same nerdy things I was, like Mystery Science Theater 3000, comics, sci-fi and horror movies, and heavy metal. He gave me tips on working out(which I had just started doing), women, and most importantly, music.

I was ignorant. A nit, dweeb, poser, whatever you want to call it, my musical canon rarely went past the radio dial.

One morning, I came in and overheard Mike and Steve discussing a new record. I awkwardly came over and offered that the new Live album was pretty awesome(basing my opinion solely on the fact that the single on the radio, "The Dolphins Cry", sounded pretty bad-ass3 to me).

Mike offered a polite "Really? Cool..." while Steve ripped into Live and told me they sucked back when they were called Public Affection and played small clubs in New York City(coincidentally, while Steve's band also played those clubs).

I was shocked. How could this band - played heavily on WHFS, the station the cool kids in high school and college listened to - suck? My brain had trouble accepting that anyone into rock music could hold such an opinion. Of course to this day I'm still struggling with building the courage and self-identifying will to not care so much about other people's opinions(without carelessly discarding them, though), and I'm getting better at it. Getting divorced helps.

Later that day, Steve played Kid Rock's Devil Without A Cause, which was getting a lot of attention in 1999 after languishing around for almost a year. "Rap Metal", or whatever you want to call it, was still nu(sorry, I couldn't help myself). The novelty of what Kid Rock was doing was fascinating(and yes it was novel, even if you consider Faith No More's "Epic" or Anthrax's "Bring Tha Noize" the first "rap metal" songs, because neither meshed rock music and rap the way Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, Korn or Linkin Park did - Mike Patton's vocal stylings over a pretty great alternative rock song and Chuck D rapping over a metal song are basically a chocolate bar dipped in peanut butter, and while looking back at the origins of a Peanut Butter Cup may be more interesting than a Peanut Butter Cup, it still doesn't make it a Peanut Butter Cup4. Plus, no one but rock critics(and I guess Scott Ian) consider them rap metal in any conventional sense).

Even a decade later, the record holds up, certainly much better than most rap metal. I don't think it's a coincidence Kid Rock remains, at least commercially(and culturally, if you aren't a stick-in-the-ass snob) relevant, while Fred Durst5 and whoever the fuck was in Crazy Town have become musical footnotes.

The Kid's use of hard rock, country and blues is probably why Mike and Steve could listen to Devil but still mock Live. Kid Rock was an unserious theatrical hard rocker, much like a band both Mike and Steve loved, KISS.

I'd never really been exposed to KISS. Mike - appalled - played "Christine Sixteen"(a favorite because his girlfriend's name was Christine, though she was not sixteen). KISS had a constant presence in our office soundtrack after that.

I can't imagine an office as loud as ours was, and I'm surprised we got away with it as long as we did. Mike played Danzig6, Iron Maiden, and pre-Black-Album Metallica. Steve played Megadeth, Guns N Roses and even some Slayer. Cathy's office shared one wall with our space, as did RJ's. I think the breaking point was when I cranked Metallica's S&M one day, in attempt to prove to Mike and Steve that Metallica could still kick ass(not sure how I thought exhibiting Metallica's willingness to play with an orchestra would accomplish this goal). "Master Of Puppets", live with a string section, was apparently all the non-metal faction of the office could take. We were asked to use headphones from that point on(though Cathy still got to play the soundtrack from The Lion King - the only album she seemed to own - whenever and as loud as she wanted).

We (mostly) obeyed the headphones rule, until we go the idea to move all of our cubicles into the unused, far end of the office. HSA originally envisioned twenty plus developers working at the Hunt Valley location, so we had a lot of empty space. In a room meant for a dozen or more Ron Livingstons, the three of us took up residence and resumed playing our music.

After we ran through everyone's CDs, we discovered something that would make spending the summer of 1999 stuck behind a desk much more bearable: Napster.

In the (barely) pre-iPod days, Napster was a godsend. All of a sudden, Metal, Pop, Hip-Hop, R&B, Soul, Punk, Oldies, whatever the hell Wesley Willis was doing; all of it was bouncing off our cheap cubicle walls. Almost any song we wanted, instantly(and being 1999, the office was the only source of broadband for most of us, making it a privilege unique to work).

We put the "any song" aspect of Napster to the test, downloading obscure one-hit wonders, commercial jingles, themes from 70s sitcoms, and the demented spoken-word of William Shatner. One afternoon, we did all cartoons and I played the theme from Ducktales to trump Mike's Chip N Dale's Rescue Rangers. Steve followed with Alvin and the Chipmunks, and Mike countered with GI-Joe. I think it ended with me playing the opening song from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

On another afternoon(we must have been very productive in the morning) we had a contest to see who could download a song so bad, so offensive to the ears that the rest of the office would crack. It started off with annoying but bearable pop like "Pass the Dutiche" and "Ninja Rap", before Mike went to the nuclear option and played Color Me Badd's "I Wanna Sex You Up".

Steve bounded from his desk to behind Mike's and violently snatched the power cord of Mike's speakers out of the socket, almost pulling the twin units down off the desk. Mimicking an umpire calling a runner safe, Steve said "You win dude, you win! NEVER, EVER play that again!"

Looking back, I can see the RIAA's point of view - Napster made digital thievery incredibly easy. Within days, every one of us had a library of music on our hard drives that was at least as big as our CD collections at home. And, befitting the times, none of us really saw a problem with this. Record labels gouged us on CDs, TicketMaster held a monopoly on concerts(despite Eddie Vedder's best, mumbling efforts), and out of all this greed Shawn Fanning appeared and offered us a way to stick it back to the man. The faceless, damnable man.

Still, I think we all knew, deep down, that it was just like going into Tower Records and walking out the door with the A-L Rock section one day, then coming back for the box sets(and some Blues, why not?) the next. Which is why, when Metallica(and Dr. Dre) announced their lawsuit, I sided with the band. I was the only one in the office to do this.

Now, I hadn't downloaded any Metallica, so that made my cognitive dissonance a little easier to ignore. Mike and Steve had, however, and they mocked me endlessly for my (albeit, mostly hypocritical)position. They already considered Metallica a past-their-prime, lame mainstream version of the former glorious eighties incarnation. The lawsuit only gave them more ammunition7.

Ironically, I was the only person whose Napster account was banned after Metallica turned over a list of users they said had illegally downloaded their music. So, for the five minutes it took to set up a new Napster account, Metallica had prevented me from doing something I hadn't done anyway.

Being my first office job, adjusting to the nine to five world was a little awkward. The Commute didn't help. And it deserves proper noun status, as The Commute was epic. From my apartment in College Park, getting to HSA in Hunt Valley required going through not only the Capitol Beltway(the suicide circle around DC, also known as 495) but also the Baltimore Beltway before finally ending(sort of) north of Baltimore, just before the border with Pennsylvania(in fact, Steve lived in Pennsylvania, and had a shorter commute than me). My drive could be anywhere from 45 minutes to over two hours. As such, getting to work "on time" became very subjective, at least from my point of view. As long as my work got done, who really cared?

Unfortunately, that's not how the working world(even at a start-up, apparently) works8. One morning I overslept, and combined with a slower-than-usual Beltway made me very, very late. RJ lit into me when I got into the office. At first I didn't think he was serious(I'm not used to people being mad at me, so when someone is, I assume they're joking), but then he threatened to have security escort me out.

In peril of being escorted to my Saturn by the short, balding and elderly security guard, I left. That was Friday. I went straight to UMCP and re-enrolled, thinking that it was something I could now afford to do. My family seemed(relatively) better. Monday, I quit.

Looking back, I needed that. RJ's humiliation of me in front of my co-workers taught me that, no matter what, don't give the boss a reason to be mad at you. Learn what time you are expected to be somewhere, and be there. No excuses. The fact that I was getting all of my work done didn't matter in the work-world context; the fact that I wasn't at my desk at nine(consistently) did. I still had, largely, a school-work mentality that doesn't cut it in the real world. I see it a lot at work today in some of the recent graduates we hire - some are notoriously unreliable when it comes to deadlines(some are notorious ass-kissers, and I'm not sure which is worse). The experience helped turn me into a more mature worker(depending on who you ask).

My academic come-back attempt didn't last long, though. My rash decision proved ill-informed: working part-time wasn't going to cut it as my family still needed a full-time income. So, a few months later, I was back at HSA asking RJ for my job back. I didn't get it.

I actually did well most of that quarter, but when I realized I wouldn't be back, I stopped showing up to classes. My father begged me to keep going, to gut it out for the grades(that I didn't think would ever matter) - maybe he did it out of guilt. Young, angry, and stupid, I just didn't care. Like cutting yourself to show someone how much they are hurting you, failing all of my classes was an adolescent, fucked-up way to get back at my parents.

I don't totally regret it, but it definitely wasn't the smartest thing I ever did. Eventually, I found another job.

Working with my father.

1My interview and the accompanying test I took to get the job was laughable by today's web standards: Table-based layout, Netscape was still a force, Internet Explorer was just beginning to take a foothold and FireFox didn't exist. We barely used CSS. JS took a backseat to Perl and other CGi-based scripting. People thought ColdFusion would be the next big thing. We were dancing without music.

2This is a rarity in the industry these days, as roles have become more specialized. At least outside of freelance work.

3"Bad-ass" usually means it has a crunching power-chord filled riff.

4I obviously wrote this while either a)hungry and/or b) stoned. I leave it up to the reader's imagination.

5For all the beatings Fred Durst has taken since Rap Metal imploded, at his peak, he was cool enough to have the Wu Tang Clan(an act with an abundance of credibility) guest on "Rolling (Urban Assault Vehicle)" on Chocolate Starfish And The Hot Dog Flavored Water. I listen to this track when I exercise, it's a real heart-pumper. DMX also makes an appearance. I wonder if Fred ever hears from any of them anymore.

6This was before the first X-Men movie, and Mike and I loved to speculate on a "dream cast". Patrick Stewart had already been mentioned as Professor Xavier, but no one had ever heard of Hugh Jackman. Mel Gibson was a popular fanboy Wolverine pick, but after seeing pictures of a ripped Danzig, I agreed with Mike that the runty, stocky and scary looking former Misfit was a perfect Logan.

7I've written about the Metallica/Napster debacle in my review of Death Magnetic, so I won't get into it here

8Except it does, at least in advertising, where I now work. When I first started, I showed up at 8:30 for a week before I realized hardly anyone came in before 10.


nasir awan said...

Fashion is never in crisis because clothes are always necessary.

Ian said...

the liner notes for that Color Me Badd CD is one of the most amazing documents ever produced. Plus it makes phenomenal craps music. Haters love to hate, but it ain't all that difficult to convert 'em