A Hungry Man
Me: poor and broke, alone, thirty-one-years-old and only just finishing as an undergrad at a third-rate Pennsylvania state college, no work experience except comforting my mom before she passed. A man with no connections, and even if I did have contacts they'd be back in Philly, and I'd be stuck going up and down Lincoln Drive to 176 for the remainder of my life, East River Drive or West, cursed to pass the same buildings (windows, façades, steps), the same people (skin, breath, voices), the same damn trees (spruce, popular, pine) and streets to match (Spruce, Poplar, fucking Pine) over and again and more, stuck in a city that was a tidal pool, never swimming down the Schuylkill past that net by the Art Museum or floating serenely along the Delaware into oceans beyond. And this meant pain and anger and fear because me was also: ambition and the desperation dreams create.
So there, within despair, six months from graduation and my impending fall back into the Delaware Valley, I was walking under the dusty fluorescent lights of the marketing department of the university that had promised, but was not providing, my career in advertising. I listened to the slow methodical thump of my soles on the gray linoleum, and that sound as it died against the cinder block walls. I was going to see my advisor, to plead with the small balding man who chewed the backs of ten-cent pens with such ferocity that while you tried to pump him for information on internships, job opportunities, or recommendations, your voice was given a background of spittle,slurp, and crunch. So I was walking down a public school hall knowing: this is not a place that provides futures. I was walking towards nothing really at all. It was there where I happened to glance at the cheerily colored Job Board, giving myself a moment's reprieve from frustration by looking at the sea of glossy ads for military enrollment, ghetto schoolteaching, up to $400 a week envelope stuffing, federally auctioned used cars (starting at just $1) and bulk-rate spring break vacations. I was just about to pull away a brochure for the chance to win a new motorcycle when, at the bottom of the scarred corkboard, I saw it. Below the multitude of glossy false hopes, a strikingly plain white sheet of paper was flapping around in the wind provided by the correctional facility fan blowing down the hall, dancing for me at the bottom of an otherwise still wall. A white sprite of light into my ever darkening abyss.
I got on my knees to see it, pulling it straight from its folded, envelope-fitting form to see what secret it was trying to conceal. There was a picture on it, black and white, blurred. It could have been me: the back of an upturned head, of a shirt collar showing as a white band above a gray suit and beyond, in the gaze of its unseen face, towers of skyscraper glass. It looked as if he could reach out to them, palm their tops like pre-dunked balls. Over his shoulder, hanging like an urban palm tree, was a street sign. The way it was turned, one of the streets was indiscernible, but the other shined back at me in big letters that said it all: Madison Ave. Can you make it here? read the caption. Create a new and invigorating advertising campaign for an existing product, and you could find yourself working at one of the nation's top advertising firms.
The contest, where pauper and prince were on equal footing. The only way that the pauper got to be king. And I knew, as I tipped the notice from the wall, staple included, that I could be Arthur in this story. So clearly sent to me, this challenge, my trumpeted escape. I wasn't even discouraged when I saw that the postmark due date was the following day, because I understood that miracles worked that way.
I spent nearly four hours in the CostSaver behind campus, breathing too loud, staring at shelves on top of shelves on top of shelves as if I had lost something there (on the packaging, on the labels, between the words), dodging prime Middle American consumers as they awkwardly pushed their gluttonous carts. A security guard, female, caucasian, approximately 5'4", followed me for a while, stared down from the top of the aisle as I tried to ignore her blue form in my vision's periphery, making me nervous the way cops can. But then she got bored, approached me slowly, and asked me what I was up to, then left me alone with all those products and the realization that I didn't know what I should be doing and that staring at poorly packaged detergents and cosmetic aids, bland potato chips and inedible jerky treats, wasn't helping. I had gained nothing and lost time.
I retreated to the fruit and vegetable section, away from the barrage of packaging and merchandise. Trying to slow my breath and concentrate on something besides failure, I watched artificial rainforest showers cover the produce with transparent beads every twelve minutes, knowing that I didn't have time to flounder. It was already night, going on late night, and then it would be morning, and then the day would be gone and so would my life, my chance at an exit from the empire of mediocrity. Or maybe my destiny was never to break free at all. But I knew that was wrong, that I could do this, because it was the only thing I could do. For all the assets I lacked (work experience, money, a family, decent clothes, athletic skills, charm, self-confidence, a background that was middle class), I knew that I had been given one great power: the ability to see things the way others couldn't, or more specifically, as others did but were unable to articulate, identify. I had the power to infect others with my own desire. Nostalgia for outdated fantasies, bottled guest-passes to oblivion or the idea of Pure Fun, I could sell it to you and make you like it, make you think you'd been begging for it all the time. All I had to do to make you want something was fall in love with it first. Then, surrounded by the purity of the products of nature, love came to me. I saw the essence of perfection. And I realized, in a blur of Philly logic, what better to pimp then perfection itself?
It sat before me. A divine gift complete with heavenly packaging: shining Technicolor skin porous like an old drunk's nose and perfectly formed around a product that you could rip apart with your hands to reveal the bite-size pouches of flavor within, the entire structure forming into one graceful orb. And I knew I could take this creation from the most accomplished product designer in the universe, God, and make even perfection greater than it was before. I, the vegetative alchemist, was to bear life (mine) from the common orange. A simple orange. A fucking orange.
That was the pitch, the vision: an ad campaign for the orange, presenting it in a light which the public would cry for, broadening its target consumer base beyond health freaks and concerned moms. This was the challenge. Despite all the orange's attributes, the product was still neglected at the back of supermarkets, a forgotten hopeful of the impulse buy. It was not glorious fruit that the late-night drunks and insomniacs entering convenience stores reached for, but the imperfect creations of man. The fried, salted vulgarities, bubbled from oil and thick with its fat. The glucose-encrusted chocolate kibble treats, leaving fecal-like smudges across their mouths and brown caloric mud in the unbrushed crevices of their rotting teeth. I understood (giddy and grabbing at the pile of oranges in a search of a perfectly round orb rich in the color that named it) what was missing as well: the calculated feeling of transgression modern products imply. The illicit excitement of biting something naughty, a prepackaged revolutionary freedom.
Four P.M. the next day. Sweating, disheveled and sour, I held the finished product in my hands: a portfolio filled with the print ads, packaging design, and market analysis that would start a dietary revolution. I couldn't stop looking at the photos of my creation. Didn't my orange look so utterly marketable in its clear plastic wrapper? Didn't you know that if you reached for it on a store shelf it would crinkle in your hand, calling to you in treble whispers, Take me with you, devour me, there is no greater pleasure than the life inside?
In one photo I caught an image that showed that this creation was living, on fire, urgent. Two female hands (thank God for undergrads who sit in libraries eager for any odd excuse to walk away from books too big to be carried with them), fingers long and brown ripping through the fleshes: peel, encasing, pulp. Oh the mist, nearly invisible in real time and noticed more in the snapping away of her head as eyes squint, sweet acid like sunborne pepper spray. The frozen image revealed an orange ball exploding away from itself, shaped like an orchid beginning its bloom, with skinny hands as orgasmic midwives bearing witness to the wet scream of citric love.
When I took the final work, my images, my impromptu creations, to the post office (4:50 P.M., please let me in the door), I was thinking, This is it; I won. This was the product. They would make me the Prince of Florida; even my offspring would be destined to reign.
Slapping it with the spit side of the stamps, I was already planning the first prize, five thousand bucks and a guaranteed position at one of three Madison Avenue firms. All I wondered was, Which one? Because it had to happen. Broad Street and Market could no longer stand as my east-west, north-south. I was going somewhere, my game was starting. I included my picture in the package as well, as the application had asked for. It was me smiling into the digital camera at five A.M., Friday morning. Yes, slightly disheveled, naps ablaze, but staring into the camera with that kill-stink of victory. At the postal box I pulled the door open and let my message be swallowed into its benevolent blue gut. And then it was patience time. Glory be to me for I am the creator.