by Phillip Scott Mandel
From Fall 2018
“So why don’t you just go work at the Starbuck?” my mother said one day, clearly exasperated by what she perceived to be chronic loafing.
“She can work in my mailroom,” my father replied, as if I wasn’t sitting right there.
I was finishing my Lucky Charms and reading a special report in The Economist, “Employment Outlook For Millennials, 2019-2020.” It had been a year since tilting at Stanford windmills and I’d applied to every internship in town.
Then, as an afterthought, he said, “Well, actually we don’t really have a mailroom anymore.”
That same afternoon I found an ad online, the possible solution to all my problems, seemingly legit, if a bit cryptic:
Full-time, perm position at fast-growing, bleeding-edge music tech startup. Must l_o_v_e music (esp. DRAKE), have entrepreneurial spirit, wear many HATs, desire to wurk in high-presh environment. Company confidential.
Love Drake? “Started from The Bottom” is my go-to Karaoke song.
Entrepreneurial spirit? “Lemonade stand” is my middle name.
Hats? My hair frizzes at the mere mention of humidity.
During the short video interview, which I took from my childhood bedroom, seated at the same desk upon which I’d studied for the SATs and written scores of essays about Jane Eyre and Beloved, their recruiter asked me only two questions: Where did I see myself in five years, and what is my greatest weaknesses? I told him that (hopefully) I’d be a successful Senior Music Associate at his company, (ha-ha), and that sometimes I just work too hard.
He was wearing a short-sleeve brown shirt with a tie and was very animated, almost twitchy. “You can never work too hard here,” he assured me. “We’re all about that extra mile.” Then he pounded a little bottle of 5-hour Energy in one long gulp.
“So what’s the catch?” my father asked me. Every now and again I would catch him muttering the phrase, “Two hundred thousand,” and shaking his head, as if in disbelief. Sometimes it was a question into the air: “Two hundred thousand?” and other times it was an admonishment to a random household object, wagging his finger at a picture frame: “Two hundred! Two hundred thousand!”
I think he was thinking about my college tuition bill.
“I don’t think there is one,” I said, though I did find it strange there was no follow up interview.
“There’s always a catch,” he said.
A week later I received a basket of rotting fruit in the mail. The day after that I got a text from a blocked number: a link to secure website, from whence I downloaded the offer letter.
Of course I accepted. The only sticking point I could find, really, was that the company was located somewhere mysterious in the Utah high desert, and I worried it might get boring and lonely out there (plus I’m agoraphobic). All sky and mountain, oxygen and cacti. But then again, with a bunch of millennial go-getters invading the small town of Server City, Utah (pop. in 2000: 24; pop. in 2019: 2,500 and counting), I figured we’d be spending our free time hiking for dinosaur fossils and skiing in the Rockies, browsing avant-garde artist’s galleries, quaffing craft beers during happy hour and brunching at all the hip spots some opportunistic restaurateurs and barkeeps would no doubt open up.
I was so wrong. So very wrong.
But they offered a $9,000 signing bonus plus 100 shares of equity, vested over ten years, equating to roughly 0.00000001% ownership of the company, and an economy-level ticket on their company jet, a neon green aircraft upon which was painted, in garish, bright yellow script, the quixotic phrase, “Infinite Melodic Pleasure.”
My flight was full of fifty other naïve young eager beavers from the Bay Area, some already wearing the new company uniform: a mortarboard hat, polo shirt, and rather ill-fitting pleated slacks. In between several complimentary Heinekens I spied at least three newly-acquainted pairs of “junior bees” taking turns sneaking into the airplane lavatory to copulate.
At Provo Municipal Airport we were met by a champagne-stocked, leather-seated coach bus. “Hotline Bling” was pumping from the stereo and a couple of us bipped our knees and raised the roof. On each assigned seat was a placard with our name, a random city, (mine said Cincinnati) and the phrase “Musik Macht Frei,” which I learned means “Music sets you free.” The driver took us onto a ten-lane Interstate Highway and I began to get sleepy, as he whisked us away, away, away—past the inimitable azure horizon, into a land of brown dirt and scrub brush, where those gorgeous mountains weren’t even a memory.
I lost track of my cohort pretty quickly, which made me terribly lonely and depressed, because I had never been very popular and I found it difficult to make new friends.
Company policy is no talking during work hours, but the job keeps you so busy you wouldn’t be able to say much if you could.
Because it truly is all about that extra mile.
You know when you dial up a song on your phone, and it seems to play out of thin air? Like magic, right? You think humans actually invented that shit? Our Corporate PR team would have our customers believe the songs are “digitized” and “uploaded” in the “cloud,” which we “stream” down to you via “satellite.”
Think about that for a second.
A satellite, just floating up there in space? Really? Just flying in the air, and not falling down? Have you ever seen a satellite, IRL? Of course not.
How do you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? (PB&J is served daily for breakfast and lunch, BTW. Dinner – which we receive four days a week – is one soft-boiled egg.) You take two slices of bread and slather on peanut butter and jelly with a knife. Real, physical objects. You don’t “download” it fully-formed from the “cloud.”
There is no fucking cloud.
No. There is an army of Junior Music Associates and Senior Music Associates (the latter of whom are furnished with a low-voltage Taser to “motivate productivity”) sprinting around a server farm, loading records onto millions of turntables, one for each person who subscribes to the service. Why do you think they charge so much for a subscription?
You skip a song and there’s a bit of “loading” time, right? You think that’s the data, “streaming?” Does that even make sense, you fool?
No. It’s an anemic, bedeviled Junior Music Associate like me, hustling to get your album on the turntable and find the track, hoping not to fingerprint the vinyl in the process—Severe Disciplinary Action (SDA) with the Taser is meted out for such errors—then running to clear the next song. The queue only gets longer.
And if you ever stoop to take a break and listen? Instant SDA. That’s the worst part of the job, not being able to enjoy a song as you hear the first tremblings from the stylus. You have to learn to live in your head around here.
The company HAT (Head-Affixed Turntable) is a twelve-inch square, laser-needled to reduce friction, the exact size of a standard 33-RPM vinyl LP. Add a tassel to it and we’d resemble the college graduates we just recently were, full of clear skin and promise.
It’s SOP to carry the current Top 50 records in your HAT, as these get more air time than all others combined. But if you get a request for something more obscure – Fanny Mendelssohn, Meat Beat Manifesto, or Tremonti, the side project of Creed side project Alter Bridge – then I hope you’re wearing tennis shoes. Because you gotta run, and the warehouse is vast. Enormous metal ceiling fans keep the oxygen circulating and the air conditioning is set to sixty-three, which is good because you do not want to your HAT to slips off your sweat-slickened hair (Instant SDA). Thus, the more records you can hold – the more “hats you wear,” so to speak – the better off you are.
That’s why JMAs who are assigned to cities like Portland and Austin, or neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Silverlake – where people compete for the most recherché musical tastes – are the first to vanish. (Like all people my age, I’d grown up listening to music on my phone and computer—but I didn’t know! How could I have known?)
The company recently installed “safety” nets around the radio antennas, the only structures tall enough to warrant jumping from, and each net is sponsored by our largest advertisers: the Nike swoosh is spray-painted on one, the Aflac duck on another. If you’re determined enough, I suppose, you can starve yourself (though I’ve heard tell of forced feeding tubes), or bite off your tongue and bleed out, as they haven’t resorted to removing our teeth. Yet.
Server City is probably a boring town, but I haven’t been out to explore.
You see, you can’t rent your own apartment, because none we ever built, so instead you’re assigned an egg-shaped “bunk” to sleep in on your first day. Rows and rows of them are stacked, like the honeycombs of a bee’s nest, each with a little cubbyhole to store company-provided toiletries and uniforms (all personal items, including phones, are confiscated during Orientation). You can decorate it, if you choose, with pictures provided by our corporate partners, and I have taped to my wall ads for Hydroxycut, Comcast, and Equifax. The Comcast one is especially precious to me because it has a picture of a nice-looking family and their Labrador, which reminds me somewhat of Apollo, my Miniature Schnauzer. My domicile is Flat 8-811C-DMG, in the “District of Marvin Gayedens.”
A soft, atonal bleeping chirps non-rhythmically from a small speaker on the door, and upon GLO (General Lights Out) at 21:00 each night, the cacophony of shrieks and screams pierces through this alien non-music, loud enough to shake the building to its foundation. This place was apparently built during the Cold War to withstand a Soviet thermonuclear strike, though, so to the outside world, I suppose, we’re silent as a tomb.
I’m assigned to the suburbs of Cincinnati, a place I’ve never been to but have come to know very well. I can carry the Top 50 pop and the Top 50 country albums in my HAT without toppling over – thanks mom and dad for twelve years of ballet lessons – so I have it relatively easy.
They give us two hours of free time every month to check in with parents and friends, though the calls are recorded and emails censored. Care packages are dumped in a large receiving hall and usually picked clean before the intended recipient can even get to them. We get an hour of Rec Time in the yard on Sunday mornings, and a dram of rum for Thirsty Thursdays. To celebrate quarterly earnings they throw a social mixer—a dry disco DJ’d by Dramatic Rhapsody Algorithm Knowledge Engine (woe to those who still believe in that mythical paragon of music known as “Drake,” who is about as real as Santy Claus or the Easter Bunny), and paid for by one lucky corporate underwriter. Voluntary sterilization is encouraged.
Alex, he wants to quit. He is my only confidant here, and after midnight we communicate using prison tap code, a five by five Polybius square wherein the Roman Alphabet is distributed evenly: the first knock representing the row, the second knock representing the column. C and K are the same (1, 3).
SUNSHINE AND WIND ON YR FACE
I tap back.
When you have to knock each letter out on the wall it’s more expedient to use contractions and shorthand when possible. It took weeks to learn my comrade’s full name is Alejandro Malcolm Sanchez-Aguilar, he’s from Rancho Santa Margarita, California, and his favorite bands are Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin, …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, and Godspeed! You Black Emperor.
RCK N MRTY GME O THRNS WLKNG DED
He taps. I tap back,
SMPSNS WSTWRLD MY DOG APOLLO
I know we really shouldn’t tap what we miss, it’s too painful to keep bringing it up. But he started doing it one day, and I’d rather keep the conversation going than not. But in truth, he’s too sentimental, my poor Alejandro.
It’s dangerous to remain attached.
We’ve spent hours describing ourselves, every inch of our bodies and personalities, because we’ve never seen or talked to each other in the flesh: his shift starts earlier than mine, and he works in Sector B, covering Detroit, spinning a heavy mix of Eminem, Motown, and ICP. A plum sinecure, all things considered.
I’ve tried all manner of schemes to get out of my bunk to see him, but they’ve all been thwarted: one day I called security to use the bathroom and they told me to use my chamber-pot (sponsored by Ocean Spray Cranberry Cruisers®); I complained of “womanly problems,” and a giant cotton tampon was soon shoved underneath the door. My last attempt backfired mightily—trying light my mattress on fire—as they removed all of my furniture for something like a month (it’s actually kind of difficult to keep track of time here), and I had to sleep on the unnervingly warm and spongey floor.
One day Alex taps:
WANT OUT NOW CANT WAIT ANY LNGR
I tap back,
I WILL QUIT
BUT U SGND CNTRCT
THEN LET THEM FIRE ME
He’s practically banging on the wall, and his taps are bold and brave, almost sexy in their aggressiveness. But we both know nobody at this company ever gets fired.
Tonight Alex knocks on my wall, as always. A new crop of JMAs has just been onboarded, and the shrieking is louder than usual. It’s weird to think I’ve almost gotten used to it.
Other than our nightly conversations, which have become quite sexually explicit, the days are identical and tedious. The only way to mark the change of seasons is by which song Dramatic Rhapsody Algorithm Knowledge Engine is playing through the loudspeakers in the server room, and today Rezső Seress is on repeat, so it must be a Sunday in winter. Anyone who opts to work on Sunday gets time and a half, and, unsurprisingly, 100% of our workforce is volunteered.
FNLLY GOT MTG TMRW W HUMAN RESOURCES
GOOD LUCK. BE CAREFUL
I then add,
The next night I knock on my wall,
I stare at the new ad I taped to the other wall, for NutriSystem. The woman in the ad looks happy, if a bit malnourished. We don’t have mirrors and I wonder what I look like? Haggard? Hot? I know I’ve lost weight since starting the job, so I suppose that’s a benefit.
For a long time, there is no reply.
DUDE ALEX HOW DID YOUR MEETING GO
More time goes by, and I can feel my heart racing.
I’m having a panic attack. I don’t know what I’m going to do without him. I will kill myself.
I knock again and again, and, finally, he knocks back, weakly and slowly.
SRY IM SAD I REASSGND
Bushwick. Epicenter of loathing. Bands nobody’s ever heard of, nor would ever want to. Despite myself, I start crying. It’s over.
I LOVE YOU
Mondays are exhausting, what with everyone “streaming” music on their commutes to work. At night I lay in bed, footsore and knees aching, and I tap on my wall again a little hello kiss to Alex.
There is no answer. I wait, then tap again.
BABE. I’M HORNY.
It’s not true, but it usually gets a response. Nothing.
I wait and tap again and again, and pretty soon I’m pounding my entire body against the wall, smashing myself until my fingers are broken and my shoulders dislocated, my forehead gashed and blood seeping into my eyes.
There’s nothing to do but stare into the darkness until sleep takes me.
I’m not sure how long I’m asleep when I’m awakened by a soft scratching. My eyes scream open and I knock back.
TALK TO ME
I knock a few more times, but it’s useless. My door is locked from outside, and I hear shuffling, then a stiff banging several times against the wall, then a scream, then silence.
My poor Alejandro.
It isn’t wise to stay attached.
I wonder if my new neighbor will know prison code.
Not long after this an email comes through from my parents: they’ve sold the house, the one I grew up in, because my father has been unexpectedly laid off from his job. A total shock, they write. We think it has something to do and the rest of the sentence is redacted.
I can’t help but wonder.
To be perfectly honest, the bleeps aren’t that annoying. They’re kind of soothing, actually. And the food could be worse. I’ve heard tell we’re getting steakums on Mondays and Fish Sick Fridays.
My new neighbor doesn’t know prison code, obviously. Or maybe he only has stumps for hands. That’d be funny. But it’s fine. Tapping is sort of for babies anyway. I don’t even miss Alex that much. Truth is, I’m hoping to get promoted to Senior Music Associate after my one-year anniversary, tasting those first sweet ten shares. SMA’s get a new Head Affixed Turntable, disc-shaped like a shtreimel but without the fur. You get an extra dollar per hour and a glass of orange juice with breakfast, and you get to wear a sponsored pin on your lapel. Your job is much easier, too: all you do is go around picking up unsleeved records that careless MA’s drop in their haste, and you get to mete out SDA (Severe Disciplinary Action) with your Taser whenever and however you see fit.
I’m actually kind of stoked.