They came in limousines and party buses. They came in big, shiny Rolls Royces, BMW coupes, and Cadillac SUVs, and on foot, their chauffeurs dropping them off in front of the tiki torches and candle lanterns that formed a snaking line toward the faux drawbridge, which connected the front lawn with the rest of the property. It seemed to extend for miles. As vibrant balloons floated across tennis courts toward a serene pond with an ornate wooden boat docked at the edge and the late afternoon breeze picked up from Mecox Bay, I imagined myself at one of Jay Gatsby’s parties.
The guest list at this one comprised the credits from a Steven Soderbergh film: Richard Gere, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Meryl Streep. It was as if the entire world was at Sandy Gallin’s estate on Sagaponack Road—even Martha Stewart, who was beaming like an air stewardess along her comeback trail. This was Bridgehampton on July 4, 2007, before Bernie Madoff was a household name, before terms like Ponzi scheme and recession were etched into American consciousness—before occupy was capitalized. Luxury had no limit at the fourteen-acre compound; champagne popped every minute, and to me, everyone was swimming in it.
When I turned twenty-eight, I was living in my parents’ home in New Jersey. I had lived in North Bergen, Bethlehem, Buckingham, London, San Francisco, Hoboken, Jersey City, Miami, Brooklyn, Rio de Janeiro, and, for a brief time, Buenos Aires. Now I lived with my parents, sleeping in the bedroom of my childhood. And when I graduated from Fordham’s Master’s program in English literature one month later, I was looking for jobs, distributing my résumé and all my credentials—listing them one by one in bullet points—transcribing my life onto two pages, single-spaced and double-sided. Looking for a position.
I was realizing that maybe nothing would ever be good enough. Realizing that perhaps I never wanted it in the first place: the conventions and markers that make life countable, measurable—a life taken slow, and regularly, like vitamins. The things in life that give life meaning, or else squeeze all the meaning out.
And now I am looking.
This is the price I paid for never wanting to grow up, or at least never wanting to grow up like everyone else—riding the escalator of life, until the escalator stopped moving.
Ocupar. What a verb. To take, fill, hold, take up, take over, engage, employ. Occupy. Occupations. To be occupied. To occupy one’s self.
Newsrooms, runways, showrooms, television studios in New York City and Los Angeles, and the stop-and-go traveling schedule that accompanies it; broke for six months until the residual check arrives, or a phone call places you in Hong Kong or Rio or the Czech Republic—as phone calls often do—to occupy your vacancy. The more I tried to focus on my writing, to distance myself from the fashion industry, the more successful of a model I became. It was as if everyone knew I was writing about them, and they kept booking me so that I had more to write about.
“What do you do?” I heard one of them say.
Matt Lauer was sitting below me, seated at one of the circular white-clothed tables I had set up hours before he or anyone else had arrived. He was next to a woman I guessed was his wife, and beside them were Katie Couric and Al Roker, and a few other people I had never seen before.
“Would you like a hen-of-the-woods quiche Lorraine?” I asked.
Matt Lauer laughed and repeated his question. “What do you do?”
“Oh, me?” I asked. I had been working spare days as a caterer for a month, but it never occurred to me to actually converse with any of the guests about anything other than nut allergies and aversions to gluten. When he posed the question, I did not consider the possibility that it was directed at me.
“I’m actually a journalist, too,” I said, pausing for a good five seconds, bracing for a bewildered gaze or huff of incredulity. “I write for the Star-Ledger.”
“That’s great,” he said, looking me straight in the eyes and shaking my hand firmly. “I’m Matt. Pleased to meet you.”
“Things are changing, very quickly,” he added, maintaining his news-anchor smile. “This is a big moment for the industry. Big.”
I nodded my head as if I were his co-host, thinking about the lies I had told the sports desk in order to get the evening off.
He raised his flute toward me and smiled again. “What an exciting time to be a journalist.”
Two days later I was standing next to Kathy Lee Gifford in blue Ralph Lauren boxer briefs, chatting her and Hoda Kotb up before we returned from commercials. Both women were spray-tanned and caked in too much makeup, and the smell of shit was still drifting through the studio from the rescue dogs they had featured on the air just moments before.
“Is this your first time on The Today Show?” Kathy Lee asked me, loud and boisterous.
“In my underwear?” I said. “Or ever?”
Both women laughed, and we were live. I strode to my mark, smiled and turned and waved and smiled once more, preparing myself for any adlib—an impromptu jab at my tan line perhaps—or some joking remark from either host.
I wondered if Matt Lauer was watching now.
“I am not married. I don’t know whether mine is a profession, or a trade, or what not … It is not one but legion, I will give you some of the monster’s heads. I am a Schoolmaster – a private Tutor, a Surveyor – a Gardener, a Farmer – a Painter, I mean a House Painter, a Carpenter, a Mason, a Day-Laborer, a Pencil-Maker, a Glass-paper Maker, a Writer, and sometimes a Poetaster.”
—A letter from Henry Thoreau to his graduating class at Harvard, 1847.
Across from Memorial Park Cemetery on a mostly nondescript Dewberry Avenue in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is a retirement community called Kirkland Village. A helpful sign points you past its circuitous path, past its white gates, and toward the lobby’s big double doors, in case you haven’t been there before or simply have forgotten the way. Inside and up one floor are more signs. Signs pointing to the lavatories, signs pointing to the cafeteria, signs pointing to the recreational room, the garden, the visiting center, the bedrooms. The signs are for the residents, because Kirkland Village is also a senior living facility for Alzheimer’s patients.
When I was twenty-two and finishing my last semester at Lehigh University, I visited Kirkland Village twice a week, engaging the residents in improvised storytelling sessions that involved photos and imagination, not memory. People living with dementia—I had been cautioned—were often bitter, anxious, utterly abject, because they felt they could not contribute anything to society, could no longer make things.
Statistics on depression are difficult to find; everything is an approximation. But it is a common fact that the number of estimated cases surges among recent retirees. What kind of culture produces a class of people who cannot live without working because they have perpetually identified themselves through their roles at work?
Ask anyone what they do, and they will almost always answer with a job title, what they do for money—the “Gospel of Work” converted into the “Gospel of Pay”; two elements of life that were still separate when Du Bois coined them—their livelihood, not what they do for liveliness. Is it any wonder that people equate their work with what they—as the common phrase goes—“do for a living”?
If 1847 was the precursor to a particular culture that revered work above all other things until it became a culture of work, then today we are at the height—on the very precipice—looking down. A glance at the Oxford English Dictionary is revealing. Livelihood, first used in 1566, meant liveliness, and was commonly used until the end of the seventeenth century. Livelihood. “The course of a person's life, lifetime; kind or manner of life; conduct.”
Alongside that definition is the addendum: Obsolete.
“Not quite blond…more of a brunet,” Michael Kors’ fashion coordinator murmured.
“Hmm,” mumbled the woman in charge of casting. She pursed her lips. “Did you stop washing your hair? You stopped washing your hair.”
“Well, what can we do?” the fashion coordinator asked. “What can we do?”
He glanced at his watch and muttered something about needing a blond to even out the show. He was tall and lean and had lank gray hair and a black suit and a skinny black tie. Everyone I saw was wearing black.
“We’re already running late.”
A gangly, tattooed stylist spun the padded chair around so I faced myself in the mirror again. She cocked her head as if considering her options and then vigorously applied thick glue to my hair. I smelled lemon and orange but the word sprawled in cursive on the bottle was honeysuckle.
Above that, it said in big block letters: Animalistic.
Instead, I felt restrained. I was wearing an olive mock turtleneck, a navy spread-collared button-down, a licorice wool cardigan and a dark brown elephant-graph lambskin jacket. And that was only on my torso. This collage of fabric was my first outfit among many on the second day of a mid-afternoon show at Fall Fashion Week, 2007.
The sound of footsteps and people speaking and the voice of Madonna or Lady Gaga growing louder and the crowds buzzing outside and the general sound of city life—buses jamming to a halt, taxis beeping, tires swerving just fifty feet away across Bryant Park—made my head whirl.
I closed my eyes and thought about lines for a future poem.
“…The Heroic Vitalist feels divided against himself, a fact that he sometimes elaborates into a doctrine of double personality. This split is augmented by an apparent dichotomy in his perceived world. He hungers to embrace the world in its totality, but would rather accept its differences than sacrifice any for metaphysical unity.”
—Michael West, Scatology and Eschatology: The Heroic Dimensions of Thoreau’s Wordplay
In the world of fashion, everything recycles. Everything that is new becomes old until it is new again, until time stops running linearly and it seems instead to run in circles. Sooner or later, my thoughts, too, began to move backward. I thought of Thoreau. His reluctance to choose just one job, one occupation, one role; his unwillingness to solidify his splintered self, his unrelenting disassociation between what he did for work and who he was.
Was I doing the same thing?
One Monday morning at my parents’ home, I saw my father striding out of the bedroom, descending the steps two at a time to collect his car keys and head out the door. He was wearing an ironed, white-collared shirt, a burgundy tie, pressed and pleated black pants, black shoes, and a simple black leather belt. It was the antiseptic office outfit that had become—along with the Wall Street Journal at breakfast, the overtime work hours, and the curtailed vacation disguised as leisure—a sort of ritual. He never tired of the formula. In fact, he seemed to relish it more with each passing day.
My father has been a banker for over forty years. He is a man who defines himself by his job. He even met his wife, my mother, at work, where she was employed as a secretary at the same Chemical Bank in New York City in the 1970s, before Chemical Bank bought Chase Manhattan and retained its acquisition’s name, before Chase Manhattan merged with JP Morgan, before any of that sign-and-stamp robo-mortgage business; in short, a lifetime ago.
But I am of a different mold. As are, I suspect, others of my generation, which New York Magazine labeled Generation SAD (Self-Absorbed Delusions) in October, 2011. We’re a generation refusing to believe we’re not in some way singular, somehow unique. I do not want to be defined by my job, by what it is I do to make money. After all, what does that phrase, making a living, even mean? I often heard it from my father, usually in a tone of caution and counsel, particularly when I had quit my job at the Star-Ledger on the final Wednesday of 2009, after nearly three years of working evenings and weekends, and was instead relying on underwear campaigns and fitness infomercials, under-five roles on All My Children and One Life To Live (where, fittingly, I was paid to play a long list of roles: cabana boy, bellhop at the Buenos Días Café, Confusion bartender, et cetera) to pay my rent. It had occurred to me as strange and certainly illuminating that I had made more money shooting Puma for one day than I did in a month working as a sports copy editor and reporter at one of the largest newspapers in the nation. But that did not prevent the bewildered glances or befuddled responses when the things I did for fun—all of them—collided.
“What are you doing here?” a stage manager on set at ABC asked me after she had casually inquired in between takes if I was still in school, and I had answered that I had already graduated the spring before.
Why was I there? The fast pace, the excitement, the general air of glamour, the extra money? I did not know and doubtless ever will. Everyone knows that news isn’t found in the newsroom, so perhaps I was just looking for it, just trying to make my own story.
I found instead that I preferred to be on the fringe. I was never a part of a place so much as I was in it. Eventually, I began carrying my reporter notepad with me everywhere, even when I wasn’t working, especially when I had quit my journalism job. Other models—or stylists, fashion coordinators, makeup artists, photo assistants, runners—were fascinated when they heard I was a writer. They would ask me how my novel was coming along and I would tell them that I was experiencing a bout of writer’s block but please, keep talking.
Back in the newsroom, my own colleagues slowly stopped taking me seriously altogether. My editor was more interested in my experience shooting Abercrombie & Fitch in Montauk than a pitch for a feature about Cory Booker and the rise of politicians on reality TV. The rest of the sports desk began calling me Clark Kent, and eventually I also started to think of myself as having two separate and parallel identities.
Why was I there? To hear the rhythmic cadence of fingers on keyboard? The peril and thrill of the deadline—all three of them, every night? The comfort of health insurance and a regular paycheck? To recover the romance journalism had radiated to me from the movies and stories I had encountered as a youngster? But this wasn’t the Central Southern Syndicate, and characters like Dick Heldar and Torpenhow were in short supply in the newsroom of the twenty-first century.
When I first started working at the Star-Ledger, I told my editor that modeling was a summer hobby that I had picked up a month before. And when I was inside the Michael Kors tent, some part of me believed that I would never be there again, and I was right, because Fashion Week moved to Lincoln Center the following year, but I was wrong, because I also relocated, and the summer hobby became a year-round activity.
The years passed. Years in which I had become a sports copy editor, a reporter, an actor, a print model, a bartender, a personal trainer, a food blogger, an English literature and fiction writing professor at the City University of New York. When I set it down on paper, it all looked very similar to Thoreau’s letter to his graduating class at Harvard in 1847. He had written it at the advent of the American Industrial Revolution, at a time in which it became necessary for men to sell their services on the market for a role with which they did not fully identify, a time that men, as he declared in Walden, were being simplified by their vocations. “Where,” he asked, “is this division of labor to end?”
I used to envision my life as a beautiful landscape: the half-sheathed sun, the red-bricked house, the garden, the grove, the green grass, the lush trees and leaves and peaks. The stray dogs and cats and kites. The sky. And everything remains there, as if it were a still life, as if it were half-finished, or worse—maybe already done. As if everything would be filled in some other time. Or not at all. Or never.
Unless I could paint it all myself.
Chris Campanioni seeks to blur boundaries. He has worked as a journalist, model, and actor, and he currently teaches literature and creative writing at the City University of New York. He was awarded the Academy of American Poets Prize at Lincoln Center in 2013, and his novel, Going Down, was selected as Best Debut Novel for the International Latino Book Awards. His writing has recently appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Red Savina Review, theNewerYork, Vending Machine Press, Across the Margin, Squawk Back, Control Literary, and Fjords Review. Find him in space here: www.chriscampanioni.com.