Chapter One: Chains & Other Reactionaries. My New York Felony.
First of all, and it has to be said, I'm in love with C.J. Craig. That's right. It's true. C.J., I know you're out there and I know you know who you are. Even when, and possibly more especially because the last thing I heard you utter after I said something about jumping off a cliff, was something about a baby on crack followed by a "cool..." which you said with a flute-like, whispy tone that made me hoot. What?! Yes. Crack babies galore. Of course I mean someone dressed up like Allison Janney as she plays C.J. - White House Press Secretary and finally Chief of Staff - on The West Wing. If you met this NotAllisonJanney person in real life - and I hope you will be or have been lucky enough to do so - she'd look somewhat differ'nt.
So that's that. C. & J. A good combo.
Also before I begin, I’d like to make reference to something my mission president said all those years ago in Germany. If you aren’t a Mormon, surely you are familiar with the fact that Mormons send men and women both young and old out into the world to talk with people about Jesus and the nature of God, etc. Well I was one of those missionaries in the Düsseldorf, Germany mission beginning back in 1990. Yes, I know you can count the years. It means I’m getting old. Anyhoo, back in those days, we’d go to conferences and meetings of varying sizes. The meeting I'm referring to took place in Bonn and it was just after I’d been separated from one of my all-time favorite companions to be the lead companion of a ‘golden’ missionary. Mormon missionaries go in two's - companions. In other missions, they called newbies ‘greenies.’ My mission president in his ceaseless tone of optimism, asked that we call them ‘golden.’ I suppose you could call it silly, but I feel very lucky having had President Edgar and Sister Jane Wolferts as the leaders of my mission. These people are singular gems.
So at this meeting in Bonn, President Wolferts ended with a spiritual thought. In this one, he referred to journeys and their inevitably difficult nature. He used the Israelites, who’d left their bondage in Egypt to wander in the desert for umpteen years, as his example. Those Israelites were not always thrilled with their situation and sometimes pined for the past through romantic lenses. In Exodus 16:3, the Israelites say to Moses, their leader:
Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.
President Wolferts took the thought further on the difficulty of journeys, especially spiritual ones. “It is as if the Lord were saying to the Israelites and to us, ‘If you always stay where it is comfortable, you cannot know me. You will never know me.’ That is the nature of leaving your comfort zone for something you hope will be better.”
The thought has stuck.
What follows is not comfortable. But - as I said to my friend, JP the other day - I’ve taken to the mantra of embracing all the parts of me and my own history. If you want to judge me for it, I suppose that’s your prerogative but I’d be careful. I’ve learned about throwing stones. They always end up coming back to meet you at your own head.
So next up, I'm writing this following a lead. Or, more accurately a leader. Now I've never been particularly great at following a leader, as my friend Khoren with such pointed clarity said to me only just the other day; I've never been a conformist. Such non-conformity has been boon and bane and this story is about both. Also, to the leader bit, like Adolf before me I don't so much want to follow the leader as to BE the leader. It's a childish notion; at least in part. Which, again like Adolf before me, I believe comes from a genuine place of wishing to be known, to feel valid, to feel oh so special. To be free.
Drive drive drive. Peel peel peel. Rush rush rush. Here's how it goes with me, Jason. The actual Jason. If you met me on a real world street I'd look like me. Would you recognize me?
MERYL Ed, why are you writing Jason's story down this path? What is your game? ED I'm writing what has to be written. MERYL Sometimes you need to know when to speak out and when to shut the cluck up. ED Yes, well... be that as it may. I'm writing it. MERYL You're an idiot.
So, as Ed and Meryl discuss the ins and outs of this, let me just keep going...
MERYL La la la la la la la. I'm not listening to you. I don't accept what you say. ED Goody. I'll keep typing then. MERYL La La La Dee Da Da Da... Not listening. Hush. ED Type type type.
My life in New York has been revolutionary. I knew it would be when I came. And I still remember coming out of the American Express office on Park Avenue after my final interview in December of 2006. After Mike, the 'boss,' had reached out his hand to shake mine and welcome me aboard. I bounced across the streets on the phone with my sister, Karla.
"I'm going to be a New Yorker!"
"Woo hooo!" Karla yipped with glee and I skipped down the street, hardly noticing traffic or traffic lights. I quite literally skipped, suit jacket, tie and all.
When I arrived back in Inwood and walked my way down Broadway, I came upon the Tom & Louise gang, who wanted to know what on earth was going on.
"Well?" Tom looked at me. I swear his hands were on his hips and his lips were tightly pursed with a mock-interrogational sternness.
"Well I got the damn job!" Was my answer.
They both cheered and we walked together down the street back to their apartment, where I was staying.
"What a Christmas." This was Louise. "We don't have any money for presents this year, but will you take American Express?" She grinned and yes, indeed, there was a twinkle in those glorious eyes.
I was silent on that one.
We celebrated and rented movies. Then we went to Target for Christmas decorations. Tom had some kind of a meltdown in the store - as much of a melt down as Tom has - and Louise was on it. Now mind you, I'm not sure if this was a performance - part of the T&L show - or an actual melt-down. After years, I don't really think there's a difference. They are who they are, on stage and off. But I think maybe the costumes look differ'nt from one scene to the next. As they do for all of us. It's just, perhaps they are more aware of the costume changes than some of us are.
"Opa. We need to find something to cheer him up." Louise grinned again and we looked for table decorations and trim.
When we came out of the store, we walked down the street and smelled the sweet almonds roasting from a cart next to us. We crossed Broadway and boarded a bus. I sat in the back next to Tom. Louise sat up front.
"Travel isn't what I want to do for the rest of my life." I told him.
"But it's something you can do."
"Yes, I suppose." I didn't like this answer. It was true but it made me feel smaller. Elicited a slight sense of being trapped.
A few weeks earlier, I was talking to Louise over the phone while driving down the street near the Hogle Zoo in Utah. She and Tom were already in New York. Louise said working for Amex could be something to get me in the New York door. This was after I'd submitted my original application and before I flew to the city for my final interview near Christmas.
When we arrived back at the Plummer abode from Target, we set about decorating here and there. Tom asked me to help him mount a heavy, gilded mirror on the wall. It felt important.
After that we watched movies.
My contribution to movie night was The Devil Wears Prada. George W. Bush was still president then and I was convinced some of the subtext was about his administration. Amanda Priestly - Meryl's role - was the W. character.
MERYL Oooh, yummy! (clapping) Yes, yes yes. Duh. I mean, the female paratrooper bit should have been a dead give-away. At least you're plugging it well in this bit of Jason, Ed. ED Uh huh. That's right. I'm glad you approve. Type type type. MERYL La la la. Not listening. ED Female paratroopers. MERYL Yeeeesssss!
So we watched Prada and afterwards Louise said she thought it was about Martha Stewart being marched off to prison to serve her felony sentence. Which is when I piped in about the George W. stuff.
"Well," Tom said about my theory, "It's not something that is readily apparent."
"Subtext never is." Did I say that? I think I said that. Smug little twerp. I want to think I'm smart and it often comes off as smug. Sinkhole smugness. Little did I know.
MERYL (To Jason in the scene) You did not say that! (To Ed) He did not. I said it. Jason isn't even real, Eddie. Don't tell lies through fictional characters. (Leaning over the balcony to Jason) Don't tell lies! ED Type type type. MERYL La la la. Blah blah blah.
So then Tom stepped up to the DVD player and put in a disk. "This is my contribution to tonight's Show & Tell," he said. "The guys in this one are real dick heads."
"Ooh, language." Louise pretended to be offended.
We watched Wedding Crashers.
Louise made a pop of shock during the montage of the two boys sleeping with one woman after another. This made me laugh then, and it makes me laugh now. Especially in hind-sight of another, later conversation with a group of people they'd invited over after church. After that group dwindled down to me and one other person - Shaun - Louise shut the door and came back to the living room, clapping with glee.
"Oh, good. NOW we can talk dirty!" She said it. I'm quoting word for word here.
MERYL Lies. All lies. You're even having your fictional teacher tell lies. What would Mrs. Isaaksen think? Or worse yet, your f.a.t.h.e.r. (in a gruff male voice) Edmund Strasse, you're a liar and a thief. ED Don't give away the ending. Hush. MERYL La la la la la la! ED Type type effity type!
So that was the night after I was hired to work for American Express in their flagship travel office at 374 Park Avenue, New York City, New Friggin York 10022. I had a desk right next to the window. My new, gilded fish bowl.
MERYL Chain? ED Huh? MERYL You just wrote Jason writing 'chain.' I'm asking. You think working with all of those wealthy people and celebrities was a chain? Investing buckets of cash for them and going to their gorgeously appointed parties was a chain? ED In Jason's story he didn't invest their money. Well, I suppose in a way he did. He planned their richly appointed travel and sent them to five-star properties dotting the globe. MERYL Yes, but that's a ruse and you know it, Edmund Strasse. You're side- stepping responsibility for your own story in the name of his fictional one. You and I know you worked for JP Morgan Chase just down the street from that so-called flagship Amex Park Avenue office. And you, the real Edmund, embezzled... ED Hush! MERYL Don't you ever shush me. ED Sorry. You're giving away the damn ending, woman. Let me tell it, will you? Pleeeeezzze? MERYL Fine. La... La... La... ED Danke MERYL Oh shut up.
So I went to work for American Express. I thought I would rise from the ashes of the shambles my life had become in Utah. I had run a travel agency right into the coffin, or the ocean as was the case with me - but that's another story. No, actually it's the same story. Like I said. Chain.
I worked for years in Utah and made buckets of cash selling cruises and travel to increasingly 'discerning' clients. I hit pay dirt when I started selling high-end suites on Norwegian Cruise Lines a couple of months before the sail date. Norwegian had a re-accommodation department whose job it was to fill up the high-end suites and they did it by offering passengers who'd already booked in regular cabins, an upgrade at a deeply reduced rate. Usually $500 a person, which was nothing compared to the $5000-$9000 per person sticker price they marketed these suites at. So I picked up on this and started gambling that I'd get at least one or two suites per sailing, posting them at auction on eBay starting at one dollar. This always started a bidding frenzy and every auction ended at the $3000-$7000 mark. The price they paid was half the sticker price and everyone was happy. I usually cashed in a cool $1000-$3000 on each cabin I sold and the money started piling up. It was a dream. I began working with a particular woman at Norwegian and we looked at schematics of sail dates. The trouble was, I never hired an accountant to keep the books. The other trouble was, I never went in and negotiated a contract with Norwegian Cruise Lines on this particular format of doing business. Without taking things too far off the deep end, I'll just fast-forward to say it ended in not a little debacle when my business died. That ship sank, baby, and it was a glorious death indeed. Complete with a business bankruptcy rep who could rival Amanda Priestly in her determination to do her job, the end of a personal relationship for me, and moving out of a beautiful Victorian house on 2nd Avenue into an apartment on 4th. And obsessing - for the sake of sanity - on photography. And boys.
I was stuck. I spent days trolling the Internet for pretty things to play with and basically going insane in my bedroom. This is a pattern I have reproduced a time or two.
Did I mention that the Victorian house I was living in belonged to the Tom & Louise Plummer gang and that I'd written the rent checks directly from my agency? I'd asked about this and was told that as long as I claimed these funds as personal income on my taxes, it was perfectly fine.
MERYL Trah la la. La dee dah. I'm not listening to this. ED Good. I'm barely breathing at this moment. MERYL I never knew you lived in Utah. ED I didn't. Jason did. I was in New York and then Hawaii and now I'm here. With you. MERYL Mmmmm. Exciting isn't it? ED Riveting. MERYL Mmmmm hmmmm. Yummy. I know a person or - you know - ten million who would do almost anything to be cooped up in this place with their favorite actress in the universe. ED Yes. Thrilling. But you're not real. MERYL Pish. I most certainly... I'll pick up the phone right now and... ED Okay. Okay. You're real as Christmas. You're real as a ticker tape parade. MERYL Well, that's better. But not much. I don't believe what you say, but I know better. You're a liar AND a thief.. ED Yes. Yes. Yes. Type type type.
So I came to New York for a new life here. It had a few hiccoughs. At our family Christmas party one of my family members, whose name shall remain between us, practically stabbed me with words. He just slipped the blade in under my ribs with the quietest of tones about abandoning my problems and how had I managed to get this job. After which I had to go into the bathroom and have a panic attack. I was literally hyperventilating with the guilt of surviving and of trying to move on. I wasn't dead after that ending. After I'd been the cause of so much anger from clients and family. From my mother.
Oh, that's another little detail I haven't yet mentioned. She'd co-signed for a platinum American Express Card - that's right an AMERICAN EXPRESS card - which I'd run up to over 200k in a last-ditch effort to save my business. To be the hero. The hero with my mother's signature at the bottom. Hero indeed.
Luckily for everyone, Amex wrote off that particular bill and went its merry way. And a year later they hired me to come work for them. Idiots. Or not. Idiots like a fox I suppose.
Within a few months of working for them I was the second-highest grossing Amex travel counselor in all of New York. The only person with better numbers than mine was a woman who had been at it for twenty-five years. So things were just fam-dab-tastic in the big city. I went to church in Inwood and on one of those first Sundays in the 2007 New Year, the Plummers invited me to their apartment for dinner. They had also invited a Broadway dancer, an actress who also worked with the hearing impaired, an opera singer, and a young couple who'd come to New York for an internship. The meeting seemed other-worldly. As if I were being introduced to a cast of future characters. I swear I'm not making this up. It was surreal. Looking back at it now, it still is.
"I'm Louise's stalker." This is how I introduced myself to Lisa, the actress/hearing-impaired therapist.
"Yes, she said something about that." Lisa grinned.
Louise had taken to introducing me to people at church after this manner. "This is my stalker, Jason." She'd grab my arm and smile. Later she signed one of her books, A Dance For Three, for me. "For Jason. You can stalk me any time. Wet kisses. Louise."
Her self-characterization as the naughty good girl about sums it up. I challenge you to know her and not fall helplessly in love with the woman. If you don't, I'd say you're completely lost.
ED Okay. Phew. That's enough for now. I'm having palpitations. MERYL That's it? You're done? Are you insane, Edmund Strasse? ED What? MERYL Well for one thing, you're just leaving it up in the air. ED So? MERYL So you called this first chapter of yours the blab blah blah...My New York Feloony... where's the felony? You made no mention of such a heinous crime. ED I wrote enough. And who knows, maybe there's no felony at all. MERYL We do! You and I know. ED Do we? MERYL Well maybe you don't but I know better. You're an idiot. ED Yes. MERYL As long as we've established that. ED We have. MERYL Goody.