Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Month: October 2013

Real Writer: Halloween Story, 2013

“Do you know what makes a piece of writing go viral on the web?” he asked. He was the managing editor of the site. His name was Ed. He wore a gray cardigan and a Yankees baseball cap. He was ten years younger than me.

“People can relate to it,” I answered.

“No,” he said, with a definite note of sarcasm. “It’s the TITLE of the piece that matters. The headline. Think The Huffington Post. Jezebel. Buzzfeed. It’s the hook that screams, “This is going to get your blood boiling!”

“I understand,” I said meekly. I have a master’s in media and communications. I once did a research paper on….”

““I don’t care what you did in school,” he said. All I care about is finding a writer who can grab a reader by the throat and say, “Listen to me, you f*cker, and share this with your friends. Can you do that?”

“I think so,” I lied.

“Listen. You ever see the movie “Network?””

“Yes, I actually once did a school presentation on the director, Sidney Lumet’s use of sound editing….”

“Yeah, yeah, anyway – here’s this news anchor played by Peter Finch who’s telling others to stick their heads out of the window and shout – do you remember what he said?

““I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!””

“Right. But now it’s the digital age. People don’t want to open up their windows anymore and see their ugly neighbors. They want to be angry AND anonymous.  That’s what the internet is about.   So that’s where we come in. We tell our readers to shout, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore, so I’m going to share this web article with you on your Facebook stream!” And that’s how we make our money. And the more controversy, the more hits, and the more money we both make.

“I see. When do I start?”

Ed was still not convinced. He told me that the CEO, Katherine Collins, one of the most important media personalities in the city, only wanted to hire writers with “brass cojones.” And he wasn’t sure that mine were metallic enough. So he decided to give me a take-home test. In twenty-four hours, I was to email him a list of a hundred knock-out headlines that would produce viral posts, articles in which I could say – with certainty – that 55% of all my Facebook friends would share with others.

I stayed up all night that day, working hard, pushing my brain to the limit. I pored over hundreds of online newspapers, from Boise to the Bahamas, searching for creative ideas that could be easily repackaged as click-worthy stories.

A week later, I was back across from Ed, this time in a large conference room. Other staff members also sat around me in a semi-circle, like I was a product being examined for purchase. We were all waiting for the arrival of Katherine Collins, the CEO.

Katherine finally waltzed in, carrying a latte from the DUMBO coffee shop across the street. She wore a black and red checkered dress that looked like tablecloth from a 1950’s Italian restaurant, and an orange Hermes scarf.

“We like you, Neil,” she said to me as she sat in the nicest chair in the room, a $4000 Henry Alcott-designed office chair that I once remember seeing in an Architectural Digest magazine at my dentist’s office. “We like your writing a lot.”

Katherine pulled out a copy of my headline ideas and held it in her left hand. Her fingers were thin, and adorned by three multi-colored rings. She looked over each of my headlines, nodding in approval.

“These headlines are excellent,” she announced. “Some of these we could use immediately. Very current. On trend. Social Media friendly.”

She started reciting them out loud to her staff. I took pride in hearing such a prominent media figure speaking my words.  It was like hearing Patrick Stewart at the Old Vic reading the poetry I once wrote in college.”

“Headline number #1 – “Is Going to a Tanning Salon as Racist as Wearing Blackface?” Yes! Yes! Very good.”

“Number #2 – “Why Noisy Children should be Banned from Riding Public Transportation.” Ed, let’s go with that one tomorrow. Breeders people will be outraged.”

“Number #3 – “Which Asian Man is the worst in bed – Chinese, Japanese, or Korean?” “Tricia, you’ve had sex with a lot of ethnic types, Trish. You should write this one.”

“Number #4 – “Let’s Be Honest. Poor People ARE Losers!” Ha Ha, love it!”

On and on she went, each headline getting more accolades than the last.

“Ten Ways Transexuals Are More Attractive to Straight Feminist Women than Short Men.”

“David Schwimmer Ogles Breast-feeding Co-Star!”

“I’m a Mother of Six and Still Have Great Abs!  What YOU are doing Wrong!”

“Which Professional Gets Less Respect – Male Prostitute or Daddy Blogger?”

“Scientists Find Leading Cause of Global Warming: Working Women”

“Which First Lady was the Biggest Bitch – Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Nancy Reagan, or Martha Washington?”

“Men Who Re-Attached Their Foreskin: Why It Was the Best Thing They Ever Did for Their Careers”

By the time she finished reading my list of headlines, the entire room was up on their feet, giving me a standing ovation.

“You’re hired,” she said.

I had arrived. October 30, 2013.

If under Jewish law, a boy becomes a man when he reaches age thirteen, it was on October 30, 2013 that I became an adult.

That night, I took my mother out to the T-Bone Diner for a steak dinner special. I ordered us a bottle of wine to celebrate the occasion.

“I’m so proud of you,” said my mother. “After years of struggling, you’ve finally found a way to focus your creative energy into something useful. One day, you can even move out and get your own place.”

“Move out?” I spat, worried.

“It’s time, Neil. You’re a writer now. A REAL writer.”

She was right. A real writer doesn’t live with his mother. I imagined myself living in a cool brownstone in Williamsburg, spending my evenings at upscale beer gardens, flirting with dark-haired fashion bloggers.

I went to bed — a happy man. As the clock struck midnight, I made a note to myself to remember to buy candy for Halloween. I decided to buy M&M’s, my personal favorite, expecting a lot of leftovers. Over the last couple of years, there have been fewer and fewer kids stopping by, with scared helicopter parents preferring the safe environment of trick or treating at the shopping mall on Queens Boulevard.

“I miss old-fashioned Halloween,” I mumbled to myself as I began to doze off.

And that’s when I heard the mysterious footsteps. They sounded half real, half imaginary. I thought I felt a presence in my bedroom.

Was I dreaming? I sat up in my bed. Clearly, I was still awake. There was no sound of footsteps, only my breathing, and the blood racing through my veins. I figured it was that cheap bottle of red wine I drank at the T-Bone Diner playing tricks with my nervous system.

The room was dark, black.

“As black as blackface?” asked a deep voice.

Huh? Who? What?

A glimpse of moonlight slid thorough the venetian blinds, and I caught a shadow passing. I turned on the reading lamp on my side table; it flickered yellow and I saw the figure — a minstrel performer from the 19th Century.

“Hello there, writer. You must be very proud of those titles you handed in, aren’t you? Especially “Is Going to a Tanning Salon as Racist as Wearing Blackface?”

“I must still be asleep,” I thought to myself. “Act rational. Think clearly. There are no such things as ghosts. Definitely not ghosts who are minstrel performers.”

“I thought that headline was actually quite clever.” I said to the minstrel, hoping to scare him off with an oratory technique I learned during my tenure with my high school debate team. “Racism riles everyone up on Facebook, and I think that article will get quite a few hits. It’s playing with our concept of racism for the good of society – in order to rid us of our biases!”

“That’s bullshit, Neil.” He said. “Your debate team wasn’t very good, was it?”

“No,” I answered.

Just then, new figures appeared — three men, ghosts of Asian descent, one Chinese, one Korean, and one Japanese – although I couldn’t figure out which was which because they looked pretty much the same.

“And what about that ridiculous headline that exploited Asian stereotypes?” asked one. ““Which Asian Man is the worst in bed – Chinese, Japanese, or Korean?”“

“Oh, come on. “ I snapped. “Don’t take offense. It was just a gimmick to create some controversy, exposing our own sexual and ethnic generalizations through irony.”

One by one the other references from my clickbait titles materialize from nothingness – the noisy kids, the transsexuals, the gays, the mommybloggers, the SAHMs fighting with WAHMs, the child-free, the breeders, the breast-feeders, the feminists, the Daddybloggers upset at being left behind, the bullied and the bullying, the right wing and left wing, David Schwimmer, and even Martha Washington!

I took a deep breath. I knew what was happening — my unconscious was taking over, as Freud has theorized in his work, and my dream state was metamorphosing into an expression of repressed guilt. I didn’t pay for therapy for nothing.

“I’m not afraid,” I announced to the growing group of ghostly individuals crowding my bedroom, growing frustrated with the noisy bratty spoiled kids of the mommybloggers who were jumping up and down on my bed. “I’m not going to feel sleazy about my new job. It’s not the same as when I put that advertising banner on my blog and I felt like a sellout. There’s nothing wrong with making money with my art, even if I have to come up with these salacious titles. This headline writing technique is nothing new. It’s been going on forever. Read a newspaper from the 18th century. Or the cover of a pulp novel. It’s how you become a writer. A REAL writer.“

A breast-feeding mother stepped forward, shaking her head in dismay.  I couldn’t stop staring at her amazing rack, despite the baby attached to one of her nipples.

“Yes, Neil ,” she said. “But when you become a real writer, you have to accept REAL consequences.”

“Consequences?” I laughed. “You mean these guilty feelings? My conscience? Who gives a shit? I’m getting paid now. Real dinero. Mucho shekels. No more writing for exposure at the Huffington Fucking Post. I’m going to be a success now. I’m going to be a media person. I’m going to get my own apartment. Joyce Carol Oates – a real writer — is even going to follow me on Twitter!”

“Oh, but you are wrong, Neil.”

It was Joyce Carol Oates, the esteemed writer and Twitter personality, or at least a ghostly doppelganger of the still living person.

“Writing is a sacred art,” she continued. “And real writing has real consequences. Especially on Halloween.”

Joyce Carol Oates stepped aside to reveal someone behind her – a woman with a familiar and friendly face. It was my dear mother, wearing her favorite pajamas that she bought last year at Marshall’s. I immediately felt a sense of relief, of maternal comfort. But my mother was not alone. She was standing next to an older man in a dark coat, black hat, and sporting a thick grey beard. He was carrying a black leather satchel. It was the rabbi from the synagogue of my youth, the heavily accented man who acted as the mohel at my own bris, my ritual circumcision.

“Mom, what’s going on?” I asked.

“I want you to be happy,” said my mother. “And wasn’t it you who wrote the headline — “Men Who Re-Attached Their Foreskin: Why it Was the Best Thing They Ever Did for Their Careers.”

My mother reached into the pants pocket of her pajamas and pulled out what appeared to be my foreskin.

“I’ve been saving it all these years in a Tupperwear in the kitchen.”

The rabbi opened his satchel, removing a sharp knitting needle and a spool of green thread.

“I’m sorry, Neil. On such short notice, I was only able to find green thread. But your schlong will be a big hit on Saint Patrick’s Day.”

“No. No. No.” I said as I tried to escape. But it was too late. David Schwimmer and the minstrel singer forced my arms down, while the transvestite and Martha Washington held my legs tightly to the bed. The three Asian men laughed loudly, and cursed me in three Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.

“It’s time, Neil,” said Joyce Carol Oates, as she pulled off my blanket, revealing my nakedness. “It’s time you felt what it’s like to be a REAL writer.”

I screamed, a cry for help that would have raised the dead at the Mount Hebron cemetery several blocks away on Main Street, if only they could hear me. But there was only silence in my bedroom, because my own dear mother had muffled me with my pillow.

Happy Halloween!

Next — Selling Photos

If you know me, you know how hard it was for me to put up that revolving banner advertisement that was on my sidebar for the last two months. It was a good experience though, because it forced me to go I beyond my comfort zone.

The last straw that broke the camel’s back, like they say, is that after I pressed publish on my last post, a gentle tale titled “My Friend in McDonald’s, I immediately saw my own advertising server hawking back at me a personalized ad from Ronald McDonald himself, “Hey there, wouldn’t you enjoy having a juicy Quarter Pounder with Cheese right now?!”

Maybe if I was making $10,000 a month in advertising, I could compromise more, but for the $2 a month I was receiving for my banner, it felt humiliating.

But it was a good experience, like a teenage virgin having awkward sex for the first time and getting it over with.

This entire preamble is an anxious introduction to telling you that I am going to sell prints of my photos.

My Photo Store is Open for Business.

I’m going to start slow, because I’m a newbie at this.   So, to begin, I’m just going to offer seven photos taken in New York City.   Imagine it is a limited edition selection available just for my closest friends.   I tested each photo myself to make sure they printed well, so I feel confident that they will look good as 8″x 8″ prints, despite their humble origins as iphone photos.

If you want a print of a another photo in my instagram gallery, just contact me.  I will test it to make sure it prints well.  As I test other photos, I will add new photos for sale.

For now, I’m going to charge $20, no tax. I’ll make the print at a local lab, using the best resolution digital image, then mail you the print in a sturdy envelope. I’ll use the profit to either buy a nicer winter coat, or buy drinks for some chick at a bar and then try to go to bed with her. It all depends on how many prints I sell.

I know I’m not a big time photographer, so for added value, I will sign the back of the photo for you, and even include a personal message if you ask politely.

Email me if there are any problems with the shopping card or dealing with Paypal.

Again, my photo store is here.

Thank you for you inspiring me to do this, and giving me the confidence to believe in myself.

My Friend in McDonald’s

She’s in her late thirties, a soft face, and a crooked smile.  She’s curvy in a feminine way, her cropped hair hidden under a utilitarian cap reminiscent of those hairnets worn by school lunch ladies from the 1970s.  I don’t know her name. She’s from Central or South America, but I’m not sure if its El Savador or Peru.   She has a strong accent and speaks quietly, meekly, although I have a feeling that underneath her obsequiousness is a woman of strength and dignity. I imagine a noble heritage somewhere in the past.  I see her every day.  She is the woman who cleans up in my local McDonald’s, sweeping, mopping, and cleaning the trays.  She has a crush on me.

I have had so many crushes on women through the years, from girls in high school to married bloggers online, that it’s surprising how blind I’ve been to it when the tables are turned.

My relationship with this woman started one morning when I was sitting at my usual table, my laptop in front of me, using McDonald’s free wi-fi.

“You working on school work?” she asked, as she swept up some salty french fries playing hide-and-seek under the brown and orange cheap plastic fast-food style table.

I looked up and saw her for the first time.

“No, just regular work,” I said, lying, of course. I was on Facebook.

“I need to buy one of these things if I ever go back to school.”

“Yeah, they’re pretty useful. And they are getting cheaper. Wait until November when the sales come out.” I said, giving her what seemed like solid practical advice.

A few days later, I was back at the table, drinking a cup of coffee, writing in a composition notebook.  It was my old school way of preventing myself from going on Facebook.

As I wrote some bad dialogue for a mediocre screenplay, the woman came over again, and looked over my shoulder.   She laughed at my penmanship.

“Yeah, I know. I have the worst handwriting.”

“Let me ask you. In English, which are the twelve months, in order of them happening.  I need to know this for planning something”

“January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, Novemeber, and ends in December, after Christmas.”

“Yes, yes.  Will I remember this?”

“You want me to write it down for you?”

“Please.”

I started to scribble down the months when I could feel her getting tense behind me.  She was gripping the top of the seat.   I looked up.  At the front counter, the franchise manager, a heavy-set Indian woman in a poor-fitting mud-brown jumpsuit, was giving my “friend” a dirty look.

“I must leave. They are looking at me. They’re animals.”

Weeks passed.   My friend was always there when I showed up for my coffee, sweeping up or cleaning with a mop.   On some days, when I was busy, I would try to ignore her, not looking up from my notebook, wanting my space.  But she always found her way to my table.

“I’m so glad to see you!” she would say.

I always had a brief conversation with her.   She seemed lonely, and her job was thankless. She hated her it, not the menial labor, but the way the others treated her.  I never asked for the details, but she always called the rest of the staff by the ominous sounding description — “animals.”   I knew nothing of her personal life — if she was married, had kids. Nothing.  She was just the woman who cleaned up at McDonald’s.    Still, I was impressed with her. She did her job with commitment and pride. She kept the McDonald’s spotless.   But I could tell that she thought that she was better, that there was something work out there more in line with her poise and self-respect.

In September, she approached my table with excitement, but with a strong sense of indecision.

“There’s a job as an assistant checker at Key Food in Howard Beach. Do you think I should apply? I hate being here. Such animals.”

“Sure. You should try. If that’s what you want.”

“What if I don’t get the job? What will I do?”

“Just try your best. I have confidence in you.”

“Please let God hear you.  And then you will come there to buy your food!”

“Sure. Maybe.” I said, knowing that Howard Beach is nowhere near where I live.

As many of you know, I recently took a trip to Paris.  Today was the first day I returned to my McDonald’s.  It’s been almost a month since I stepped inside.

As I passed under the familiar golden arches, I felt a wave of depression, remembering how just a week ago, I was sipping espressos in a quaint cafe on the Left Bank,  where Sartre and Hemingway once flirted with beautiful women. And now I was back in the land of the $1.00 sausage burrito.

“It’s you!” said my cleaning friend, waltzing over to me the second I walked in, as if she was waiting for me.  She smiled, a larger grin than usual, revealing a missing back tooth.

“I’ve missed you,” she said, cleaning off the dirty brown trays sitting on the trash receptacles. “I’m glad you’ve come back. I’ll be with you right after I finish!”

I ordered a cup of coffee, and sat in the corner.  There was a new Happy Meal being advertised on a poster to my right.   My friend approached, cheerful in an understated way.

“I got the job!” she said. “The job as the assistant checker.”

“Congratulations! That’s great!” I said, shaking her hand, authentically happy for her.

“This is my last day here. I can’t wait to leave these animals.”

“I’m so glad for you.”

“Yes, yes.   I start on Tuesday.   Everyone at Key Food is so nice.  I hope I don’t disappoint them.”

“You’ll be good.  I know it.   I see how hard you work here. They are LUCKY to have you there.”

“Thank you,” she said, leaning in closer. “And will I see you there?   Will you come to shop at the store?”

“I don’t know. I’ll try. It is far away.”

“Please come.”

At the front counter, a frazzled mother with two yapping kids, dropped her orange juice from her tray, and it splattered onto the floor in an orange-colored mess. The store manager snapped her fingers at my friend.

“I have to go,” said my friend.

“Good luck in your new job.” I said.  “You’re going to be terrific.”

“Thank you. I hope to see you there buying your food.  I really do.”

She paused for a second staring at me, as if she wanted to ask my name. But she never did.

Paris Journal – Day One

arche

A week before we flew into Paris, Danielle, the owner of the two-bedroom apartment in the Marais district that we were renting for ten days, called my mother in New York. It was six o’clock in the morning. Apparently, Danielle was confused about the international time zones.

“What did she say?” I later asked my mother.

“She said she was going to pick us up at the airport.”

“Wow, that’s nice of her. This trip is looking great!”

We arrived at Charles De Gaulle Airport at noon on Saturday — me, my mother, and my mother’s friend, Laura, a kind-looking woman in her seventies.

As we passed through security, I searched for Danielle in the crowd, hoping she would be one of those greeters holding up a sign with my name on it, like you see done in movies. She was not there.

She was not in the baggage area, either.

I headed for the exit, pausing at the sliding door, realizing that my next step would be my first ever step on French soil, a spot in which Napoleon himself might have stood if he ever took a discount flight into town.

I entered France.   Danielle was not waiting, and my first whiff of Parisian fragrance was of a taxi blowing fumes into my face.

I called Danielle on the phone and she answered, speaking in a thick French accent.

“Bonjour! Bonjour, Neil!”

“We are here. Will we see you soon?”

“Absolutely. I’m only two minutes away.”

My mother, Laura, and I found a bench near the information booth inside and waited for twenty minutes.  Nothing.

“Call her again,” pushed my mother.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “This is how the French are. They take things slow. They like to eat and drink and enjoy life. Two minutes to a Parisian is like twenty minutes to us.”

I was winging it.  I felt that it was necessary because one look at Laura’s face and I could see that she was questioning my decision to rent an apartment.  Of the three of us, she was the one who most preferred staying at a traditional hotel.

“Trust me,” I told her two weeks earlier when I booked the rental. “You and my mother have played it too safe over the last few years with all those by-the-book tour groups and cruises.  Now is the time for adventure.”

“Hmm,” she said, not convinced.  Laura also wanted to go to England instead of France. At least there, they speak English.

“Call her again,” said my mother,  wondering about Danielle whereabouts.   My mother was now getting anxious because she saw the discomfort in Laura.   I was now getting anxious because I saw the worry in my mother.  You can take three neurotic New Yorkers out of New York, but….

I took out my iPhone and called Danielle for a second time.

“Bonjour, Neil!” she said.

“Uh, Bonjour, Danielle. Are you on your way yet?”

“Oh, don’t worry. I just live two minutes away. Call me when you are here.”

“We ARE here.”

“Where?”

“At the airport.”

“Oh, so just call me from the airport when you reach the apartment. I only live two minutes away from the apartment. I’ll give you the keys when you arrive.”

“So, you’re NOT picking us up at the airport?”

“No, no, no. Just take a cab! It shouldn’t be more than seventy Euros!”

“Uh, ok,” I said.

As we taxi-ed into central Paris, my mother insisted that Danielle told her, during the phone call a week ago, that she would meet us at the airport.

“Are you sure she didn’t say that she would meet us at the apartment, and NOT the airport?” I asked.   “It seemed too good to be true.”

“Maybe you are right,” said my mother.   ” But it was six o’clock in the morning when she called so I was sleepy.  And also, she had a strong accent that was hard to understand.”

“If we went to England,  we would have no problem with the language,” said Laura.

Well, actually she never said that.  But I KNOW she was thinking it.

We had arrived in Paris.

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