Welcome to my Blogoir (Blog/Memoir)

I’m a neophiliac, addicted to new experiences. I’ll watch a TV show about people who dive for sunken treasure and for days that’s all I can think about. I pass a funeral home and wonder what it would feel like to drain blood from a corpse and replace it with embalming fluid. I keep a list of occupations to try next on a three by five card. Sure, I’ll write about them, but journalism is just a cover story to give my childlike curiosity a patina of respectability. I scan my list of possibilities: “Bounty hunter? Carny?”

I’ve learned that people expect me to have a logical reason for the things I do. I thought it might be a fun adventure, never seems to quite cut it. It sounds irresponsible, less than adult. When a ten year-old says he wants to be an astronaut and a spy, we smile and encourage his belief in life’s limitless possibilities. When a forty year-old says he still wants to be an astronaut and a spy, we worry about them. Settle down and be a miserable drudge like the rest of us, they say.

To some extent, it’s Helen Keller’s fault. At an impressionable age I read one of her quotes and made it part of my firmware. “Security is mostly a superstition,” she wrote. “It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” If a deaf and blind woman could be that gung-ho, I had no excuse. I would let it ride, take door number two, say “yes” first and consider the consequences later.

As a result, I’ve become a magnet for bizarre experiences; my life, a pastiche of incongruous juxtapositions. I’ve been a stripper and a minister. I earned three degrees in rocket science from M.I.T., but threw my education down the toilet to work in film and TV and become a humorist. I was hired—and fired—by the CIA in twenty-four hours. I know what it’s like to be in a gun battle with FBI agents and what it’s like to be threatened by the Russian mafia. I worked on President Clinton’s Transition Team and jogged with the President, only to become a footnote in the Clinton sex scandals. I’ve shot Charlie Sheen in the movies, and I’ve saved Martin Sheen from being shot on television. I’ve been a stunt driver, a hand model, a sperm donor, and a graphic novelist. And, oh yes, I’ve logged my time in a cube farm.

Even my friends and family have a hard time forming a coherent picture of me. As an editor once told me, “You may not be famous for any one thing, but at least you’re obscure in many fields.”

Posted in Miscellaneous Jive

Spy For a Day

In The Recruit Colin Farrell plays a top MIT student recruited by spymaster Al Pacino.  I, too, was once an MIT student recruited by the CIA, although my application process involved substantially less sex with Bridget Moynahan.

The year was 1985. O.J. Simpson was still a beloved ex-football hero. Ordering coffee did not involve speaking Italian. America was still duking it out with the Soviet Union. And I was a twenty-two year-old grad student, obsessed with becoming a spy. It felt romantic, epic, contrarian.

Priming my fire were the usual cinematic and literary accelerants—James Bond movies, spy thrillers by Frederick Forsyth and Robert Ludlum, the anti-collectivist novels of George Orwell and Ayn Rand. And I’m sure that reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago at age sixteen had a certain formative effect, much the way that reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States at a young age virtually ensures that one will grow up with more than a passing familiarity with the workings of a bong.

But the spark that set my dreams of covert operations ablaze was a PBS miniseries called Reilly: The Ace of Spies. Sidney Reilly, played by a dashing Sam Neill, was quite simply the greatest spy in history and Ian Fleming’s avowed inspiration for Bond himself. When he wasn’t busy securing Persian oil concessions for the British or huge battleship contracts for the Germans, Reilly devoted himself to overthrowing the Bolsheviks. One of Reilly’s most daring capers was his plan to capture Lenin and Trotsky, then parade them through Red Square minus their trousers. The disgrace, Reilly wagered, would be enough to cost them their authority without making martyrs of them the way shooting them might. As a former fraternity denizen, I can attest to the humbling effects of being trot through the street sans trou. Reilly’s was a baroque plan to be sure, but it might have worked had his operation not been blown by an assassination attempt on Lenin. It’s a historical “what-if” of enormous significance. If Reilly had succeeded in toppling Lenin, Communism might not have racked up a death toll estimated at one hundred million lives through its purges, pogroms, show trials, man-made famines, and death camps. Hitler gets worse press, but for sheer body count he was a piker compared to Stalin and Mao. Keep your gridiron gladiators; my hero will forever be a little-known Ukrainian Jew born in 1874 named Sigmund Rosenblum, a.k.a. Sidney Reilly.

One hundred and eleven years later, in the midst of the Cold War, my classmates were far more interested in attending pro-Sandinista rallies than considering careers in espionage. Of course, MIT wasn’t the biggest hotbed of liberalism in the People’s Republic of Cambridge. Up the Charles River I’d watch Harvard’s sons and daughters snap up Marxist-Leninist tracts at Revolution Books, and I’d feel as out of place as G. Gordon Liddy at Woodstock.

So be it. In a land of revolutionaries, the square is the rebel!

I decided to apply for a summer job with the CIA. The world was a dangerous place and I was going to make it safer. Or, at the very least, protect U.S. multinational business interests abroad. Or possibly yank the drawers off some odious head of state.

I sauntered down MIT’s recruiters’ alley, a corridor with interview rooms on one side and students queued up on the other. Go ahead, suckers. Toil away in your veal-fattening pens on tedious tasks for soul-crushing corporations. I’d rather parachute into Afghanistan, infiltrate Uzbekistan by camel, sabotage the guidance package on a Soviet ICBM, and deflower a Bedouin’s daughter. The fact that I was ill-suited for such derring-do was entirely beside the point, so intoxicated was I with the notion of reporting for work at the CIA each morning. In truth, given my physicality, my ideal CIA job would probably be the one Robert Redford had in Three Days of the Condor—sitting around reading spy novels all day looking for leaks and clever ideas.

I passed a few lost souls who were interviewing for jobs with small privately-held software companies—ragtag start-ups whose prospects were so dodgy they had to offer buckets of pre-IPO stock options to new hires. I wonder what ever happened to those poor dumb clucks and those companies with the funny names, like Oracle Corporation and Sun Microsystems and Microsoft? Yep, that’s a real Where are they now?

To enter the CIA’s designated interview room I had to sidestep a clump of protesters giving me the evil eye and holding signs that said “Culpable In Assassinations” and “Capitalism’s Invisible Army.” This rattled me, but the Agency recruiter quickly broke the ice with, “Forget about them. Hey, do you know how you become Communist? Go to Harvard and turn left.” I liked him already. Then he introduced himself as John Littlejohn and all I could think about was how the evil red lectroids in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension disguised themselves as humans and used questionable cover names like John Smallberries, John Yaya, and John Parrot. At the end of our meeting, the lectroid stressed absolute secrecy. No one could know I was applying—friends, family, no one.

Unfortunately the Agency used plain brown envelopes to correspond with me—envelopes my roommate immediately tore open believing I was hording a secret porno subscription. Hopefully this ruse was more effective in foiling any Soviet spies monitoring my mailbox.

In January I flew to Washington, D.C. to undergo a day-long screening gauntlet at the CIA’s nondescript personnel offices in Roslyn, Virginia. On the agenda were multiple interviews, aptitude tests, psych profiles, and medical exams. One CIA psychologist asked me to describe every possible way I could think of to get secret information from a foreign scientist. I let my imagination run wild: bribe him, blackmail him, seduce him, cajole him, torture him, bug his briefcase, tap his phones, slip truth serum in his coffee, hold his dog hostage, convince him to defect, appeal to his love of America (hey, it might work). I even dredged up gimmicks from Mission: Impossible, like drug him, bring him to a replica of his lab, and impersonate his boss. The shrink nodded approvingly and seemed impressed by my ethical elasticity. I felt so theoretically ruthless. I would stop at nothing to get hypothetical information from imaginary scientists!

Another test consisted of a single essay question: “Does the end justify the means?” I figured I had to answer “yes” if I was ever going to see that shoe-phone. Of course, the CIA wanted more than one-word answers and gave us thirty minutes to compose our responses. Luckily, I had an edge over the other applicants. I knew this question was coming; it was mentioned in an obscure book I’d read about the CIA. So I prepared a thousand-word answer in advance.

Oh yeah… I had another edge, too. I printed my essay in gnat-sized font on an index card, snuck it into the exam, and copied it verbatim while sitting in the back row, totally unbeknownst to the CIA proctors.

I realize that cheating on a CIA entrance exam—specifically, using a cheat sheet to score higher on that particular question—is a logical and ethical paradox of the highest order. Somewhere Arthur Schopenhauer’s head exploded. I mean what could they say if they caught me? How dare you? Using underhanded methods to achieve your goal of proving that the end justifies the means! I’m shocked! Shocked! The CIA is no place for unscrupulous rule-breakers.

Here then is my “off the cuff” essay:

Does the end justify the means?

If you lived in Rome in the 1st century, B.C. and were a writer of moral maxims named Publilius Syrus, you certainly thought so. In his Sententiae (Sentences) Syrus wrote, “Honesta turpitudo est pro causa bona,” literally “Crime is honest for a good cause,” or more commonly, “The end justifies the means.”

Syrus would get no argument from Plato. Several hundred years earlier the Greek philosopher wrote, “To the rulers of the state then, if to any, it belongs of right to use falsehood, to deceive either enemies or their own citizens, for the good of the state.”

But is the doctrine valid in modern times? Considering the context and who is doing the asking, perhaps it might be better to reframe the question as: “To what extent is the use of undemocratic methods justified in the protection of democratic values?” Among these methods, one might list electronic surveillance (Keyhole satellites), medical experimentation (MK-ULTRA), propaganda (Allende, Whitlam), sabotage (Laos, North Vietnam), even assassination support (ZR/RIFLE, Operation Mongoose, the Phoenix Program, Diem, Lumumba).

I have no doubt that occasional lapses in judgment and poor policy-making at high levels result in misguided CIA covert operations. I am, however, convinced that covert action must remain the third option, a middle course of action between lodging a diplomatic protest and sending in the Marines.

Certainly, we can’t go around toppling governments indiscriminately and assassinating leaders merely because their personalities or regimes are distasteful to us; we would create martyrs and drive the country to further extremism by our intervention. Better results might be obtained by skillful diplomacy and a combination of economic incentives and sanctions.

On the other hand, arguments against all forms of covert action are naïve. Maybe it is a reflection of the peculiarly American propensity for introspection that such notions are even considered. Or perhaps it is because America is a young nation without the centuries old tradition of espionage that countries like Russia and China have. The CIA is only 38 years old, while the KGB and its predecessors stretch back to sixteenth century czarist Russia. As far back as 500 B.C., the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu said, “The acme of excellence is not the winning of a hundred victories in a hundred battles, but rather to subdue the armies of the enemy without fighting.” Even the Bible talks of spies sent by Moses to the land of Canaan. Clandestine operations are deeply rooted in world history.

Yet just sixty years ago Henry Stimson, Hoover’s Secretary of State, shut down America’s nascent code-cracking bureau, declaring, “Gentlemen do not read other people’s mail.” This let’s-all-be-gentlemen philosophy may be appropriate for cricket matches between Oxford and Cambridge, but not when dealing with brutal military dictators and fanatical religious tyrants. The notion of “fair play” has cost America and the British dearly in actual war, and has had equally disastrous consequences in the secret war against our police-state adversaries. The Комитет государственной безопасности​ (KGB) has no qualms about being ruthless and neither should we when genuine national security interests are at stake. How long can any game last when only one side plays by the rules?

To those who would argue that covert action is wrong because it constitutes meddling in another country’s affairs, I would point out that many aspects of our foreign policy have impacts on other nations’ affairs. Embargoes, tariff policies, the Voice of America, and even foreign aid programs are all intended to have significant effects on the internal affairs of other nations.

Arguments against covert action based on their illegality are especially fatuous. All acts of espionage, be they intelligence gathering or covert action, are illegal in every nation of the world, yet they go on. The truth is that there are few generally recognized rules of international conduct, and even fewer enforceable ones.

And let’s not obstruct the CIA due to concerns about domestic skullduggery. These fears are vastly overblown, fed by conspiracy theorists and Hollywood. The undisputed findings of the 1975 Rockefeller Commission established only eleven instances of illegal CIA domestic activity. Concerns that the CIA will become the Church Committee’s proverbial “rogue elephant rampaging out of control” are especially unfounded today considering that covert activities must be approved by the National Security Council, the President, and seven committees of Congress. Compared to the intelligence agencies of other countries, the U.S. conducts its secret operations in Macy’s window.

Let the Birkenstock and granola crowd brood in their coffee houses, pondering philosophical generalizations like Syrus’s. Let them chide the CIA with Friedrich Nietzsche’s warning, “Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird.” Translation: “He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.” It’s a fine thing to know philosophy, but the measure of a man isn’t what he knows; it’s what he does.

That’s why I want to work for the CIA. I’m inclined to act, not navel-gaze. For me, life in the real world has a way of cutting through the bullshit and clarifying issues. I believe in pragmatic realities, not utopian ideals. The secret operations of the CIA are more than just an expensive game of spy vs. spy with the Russians. The United States of America is a noble experiment in political history. Never before has there been a society so free, so democratic, so open, and so charitable. Perhaps someday international understanding and cooperation will reach a point where the CIA’s clandestine operations are no longer necessary, but until that day, no weapon vital in the defense of freedom should be discarded.

Yes, (Langley) Virginia, the end does justify the means.

And cue “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Clearly I drank the Kool-Aid. Ah, to be young again and know everything.

Casually including Cyrillic language and quotations in their original Latin and German in a supposedly spontaneous essay was probably excessive, but I figured your typical secret agent had to speak six different languages before breakfast. I think I showed some restraint by not quoting Sun Tzu in Chinese pictographs. And at least I didn’t attach appendices or audio-visual aids. That might have been a giveaway.

Amid the highfalutin pontificating I deliberately slipped in a profanity to hint to the Agency that I was a salty no-nonsense type, apt to pound a conference table and yell, “Damn you Ivy Leaguers and your namby-pamby philosophizin’! The President needs answers! Can the bullshit and give me some straight talk! Do we terminate the junta? Yes or no?”

#

In May the CIA summoned me again—this time to Headquarters to face the final hurdle: the polygraph. It was drizzling at National Airport so I donned my London Fog trench coat (very spy-like, I thought), hailed a cab and asked him to take me to “Langley, Virginia.” That’s how they always referred to the CIA in spy movies, so until I learned any authentic tradecraft, spy movies would be my teacher. I was really taking this secrecy thing to heart and didn’t want a cabdriver of swarthy—and potentially suspect—ethnic origin to know I had anything to do with the CIA until the last possible moment. He drove me to Langley High School and asked where I wanted to go from there. I don’t know what I was thinking. Like CIA Headquarters would be next to a 7-Eleven and I’d just say, “Oh, let me off at that 7-Eleven,” and I’d walk across the street once he was gone.

I confessed my true destination and the cabbie grumbled and asked why I didn’t say so in the first place. I sat quietly for the rest of the trip, trying to quell the voice in my head that said, If you can’t handle this cabbie, what makes you think you can match wits with a polygraph examiner, or the Kremlin for that matter?

I exited the cab at the visitor’s gate, walked past a CIA parking lot, and noticed a car with a vanity plate that said “BJB 007,” which—considering the location—I figured had to stand for “Bond, James Bond 007.” It made me wonder whether all Agency employees got the same stern warning about secrecy that I did.

Frank the polygraph examiner led me into a claustrophobic soundproof room furnished with a table, two chairs, a one-way mirror, and the dreaded polygraph, which looked like some mad scientist decided to mate a seismograph and a sphygmomanometer. He hooked me up to the machine: electrodes clamped on my index and middle fingers to measure sweating, two plastic tubes around my torso to measure breathing, and a way too-tight arm cuff to measure pulse and blood pressure.

To break the awkward silence, I started babbling. “Do you call them one-way mirrors or two-way mirrors? I’ve heard both terms used. I guess they’re one-way mirrors since they only reflect in one direction. But a regular mirror only reflects in one direction, too. Maybe they should be called one-way windows, since they’re only see-through in one direction.”

“I’ll ask the questions here.”

“Oh, right.”

After a lengthy sermon/psych job about his credentials and the box’s infallibility, he told me to sit still, face forward, take relaxed even breaths, and not to cough, sneeze, or move. As one of the world’s top five most fidgety people, this was akin to torture. All I could think about was coughing and itching.

Out of the blue, he said, “Transparent mirrors.”

“What?”

“I call them transparent mirrors.”

“Now that makes sense. You are one smart man. And did I mention handsome and impeccably dressed?”

“Do not try to befriend me. You will not succeed.”

Frank hastily wrote something on his clipboard and circled it emphatically. Probably, “HOMO???”

Then he began the interrogation. The questions covered three areas: professional background, criminal background, and personal background—the latter being mostly an excuse to traipse through my sexual history. Sadly there wasn’t much traipsing to do. I could count my sexual conquests on a single hand. And that was counting my hand.

Still, he insisted on knowing every form of “deviant sexual activity” I had ever engaged in. Frank looked like the sort of guy who might consider anything other than the missionary position deviant, so I asked him to clarify.

“Anything besides the missionary position,” he said.

I asked if he was kidding. He wasn’t.

How many partners? Which positions? Had I paid for sex? Did I masturbate? What did I think about while masturbating? Had I practiced S&M, bondage, or bestiality? Had I experienced a threesome? Note: “I wish!” is not deemed an acceptable response. Basically he wanted a full itemization of everything that had touched my penis since the circumcision knife.

He covered several questions repeatedly. At one point he stopped, gazed at the charts, and intoned gravely, “You’re showing signs of deception in response to some of the questions.”

“Which ones,” I asked.

“Homosexuality.”

“The machine is lying.”

“The machine never lies.”

“Well I don’t know where it’s getting that from,” I said, my voice unhelpfully cracking and rising an octave.

“Are you sure? Because earlier you told me I was handsome. Let’s start all over.”

And so it went for hours. I indulged Frank in his sexual inquisition, but suddenly felt sorry for all the female applicants who had to give this creepy man the intimate details on how often they indulged in anal sex and with whom. Two seconds later my lizard brain wondered how I could get a job as a CIA polygraph examiner.

The whole sexual screening seemed weirdly puritanical and prurient at the same time, and possibly counterproductive. I mean, didn’t the CIA want its spies to be rakes and seducers? If an actual James Bond ever applied to the CIA, he’d never make it out of the polygraph. Now then, Mr. Bond, approximately how many times would you say you had coitus with Pussy Galore?

Just for kicks, I wish I’d had the guts to “confess” to a bunch of bizarre urges just to see the look on Frank’s face. I could have copped to agalmatophilia (sexual attraction to nude statues) or amelotasis (attraction to amputees) or klismaphilia (deriving sexual pleasure from enemas). I could have combined all three fetishes. Honest, dude, the only way I can get off is by thinking about giving an enema to the Venus de Milo.

After dissecting my lackluster sex life, Frank moved on to my unimpressive drug use. My history with drugs was very simple. I avoided them entirely until my sophomore year in college, then one week I decided to see what all the fuss was about. In five days I tried wuss-sized quantities of five drugs: amyl nitrite, nitrous oxide, marijuana, speed, and cocaine. I didn’t like any of them and never touched them again.

Of course, in Frank’s eyes this was a wild drug binge, a bender of Hunter S. Thompson proportions. What could make someone shift so radically from clean living to reefer madness?

“Curiosity,” I told him.

What was to stop me from doing this again he demanded to know.

“I’m not curious about them any more. All they did was make me sleepy.”

Frank wasn’t buying it. He was sure I was hiding something. Nobody tries five drugs in five days then never touches them again. We tilled the same soil for hours. Drugs, drugs, drugs. Had I bought them? Sold them? Manufactured them? Transported them? Stared at them? Gone camping with them? Made Christmas ornaments out of them? Fed them to small children? Periodically he would stop and say things like, “You’re not doing very well with this. It’s obvious you’re withholding information on your past use of illegal narcotics. Is there anything you’d like to add?”

Frank was so far off base on this line of questioning that at this point I began to suspect the polygraph was totally bogus, no more valid than tea-leaf reading, its primary purpose being intimidation.

I’d heard of a case where police officers in the Deep South asked a suspect if he’d be willing to take a polygraph. He reluctantly agreed. The cops made their “polygraph” out of a metal colander wired to a Xerox machine, which had a card on the glass reading “He’s lying.” Every time the suspect gave an answer the cops didn’t like, they pushed the copy button and the machine spit out a sheet saying, “He’s lying.” Faced with such incontrovertible evidence the man confessed.

Frank’s insistence that I was hiding something felt like bad theater, his polygraph no better than a colander wired to a copier. So I called him on it.

“I think you’re bluffing, Frank. I think I passed that round of questions with flying colors.”

“Really? Then what do you call this?” he said, waving a printout that showed, well, deception. Either that or a giant earthquake.

“How do I know that’s mine? How do I know you don’t have a stack of squiggly charts over there? Turn my chair around so I can see the printout actually come from the machine.”

Frank’s mouth twitched into a hint of a smile before he caught himself. “You’re just digging your own grave with that attitude, but let’s move on.”

Leaving drugs behind we proceeded to the catch-all round of the interrogation. Frank wanted to know if I had ever, in my entire life, committed a crime. Uh-oh. Klaxons blared in my head and mini-submariners manned their battle stations. This seemed more a test of my memory than my character.

I had doubts about the polygraph’s accuracy, but didn’t want to take any chances. I began by clearing my conscience of adolescent Bubble Yum pilferage, underage drinking, Halloween vandalism and other youthful indiscretions. Next I itemized the laws I’d broken as an adult—the copyright laws I’d violated by Xeroxing articles without permission, the mattress tags I’d recklessly torn off, illegal U-turns, open containers, hell—fireworks. Not being Catholic, I was new to the confessional experience and was on a roll. I even copped to jay-walking that very morning.

Then I remembered that according to archaic sodomy laws, heterosexual oral sex was still considered a crime in many states. After working through that issue, I conceded that given all the loony laws still on the books, I was surely guilty of a whole slew of offenses: juggling without a license, crossing the street while eating an ice-cream cone, cursing while playing mini-golf. Apparently, I’d been on a crime spree since birth.

I wasn’t trying to be cute, just precise. I didn’t want be my dreams dashed over semantics and vaguely-worded questions. Finally Frank boiled it down to one simple, catchall question: had I ever done anything that made me susceptible to blackmail by hostile intelligence services? No? End of exam. A good thing, too. By that point I would have confessed to the Kennedy assassination just to get out of there.

Amazingly, the one question the CIA never thought to ask was, “Did you, by any chance, cheat on your CIA entrance exam?”

Total time spent on the lie detector: seven hours, with no break for lunch. I was drained, emotionally and physically. I felt like the hollowed-out shell of a bug caught in a spider web, my insides dissolved and slowly slurped out by this arachnid interrogator.

#

A month later on a Thursday in early June, a woman from the CIA’s personnel department called to congratulate me. I passed the polygraph and was to start at CIA headquarters on Monday. I was ecstatic. My first wife had just been hired as a Russian linguist by the CIA’s sister agency, the National Security Agency, so we were in spy heaven. That evening I took her out to see the latest James Bond movie, A View to a Kill. Even though it’s easily the worst of the franchise, I reveled in it. Later I fixed us a couple vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred) and we enjoyed a frisky coupling befitting two eager young spies, our pillow talk conducted entirely in Russian.

The next day the CIA woman called again—to unhire me. My career as a spy lasted exactly 19 hours and 13 minutes.

“What happened?” I asked.

“It’s a secret,” she said.

“What do you mean it’s a secret? What changed since yesterday?”

Long pause. “Well, it could be that yesterday Congress canceled the program we wanted you for. It could be we decided not to proceed with that project. It could be that the world situation changed overnight. It could be that we changed our assessment of your polygraph exam. It could be that we discovered some new information relevant to your security clearance. It could be…”

A friend of mine once blew a job interview with a top-tier consulting company. His gaffe? When lunch arrived, he salted his dish before tasting it, demonstrating “rash decision-making,” according to the debriefing from the interviewer. Reckless salting must top the list of dumb reasons to be denied a job, but at least it’s a reason. I was totally in the dark.

After I hung up it dawned on me that I had no back-up plan. It was June and I was just starting to look for a summer job. Personnel managers at dozens of companies howled when I asked if they had any summer jobs still available. They treated me like a guy who waits until age 64 to open a 401(k). Desperate for a job, I applied to be a taxi driver. They didn’t want me either.

Eventually I found work with a consulting company helping design the Space Station’s computer system—an odd assignment considering I know nothing about computers. If the Space Station ever turns into a sentient HAL-9000 killing machine, you’ll know who to blame.

Looking back, it’s just as well I never made it into the CIA. Without any prodding from me, the Soviet Empire folded faster than an origami master holding a junk hand in a game of five-card stud. And with all the spy scandals, who knows—an Agency mole might have sold me out for cheap thrills and a down payment on a condo in Georgetown. Several years later I learned I had a cousin in the B.V.D. (the Dutch intelligence service, not the underwear). Did that derail my career as a spook? I never found out. I bet it was that damn polygraph. Sidney Reilly would never have confessed to swiping a pack of Bubble Yum.

#

Potentially foreseeable, but nonetheless freaky epilogue: Three years later I was taking a cab to the airport and found myself at the mercy of a chatty driver. Where did I work? Where had I gone to college?

“MIT,” I said.

He laughed and said he had a story for me. A few years earlier his company received a resume from an MIT student inquiring if there were any openings for taxi drivers. The resume was still posted in their break room, and now featured numerous comments in the margins. Mostly theories about the intellectual caliber of the individual who sent it.

How much of an underachiever do you have to be to slog through all those engineering courses and then pursue a job as a cabbie, he wanted to know. “What did this fool do, blow up the chem lab? Knock up the dean’s daughter?”

I then performed an amazing feat of mind-reading for the driver and told him the name that appeared at the top of that resume.

“Yeah, holy fuck, yeah, I think that’s it! How’d you know?”

“Allow me to introduce myself. I am that fool.”

#

A fiction writer wouldn’t dare make this up epilogue: In March of 2002, I worked as an extra in the Alexandria, Virginia location shoot of the aforesaid movie, The Recruit. In one scene Pacino and Farrell were talking on a park bench, while in deep background, I and others walked by some tony row houses. In the middle of filming, a dapper old man and his wife emerged from one of the houses and walked down their front steps landing right next to me. I recognized him immediately and told him what sort of movie we were filming. He was as flabbergasted as I was. The silver-haired gentleman was Stansfield Turner, former Director of the CIA.

_______________

This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Phoenix.

Posted in Collegiate Capers, Essays, Federal Offenses, Hijinks

Dye Hard

“This is the FBI! Throw down your weapon and come out with your hands up!” My heart races as I huddle atop a tall dresser in the pitch-dark bedroom of the squalid townhouse, clutching my Smith & Wesson. “Last chance! Open the door or we’ll kick it in.”

“I’m innocent!” I shout.

Wham! The door nearly flies off its hinges. I listen as the agents search room by room, moving cautiously, methodically, whispering, “slice the pie” and “clear.” A Maglite rolls across the doorway, casting a fan of light over the floorboards, but my dresser is still safe in the shadows. A few inches off the floor, a mirror on a pole pokes around the doorjamb as an agent scans the room low, looking for feet—I knew he’d miss me crouched on top of the dresser. Slowly he enters the room: his gun, his arm, finally his whole body. He seems focused on the walk-in closet across the room. “Eat plastic, G-man!” I shout, shooting him in the back, but before I can leap for cover, two husky agents burst into the room and empty their Glocks into me. Ouch! A couple have shots would have sufficed, guys.

After a quick inventory of my groin, I ponder my performance. Hiding atop the dresser worked, but shooting the agent in the back? Craven. Maybe I should have taken him hostage and negotiated my way out? No biggie. I’ll get another chance in fifteen minutes and one thing’s for sure: it never goes down the same way twice.

Welcome to Hogan’s Alley, Virginia. You won’t find it on any map. This is the home of the FBI Academy’s Practical Applications Unit. It’s a quasi-secret training facility where newly minted agents get one last chance to make fatal errors without incurring fatal consequences. It’s also where I spent my weekends one year, at one of the coolest gigs in the world: hoodlum for hire. When I heard about Hogan’s Alley, a mock city where rookie feds practice realistic arrests on a cadre of role-players, I figured why not? Play urban paintball against the country’s top cops? Sounds too fun to be a real job.

A little research led me to the outfit that recruits role-players for the Bureau and a phone call secured me an interview—an exercise scary in its simplicity. The woman in charge asked me why I wanted to join. “What could be more rewarding than helping teach the good guys something that might save their lives on the street,” I said. It’s fun to shoot things, I thought.

“You start Saturday,” she said, “and I hope you’re not a sissy ‘cause you’re gonna get bruised.” Thus ended the only job interview I’ve ever done buck-naked. Did I mention the interview took place over the phone?

Hogan’s Alley

Just like that, I was in. I arrived for my first day, anticipating a charred urban battleground, but instead found… Mayberry. Hogan’s Alley, nestled in the woods on the U.S. Marine Base at Quantico, is a quaint sixteen-acre enclave, complete with a bank, post office, motel, apartments, restaurant and liquor store. Except for the lack of a Starbucks, it looks like a real town. I drove by the Biograph Theater, whose anachronistic marquee heralds Manhattan Melodrama (the movie John Dillinger was leaving when the FBI gave him a case of lead poisoning), and parked at the Dogwood Inn, role-player headquarters, for orientation.

The other role-players—mainly ex-cops, firemen and agents’ wives—were nice enough, but the way they were constantly comparing battle scars and sprains began to unnerve me. An instructor equipped me: a mask to protect my face, a bulletproof vest to protect my torso, and a towel stuffed down my crotch to protect the “long arm of the law.” The gun he gave me was real but fired hollow plastic bullets filled with red paint; when shot, we would dye instead of die.

Next the instructor briefed us on the rules of engagement. We were not supposed to go on a mad-dog killing-spree when the agents collared us. If they used cover and talked us out effectively, we were supposed to give up. But if they gave us a clean shot, we could take it. Before each scenario, we were given a rap sheet on our criminal persona so we could improvise the encounters realistically. (Was I a white-collar criminal with a family and no record? A PCP-crazed killer with two priors and nothing to lose?)  And, like S&M aficionados, we even had a code word in case things got too dicey (“Code Red”). It didn’t take long to discover why.

Indeed, being armed and dangerous and mouthing off to a team of highly trained federal agents is not an enviable position. You will get an attitude adjustment. Think about the show Cops and how the perps get manhandled. Now think about undergoing that treatment eight hours a day. By the end of my first shift, my wrists throbbed from the handcuffs; new agents mistake them for tourniquets. Despite our protective gear, I learned that a shot to the hand leaves a welt for a week. Worse still was the gauntlet agents put us through to get us close enough to cuff without abandoning cover. Their favorite stunt was having us walk backwards to them on our knees. Hands in the air. On gravelly roads. Try it.

Then there was the Drug Enforcement Administration. In addition to the one thousand FBI agents who tested their adrenal glands at Hogan’s Alley, we sometimes encountered teams from DEA. And like many a cocaine mule before me, I grew to fear them. FBI agents share a certain all-American wholesomeness lacking in the hard-boiled, edgy DEA recruits. FBI agents look like they’d kill you, then go to confession; DEA agents look like they’d kill you, then go for a meatball sub.

FBI agents hunting me

In time, though, as the physical abuse became commonplace, the job settled into a strange blur of crime. My “workdays” revolved around chases, arrests, and interrogations. My “projects” involved around kidnappings, bank robberies, extortion, drug deals and white-collar stings. Hanging out between scenarios, twirling my gun and practicing my quick-draw in the paint-splattered, crackhouse-minimalist building interiors merely added to the surreal environment. The furniture at Hogan’s takes a vicious beating; we use it for cover, barricades and battering rams. Best of all? For car chases they let us use spoils of the Drug War: confiscated dealer rides. There’s nothing like rollin’ down Main Street in a rap-blaring, gold El Dorado, sawed-off shotgun in your lap, eyes peeled for the Feds to make you say, “What the hell am I doing?”

Role-players are supposed to do anything to rattle the agents—a challenge I took to with villainous delight. I began barking campy tough-guy talk (“I’m gonna perforate you like a sheet of stamps!”). I would fake a sneeze when being cuffed to see if a jittery rookie might mistake my lurch for a gun grab and waste me. When surrendering, I neutralized poorly-positioned agents by walking out at angles that put them in a crossfire. I shot agents who used flimsy sheet metal car doors for cover, instead of the solid engine block. I tried every film noir trick I could remember. I stuck sneakers out from behind curtains and made decoys under blankets using pillows.

No question about it: as the weeks went by, I was getting the hang of the criminal life. I started to enjoy being handcuffed—by the female agents at least. Soon I had more practical experience than the recruits I faced. My heart no longer leapt into my throat at the sound of “Freeze! FBI!” I was becoming hardened.

Now generally, pitted against a squad of the Bureau’s finest, the outnumbered role-player has as much chance of winning a scenario as Wile E. Coyote has of catching the Road Runner. But when you play “cops and robbers,” it’s not just the cops who get more proficient. By mid-summer, I began to perfect my craft and occasionally found myself besting the agents. Once I beat a team of ten in a supposedly unwinnable exercise where I had to drive to a location at night and pick up a bag of extortion money under heavy surveillance. Although I can’t reveal my techniques, let’s just say there are times in life when it pays to wear all black, douse the headlights, kill the engine, roll to a stop, exit a car silently from the passenger window and crawl in the shadows to a drop location.

My finest hour, my crème de la crime, came one Saturday afternoon. Three agents picked me up with a gun in my backpack and a can of mace stashed in my boot. After one agent frisked my clean leg I started badgering her: “Let’s see some ID; what’s the charge?” Flustered, she checked the same leg twice, overlooking my mace. Another agent searched my bag and, incredibly, missed the gun. They cuffed me and led me to an interrogation room. Once there, I feigned that the cuffs were too tight. What’s the harm, they figured. They had guns and I had been frisked, so they unshackled me. When two agents stepped outside for a quick powwow I made my move. Staring at the wall behind the third agent I said, “That’s an ironic painting for an interrogation room.” As he glanced back at the empty wall, I grabbed my mace, sprayed him, lunged for my bag, yanked out the gun and shot him. As the other agents ran in, I blew them away too. The oldest trick in the book? Sure. But it was new to them.

That night, driving home after my triumph, I was euphoric, in the grips of the against-all-odds buzz to which lifelong felons become addicted. I began to fantasize about following the career path of the legendary role-player who decided to parlay his experience robbing banks at Hogan’s Alley into a lucrative career as… a bank robber. The line between fantasy and reality was blurring. So, just like that, I quit.

Still, as I walk down the streets of my hometown, I sometimes gaze a bit too long at the underprotected storefronts. Perhaps I stare at the unguarded entrance to the local bank. And maybe, once in a while, I think, hmm…

_______________

This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in P.O.V. magazine.

Posted in Essays, Federal Offenses, Hijinks

Yippie-Ki-Yay, Mr. Falcon

I had no idea my neighbor was a model. Tracy was cute I suppose, but not arresting. Hardly worth peeking at through the Venetian blinds of my upstairs guest room while she sunbathed in her backyard in her amethyst bikini, glistening of mineral oil. Even though I’d lived next to her for five years, we’d only spoken a couple times. In fact, I think I called her “Terry” for three of those five years.

So I was a little surprised one Saturday morning when she knocked at my door and asked me to jump-start her car. “Mike wasn’t home,” she explained. Mike was the neighborhood fix-it man and all-around good Samaritan.

The Jetta stubbornly refused to turn over. No crank, no click. Not wanting to seem ill-informed about car repair in front of a woman, I stuck my head under the hood and glanced around. Despite MIT’s efforts to educate me about things technical I still didn’t know a carburetor from a crankshaft, so I furrowed my brow like Kasparov eyeing Deep Blue’s endgame and parroted something I’d heard once, “Must be your starter. Probably a dead solenoid.” To cap my diagnosis I cast a suspicious eye at the nearest component, a plastic jug of blue liquid, and wagged my finger at it.

“That’s the wiper fluid,” said Tracy.

“Uh, yeah, of course. It just looks a little low. Might want to check that.”

“Damn, now I’m going to miss my go-see,” she said.

“Go-see?”

“Oh, it’s just what modeling agents call an audition. You know, ‘go see’ this casting director. ‘Go see’ that advertising agency.”

Although using “go see” as a noun seemed a linguistic abomination, I was intrigued. “I’m not doing anything right now. I can give you a ride if you want,” I said.

“Oh no, I couldn’t,” she said, kicking off the Accismus Game. After a rally of feigned refusals and friendly insistences, she agreed and we sped off.

“I didn’t know there was much work for models in Washington, D.C.,” I said. “I thought models were generally found in New York and Paris and Leonardo DiCaprio’s bedroom.”

“You’re confusing fashion models with commercial models,” began her practiced reply. “Fashion models are the six foot tall, anorexic freaks you see in Vogue. Commercial print models are the people in magazine and newspaper ads, selling free checking and cell phones. We’re in your junk mail. We’re the people in your catalogs, the billboard urging you to car pool, and the smile on your box of toothpaste. We’re the politically correct mix of faces in corporate brochures and annual reports. We’re everywhere.”

“That stuff is shot around here?” I asked.

“It’s shot wherever you find companies. And do you know how many companies are headquartered here? They all need marketing materials and ads. And by ‘here,’ I mean Washington, D.C., northern Virginia, south to Richmond, and north to Baltimore. Sometimes Philly, occasionally Pittsburgh. That’s what we consider local.”

“And it pays decently?”

“A hundred and fifty an hour with a two hour minimum. Plus buyouts, bonuses, and usage fees,” she said.

“Wow! That’s enough to make me wish I’d had a stage mother dragging my ass to auditions when I was a kid,” I said.

“You don’t have to start young. I got into it three years ago, when I was twenty-five.”

“I guess you’re right,” I said. “Somewhere, at this very moment, there’s probably a brand manager flipping through photos of seventy year-olds looking for the next Depends adult diaper model.” Temporarily dependent on my chauffeur services, Tracy humored me with a polite chuckle. “Hey, you know what would be great?” I said. “To be the guy who poses for the photo that’s used in a picture frame. Shopping would be so easy. I’d just breeze into Wal-Mart on Christmas Eve, scoop up a bunch of picture frames, conveniently pre-stocked with a photo of me. Boom, done. That’s what you’re getting, everybody. Picture frames.”

I’ll admit, modeling long held a secret fascination for me. I’d get catalogs in the mail and see guys not unlike myself smiling and wearing shirts, and, presumably, getting paid for it. “I can smile and wear a shirt too,” I’d think. On one occasion I even flipped through the Yellow Pages under “Modeling Agencies” and made a few phone calls. Every place I called reeked of scam. They wanted to sell modeling classes, make-up, apparel blazoned with their agency’s logo, and sleek black leather portfolios, like the one in Tracy’s lap, to store those elusive tear sheets. But most of all, they wanted to sell photography sessions. Big, fat, hideously expensive photography sessions. Without even looking at a snapshot of me first to gauge my photogenicity. The whole situation was clearly designed to Hoover people’s wallets while playing to their basic desire to be told they’re attractive. If there was a legitimate modeling industry in Washington, D.C., it had to be underground. “So how do you find an agent?” I asked.

“There are about two dozen reputable modeling agencies in the mid-Atlantic region,” Tracy said. “But you won’t find them in the phone book. You need to know someone and get The List.”

And with that she whipped out a thirty page document listing all the modeling agencies in the region. More than just names and addresses, this had open call hours, preferred method of contact, likes, dislikes, and all sorts of insider information.

“I knew it!” I said. “A secret list! How do you get it?”

“I got it from an ex-boyfriend. He was a model, too.”

“Is that how it generally works? Boy gives it to girl, girl gives it to boy?”

“Yeah. A guy won’t give it to another guy. He’d just be adding to his competition. But he will give it to a woman.”

“In exchange for…”

“Whatever he can get,” said Tracy.

“So it’s an STD—a sexually-transmitted document.”

“Pretty much.”

“Would I have to jump your bones to get a copy?” I asked.

“Tempting,” she said, “but like my car, I’m going to have to refuse your jump. I’ll give you a copy though.”

“Who am I kidding,” I said, ignoring Opportunity as it banged at my door. “That list wouldn’t do me any good. I’m no model. I hate getting my picture taken. My high school yearbook photo is in the Dork Hall of Fame. My driver’s license photo makes me look like a Klingon.”

“I’ve got an idea,” said Opportunity. “I need to update my comp card with a new guy-girl shot. You know, happy couple walking in the park. Why don’t you pose with me and see if you like it?”

“But why would you want me?” I said. “You must have scads of male model friends you could call on.”

“I do but they all have dark hair like me. I think your blond hair would be a nice contrast.”

“What the hell!” I said. “I’ll do it. Thanks, Terry!”

“It’s Tracy.”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

The next weekend Tracy and I did our shoot on the grounds of an abandoned gristmill in rural Maryland. The photographer was patient although it was clear there was much I did not know about smiling. A true smile comes from the eyes, not the mouth, he explained. It’s the difference between the forced smile of a flight attendant and the natural smile of a child. And, it turns out, an open-mouth smile is good for catching flies, not good for modeling. The tongue just ends up being too prominent. Although most shots were ruined by my uncanny ability to blink the instant the shutter opened, one was salvageable and wound up on Tracy’s comp card.

#

Two months later, my phone rang. Tracy’s agent had noticed me on her card and wanted to know if I was interested in working as an extra on the movie Die Hard: With a Vengeance. He needed twenty blond guys who could pass for German terrorists, and couldn’t find enough local actors who fit the bill, so he opened the casting to the modeling ranks, which apparently now included me. Her agent leveled with me: he was desperate.

It sounded fun, plus I was a huge fan of the original Die Hard and its hero, Lt. John McClane. Before Die Hard, action stars were Nietzschian superheroes, uberconfident highly-trained vigilantes with an unflinching readiness for combat. Stallone often wanted us to consider his character’s tortured past, while Arnold just had fun pummeling his adversaries. But the point remained: their heroes were invincible. When they tangled with entire platoons of bad guys, you expected them to tie one arm behind their back to even the odds. Bruce Willis’s McClane, on the other hand, is reluctant and fallible and feels pain. He’s just a regular, blue-collar guy who doesn’t go looking for trouble, but always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’ll tangle with those Teutonic terrorists because he has no choice, but you know he’d rather be home watching the game, downing a sixer.

Die Hard was also on my mind because I’d recently seen it on network TV with the profanities dubbed over. In the climactic scene where Bruce Willis drops villain Alan Rickman out the skyscraper window, his line “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker!” became the deliciously daffy “Yippie-ki-yay, Mister Falcon!” which might have worked if Rickman’s character wasn’t named Hans Gruber.

Shooting took place over three nights in a warehouse in Jessup, Maryland. I was in charge of sales for a high-tech company at the time and we had a major proposal due, so this meant working all day in Northern Virginia, driving halfway to Baltimore, working from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. on set, then driving back to work and doing my best to stay conscious for 72 hours straight.

It was a foolish thing to do, but I asked myself, “How many times will I get to work on a movie set?” At work all the creativity I was supposed to put in the proposal went towards devising sneaky ways to catch a little sleep. The first day I shut the door to my office, threw paper clips all over the carpet, and laid down for a snooze with my feet a few inches from the door and my hands over the paper clips. When my boss opened the door, it banged against my feet, rousting me, and I pretended to be picking up the spilled clips.

He looked at me suspiciously and asked what was going on. I had to say something because there were several clues that things weren’t right with me. My hair was cropped ultra-short and slathered with perma-hold movie stylist hair goo. My bodily aroma was past its shelf-life; there simply wasn’t time to go home between the office and the set. And most suspicious of all, I was uncharacteristically wearing an olive green commando sweater with reinforced shoulder patches, matching rip-stop nylon assault pants, and combat boots—my Die Hard wardrobe.

“Uh, I read that book on guerrilla marketing you gave me. Very inspirational,” I said.

“I think you may be taking it too literally,” he said. “How’s the proposal coming?”

Zehr gut,” I lied. It was hard to break character.

The second day I curled up for a little catnap in my car at noon. I was dreaming of stealing billions in gold ingots from the Federal Reserve Bank in Manhattan and finally vanquishing that pesky troublemaker, John McClane. Boom, boom went our explosive charges. Boom, boom! I awoke to discover the only thing explosive in the vicinity was my boss’s temper as he pounded at my car window. I rubbed the crust out of my eyes and checked my watch: three p.m. This was the kind of company where people bragged about the overtime they put in and I was zonked out in the parking lot. I had to confess. I explained what was going on and he asked if this was a one-time thing. I assured him it was and for the first time that week, I was only lying to my boss unintentionally. I never expected to do it again. I was 32 years old and I’d been asked to work on exactly one movie, therefore, I figured this is the sort of thing that happens to a person once every 32 years or so.

Though I didn’t expect to do it again I wouldn’t have minded. Because back at the warehouse in Jessup I was having a rip-roarious time living out adolescent fantasies. I was dressed in a military uniform, toting an M16 carbine, pretending to be a badass. Plus our gang had trucks and helicopters and a secret hideout and all the beef jerky we could eat.

The first night director John McTiernan gathered the extras and said he needed “a great pitcher and a great catcher.” While my homophobic compatriots wasted precious seconds lewdly interpreting this request, I waved my arms like an idiot outside the Today Show window. Even though my hand-eye coordination is pitiful, I sensed an upgrade might be involved or at least a moment in the spotlight.

“Oh, pick me! Pick me!” I shrieked in a tone normally reserved for use by people signaling Coast Guard helicopters when they are stranded on roofs during floods. John made me the catcher and explained my enhanced role in the proceedings. We criminals were celebrating the completion of our caper. I would be seated atop a tractor-trailer and a comrade below would toss a wet, slippery bottle of champagne fourteen feet in the air at me. I was to reach out and catch the bottle without falling off the trailer, shake and open it as fast as I could, and spray the bubbly all over the head of Oscar-winner and thinking woman’s pin-up, Jeremy Irons. Jeremy would be standing directly below, so it would be disastrous to miss the bottle and treat his brooding face to high-velocity carbonation-propelled fragments of shattered glass.

As ill-suited as I was to be the Catcher, my partner the Tosser was even less so. He winged bottles in my general direction like I had a giant butterfly net to catch them and he was getting $100 for each end-over-end the bottle made in flight. Still, how hard could it be to catch a bottle a couple of times, I figured. Somewhere around the thirty-fifth take from the sixth camera angle I began to appreciate how painstakingly repetitive movie shoots could be. After each take a wardrobe assistant would blast Jeremy’s champagne-soaked hair and shirt with a blow dryer. Do not expect Givency to unveil “Burnt Champagne: The Fragrance” anytime soon.

Part of me wishes this incident had a more sanguinary climax. If only I could say that I dropped a bottle, blood was let, the production was halted, and I was banned for life from the movie industry. But something dramatic did take place that night. I experienced a kairotic moment of transformation that inaugurated in me a strange obsession with volunteering for things I was entirely unqualified for. I decided to say “yes” first and consider consequences later.

So the next night, when the stunt coordinator asked for a few volunteers for “something a little dangerous,” I jumped up and down and flailed my arms like Gilligan signaling a rescue ship off the lagoon. I think he chose me just to calm me down. In this scene Bruce Willis was flushing us from our lair. Trucks were pulling out of the warehouse with a few of us still on the roof of one of the tractor-trailers. Our job was to jump from the moving truck to a stationary truck. The speed wasn’t much—the truck was only going about ten miles per hour. The leap wasn’t far—the gap was only about five feet. But if we misjudged anything, the pavement was a long way down.

Apparently the bit was too tame to bother the stuntmen, but for me it was the pinnacle of daredevilry. I stretched and limbered up and double-knotted my shoelaces so I wouldn’t trip. As a kid raised on cop shows like Mannix and The Rockford Files, it had seemed to me then that adults spent much of their day jumping on and off the roofs of moving vehicles. At last my turn had come.

The director yelled “action,” the truck started moving, and I leapt the five foot chasm, knowing in my heart that this was surely how Evel Knievel felt jumping the double-decker buses at Wembley.

The final night I got to watch a truly hairy stunt—a pilot started up a helicopter in the warehouse and flew it right out the front door. The margin of error was only a few feet in any direction. What a world these movie people inhabited. Unlike the rest of us, they never lived the same day twice.

That morning I bid auf wiedersehen to my gang of gold thieves and left the Maryland warehouse for my Virginia office. On the drive, I took inventory of what I’d been given. I had been given a line to say: “Kameraden!” A toast to fallen comrades. The experienced extras gushed about what a rarity this was. I’d been given a more than fair paycheck when you tallied up the union wages, overtime, and sundries like night premiums, smoke pay, and meal penalties, fines the production company incurs if they don’t feed you on time. And the escapade made me eligible to join the Screen Actors’ Guild, whose Catch-22 rules say you can’t join the union until you book a union job, and by the way, you can’t get a union job without being in the union.

But the thing I valued most was being given responsibility for the structural integrity of Jeremy Irons’s skull based on nothing more than my assurances of my fitness for duty. I had been trusted by strangers on a movie set more than my corporate overlords who required three signatures just to buy a new stapler. And it got me thinking, maybe there are parts in the movies for people who can’t act, emote, craft characters, or cry on cue, but can reliably follow directions, like “catch the bottle” or “jump over there.” So, like all mortals who get a brush with show business, I fantasized about quitting my day job.

I got back to the office hoping to catch up on my work, then my sleep. But my boss called me into his office and forced my hand. He said my disappearing act during the proposal was very unprofessional and I needed to make a choice right there. He said, “What’s it going to be: government contracting or Hollywood?” which in my bleary, but giddy frame of mind sounded more like, “What’s it going to be: beets or chocolate?”

I might have mulled it over longer if he’d said something realistic like, “What’s it going to be: a regular paycheck, raises, bonuses, company-paid medical and dental insurance, and a 401(k) plan, or a world of perpetual unemployment and crushing disappointments, an excruciatingly difficult trail, littered with the carcasses of people far more talented than you?”

But deep down, I just didn’t want to be the kind of person who sells out his dream for a good dental plan. Even if that dream was only a few hours old. And utterly unrealistic. And conceived in a state of total sleep deprivation. So, in a move that my descendants will surely lament while they ponder their meager inheritances, I told him, “If you put it like that, I gotta go with Hollywood,” and walked out the door.

Posted in Essays, Hijinks, Show Business Humiliations

Nerdly by Nature

I began as a zygote. A mere one-celled organism, smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Hardly an auspicious beginning for a being of my towering ambition. My chances for a successful modeling career seemed impossibly remote. I was about 5 feet, 11.99 inches short of the minimum height requirement for male models. Oh sure, maybe I could be featured in some medical textbook, but that would never interest Elite. Furthermore my appearance left much to be desired, coated as I was entirely in my mother’s endometrial mucus.

As for the rarefied intellectual heights to which I would one day ascend, let’s just say my only chance of getting into college then was via a Petri dish. At that point in my life no one would invite me to a cocktail party. I was such a lightweight a single drop of alcohol would have killed me instantly. And cell division, not witty banter, was my forte. In less than a year, however, my obsession with mitosis paid off. I grew, gained strength, and burst forth onto the world. To my dismay, I found myself to be the youngest son of a middle-class family in central New York state, and not the scion of a rich and powerful family of globe-trotting adventurers.

We’ll return to my struggle to rise from obscurity in a moment, but first, a caveat. Most memoirs rehash familial relations. This is not one of them. If tragic family matters is what you seek, I refer you to the splendid reminiscences of Augusten Burroughs and Dave Eggers. Lesser works often strike me as peevish, blame-shifting tracts. “I’m all screwed up because my parents didn’t buy me a rubber ducky when I was two.”

I’m going to gloss over family business for two reasons: (1) my childhood was spectacularly untraumatic (severely handicapping my prospects for a career in the arts), and (2) if my parents, brother or sister want you to know their life story, they can write their own damn memoirs. But there are a few incidents worth recalling because I think they reveal certain leitmotifs to come.

My father was an electrical engineer for General Electric in Syracuse, New York. In his forty-year career he had several important discoveries (in radar and monolithic microwave circuits) and a few blunders (“proving” to GE management in the fifties that color television would never work). But hey, in 1932 Einstein said we’d never split the atom either. It takes a great mind to make a great mistake. In any case, he is the most highly educated, innately intelligent person I have ever known. British history, quantum physics, classical music, plate tectonics, you name it, he knows it. He is a true “renaissance man,” before the term came to mean basketball players who rap. His brain belongs in a bubbling beaker at Harvard with electrodes coming out of it, solving all the world’s problems.

Here’s an example. My sister is a radiologist. Recently the MRI machine at her hospital broke and no one, including the manufacturer’s technicians, could fix it. Time for a new MRI, right? As a last-ditch effort, she called our father, who has never seen an MRI in his life. In five minutes he walked them through the repair over the phone.

From the time I was five, my father and I spent Saturday mornings together. While other kids were out playing Little League, my father briefed me on the latest developments in astrophysics, biochemistry, and paleontology—topics my Weekly Reader’s relentless coverage of Monarch butterflies and Pilgrims left little space for. Grasping the intricacies of a discovery relating to say, supernovae, would typically require mathematical concepts beyond “Johnny has six apples,” so my father held sidebar discussions on the finer points of calculus and analytic geometry.

I enjoyed these lectures even if I only understood one percent of what he was saying. They made me feel important, like I was his little colleague, like we might be huddling together over a book of early hominid skulls and I’d turn a page and he’d suddenly yell, “Eureka, the missing link! Well done, lad!”

Subject to my father’s relentless tutelage, even a cocker spaniel couldn’t help but learn a few things and it wasn’t long before I brought my supplemental education into school. I suppose I could have kept silent when Miss Long taught our fifth grade class that negative numbers did not have square roots. But I was pretty sure they did and that these so-called imaginary numbers inhabited the vertical axis of the complex number plane. Surely, Miss Long, you’re familiar with the Euler Equation, eiπ + 1 = 0.

Besides correcting authorities, I had two other hobbies: comic books and coin collecting. Sometimes my hobbies cross-pollinated. When I was eleven I noticed a mistake in the Guinness Book of World Records. Guinness claimed the world’s largest bubble chamber at the Argonne National Laboratory contained 5,330 gallons of liquid hydrogen at -476° F. I didn’t know then—and I don’t know now—what a “bubble chamber” is, but I knew it can’t be at -476° F because it’s impossible to reach temperatures below absolute zero (-459.67° F), the temperature at which all molecular motion ceases. This factoid I gleaned from Metal Men comics.

A year earlier I had put my coin collecting knowledge to good use. The Price Chopper food chain had a logo with a Peace type silver dollar, an axe chopping through it, and the date 1932. Fine except, as any rabid ten year-old coin collector knows, Peace dollars were only minted from 1921 through 1928, and again in 1934 and 1935. So I wrote the president of Price Chopper. He wrote back, explaining that 1932 was chosen because it was the year the company was founded, but in forty years no one had ever brought its numismatic impossibility to their attention. For my troubles, he sent me a genuine silver dollar. It would seem a career in fact-checking beckoned. Little did I know it was a harbinger of my madness for trivia later in life.

#

If my father taught me value of pi, my mother taught me the value of publicity. After each fault-finding stunt she would take me to the local newspaper and trot me out for their obliging reporters. Articles followed and my reputation grew. Teachers became accustomed to me correcting mistakes in their textbooks. It’s good for your grade point average when teachers trust your response over their own answer keys.

My mother had a surprisingly liberal attitude toward actual school attendance. On beautiful days, she would encourage me to skip. “Give those knuckle draggers a chance to catch up,” she’d say.

My mother also abetted my entrepreneurial instincts. A child of the Depression she was always open to any idea I had for making a dollar out of fifteen cents. I think she fancied herself a grifter and me her little Addie Pray.

One of our best capers happened when I was thirteen. Canada Dry stuck two-for-one movie passes in their ginger ale six packs. I visited all the grocery stores in town and plucked the shelves clean of these coupons. I was too young to drive so my mom was the wheelman. Movies cost $4 then, so I figured I could accost moviegoers in theater parking lots and sell two-for-one passes for at least $2. Could I ever! “Wow, you could choke a horse with that wad,” my mother said, inspecting the $300 I garnered the first night. This went on for a week, until there were no more coupons left in Onondaga County.

I didn’t need calculus to see it beat the hell out of a paper route.

Posted in Essays, Youthful Follies

Naked Ambition

I didn’t always frequent tanning salons, shave my bikini zone, and wear four layers of underwear on the job. But then, I wasn’t always a stripper. Why strip? The Full Monty. I was bugged by the lengths the filmmakers went to establish the characters’ financial desperation. As if the only acceptable reason a man might consider stripping is because there are no other jobs available for hundreds of miles. Bollocks! I could imagine a man who might want to try stripping just for the hell of it, before he turns 40, before his body turns pear-shaped, before “let me get undressed” becomes a threat. Besides, if letters to Penthouse have taught us anything it’s that all sorts of interesting things happen to male strippers.

After watching The Full Monty I stood naked before a full-length mirror, considering such a man, tabulating my assets and liabilities. In the minus column: the rhythm of Ted Koppel, the grace of a freshly-birthed elk, and a physique that evokes Chipwich not Chippendales. In the plus column: a total and utter lack of shame.

I belonged to a gym, but had no results for my $600. Apparently, you have to show up. So I buckled down and hit the gym every night for a week. This made me sore in places I didn’t even know I had places. I wondered if there might be an easier solution—better lifting through chemistry, so to speak. Now I’m far too much of a wuss to try steroids, plus nobody wants to see a stripper with testicles shrunk to raisins. So I opted for a marginally-safer steroid precursor known as androstenedione. Andro is not a steroid, but your body turns it into one. It’s the supplement Mark McGwire admitted using when he hit seventy home runs in 1998. Of course, after his testimony before Congress, I’m guessing he was using something a bit more potent as well, like gorilla stem cells. Anyway, Andro had two main effects: First, it gave me splitting headaches. Second, it made my muscles grow like kudzu. I barely had to lift. If I looked at a barbell my biceps got bigger. It’s probably a good thing Congress banned this witch’s potion in early 2005. In five weeks my metamorphosis was complete and I became reacquainted with abdominal muscles I hadn’t seen since The Police topped the charts.

I called the only heterosexual male strip club in my area, The Golden Banana. The manager said I’d need body photos to apply, so I took my camera to the gym and asked some guy to shoot me flexing. He agreed and started focusing. I felt like I should explain what the photos were for and said, “These are for a job application. I’ve decided to become a stripper.” Suddenly his attitude changed and this gym rat handed me back the camera as if it were an actual rat. Clearly I’d crossed some line I didn’t even know existed. An amazon volunteered to help and managed to snap some pix without crushing the camera in her meaty paws.

That weekend my girlfriend and I went on a group tubing trip on the Shenandoah River. Since tan lines on a stripper are as attractive as water rings on a mahogany dresser, I opted for a nut-hugging International Male spandex bikini racer. Predictably, I was mocked by the other guys, who thought it axiomatic that the only acceptable male swim attire is knee-length jams or cut-off jeans. There was no turning back now. I was Thongman, outcast among men.

Flesh bronzed and abs crunched, I was ready to approach the Golden Banana. “I’d like to apply to be a male performer,” I said to the world-weary hostess, realizing too late the word male was probably extraneous. She looked at my photos and led me upstairs to meet the owner for an interview.

Bruno Romano is not the sort of guy you picture running a strip joint, mainly because he looks exactly like Al from Happy Days. Bruno assured me all his strippers were straight. His raised eyebrows and the pronounced lull in our conversation led me to believe he was waiting for me to volunteer my allegiance. I tried to be cute and said, “Count me not among the men who are good with flowers,” but Bruno looked unconvinced, probably due to the sheer gayness of what I’d just said.

I wanted to cinch the deal so I dropped trou and showed Bruno my new bod. “Your ankles are too narrow. You’ll need ankle warmers to hide them and split sole jazz shoes,” he said. Ankle warmers? Jazz shoes? What am I: Jennifer Beals? “If you can dance I can use you,” Bruno said, “so think of a stage name, kid. Something with pizzazz.”

I’d always heard that your stripper name is your first pet coupled with the first street you lived on. Or was that supposed to be your porn star name? In any case, Julie the dog and I grew up on Southfield Drive. Hm, “Julie Southfield”— sounds more like an action news reporter. No help there. Could have been worse though. I could have had a cat named Tuna-Breath and been born on 69th Street. I considered names with strong sexual connotations like “Dirk Diggler” or “William Jefferson Clinton,” then immodestly decided on “Sundance” since I was once told I looked like a young Redford. It sounded better than “Finch,” in honor of the celeb I’m most often told I resemble, David Spade. And—bonus—it had “dance” built right into the name. It worked on so many levels! I was sure the women who came to drool over male flesh would appreciate a stripper who puts that little extra effort into onomastics.

Next I needed a persona. Bruno explained that all his strippers have a shtick. There’s cowboy stripper, construction worker stripper, policeman stripper, UPS delivery guy stripper, all the male fantasy archetypes/Village People. We decided on tuxedo stripper for me.

Bruno invited me to watch Saturday night’s show so I went, girlfriend in tow. In the annals of bad date history surely this must rank. I took a girl to a strip club in a skeevy part of town, then made her wait in the car for two hours (she did forget her ID) while I went inside and watched men strip. Our drive home was long and silent. Watching the ladies get hot and bothered that night, I realized women have a healthier attitude towards stripping than men. They don’t filter their emotions. They hoot and holler and you don’t have to wonder what they’re thinking. When guys watch women strip, they get this inscrutable glossy-eyed stare, like they’re thinking, I wonder if her severed head would fit in my freezer. I was shocked to learn that the cardinal rule of female stripping (don’t squeeze the Charmin) does not apply to male performers. When the guys work the crowd for tips, they wade through a sea of groping hands that resemble a giant human car wash.

The next week I visited a used formal wear shop, where old tuxes go to die. Hiding amid the powder blue travesties was a standard black penguin suit in my size. I bought it and took it to my favorite Korean tailor to line the inseams with Velcro so I could rip the pants off with a flourish—the male stripper signature move. Mr. Kim had never been asked to make “breakaway pants” before and seemed puzzled. Hoping he might understand if I just spoke louder, I yelled, “I must be able to rip these pants off my body! I am a stripper! I take my clothes off in front of women for money!” An elderly woman picking up her quilt fled the shop aghast.

My final stop was the club’s seamstress to measure me for custom T-backs and slings, male equivalents of thongs and G-strings. The fitting wasn’t nearly as risqué as I’d imagined. Her list of measurements did not include penis girth, ball displacement, or asscrack contour.

Sunday afternoon I went back to the Banana to work with the troupe’s star and choreographer, Michael Casanova. Without the raucous crowds and flashing strobes, the place felt a lot less intimidating. The air had the wet cardboardy smell of stale beer mixed with a lingering sticky-sweet hint of appletinis and perfume from the night before. Maybe I was just imagining it, but I thought I could smell the hormones. I paced the stage, waiting for Casanova, trying to convince myself that this turf would soon be mine. He showed up an hour late, took one look at me and said, “Are you gay?”

“Do I look gay to you?” I said.

“Kind of, yeah.” This coming from a man wearing satin hot pants and a lace-up pirate shirt.

I tried to put him at ease and said, “People always think I’m gay when they first see me… taking it in the butt in an alley behind a gay nightclub.” Clearly I hadn’t learned my lesson about snarky answers to this question.

“What’s with all the homophobia around here?” I asked.

“I got nothing against gays. It’s just that all the dancers are straight and we want to keep it that way. When you’re backstage getting dressed you don’t want your buddy checking you out.”

“It’s funny. Most people think you guys are gay.”

“Total myth,” said Casanova. “But we encourage it. It’s the only reason guys let their women come to places like this. They tell their girl, ‘What are you getting all excited about? Those male strippers are all gay, you know.’ Then after the show their wives and girlfriends are back in the dressing room giving us blow jobs.”

“And I thought casual Friday was a nice perk,” I said.

I’d seen Casanova work his magic the prior Saturday night. He’s a former nationally-ranked gymnast and truly Lord of the Strip. His energetic dance style, gymnastic antics, and unpredictability make him the crowd favorite. He’s as likely to break into the funky chicken during a strip as he is to backflip into a split. Casanova tried to teach me the tricks of the trade, but his terpsichorean techniques aren’t easily adopted by mere mortals. A Casanovism: “If I can’t think what to do next, I just do a series of five back handsprings. By then I’ll have come up with something.” Thanks. I’ll file that tip right next to “recommended polishes for Oscar statuettes.”

I asked Casanova about more practical issues. “I saw you guys chomp dollar bills out of the women’s hands,” I said. “I’m not too wild about using my mouth as a wallet. I read a study that said that 94 percent of U.S. currency is covered with disease-causing bacteria.”

“If you don’t want to bite the bills, let the girls stuff ‘em in your sling,” Casanova said. This did nothing to alleviate my anxiety as I imagined paper cuts down there.

“Couldn’t I just carry some sort of basket, like an Easter basket, and have the women put their money it that?” I asked. Casanova laughed, thinking I was kidding.

Nervously I asked, “What about, you know, stuffing? Do any of the guys stuff?”

“Dangerous,” said Casanova. “It’s great until the stuffing falls out in the middle of your act. I’ve seen it. You don’t want that to happen to you.” We both shudder.

As an homage to my thwarted dream of becoming a secret agent, I chose Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill” as my audition song. It worked perfectly with the tux, sort of a James Bond motif. Casanova thought it a bold choice—the song’s sultry vocals, break beats, and high-energy crescendos made it a first-rate stripping song, though a bit advanced for a rookie. Casanova worked with me for hours choreographing it, then he tossed me a bottle of Johnson’s Baby Oil and said, “Rub this all over your body. It’ll give your muscles definition. Time for your audition.” Gulp. He rounded up all the waitresses, barmaids, and female strippers in the place and told me to strip for them. Coach Casanova barked last-second pointers: “Remember to smile, move your arms, don’t look at yourself in the mirror, don’t lip-synch, and don’t wiggle your ass.” Damn, I thought. Wiggling my ass, lip-synching to the song was pretty much my fallback plan in case I forgot the routine. Then he pressed “Play” and jolted the bar with Roger Taylor’s dramatic drum crashes and Simon Le Bon’s tenor wail.

Disrobing in front of these woman should have been nerve-racking but I had plenty of other worries to occupy my mind. I focused on not slipping on mineral oil slicks, not tripping over the smoke machines, staying in the spotlights, making eye contact, doing spins without losing my balance, and ignoring their yawns and drumming Lee press-on nails.

To say I didn’t turn the girls on is an understatement. In fact, if you had some gunpowder you needed kept in a cool, dry place, their panties would have been an ideal location.

Tammy, a stripper who was hotter than vindaloo curry, began the critique. “Sit down, this is going to take a while. For starters your rhythm is way off. Can you even snap to the beat of the song?” I couldn’t.

A waitress reminisced about a stripper named Paris’s audition. “God, he made me cream. He was built like a brick shithouse.”

“How would you describe me,” I asked. Judging from their expressions, whatever make of shithouse I resembled definitely wasn’t brick.

A barmaid asked what my stage name was. “Sundance,” I said.

Suckdance is more like it,” she said. Zing! My carefully chosen moniker had backfired.

Fishing for praise, I asked if I was at least a better stripper than Chris Farley in his zany Saturday Night Live Chippendales sketch.

“You could use some of his energy,” a little minx observed.

“Can I ask you something?” said a waitress. “Are you gay?”

“Straight as a dog’s hind leg,” I said.

“Good. For a moment I thought you were gay,” she said.

When the girls finished eviscerating my performance, Casanova offered his opinion. “I admit, he’s no John Travolta on the dance floor, but we’re a man short for the show. If he trains with me every day for a month I think I can make a stripper out of him.” Since things were getting serious I thought it might be a good time to pull Casanova aside to talk economics. He explained that a Saturday night at the club runs seven hours, from 7:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., and pays $250 in salary and tips on a good night. He casually mentioned that freelance strippers for bachelorette parties and such make $250 an hour. Two hundred fifty bucks for seven hours versus one hour? It didn’t take Alan Greenspan to see that freelancing is the better deal. So, even though I wasn’t exactly finished goods, I bailed from the Golden Banana and its month-long stripper boot camp and resolved to become a freelance stripper. Except I had absolutely no idea how to get bookings. Then I remembered my friend, Bridget.

Bridget was a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia who moonlighted as a topless masseuse. She was also one of the first college girls in America to set up a fee-based webcam in her dorm room. Devotees of bridgetcam spent hours watching tiny grainy images of Bridget’s room on crawly dial-up modems, perhaps hoping to catch a glimpse of her reading A History of Medieval Christianity in the nude. Bridget relished her secret life. Schoolgirl by day! Streetwalker by night! Her daddy was a Master of the Universe on Wall Street and mommy was ultra-religious, so her madonna/whore fixation was nicely wrapped up in parental authority/rebellion issues.

If anybody I knew had a pimp in their Rolodex, surely it was Bridget. She did. Rejoice, oh parents of mine, your dreams for me have come true. No longer must you stand idly by, holsters empty, while this neighbor rat-a-tat-tats you with tales of her son’s latest corporate triumph and that neighbor strafes you with pictures of a new granddaughter. Return fire, alert the alumni update editor, slip it in the annual Christmas letter, shout it from the rooftops: “At last our son has a pimp—a big black ex-con named Damon.”

Damon got me my first professional stripping gig: a birthday party for a 24 year-old in Culpepper, Virginia. The first thing I discovered is there really is no discreet way to walk up to an apartment when you’re wearing a tuxedo and carrying a boom box. The whole situation just screams, Yo, who ordered the stripper? Passersby correctly sized up the situation and shot knowing glances my way. I stood outside the door for a second, listened to the giggles coming from inside, and gauged the intoxication level (spring break) and crowd size (standing room only).

I went in and finally got to experience the thrill of taking off my clothes in front of a roomful of women for cash. Oddly, it didn’t bother me one bit—seemed completely natural. Without the Golden Banana’s fussing over production value and triple spins and jazz hands, it’s a lot easier. I discovered my own peculiar stripping style. I’m less a dancer, more a prancer. And I think I lack the undulation gene. But the gals, eyes locked on the package, didn’t seem to mind. I encouraged audience participation and gamboled about the room doing something different with every girl. I tangoed with one, hopped in another’s lap, massaged the birthday girl’s feet, and coaxed one into rubbing mineral oil all over my body to the tune of Cathy Dennis’s “Touch Me.” I gave piggy-back rides and did push-ups with girls straddling my back. One saucy wench pantomimed fellatio on me. They lapped whipped cream off my happy trail and slurped tequila shots from my navel. One woman exclaimed, “I’ve got to get my five-year old into this career! He loves dancing around the living room in his underwear!” It was bawdy and silly, more playful than sexy.

The only awkward period was the après-strip. The women invited me to stay. Why not, I figured. Fully clad again, I discovered how tough it is to segue from stripper to party guest. The mood was, So, now that you’ve clutched my butt cheeks and rode me like a bronco, how ‘bout that situation in Bosnia? They realized they didn’t really want to see me as a real human being and the feeling was mutual. Get in, get out—that became my motto. That first night I raked in $250 for the hour plus $60 in tips. On the way home I bought dinner with my ill-gotten gains and it occurred to me that I now, in effect, will drop pants for food.

And so it went, month after month. I did birthday parties, bachelorette parties, divorce parties, and girls night out parties. Every strip was different. Some girls went buck wild. Others trembled with fear, saying over and over, “Oh my God, what if my boyfriend finds out?” Generally, younger women are the most timid. The older ones know what they want. “Do this. Do that. Bend over. Touch your toes. On your knees. Sit on my lap.”

I made it a policy not to strip all the way—to stop at the g-string. Actually, my girlfriend made this policy. But I concurred. Leave something to the imagination, right? This worked fine until the night I was hired to strip for a house of sorority girls. They had a formal that evening and when I arrived they were wearing little black dresses and had been drinking mai tais from penis straws all afternoon. The half-hour strip was rowdy and hands-on. When I reached the end, they were in a lather and started chanting, “Take it off, take it off.” I smiled, shook my head, and bent over to pick up my scattered clothes. Their hands clawed at my flimsy G-string. “Take it off!”

Snap!

Here’s the lowdown on my gear. My manhood is a skittish appendage, a rabbity sort, prone to hiding at the slightest hint of pressure or danger. And so, when the strap on my banana hammock broke, I was not surprised when a baby carrot tumbled out. Mortified and humiliated, yes, but not surprised. They stared silently for a few seconds then someone said, “Aw, it’s so cute!” “Humungous” is good. “Terrifying” is good. “Cute?” Not so good.

As I reassembled myself the girls whipped out cell phones and started dialing boyfriends and ex-boyfriends, saying, “I am so horny. Get over here right now! You can’t make it? Your loss.” Click. Then they dialed the next guy. A bunch of guys have my lame strip to thank for the bootie call they got that evening.

Now I am not going to psychoanalyze myself here. That’s for my friends, in-laws, and a cabal of excoriating ex-girlfriends to do behind my back. And I am certainly not going to suggest that my compulsion to be desired by a roomful of women has anything to do with lingering emotional scars left by Dana Gordon’s rejecting my maladroit passes in Fayetteville Elementary. But there was something exhilarating about being objectified. Stencil “Three Feet—No Diving” on my forehead and call me shallow, but it was fun to be lusted after. Before I became a stripper I took it as a matter of faith that anyone who went to M.I.T. for rocket science could never be seen as a sex object.

Male stripping, I realized, was about toppling the natural balance of power. It was about making women nervous around me instead of the reverse. Women who would have given me the brush-off had we met in a bar lost their cool when Suckdance strutted into their living room. Such is the awesome power of breakaway pants. My girlfriend failed to grasp these monumental sociological implications and grew suspicious. “Aren’t you about done with your little experiment?” she asked.

“Oh no. I think I’m on the verge of a breakthrough in my research on the effects of ecdysiastic stimuli on intoxicated females. A few more months should do it.”

In the end it wasn’t jealousy that made me hang up my G-string. It was the diet and exercise regimen. It’s hard work staying in stripping condition. There’s no place to hide excess flab when you’re nearly naked, a dozen women circling you, your every imperfection illuminated by blazing halogen torchieres. As much fun as it is to be pawed by dewy-eyed, nubile young things, I missed French fries too much.

_______________

This essay originally appeared in somewhat different form in Penthouse, P.O.V., Complete Woman, and Generation Next.

Posted in Crimes of the Heart, Essays, Hijinks

Spaceplanes

Prof. Kosta Tsipis

Professor Kosta Tsipis, my MIT thesis advisor, had no qualms about biting the hand that fed me. Kosta is a brilliant nuclear physicist, a world-renowned arms control expert, and a major pain in the rectum to anyone who thinks the world needs more weaponry. He and I were suffering through a presentation by a recruiter from Rockwell International, a defense contractor the size of Neptune. As a Rockwell Fellow, my attendance at this meeting was the one obligation I had to the company that funded my graduate education. Kosta was there to throw spitballs.

“Rockwell also manufactures the inertial navigation system for the Peacekeeper ICBM,” the recruiter said.

“The Peacekeeper?” said Kosta, “I suppose it carries peaceheads, not warheads.” I kicked him under the table. I loved Kosta’s sardonic wit, but wanted to at least appear gracious to the company that had forked over $20,000 on my behalf.

The recruiter cleared his throat and continued, “Let’s move on to our crown jewel. As you know, Rockwell is the prime contractor for the fleet of space shuttle orbiters, the only launch vehicle with a perfect reliability record.”

Just then the recruiter’s assistant entered the room, his face as pale as Marilyn Manson. They conferred briefly, then the recruiter grasped the table to steady himself and ended his pitch with, “There’s been an accident at the Cape. The Challenger just exploded.”

I’ll never forget where I was at 11:45 a.m. on January 28, 1986—indelibly learning that timing is everything.

#

Six months earlier Kosta had persuaded me to do my master’s thesis on a new joint NASA-Pentagon project called the National Aerospace Plane (NASP). Depending on whom you talked to and what day of the week it was, the NASP was going to be either a space launch vehicle capable of taking off like an airplane and flying directly into orbit, or a civilian hypersonic transport capable of flying from New York to Tokyo in two hours, or a scramjet-powered military bomber. It probably sliced and diced too.

I was eager to take it on because by examining both the technical feasibility and the policy implications of the NASP I could fulfill the requirements for two master’s degrees—one in aerospace engineering, the other in public policy—with a single thesis. I’m not one to pass up a two-for-one deal on toilet paper, so I sure wasn’t going to pass it up on master’s degrees.

Plus, I smelled blood in the water. The entire aerospace industry was licking its sharky chops and gearing up for a good old-time defense contractor feeding frenzy at the taxpayer’s, uh, wounded swimmer. Okay, that metaphor spun out of control. What I’m saying is the NASP’s nebulous justifications made it clear this was a project in search of a mission. I’m all for research and innovation, but the more I dug, the more I realized this wasn’t science; it was science fiction. To withstand the searing heat of flight through the atmosphere at Mach 25, this beast needed a hull made from that rarest of elements, unobtainium. Hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent with little more than viewgraphs to show for it. Congress was being asked for billions of dollars to build a vehicle that was utterly dependent on nonexistent technologies. The whole thing looked like a giant boondoggle, but I knew that if I criticized the project I was going to anger a lot of people who were suckling at the NASP teat and virtually every potential employer of an aerospace engineering graduate. The smart thing to do would be write something safe, insipid, and wishy-washy. On the one hand, NASP might work. On the other hand, it might not.

But I’ve never been one to do the smart thing. So, in my thesis, I ripped the National Aerospace Plane a new one. I shot down its technologies, skewered its cost estimates, and savaged its utility. I wrote that NASP advocates were guilty of “hypersonic hyperbole,” an obvious choice of words perhaps, but soon it was getting quoted all over, from technical journals to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Science, and Fortune. One day a batch of European press clippings arrived from Amsterdam and lo and behold, a whole contingent of Dutch relatives whom I never knew existed were smoked out of hiding. It wasn’t that “hyper-hyper” was so clever, it’s just that journalists have to balance proponents with opponents, and I wasn’t ammunition for the opposition. I was the opposition.

The House Committee on Appropriations used my thesis to lambaste Department of Defense officials in hearings. Maybe Kosta’s gadfly sensibilities were rubbing off on me, but it was fun to be the guy who says, “The emperor has no clothes.”

Technology Review magazine asked me to adapt my thesis as a cover story. I did, then that article won a science journalism award. I didn’t know it had been nominated. It was never my dream to become famous for Pentagon-bashing, but I became the media’s go-to guy for an anti-NASP sound bite.

And then, something really bizarre happened. James Fallows reviewed my thesis in The New York Review of Books. Never before and never since have they reviewed a college thesis. But in December 1986, they did.

What’s the point of all this self-congratulation? A simple question: was all this attention due to my scintillating writing? Or was I in the right place (with a report on the future of the U.S. space program) at the right time (one year after the Challenger disaster)? I gotta go with timing.

#

As expected, by graduation I’d pretty much pissed off the entire aerospace industry. Criticizing their most grandiose plans is not a skill they tend to value highly. So I decided to apply to the one place that valued dumping on technological white elephants, the now-defunct Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). OTA’s mission was to give Members of Congress nonpartisan analyses of scientific topics, and occasionally inform them that gene splicing has nothing to do with mending a pair of ripped Levis, or that it’s nuclear, not “nucular,” energy that they are violently opposed to.

I called OTA to verify the spelling of the name of the person in charge of their aerospace branch, Richard DalBello. Rather than spell it for me the receptionist just patched me through to him. Our conversation went like this:

“Hi, my name is Steve Altes. Could I get the spelling of…”

“Did you say Steve Altes?”

“Yes.”

“That’s amazing because this very moment I’m reading your Technology Review article about the National Aerospace Plane. I agree with everything you wrote and I’d like you to come work for me. How soon can you start?”

Did I mention it’s all about timing?

Posted in Collegiate Capers, Essays, Space Cases