Friday, December 30, 2005

Closed-Captioning the Playboy Channel

Back in my down-and-out days in New York City, I went
on many job interviews. For the most part, these were
dispiriting episodes that involved sitting before some stone-
faced human resources character as they agonizingly un-
covered my utter lack of practical skills. One, however, was
quite different. This was the time when I went to talk to
someone about maybe becoming a closed-captioner for the
Playboy Channel.

The Playboy Channel, by the way, used to be closed-caption-
ed at an undistinguished looking house on an unsung street in
the middle of Maspeth, Queens. I rode the “G” train up there
in my hand-me-down suit and I stood outside for a long time,
squinting at the street number and then squinting at the add-
ress scrawled on a small slip of paper. When I was finally
certain that they were the same, I fixed my hair, went up
the steps, and rang the bell.

A few seconds later, a guy a few years older than me opened
the door and gave me a couple of once-overs. “What, are
you sellin’ something?” he asked.

“I’m here about the job,” I said.

“Ah, so you’re sellin’ yourself, right? Am I right?”

I nodded in my shy, Midwestern way and he shouted, “Well,
we don’t want any of that!” Laughing, he slammed the door
in my face. I sighed and waited there for a moment and,
sure enough, he opened the door again and beckoned me
in. “C’man, c’man,” he said, “I was just kiddin’ with you.
You’ve got to talk to Jimmy, right? Jimmy the Owner?”

“I guess so,” I said as he brought me into a living room
filled floor-to-ceiling with electronic equipment of a sort
I had never seen before. There were lots of flashing lights
and long rows of tiny dials, slots the size of professional-
grade tapes and a hundred inscrutable gauges.

“Fancy, huh? I’m Norman. I do odd stuff around here.
Where you from?”

“St. Paul. In Minnesota.”

“Barely heard of it. Not a lotta Jews there?”

“There’s a few.”

“A few. I’m from Passaic.”

“My mother’s from Paterson originally.”

“So you know. I’ll tell Jimmy the Owner you’re here. He’s a
Lebanese, but he’s alright. Be straight with him and he’ll like
you.” Norman told me and then he disappeared down a narrow
hallway. Left alone there, I took the opportunity to gaze at the
heaps of machinery around me. It was all very baffling. It
occurred to me then that, from the outside, the house looked
like any old house, while the inside looked like some sort of
super-clandestine spy operation. There was no furniture,
only the barest sort of carpeting, and whatever decorations
the walls held were too dull for me to take notice of them.
However, I didn’t get much time to snoop around before
Norman came back and said, “You can go back now. He
ain’t doin’ anything.”

I did as I was told and came to a small office. There, an
olive-skinned man sat behind a 1950s-style military-
surplus metal desk. He had a shock of impossibly-black
hair and he was wearing a button-down dress shirt much
too small for him. They way it bulged and stretched over
his big, blocky body made me think of a still frame from
the middle of one of Bruce Banner’s transformations into
the Incredible Hulk. “Hello,” he said, “I am Jimmy. The
Owner. You are Kevin, no?”

I said yes, shook his mighty hand, and sat down across
from him. What commenced then was perhaps the most
rambling job interview ever held anywhere at any time in
human history. It started out with a brief discussion of the
beauty of Lebanon and then segued right away into a ser-
ious, focused talk about Long Island’s endemic traffic pro-
blems. Somewhere after that, I must have mentioned why
I thought I was qualified for the job, but I remember more
a long, detailed lecture on how the Clinton Administration
was the best thing to happen to the closed-captioning
community since cable television. I also remember him
saying at one point, apropos of nothing, “My philosophy
of business is that it’s like a family. Except that a business
makes money.” From there, we detoured for awhile onto
the subject of how much of a blessing it is to have a house
full of daughters and then spoke casually for a few minutes
about whether the Mets would always be such shitheel
losers what with that Mike Piazza. Finally, he told me
that–hypothetically, were I hired–he’d start me off
doing some Playboy stuff (“since the dialogue, it’s not
so much, you know?”) and, if I proved myself with that,
he’d gradually work me up until I was handling one of their
more challenging clients, the Surgery Channel (“They’ve
got all these words for the body parts, you see. Most
people, they don’t know them.”). This was, of course,
assuming I was hired. He gave me an indulgent smile and
then told me that, a lot of times, you go to one of these fancy
new Manhattan restaurants and they serve you only a little
bit of food and expect you to pay fifty dollars for it. “That, to
me, is the ridiculousness of this country,” he explained. Then,
and fairly abruptly, Jimmy the Owner stopped talking, put
his hands together, and looked hard at me. His heavy eye-
brows bundled together and his nostrils let out a slow, sig-
nificant breath. When it was over, he rose up and asked,
“Tell me, kid. You want to have a look around?”

I said I did. He then led me to the captioning room. It was
here that I made the curious discovery that the Playboy
Channel, in the late parts of this last century, happened to
be closed-captioned by a small army of incredibly-attractive,
22-25 year old, post-art school women. They all sat at sep-
arate television screens, their fingernails clicking on keyboards
and their ears encased in puffy, high-fidelity headphones.
Even though they couldn’t hear us, Jimmy the Owner at-
tempted to introduce me to several of them. “This is Simone.
Simone does this modern dance. Here we have Annalisa,
Annalisa is a sculptress. She makes the sculptures, you know?
Ahhh! You see Sue Quan! She is a film-maker!”

It was all quite overwhelming. After “meeting” several of
these women, Jimmy the Owner decided that I had seen
enough of the captioning-room. “Now I will introduce you
to Kenneth!” he declared and pulled me, still stunned and
gape-mouthed, down the hall. We soon came to a room
that was, if anything, even more overloaded with gadgetry
than the first room I had been in. Here a bespectacled
African-American presided over a thousand knobs and
buttons and whatever else. “Kenneth, this is Kevin!
Kevin, it is Kenneth!” Jimmy the Owner said and we shook
hands under his benevolent gaze. “Kenneth, you will tell
Kevin just what you have done here,” he urged, at which
point Kenneth proceeded to tell me, in awe-inspiring detail,
just what goes into your average closed-captioning venture.
I didn’t follow any of it, but Jimmy the Owner lapped it up.
As I nodded and strained to make my face seem intelligent,
I could hear him behind me, echoing the words he was par-
ticularly fond of: “digital streaming interface” and “slow-speed
playback” and “transverse algorithmic patterns”. When he
had his fill, he grabbed my hand, pumped it up and down,
and said, “I have to attend to some matters. It was a
pleasure. We will be contacting you. It was a pleasure.
Norman will be showing you out.”

Norman, indeed, had appeared in the room just a moment
before. Jimmy the Owner clapped him on the back before
disappearing from the room. “Nice to meet you,” Kenneth
said as I was guided out of his lair.

“Did you understand a word of that? You can tell me,”
Norman said as we made our way out to the front room.

“Not very much,” I confessed.

“Not very much. I love it. They’re going to hire you.”

“You think so?”

“Listen to him. I know so. Get outta here,” he said as
he opened the door. I thanked him and went out. He
was right, too. Three weeks later Kenneth called me up
and offered me the job. I didn’t take it, though. By then
I had found one that I thought would be a lot better. It
certainly paid me more, and it gave me dental benefits. I
was excited to get dental benefits. At the time, apparently,
I’d rather have had dental benefits than get paid to sit in
a stuffy room with a bunch of beautiful artsy women,
closed-captioning the Playboy Channel.

I didn’t have my priorities together back then, I guess.