THIS MORNING MY intern read my tea leaves, and explained to me, with great care, how the philosophy works. He also wears a suit and tie to work every day, and why he doesn’t splash both of these distinctive facts across the top of his resume and Twitter page, I’ll never know. I’ve been an independent publicist for about a decade, and many people have asked to be my intern over the years, a request I always politely declined for myriad reasons. This year, however, I resolved to be more open, generally, and when, soon after, I received a letter from a young woman studying in Scotland and looking for more experience in the publishing industry, I said yes. Well, first I spoke to her on Skype. After I ended the conversation, I noticed my avatar of old, long hair swirling past my shoulders, a crimson pout, and perched at an insouciant tilt, a pair of black satin bunny ears.
That experience worked out, and just as she was returning to her studies, an equally appealing missive from the afore-mentioned mystic appeared in my in-box. At first I thought that most of what I would talk about with young people would be job preparation in the technical sense. Then I realized that publicity has changed so much that technicality flew out the window about eight years ago when I started freelancing full time instead of only on the side. Whatever works is whatever goes now. Instead, we talk mostly about failure, which is the one thing I wish had been better explained to me when I was truly young. Heartbreak, disappointment, and the inexplicable – and explicable – absence of success, while in no way preferable to joy, speed up your essential evolution.
At 24, I was in need of full-time employment, and with my fascination with the internet clouding every conversation (this was 2003 and 2004, mind you), they all ended with some newspaper-mouth-feel-fetishizing condescension about how what I wanted to do wasn’t actually a job. I lived in Tribeca with my boyfriend at the time and he humored me as I went on discouraging interviews and attempted to bolster the minute connections I had into some shaky semblance of supporting myself. In return, he asked only that I stop replying “nothing” when people asked me what I did at dinner parties. Every morning when he got ready to go to his job supervising a team of reporters and media critics, I would rouse myself into semi-consciousness long enough to ask, “Can I have five dollars for breakfast?” At some point after he knotted his tie and slipped on his suit jacket, he would leave me a bill, while saying in his mock-exasperated tone, “Sure, Breakfast,” and although I hardly ever opened my eyes, I can still recall him trying to hide his smile. After a while, it became our joke that my memoir would be called “Five Dollars for Breakfast.”
I would always spend the money on coffee downstairs, and once I had it, I would go around the corner to a hair salon that kept an eel in a fish tank in the front window, which I would watch for up to half an hour. For months, I thought the eel and the resident goldfish co-existed peacefully. Once the truth was pointed out to me, I watched in even more rapt attention, although I never saw it go in for the kill. “Did you look for a job today?” I would be asked at dinner. “Yes, of course,” I would reply. “And how long did you watch the fish?” “Just passed by,” I’d answer. I don’t think I ever thought I’d amount to more than that then, just as this morning, it seemed as though there’d be no way for me to ever slow down enough to live my life. It’s not always easy to see. As I’ve stopped making money the center of my existence, I’ve had to come up with other definitions of happiness and other ways of tapping its source. Today I walked from Union Square to my apartment in Lower Manhattan, and along the way I passed through Chinatown, where I lived for five years after I left that boyfriend, as foolish as that may have appeared to be.
I lived in a tiny studio, building my career steadily due in no small part to my manageable rent. I nurtured the littlest garden on my sliver of a balcony, and strolled the lonesome neighborhood when I became tired of sitting on my bed or one of two chairs. I often felt like a failure, and yet I knew that my steady work, day by day, could add up to something.
These are the stories I tell my interns, and myself when I wonder how it will all turn out, and whether I’m going in the right direction. “It’s interesting,” my reader remarked as he swirled the cup this morning. “Usually there’s an area in the leaves just over here, called The Ocean of Uncertainty, but you don’t seem to have that.”
“No,” I agreed. “I never do.”