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SignificantOther.com

first performed at Alice Radio's Dotcomarama Festival

 

I have a confession to make …

This is really hard for me…

Journalists are supposed to take vows of poverty …

Avoid conflicts of interest …

I don't know how to say this …

Over the course of the last year, I occasionally wrote under the pseudonym Joe Bank, and … uh, … I've been writing for …

I can't do this.

Let me back up.

I came home from work one day last September, grabbed my mail from the cardboard box it falls into, went upstairs for a Diet Coke and a PowerBar, and opened my mail, which included an eviction notice from the city.

I'd read about this phenomenon but I never really thought it could happen to me.

The notice said that the city needed every spare body devoted to the internet revolution, and if I was going to continue to half ass refuse to actually join up, the city was going to exorcise its power of eminent domain and evict me from my body, so it could be used to more productive ends by someone else. I had 30 days to get out. If I wanted to appeal, I would have to go to the Court of Public Opinion, 26 Fell Street, on September 25th.

I took a look at my body. Until that point I considered my body my own sovereign nation. There were times it failed me, sure, and times it had betrayed me, and sure--there were times I wished I had a different body--but it was the only body I had ever known. I loved this body.

So on September 25th I went to the Court of Public Opinion and I waited for my case to be called. The way this works is, the courtroom is stocked with tourists to San Francisco who are paid $45 for the day to sit and listen. And they get a free box lunch. Meanwhile, the would-be dot commer who wants to take my place in my body sits off to the side, behind a translucent screen, so you can't see his face. I had to go first. And the judge has a little video screen showing the women's bathroom. The Women's Bathroom Test is how things are judged in the Court of Public Opinion. Every female who decides during your argument that its time to go powder her face or reapply her lipstick is a vote against you.

I began to make my case, by saying that in fact I was not just me, I was in fact also the writer Joe Bank, my alter ego, who had been writing online for … and then I stalled. I couldn’t get the confession out. And I saw two women head for the bathroom. Panicking, I paraphrased the words of Third Eye Blind singer Stephan Jenkins, who paraphrased the words of Charles Bukowski, who said that this is a city with a long tradition of freaks, a city of chaos, and that this chaos is essential to its creative edge. Two more women went to the bathroom. I argued that most dot commers coming to this city didn't have an authentic connection to the medium, that if they had to forego salaries like others did back in 95 and 96, they wouldn't be here. I thought I had a point.

When the women came back from the bathroom, the dot commer stepped out behind the screen. And just my luck, he wasn't some Harvard grad who would do well no matter where he landed in this world. He was a 24 year old kid from Indonesia, and he said that there was no opportunity in his country--that only here could he truly realize his dreams. He needed my body far more than I did.

And as he told his story, he began to hand out black fleece pullovers, with a zip chest pocket and a hood. And I watched their greedy eyes, fleece, fleece--slowly he handed them out, and not one person bolted for the can.

I had five days to get out of my body. But how do you do that? How do you launch your soul from your flesh?

So I went to Hollywood. Not Hollywood, technically, Burbank. Where the studio lot of LMI Television sits, tucked in behind the LA Hills. It was pitch season, and I got an appointment with the president of LMI, Peter Leather. Now Leather is a big hugger, and if he likes your ideas, he'll like you. If he thinks you can make him money, he'll squeeze you like a bear. I sat down on his white couch and his assistant got me a Diet Coke and Leather fixed me with his puppy dog listening eyes, bring it on.

So I pitched a television show about this very area, a show called South of Market. And I knew Peter Leather had, back in his past, created and produced both Dallas and Dynasty, and that he had very crass commercial instincts--he loved lots of money being thrown around, lots of backstabbing and ruthlessness. And so I pitched him what he wanted to hear. There was more money here than anywhere in history, forget Dallas, forget Beverly Hills. South of Market. Leather jumped up. "I love it!" he said, and he gave me a big bear hug. And in that moment, swaddled in his arms, I felt my soul rise up above, and leave. I flew up into the sky.

Two things happened right then. The first thing was, I had a great, momentary, euphoria. I was high.

Second, everyone who was on their cell phone within a hundred yards experienced a momentary glitch and fuzziness in their call clarity. That's just one of the side effects. So whenever your cell cuts out, now you know that the soul of someone within a hundred yards has just left their body. And as you know, that happens a lot.

There's all sorts of souls flying over the city. And from them I learned that the place they liked to hang out was the Red Carpet Club elite lounge at the new SFO international terminal. So I landed there and went to the Red Carpet Club, which was very crowded. It was a popular day, and I even saw Tom Cruise. Apparently, he was only there one day a month. He had plea bargained to that. I asked him what he was in for. It was for how he flailed and inconvincingly delivered the line to Renee Zellwiger near the end of Jerry Maguire, "you complete me."

I don't know how much time passed. I really missed my body. The euphoria of being apart from it had waned. People told me that had to go to Gate 99. And at Gate 99 there were two subgates, two signs overhead and two lines. To right, Gate 99A, a sign that said, "those who live in fear of pain," and to the left, Gate 99B, "those who live in fear of causing others pain." Of course I went to the left, that described me perfectly. I went down the ramp and there was another sign, "Be Ready to Forgive." I thought this will be easy, a piece of cake, because I'm a very nonjudgmental person, and I don't have trouble forgiving other people at all. But then there was another sign. "Forgive Yourself." Oh god, they had me there. It was my turn.

I was put in a small room. The self-feedback room. The way it works is, there's a one-way mirror looking in on the room. And on the other side of the glass, there's a video camera, taping me. And the feed from this video camera is broadcast on a TV in the corner of the room. So I could be my own focus group. It's designed to make you really look inside. And down I went into the spiral of despair.

Forgive! Forgive! But I'm so hard on myself, pushing myself all the time, this wasn't easy for me. What did I have to forgive myself for? It could only be one thing. The thing I had been trying to confess. My pseudonym. Joe Bank. My alter ego. I had been writing copy for a new online company … in fact I was a silent partner in a new, hot company … a company that had been my idea … Yes, I had gotten jealous, I had broken down, I had said me too!, me too! I want some! I had broken my vow of poverty, I had abused the trust imparted in journalists, I had used my vantage point and secretly put it to work in an attempt to cash out. And I had created a monster.

It has been so obvious, the biggest untapped market, sitting there, waiting to be claimed. Think of the demographics: every year, people are getting married later and later in life. Not the biggest demo, but the fastest growing, is not young & single, but young couples who are in limbo between being single and being married. Significant others. They wanted to make some form of commitment lite, but society offered none. Our government offered none. There were no magazines for the commitment lite. No way to declare, this is who I am and I'm proud of it. Making money off this untapped market was as easy as taking candy from a baby. So I, or Joe Bank, had founded a web site for these couple to register their partnerships--significant other.com. The only rule was there were no rules. Marriage without any promises. No promises made, none broken. A flexible alliance. At the time, I justified it by telling myself I would reduce the divorce rate by making sure there were no marriages in the first place. And without spending a dollar on advertising, riding the roar of word of mouth, couples had been registering like wildfire. I had programmed my cell phone to beep every time another hundred couples signed up. Beep! Beep! Beep beep beep beep. Completely commerce enabled. Robust server architecture. The money rolled in.

A monster! Why get married when you can instead register with significant other.com?

Because I didn't believe in it. I believed in commitment, in going whole hog. I believed that no good comes from being a part-timer, from being a consultant, an advice giver, a watcher, a maybe, a sunny day catholic, a pretender.

Significant other.com made being a couple easy, but some things shouldn't be so easy.

So I sat in that self feedback room and watched myself on that screen and tried to forgive myself for the monster I had created. Forgive! Forgive!

But nothing happened. And the other souls began to bang on the door, saying my turn was up, let them in.

I had failed. I guess I had confessed, but I had failed to forgive myself. I flew back over the city, drifting, thinking I'll never get back into my body, when I heard from a window on Portrero Hill a song being played. It was Cat Stephens' "Morning has broken." You know-- Blackbirds are singing, to greet the new day--whatever. And this song took me back, took me way back. It was the song that my Mom used to play on her guitar, after her divorce. She'd sit by the fire and play and cry and the sound of her terribly sad voice trying to be upbeat echoed through the house, haunting me, and I knew I had never forgiven myself for not being able to make her happy, never been able to heal her pain, not to this day, still single, still alone, still singing. And of course!--that's why I had risked my career for singificant other.com. I wasn't in it for the money! I was trying to solve my mother's pain! No broken promises, no pain! And in that moment, I suddenly reappeared in my body.

I was back on the LMI lot, and I was in an office I had been given, between Drew Carey's and John Wells'. It was a couple months later. I looked around the room, and the script for the show was there, with my name on it. The director was to be Doug Lyman, who'd directed Go, and the cast list was almost set--the only role to be nailed down was whether the lead was to be played by Keifer Sutherland or Dean Cain. I sat and read the script. And it was terrible. My body had sold out! It was worse than Dallas. In the pilot episode, a young Harvard-Harvard kid makes a wad on a stock and goes in to the Porchse dealership to buy a roadster, but he ends up haggling for so long over the price, days even, that in the meantime his stock loses half his value and he loses the Porsche.

I ran to Peter Leather. He gave me a big hug and said, "We're going to make so much money!"

I said "This is terrible! You can’t film this! This isn't what it's about at all! It's not just about the money. It's about frustrated musicians finding an outlet, it's about frustrated writers finding an outlet, it's about people avenging their own personal losses, and recreating a world better than the one they inherited. It's about taking risk! What about those who fail? What about the dozens of startups you never hear about? Your show's a travesty!"

I realized the only way I could stop this show from getting on the air was to quit. You can't quit, Leather said. We don't have a show without you! But I took a stand. I walked out of the room. I walked past the set of ER, an past the set of West Wing, and I got in my rental car and drove right off the lot. And my cell phone started to ring. Beep! Beep! I answered it once, but it was just my monster telling me it was growing even larger. Beep! I answered it again, and this time it was my agent, who said I couldn't quit. I hung up on him and drove. It rang one more time. This time it was Peter Leather. He said I could quit. He didn't need me anymore.

"You can’t do the show without me!" I screamed.

We have someone even better than you, he said.

A writer really on the inside, a guy who's been there.

A writer named Joe Bank.

And then my cell phone cut out.