Guys, as it turns out, I've got a lot going on today! A lot of stuff needs to get done and happen and occur. The time frame available to write something new and spicy here that is not just space-taking jibber jabber is not large. So, I've decided to attempt to share a piece I'd written (fiction!) that was then scooped by real life. Here's the real life story that appeared in The Atlantic maybe a month after , but take your pick about whether you read real life or the fake life I constructed first. I might read real life second, as it totally trumps my fake life description.
From the unauthorized autobiography of the Verizon Guy
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there here to hear it, does it make a sound? There was a time not so long ago when that tree would have asked, without hesitating, “Can you hear me now?” And you know what? That tree would have received smiles of acknowledgement. That tree would have been one of the funniest in the forest. That tree would have never been asked to leave (see, I’m still capable of being funny). But at the end of the day, it still would have fallen.
I suppose it is ironic that being the spokesman for a product promising universal connectedness with people all over the country and all around the world led me to the loneliness and isolation I feel today. I must admit, when I signed the contract for my first national t.v. ad, I did not see that coming. But I wasn’t wearing my glasses at the time, so I guess I can’t point fingers. But it doesn’t mean I don’t want to.
Being not quite that famous is not without its drawbacks. I achieved a status of recognizability that came with all of the life-disrupting personal invasion but none of the respect afforded to that of mega-stars. Eventually dinner in a restaurant rarely occurred without interruption from a stranger, but usually involved semi-mocking discussion of why the stranger knew my face. And my dinner was never paid for. Never. I assure you Matt Damon is never approached for being “that guy from the Bourne franchise I see on billboards and bus stop ads.” He is approached for being Matt Damon. I’m here to tell you that a rose by any other name – or worse, without a name – does not always smell as sweet.
I do have a name though. I was not born “the Verizon guy.” I was Paul.
My parents wanted me to be an accountant. Really. Seriously. Maybe Paul was the name of someone careful and conscientious? Though the Bible would have us believe otherwise. How careful are you if you’re falling off of horses? Accounting was not an idea without merit, though. When I was young, I loved math and numbers and still believed in the thrill of learning. Addition and subtraction were the mountains I could climb. Each math test that was returned to me with a sticker on top became the flag I planted at the summit of a new chapter in the math textbook. I could do it. I was impressive. Then I met pre-algebra, and it all went away.
I got fat, not just from pre-algebra, but more so because about the time the kids in my neighborhood ended their open invitation policy for joining in the fun and running around outside, my mother was toying with the idea of becoming a pastry chef. Suddenly just being in the same age range no longer meant you could walk outside and approach your peers and be assured of an invitation to do whatever they were doing or not doing – cool or not cool. Social stratification hit my block as my mother hit the butter cream frosting chapter in her cookbook. There was no escape. No batch was good enough. No batch buttery enough. No batch creamy enough. And until the literal crème de la crème was isolated in its purist form in the ugly 70s-orange mixing bowl that suffered the brutal beatings and mixings of my mother’s spatula-wielding mania, I was expected to support her progress and indulge in her failures by consuming any number of cupcakes and pieces of cake. My mother suddenly had arm muscles like Popeye from hours spent churning and folding ingredients in efforts to achieve the perfect icing consistency while I sat idly by, blowing up like Bluto. And as my frustrations at social isolation were compounded (multiplied, actually, but damn it all if I could figure out the equations to know that at the time) by my inability to isolate variables and proclivity for being foiled the wrong way by quadratic equations, my mother was encouraging me to indulge in the fruits of the labor that was frustrating her most. Batch after batch of perfectly acceptable and delicious baked goods were thrust before me to consume only to serve as confirmation that something was lacking. Can you tell nothing was ever good enough for my mother? You would perhaps then be able to guess that acting was not on the same level as accounting in terms of professional aspirations of an acceptable ilk for my mother, but my fate was sealed by the discerning eye of Brother Francis, and it was my mother herself who had insisted I attend Catholic high school.
I was culled from the crowd in fourth period study hall. Brother Francis was in charge of the theatre program at St. Simon Boys Preparatory, and I had absolutely no interest in being a part of his show. But that did not stop Brother Francis from working on casting with the cunning of a Hollywood agent and the ruthlessness of a mob boss. He knew that to get the talent, he’d have to offer something they’d want in return – point out what was in it for them, how they could overcome their weakness. For me, it was being excused from gym class.
Surprising to no one, it turns out that taking years off from playing with other children thanks to social shunning by one’s peer group makes a kid not that great and confident in gym class. Especially when the same boys that had done the social shunning were in that gym class, using their well-practiced, hard-earned nicknames for one another while calling plays in any variety of sports in which the rest of the gym class interlopers were now forced upon them and royally fucking things up with their unpracticed ways and terrible fear of physical failure, borne from their already-achieved social failure. Not that it was hard to go to gym class, or anything.
Brother Francis must have seen the dread in my eyes any number of times as I un-wadded my gym shorts from my bag as study hall ended, looking ready for a death march in fifth period gym, because that is when he approached me that one fateful day toward the end of study hall.
“Hey, Paul. How would you like to help me with something and skip gym class.”
I looked up at him, stunned and doubtful. I didn’t even have him for a class. How the hell did he know my name? And what on earth could he be offering?
This was back in the days before sex scandal was synonymous with the Catholic Church, so “help me with something” rang no alarm bells of suspicion in my teenage head at the time. This guy probably just needed help. What he needed, I was about to find out, was more convincing guidos.
While not a child molester, I would guess that Brother Francis was a member or a different subset of people who disproportionately seemed to find themselves in service to God, but this time to acceptably, to substitute for some lifestyle choices they dared not act upon but which are not morally reprehensible, unlike child molesters. At a different time, in a different world, born to different parents, I have no doubt Brother Francis would be at Elton John’s Oscar parties every year with his own super-hot boyfriend, sucking down bellinis and talking about the injustice of alterations to couture gowns that weren’t pre-approved by their designers. He’d be Broadway royalty in any number of capacities – choreography, directing, costuming, all of the above. But, unable to live that life, he came as close as he could by making production values at St. Simon Prep as close to the Great White Way as he could. Big on realism, he could not stand to put on a production of Guys and Dolls with such an obvious grease-head in the audience uninvolved in gambling, grift, and most of all, glorious, glorious choruses. I was too close to typcast not to be cast. So – in exchange for relief from the indignities of gym class – I became a member of the gamblers’ gang, and the theater bug did bite.
The fates did align. By the end of Guys and Dolls rehearsals, my costume had to be altered before opening night. Freed from hours with my mother after school (she was onto the soufflé chapter by then), I lost weight. I hit a growth spurt too. I was actually a pretty good-looking little gangster. And when the lights went up, suddenly there were girls. Googly-eyed girls from Elizabeth Anne Seton High were looking at me in ways I’d never seen before. It might have been the pinstripes and the fedora, but it didn’t matter. I was suddenly worth a look. It was enough for me to become a theatre kid.
Just a sophomore when Brother Francis plucked me from obscurity and misery, I went on to bloom a bit in the theatre world. I even gained enough traction and, let’s be frank, body hair to not care about gym by senior year. I had my own thing. And my grades were still good enough to keep my mom happy enough as they were good enough to get me into college.
Mom and Dad were of course waiting for college to snap me out of my dreams in the pretend worlds of theatre. The song and dance routine could get you to third base maybe, but they couldn’t feed anyone, in their opinions. I promised I’d take an accounting class my first semester just to appease them. After getting a D on the first exam the day before the add/drop deadline, I realized I was being given a sign. I did the math on that one, and dropped the class. And any illusion that I’d become an accountant. You would think my parents’ expectations would have also dropped accordingly, but it was not so.
I became a theatre major with a minor in communications. Yeah, it should have been cellular communications if there were a true force of fate at work there. But I really did kind of anoint myself in college for the role that would make me who I am today.
My parents never really got on board my theatre leanings, though they did come to see a few productions when we did plays they’d heard of that weren’t “too sexy,” as my mom considered anything by Tennessee Williams to be. But when I graduated and decided to take a coffee shop job in order to audition, they made no secret about the fact that I was taking the “actor” role a little too seriously, preparing for it a little too method for their comfort. No nice girl would ever want to marry an actor, much less date one. She’d starve!
I dated a few girls who I actually think were into the expectation that they’d starve with me. They hated food. It made them fat, which was just one more way they would not be cast in roles they wanted. Actors themselves, my lack of interest in buying them dinner was all too enticing for them, as was my lack of stability, long-term planning, and matching furniture. But eventually I realized a girl who hated food probably wouldn’t let me eat much of it, and with decades of baked goods under my belt, literally, I was not prepared to settle. Also, nothing was worse for an actress than a familiar role that required nothing from their dramatic range. A boring, normal girlfriend, which eventually became what I wanted, was not a coveted role.
I flew solo for a while. I got a little fatter. My mother worried about me. And fed me more.
It was never the Verizon gig that made my parents feel ok about me. It was Alex. Always Alex.
I met Alexandra at the coffee shop. I made her an Americano and she took the time to come back and tell me it was really good. I thanked her and said I hoped she would come again. She did. Soon I found myself pouring every ounce of my dramatic skill and flair into the preparation of her daily dose of caffeine. I started doing my hair before work and wearing better t-shirts. When I wore the shoes I usually wore to bars that were trendy and cool tennis shoes rather than my crappy tennis shoes that were brown-blotched from coffee spills, I realized I was in trouble. I really liked her. My shoes would undoubtedly be ruined by a day’s-worth of foam overflows and coffee drips. But I didn’t care if it would impress her. I had to do something.
I had a moment of panic wherein I realized that this girl might really just like the way I made coffee and have no interest in specifically seeing me every day, but rather whomever was holding a cup of addictive substance with her name on it. I was deeply into at least the fourteenth level of hypothetical scenarios and rationalization about what an idiot I was to think she gave a shit about me, much less liked me, when she spoke.
“New shoes? What’s the special occasion? You always wear the gray ones,” Alex said absent-mindedly, as she meticulously stirred her drink.
“Would you go out with me sometime?”
I blurted it out. If she noticed the shoes, I had to gamble. We could go on and on with our coffee gauntlet for years without knowing if there was more between us. I did not have time for that. I did not have time to wonder if I’d just lost a good tipper and steady customer. I was about to ruin my shoes and I damned better know if there was any reason for it.
“Sure. We don’t have to get coffee though, do we?” she replied.
“No. Definitely not.”
Just like my parents, I often marveled myself that I had managed to get someone as great as Alex to like me, or even tolerate me. She was fun and generous and tolerant of theatre and my underemployment. She hated hammy performers, especially if they were my friends, and would always give me fair and honest criticism of my own work. She liked eating. She hated how long her full name was and thought it sounded pretentious. She was the one who encouraged me to audition for some commercial gigs. She was the one who said I’d be a great cell phone guy. And inevitably, she was the one I hurt the most.
It didn’t happen overnight. It happened over 1 month, 2 weeks, and four nights. At first I was just on t.v. a bit more than before. But then Verizon’s ad team realized I really worked. America liked me. America wanted me in their living rooms. America wanted to hear me now. So why not make now as often as possible? And why not put me everywhere? Bus signs. Bus stops. Billboards. Afternoon t.v. Sports programming. Cable. Jeopardy! Jeopardy!! The time slot of the elderly! Even the elderly liked me. I was a nice young man who understood cell phones could be problematic. I wanted to fix that for Americans – young and old alike.
Relatives called when they saw me. Friends called. Friends I wasn’t friends with any more called. And then it happened when we were out to dinner. The night of our two-year anniversary. We were talking about what might come next for us. We were talking about how excited we were that we could pay all of our bills. We were talking about getting a dog.
“Your that ‘Can you hear me now?’ guy!” a woman passing our table on the way back from the bathroom said.
“Hi,” I said. I let go of Alex’s hands to extend mine toward a total stranger, a fact Alex would tell me about in the eventual breakup not quite a year later.
“You look just like you do on t.v.! Are you doing a commercial here?”
“No, he’s eating dinner here,” Alex said, trying to remind this woman of the boundaries of television.
“Oh! Are you pretending to be his girlfriend?” the woman said, even more excited at the prospect my commercial character might evolve to include a love story with someone or something other than just the fantastic service coverage provided by Verizon Wireless.
“Something like that,” said Alex.
Her retorts never lost their sting in the months ahead. A girl who was always able to keep things in perspective, Alex never thought I would be a guy who couldn’t. But part of her must have had some sort of animal premonition at my capacity to fail her. Something led her to ask me.
“Are you going to become that guy? I’m not going to be the girl dating the Verizon guy, am I?”
“Alex, can you hear me now?”
“Oh, fuck you,” she said smiling.
“Hear me. No, you will not be dating that Verizon guy. No.”
I was, unfortunately, wrong about that.
“It just happened. I don’t know what else you want me to say, and no, I can’t fix it. Yes, I’ve already tried, mom. I know she was a great girl. Don’t you think I know that?”
I didn’t know what to tell my mom when we finally broke up any more than I know what to tell myself now about all of it. It did just happen. It happened too fast and it happened without my being able to control it and it happened hard enough that I went along with it. I was suddenly someone everywhere I went, and my options were either to enjoy being recognized as a character and not myself, or go crazy being unable to just be myself. I chose the first. It seemed escapist. It seemed like a way to deal with it all. It did not account for my susceptibility to gaining an inflated ego from being liked by strangers.
When it did just happen, it just happened fast. Suddenly I was filming new commercials all the time in locations across the country. I stopped wearing glasses so people would stop saying “Can you hear me now?” to me, but then the contacts bothered my eyes so much I had to go back to glasses. Even with different frames, it didn’t matter. People knew I was the Verizon guy. “Can you hear me now was everywhere.” I was looking at posters of myself asking myself if I could hear myself as I was getting onto the subway. And coming out of the subway, there I was again. Waiting for myself. Asking if I could hear myself. There was so much potential for an identity crisis, I decided to own it.
I learned to say it in fifteen languages for filming. I traveled around the world. And eventually, I decided I was the Verizon guy. I made him cool, because there was no him without me. If there was no me that was not him, I would take credit for him. I was his look.
I was cool glasses before they were a thing. Tina fey owes me money for thinking glasses can make you a superstar. They can, Tina, and guess who got there first? Suddenly dudes everywhere were wearing plain uniform jackets to be sexy. Hipsters were looking at me – on their televisions, on their billboards, and in their mirrors. I was everywhere and I was them. And that’s where I lost me. Somewhere in there.
At parties, I was still him. I spent one party recording voicemail messages on the phones of everyone there in between taking pictures with people and prank calling others. We pretended there was a Verizon contest and got people to tell us they could hear me. It was fun. It seemed harmless. I hadn’t really noticed Alex was hanging out in the kitchen all night. When I found her coming inside after having smoked a cigarette on the fire escape with a few moody single dudes, I was worried. She didn’t smoke.
“Hey are you o.k., Alex?”
“Listen, Paul, there’s a big difference between hearing me now, and listening to me now.”
“Hun, are you drunk? What are you even talking about? That’s the slogan.”
“I know. And I am drunk. Just remember what I said.”
“O.K., I will.”
“Good,” she said. And she seemed to mean it.
Then another thing just happened that she swears she forgave me for, but I will go to my grave believing that was the final straw for Alex. I was rich. I was happy. I wanted to go buy a ring to propose. It was New Year’s Day, and I could not believe Alex had gotten out of bed early. We had gone to a media company party the night before that had been stocked with incredibly good, incredibly free champagne, and I could tell that, despite my optimism for the year to come, I was going to have a hell of a hangover.
Alex came into the bedroom in running clothes, sweaty despite being bundled for the cold. She had bought a beautiful new dress for the party last night, which was still thrown over a chair in the corner of the room. It had been a splurge, but she looked amazing in it, and we’d had such a great year, it seemed fitting that she should have a new party dress to celebrate. At first I thought her cold attitude was from seeing the dress again and feeling guilty about spending so much money on one dress. A paralegal, Alex was not a big spender on that which was not deemed a necessity. I tried to lighten the mood to see why she could already be so tense while I was so hungover.
“You’re really ushering in the new year, already giving it the runaround, I see,” I said, aware that I hadn’t made that much sense.
“Yeah, wanted to get some air,” she said, not looking at me as she moved around the room faster than I would be able to do all day.
“It’s January. It’s freezing outside.”
“Well, it’s still a nice day.”
“You looked so good last night,” I said, trying to take a different tact.
“Thanks,” Alex replied coldly, not looking at me, as she grabbed the dress slung over the chair and crumbled it into a laundry bag.
“Whoa, don’t be so rough with a dress that hot!”
She pivoted faster than most NBA centers, turning to me with a look of pure rage.
“You don’t remember, do you?” she nearly whispered.
“You don’t even. Fucking. Remember,” she continued as she threw the bag, dress hanging sadly out of the top, into the corner with our other dirty laundry.
“I was pretty drunk, Alex. Might still be. Can I get a little help here?”
“Alex, what did I do? I can’t fix it if I can’t remember.”
“Oh you can’t fix it is right, Paul.”
“Alex, tell me.”
“No. It’s too degrading.”
“Fine.” She tapped her foot a few times before leveling the blow – the depravity of which I still could not fathom, given her state. “You said it.”
“What? Said what, Alex.”
She was crying. I could see that she was just at the beginning of tears that had been forming throughout her entire run, and probably the night before, and who knows how long before that, and that they were all going to come gushing out now.
“What do you mean ‘what?’? What do you always say?”
“That I’m the luckiest man alive to be with you?”
A sob. My last attempt to salvage this without a full-blown metldown was met with a sob. She was crying so hard that her shoulders were shaking as she tried to get out more words.
“Nooo-o-o-o-o,” came with the heaves of her tears. The next was whispered. “You said ‘Can you hear me now?’ to me.”
I was out of bed now, trying to grab her shoulders to comfort her and pull her toward an inevitable forgiveness hug.
“Honey, I say that sometimes when I get wasted, of course I’m sure I said it to you once or twice last night.”
I could not have said something much worse than that. She wriggled away from my touch, her entire face reddened, and screamed.
“NO! Not just at a party! NO!!! You asshole! You said it during sex! When you…UGH!!! You disgust me! You said it. You said it to me. You said it to me.”
“Oh my God, Alex, I am so sorry, you know I never would want to – ”
The slam of the bathroom door saved me from having to say something good enough to make things right, as it was clear at that moment, nothing I could say would make it right. She went to a friend’s that day to watch football. All day. I stayed home with my hangover and felt the worst I had ever felt in my entire life, and wondered what her friends were saying if they were hearing the story behind why she was taking her own hangover on the road, sans live-in boyfriend, and wondered if I’d still be awake when she came home, if she came home.
Flowers. Dinner. And I took her on a daytrip to ice skate on a frozen lake that she’d always wanted to do. But it took some time to recover, and still some signs that she hadn’t really let go. Drunk once, a few months later, after margarita night with work friends, she laid into me.
“You know, you don’t really have an entire flock of people behind you all the time. You don’t have that network. That’s not a real thing.”
“I know. How about a snack before bed? I could make you some nachos,” I said, hoping to change the subject.
“I’m your network, Paul. I’m the one who’s got you covered, ya know?”
“I do. You’re certainly my favorite contact.”
That worked at the time, the urge for drunken snacks being overtaken by the urge for drunken sex at the mention of contact. But her words still stuck with me.
I had already picked the ring, but not yet bought it, when she ended it. One Wednesday, I came home with Thai food and she had her coat on.
“I can’t anymore, sweetheart. I love you, Paul, but I can’t. I can’t.”
“What? Wait, Alex, where are you going? What are you saying? Take your coat off.”
She was already crying. After talking, screwing, reheating thai food, eating, crying, talking, and screwing again, Alex called in sick to work, and we were officially broken up. It was amazing how quickly we were able to apply the clinical remove to our situation that we needed to be able to make decisions about moving and the apartment and whose stuff was whose. Like everything else, it was sudden. It just happened. But I never stopped thinking it was my fault.
It took a while, but I eventually got to the point where the combination of self-loathing and self-pity became so potent that I decided to use the Verizon guy persona to get laid. I would wear clothes that made me especially Verizony. I’d add extra gel to my hair so I looked so shiny that I was noticeable to strangers. I’d look puzzled on the subway or talk on my phone just so people would make the connection. If I noticed someone checking me out and recognized the look of someone wanting to talk to the Verizon guy, someone I wanted to bang, I’d ride extra stops just to give them the chance to get the bravery to strike up a conversation with me. And it worked. Surprisingly, disgustingly, it worked. Chelsea Handler even did me after a fundraiser just for the punchline, though really, couldn’t she have done a joke without the sex to legitimize it? I really doubt Larry the Cable Guy is out there installing cable boxes in his off time just for the act. But whatever, I took the sex. I used the image that I felt had used me up and made me drop the only connection I really cared about. The only person who liked me in glasses before my notoriety as an ad man, and that includes my mother.
And that’s how I ended up fat again. I ate a lot of cupcakes again. My mom is a sympathetic baker, and it worked. I tried to not be him. It was a win-win situation. Heal my pain with cupcake medicine. Get fat to the point of only moderate public recognition. “The Verizon guy got fat.” Try having that be your new Twitter claim to fame. Or finding a picture of yourself online as a result of searching that sentence. It hurts. The phones I sold to you are how you tell the world that I am fat. How you post it on facebook. You’re so connected you’re connected to who I was, who I am. I hear you now - always. I hear the voice of my ex girlfriend, my mother, the kids in school. I get it. Now community theater is back to being my basic plan. Just great. But I feel a little better. At least Alex doesn’t have to stare at giant versions of my face all day any more. I mean so far they don’t want the fat Verizon guy for iPhone print ads.
It’s hard to be asked to come back to be the guy I’ve been running from to introduce the Verizon iphone. That’s great that Verizon is up to speed, but I don’t know if I’m back yet. Mr. Whipple came back years later for Charmin, but I’d still have to wait decades for that kind of traction. And the worst is I have to see stuff like I saw last weekend. I saw this guy using his new iPhone on his fun hot hip date with a hot little indie girl. You know what he’s wearing? Glasses. Bigger than mine. My hipness is now obsolete. Pretty soon Jared will be asking me if I’d like to cross promote Subway sandwiches and accompanying weight loss with some sandwich app that lets you count calories like a text plan. Actually, that’s not a bad idea. Is Fogle in the phonebook? Maybe I’ll ask my agent, if he’ll even take my calls. That’s the hardest part of all this you know. Networking.