“I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but I found your Gangnam Sty ad, well, rather inspirational,” Ross told me.
“Inspirational? I really haven’t heard that one before,” I said.
“Well, it was. Don’t get me wrong, the ad was funny, but the pigs, well, they had more to offer than just humor. I loved their enthusiasm, their lack of self-consciousness, their utter belief in their talent. They wouldn’t let anything stop them from expressing themselves. Well, I myself hadn’t danced in years, but watching those pigs on my computer at work inspired me so much that I downloaded the original Gangnam Style song, cranked the volume up to eleven-point-five, and busted a move right there in my office, the door wide open, not caring if anyone saw me.”
“Hmm. Did you dance like Kevin Bacon?”
We both laughed.
Rossiter Harrington Burke III and I had been best buds in college. After we’d graduated in 1998, he moved to Manhattan to work at whatever job he could find at his family’s company, Burke Financial. I stayed in Pittsburgh to start my own company, Frequent Zoom Productions. We lost touch—not a word from him until 2013, when he sent me a brief e-mail saying he had moved back to my city a month earlier, had heard about my media empire, and now wanted us to get together as soon as possible to catch up on old times. He also wanted to discuss an off-the-record, on the QT, and very hush-hush project he thought I’d be perfect for, just perfect, because I was a real cutie myself, ha ha ha.
Thus, we were inside my office at the Frequent Zoom headquarters on Pittsburgh’s North Side. My office had a bare cement floor and white pasteboard walls and no windows. I sat behind the rickety brown metal table I used as a desk. At least I’d covered the tabletop with classy-looking, dark wood-grain Con-Tact paper. Ross sat across from me on the brown metal folding chair with the brown padded seat, because as my guest, he deserved the utmost in luxury.
“So anyway,” he said, “you must be wondering why I moved back.”
“You have a pierogi fetish?” I asked.
“Well, that, and I have a new job, a great new job. Of course, my old job wasn’t bad, either. Did you know I worked for Burke for fifteen years?”
“Well, I did. I started out as an associate investment management business strategist, then rose through the ranks to become a senior investment management business strategist. I created communications materials for the head honchos at Burke regarding the advantages and disadvantages of potential investment opportunities involving clients’ money. I liked what I did, because I’ve always liked communicating, of course, but after fifteen years, I wanted to change things up a little. So I started looking at job listings on the Internet. I had no idea I’d find the perfect job here in Pittsburgh, my old stomping grounds. I’m now the executive director of public and media relations for the Jenkins Institute.”
“Never heard of them.”
“They’re a new, local, bipartisan think-tank that wants to improve America’s long-term economic outlook by curbing deficit spending and by encouraging individual investment in the free market.”
“Sounds exciting,” I deadpanned.
“It’s a lot more exciting than you think,” he said, sounding sincere. “I truly enjoy doing all I can to help make sure America remains an economic superpower, because future generations, well, they deserve to live an affluent lifestyle, too. No, an even more affluent lifestyle. I consider it a top priority to reduce, if not eliminate, the government’s tide of red ink so we can bring about the economic empowerment of young folks.”
Young folks. We were both thirty-seven, but he still had a smooth, unlined face surrounded by a nimbus of thick, dirty-blonde hair. His wardrobe had changed since the last time I’d seen him, though. We used to wear jeans and rock music T-shirts in college, but now he looked very economically-empowered in his expensive-looking blue suit. If I had known how he would dress, I would have worn something better than an Asgard Viper T-shirt, an anemic green hoodie with its hood down, and baggy jeans. Well, I would have worn something better and shinier. Everything about him shined, including the red-white-and-blue American flag pin attached to his lapel. He was the first person I’d ever known who wore an American flag pin.
“So anyway, Taffy, I’d like the institute to release a digital video, our first one ever,” Ross continued. “It would be a public-service announcement about a minute long, aimed at hip young folks, specifically teens and twentysomethings. What I have in mind is a cute, young, nerdy girl in her late teens, early twenties, the stereotypical nerd with huge glasses and tacky clothes—the perfect girl for our target audience. Nerds are hip right now, plus people will listen to her because she looks smart. She would sing a song, solo, while playing an instrument, an acoustic guitar or a keyboard or something, maybe even a ukulele. That instrument’s hip right now, too. Anyway, in the song, she would encourage young folks to encourage their elected officials to tackle the federal deficit. She wouldn’t offer any specific proposals, just encouragement to get involved and maybe make a few sacrifices, for the good of the country of course, before we plunge off the fiscal cliff. And after she sings her little song, we cut to a black screen with our website address on it in white letters: jenkins.com. And below that, in smaller letters, copyright 2013 the Jenkins Institute.”
“Sounds great. Do you have a song already written?”
“No, I thought you could write it. Or she could. I’d prefer an amateur songwriter, or at least someone who can imitate one. She should also be an amateur singer or at least imitate one, a very amateur singer, off-key but in a sweet, adorable, girlish way. An amateur musician, too, if possible. If she works out, I’ll pay her five hundred dollars.”
“Hey, not bad for a minute’s work, plus you have to admit, Pittsburgh has low cost-of-living expenses.”
“And speaking of expenses, I don’t want the video to look expensive. Have it look like it cost a dollar ninety-nine.”
“You want it to look like a piece of crap?”
“No, no, of course not. But I don’t want it to look slick, either—hipsters automatically distrust any media product that looks slick. I want the video to look, well, as homemade as possible, like a home video. Maybe you could shoot it on actual videotape with a vintage video camera for that Eighties nostalgia vibe?”
“Maybe. I have some gear from that decade.”
“Fantastic! Or if the gear doesn’t work, you can use computer effects to simulate that vibe. Whatever you do, just have it look like a VHS tape that’s been played a million times. Even viewers too young to remember VHS tapes will find the fake, cheap production values hilarious. I want the campy and ironic angle, true, but I also want the inspirational quality that the Gangnam Sty ad had. If that nerdy young girl can be a star, then anyone can. But she has to have starlike qualities compared to other nerds. The video’s success depends mostly—no, entirely—upon her. She has to appeal to viewers right here.” Ross pounded his heart with his fist.
Neither of us said anything for a few moments.
“I think I know the girl you want,” I told him. “Her name’s Thea Kirshenbaum. I’ve known her for years. She’s done a lot of music for me. She did the Gangnam Sty soundtrack.”
“No kidding!” Ross said.
“Uh-huh. She’s a great singer-songwriter who can play almost any instrument. Plus she’s the nerdiest girl in Pittsburgh.”
“Do you have a picture of her?”
“Sure.” I rooted through the Everest-high stacks of bills, catalogues, DVDs, and other miscellanea on my desk for a few moments before finding what I wanted: a flier for a solo keytar concert Thea had given six months earlier at the Guessed Room Coffee in Lawrenceville. I handed him the flier, and he peered intently at it. It sported a black-and-white photo of her from the chest up in a Deaf Leper T-shirt and large, squarish black glasses. Her shoulder-length dark hair had pink highlights that looked light gray in the photo. She grinned her usual crooked grin.
“Hmm, not bad,” he said with pleasure. “How old is she?”
“Twenty-five,” I said.
“Do I have to waterboard you for the correct answer, Taffy?”
“All right. She’s around our age, but she looks as young as you do.”
“Maybe. But I want a girl who’s actually young enough to appeal to our target audience.”
“Who cares about her age if she looks good? Besides, we’re not talking about a supermodel here. She’s a nerd, remember?”
“Right. I think I should meet her first.”
“Sure, we can do that. She can audition for you right here if you’d like.”
“Yeah, I’d like that.” He placed the flier face-down on my desk. “I didn’t mean to give you a hard time, Taffy, but I just need to make sure she’s the right nerd. This is my first major project for the institute, and you get only one chance to make a great first impression. I want this video to kick ass.”
“It will. It’ll kick ass with a pair of steel-toed boots.”
“But we don’t want all the bruised ass to distract from the serious message about debt reduction. Like I said, we want to inspire young folks to get involved, to take part in restoring America back to financial health. It may sound clichéd, but young folks, well, they’re the future of this country. I truly believe that.”
Copyright © 2013 by David V. Matthews