I was still suffering from post-election depression when I got the call. It was my agent.
“You’re needed in Denver to do a commercial for the McRib.”
“No way I’m working for those swine,” I told her. “Do you know what they put in those things? The way they treat their employees? How much deforestation their cattle ranching and over-packaging causes in the Amazon? The way they’ve lowered regional culinary standards by pushing out every decent restaurant in the market in order to make way for their pre-cooked, pre-packaged slop. Not to mention the obesity epidemic and the culture of incessant advertising they’ve created in order to saturate our minds with their sub-par product. What are they paying?”
The car came in the morning to take me to the airport. The driver was Armenian, and I gave him a pat on the shoulder when he told me that if he could have voted, he would have voted for Kerry.
“Do you know,” he asked, “afder de first towers was heet with plane … nothing? Den, afder second towers… dey dance. Dey dance in street. Dey dance, de Jews, wid joy.”
There went his tip.
At the airport, I proceeded to the bar and drank several pints of seven-dollar Budweiser. By the time I boarded the plane, I was an ass-grabbing lunatic. The stewardesses put me in restraints but failed to capitalize on the erotic nature of the situation.
Again, my mind turned to the election. The pollsters and Monday morning quarterbacks. The catch phrases main-lined into the American lexicon by op-ed columns and cable news pundits. Moral values, flip-flop, clear message, liberal elite, war on terror, evangelical base, Ohio, Ohio, Ohio. If I had it right, the country voted for George Bush because more Americans would rather have a beer with him than with his former opponent, John Kerry. This despite the fact that George Bush doesn’t drink. If I had it right, the country voted for George Bush because it saw him as a tougher leader in the war on terror. This despite the fact that he sat out the Vietnam War snorting coke in a hotel room in Alabama and flew from Florida to Nebraska on September 11th after hearing that New York and DC were under attack. If I had it right, the country voted for Bush because his moral values were more in line with theirs. This despite the fact that, at every opportunity, his administration has accommodated corporations and the wealthiest one per cent of the country at the expense of the environment, the working class, and public education. If you looked at it closely, or even from afar, none of it seemed to add up. Hence my misery.
The plane landed in the red state at six o’clock. A stewardess unbuckled my straps.
“Y’all promise to behave now?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I muttered in defeat.
Waiting in the terminal was a tall Irishman, built like a brick shit-house, holding a sign with my name on it. I assaulted him at once. He didn’t see the punch coming, and it landed clean, opening a gash over his right eye. But the man knew how to handle actors, and he had me in a sleeper hold before I could finish the combination.
I awoke in a hotel room in downtown Denver and saw the Irishman standing over me with a monkey wrench.
“Let’s get a drink,” I said. “On me.”
He shook his head. “Production company says I keep an eye on you. They need you in the morning sober.”
“We’ve got ten hours ’till morning,” I told him. “That gives us two hours at the bar, and then we can get eight hours of sleep. By that time, we’re sure to be sober.”
If there’s one thing I admire about the Irish, it’s their willingness to accept a well-reasoned argument. We hit the bar and used my per diem to buy the first eight rounds. By midnight, the Irishman was arm wrestling the barkeep for the greater glory of Hibernia. With all eyes distracted, I grabbed a bottle of swill from behind the counter and ventured forth into the wilds of Colorado.
My drunken stumbling took me to the rail yard behind Union Station where I found a group of hobos sitting around a fire. Here were America’s dispossessed. The wandering drifters of a bygone era. I offered them my whiskey and they invited me into their circle. The boys laughed heartily through toothless smiles as they regaled me with stories of sexual exploits in the various train and bus depots of the heartland. The fire was warm, the liquor was sweet, and eventually, the discussion veered toward politics. As it turns out, most of the fellas hadn’t voted in the last election, but from the informal and unscientific poll I conducted, it seemed most of them would have supported Ike for another term.
There was no sign of the boys when I awoke several hours later, but I did notice my per diem was missing, as were my shoes and pants. Daylight broke over the Denver skyline while I walked back to the hotel in my boxer shorts. I found the Irishman sleeping on the sidewalk and woke him gently with a kick to the shins.
“You’re gonna cost me my job you little fucker!”
I showered and shaved in my room and dressed for my morning call. I had a mess of a hangover and pissed myself on the ride to the set. The director took one look at me as I walked into the studio and spit his coffee halfway across the stage. “Jesus,” he bellowed, “you look like shit.”
The first shot of the day was what’s known in the business as the “bite and smile.” It’s the money shot of commercial acting. The part where the star takes a chomp of whatever slop they’re hocking and smiles for America in order to indicate just how delicious mass-produced patriot-feed can taste. The slightest sign of disgust will guarantee the commercial never makes it to air.
A food prep team had lined up several trays of McRib for me to consume, take after take. Even a healthy meal would have upset my stomach at this hour, never mind twenty helpings of the most diseased animal by-product ever formulated by rogue chefs with degrees in bioengineering. After every clipboard on set had touched “the product” with his grimy fingers in order to insure the light was hitting it form such an angle as to make it appear ecoli-free, the director called action and it was time for me to chow. I did my best not to swallow, and I give myself some credit for going fifteen takes before vomiting into the spit bucket. Which isn’t to say we were done. No, there were ten more takes before we got it right, and by that time, I had coughed up some of the most vital and beloved of my internal organs.
And there was still more to shoot. Yes, there were many more humiliations scheduled for me to endure before the day was through, and I suffered through them all like capitalism’s proudest proponent. When we finally wrapped, the director gave me a hug and offered me a ride to his favorite bar in Denver. I took him up on his offer, and he confessed something terrible to me on the way.
“You know,” he began, “we worked together once before.”
I told him I had no recollection.
“You acted in a student film I directed when you were in high school and I was at NYU. You played the role of a young man coming to grips with his homosexuality.”
I’m not one of those actors who remembers every line he’s ever said or every role he’s ever played. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been at it so long — since I was 12 – but working another shit gig holds no more of a place in my memory than brushing my teeth or drawing a walk in a little league game. Nevertheless, once he described it, I did remember the piece, and I remembered it because it wasn’t half-bad. The student filmmaker had cared about the quality of his work and revealed something honest and personal about himself. I remembered that the audience at the screening had seemed genuinely appreciative of the risks and the self-deprecating humor that this young artist had deployed. And now he was selling McRibs.
“Is this the pinnacle of our art?” I asked. “Advertisements for the decrepit wage slave society we live in?”
He laughed. “We should be appreciative that we’re working,” he said. “Gratitude goes a long way.”
“I’ve always found sarcasm works best for me.”
“McDonalds is one of the great success stories of American business. Tens of thousands of employees are proud of their membership in the McDonalds family and all it has contributed to their quality of life.”
“You sound like a Republican,” I joked.
“And proud of it,” he replied.
“You’re shitting me.”
He laughed again. “Why? Because I don’t want to pay more taxes into a system that squanders our funds? Because I’m not ashamed of the wealth our country has created? Because I want to see these evil-doers who blew up the World Trade Center brought to justice?”
“So that’s a reason to vote for an incompetent religious fanatic who has brought ruin to our economy and sent over a thousand US soldiers to their death in a grossly mismanaged war?”
“I’m more in line with Bush’s moral values.”
There was that phrase again.
“But Bush hates fags!” I screamed. “And you used to make films about gay adolescents coming to terms with their sexuality!”
He slowed the car to a stop. “That was before I came to terms with my own sexuality.”
I felt something on my leg.
“I’ve learned that I don’t need the federal government to sanction my behavior.” His voice was getting breathy. “I’m my own man and proud of it. And my wife is perfectly accepting.”
It was his hand on my leg.
“I’ve been waiting for this opportunity for fifteen years,” he moaned as he leaned in close to kiss me.
There are laws in this country against beating up gay men. As there should be. They’re good laws, and I supported them when I was a college activist. But as far as I know, there are no laws against repeatedly smacking a Republican’s head against the dashboard of his own SUV. And people are as you see them.
I caught a cab back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening in the hotel bar, charging a small fortune to the production company that was foolish enough to cover my tab. The barkeep was a weathered blond, in her late thirties, with slim hips and a crooked smile. I asked her where I could score some weed and she told me she’d take care of it after her shift. She kept her word and smoked me up in my room after hours. We decimated the mini bar and grinded hips in the empty bathtub while listening to Johnny Cash on the stereo.
In the wee hours of the morning, as the barkeep slept in the tub and I paced the length of the room in a hotel-issue bathrobe, I thought about what it meant to be an American. That I and the Armenian cab driver and the stewardesses who tied me up and the Irishman who drove me to the hotel and the hobos and the closeted director and the barkeep all called this silly place home. What great goal were we all working toward? To what purpose all our climbing? To push McRibs on teenagers? To consume copious amounts of junk food, drugs, and cheap booze on someone else’s tab? What inverted pyramids were we building for our gods? What detritus would be left in the wake of our savagery? And was the blond in the bathtub still breathing? This was Denver after all, and, for all I knew, this could be the same broad that did Kobe in. But she’d never get a penny out of me. I’m not famous and only have a hundred dollars in my bank account. Did that mean I could sodomize her with impunity? Would that make me gay? Would that make me a Republican?
I took a fistful of pills and slept on the comforter. A car came in the morning and drove me back to the airport. The 12:30 landed at LAX, but God I wish it had taken me somewhere else.