Credit in the Straight World

In bad economic times, it’s hard to be picky about your job. Ex-Screw editor Jonah Cassidy is still writing, though now about petroleum, not porn.

Jonah Cassidy is probably best known to a certain segment of New York society as the long-time executive editor of Screw, the in-your-face, would-be Variety of the pornography trade.

But no longer. On the eve of recession—though he admits the timing was sheer dumb luck—Cassidy reluctantly concluded that he’d be better off serving in heaven than reigning in hell: He traded in his keys to the kingdom of what he calls ‘turgid, tumescent smutland’ for a modest cubicle in ‘the beautiful, orderly, Germanic world of international chemicals,’ signing on as an associate editor for specialty chemicals at the Wall Street-based Chemical Market Reporter. Cassidy now spends his weekday nine-to-fives producing tight, cut-to-the-chase, five-Ws business journalism—‘Coatings Industry Faces Uncertainty over Lead Paint Litigation’—on an unforgiving deadline.

‘My editor in chief gave me an excellent piece of advice on my first day,’ Cassidy says. ‘Find the human element in the story—and cut it out.’

That blue-penciled human element now includes many pink-slipped members of the New York publishing industry, of course, along with a whole lot of other American workers. At the same time, the odious phrases ‘career reengineering’ and ‘skill transfer’ are heard so frequently in public discourse that a caustic note from William Safire on the subject would actually be welcome. Submit a query to the Proquest periodicals database on the search string ‘career change’ and you drown in canned advice, both stern and saccharine, to the joblorn, along with numerous inspirational tales of career transitions negotiated with spiritual courage and creative ingenuity.

A Christmas-time editorial from the Houston Star on layoffs by a local employer is a locus classicus:

Many of those 4,000 bright and hard-working people who lost their jobs with Enron are certain to bounce back higher than they were before. Some may pursue new careers, or revive old dreams, or create, or invent.

‘It’s hard to avoid the occasional letdown as you climb your way up the corporate ladder,’ observes USA Today, with its usual laser-like penetration into social trends. The key, of course, is to make lemonade from the lemons life hands you, and remain focused on your inner spiritual warrior. As Business Week got busy interviewing young professionals about reevaluating their lives and careers in the wake of the September 11, the Wall Street Journal was reporting that business was booming at theological seminaries, as corporate refugees and fresh pink-slippers alike turned to the clergy as a second career—presumably to lead their congregants in a chorus of Woody Guthrie’s Depression-era parodic hymn: ‘You will eat / By and by / In that great soup kitchen in the sky / Work and pray / Live on hay / There’ll be pie in the sky when you die.’

It’s the stewardess-smile Sartrean bad faith in back of such outplacement-seminar humanism, in fact, that compels the downsized narrator of Donald Westlake’s brilliant and timely novel The Ax (1997) to hunt down and assassinate his rivals for what his meticulous, by-the-book career planning tells him is his dream job—the job he was born to do. Everyone secretly believes that stark social Darwinism lurks beneath the cheap but freshly dry-cleaned interview suit of civility. And secretly, no one wants to believe the oft-repeated adage that what you do is not necessarily who you are. (Recall that ubiquitous toilet-stall grafitto: ‘To do is to be: Sartre. To be is to do: Nietzsche. Do be do be do: Sinatra.’) Westlake’s mad, middle-aged middle manager merely follows these unspoken beliefs to their logical conclusion.

‘If I had ever had a career plan, or a clue of any kind, I’d probably be going postal now myself,’ laughs Cassidy, a Westlake admirer who’s working on a series of reviews of the author’s pseudonymous works.

So how do you wind up retooling from pornography to petrochemicals? The story of Jonah Cassidy and his mid-career self-reinvention is replete with cheap irony—if you omit the human element, that is. First, it’s a dead-on parody of the ‘spiritually adventurous investment banker chucks it all to start llama farm’ genre of popular job-market journalism. Second, since porn is just another business—so runs a specious bar-room enthymeme I will admit to having indulged in myself—all business is therefore essentially pornographic, catering to such peculiar fetishes of the market as its obscure lust for gallium arsenide, a rare earth used in next-generation microprocessors that’s one of Cassidy current reportorial beats.

Stet the human element, however, and the story boils down to this: Despite having willfully ignored every single tenet of rational career planning, Cassidy's working, and you may well not be. How come? What’s his secret?

The answer? The answer, grasshopper, according to Cassidy, is that there is no answer, except to hang on to your sense of professional pride no matter what and learn simply to shrug your shoulders at the mysterious spasms of the chaosmos.

‘I had this editor at this crappy college paper I worked on who insisted that just because we were writing for a rag that people only picked up for the pizza coupons didn’t mean that we could just print any old crap,’ Cassidy offers. ‘Somehow, that stuck with me through all the weirdness.’

In an article for the New York webzine Plasmotica, for example, titled ‘The Rewrite Stuff: Making Silk Purses Out of Sows’ Ears in the Land of Smut,’ Cassidy describes long hours of unpaid overtime spent redacting reader-submitted erotica that’s subliterate but has a decent ‘dramatic’ premise (the graveyard shift pathologist and the emergency room nurse, with an unmentionable implement, on the autopsy table, in the morgue) into a publishable, if not Pulitzer-grade, item.

It was a ‘personal best’ issue. I pushed myself because I wanted the magazine to live up to my standards. It was my first regular professional editorial job, and I wanted to prove myself … I knew it all boiled down to trash anyway, but that just plugged into my aesthetic even more.

As to the aforementioned ‘weirdness,’ well, let’s just say that it started in the mid-80s as a low-budget remake of Bright Lights, Big City, directed by David Cronenberg and starring Cassidy as a hip, angry young independent filmmaker, working at New York television studio Broadcast Arts by day and perhaps a little more than dabbling by night in the deadly romance of a controlled substance popular in the artistic circles of the period. Complications ensued. Tipped off to an opening at Screw while working as a production assistant at Midnight Blue—during a trip to the late, lamented Worldwide Cinema for a showing of Unforgiven—Cassidy ends up passing the writing test, lands the job, gets his head more or less together, and ascends to the top job by a process of rapid attrition. (‘I’ll never forget that, it was Unforgiven, yeah,’ Cassidy muses, the search for meaning whirring audibly in his head.)

Cassidy can only splutter with rage these days about his tenure at Screw and the gross, grandiose smut impresario he worked for there. ‘I mean, the guy would buy Joey Buttafuocco dinner at Nobu and we’d get nothing! Nothing! Loyalty? Loyalty to what?’ More than anything, Cassidy says, it was the lack of a collegial work environment (to paraphrase discreetly) that led to his departure.

I asked Cassidy if his unusual employment history posed any barriers to entry as he set out to establish credit in the straight world. ‘There were some publications I didn’t hear back from,’ he recalls, ‘but I never discovered that was the reason.’ On his résumé, he listed his previous employer as the innocuously-named production company that owns the noxious—or possibly hardware-related—title. When the issue did arise in interviews, he’d hem and haw. What kind of magazine was it? ‘It was, uh, in the men’s field.’ Something like GQ or Maxim? ‘Well, no, a little more … adult than that.’

Most editors, however, especially at the trade titles, didn’t give a damn, Cassidy says. They were simply looking for someone with a track record of working on deadline who could demonstrate a certain level of writing ability. Not that Cassidy didn’t have his shot at the so-called big leagues. He was up for a job at Popular Mechanics, among others, and has an amusing story to tell about getting the royal runaround from Brill’s Content—fortunately, as it turns out, since the magazine soon folded. A tantalizing relationship with an HR representative at Condé Nast likewise turned out to be founded on what Cassidy calls ‘that Ralph Ellison kind of helpfulness, as in ‘keep that n—r boy running.’’

So, dealing with the issue of skills transfer at the new job once he landed it? ‘When I walked into CMR that first day,’ Cassidy admits, ‘I was thinking, Whoa, man! Change or die!’ But he soon discovered a culture of collegiality that eased the transition. ‘People were great. They’d say, Hey, no sweat, check out the chemical industry news on Yahoo or whatever. Let me email you the contact info for so and so, who knows all about that stuff. They really just wanted me to succeed and make their crazy lives easier.’

‘I’ll tell you this,’ Cassidy adds. ‘Getting taken out to lunch by an executive from a German petrochemical company that could buy Paraguay if it wanted to is a lot different from going dutch on pepperoni slices with some meatball smut peddler.’

I ask Cassidy what he thinks about the idea of having the courage to integrate one’s working life with one’s spiritual journey. ‘Well, this isn’t exactly my dream job,’ he deadpans. ‘There are days when I turn to the guy in the next cube and say, I’m so bored my head is going to explode! But then a week later I’m at a conference on nanotechnology—not the sci-fi stuff, but what they’re really doing with it now—and I’m just totally fascinated.’

CMR is no big-name consumer magazine, either (although a browse through the WELL’s ‘dead magazines’ topic or the Publisher’s Weekly news archives should provide some consolation). ‘My bartender makes as much money as I do,’ Cassidy, a Queens native, complains wryly. ‘Thirty years ago, with the same salary in adjusted dollars I make now, I would have owned the building I live in and had a nice car parked out front,’ he points out. ‘Sure, I guess I get bitter sometimes: youthful dreams, bullshit bullshit, yada yada. But considering how clueless I was to begin with, despite being fairly book smart, I’m pretty upbeat about the way things are going.’

‘I’m enough of a realist to realize that I’m lucky that I’m writing,’ Cassidy says. ‘I love writing, and I’m writing for a living. If I go to some cocktail party and say I’m a writer like every other wannabe in the room, I can say, Hey, no, you don’t get it: I get paid to write. They can say it’s only a trade magazine if they want to. I say if an actor’s in a maxipad ad, well, sure, it’s not King Lear, but it’s a paying gig.’

He has a valid point: You get to build a character for a day, you get your Equity card, and you get your residuals so you can pay the rent while you do the off-off Broadway stuff that fulfills you as an artist. It’s a chameleon act, an amphibious existence between the worlds of the hip and the square, that’s familiar to thousands of New Yorkers working PowerPoint jobs by day and scribbling, taking 16 bars, or perfecting their Method by night—or vice versa.

It can be a precarious existence, however, which is why many of us find it necessary to pack it in for the time being and run for cover, as Jonah Cassidy did—and just in time, too, the lucky bastard. On the other hand, it’s the human element, the right mix of precariousness and hope—the voodoo rum of human blood and folly mixed with the lemonade of human adaptability—that moves the tabloids off the rack. Just ask Rupert Murdoch, or Jean Baudrillard, who observed as follows:

Terror is as much a part of the concept of truth as runniness is of the concept of jam. We wouldn’t like jam if it didn’t, by its very nature, ooze. We wouldn’t like truth if it wasn’t sticky, if, from time to time, it didn’t ooze blood.

Thus a story in one of the New York tabloids today, which tells of a woman who cut her own children’s throats because, she sobbed, she could not buy them new clothing for the first day of school. Not only do dogs eat other dogs, they even eat their own young. The ’human element’ in the popular press wields an economic carrot and an economic stick: The happy or pedagogical bullshit in the job market section will lead you to the pie in the sky you aspire to. The social Darwinist tragedy in the local news, on the other hand, shows you what you might sink to if you don’t toe the line.

As Darwin himself wrote, however, ‘… as for a future life, every man must judge for himself between conflicting vague probabilities.’ He was referring to the Christian notion of the afterlife, but it’s an apt maxim for the career of Jonah Cassidy as well. In the clean, orderly, Germanic world of petrochemicals, heavy objects falling from the sky are a statistical anomaly, and considerable resources can be brought to bear on the problem of ensuring that it, if it does happen, that it does not happen again.

Wander off onto the path less traveled by in a town like this, however, and it will be shocking if all hell doesn’t break loose. At that point, the spiritual journey becomes an unaffordable luxury, as Cassidy will tell you. Even before Governor Tom Ridge proposed his Def Con-inspired system for rating the level of terrorist threat [an index that has remained unchanged at ‘elevated’ since its inception], some of us already knew from experience, as the late poet Dick Barnes wrote in A Lake on the Earth, that ‘the likelihood of catastrophe is perpetual.’

Colin Brayton is a freelance journalist, translator, copy editor, and copywriter living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. He is currently working on stories about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, and energy market deregulation; doing journalistic translation from the Arabic press; preparing an English translation of the Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst; and maintaining a web site called The Hairy Eyeball. More by Colin Brayton