Always keep an emergency pot cookie in your office desk drawer.
It was 2002, my freshman year of college. My friend Justin’s step-cousin, or cousin-in-law, or something, was starting a nightlife rag, Karma Magazine. Josh was 22, freshly graduated from college, and had found some dot-com boom investor to hand him like a million dollars to fund this whimsy. He was basing Karma in San Francisco but aiming to position it nationally, and he’d asked Justin to help him find some freelancers to write up new places in New York. Justin needed a wingman to hit up three or four places that weekend, and I was totally game. Knowing we’d be making $1/word to write reviews of these places, plus the fact that our drinks would be covered, Justin and I shambled, cackling, off into the New York night, hardly believing our luck.
This being the fall of my first year of college, the total number of bars I’d been to in my entire life probably only crept into the double digits that weekend. Our nightlife write-ups yielded searing insights like these:
“MEET falls somewhat short of expectations. Stay away from the French martini, a mixture of Chambord, pineapple juice and vanilla Stoli that tastes more like an aborted Bloody Mary than anything else.”
“SHINE is red, gold, and old all over. A pleasant inconsistency was a live performance by The Thirdeye Apparel Co., a tasty tapestry of hip-hop beats and spoken-word performance art…. though perhaps the metered message was lost on SHINE’s devotees: the swarm bounced only intermittently, remaining stationary like adolescent paralytics at the first dance of the seventh grade.”
Despite the key fact that we were not of legal age to be patronizing any of these establishments, Josh seemed to like what we wrote about them enough to keep assigning us stories.
Equally determined not to spend the summer aestivating in our parents’ houses, that spring, Justin and I began to hatch a plan. What if we could parlay this freelance gig into a summer job in their San Francisco office? All we’d need to do would be to convince Josh to pay us a full-time salary. I left the task of persuading Josh to do this entirely to Justin, whose future prowess as a management consultant and media executive first emerged to me in this moment, and who had the leverage of common family to lord over Josh. Over the course of a month or two, Justin managed to negotiate a $25/hour full-time salary for each of us from the beginning of June to the end of August, plus a juicy title: Senior Staff Writer.
Red flag #1: when a magazine hires two 19-year-old college freshmen as Senior Staff Writers, it may be a good time to question the credibility of this magazine.
Obviously, we didn’t.
Instead, I informed my incredulous parents that I would be living for the summer in San Francisco, a city I’d never seen, in an apartment with Justin, a boy they’d met once, and that none of this should be in any way worrisome to them because I was getting paid a real salary and Justin was gay. Justin, who had grown up in the outer reaches of the Bay Area, recruited an old friend to check out a sublet for us: it apparently looked fine. Done. Just like that, the week after Memorial Day, armed only with what I could carry, I flew to SFO, he scooped me up, and we headed, cackling yet louder, off to our new apartment in the Inner Sunset.
This was the summer of 2003, and San Francisco was giving the last throat-slit wheezes of its first tech boom, the one everyone called “dot-com.” We paid $1350/month, $675 each, for a totally serviceable 2-bedroom on 7th Ave and Lawton Street; it had a balcony that faced Sutro Forest, where we watched the fog roll over the mountain every morning and every night, feeling gloomy and romantic and wonderful. An arrangement like this seems inconceivable now, but San Francisco was mid-bust, or at least mid-dip, then, with enough web money still trickling down to fund illogical print magazine start-ups, but not so much as to price two hapless teenagers out of their painfully earnest dreams.
On first glance, there was nothing special about the Sunset apartment, with its mid-1970s kitchen and bathroom appliances and dingy carpet and mattresses estranged from boxsprings on the floor. The apartment’s permanent resident, Panio, taught Italian language and cooking and was taking his students over to the boot for the summer. Before he’d left—we actually overlapped with him for a week in the beginning, during which time he took us to a mindblowing party in an apartment above some kind of artifact shop in the Mission, still in the early stages of its hipsterization, where we found ourselves surrounded by attractive mid-late-twentysomethings, enormous-donged African fertility carvings, scrumptious homemade Italian food, an impromptu jam session of mostly tribal instruments (except for Panio, who played jazz flute), and endless smoldering bowls making languid figure-eights around the room—he’d mentioned casually that we were welcome to any of the wine in the apartment except one rare bottle a friend had bought him for his eventual wedding night. Miraculously, we managed not to destroy the single special bottle, but that was only because there was so much other wine stashed all over that apartment we were usually too fucking drunk to remember, or care, where the good stuff was hidden.
Justin had just returned from a trip visiting family in the Philippines, toting 11 cartons of cheap Filipino cigarettes. This is another sense-memory of that summer: the taste of Filipino Marlboro Lights, sort of like human hair mixed with chronic dissatisfaction, or the taste of Filipino Lucky Strikes, much heavier, dog breath and garbage fires. I smoked them while reading in the bathtub with the inexplicable red porno light on overhead, feeling like Margot Tenenbaum, and on the balcony, on the couch, in bed, in the kitchen. It took me a decade to undo the addiction that dug in that summer.
We arrived thinking we’d have about a week to settle in and explore and probably go to more unbelievable parties with our pseudo-landlord before starting work, but we’d barely unpacked before Josh called.
“When can you guys come in?” he asked, sounding stressed, on Tuesday.
“I don’t know,” Justin said, shrugging at me. “Monday?”
“Yeah,” Josh said, “I’m gonna need you to come in tomorrow.”
The injustice of having a job! It struck us first at that moment in a storm cloud of panicky indignation: but that wasn’t the plan, to get to San Francisco and immediately have to work all the time (except this was totally the plan). Quelling this discontent, we sacked up and got on the N-Judah the next morning for the 45-minute commute to Berry Street in Mission Bay, which had probably just that week been renamed by forward-looking real estate agents, and which was basically a pile of rubble landmarked only by a stagnant man-made creekand a raggedy McDonald’s where Justin and I both gained 10 pounds in Dollar Value Menu items largely because there were very few other lunch options in the area.
Josh showed us around Karma’s office in the high-rise complex: maybe 1500 square feet of cubicles and small offices with a reception desk fore and boss’s office rear. Two late-twentysomethings—blonde, Berkeleyesque Monique and Persian, pointy-nosed Karim—managed the editorial side of things from adjacent cubicles. Another small office stood empty, waiting for an accountant.
Red flag #2: if a company has hired an entire full-time editorial staff before appointing anyone (apart from a 22-year-old who’s just been handed a giant sack of dot-com cash) to manage the company’s money, this may also speak to a disorganization of priorities in making said company financially sustainable.
Josh stationed Justin in a cubicle, and me at the reception desk. Though this was blatantly sexist, its effect was almost totally placebo, because no one ever really called Karma Magazine. In truth, it rapidly became clear that the purpose of our being in the office full-time at all was specious at best: our job was to write copy about bars and clubs and other nightlife and urban and cultural goings-on, none of which we could actually observe from a Mission Bay office during regular working hours. (More real-world injustice!) So I would write the week’s copy, then spend most of the rest of my time finding early-2000s ways to waste time on a computer. There was no Facebook, not even Friendster, so I read sex essays on Nerve and virtually every true crime story on Crime Library and wrote long letters and prolific AIM chats to my friends from school and tinkered with the play I’d been writing.
As this transpired, the company began to interview candidates for the accounting position. A steady stream of reliable-looking people paraded through Karma’s front door: single-mom CPAs, young men who had never so much as copied a problem set in college, generally upstanding types. Then in walked Ralph, with his shifty eyes and thirty-year-smoker’s rasp and scraggly Fu Man Chu, and for reasons passing understanding, Ralph was the one Josh hired.
Red flag #3: Ralph.
Oh, did I mention the helicopter? I never actually rode in it, but there was a red helicopter that I believe belonged to the mysterious dot-com investor with KARMA painted on its flank. The Karmacopter.
Red flag #4: the Karmacopter.
The point of Karma Magazine, though, the point of this whole summer, came once every week or two, when the staff would go out together to check out whatever was new and hot after dark in San Francisco. SoMA was becoming a thing then, and we traipsed off to the freshly opened DNA Lounge, and Butter, and Mezzanine. The clutch of us would proceed to the VIP lounge of whatever establishment we were patronizing that night, Josh or Ralph would order a bottle of something from the top shelf, Justin and I would take some notes on our surroundings before we were too fucked up to do so—we were likely to be the only staff members actually reviewing the place—and congenially, at differing paces, we would all get hammered.
Justin and I got drunk fast because we were young and lightweight. Monique and Karim knew enough about workplace dynamics to drink slowly. Josh was sort of inscrutable, and always wearing a flat cap, so it was hard to tell with him. Ralph got very drunk very fast because he drank a lot. I remember postgaming one such outing with the other staffers, who noted that the final bill had been about $600, $450 of which had been Ralph’s drinks. In fact, it was Ralph, the man tasked with handling the company’s money, who always seemed the most eager to spring for another bottle, another round.
So the job ambled on, became routine, and we found our circadian rhythm in Pacific Standard Time, feeling tired and too grown up when we rode the rush-hour N-Judah home, but rarely too tired to rally by the time party hour rolled around. Breakfast we got $1 dumplings at the Chinese kitchen on the way to the train stop, until we discovered rat shit all over one morning’s order. Dinner was often the transcendentally good General Gau’s chicken from one of the many Chinese places down the street. Living with a Filipino in the most Asian city in America, I quickly became accustomed to eating Asian food for at least two meals a day; in return, I taught Justin how to make potatoes delicious by adding various dairy products to them. In a culinary sense, we got along swimmingly. Still do.
We spent nearly every moment together. Not even every waking moment, because after landlord Panio lived with us the first week, we got into the habit of sleeping in the same room, except when one of us was getting laid in the other one. To this end, Justin delighted in the role reversal that our coastal jump entailed: whereas in New York, an underage girl could flash a smile and get in just about anywhere, San Francisco bars, especially Castro gay bars, were much more amenable to my babyfaced male compatriot. The interactions at the door would usually go something like this:
Justin and Laura flash equally bad fake IDs. Justin passes breezily through the door. Laura tries to follow. The bouncer bars Laura’s entry with a beefy arm and a nonplussed expression.
Bouncer: Nuh-uh, hon.
Laura (yelling to Justin through the door): You have ten minutes.
Justin: Ten minutes!
Laura resentfully chain-smokes Filipino Lucky Strikes on the street corner like a lost hooker. Fifteen to twenty minutes go by. At the end of each of three cigarettes, Laura swears to herself that she’s leaving after this one. Just as she crushes the last cigarette underfoot, Justin bounds out with a cute guy.
Justin: Let’s share a cab!
The single greatest guest star we managed to attract that summer was Ginger, who lived in the apartment below us. I think we met her by knocking on her door and asking if she knew anyplace to get weed, or something equally obnoxious. Though Ginger initially seemed totally weirded out by us, she quickly took a shine to her new, young friends upstairs, becoming a sitcom-y fixture of an I-don’t-even-know-your-number-I-just-knock-on-your-door-whenever-I-want variety.
Ginger, we learned, worked as a phone sex operator, erotic masseuse, and pot treat pâtissière, which explained why she was usually wearing a titty tank top and emitting, like her apartment, a piquant scent of cannabis and vanilla. She was black and curvy and full of stories like how her TSA boyfriend just told her the most failsafe way to bring weed on planes, or the time she woke up with a guy’s thumb up her butt. She immediately endeared herself to us by never appearing at our door without some sort of fun, creative pot paraphernalia: a pipe shaped like a penis, stoney peanut butter cups, extra weed butter from one of her baking batches, which she made with an elaborate double-boiler. She seemed to love the act of getting two 19-year-old word nerds stoned and playing with us. She seemed to have a sort of mommy crush on Justin; this is not an uncommon female response to Justin. Thanks to Ginger, we were blazed most of the time and really starting to feel like we belonged in this place.
Ginger’s weed butter, it should be noted, was pure magic. We used it for all kinds of things: on toast, in the more de rigueur cookies and brownies, even in a spaghetti sauce or two. One morning, I used it to make a pan of cornbread with a Trader Joe’s mix, ate a square, then made the classic edible-weed mistake: I got hungry before I got high, and ate more. Alone in our apartment for the day while Justin visited family, I repeated this vicious cycle until at about 8pm he arrived home to find that I’d been watching the Sex and The City DVD menu on repeat for hours, I hadn’t eaten anything that day except half a pan of weed cornbread, and I couldn’t really speak out loud so much as just giggle and flail in response to questions.
One morning, casually, Justin threw a baggie with two special cookies into his backpack to take to the office with us.
“What are you bringing those to work for?” I asked.
“Oh, you know,” he said breezily. “Emergencies.” And we laughed.
As the summer ambled on, my relationship with Justin began to deepen into one of San Francisco’s most deservedly hallowed hallmarks: the queer family. We rarely fought and generally had tons of fun, and we both needed family, because Justin was (understandably) avoiding coming out to his, and I was avoiding the entire mid-country region in which mine lived. Together, each of us always had not only a meal, drinking, and snuggle buddy, but a partner in crime to go check out the new vintage store for a quick write-up, or to watch endless loops of Sex and the City on DVD, or to get stoned and “play The Matrix”, which was a game Justin invented that basically entailed jumping out at each other in slow motion. We were roommates, colleagues, besties, and even partners in the occasional sloppy, misguided makeout session. It was all very Christopher Isherwood and Sally Bowles, and it was lovely, by far the best and most enduring part of that time.
About two months into all of this, we started to get too comfortable, in that way that you feel like everything will last forever when you’re that young. We spent too much money on food and booze. We tossed around the possibility of taking a semester off from school to stay in SF and keep working at the magazine. We sort of forgot that our sublet had an exit date. With our local friends and insider nightlife knowledge and healthy cash supply, it had all started feeling so settled, so much like home.
It was maybe the first week of August when Ralph stopped showing up for work. On Monday, no one much noticed. On Tuesday, Josh left messages on Ralph’s home and cell voicemails to make sure he was okay. On Wednesday, things started looking kind of dubious when Josh couldn’t reach Ralph through his home, cell, fiancée, email, or any other means. On Thursday, Josh got a vague, nonchalant email from Ralph to the effect of “Hey, sorry I’ve been MIA, I’m in Hong Kong and all the magazine’s money got transferred to my account. Don’t know when I’ll be back.”
By Monday morning, it had hit us that Ralph wasn’t coming back. We hadn’t yet gotten our checks for this pay cycle, given that Ralph was in charge of payroll, and it seemed increasingly obvious that the next pay cycle was going to be at our next job. In retrospect, what was alarming wasn’t the fact that the company collapsed—of fucking course this company collapsed—but rather, how quickly it was liquidated, returned to whatever primordial entrepreneurial soup produces ill-advised media start-ups, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Justin and I exchanged glances. I opened my desk drawer.
“I’m pretty sure this qualifies as an emergency,” I said.
“Yup,” he replied, holding out his hand. He ate a cookie. I ate a cookie. And in about an hour, when men started arriving to take away the furniture, the whole scene really started to feel a lot like the end of Fight Club: holding hands as you watch the world you know burn to the ground, looking at the person next to you and explaining You met me at a very strange time in my life as The Pixies wail Where is my mind? in the background.
The office closed. Monique and Karim and, of course, Ralph, all faded into memory. We never got paid for any of August, despite Josh’s repeated promises that he’d figure out a way to cover payroll. We were in a pickle for that month’s rent. Ginger came over to get us consolation-stoned, and—please let me get away with this one—gingerly proposed a financial solution to me.
“Listen,” she said, sounding knowledgeable. “You set your own limits. You want to just do hand jobs, you just do hand jobs. Guys will offer you $500, $1000 to have sex with them, but you decide what you want to do. You could make your rent in one, two days.”
“Yeah,” I said, agreeing that this was possible without agreeing that I would do it. I thought about it. I really did. I thought about my pro-sex-work feminist stance. I thought about how broke I was and how stupid I had been not to save enough—any—money. I thought about how much I could reasonably charge for a hand job. I thought about the reality of jacking off a stranger’s hard dick, wiping his jizz off my new teddy, and pocketing his bills. And I realized that even though I really did need the money, and I really did think sex work was an honest living, I, Laura, just couldn’t do it.
Like the suburban white girl I was, I borrowed August’s rent from my livid parents so my landlord wouldn’t sue me, and got a tutoring job when I got back to school. Justin worked at Barnes & Noble. For a long time I wondered what happened to Monique and Karim, who weren’t just snot-nosed college kids on their way back to school at the end of the summer anyway, but who were honest, hardworking late-twentysomethings with real non-sublet apartments and student loans and senses of goddamn responsibility. They weren’t the hubristic little assholes we were, and I hope they landed okay.
Over a decade later, I Google these people, combining series of familiar nouns to remember their last names (“Monique Karma San Francisco”): Karim’s last name is too common to be sure I’ve come by the right one, but Monique and Josh are easy to find. Monique now runs specialty trips to Africa. Josh apparently tried to surf the Karma wave all the way up to a beach somewhere around 2009, but most of this is revealed in Google archaeology in the form of a Writers Weekly complaint and a court case on PlainSite.
“For the past two years I have written for a national nightlife magazine called Karma. I wrote 3 articles for their September 1 issue and I have a contract detailing the terms. They owe me $460. The magazine has recently disconnected its phone and fax and the editor is no longer returning my emails. I have called his cell phone three times and he has not returned my calls.”
(This complaint is resolved a few weeks later by its original poster, who notes that she was eventually able to reach Josh and was paid for her work. I consider posting a complaint on the same thread to see if Josh might finally cough up the approximately $3500 he still owes me. I decide to write this essay instead.)
“Corbis Corp. v. Karma Magazine Corporation Et Al”
(Corbis Corporation, I learn, is a company founded by Bill Gates that sells stock photos, footage, and illustrations. I’m guessing they only sue you if you steal such intellectual property from them.)
“It Is Adjudged That Plaintiff Corbis Corp. Recover From Defendant Karma Magazine Corporation $9,887.84 Principal, $660.00 Attorney Fees, $1,682.91 Interest, $201.30 Costs, Total Judgment $12,432.05.”
What am I looking for from these erstwhile Googlings? A reassurance that the Karma summer really happened, maybe, or a resolution I never got from its abrupt, truncated ending. There’s still something spectacular about the Karmacopter’s epic crash to me, about how quickly the magical little world Justin and I built for ourselves vanished. In the end we just went back to college, as was always the plan, only a little broker and more world-weary than we’d intended to be. So it goes: the price we paid for the single greatest summer job a college kid has ever managed to wrest from the stingy clenched fists of the universe.
I didn’t make it back to this city of altered states and dreams for another five years, but when I did find myself reposing one night in a Castro hot tub with another man I loved (a straight one this time), smoking a free joint, smelling wild jasmine growing all around us as the sound of laughter drifted out from the kitchen, gazing incredulously at the Day-Glo-spattered garden surrounding us, feeling something like magic dragging its fingertips over my bare skin, I couldn’t help but breathe in and remember—I know this feeling. I want to come back to this. So I did, and as it happened, Justin and I moved back to San Francisco within two months of each other.
And even though, six years after that, San Francisco is now occasionally starting to remind me of the kind of friend who just got famous and is maybe letting a few headlines go to his head, and even though Karma Magazine never coughed up what they finally owed me, and even though the smell of jasmine doesn’t come for free, on a sunny day or sometimes even more on a foggy one, I’ll look around and remember that one time when I was very young and hapless, I showed up here with only what I could carry, and San Francisco took me in.
This was such a dreamy read, Laura!
Fantastic essay. I partly grew up in the city and left the Castro/Mission in ’99 before the dot-com downslide; then commuted back to USF for my MFA and finally have a writing life at midlife… so your story was familiar, yet a far cry from my timeline. It was a pleasure to read your snappy prose, great sense of place, good humor, etc.
Brilliant essay. Excellent imagery – I felt like I was right there in the haze myself.