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My friend, Thad well, the name says it. Thad shook hands firmly, grinned exuberantly and constantly, and had the Rhett Butler mustache/one-eyebrow-up-one-eyebrow-down combination with the quarter-moon eye squint - and it was always "real good to see [me]." He was exactly a Good Guy. The high school football star who knew there was "more" to life than throwing a perfect spiral - he was an econ major who took acting class, for crying out loud. ("Econ," by the way. When was the last time you said "Econ"?) He was the car salesman who watched PBS and made sure everyone knew it. "I even pledged my support. Look at my bumper sticker!"
Thad worked for what was, in the mid-eighties, the most happening, hippest, partying-est nightclub chain in Chicago, where only the sexiest could get past the velvet rope to revel in the most magnificent music and most spectacular light show in the city: The Snuggery. "The Snuggery?" Yes. The Snuggery.
Now, I was never really a nightclub guy. I liked dive bars with old jukeboxes that scratchily played Sinatra and "Dock of the Bay." Evidently, as a 20 year old, I lived the exact life of a 59-year old divorcee. But Thad wanted to make The Snuggery something different than the average nightclub, and that's why he hired me "against type." His goal was to make The Snuggery an artistically-inspired, beautifully-realized, loftily-essenced, fuck den. Thad believed that if the employees all worked together, less as a "team," but more as a "troupe," that that wonderful intangible magic that is associated with theater and the theater-going experience would similarly disseminate through the club and into the hearts and souls of the incredibly coked-up crowd.
My interview took place in an office that can only be described as "early holy-shit-what-have-I-gotten-myself-into." The walls were actually padded, with huge room-hugging floor to ceiling cushions that were covered in designer burlap with bold brown and orange stripes cutting across them. Lots of ski chalet/recording studio wood paneling covered the rest of the huge room. It just reeked of illicit, icky, 80's-type behavior, none of which I'd ever had access to in the ridiculously white cul-de-sac I grew up selling lemonade and playing lawn darts and suppressing my true self in. This room was uncomfortably cool and evil. And in the corner - I'm not kidding - a hot tub. Thad thought this was the ultimate sign of having "made it." I thought this was an office you'd associate with bad guys on "Baretta"... whose interior designer was heavily influenced by Rhoda's apartment.
I don't remember much of the interview besides meeting one of the managers and thinking he was creepily slimy and really really thin. Like runner thin. Of course, now that I look back on it, I don't think he was much of a runner. Looking back, I think his veins would have collapsed if he dialed a number that included the extra three digits of a different area code. But back then I thought: Hm. Svelte.
I somehow won them over with a quality that I still have, that, back then, was called "boyish charm" and now is called "cloying" and "sad." Next week I would become a college graduate and was to start my training in my new position as Dynamics Manager for the Morton Grove Snuggery. What a horrible collection of proper nouns.
A Dynamics Manager was basically in charge of "fun." My job, every night, was to throw the most exciting party in town. But in order to throw this astounding party, I had to wrangle many elements. First and foremost, I had to take a ragtag group of waitresses and bartenders and doormen and unite them as a team - no, a troupe - and through their excitement and commitment, every one who came through those doors would be certain to have, unequivocally, The Best Night Of Their Lives. We were the folks who would make people's dreams come true, fulfill their wishes, make this night so special that they find it worthy of drinking until they puke in a urinal and then get back to the bar in time for the sixth round of Goldschlagers. Because that would then be The Best Night Of Their Lives. And how does this disparate group of strangers bond together as a united force, committed to providing meaning to the wonderful people of this northwest suburb of Chicago? Well, naturally, theater games.
The following Saturday, Thad had assembled all the new employees, including me, because it was a requirement that anyone who worked at The Snuggery had to go through what he called Snug Training. (Oh, you'll see the word "Snug" used as an adjective a lot in the next few minutes.) For two unpaid hours, Thad made everybody, bouncers and bar backs alike, pretend they were, say, an animal. Yes, that's right, Tony, you're a bear! A big grizzly bear! What do you sound like? How do you walk? What do you think of Cynthia over there, who's a what were you again, Cynthia? Right, a woodchuck. What do think of Cynthia the Woodchuck, Tony the Bear? Well, it was all just horribly embarrassing to see what people will go through just to get a job. Now that I've worked in television for fifteen years, this, of course, is routine for me to witness. But back then it was shocking.
See, the Tonys and Cynthias of Morton Grove had never been anything more than Tonys or Cynthias. They weren't comfortable being animals or closing their eyes and picturing themselves walking on a beach or throwing imaginary balls to each other that would, according to Thad's shouted orders, suddenly be "Heavy!" or "Light!" They just wanted to serve drinks, beat up a drunk line crasher or two, have some employee-discounted potato skins, and go home via the White Hen Pantry to grab a twelve-pack of Hamms or maybe Blatz, drink it in the church parking lot, if it was snowing, do a few doughnuts and maybe skitch a little, zig zag back to their parents' house, stumble in the front door, tip over the aquarium, shout "fuck," get in a fight with their mom about how much they drink, pass out in the family room watching some movie with Dom Deluise, probably the one where he's trying to kill himself but Burt Reynolds won't let him, wait, Burt wanted to kill himself and Dom Deluise won't let him, wake up to the sound of their father consoling their mother as she cries because she didn't know her kid says "fuck," say sorry, heat up a waffle, and then go out with Mitch to fix his truck. They didn't want to pretend they were all different mechanical parts of a clock.
I made up my mind then and there that when I became a full-fledged Dynamics Manager, I wasn't going to humiliate my troupe.
Which was going to be hard.
Eventually, I had to take charge of the club. The rule was that every twenty minutes, something Big had to happen at The Snuggery. An event. A happening. Part of my job was to schedule these events like, say, the Wacky Dance contest or the Free Drink Ticket Hunt. And then I got to hold the portable spotlight for the break dancers, the fire eaters, the jugglers, the professional lip synchers. Lip synchers that were professional.
But the party didn't die in between these events. Throughout the night, the deejay was instructed to play certain songs that were cues for all the employees to do somewhat choreographed, "fun" moves that would really get the crowd going. For instance, that was the summer of both The Pointer Sisters' and Van Halen's songs, "Jump." Whenever either of them sang "jump" in the song, each and every employee in the place had to stop whatever he was doing and jump up in place. "Jump!" Jump. "Jump!" Jump. Horrible. Or, say, when the song "Freezeframe" came on, whenever the word "Freezeframe" was sung, everyone had to freeze in place. "Freeze frame!" Hold it move. "Freeze frame!" Hold it move. It was particularly sad to watch Tovar, the Armenian bus boy, participate in all of this. These special songs were called Snug Tunes. And I had to make sure everyone who worked there performed them. I was doomed.
And to add to the horror, I did all this wearing the official Snug Outfit: Tuxedo shirt, unbuttoned at the top but still wearing a wrap-around bow tie, and slick, water-repellant, multi-zipper pocketed parachute pants.
At first, things went along fine. I did my job well and actually believed I liked doing it. And what's not to like? I could get anyone I wanted in to the club, drinks were free, food was free, I'd get free tickets to the big summer "SnugFest" with live bands and big name comedians. I was at the white-hot center of all things hip and exciting in the world of Chicago nightlife. The problem was, I don't like most things hip and exciting. That's a big something to realize when you're twenty-one. And, then, evidently, re-learn every three years or so for the rest of your life. Most of the alluring shiny objects that this job - and many later jobs - dangled in front of me are things that most people really want. That's why they're there. That's why they're offered. But over time, I inevitably realize that these things repel me. And I never should have been there in the first place.
In high school, I joked and cavorted my way into hanging with the cool kids, only to realize, holy crap. The cool kids are idiots and, in ten or fifteen years, are going to become sad drunks and, in many cases, incredibly fat, especially Doug Gurtner. The same happened a few years ago when, after attaining my goal to write for television and trying to emulate the people who inspired me, the Carl Reiners and the James Brookses, I looked around and realized, yeah, I used to do some cool stuff, but yikes, I've spent the last five months writing jokes for Ashton Kutcher. (Who's a very nice young man and I wish him well in his life and career.) So when your heart checks out, so does your brain. And I started to really, really suck at my job. Because my job was dumb, the people I worked for were dumb, the customers were dumb, and I wasted a good five minutes every day just trying to figure out which zippered pocket I put my car keys in.
I told my troupe that they only had to do the damn SnugTune routines if any of the track-marked management crew happened to be in the bar, the doormen being my lookouts. My troupe loved me for my lax dynamic managing, and I took pride in giving them some of their pride back. No, Mr. Six-Foot-Seven Bouncer Man, you don't have to wear the rubber Conehead thing while the poor barmaid plays ring toss on you. Have a tiny piece of dignity this summer. But, soon enough, I knew word got back that I was slacking off, because all of a sudden, when I got to work, I could feel something had shifted. Something was in the air. That heavy sense of impending unemployment. And once you get that stink on you, all your former buddies who thanked you for "being cool" with all those forced antics quickly turn away and shun you, making you, suddenly, persona Snug grata.
The last straw, as I recall, was when I mis-scheduled either the Pajama Party Night or the Love Connection Theme Night. Whichever it was, it didn't sit well with Scarface and the rest of the drug cartel up in the hot tub. That night, Thad took me aside, out into the alley behind the kitchen. He looked at me, eyebrows akimbo, and said "Ah Eric "
"I'm fired, aren't I?" I beat him to the punch. No one should have to go through the agony of firing a friend. We both knew it was going to happen. I shouldn't be here. I don't fit in. And I was absolutely fine with that.
True, I was released from an astoundingly soul-sucking job, but then again, the
upshot is I failed. People paid me to do something, I didn't do it well, and I
got fired. And getting fired doesn't feel good. What's more humiliating: Being
forced to wear my SnugOutfit, or being forced to not wear my SnugOutfit? I wasn't
going to miss the place, and yet I didn't feel great leaving. The rest of that
summer, I prepared to leave home for Hollywood, and spent my nights in dingy dive
bars, listening to Sinatra and "Dock of the Bay."
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