HI THERE! IT’S ME, SNUGGLE! I’M HERE TO TELL YOU ABOUT SNUGGLE FABRIC SOFTNER. Snuggle fabric softener makes your clothes so soft that even your socks will come out fluffy. Plus, it’s really less expensive. For a cuddly soft wash, try Snuggle!
______Did I get you?
______Did you think I was actually pitching you? Ah, I got you. I could see it. You were like a deer a strobe light: Freaking. Out. Man, I wish I’d had my camera.
______That little intro there, that’s just a joke I play for new people. Meeting me for the first time is stressful for folks. They don’t know how to approach me. They keep doing their Sudoku, pretending not to notice. So I like to break the ice. Making people comfortable is what I’m all about.
______Seriously though, I can smell from here that you’re probably using a store brand softener. You really should be using Snuggle.
______I like your polo shirt by the way. I have the same one at home, same size too. Mine’s powder blue. It has a huge stain: an ancient chili catastrophe probably, that stretches from the cute little horse to where it starts fraying apart in the armpit. But I love it. At night I’ll drag it into bed, wrap it around me and cuddle right off to sleep. You don’t know how lucky you are to be able to be able to wear your shirt all day if you want. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the body for clothes.
______Melissa, my ex, she knew I loved that shirt and she still took it when she left.
______After I finally broke it off, I gave her two weeks to move out of my loft. When she was still hanging around ten days later, I took a last minute meeting out of town because I wanted to give her a little dignity as she left. Dignity wasn’t something Melissa would do for herself. She was gone when I got back. So was my polo.
______She could have been planning it all along. One night, early on, we were lying in bed and she asked me why I had it. Melissa the artiste—Melissa the photographeur—would go gaga over a crooked shadow on a window pane. When I told her the story behind the shirt, she fell asleep. Maybe she wasn’t planning on stealing it then.
______Thursday, November 4, 1983. That’s when I got the shirt. I was shooting my debut Snuggle commercial and I was royally flopping. The ten-thousandth time I popped out of the pile of pink towels and giggled my lines the director whipped a water bottle at my head and stomped off the set. All I could do after that was slink around looking for someone, a craft services guy even, who would look me in the eye. Who I found, standing on top of a prop crate in a shadowed corner, trying to rub a deep pain from his temples, was Jack Clark Scott.
______Do you know Jack?
______Well, you should. Everyone should. Jack is Unilever’s chief branding officer for laundry products. Jack resembles a more intense Gary Busey with his uncombable blonde hair and giant white teeth that murmur “I may try to eat your skin”. On the inside, Jack is half silverback gorilla, half Rasputin, half Homecoming King-For-Life at a high school that only admits popular kids. But really, Jack’s fundamental value proposition is that he is an Olympian god of branding. Jack re-defines billion dollar product lines like rappers make up words. I’ll bet you $1000, right now, that Jack could get every Eskimo between 18 and 42 believing that Hoshizaki brand ice machines are as Eskimo as kayaking and seal pie. Eskimos have 100 words to describe snow. After Jack, they’d have 200 words to describe the kind of chump who buys a Scotsman machine. Jack is the real deal.
______Of course I didn’t know that back then. To me he was just another junior marketing exec milling around on set, practicing his golf swing with an invisible club. But that day I looked up at him—his eyes, by the way, absorb you like tiny blue infomercials—and I asked him what I was doing wrong.
______He vaulted off the crate and landed with a thunder clap on the concrete floor, inches from my face.
______“If you don’t get it, there is no help for you,” he said.
______Jack stepped over me.
______“Why are you here?” Jack asked, though it didn’t sound like a question, and he didn’t turn around to face me.
______“To sell fabric softener.”
______“What does fabric softener do?”
______Jack started to walk away. By the time I could squeak out the obvious answer, he was pushing out through a back door into the parking lot. I followed him. I just knew that was what I was supposed to do. He was waiting in his DeLorean with the passenger door up.
______We rattled around the city in long, long circles of silence. After two hours, I asked where we were going. Jack spat out the window. A couple hours after that, in the dark of a neighborhood where drunks in battered wheelchairs were clawing up the middle of the street with their toes, Jack cut across oncoming traffic and ran up on the sidewalk in front of a sagging laundromat.
______He fished in the back seat and pulled out a 12-ounce sample bottle of softener.
______I told him thanks for his concern, but I didn’t need a product demonstration. He grabbed my legs in his one fist, pulled me upside down and stuffed me inside his leather jacket. The next thing I know we’re in the laundromat and he’s chucking me into a dryer. As soon as I landed I tried to scramble back out, but he’s already shut it behind me. And he’s just standing there, peering in with this billboard-sized bemused grin on his face.
______He’s going to kill me. He’s going to tap a button and permanent press me to death. That’s what I was thinking.
______“Cover yourself up in the clothes,” he whispered, “and watch.” I realized the dryer was half-full of soggy wash. I dug in. What else could I do?
______On the other side of the scratched porthole a swarthy woman was balling a hill of yellowed socks on an uneven folding table. Jack walked over and stood across the table from her. He held out his hand and said something in Spanish. She didn’t look up. Jack waited.
______Eventually she came around. She separated a wad of her socks and pushed it at him. Jack began to ball. Marla, that was her name, she said. She had three little boys and her husband wouldn’t spring for a washing machine, Marla said. Every week she had to wash at least three pairs of sheets. Uncle Jaime, who was living on their couch until he died, couldn’t hold his piss so good anymore. She slapped each sock ball down on the table as she finished it. One bounced off. She didn’t mind laundry though. No. Laundry time was her time to herself, her only time.
______Jack tucked the last sock.
______“Life is hard,” he said.
______“Wouldn’t it be nice if it could be a little softer?” Jack asked, and pulled the sample bottle of softener out of his jacket.
______It was cheesier than Velveeta. But Marla hadn’t seen it coming. She hesitated just long enough for Jack to open it, pour a shot into the cap and lift it under her nose.
______“The smell of softness,” he proclaimed.
______You almost have to laugh. A line like that is a coked-up rooster pirouetting in roller skates. But if the salesman who said it can keep a straight face while the consumer tries to figure out what’s going on—and that’s a big if—then in that stretched out, clumsy moment it becomes a kind of beautiful. Jack kept a straight face.
______Marla nodded humbly as he showed her how to rinse it into a cycle. She took the sample bottle he gave her, and the coupons upon coupons he drew from his pocket like a magician’s handkerchief. As she was leaving, Marla stopped and turned in the Laundromat’s door. Some people might bite their nails in these situations. I twist fabric around myself: napkins, blankets, whatever’s nearby. It’s a reflex.
______As Marla turned, she hefted her laundry basket from both arms into one and with her free hand, waved goodbye to Jack.
______Jack pulled me out of the dryer as soon as she’d cleared the building. As we drove back into the City, Jack explained to me what a brand really was. I don’t remember the exact words, but I remember the sound of his voice like a flinty Baptist minister preaching a commercial script. And I remember my eyes opening for the first time.
______It wasn’t until he dropped me off on a corner a couple blocks from my subway line that I noticed I had a stranger’s damp polo corkscrewed around my arm.
______We re-shot the spot the next morning. I nailed it. The rest is history.
______So I called Melissa. Went straight to voicemail every time. I asked Jack to call her and see what he could do. Jack and I are close like that. We’ll talk. Every couple months he’ll tell me where his wife is off skiing. Plus, indirectly, this is all Jack’s fault. Jack’s the one who hired Melissa to shoot our spread for Ladies Home Journal in the first place.
______I get a lot of women throwing themselves about me. I hardly notice it anymore. Honestly, I just don’t. But Melissa didn’t go for the hard sell. She wasn’t the cheery supermarket checkout girl who would take the PA to remind the store, and the world, that Brawny paper towels were 50% off. Melissa was more the small-boned stockgirl with lingering teenage acne and frizzy hair who always got stuck handing out lukewarm kielbasa samples at the end of the toilet paper aisle.
______That whole first day we were on set together Melissa just held herself awkwardly out to me. And when I made eye contact with her, and there was that moment when we both knew we should be flirting but couldn’t make it happen, then she would laugh: like she knew how lame her pitch was, how lame it all was, the whole marketing-yourself-to-potential-romantic-partners game that society expected you to play. I was intrigued.
______Plus, she re-shot our dryer sheets for three hours just to get the magenta on the box to really pop. I assumed she was into the brand. What I’m saying is that our affiliation was an understandable mistake.
______Jack said he'd call her for me.
______“Yeah, sure,” he said. Those were his exact words.
______So I renovated my closet at home into a walk-in shrine, to get ready. I got new shelving, new track lighting, a combo lock on the door. After that, like a reasonable person, I waited.
______A few months later Jack and I were sharing an elevator down to the lobby and I asked when Melissa was going to drop it off. He said it wasn't happening.
______“What did she say?”
______“It's not happening.” That's all he would say.
______“It's okay if you forgot to call her.”
______The doors chimed open.
______“I tried,” he said, striding easily out into the lobby ahead of me. “Not happening.”
______I bet Jack didn't want to say he forgot, which is fine. I forget stuff all the time.
______But, there’s a riddle that’s been sticking in my craw ever since then. When I fall backwards into a basket of pillowy sheets, giggling like a schoolgirl, and I tell people to make their laundry snuggly soft: They Do It. By the millions. African American male heads of household, Caucasian women with annual incomes under $18,000, Asian Pacific Islanders who rarely redeem coupons: They hear my voice and they buy. I get 30 pounds of consumer mail a week. You know what question no one has ever asked: “Why should I listen to a little bear?”
______Yet, when I ask for modest assistance in retrieving my property, including from people whose job it is to help me, they react like I've asked them to marry me, in Esperanto. What’s the deal?
______I went to the cops. The moment I walked into the precinct, a sergeant with a head like a street fighting watermelon swoops me up on his shoulder and parades me through the squad room. All the detectives stood up and started whooping. A guy in handcuffs asked for my autograph. The phones on the desks—the phones that ring to call in murders and horrible accidents—were ringing and ringing. No one was picking them up. Everyone was pushing in on me, trying to get a picture with their cell phone cameras.
______Then the sergeant asked me when the truck was coming. He thought I was there to award them a year's supply of detergent.
______“Or something like that,” he said.
______We don't even make detergent.
______I told him I was there to report a theft and he put me down on a metal chair in the hallway. He said someone would come by to take my statement. I waited three hours. No one came.
______And, and, my lawyer: I called Gabriel and I told him we were going to sue the ankle-length flannel skirt right off Melissa's ass. Gabriel said it was a complicated case. He wanted to know about the monetary value of the shirt.
______“And why do you suppose she took this accoutrement you are so fond of?” he asked.
______“I honestly don't know, Gabriel. Maybe it's the same, unfathomable reason I keep paying your retainer.”
______That's what I should have said.
______But I just hung up.
______I don't know why Melissa took the shirt. I don't know why she started needling me about moving in together after we'd been together a month. And that head game she played about the Maasai women? You’d need a SWAT team of therapists to figure that one. One night, about every six weeks, she’d come home from work in a mood. Work was going great for her then too. She was shooting for big brands. Quaker Oats. HP. Walgreens. And as soon as she got into the kitchen, she’d dump her purse out on the table. She hardly noticed me, but I’d watch her reorganize the pill bottles and moisturizers and ATM receipts.
______As she did, she’d talk to herself about wanting to photograph these African women, the women of the Maasai tribe. She would say that she would quit her job tomorrow. She'd live in their villages, shave her head, shoot the sacred eunoto ceremonies, shoot everything and publish it in a photo book. She would look at me exactly once through the whole thing. She would look up and say, dead serious, “I think I’m going to win a Pulitzer.” Then she'd stay up on the Internet all night checking airfares to Mombassa, and the morning would come and not another word about it for another six weeks.
______Okay, I get that she had some recurring artistic fever. Though apparently it's a faux pas to discuss it. One time, after one of these shows, I said to her: Photo books are great, but the best ones sell a thousand copies, tops, and even then, people look at each picture once, and then the books become $60 coffee table doilies. Right now though, millions of people a day see your oatmeal shots – and it makes them eat oatmeal. Your art is the fabric of their lives. That's the real thing. Right?
______She left for a week, and I missed a great opportunity to change the locks.
______I feel sorry for Melissa though. I really do. Fundamentally, Melissa is generic. She's a brand-x woman.
______Now, I’m about to drop some of Jack’s wisdom on you, some of what he told me that night I first met him. Me, you, everyone who exists, is a packaged good—a box of baking soda or dishwashing soap or whatever.
______That's all we are: Containers of marginally useful chemicals, sitting on an infinite shelf. Maybe you can clean tough stains. Maybe you have a new and improved scent. But ultimately, so what? We’re all 99.99% identical and there’s nothing else on the shelf.
______In this situation, the only way to really exist is to become a brand. You’ve got to wring some exciting certainty out of the thin air. Make it up. Then you’ve got to work it into a smooth ball of a phrase. You’ve got to repeat it. When you believe it, when you own it, when those little words are the hard center of you, then you’ve got to go out and proclaim it:
______I am the choice of a new generation! I just do it! I think different! I obey my thirst! Like a good neighbor, I am there! You’ve got to shout it so loud you wake up every other box in the Universe. Some people call it “being yourself” or “living your best self” or something. I think that cheapens it. Every box just sitting there is being itself. A brand is so much more. That’s what Melissa never understood, or could never do. I don’t get it. I couldn’t go back to life without my brand. I’d just end it. Seriously, I’d end it just like Frank.
______That’s right, you didn’t know Frank personally. We’ve been talking so long I forgot we just met. Frank was Kool-Aid Man. You know—big, glass pitcher of a guy. He always reminded me of John Belushi.
______Frank’s cup runnethed over. To have a brand like that: Kool-Aid is the sugary joy of childhood. And Frank was Kool-Aid. To wake up every morning knowing that you, personally, embody everything that is great about being a kid—the wild jolt that comes from eating a whole bag of Skittles, the gasping cold of sprinkler water on a summer afternoon, the belief in Santa Claus—can you even imagine what that would be like? It gives me goosebumps just to think about. Apparently, toward the end, Frank wasn’t getting those goosebumps.
______I saw him a week before he jumped from the balcony of his Tribeca penthouse. It was six in the morning on West 20th Street. I was walking to the office when I see him stumble out of a club in front of me, slosh across the sidewalk and try to get into a limo at the curb.
______He had let himself get real big by then and got stuck half-in, half-out of the limo door. A pair of 16 year-old Japanese twins with red stains stuck on their chins was doing duty as Frank’s arm candy that morning. They got on either side of him. One pulled Frank from inside the car, while the other, on the outside, pushed. His trademark open-mouth grin had gone limp. When the girls rocked him too hard, he burped.
______Frank and I had known each other since the ‘70s but he’d never been that bad before. It killed me, to see him so far from his brand. I ran up to him. He looked at me like this moment was an appointment we’d had for a long time. I lost it right there. Through my sobbing, I told him most of what I just told you, about what’s important.
______“Frank,” I yelled it at him, “Kool-Aid can be what fills you up.”
______What literally filled Frank most of the time was actually Absolut and red #40.
______Maybe I was being too poetic. But I swear he was about to say something when the outside girl shrieked and the doorframe cracked and Frank spilled over into the car. She dove in right behind him and slammed the door. The limo jumped from the curb and hurtled towards Third Avenue. Halfway down the block, the rear window rolled down and Frank poked the rim of his head out as far as it would go. And he looked at me.
______“Oh yeeeeah,” he bellowed, and let out a laugh as long and wet as a thread of drool. I knew then he was a goner.
______All of Kraft Foods’ horses and all of its men had Frank quietly buried, under his real name, at a cemetery in Nebraska that overlooks the Interstate. Anytime you’ve seen him on TV since 1996 you’ve been watching the magic of CGI.
______I don’t blame Frank for growing generic inside. He never fully got over Jonestown. But what was Melissa’s excuse?
______The point I know you’re waiting for is that, in the end, I wasn’t left with any choice but to take back what was mine.
______I found out that Melissa had moved into the first floor one-bedroom of a brownstone in Park Slope, one that had a sturdy Maple standing in its very private back yard. I scaled the tree just after dark on a Saturday and climbed out on a branch to where I could see down through a rear window into her living room. Melissa was home of course, curled up nearly fetal on the couch, watching the flat screen, cuddling a bag of Garden Salsa Sun Chips in the cove between her belly and lap. Melissa can't cook or bring herself to tip delivery boys. I figured I'd be up there two hours, tops, before she had to leave to get real food.
______Had I known WE Tv was running marathons of Platinum Weddings on Saturdays, I would have made different choices. Melissa chewed through hours looking at women looking at white dresses. The chips were gone by two in the morning. Not me. Three times I could’ve sworn she’d fallen asleep and I decided I had to take my chance. Three times I was halfway down the tree when I saw her pick up her cell phone from the floor and check it, as if it was possible someone had called her, with the phone a foot from her face, and she hadn’t noticed. Three times I had to shimmy back up.
______From that point my grip on the situation loosened. I convinced myself that she knew I was there and that just to spite me using her inertia, her ability to flow along with any situation, no matter how ridiculous or sad, to torture me. Her inertia was her secret weapon and it was 1,000 times more exasperating than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
______And then Melissa cocked her head up off the armrest. She clicked off the screen and surged onto her feet and bounded outside of the frame of the window. I'd been staring so long, I saw it all on a three second delay. A moment later, the apartment lights went out.
______At that point I didn’t think to wonder what was going on. It was just go time. I crept in through the window. As my eyes adjusted to the inside darkness my plans collapsed. Moving boxes, dozens of them, were on every wall. They were stacked like sandbags in a bunker and taped shut. Melissa had moved out six months ago and she hadn't unpacked her stuff - or my stuff. Unbelievable, right?
______Screw it, I thought. I’d come too far. I decided I was going to cut my way into every one of those boxes to find my shirt, and I was tiptoeing into the kitchen to find the biggest freaking knife I could, when I passed the bedroom door and heard them.
______Melissa, and Jack, were doing it on the bed. Just enough streetlight was coming through the blinds on the other side of the room that I could see that Melissa was the top one. She was crouching on Jack. It wasn’t the pretty kind of stuff that you see in European commercials. The way she was twisting and jerking on him in abrupt little circles Melissa reminded me of a stuck agitator in a washing machine. I wanted to release her gasket just so she could get on with it. Jack laid there like a wet towel.
______Strange as it sounds, that was the moment I’d been waiting for. That was when I saw it, peeking out from under the pillow Jack’s head was sweating on: a powder blue sleeve. A pair of Jack’s boxers lay strewn at my feet. I pulled it over me, dropped and crawled up to the bed. They were so fascinated or happy or whatever, they didn't notice.
______Here’s the best part, and I don't blame you if you don't believe it: pulling the shirt from under the pillow a centimeter at a time, I could smell a dazzling floral. I buried my nose in it and huffed. When I got it all out, I was sure. Melissa had washed it with our new White Lavender and Sandalwood Twist-Scented Softener. Rubbing the shirt all over my face and chest—I had to, just for a second—I felt a crease line. She’d folded it too. Talk about happy endings.
______Back in the office on Monday I told Jack all about it, especially the white lavender part. I was so excited I just had to tell someone. He grimaced like he really had to go to the bathroom and kept saying that they’d only started after Melissa and I had broken up. Jack’s reaction was a bit of a disappointment. I wanted him to be happy for me.
______I’m happy for them. I'd think Jack would steer clear of generic women, but whatever helps him keep his mind on the brand, bully. And apparently Melissa likes to do it. News to me. I mean, one time she flipped back a few zinfandels on her way home from the studio and wanted to do stuff. We couldn't make it work. I figured that was that.
______Do you think she really likes doing it? As I was crawling out of her bedroom she was making this noise. At first I thought it was the big finishing noise, you know, the one comedians like to do impressions of. But this was a sound I’d heard her make before. I couldn’t place it until I got home.
______She was crying. She used to do that all the time.
______Is that normal? Do women cry when they do sex?