Webbys 2001: The Post-Apocalyptic Corporate Bohemian Money-Culture Awards
QUIK DRAW HOMELESS ARTIST 5 MIN. I DRAW YOU HELP HELP ME HELP. Check out the fallout from the New Economy meltdown. Get a load of this San Francisco youth begging for change on 7th St. in the South of Market neighborhood, cringing on the pavement, pop-eyed, clutching his sign: HELP HELP ME HELP. It's one of those cold Bay Area evenings, with the wind making the chill worse, so there's a special pathos to the wreckage. His back's up against a garbage can, his mess is scattered all over the sidewalk: bunch of colored pencils, chunks of cardboard, assorted trash.
"C'mon, man, three dollar, I draw you..."
He's not a bad-looking kid. Slim, shaved bald, nice jeans, nice square-toed shoes, v-neck sweater.
"C'mon, man, give me a break, man, three dollar?I draw your sweetie, then!"
Thus, South of Market, West Coast epicenter of the dotcom phenomenon, in the winter of the New Economy?a time in which, by way of an example of the changes that have occurred, South of Market commercial vacancies have risen from 0.6 to 20 percent in 18 months, according to The New York Times last week. In SoMA, as in the Tenderloin and other San Francisco neighborhoods, there's a residual Walker Evans quality that reminds you that the city's in some ways an old Okie city. And now the dotcom kids join the skid-row parade. You pause to throw them an odd respectful dime, they're the lost aspiring angels of the mournful American night...
What a bunch of nonsense. Actually, the homeless guy sitting on the pavement against the trashcan was precisely who he's supposed to be in America: a black guy, scrawny and desiccated like a sausage left to the wind, old enough to have been strafed in Vietnam.
Meanwhile, I'm hanging with our bald white friend up against the wall. He hops from one shoe to the other against the cold, his hands in his pockets. Once in a while he peers around the corner?because we're in this long line, wrapped around a brick wall, waiting to get into a serious hipster club, this place called Cloud 9, the facade of which pulses with sky-blue light, and that floats pure white above the surrounding neighborhood's squalor like a big creampuff. Anyway, once in a while he peers around the corner to see how much progress we're making toward the door, and then he pops his head back and looks all goony and ironical and gets all up in your face and moves his head back and forth as he steps from foot to foot and bunches and unbunches his shoulders and puts his hands, palms forward, on either side of his head in order to frame his latest profundity, all very clever and sarcastic and ironical, and every comment he gives you?"Uh, yeah, I guess there's a lot of out-of-work dotcommers here. I guess"?comes in a little black box, as if at the core of it there's an insult for you to take home with you to enjoy later, in your bedroom, alone. Bobs in and out of your airspace, in and out, all up in your face. It's like, I'm here, I'm not here, I'm here, I'm?
It's 24 hours until the Webby Awards, which are the Internet equivalent of the Grammies or the Oscars, and we're lined up, trying to get into the FuckedCompany.com party. The guy's big white egg of a head bounces around, it's a bouncing light-ball, it bops along the line, it whips back and forth, yes, he stands on the balls of his feet, he bobs and weaves, he's here, he's not here, he's in, he's?
"I'm looking to get back on living paycheck to paycheck," a guy from Rhode Island's saying, a big friendly collegiate-looking guy.
"I said, I'm looking to get back on living paycheck to paycheck, get it? I mean, instead of trying to get away from living paycheck to paycheck..."
The guy lives in the neighborhood, in South of Market. He's been out of work since last fall. People all over the line are forming little groups to talk it all over.
"I got laid off in November, and just started looking two weeks ago. Sure was nice laying out in Golden Gate Park all day, though."
"I just got laid off two weeks ago," someone else says.
Across Stevenson Alley you look past empty lots to low buildings on Market St. in the distance, and in the near-view there's a construction site, or at any rate a razed lot, rimmed by fencing. You can stick your face up against the chainlinks and look down into the foundation and get off on the sight of rats, dragging stuff around, performing tasks, even working together and waiting their turns in a foul rat way. And then occasionally?because the whole bunch of us standing in this hundred-yard-long line represent an incredible haute-bourgeois explosion amidst urban nastiness?occasionally we'll be approached by creatures from the Other Side. Crackwhores in sailors' caps plant themselves where Stevenson Alley debouches into 7th St., spread their legs and sway like they're on a heaving deck, either cackling or moaning wordlessly. Hustlers sidle up and issue vague threats, then wait around in that hard, patient Beggar Triumphant way while annoyed dotcom hipsters dig in the pockets of their Paul Smith stovepipe trousers for loose change.
Aging fellow?leather jacket, stubble, earring?nodding in the direction of the front of the line: "Kind of sucks when a group of six just comes up and cuts in front of you."
"Life's not fair, as you can read on a little website called Fucked Company," someone jokes.
Some DJ's bossa nova-inflected beats seep out into the alley through the pores of the club's wall. Beggars stumble along the gutter, groaning uggggggggghhhhhhh.
"It's bad, man. Wait'll Oracle and Lucent start laying people off."
Whores bray on the far side of 7th St., in front of the dirty bookstore.
"I heard there's a two-month wait of U-Hauls in San Francisco right now."
"Yeah? And I heard San Francisco's lost a hundred thousand in population."
"Foreclosure rate in San Francisco's the highest it's been anywhere in 18 years."
"The people who really got screwed were the H1B's. Came over and bought houses and everything. Now, 30 days, leave the country."
Get a load of the slick leather jackets, the pumps, the skinny dudes in the cowboy hats, the cellphones, the Palm Pilots, the Kate Spade bags, the sharp three-button suits. And all the other accessories typical of extreme impoverishment and economic victimization.
"All right, here's what I'm thinking, and don't tell me I'm wrong, because I don't want to hear it. I'm thinking that with Greenspan's aggressive interest rate cuts, we're gonna see a pickup in Q3."
"Ramen and pasta, man. I did it in college. I can do it again."
"Shit, man. You could work tomorrow. Tomorrow 8:30 a.m. you could be working. For 40K. Shave off 30 percent of your salary and you could be working tomorrow."
Homeless woman slobbers yaaaaaaaaaggggggghhhhh, and shakes her head, and slides along the curb. It's extraordinary. We're all standing here in line, knocking at the gates of heaven, while huge numbers of the underclass moan about the block. We're like people at a picnic, ignoring the bees. Seventh St., and up to Market?everywhere around here, beyond the boundaries of the shiny light we exude, you've got the walking dead: hustlers hanging around overlit storefronts, guys weaving with bottles.
"Shit, I got laid off at 85 thousand, and just got a new job for 40."
Bossa nova slinking, temperature falling, wind blowing, hipsters chatting, homeless gabbling. And in addition, there's?well, there's a plume of piss-steam shooting from a manhole cover on Stevenson Alley.
"Oh shit, there's a sewer under there," someone notes, and we all laugh. Warm, atomized piss sprays up against the chassis of the Grand Am that's parked above it, to snickers from everybody in the line. Whoever owns the car's screwed: the stench is going to be in his upholstery for a year. If it were warm out, instead of San Francisco summer-freezing, the smell would be overwhelming. The homeless artist, kind of manic and comic-aggressive?which is to say, humiliated?stands up from his seat against the trashcan and slinks from group to group: "I can draw. I can draw one of y'all, just to show you I kin draw."
Firecrackers go off in the distance for some reason. He drags his sign and shoves it up in people's faces: MY NAME IS YANKEE ALL I CAN DO IS DRAW KIN I DRAW YOU TONIGHT 3 MIN.
"You know that restaurant Aqua? I hear it's closed on Monday nights now. Makes better sense to close it than to try to sell food in this economy."
Couple of well-dressed women, and one says to the other: "The shit has hit the fan. We're a thousand claims backlogged. We're gonna get two-hundred-ten thousand before we can see the sun again."
"Like, is that all in-house? Because I know we outsourced most of it. The original business plan..."
She trails off. Her friend jumps up and down to keep warm and keens, "Come on, Pud, let us in!"
Meanwhile: "I kin draw you. Just give me chance. I kin draw you."
Blown-apart VFW cripples, mendicants, slobberers, whores. A slattern wheels down 7th toward Market, clutching a roll of carpet under her arm. Ming Kee Thrift Store. Used and New Household Equipment. George's Newsstand, Books, Magazines. (Smut.) Economy Fine Food, Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner Anytime.
What was that, miss? You were saying? About the original business plan?
I enjoyed that: "Come on, Pud, let us in!" The "Pud" in question is, as you might know, the proprietor of FuckedCompany.com, the website that serves as a nasty clearinghouse for news about dotcom failures and disasters. It's where you would have gone, on the day of the Cloud 9 party, to read sarcastic blurbs reporting about which of the Internet concerns that employ?or used to employ?or are run or owned by?the people standing in line outside Cloud 9 happened, in the last 24 hours, to lay off 40 percent of their staffs. Or to get evicted from their offices. Or to shut down their Atlanta and Dallas branches. Or to declare Chapter 11. Or to announce that, while it was fun being, for 16 months, the leading facilitator of online strategic partnerships between this and that, or that and this?or some other example of the prevailing dotcom cant?you've decided to sell off all the equipment and, like, maybe go back to grad school or something.
Thing is, when you're a South of Market dotcommer, in an era that's exposed your whole overhyped economic sector as what sensible people thought it was from the beginning, which is to say, kind of a joke, and you're standing in line on a cold night trying to sidle your way into a party hosted by a guy who every morning showers your world with scorn?who might tomorrow, in fact, make fun of you specifically?then what you're really doing is letting yourself off the hook. You're saying self-absolving things, among them: I was never really one of those people. And, You are so right, man, this whole dotcom thing was self-indulgent and dumb. You're assuming an ironic distance from the whole mess that you possibly haven't earned. There's a shamelessness here, which reminds you that the dotcom boomlet was one of the defining economic phenomena of the Clinton era, sharing with Clintonism a certain genius for obscuring superficiality and greed with "bohemian" or "countercultural" signifiers and rhetoric. The "Rock 'n' Roll" president, whose familiarity with weed-smoking, blowing loads in his intern's mouth and Fleetwood Mac made it kosher for liberals to cheer his eager capitulations to various right-wing brutalities, slides along the same greasy continuum as a money culture that insisted that consumption could be liberatory and oppositional.
Back in December of 1999, a prominent media critic wrote the following: "In the fifties and sixties, creative types all had a novel they were working on, and in the seventies and eighties, a screenplay. In the e-decade, you've got a business plan."
The dotcom era: a generation's?my generation's?complete capitulation to the money culture. This will be the dotcom sector's most lasting contribution to the world, and will be as difficult to extricate from the strands of our civilization, such as it is, as chewing gum is difficult to remove from hair: the concept of a money-culture bohemia.
But I set out to write about the Webby Awards, and got sidetracked. I took my seat in the empyrean of the War Memorial Opera House's dress circle on the appointed night and watched the lights dim into that lavender-saturated shadowiness appropriate to dotcom ceremonies, confessionals and Mexican brothels. An electricity coursed through the young crowd: the gorgeous hall was tumultuous and packed. Self-celebratory bayings emerged often throughout the ceremony: waves of energy lifted from the joyous crowd. I heard it said after the awards that this year's Webbys were, for obvious reasons, restrained in comparison with ceremonies during the dotcom boom years. But it was hard to believe. There was electricity in the air; the atmosphere was crucial, fevered.
The dress code for the event had been, it turned out, stipulated as "gutsy." Conformity with it seemed to necessitate a familiarity with certain downtown tailors. I think I could have cut quite an appropriately gutsy, not to mention rather rakishly handsome, figure at the Webbys in a slim-cut three-button Agnes B. suit, with perhaps an accompanying trilby and a walking stick held between my gloved fingers, my eyes partially obscured by mascara and by yellow-tinted Nipponese DJ glasses, light on my feet in smart Chelsea boots. Or else next year I'll follow the sartorial example of roughly 57 percent of the guys in attendance and wear a goth-derived, Lux Interior-style ironic variation on the standard awards ceremony tuxedo: that is, possibly an electric-green dinner jacket over a pair of demoralized jeans and motorcycle boots, my hair dyed canary-yellow and slicked back greaser-style over a pair of wraparound skater-kid Arnette shades. I might top the ensemble off with a stylish hat from a quality haberdasher; for instance, a bowler, a homburg or a virile Stetson. My porkpie hat, if I choose to wear it, will match handily with my plaid jacket. I'm also looking into the feasibility of a gold lamé cowboy outfit, possibly with spurs. Kepis, soul patches, fezzes, boas.
My charming wife (for you see, by this time next year I am determined to be wed) will either play it straight in an evening dress that clings to her fine self, or will try to out-gutsy even the gutsiest, and, taking as an example a number of the women at the 2001 Webbys, will dress up as a post-apocalyptic ragdoll, petticoats billowing over thick-soled moonboots, with eyelid glitter and weird runes scrawled in face-pencil on her cheeks. I'm thinking I might also score her a pair of gossamer angel's wings, or an aigrette, or else a drum majorette's costume, half of which?she was missing the baton and the boxy hat?I saw being worn by a woman who stood looking around with doe eyes in front of the opera house before the ceremony, in shouting distance of a gentleman sporting a Van Dyke.
Then, an electronic sputtering. A round video screen that dominated the stage flickered into life. We were peppered with a pretentious series of images: I was reminded of the pompous Frenchy art film that Diane made for Woody's parents on that old episode of Cheers. Meaningless schizophrenic images in rapid sequence, jejune film-school crap: amber waves of grain, windmills whipping, waves breaking, irritated minnows, marigolds blooming, matrons a-hopping, Vietnamese harvesting rice, outstretched hands through which cascaded torrents of spelt. A barn burns down...and hark, now I espy the moon. All the while, blue and yellow lights shot out to pulse across the crowd, from which there issued tidal, ecstatic bayings and ululations. A young woman minced out in a furry pink top and Captain America roachclip sunglasses, and then San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, that smooth old criminal, emerged to gesticulate from a podium, welcoming the assembled dotcommers?hustler to hustlers. Fog misted upward from stage left to mingle with the general exuberance.
"Let the show begin!" the Mayor announced.
Next we were riddled with green light. The video screen slid to the side and, as the auditorium twittered with synthesized bird noises, four figures presented themselves in white hooded jumpsuits and writhed, like tumbling weisswursts, together in a mesh cage. The spectacle unfolded in its glory and gradually achieved a certain ripeness; the audience sat spellbound, riveted to its chairs. Now the vast stage was populated by a man who crossed it, dressed mostly in black and alone, the very image of the Modern Man, an isolato?actually, no, he was impish, smiling?more, he resembled Alan Cumming?more, it was Alan Cumming, ladies and gentleman, yes indeed, your host for the evening, who, achieving his position there at the left of the stage, announced?
But enough, enough. At one point I roused myself from a reverie?I was off in a warm ideational space with Shannen Doherty, for some reason, which is strange, which is atypical of my psychosexual aspirations, which is difficult to account for?to find Sam Donaldson onstage in a tuxedo and a blond rug, carrying on with a chick wearing tattoos and a fright wig. I recall a smirking self-referentiality, with presenters and entertaining videoclips poking fun at the industry itself, copping to the disaster, alluding to the crash, laughing it away. Shit. It wasn't their money. I recall circumambient sampled tweetings, and the pum-pum-pum of synthesized bass drums and torrents of noise and applause and a deep atmosphere of white-kid entitlement. We were playing dress-up in Daddy's opera house, and drinking his liquor, after we'd wrecked his Benz.
After the show let out, the huge crowd spilled out through all the opera house's hallways. There was a party on every floor: bars set up, tables representing San Francisco food purveyors doling out high-end snacks. Every once in a while in the teeming, dim stone halls, you'd see a localized blaze of eerie white light, and find tv cameras clustered around some dotcom celebrity. I saw the guy in the Peter Pan suit getting interviewed: he was the best; his shoes bore wee buckles. I saw Pud getting interviewed, too, wearing a Saturday Night Fever suit and sweating under the lights, rubbing at his eyebrow, looking a little sheepish. I heard a guy wearing Enlightened Skater garb look around himself and say to his friend: "It's the Webbys, so everybody's got to be a little bit wacky, a little bit crazy. It's cool."
A guy I talked to, who described himself as "an ex-analyst at an ex-dotcom," explained the level of hilarity like so: "The people who were really hurt in the crash were on the commerce side. This is an arts crowd. They never really thought they'd make money anyway."
Free to go crazy in forbidden hallways: we must all have felt like we were 14 again, and had snuck our way in to run wild in the halls of the middle school. You could look past an invisible barrier on the box level and into a private lounge in which dotcom VIPs, presumably, drank in brocaded luxury, white pashas from, originally, the better suburbs. You could weave your way from level to level, from maze-like hallway to maze-like hallway, pushing through gasping crowds, past groups of boys and girls clustered together, leering into the flashbulbs. Bottles were scattered across the floors and girls were barefoot. There was a phantasmagorical aspect. There was a dance party on the basement level, and DJ beats thumped the foundations, and throughout the whole place thousands of celebrants milled, as if in a doomed royal ball that persists even while the city's getting shelled.
In the lobby, Sam Donaldson stood on a podium under screaming lights as white as the Resurrection morn, as white as the shirt under his tuxedo jacket, staring with an undertaker's smile into a camera, his microphone held up to his face as, I guess, they framed the shot. You wonder how many minutes of his life Sam Donaldson's spent staring emptily into cameras, saying nothing, doing nothing, thinking nothing. Outside, kids lounged on the opera house steps with drinks and cigarettes, like Upper East Side kids on the Met steps on a summer evening, except here it was chilly and you could see fog in the streetlights, rolling in off the Bay.
I love San Francisco, and so spent my days there doing what any sensible tourist does in a great city?walking around. For thematic reasons, I kept getting drawn back to South of Market, especially the skid-row mid-Market area around 6th and 7th Sts. and Market St. and Stevenson Alley. What can I say? I was a tourist. There's an old Times Square ambience there that's impossible to find these days in Times Square and that, for better or worse, is hard to find these days in New York. Market and 6th: Grady's bar, the Seneca and Desmond and Windsor hotels (Reasonable Rates), the San Francisco Barber College. A bunch of treacherous-looking guys hang outside Ginger's Too, straight out of Diane Arbus, circulating into and out of the bar, into its depths and then out into the sun. A guy walking down the street said to his female companion, "You want codeine? I got codeine." At number 26 7th St., by the way, just south of Market and north of Cloud 9, there's an Odd Fellows Hall, a real artifact of a lost America. "Commemorating One Hundred Years of Odd Fellowship in California, 1849-1949," a plaque near the door read. Old wiseguys with ties knotted as fat as your fist walked out of the building, laughing.
Given that I was spending time around mingy Stevenson Alley, it was a coincidence to find that week, in the San Francisco Examiner, an article about exactly that street. It was headlined "The Mess on Market: Smile! You're live on Webb's Camera," and described a fellow named Jeff Webb who lives in the Seneca Hotel a block away from Cloud 9. The well-named Webb's rigged his own personal Webcam to peer down onto the 6th and Stevenson corner and watch the locals misbehave. His goal's to "shame city government into cleaning up the mess."
The Examiner: "Guns, knife fights, people lighting up crack pipes and smooth-handed-dealers, you name it, Webb's seen it from his view on the corner for the last eight years." More: "'See,' he points out, 'there's a man stooping over in the alley, hoping he'll find some crack droppings on the sidewalk.'" And more: "Stevenson Alley is also known as 'Crackhead Alley' by the residents at the Seneca Hotel. The alley is just one block from the Powell Street Cable Car turnaround where thousands of tourists wait in line. It's also a block from the San Francisco Shopping Centre, where thousands shop at high-scale boutiques. Tracy Aubuchon, who works at Eline.com further down Stevenson Alley, said she's witnessed prostitution and crack deals going on in tandem?an act she's nicknamed the 'Stevenson special.' Her company purchased the building they now occupy a year ago and had to install an iron gate to keep crackheads from the front doorway. Besides that, employees have witnessed urination and defecation. 'It's a health issue not only for the employees but residents and people living on the streets,' she said. 'We have a fear of tripping and touching the sidewalk.'"
The article's unperturbed about the implications of setting up surveillance cameras in San Francisco. "The City has cameras installed at dozens of intersections to catch red-light runners, and Ana B. Arguello, manager of the Seneca Hotel, said the surveillance camera installed at the back of the building deters offenders once word gets out."
And Webb himself is quoted as follows: "They don't even try to hide it any more. A lot of these people come over here from Oakland because they know they won't get prosecuted." The article closes with a note: "See the live Webcam at..." A Web address follows.
Dotcommers and guys with the cash to run serious Webcam setups, trucked into a rough neighborhood, where they run surveillance on the people around them and mourn the insufficient severity of drug-law enforcement. I merely note, without judging, the possibility here of certain class issues, suppressed in the reportage.
I suggested above that there was something doomed about the Webbys?the Last Dance in the castle halls, like aristocrats in the moments before the revolution.
But that's not really true, at all. There's no doom involved at all in this, at least not for the people in question. You have to consider the whiteboy and whitegirl arithmetic. A kid smashes up his father's BMW, what happens? The old man buys another one. With time, and after laying enough charm on the old man, maybe the kid gets to drive the new one, too. Similarly, a bunch of white kids get laid off from the tech sector, how truly bad is it, in real terms? Is there any chance of them starving? The dotcom bubble bursts, and where's the human disaster? It's hard to make a case that being a twentysomething who has to earn 40 thousand dollars a year, even if he's grown used to making 85 thousand, is an economic victim. And yet much of the media commentary about the depths to which our economy's fallen implies just that. You'd think it was 1931, and white kids were reduced to waiting on soup lines, and fighting over jobs as trolley-car drivers. Economically speaking, at least, these kids probably live beyond the reach of tragedy. One does not fall off the dotcom tree and land in the gutter.
Outside Cloud 9, the Tech TV crew showed up and started sticking cameras into people's faces. "All right, here comes our big break," someone cracked. A starved-down tv girl, made of tinsel and plastic, carried the microphone.
The camera turns on a girl in red pants and a boa, along with a tieless guy with stubble and a three-button suit, and films them walking out of the club, past the lined-up aspirants and down the street across Stevenson Alley, shucking and jiving, holding their hands in the air, wiggling their asses and their fingers. Take One. They must have been shooting news-show filler or something. Cut! They stop, turn around, break character, walk back. Homeless guy rushes up with his sign: I DRAW YOU HELP HELP ME HELP. Guy in the suit looks down offhandedly:
"How you doing?"
"Not good, I'm drawin' tonight. Hey, lemme draw your sketch tonight."
"Um, I'm doing this, man."
And inside the club there're cameras, too, and people are sucking lollipops and air-kissing under the bleached-out lights. After you get tired of looking at that you can walk out and sit in the empty bar across the street, with the Jimi Hendrix playing and smutty coasters. You can look out the open bar door at Cloud 9 on the opposite corner, where life's homeless losers hitch their saggy pants, standing around in a daze, bewildered by the burst of youthful, moneyed joy that's just occurred in their midst, and wondering what they can sponge off it.
So when you're standing outside a club in South of Market and a curious pedestrian comes up and asks you what you're in line for, and you answer, laughing, "It's a soup kitchen for laid-off dotcommers," you're right to congratulate yourself on your quick wit. But hopefully a little voice in the back of your head should be saying to you: not really, brother. Nay, brother, it is not truly so.
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