Friday, May 8, 2015

Notes on my incredibly glamorous and exciting life (including a trip to Onion HQ)

No, this isn't an outtake from Caligula. It's supposedly a picture of an Onion staff party. (Not pictured: me.)

"May you be happy in the life you have chosen."
-Scrooge's ex-girlfriend, Belle*
*She doesn't really mean it when she says it, but I think it's good advice anyway.

My life is, at least partially by design, uneventful to the point of almost total stasis. I can define myself by the (many) things I dislike: people, crowds, noise, disruption, spending money, following directions, traveling, making small talk, listening, trying to be nice, doing favors for people, and social interactions of all kinds. The extent to which I can successfully and temporarily avoid these terrible maladies is the extent to which my life is tolerable. Of course, this comes at a price. Boredom, alienation, loneliness, and stagnation are the occasional side effects of my chosen lifestyle, but they beat the alternatives: despair, frustration, humiliation, resentment, and an overall disgust with the world and every last person in it. In other words, a relatively solitary, quiet, and dull life is the only kind for me. I couldn't imagine any other way of existing.

As a result, when just about anything out of the ordinary happens in my life, it's a big deal. Front page news. Minor events which would barely register as tremors in other people's lives are huge earthquakes in mine. Take this Thursday as an example. After more than a year of freelancing at the Onion A.V. Club, I was finally invited to the website's Chicago headquarters for what they were calling a "happy hour." As much as I'm made uncomfortable by the very idea of attending anything remotely party-like, this was an opportunity I could not pass up. So yesterday after work, I took off on foot and walked the mile and a half from my workplace (which is near the Willis Tower and Union Station in the Loop) to the Onion's digs on West Franklin. Being a totally overeager dork, I left way, way too soon and was there at least half an hour before the "happy hour" was scheduled to start. To pass the time, I circled the block and ducked into and out of some air-conditioned stores -- a CVS and a Walmart Express, specifically.

The humor publication's Windy City HQ is nondescript. There's no big green onion outside or anything. In fact, since I slightly misremembered the address when I first got there, I actually overshot my destination a little and wound up staring, utterly baffled, at a Starbucks next door. But then I noticed the place a few feet over, the one with the sign outside with all the tenants listed in little white letters against a black background. I scanned through that list and, sure enough, one of them was "THE ONION." Go know, right? There was a buzzer and intercom outside, and I was trying to figure out which code I was supposed to punch in to reach the Onion's front desk. It turned out I didn't have to, though. Around 5:00, when the "happy hour" was scheduled to start, a young woman -- obviously an employee -- sipping a sweet-looking, pink-ish sort of drink out of a plastic cup, entered the building and motioned for me to follow her into the small lobby and then the small elevator. She must have intuited that we were headed in the same direction, and she was right.

Soon, I was in the belly of the beast, and it was... pleasant. What can I say? Low-key, tasteful, unpretentious, and comfortable. Lots of exposed brick, hardwood floors, and shiny metallic fixtures. I take it that the Onion (the comedic fake-news people) and the A.V. Club (the entertainment critics and reporters) share a workspace. There were very few indicators that anything comedy- or entertainment-related took place there, though. Only a few past headlines were framed on the wall. (One I remember: "Cheney Returns To U.S. With Full Head Of Thick, Wavy Hair.") There were just a couple big rooms with lots and lots of individual computers. This was the end of the day, of course, so only a few very dedicated employees were still at their desks. As with any workplace, many of the stations were cluttered with knickknacks and action figures. Somebody on staff seems to be way into the Muppets and even had an action figure of the Muppet Newsman with his horn-rim glasses and plaid sport coat. Other staffers had piles of books, DVDs, and BluRays on their desk -- maybe for review, maybe for research. The only thing which sort of set this office apart from thousands of others is that there was a "green screen" room with some fancy-looking camera equipment. But nothing was being shot when I was there.

Yes, the actual sticker.
The festivities were centralized in the modest but homey and handsomely-appointed kitchen/break room area, so it was there I soon went to partake of taquitos, nachos, cookies, and whatever beverages were on offer. I'm a non-drinking wuss, so I stuck to ginger ale. I know. I'm the worst. Being me, I noticed extraneous little details like the piece of paper taped to one of the refrigerators; it listed various milestone anniversaries of AVC staffers. (Most staffers were relative newbies, it seemed, with three years or less on the payroll.) Throbbing in my brain all the time was the realization that none of these people had even the faintest idea of who I was, what I did, or what I looked like. I recognized a few of them, though, from various A.V. Club videos, and everyone was wearing those "Hello, My Name Is ________" stickers. I foolishly just wrote "Joe" on mine, and so I was asked "Which Joe are you?" maybe half a dozen times. Apparently, the A.V. Club has a plethora of Joes, of which I am but one. And I don't even write "real" articles, just silly little filler pieces about pop song mashups and parodies of movie trailers. So I'm barely a blip on their radar.

Despite the fact that they didn't know me from Adam's off ox, the A.V. Club people were unfailingly nice and courteous during the hour I managed to tough it out. (Full disclosure: I popped a couple of Xanax before leaving my office.) By and large, they seemed to be earnest, well-scrubbed, well-mannered, cheerful Midwestern Caucasians in their late twenties and early thirties. Beards were rather plentiful, as were bangs and Buddy Holly glasses. I spotted a few pairs of skinny jeans, too, but the mood was not oppressively hip. I keep coming back to that word "pleasant" because it fits so well.

And now, some quick impressions of specific A.V. Club staffers I met that day...
  • Erik Adams: dapper, trendy, and sprightly, like a Willy Wonka for upscale millennials. Lotsa energy, that guy. Seems inordinately pleased with life. I don't think I really spoke to him. Shook his hand, though. A sharp dresser.
  • Sean O'Neal: former writer of satirical, often-scathing Newswire articles and a surprisingly serious guy in person. He didn't laugh or smile much/ever, but we did swap stories about working for market research companies. I could tell I was testing his patience a little, but he was too polite to say so. 
  • Katie Rife: the AVC's current Newswire honcho. She possesses popsicle-red hair and the kind of personality that goes with having popsicle-red hair. We greeted each other heartily, having exchanged a few e-mails professionally, then realized we didn't have anything to say to each other. That's the thing, really. These are mostly full-time AVC staffers who see each other every workday. I'm an interloper.
  • Marah Eakin: the editor to whom I send my stories. Very welcoming and laid-back. More than anyone else, this was the person to whom I wanted to talk -- if only to thank her for agreeing to some of my self-indulgent pitches and for enduring some of the crap I send her. She reassured me that she's read "way worse crap" than my articles. I was glad to learn that my most recent AVC piece, which ran on Wednesday, did well in terms of page views even though some editors didn't immediately get the point of it.
  • Josh Modell: current editor-in-chief of the A.V. Club and such a decent guy. Hovered around the edge of the party, like a chaperone at a high school dance, but he made a point to strike up a conversation with me as I was leaving. During our brief confab, he admitted he didn't initially get my last article either but it eventually clicked. He told me the kind of silly stuff I write is the stuff which people read. I hope that's true.

And that was it, honestly. The invitation hinted that the party would be held on the roof of the building, but it never got past the kitchen in the time I was there. Even if it had, I could not have stayed long. I just work in Chicago; I live in the burbs, about an hour's commute away. The reality of my life is that I have to get up at five in the morning or so to make it to work on time, so I can't really stay out late anywhere during the week. Plus, I'm at the mercy of the commuter train schedule.  I stayed until six at the party and then walked back to Ogilvie Transportation Center, arriving just in time for the 6:25 train on the Northwest Line. The train took me home (with a 10-minute delay for "freight train interference"), and my Onion odyssey was over. I changed into a t-shirt and shorts, watched Louie, and went to bed.

The only other notable thing which happened this week is that I was once again awarded Comment of the Week (COTW) at the Comics Curmudgeon blog. Again, this is not something you should necessarily care about, but it's significant to me. And here, my friends is the strip which helped me win the coveted title:Tuesday's Mark Trail by James Allen.

“Mark seems so unnatural when he smiles that you just know it’s a task he’s broken down into smaller steps. ‘Okay, Trail, raise the eyebrows by 20 degrees. Now, use your facial muscles to bring up the corners of your mouth a little. That’s it. Don’t forget to flash those upper teeth just a little. Not too much.’ He hasn’t quite mastered what to do with his eyes, though, so he still looks like there’s a gun to his back the whole time.”