by Michael McSweeney
Michael McSweeney is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, where he lives with his partner and cat.
Things changed after the content mill settled that lawsuit. Weekly catered lunches disappeared along with the generously-stocked snack shelf and the daily bins of fresh apples and kiwis. An "operations editor" cataloged late arrivals and absences in a notebook and "check-in" software was installed on all our computers. Spyware. Jay from the social media team swore to us one day in the break room that a minder from the parent company followed him around the block after he took a 35-minute lunch.
But we also got raises. Tiny ones, sure. An extra five bucks a week. The kind of raise you'd expect from the faceless British conglomerate that wielded you like a knife in the relentless combat of digital marketing dominance. But it was a raise all the same. Thank you for all you've done, they told us in one Friday all-hands meeting. This is for the great year you've given us. That was the most remarkable thing about the whole period. What had driven the changes—the lawsuit, the fact that we'd lied to so many people about what we could do, how we could send them all to the top of Google, build citadels of sales from the ashes of their websites, hurl Amazons and eBays into the e-commerce abyss—was never acknowledged.
The numbers in our bank accounts, ever-so-slightly swollen, were purer and more real than any of the fictions we sold Monday through Friday, nine-to-five.
My new client sold golf balls. Used golf balls, specifically. And no, not used golf balls bought at, say, yard sales or on clearance or even by the bag on eBay. Avery Lewis collected them from ponds, water traps. Late at night, Avery told me during our first client call, he snuck onto the golf courses. Creeping across the wet fairways in thin flip-flops, shirtless in swim trunks, snorkel in one hand and a large burlap sack in the other. The water was always warm, most enjoyable during a light rain, and every night he found between 40 and 50 golf balls by gliding across the pond floor and feeling through the muck with his hands. His argument: there's much more profit to be had from the mistakes of others. I looked out the window, gazed at our tiny hazy building-shellacked corner of downtown Boston and considered our business model. How we monetized dreams. Sold illusions. Made snake oil look like soothing aloe. Still, he had a point.
"So why do you need us?" I asked.
"Your people say Google is screwing me over," Avery replied.
That wasn't entirely false. The reality is that Avery screwed himself. He cribbed language from Nike, Top-Flite, Calloway and Kirkland. Word-for-word advertisements copy-pasted across hundreds of sub-pages. Earned a Google blacklisting, a search-wide cancellation. A situation in which you might as well torch your online identity and start from scratch. A shit show, the account manager explained to me just as the client call began and I heard her phone line click away like a beetle in the dark.
But Avery refused to give in. There would be no rebirth. He wanted us to help him resurrect his site, a digital Lazarus in the age of search engine optimization. One of the salespeople told him that 10 blog posts per day would do the trick. And by the time I spoke with him, Avery's first payment had already hit the bank.
A few blocks away from the office, Arnold's Bar and Grill hosted weekly game nights in the basement. Nintendo 64 on one TV, Xbox on another. Magic the Gathering drafts at a long table in the middle. Board games stacked like compounding thoughts, too many to sort or choose from properly. The best damn mozzarella sticks in Downtown Crossing.
The real lurch of things began on April Fool's Day, the year two-thousand-and-thirteen. Both the B2C and B2B content teams decamped to Arnold's. Steamy air and sweaty nerds swarmed the basement. One hundred offices, their engineering staff, their content teams, their Facebook farmers and Twitter grazers—we all came. Ten-minute waits for a beer if you were lucky. Any food orders received were greasy miracles stacked on squares of bone china. By some freak chance, a few of us nabbed an empty table and picked lazily at a game of Settlers of Catan. Tom, the newest hire, sat next to me. He was raggedly thin, nearly a foot taller than me, and I found myself smiling as his long dark fingers reached across the board to seize the dice. He won, mastering Catan's cotton-candy colonialism and dashing toward victory while the rest of us watched and succumbed to the haze of Bud Light. He and I stayed in the nook by our table while the others went to stand in line and wait for six laps of Mario Kart.
"Not worth the wait for sticky controllers that don't even work," Tom said. He lifted a gin and tonic from the table and my eyes fell to the semi-circle of water beneath it. Tom drew some of the liquor through a small plastic straw and set it back down.
"Exactly," I concurred, unsure of what else to say but eager to approve of his comment. I was aware, deeply aware, of how close we sat to one another, our legs nearly touching in the quiet beneath the table.
"Mike, right?" he asked, turning to face me. I looked up at him and felt small, warm, and burrowed.
"Yeah," I said.
"I mean, I've got a GameCube at home, if you want," Tom said, allowing a small pause to crawl in between the words home and if. "It's not too late. Somerville." He smiled and I smiled and I tipped my nearly full glass of beer toward my mouth. After I drained half the glass, I placed it on the table beside his glass and we both stood.
To write and edit the perfect content marketing blog post, you have to claw away all of its humanity, extinguish any creative spark that might streak off the page and entertain. It's content, not writing. Content. To succeed you have to align yourself with the contours of that word. Curl your body around the C. Hang limp through the O. Fling yourself from the heights of the Ts. Be content with the content you make. This was what I told myself as I edited blog posts, stripping the voice, the uniqueness, the fresh ideas, bending sentences into lumps of coal to feed into the great and rumbling furnace of the Internet. Anything too good probably took too long, and those who put too much thought into their work didn't last long. Management nudged the best writers to the edge of the cold spring waiting outside. Hell, all of us in the content mill lived at the precipice of a 2013 economy in which the sharpest minds of a misled generation earned $26,000 a year and borrowed cash to pay for train rides to and from our crevices at the crusted edge of Boston. That was the goal: to make us grateful for what stale bread we received, served on foam plates in a small-windowed break room. And those of us who mistook a pit for a ladder accepted the extra $3,000 annual and worked as editors. We helped our bosses serve the gruel and made sure our words were worth less than the lies they sold.
Tom oozed out of bed and stumbled through the door and into the hallway. After Tom had fallen asleep, I stared at the open slit of the window beside me and felt the graze of weak air against my face from a tiny metal-caged fan. I was listening to the vague etching of conversation from the street when Tom slumped out of the room. I eased out from beneath the blanket, groped for my pants in the dark, and, as I tugged them on, followed.
The hallway was dark and smelled of urine. I padded on the hardwood floor to the bathroom door, closed and bordered by yellow light, and listened as Tom retched, the heave of his voice lost in successive splashes of thick fluid. I rapped my fingers against the door and pushed it open. If he noticed me, he didn't react. I stood and watched Tom quiver and eject another two times before I turned, went back to his bedroom, and grabbed the empty glass from the bedside table he'd brought to me two hours before. I hadn't even asked for it; once we emerged from the caliginous maze of our bodies, he stood, wordless, and returned with hand-warmed water from the tap.
Now I refilled the glass at the bathroom sink and knelt beside him, placing my hand on his back, feeling the smallness of my hand, the smallness of my gesture. He was simply beyond help. But then he gripped the toilet with his right arm and raised himself, turning his head to flash me a puke-stained smile. Tom reached over and took the glass. Fingers overtook mine. He drained the water and then sat on the floor and looked up at the cracked ceiling. Pained breaths, like a grandfather's. Leaning against the cabinet beneath the sink, Tom's eyes unfocused and his free hand clenched his chest as if he were trying to stop the life inside him from escaping.
It was just before 3 p.m., April 15, when the screaming started. My hands had just released a foam container of disappointing late-lunch noodles into the garbage when I walked back to the long rows of tables where the content writers worked. Almost everyone was gathered around a single computer screen. Amy, the B2B section editor, rushed toward the bathrooms, typing frantic numbers into her phone. Everyone was sweating. On the screen was a video of the Marathon as runners plodded to the finish line before a burst of flame and roaring smoke exploded from behind a line of flags and race watchers. The smoke plume soared as people fled the epicenter and pieces of the metal barricades flew like loose pieces of paper and the flags whipped frantically in the sudden movement of air. The sound on the video was low but there was no mistaking the screams, the blood-pounding panic. One of the runners crumpled to the pavement. Then someone in the social media section yelled out about a second explosion and the video on the screen was forgotten as this new information gripped us.
"Shut it off," I said, and after a moment reached through the mass of people, took the mouse, and clicked out of the browser screen.
Unsure of what to do, of anything, of what came next, I dismissed everyone. Go home, I said. Be careful. During no time in my two years at the content mill had we ever left early, even when nor'easters pounded the city from the ocean. Even still, the writers collected their bags and their coats and streamed toward the exits. I watched them approach the elevators and, after a murmurous moment, back away from the metal doors, as if scared of the perils the journey downward might hold and move as one mass to the emergency stairwell.
Other sections of the company slowly disbanded. As I watched them go, I realized that I, too, should leave. But first I sat down and scrolled through Twitter and Facebook, staring at the images, the horror of it, the stab of vulnerability in the gut of the city.
By the time I left the building, access to public transit was cut off. Loose plastic bags crawled in the wind across the street, the whole block empty save for the few confused stragglers unsure of where to go. I made my way north, up along the brick walk of Downtown Crossing and across Tremont Street into the Common. More people congregated there, similarly confused, some trying to hail taxis that might never come. Sirens squealed and howled in every direction. I felt the urge to smoke but after probing around in my bag I only found an empty pack. Facing the prospect of a miles-long walk to Watertown, I hoofed it up the slope of Beacon Hill to cobblestone streets filled with quick-walking escapees. I muttered a thank you to myself as I entered a convenience store and bought a pack of smokes and a lighter. Once outside I tore away the plastic wrap and lit a cigarette and suckled greedily at the smoke.
About 10 feet from me an older couple stood, coffee cups in their hands, their faces pale, their eyes focused on the cobblestones. There's something about living in Boston and feeling that irrepressible urge to give directions, so I approached them, giving a friendly wave with a small hand, and asked if they were lost.
"No, thanks," the woman said. The man beside her jerked his head forward, a rush of a nod.
"Can I get you a smoke?" I asked. The woman grinned and nodded, nudged the man beside her and soon the three of us stood and blew plumes into the air above us.
"We were there," the woman said. "Right at the finish line." She shook her head and started to cry but scrunched her face and stuck the cigarette back between her lips. The man moved closer and rubbed the back of her Celtics windbreaker.
"Let it out. You don't wanna bottle it up," he said to her quietly. He flicked some ash from the cigarette toward the street with a thick, fleshy hand. "We saw the whole thing. Some kid right there, fuckin' blown away. I don't think he made it." He puffed at the cigarette. "We're lucky as hell to be here. We're gonna be okay." The man never stopped rubbing her back.
Before we parted ways, I gave them half the pack of cigarettes and my lighter. As they held the cigarettes in their trembling hands, we looked at one another, and I felt that they, too, grappled with the question of how to say goodbye. How do you say goodbye to someone you'll never see again, someone with whom you shared a few raw moments of hushed terror on the roadside? I still don't know. But in the end we bent our bodies toward the gravity that'd formed between us, and smiled sheepishly, our eyes wet, and turning away I steered myself toward the Longfellow Bridge. When I reached the middle of the bridge, I turned and looked back at the skyline. It seemed so far, so unaffected from the immediate fear, the uncertainty of what may lie in wait inside every discarded trash bag, every garbage can. Harvard Station in Cambridge shut down before I got within a mile of it, a frenzy of police officers and bomb squad personnel triggered by a bag forgotten in the terminal. Probably by someone just as terrified as and terrified of the rest of us.
Three days later the body count rose. An MIT police officer died, one of the bombers died, and for 24 hours a 20-block stretch of my hometown fell into the maw of martial law. Body-armored cops searched basements and homes. Families were marched out into the street at lawful gunpoint. Helicopter blades spun quietly in the sky. I couldn't go back to my apartment—I sat in Tom's living room, both of us writing blog posts on laptops, as one news broadcast after another narrated the siege of Watertown and played clips of the bombs at the finish line.
That night, after they hauled the young bomber away in an ambulance, cheers rose up into the cloudy skies. The streets filled with people, people who suddenly felt free, if not from the legal edicts but whatever primal fear kept them in their houses and behind locked doors. Car horns erupted. Instruments and fireworks clamored. I saw people kissing in the street from the window. Tom and his roommates went up to the roof to smoke and drink and watch the celebrations.
Not me. I slid into his bed, pulled the fan as close to my face as possible, and pushed myself into whatever sleep I could claim. Tom's bed smelled of Tom and I drew his musk in, deeply, hungrily, until the world passed. I still remember how I dreamt I was Avery, sunk at the bottom of a pond, my life as simple as the need to collect golf balls lost then sold to the next fool eager enough to see if they can blast a shot across a hundred-foot water hazard. I still remember how warm that imaginary water felt, against my skin, the absolute security of it, knowing exactly what I was doing, where I had to go, what came next. A gravity of purpose so powerful you're eager to let it drown you.