Kickstart My Bad Life

So I used to have the same drug dealer as one of the guys who invented Kickstarter.

This Kickstarter guy and my drug dealer were fucking each other, but I don't think they were in any kind of real relationship, though what does that even mean anymore?

Every time I went to go buy weed from her, this Kickstarter guy was always there, hanging out on his laptop while my drug dealer painted, or meditated, or did yoga, or dramatically shared facts about her life in her living room.

She lived in the East Village and her name was Angelique Cormorant, which is one of those made-up New York names that you just shrug off and accept.

The thing that made her special was that she only had one eye. Sometimes she wore an eyepatch, and sometimes she wore a glass eye, a tiny blue bubble that doubled as a tiny aquarium filled with brine shrimp. She could take her eye out and refill the water with sea monkeys if the population started to die off.

Evidently, there were all kinds of prosthetic eyes you could buy now, according to Angelique. There was a store that sold fancy fake eyes in the Meatpacking district. You could buy plastic eyes that unfolded into remote control helicopters with cameras in them, glass eyes that held a terrabyte of USB data storage, and even rubber inserts that turned your empty eye socket into a fuckable rubber vagina.

Not having an eye these days gave you an excuse to buy the coolest prosthetics available on the modern commercial market. An empty eye-socket was like a permanent pocket you could fill with extremely powerful electronics or art.

I first met Angelique in the restaurant below her apartment, where I liked to drink at the bar. After I had been going there for a few months, Angelique took me upstairs one night.

I thought we were going to sleep together, but instead she just got me high and showed me some of her digital animation, which was all pretty bad. It was all animated .gifs of cartoon sea monkeys in seventies bondage outfits: bright orange lycra, avocado pleather, and mauve latex.

I guess she had a consistent aesthetic. She also revealed to me that she dealt heavy weight in weed.

The Kickstarter guy showed up at some point that night and we talked about computers for awhile. I think I was sucking up to him without even realizing it, and he was wary of this at first. However, I am charming when I am nervous, and so by the end of the night we were all pals.

After that, I bought all of my drugs from Angelique and we would hang out once a week or so, not making any firm plans to do this, but somehow ending up together anyway. I always knew when she and the Kickstarter guy were fucking if I was down in the bar, because the bottles would clink a little bit on the shelves.

It wasn't flagrant, but you could hear it if you knew what to listen for. The bottles were on the same wall as their bedframe.

Sometimes the Kickstarter guy would be at her place when I went to go buy drugs, and sometimes only his laptop would be there, showing torrent downloads in various states of completion, like the digital equivalent of a coat and tie draped over a chair in the apartment of an amoral tramp. Angelique tried her best to give off this amoral tramp vibe, though I never saw any other men at her place.

I was attracted to Angelique and I could imagine some future scenario where we would get together, but mostly I was too tired and depressed to make this happen and it was nice to know a girl who was more interested in my money and in my company than in how I felt about her.

The bar-slash-restaurant below Angelique was a place called "Ethiopia." The Kickstarter guy and Angelique met each other there because "Ethiopia" had started out as a Kickstarter project. It was one of the projects that they wrote about in the lengthy Times article about Kickstarter several years ago that made the Kickstarter guy and his friends go from being start-up developers to obscenely wealthy Lower East Side capitalists.

"Ethiopia" served military rations from all over the world. You chose a country from a list, and they brought you military rations from that country, along with stainless steel cups and plates.

Each table had a stack of tin cans in the center – flames in a can! -- and you prepared your meal yourself.

There were waiters who would show you what to do, but they were perfunctory and condescending, as gruff as actual enlisted soldiers. The regulars at "Ethiopia" knew how to make their own rations without any help.

The bar of "Ethiopia" had liquor, but it also had one of those new flavor fountains, which is why I went there in the first place.

There were only a few of these flavor fountains in the city. A flavor fountain was like an old soda fountain, but instead of having colas and phosphates, flavor fountains sold brand new delicious chemicals from science.

Flavor fountains in NYC were test markets for New Jersey flavor scientists, or "flavorists." If a bar had a flavor fountain, these companies like Givaudan would deliver new flavors to them every month, and these bars would serve them up cheaply to any NYC asshole like me who wanted to try something new just for the fun of it.

The new flavors came in packets that looked like packets of ketchup. You inserted them into a slot in the machine that had a spring hinge. The hinge popped the bag, and then the machine instantly carbonated the flavor syrup, turning it into a soda that you could then mix with liquor or drink straight.

Usually, the flavors from New Jersey were savory instead of sweet, which made flavor fountains even more strange and upsetting. There were flavors like celery, tobacco, tabasco sauce, green pea, wasabi, raisin, bacon, steak, gravy, cornbread, anchovy, and lasagna.

I was the kind of person who would pay two dollars to try a lasagna flavored soda for the novelty of it. If I hated it, I would pay another couple of dollars and the bartender would dump some whiskey in there and I would knock it back dutifully, because, hey: whiskey and soda!

The strange flavors that people actually liked and that sold well got canned and sold around the country. Buttered popcorn soda and tequila soda were both huge hits. Like "Ethiopia," the flavor fountain had also started out as a Kickstarter idea, but it had grown huge in just a few short months.

One of the things I picked up from the Kickstarter guy (whose name was Tom, by the way, and who went to private Catholic schools all the way from kindergarten through college) was calling it"kicking" whenever a person used Kickstarter.

He never called it "kickstarting," as if he was embarassed to use his own company slang. He was so insistent about using the word "kicking" that you started doing it yourself around him, as in:

"Oh, check it out: this dude is trying to kick a disco that is open during the day for people who work at night. He is gonna call it "Day Tripper." Pretty terrible idea. People who work at night work at night for a reason. They don't like people and they don't like to dance."


"Check this out: somebody is kicking an STD wall calendar for teenagers that is supposed to get them to use condoms. It will have lavish, full color pictures of infected genitals -- one for every month. Check out February! Why, this swollen penis is as colorful and festive as a pinata!"

Tom was fascinated by people kicking crazy shit, but he never participated himself. He had a hundred different accounts and he loved to chip in anonymously to interesting projects and to send struggling artists personal messages of encouragement. But he never used his own website to solicit funds.

One night, I went up to Angelique's apartment to buy drugs and I could hear her screaming at him.

I debated walking away, but I wanted drugs and I figured Angelique and Tom could take a break from their argument long enough to sell me enough weed to get me through the weekend. I knocked on the door and the screaming immediately stopped.

Angelique threw the door open.

"Oh, it's you," she said. "Excellent. Just the person we wanted to see."

Tom was pacing back and forth in her tiny kitchen. When he saw me, he sighed and fell down on her couch, exasperated.

"I am only here to buy a very small amount of drugs and then I will go away," I said, holding my hands up, not wanting to get involved in any romantic disputes.

"No, no," said Angelique. "We need your opinion on something."

"Okay," I said, wincing. "But I don't have very good opinions."

"Do you think I am dumb?"

"No, of course not," I said. "I would never buy drugs from somebody who I did not think was of above average intelligence."

"He is just trying to be nice," said Tom. "He wants to have sex with you. You can't listen to his opinion. He will always take your side."

"Do you want to have sex with me?" she asked.

"If that is what I have to do to get my drugs, then I am cool with it," I said. "I am totally cool with it if you are trying to solicit me for prostitution. Know this for now and know this for in the future."

She leaned forward a little, showing her cleavage.

"I don't want to have sex with you right now," I said. "I kind of just want to smoke weed and to drink a soda that tastes like hickory smoked BBQ potato chips from childhood days."

She tossed me a bag of weed and I put some money down on her coffee table.

"Well, if that is all..." I said.

"Tom thinks my Kickstarter ideas are dumb," she said. "He thinks I am full of dumb ideas."

"I'll bet he doesn't think that at all," I said, looking at Tom. Tom shrugged.

"Don't you want to know my dumb Kickstarter ideas?" said Angelique.

I didn't answer for an uncomfortable amount of time. Finally, I relented.

"Uh, of course I do," I said.

"I have three," she said. "Tom hates all of them."

"I don't hate your ideas," said Tom. "I just know my site. I know what gets funded and what doesn't. I don't want you to be disappointed. I am trying to help you."

"My first idea is a website where you plug in all the ingredients you have in your pantry, and it tells you what recipes you can make," she said. "You know, so you don't have to go to the store and buy new things. It will tell you how to make the most of what you already have. Like, if all you have is water, flour, and old salsa, it will tell you how to make cracker nachos.

"It's not a terrible idea," said Tom. "But it wouldn't work because people like buying special ingredients for crazy recipes. They like going to the store to buy hearts of palm and turmeric and cream of tartar. It is like going on a quest for a magic sword. People only make recipes when they are trying to impress people, not because they don't know how to cook. They don't feel like they are impressing anybody when they aren't using magic ingredients."

"Okay," she said. "I have more ideas. I think there should also be a website where you can rate jobs anonymously the same way that people rate restaurants or college professors. You know, where people can rant about their bosses or specific problems with their work environments. Instead of rating whole companies, people could rate specific franchise locations, sharing how much they make there, how much people tip them, what kind of insurance they get, how nice the bosses are, whether the kitchen is clean, whether they are being sexually harrassed. Everything, everything. It would unionize everything instantly into one big union."

Tom held up his hand, interrupting her.

"The kind of people who obsessively review things like restaurants, books, and professors are a whole different class of people than the ones who have shitty jobs. Your website is nice in theory, but it wouldn't lead to the kind of revolution that you are imagining. All jobs are bad. All jobs would get zero stars from the people who work there."

"Fine," she said, exasperated. "How about a website where people can do karoake online? People wait by their webcams for their turn, watching other people sing. When it is your turn, the karaoke channel broadcasts the feed from your webcam, switching to you waiting at home. People can vote and comment on your song. The whole thing is recorded and available for download. People can do karaoke without leaving their bedrooms! This is genius!"

Tom shook his head.

"I think people like doing karaoke because they need something to do while they are out drinking in the world," said Tom quietly. "Socially retarded isolates do not like karoake."

"My ideas aren't dumb," said Angelique. "Your website is dumb. It is begging. Your website is a website for middle-class people who want to beg their friends for money instead of working. Your website makes begging available to the cowardly masses."

"Begging is hard," said Tom. "Homeless people have to be shrewd and smart."

"Bullshit," said Angelique.

"Honestly I have heard homeless people with better ideas than yours," said Tom with controlled malice. "I have heard better ideas for companies from crazy people on trains."

"You are such an asshole," said Angelique, looking at the ground, her eyes bulging and red. "You are such an asshole."

"I will prove it," said Tom. "I will prove that your ideas aren't special. Come on! We will take one of your ideas and we will put it up against a homeless person's idea, and we will see which one gets funded faster. You want to compete? I say you should have the chance."

He stormed out of the apartment.

She locked the door behind him, breathing heavy, gritting her teeth.

She stared at the door for several minutes, unmoving, while I sat on the couch with my hands on my knees, afraid to say anything, wondering if it would be okay to sneak away now. I carefully put the bag of weed in my pocket, trying not to draw her wrath with any sudden movements.

All I wanted was a cheddar cheese soda and maybe some rations from Finland.

Finally, the handle of the apartment door began to twist furiously, clicking as it turned back and forth. Then there was a loud knock.

"Let me in," shouted Tom. "You have to let me in."

"Go away," shouted Angelique. "Come back never!"

"My laptop is still in there," he said calmly. "I need it. I will just get it and go."

I wasn't sure if this was a game they played all the time, or if this was a real fight. She sighed and opened the door for him.

Tom stormed into the room, followed by a man in a hoodie with a scraggly beard and an unironic smell. He was about fifty years old.

"Hey, hey," said the man, grinning at us both. "This is a real nice place."

"This is Skoozy," said Tom. "He was hanging out down on the corner, and I told him he could hang out with us for awhile."

"Oh, fuck you," said Angelique, going away to hide in her room. She was so pissed that she was starting to cry. As she fled, her glass eye slipped out of its socket on a flood of tears, bounced off of her knee, and landed on the rug.

“Hey, your eye!” I said. She responded by slamming her bedroom door.

I picked up her eye and put it on the coffee table. The sea monkeys swam around like farm animals caught in a tornado.

Tom had reached the point where he was so excited about executing his cruel plan that he did not realize that he had gone too far.

I was paralyzed and didn't know whether to stay or go.

Skoozy looked at me. We were on the same level here. We were both unwilling participants in a melodrama that we did not understand. I shook his huge hand. It was like shaking hands with somebody wearing a baseball glove.

Skoozy sat down in a recliner, gingerly, as if sitting down lightly would keep his unironic smell from grinding into the upholstery. His shoes were encrusted in mud, but the mud was so thick and old that he didn't leave any marks on the floor.

"Skoozy, we need your help," said Tom, sitting down in front of his laptop. "We need to figure out what kind of business you want to make, and then we are going to use the internet to get you some money for it. I run a company called Kickstarter, and that is the sort of thing we do."

"I don't understand," said Skoozy.

"It's a website where people can ask for money for projects from their friends, family, and strangers on the internet," said Tom. "We want to know what good ideas you have for projects. Then we will try to get money to make this idea happen."

"I don't have any good ideas," said Skoozy, frowning.

"If you have a good idea, people will pay you to help make your dream come true."

Skoozy didn’t say anything for a long time. He licked his thin lips.

"Oh, so it is begging," said Skoozy. "I understand that. Why didn't you just say it was begging? You want me to help you beg. That is hilarious, man. Actually, it is not hilarious. I wish you had just given me some change."

Tom was suddenly very uncomfortable. He got up and walked across the room.

"Maybe you'd better go," said Tom.

"I totally understand," said Scoozy. "I get it. I really do. I get it. You are a huge dick."

Tom didn't answer. He opened his mouth and then shut it again. Skoozy's eyes glittered dangerously.

"You are absolutely right," I said, moving closer to Scoozy and taking over for Tom. "We want your help at begging. You are the expert. We want to know your secrets."

Scoozy looked me over. I picked up Angelique’s glass eye and shook it like a snow globe. I handed it to him. He looked into the depths until a slow grin formed on his hard face.

"You just need to create a webpage full of problems that sound true,” he said. “I have tons of problems. You can borrow some of mine."

"Yes," I said. "And if these problems are bad enough, people will give us real money. We set an amount to reach, and if enough people donate so that we reach that amount, then we get all the money, like winning the begging lottery. This is how Kickstarter works."

Skoozy searched my eyes. Suddenly, he was excited. He leaned forward, squinting at me.
"What happens if you don't reach your quota?" said Skoozy. "I know all about quotas."

"If you don't reach your quota, you don't get any money at all," I said. "This gives people an incentive to donate. They want to help you reach your goal so that you get all the money you've been promised by other people."

Skoozy thought about this.

"I don't think it is incentive enough," he said. "That's not how people work."

Tom had a glazed look on his face. He wasn't paying attention to us anymore.

In the back bedroom, we could hear Angelique sobbing. The noise finally seemed to be reaching Tom. Skoozy gave Angelique glass eye to Tom, who held it like a newborn baby.

“Thank you,” said Tom quietly.

"I think there should be bigger stakes," said Skoozy. "I think you should hold your bad life hostage if you want real cash. You should tell people that if you don't get the money, you will kill yourself. I think about killing myself all the time. I wonder what my life is worth on the internet. Probably not very much, right?"

"That's a good question," I said, nodding. "How much money do you think it would take to change your life forever?"

Skoozy thought about this.

"I think if I had a hundred grand, I could take care of some shit for real. I wouldn't just spend it on drugs, either, though there would be some of that. I would get my teeth fixed so that they aren't in pain all the time. My back molars are fucking agony, man. I got these cysts in my gums. And then I would get myself a place to live. I think if I had an apartment, and I was doing the program, it would be much, much easier than if I was doing the program on the street or trying to do it from a half-way house full of losers. I'm not a loser. I got a college degree, man. In nutrition."

He looked at me sideways. I tried to keep a straight face, but I couldn't help myself. Luckily, we both started laughing at the same time.

"Niacin," said Skoozy. "People need more niacin. Nobody gets enough niacin."

Tom ran out of the room to go comfort Angelique, holding the glass eye in front of him like a hot pie, leaving Scoozy and I alone with his laptop.

I opened a webpage and tabbed over to Kickstarter. Tom's login info was still up on the page, so I just clicked "enter" and logged myself in under one of his accounts. I started a "new project."

"Smile, Skoozy," I said. He gave me two thumbs up.

I took a picture of Skoozy with my phone and emailed it to myself.

"So this project is gonna be called "Skoozy's Bad Life," I said. Skoozy looked over my shoulder as I typed. I uploaded the picture of him grinning at me.

"This guy Skoozy who lives on the street is going to kill himself if he doesn't get a hundred thousand dollars from you to fix his bad life," I said as a I typed it. "How are you going to do it, Skoozy?"

"I guess I will jump in front of a train," said Skoozy. "Late at night, though, so people aren't late for work."

"He will jump in front of a train," I said. "Okay. Time for some bullet points. What makes your life so bad?"

"I can type, you know," he said.

I got out of the way, reading over his shoulder.

According to what he wrote on Kickstarter, Skoozy had no family that would speak to him. He mainly ate trash and oily fish that he managed to haul out of the Gowanus, and he was missing several toes thanks to diabetes. He hadn't had sex in three years, and the last time he had sex it was against his will in a train station and there had been bleeding that lasted for six months.

Skoozy had a kid from his first wife who also wouldn't speak to him. His kid was partially deaf and had learning disabilities because Skoozy hadn't taken her to a doctor when she got a bad ear infection as a toddler because he didn't want to pay the doctors the money that he was making as a barback. Skoozy had spent several years in prison, and he was also really good at the arcade version of Street Fighter 2. According to Skoozy, he was unbeatable when he played as Chun Li and he challenged anyone in the world to prove him wrong. His teeth always hurt like a straight-up bitch on account of the cysts in his gums.

He didn't mind what he drank as long as it got him drunk. He thought New Yorkers were the best people on planet Earth. He didn't like British people or Europeans. He liked the Mets. He didn't like hip hop because the lyrics were too fast, though he had no problem with black people ordinarily.

When he was done, Skoozy moved aside and let me read the page.

"Perfect," I said.

I put the page up. There was no moderation necessary because it was Tom's account.

"Now what?" asked Skoozy.

"Now we just wait for the money to roll in," I said. "You've got a month to make your hundred grand."

"Or I throw myself in front of a train," he said.

"Yeah," I said.

"I might have done that anyway for free," said Skoozy. "Now I have a goal."

Skoozy copied down the url for the Kickstarter page and thanked me. I told him I would help him get the money out if we made our quota. That was when he offered me a percentage.

Ten percent.

I told him I wouldn't take it, but he insisted. Ten grand was a lot of money. I accepted. We shook hands again.

He also said he knew some other people where he spent his weekends who were even more down and out than he was. I told them I would come by and see them.

"They want to kill themselves anyway," said Skoozy. "They are always talking about it. They might as well get some kind of valuation first, right? Maybe there can even be Kickstarter pages that help people pay for their inevitable funerals."

I gave him my phone number and he gave me a card for the shelter where he slept on weekends.

I let him out, locked the door after him, and then waited a few minutes, thinking maybe Tom and Angelique would come out now that he was gone.

But Tom and Angelique were talking softly in the next room. I heard laughter and then soft cooing noises. I rolled myself a joint, smoked it, and then went downstairs to the bar of "Ethiopia."

I looked over the new flavors this week from New Jersey and I ordered a tuna fish sandwich soda. It was surprisingly refreshing and not nauseating at all. I made it about halfway through the soda before I motioned for the bartender to dump some whiskey in there.

"Is that a friend of yours?" he asked me. "He keeps waving at you, trying to get your attention."

I looked outside where the bartender was pointing. Skoozy was there on the street, surrounded by people typing into their phones who were looking simultaneously perplexed and charmed.

Skoozy was holding a cardboard sign that said "Kickstart my bad life" and then there was the url for his Kickstarter page. People were writing it down and even donating right there in front of him on their phones.

"Ten percent," Skoozy screamed at me, and then he started laughing. "We should make handbills!  Posters! Videos!"

The bottles in the bar clinked together, and I knew that upstairs Tom and Angelique were fucking their brains out. I wondered if Angelique kept her eye in when she had sex or if she took it out and put it on her bedside table.

I wondered if Skoozy was going to make his hundred grand on account of the novelty of it all.

I wondered how much my own life was worth. I wondered how much anybody's life was worth on the internet.

I wondered what it would feel like not to meet your goal, not even by a longshot, not even by a little bit.


Maren said...

i said it once and i'll say it again: SOOO GOOOOOD

Brandon Carroll said...

Fucking amazing.

Will Whatley said...

The line at the end seems like you wrote it first. And I like your story very much.

Anonymous said...

The niacine line, of all things, killed me.

Anonymous said...

It's a crime that you are not famous.