The alarm buzzes but Kami is still dreaming….
He snores softly as the loud obtrusive sound of a foghorn calls out to distant ships across the murky sea. The seamen huddle together in defense of the mountainous waves that threaten to envelop the tiny boat. The rain is endless, the thunder incessant. As if these plagues weren’t enough there is the ragged cough of a sick fisherman. The cough persists beyond the angry seas…beyond the tyrannical waves…until a fellow seaman passes the infected mate a lozenge.
Fishermen’s friend for fast relief for your cough…
And then it hits him… Shit, thinks Kami as he reached out of the soft comforter that covers his body to hit the snooze button, only dimly aware that he had not set the alarm in the first place. It is in the softness of lavender scented sheets that Kamran Bashir sleeps for another hour until the stream of sunshine coming through his window makes his cocoon unbearably hot and Kami has no choice but to kick off his covers with one swift motion.
It is 10:45 a.m. early by most regards. Usually Kami is out of bed by the crack of noon. He assesses the damage, wonders who set the alarm. His head is killing him…it must have been a good night.
Kami begins to take stock. He looks down at his body. His legs are splayed open. His shoes are off but he is still wearing his jeans and T-shirt from the night before. He wonders if he can still fall back asleep, but nothing happens. His body feels like lead. He stretches his arms and lets out a loud yawn. Still in limbo he must decide what to do. Should he take a shower…really brush his teeth this time instead of just rinsing with mouthwash - a real time saver when he’s late for class. It is almost the same thing what with the new improved breath freshening, plaque fighting, cavity preventing products they had out there; one had to wonder why anyone brushed at all? But no that’s not something Kami has to worry about anymore. What a pity? He had actually begun to miss school. Graduation could be a terrible thing.
With nowhere to be, Kami sluggishly enters the bathroom. The granite tiles feel cool beneath his bare feet. Reluctantly he strips off his T-shirt and jeans. There is something comforting about dirty clothes that mold to your body like an extension of your skin. Kami does not mind the smell of smoke on his clothes or the sour odor of a sweaty night that still clings to his body. Draining his body of any fluids, Kami steps into the shower where the multi-speed showerhead flows with intense hot water, going to work on his muscles, wiping away last night’s cobwebs.
Kami turns off the shower and lets the water trickle off his body. He is thoroughly satisfied with the sauna he has created. He lingers in the bathroom a while longer knowing how the cold air will cause goose bumps as soon as he steps out. It is the last step of becoming truly awake, or as truly awake as Kamran is capable of getting. In his semi-coherent state he is able to hear the muffled voices of people downstairs. It’s Sunday. He sniffs the air. They are all there.
It is the smell of family gathering that Kami loves the most. The way the aroma or a fresh breakfast, hearty dinner, or a warm dessert zips through the air like an invisible arrow and unites them all with their wildly different lives across a single table. Kamran has always loved his family the way one loves an anomaly. Although he may not be able to articulate this, it’s something he understands intrinsically, in his gut if you want to be visceral. It is not the way others love his family and perhaps this is the problem, but that’s the way Kami is, it is in the way his heartbeats and will likely not change.
When Kami goes downstairs they are all finishing up. His grandmother is still puttering around in the kitchen. She is a frail woman in her seventies, her hair a white ball of yarn, pinned at the nape of her neck. She wears a pale beige sari that she refers to as biscuiti (the color of biscuits). The color blends seamlessly with her complexion. She has always looked this way, ever since he can remember – the embodiment of winter. As a child, much to everyone’s amusement, he had referred to her as Mrs. Santa.
Nowhere is the family’s Americaness more apparent than during weekend breakfast. The buffet spread before Kami is a marketer’s dream: farm fresh grade A eggs, Florida Orange Juice, Aunt Jemima Pancakes with maple syrup, hash browns, Texas Toast and Pillsbury Crescent Rolls. None of that organic Whole Foods crap for them. The products they buy take up premium ad space. It’s his mother’s one weakness. Although she will never admit it, they both know she watches too much TV; is in fact a soap opera junkie surreptitiously catching her dramas late at night or at odd hours. He cannot blame her for it, her one flaw. No, rather it is endearing, this little piece of imperfection. He wishes that she would fess up, let him in on some zany piece of soap opera gossip, but it will not happen, his parents are pillars in the community.
Kami grabs a plate and sits down at the table, everyone else in nearly done. Looking around at his well-kept family he is all too aware of his old T-shirt, his shaggy hair and two days worth of stubble. No doubt he is the elephant in the room, as everyone carefully avoids asking him about his evening. It is a way to be kind and still express disapproval. His six-year-old nephew, Sumi is sitting across from him drinking chocolate milk through a long swirly straw. His brother is on the phone. Even on the weekend Sohail is wearing a nice shirt with his jeans. It’s white with faint purple strips and without being told Kami knows that it’s designer. Hopefully, it’s something his sister-in-law picked out. He has to wonder about a guy that buys his shirts from Thomas Pink.
Sohail gives Kami a quick glance as he slides open his Droid (phone), looking over his schedule. His sister-in-law is out of town. Sohail will likely have to reschedule one of his surgeries. Kami looks around for his older sister, Kiran. He wonders if she is still giving him the cold shoulder. It’s not like her to hold a grudge, but Priya’s party did have an open bar. It was very like Priya to have her engagement at the Ritz - of course the whole family had been invited.
When Kamran had arrived at the Ritz, the party had already started. It was already eleven o’clock, dinner was over, desert was being served and the bar was still open. The dance floor was just getting started and his parents were getting ready to leave. He had just gotten off work at Starbucks, the smell of coffee still lingering. Wearing the same jeans he had worn all day, with a blazer thrown over his T-shirt he went over to say, “hi” to his parents. His mother was wearing one of her fancier saris, and a delicate gold jewelry set, his father a charcoal suit. As Kami approached their table his father had glanced at his watch; a small gesture but it was enough, and if his father noticed the absence of a tie, or a dress shirt, or a pair of slightly mismatched socks, that also remained unsaid.
Kami kissed his mother on the cheek. His father made a joke about him holding the fort before they proceeded towards the coatroom.
“Make sure you congratulate the whole family,” added his mother.
As his parents conveyed their goodbyes to the host and headed out Kami felt his anchor disappearing. The music all of a sudden became louder, the room darker, the girls a little bolder. At this point Kami was still sober…
Later in the dark, in the quietness of his bed, Kami has not quite left the party, the music is still pounding in his head; Navin’s slurred conversation is ringing in his ear.
It is his intention to congratulate the happy couple, to pay his respects to the host. As Kami makes his way through a sea of upscale professionals in fancy suits: doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, he begins to drown, swept up in a current he has no control over. Finally he sees a familiar face. Navin is grinning from ear to ear, his jacket is off, his tie is loose and his face is a flushed. “Let’s grab a drink,” he says… just like that Kami is diverted.
It is not long before Kami is under water, his footing is a little shaky, his vision is a little blurry, his voice a little loud and yet his siblings are swimming effortlessly, schmoosing from guest to guest. Kiran, well on her way on the partner track, is chatting with an old professor. The last thing Kami remembers is heading for the dance floor.
It is the smell of coffee that pulls Kami out from under water, leading him from the fuzziness of last night, to the crispness of present morning. Just the aroma of the dark brew reminds him how hungry he is, stirs his appetite, and as Kami is wolfing down his omelet and toast, slurping Juan Valdez’s Best – in a family of tea drinkers – he begins to wonder who set the alarm this morning. Of course it’s his mother. It’s always his mother.
She waits until he is done, finished the last drop of coffee and leaning back contently in his chair before she gives him a grin that is meant to say, “I have great news.” No one can say she’s not a patient woman. It is his mother’s smile, which is like the sun that unnerves him as he waits to hear her news.
Bloomsbury Advertising, one of the biggest downtown Ad Agencies, is hiring a junior copywriter in their creative department. A friend told her about the position and right away she sent him Kami’s resume, along with some sketches that he had drawn to amuse his six-year-old nephew, funny caricatures with offbeat captions.
It’s enough to secure an interview.
Now that it’s all out in the open, she looks a little nervous, her smile faltering ever so slightly, her voice an octave higher, her golden bangles clinking together and catching the light as her hands flutter to her hair. All that is left for Kami to do is call the number, meet with some of the creatives.
“A wonderful opportunity…”
Of course he will call he can never say no to his mother.
This is how Kami ends up at an old abandoned building, tucked away on a narrow side street, in the middle of downtown. At first he thinks he has the wrong address, but there it is…Bloomsbury Advertising scratched over the doorway. He looks around for any indication that this is the stomping grounds of a high powered ad agency, but the building is strangely devoid of any glitz or glamour. Any doubt that Kami has regarding the firm’s nature of business dissipates as he enters the lobby and sees the large silver letters sprawled across the reception desk.
Like walking through a portal Kami is transported to a place with high ceiling, exposed brick and large windows. Inside there is a young receptionist chewing gum and flipping through a magazine; an amalgam of all the TV receptionists he’s ever seen. She recognizes his name and takes him to a conference room. Kami notices that the hallways are plastered with posters; most of them are Bloomsbury Ads. He doesn’t watch much TV but he recognizes some of the products… his father’s gold card, his brother’s high-powered wheels, and his mother’s favorite comfort food. It’s almost worth getting out of bed – his biggest hurdle.
To Kami’s credit he is almost on time for the interview. An 8:00 a.m. time slot is obscenely early for someone like Kami, and although he’s been up for a while he still feels like he’s dreaming sitting across the desk from a pudgy middle-aged white guy wearing jeans and a T-shirt that says, love is all you need… the Creative Director, a guy named Eli. Eli in his purple T-shirt and earring, looks more like a bouncer at a club than head of the department, his eyes are blood shot and his sleeves are rolled up to his elbow as if he’s been there for several hours already. Hardly a glance is given to Kami’s rumpled appearance or the fact that he is twenty minutes late. In an up beat manner Kami is getting the company spiel and every now and then Eli throws in a Man or a Dude as proof of his hipster attitude, but it stills sounds like corporate jargon to Kami, who starts to tune out when Eli starts talking about a philosophy called Creative Zen. Since when has Buddhism been used to sell detergents? It all sounds so absurd to Kami, as absurd as the bum on the street.
Had it not been for the bum on the street Kami would have stood alone laughing at the gray army, hurrying back and forth with their briefcases, cell phones and lattes, eyebrows furrowed marching in determination. If you asked Kami, it was much too early to be this tense and although Kami had dozed off, missed his stop on the train; he walked leisurely to his interview, enjoying the city at daybreak. Streets that he had become so well acquainted with looked naked and unfamiliar in the morning light, inhabited by strangers but no stranger than his own family.
It was during this stroll that Kami ran into the only other misfit awake at this hour. In the beginning he couldn’t tell where the noise or the stench was coming from, but it didn’t take long for him to come across the source of the disturbance – a raggedy man wearing a tattered old suit and a fedora, permeating a rank odor that could only be attributed to blend of alcohol and urine. The bum stood hunched over, shoulders drooped; his body slack, as if broken from years of toil, his face over run with spiky stubble. What wasn’t hidden in stubble was covered in grime. Only his eyes shone through the darkness, eyes that are not only alert but also fierce.
Oblivious to Kami’s presence the bum continued to yell with great venom at passersby. His insults were laden with gibberish, a testament to his lunacy. They were the garbled words of an angry child delivered with the antagonism of an old man.
Fuck you, you cheeto eating foo fighter…
Hey drop dead, you slurpy sue bunion eater…
Eat my shorts, you upside down doodle monster…
Kami smiled, it was the type of humor a child would love; his nephew’s favorite joke was, Ask me what, chicken snot… ask me why, chicken pie. When Kami had first told Sumi the joke he had laughed, and laughed his little six-year-old head off. Later, he had gone on repeating it to the entire family until exasperated family members would roll their eyes and look at Kami…really is that the best you can do?
Now as Kami sits across from Eli getting an impressive description of some of their top clients he has to resist the urge to call him a, cheetos eating foo fighter. It’s just the type of nonsense that would make him squirm. He could have a lot of fun with this guy and just as a wicked smirk crosses his face he is interrupted from his thoughts by a point blank question.
“We saw some of your sketches Dude and we thought your humor would really appeal to our brands. We’re looking for someone that can appeal to a younger demographic group and if you could do the same thing for some of our clients that would be awesome.”
Kami has to resist the urge to roll his eyes – who says awesome anymore?
“I have a couple ads here I’d like you to take a look at and tell me what type of slogan you would use to appeal to a younger audience.”
He holds up a picture of a middle aged man sitting in an armchair huddled in a blanket drinking a steamy medicinal drink. The caption says, “Just add water.”
“This is one of our clients. Tell me your ideas for spicing up the campaign, adding a little zing, making it a little younger?”
Kami thinks about this for a moment and he’s reminded again of the bum on the street. Kami grins.
“How about we replace, ‘just add water’ with…Zonked out wretched snooze monster NOT…drink Thermal Flu.”
Is that young enough for you?
“Hmm…,” says Eli stroking his chin clearly contemplating this direction.
“Interesting…OK, here’s another.”
Eli holds up a picture of a common foot care product. Kami himself has never suffered from embarrassing foot problems although he can clearly see how it can be a delicate matter. Kami thinks for a second channeling all his sensitivity.
“How about in jagged lettering…Don‘t be a Bunion Eater.”
Kami can see that Eli has a couple more ads that he decides to forego.
“Umm…ok…well, that’s great. I think I have all I need.”
“Cool,” says Kami finally letting out his evil grin. As Eli walks him out the door Kami once again notices the campaigns on the wall; fast cars and suggestive slogans. Quirky does not seem to be in their vocabulary.
As they approach the lobby Eli hands him a business card. This is where he expects him to say, “Don’t call us, well call you,” but instead Eli shakes his hand pats him on the back and says, “We’ll be in touch Dude.”
Kami doesn’t exactly feel guilty for blowing this interview. When he gets home he creeps in slowly as if he’s an intruder in the middle of the night. He wants to avoid his mother at least for a little while. She’ll want to know how it went. Kami is in luck and she’s not home. He does not embarrass easily but he really hopes she doesn’t get a play-by-play from one of her friends.
His mother smiles and looks anxiously at him for the next day or two. He expects he’ll get the Thank you for applying letter in the mail but it doesn’t come…instead he gets the call. It’s Eli. They like his stupid ideas. They find them novel – a good way to freshen a tired old product. Eli wants to hire him on a freelance basis. He only has to show-up a couple of hours a month. Most of the work can be done at home. And just like that Kami is an Ad Man.
It’s an old joke, a cosmic mistake. Kami is living someone else’s life. He wonders how long it will take them to discover he’s just an idiot hemorrhaging gibberish. These are major brands in fact. But it doesn’t happen. Instead his work is called innovative, glamed up by art directors and appearing on major networks. One day, a particularly good day, one of Bloomsbury’s ads is up for an award. Kami decides to pay homage by visiting the person who started this nonsense, but the alley is empty. Not a trace is left of the old man or his rants. Strangely Kami feels abandoned standing alone on the sidewalk watching the suits march back and forth.
The night of the awards, Kami leaves the house in his tux. His grandmother has been fussing over him all evening. His father gives him an approving look. He’s become somewhat of a celebrity in his house. His mother has even started taping his commercials.
When Kami gets to the hotel the party is raging; champagne glasses are clinking, black ties and jeweled evening gowns are sparkling. Soon congratulations are in order, a Bloomsbury ad – one of Kami’s ads – has snagged an award. There is much hand shaking, backslapping and promises of bigger opportunities ahead. Kami is doing what he does best partying…in a drunken stupor, at the height of the gathering’s merriment, bottle in hand, Kami wanders out into the night singing his own jingles.
The people on the street ignore him. Soon the glitzy downtown buildings start looking a little seedier, the roads more abandoned and unkempt and the pedestrians a little grungier avoiding eye contact as they walk by, but Kami pays them no mind. It has been a good night. He’s been offered a promotion and is well on his way to becoming a successful Ad Executive. He is laughing at himself when he bumps into a wall, only its not a wall, it’s a person… and then there’s two.
“Hey buddy, where are you going?” says a big guy grabbing a hold of Kami’s arm.
“You got a twenty on you? A rich bastard like you has gotta be rolling in it.”
“Get lost,” says Kami but this only amuses them.
Kami tries to push past them, but the two seem to create an impenetrable wall.
“Hey Buddy, he asked you a question,” says the second guy, a stocky man with hard eyes, but before Kami can respond they reach into Kami’s blazer and grabs his wallet. Kami tries to fight back, but he is no match for them in his inebriated state, swinging wild punches into the air. The last thing he remembers is being dragged into an ally, someone hitting him in the face, but it doesn’t end there and Kami is kicked in the gut over and over again until he passes out. When he wakes up he’s soaked in his own sweat and what smells like urine, his blazer is dusty, his shirt is ripped and his head hurts. He yells out into the darkness but there is no response. A couple feet in front of him is half a bottle of champagne. Kami grabs it and chugs it down, liquid gold dripping down his face. A passerby yells at him to get a job. Kami begins to laugh, a deep gut-wrenching laugh. Sure, that’s what he needs… a job. He sits in the dusty ally, shakes his fists at the world and with great venom yells out angry jingles at passersby.