When one joins the creative department of SOMEssentials (rhymes with home) as an intern, one is told two things by HR.
First, all activity that takes place in the creative department emanates from one source: SOMEssentials’s High-Concept Man. Second, you refer to him only as the “High-Concept Man” and not—they repeat, not—as the “Conceptualizer.” “Yes, yes,” she told me as she led me like an intransigent puppy through an obstacle course of yoga balls, ping pong tables, and a couple of people on the floor hunched over Chromebooks, “that’s what it says on his business card, and we’re working on that, but please refrain from doing so. Your ‘job’ probably doesn’t depend on it, but just assume that it does.” She did not say why this was so, but I later learned that it might be because he was not the inaugural holder of the job. No one dares speak of the first High-Concept Man, an original partner, who has since been banished in name and body from SOMEssentials’s Dumbo loft space.
As she seated me, HR dropped some papers before me that she needed filled by first thing tomorrow. As she was beginning to leave she stopped, turned around and told me, “Oh, one more thing,” before she paused and looked at the other interns fixated on their various screens. “Um … you know what, never mind. Don’t worry about it. Just leave those papers on my desk in the morning.” And she scurried out.
The creative intern pen, which was not called that but which I am for convenience, was spatially nowhere near the creative department, and in fact was the only space in the office aside from the bathrooms that was enclosed, in walls of pink. It was furnished with a long fuchsia-colored table placed rather dizzyingly over a rose-colored carpet. The table sat 12 people but at least during my summer cycle only seven other interns were there, divided evenly by gender. The table had 10 metal stools and two regular office chairs, which were always taken by the same people. I didn’t think much of this at first.
I got on well enough with the other interns. We were in that career infancy stage where notions of competition had not yet replaced the feeling of good fortune for having been hired at all. And for two weeks we had only ourselves for company. Our interactions outside the pink walls were almost entirely through our screens. The High-Concept Man had four administrative assistants—Daryl, Dara, Luke, and Yule—who always sent us tasks in an abbreviated style that suggested life-or-death urgency. “Make espresso”; “Plz proof”; “Convert to .PDF”; “Convert back to Word doc,” and so on. Nothing, of course that broadened our experience in the central tenet of our job, let alone brought us into direct contact with the High-Concept Man.
I wonder if they waited for us to see him so that we’d be somewhat seasoned in the office culture, not that that helped because it felt like the first day all over again when I and the other interns were allowed to sit in one of the morning creative meetings. These took place wherever space was allotted. The meeting we attended was set up over the foosball table in the middle of the loft space. Standing at the head of the table were Daryl, Dara, Luke, and Yule, all in the same black suits, all with the same high-and-tight haircut. I could only ever distinguish Daryl because she had an iPad and the others had Galaxy Tabs. At each side were the High-Concept Man’s creative team, middle-aged men with thinning hair, slight paunches, and rumpled flannel shirts, some untucked, some worn over aged t-shirts advertising bands long broken up or products long discontinued.
The High-Concept Man was the last to arrive. He entered between his assistants who flanked behind him. He was smaller than I thought he’d be—and lean, built like a heist crewmember they save for getting in and out of tight spaces. His hair was big and slicked back like an ‘80s stockbroker, his clothes—pleated black pants, striped shirt, beige cardigan, no tie—were like a psychiatrist’s, his yellow-tinted aviators, which he never took off, were like a ‘70’s porn grip’s. His age was ambiguous, he was older than everyone there for sure but somehow younger in spirit. He was also the only one not with a phone in his hand at the meeting. Upon clearing his throat, everyone else put theirs away.
“I see we have some new faces,” he said in the nocturnal purr of a lounge bar MC. His assistants were swiping and typing as soon as he spoke. “I hope these folks have been keeping you busy. But not too busy.” He smiled and everyone laughed. “So I guess as a way of introduction, my job is very simple: concept, high-concept, and no-concept. Those are my parameters. And I have to determine which is which so that we can use the best for our projects. Your job is much harder,” he said with a chuckle. “Because you have to go out and search for the concepts. That’s a bit abstract so I’m gonna put it the way I put it to every crop of interns. Lucifer, the angel of light, is the first concept. Lucifer’s fall from Heaven is the first high-concept, see? And God … God is no-concept. Now I’m not gonna expect you to be ace creatives like these guys here, but I want you to observe, because there may be a moment when I ask what you see as high-concept, even as a hypothetical over at the bar, and I don’t want you to bring me God.” We smiled and nodded like kindergarteners holding participation ribbons. “Good, now go back to your corner,” he said with a wink.
We came back to the pen in a daze, as if we nearly missed Heaven by way of a midtown bus. None of us spoke for the rest of the day, we took orders from the four assistants but otherwise did not look up from our screens, preparing for that pitch meeting that may never actually be scheduled, but which might sneak up from behind us, pin us down, and try to disembowel us.
That night I visited my girlfriend Erin at Mud Coffee, where she worked nights and every other afternoon when she wasn’t interning herself at Talkhouse. I told her about the High-Concept Man, about his conceptual trialectic, about Lucifer’s fall from Heaven. Each time she replied, “Okay” in unique, though not altogether receptive, registers. I think when I mentioned that the office also has a Wellness Alcove she abruptly turned around and said, “Ours has a therapy lamp and someone’s always using it. Now I’ve got tables.” So I took the train back to our sublet in Ridgewood.
The next week and thereafter, our menial duties would be interrupted by individual requests to sit in on smaller meetings between the High-Concept Man and one of his ideation minions. These were not scheduled beforehand and if one of the black-clad assistants came in, called a name, and the possessor of that name was at lunch, taking a shit, or snorting Adderall and posting an Instagram story about it in the service elevator, someone else was going in his or her stead. Hence, no one left the office if they could avoid it, and when interns came back from their meetings they didn’t divulge what they saw. “How did it go?” we’d ask. “Really cool,” they’d reply.
I was there when Daryl came for me, and she led me to the far corner on the other side of the loft space where the High-Concept Man’s office was. It was a fairly traditional setup, almost diorama-like, of a desk, a laptop and some chairs, surrounded by a minefield of ergonomic chairs and yoga mats. He had no personal affects on his desk save a grey abstract sculpture and a pair of clear-framed glasses. The minion sitting in the meeting was wearing a slight variation on the rumpled flannel look, this time with an lcd soundsystem shirt. He shook my hand and introduced himself as Toby.
“I’d like to just jump right in, if you guys don’t mind,” the High-Concept Man said. “We gotta nail this down, Tob.”
“Right,” Toby said. He wiped his forehead and opened the Moleskin notebook in his lap. “I was thinking …” He squinted at his notebook as if reading it for the first time.
“Freedom. Yeah, freedom.”
The High-Concept Man leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “Freedom’s looking pretty no-concept this season, my dude.”
“It is?” Toby said.
“Look around you.”
Toby’s eyes darted around the loft space.
“Not literally. Look, Toby, you rock, you know that,” he turned to me. “I stole him fair and fucking square from R/GA, I treat him like an unfrozen ice prince.” He turned back to Toby and held out his hand low and flat. “You’re thinking somewhere around here. That’s R/GA-level. I need you somewhere in this vicinity, where I know you can be” he raised his hand over his head, then lowered it back down and made a fist. “Come on. Do it for the squad.”
Toby shuffled in his chair made a quick, nervous glance at me—possibly a tic, or possibly a warning.
The High-Concept Man opened the clear-framed glasses and put one of the temples between his lips. “Redemption,” he said in a slow, ponderous hum. “That might be something. I want you to stick with it, see if we can’t latch it onto something. Maybe keep …” He looked over at me and squinted.
“Sean,” I said meekly.
“Sean … sorry. Keep Sean in the loop; maybe send him some of your notes. Who knows, he might break this for us.”
It was almost 11 PM and Erin and I were on the couch getting quality with our laptops. Toby sent me his notes from the meeting, but rather than transcribe them he merely scanned the single page, a wreckage of words and doodles that amounted to a vision board for a depressive.
“Yeah?” Erin droned, not looking up from her screen.
“What do you think about redemption?”
“Why do you ask?”
“It’s for work.”
“They’re making you think about redemption?”
“It’s for a project.”
She looked up at me with a pained expression, its features made more ghoulish by the glow of her screen. “I really don’t know.”
“What are you working on?”
“An open letter from Sufjan Stevens.”
“We’ll soon find out.” She put her headphones back on and turned up the volume.
Just as I was about to give up, I noticed a direct message that the High-Concept Man had sent me 46 minutes earlier on SOMEssentials’s in-house chat system. The text read “what do u think,” and below was an attached .GIF of a sloth hanging on a tree branch and being fed a piece of fruit. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I sent a reply saying “Wow. That’s pretty cool. Thanks for sending.” and closed my laptop. While I was brushing my teeth my phone sent a notification. The High-Concept Man replied to my reply: “think THINK.” He replied again three minutes later: “😉”
Impelled, I looked at the .GIF more intently. My vision began to hone in on the smiling, chewing face of the sloth, to the point that it was now just me and the sloth and no one else. The world was behind us, in graves presumably. We were like enemies charging at each other on a scorched earth one moment, lovers running to embrace each other on a verdant plain the next. It was just past three in the morning when I came out of this haze. I rubbed my eyes and put on a dress shirt.
The voice of Professor Savachi was screaming in my head straight through to sunrise. He was himself not prone to screaming, in fact he was very even-keeled and fluid in his speech. But the spirit with which he conducted Business 100 was sonorous. It echoed far and could probably level some family homes if materialized. “THE MEMO DOES NOT GIVE COUNSEL TO WHOMEVER IT ADDRESSES,” the voice told me. “THE MEMO IS NOT ITS AUTHOR’S LAST RESORT. THE MEMO IS THE AUTHOR’S STATEMENT OF PURPOSE, NOT JUST FOR THE TASK AT HAND BUT FOR ALL LIFE. THE MEMO IS MODERN MAJESTY. THE MEMO IS SECULAR RITUAL.”
It was in this thinking that I composed my 5,563-word memo based on the High-Concept Man’s prompt. I was confident that I grasped, without attempting to transcend, the High-Concept Man’s vision. I believed that I had reached a level of mutual understanding that few of my peers were capable of; or, for that matter, Toby, whose pliant shallowness would be exposed and eclipsed by my bold dynamics. No prospective client, I thought, could resist my articulation of the High-Concept Man. Not Netflix, not Pinkberry, not Aston Martin, not Warby Parker, not Chick Fil A. With a 45-minute train delay, I assured that no typo survived and that no ambiguous phrase would breathe free air. All that remained was for me to press SEND.
“Due to my high volume of correspondence I regret that I cannot reply to every email,” the High-Concept Man’s autoreply went. “But rest assured that every email is carefully reviewed.”
No one in my memory ever came out safely on the other end of “rest assured,” but I didn’t let that bother me. I wasn’t some cold-calling freelancer; I worked for the man. I was in the circle. I was caught in the net where others fell straight through. So I went about my more tedious tasks with a brighter attitude. I did not mind when Toby had me get him a coffee from that bagel place with those Anthora cups, then sent me back because there was too much sweetener, then sent me back again because it had skim milk instead of half-and-half. Enjoy my subservience while you can, I told Toby in my head as I put his final cup on his standing desk, for today I expect to graduate.
By lunch I received no additional email. It made me too nervous to finish my burrito. Going to the Wellness Alcove to throw it out, I saw one of the non-Daryls standing in typical statuesque manner by the Keurig machine, as if lying in wait for me the entire time.
“Due to his high volume of correspondence, the High-Concept Man regrets that he cannot reply to every email,” the non-Daryl said in a narcotized flatness.
“Okay,” I said in my own bewilderment-concealing flatness.
“And that any internal correspondence should be sent to an intermediary.”
“The High-Concept Man wrote to me.”
“The High-Concept Man doesn’t write.”
I returned to the table dejected. Looking around the room I noticed that over time, the two office chairs had increased to five.
“We’re more than halfway through this thing and we haven’t done anything ‘New York’ together,” one of the interns, a stool-sitter, said.
“Speak for yourself,” a chair-sitter replied. “I’ve been written about in xoJane.”
“I just want to put off going back to Bed Stuy. I love my cousin but he lives like an animal.”
We could all relate to that sentiment, and went to a nearby bar with $10 cans of Old Milwaukee, ‘90s college rock, and skeeball. We sat at a table in the outdoor section in the back, under the tasteful glow of Christmas tree lights. I did my best to hide my disappointment, and if they were having similar setbacks they did just as good a job, maybe better, of concealment. We couldn’t complain, really. It smacked of immaturity. After all, we were still learning. If there was anything weird or alien to us at work we left it to being “just the way things were.” The High-Concept Man had his culture just as the other High-Concept Men and Women had theirs. He was instilling us in his vision in all sorts of ways.
“I met this R/GA intern at Verso Books,” one of us said. “When she wasn’t looking I poured some drops of my Rolling Rock into her Prosecco.” We all toasted to her.
“I hear they have a Slack group and that they make fun of us.”
“You hear or you think?”
“Think! I think. Sorry.”
“We should start our own Slack and talk about them.”
“Are you nuts?”
“Honestly, I’m just glad to be out of that room. It reminds me of my mom.”
No, I did not learn any of their names.
“Tacos are available,” Daryl informed us with the same gravity a doctor lends to “It’s malignant.” Not that that made it any less attractive. We rushed out to see laid across the ping pong tables a whole array of gourmet Tex-Mex sent in from a new place in Williamsburg, and which the minions, the non-Daryls, HR, and other departmental interns were depleting like locusts. We tried to recoup the scraps that weren’t just chips. I was coming away with half of a chicken quesadilla when I saw the High-Concept Man was in my path.
“Cool setup, right?”
“Yeah, it was a good idea.”
“I know,” he said creaking a slight smile. There was a pause between us. “I’m thinking of getting a meal elsewhere.”
“I’m thinking you should go with me.”
My eyes widened and I did not notice that he handed my plate off to an accounting intern and led me to the elevators.
He took me to a rooftop bar with white tables and Music for Airports on the speakers. Without looking up from his iPad, the High-Concept Man told the waitress, “I will have a water, as will my colleague. Then we will share a pickle plate, sliced just so.”
“So … the usual.”
“Yes, but I want a whole pickle not just a triangulated portion. And no lemon on those waters, please.”
“Coming right up.”
His eyes remained on the screen. I froze thinking of what I wanted to say. I did have questions, but the obvious ones were crowding out and entangling the profound ones that I could only muster a “So …”
“You know,” he fortunately interrupted, “copywriters are beta by nature.” He finally put down his iPad and his yellow-tinted gaze met mine. “No one must begrudge them this. It is up to them to begrudge it in themselves.” The conversation carried on in this fashion. “My last relationship ended because we did a star map of each other for our anniversary, only it turns out that Barron Trump is my cosmic second cousin once removed. I think about that so much.”
Ubering back to the office, my stomach erupting with the ghosts of tacos, the High-Concept Man tugged at my sleeve.
“What is that?”
I peer out of his side of the car. “I don’t see anything.”
“That.” He pointed to a couple walking down the sidewalk holding hands.
“Those two people?”
“Yeah. What’s their story?”
“They must be boyfriend and girlfriend?”
“Or spouses, but they look pretty young.”
“You can tell that?”
“I don’t think siblings hold hands like that.”
“Yeah … yeah.” He took out his iPad and swerved his finger all over the surface. He was giddy, in his way anyway, all the way up to our floor, and rushed to Toby to whom he showed him the iPad. I caught a quick enough glance to see that it was a rudimentary stick-figure reproduction of the couple with a large arrow pointing at where their hands met. Toby looked at the High-Concept Man with a gleam in his eyes.
“Can you forward this to me?” He asked.
“Doing, it right now.” The High-Concept Man swiped at his iPad and turned to me. “You’re still here.”
“Yeah, I’m go—”
“Good, I’ll need you at the meeting tomorrow.”
I was overcome, weak-kneed in fact, by this string of language I could have died happy just then, but instead I opted for preparation. I took my memo and revised it, ballooning it to 7,052 words. It was worth it, I thought. I was given permission to be truly bold, perhaps even to transcend, though I did not do so out of respect for my mentor. Rather, I recontextualized the enterprise to take on the demands the High-Concept Man was seeing so clearly in our Uber.
There was, as I suspected, a sixth office chair in the pen, but I sat in a stool feeling only on the cusp of worthiness.
The meeting was in the Introspection Foyer, lighted by a rectangular chromatherapy lamp that changed colors every few seconds. There were a few beanbag chairs but otherwise the creative staff was on the floor. I was hoping to get a place at least near Toby, but I over-calculated on my fashionable not-quite-lateness and took a seat at the far edge. Still, I felt privy to a momentous happening, and conspicuousness was not yet a good look.
The High-Concept Man entered, nonchalant as ever, with Daryl and the non-Daryls in tow. None of them sat down.
“Okay, let’s get down to it. I think we’ve got something that’s gonna really light it up. Toby, please tell me you got something.” Everyone laughed. Toby nodded and rose.
“Uhm … so,” he addressed the High-Concept Man directly, “lately you’ve been really challenging me, to … rise to the expectations you hold all of us at. And yesterday …”
Get on with it! I thought to myself. Fucking hack.
“… Yesterday I think I had the breakthrough I’ve been struggling to reach all summer …” Toby trailed off ruefully.
“Well?” the High-Concept Man prodded.
The High-Concept Man looked down, covering his mouth as if to keep something—what? Vomit? A demon?—from forcing its way out. Toby shrank back realizing perhaps what he had done.
“That’s … that’s a nice concept, Toby. But I was hoping for more.” He looked out at the rest of us. “Can anyone build off of that?”
“Love,” I blurted out.
“Love,” the High-Concept Man almost seemed to sing.
I felt like I had him and that I should take it to the next step.
“I think love is something special. Something we all seek and share and expound,” I paused for a moment to memorialize this triumph as it was happening. “I see it as … as whole-concept.”
They looked at me and then they looked the High-Concept Man, whose face stared me down with a stone hardness. It was at that moment that I think I truly existed to him. As this happened, the chromatherapy lamp turned deep red and glowed onto everyone’s faces.
“Longing,” Toby said breaking the silence. “That’s it! Longing.”
The lamp faded down to light blue.
“My dude. That is some high-concept shit.” Everyone exhaled in relief. “What can we nail it to?”
“Sky’s the limit, I think,” Toby said.
“All State’s been chomping at the bit,” another minion interjected. “I think we should send some feelers their way.”
The High-Concept Man grinned as widely as ever. “Fantastic. Great meeting, everyone!”
I shrank back to the pen where my peers were diligently attentive to their own responsibilities. The sixth office chair remained empty. I wanted to kick it out of the room but instead I just nudged it aside.
For the rest of the week I felt like a dud stick of dynamite nearing the end of the fuse. I suspected come Friday they’d have made a decision about my future with SOMEssentials. I put most of belongings in a box and kept them under the table to make my actual exit less painful. And, as I suspected, Toby came into the pen Friday afternoon to speak to me. He was carrying an envelope and a rectangular box.
“I keep forgetting how little privacy there is in this entire place,” he said looking around.
He took me into the bathroom. One of the stalls was closed but he just shrugged.
“This isn’t easy but … the High-Concept Man and I discussed it and we agreed that maybe your time here was … more limited than usual. It’s no one’s fault. You know these things just kind of work out and sometimes they kind of … don’t. Anyway, here’s a letter of recommendation from me. And, here’s a parting gift from the High-Concept Man.”
The box was black with a strange white symbol. I opened it and pulled out a bottle with the same label.
“Is this wine?”
“It’s from his personal stash. I’d ask if you’re 21 but I think it has the same effect no matter how old you are. Anyway he, uh, he wishes you the best of luck in all your future endeavors.”
“Thanks. It’s been … a … thing … that happened.” I turned to go out.
“Those memos are covered by the NDA,” Toby said coldly.
As I left for the elevator I thought I saw a one of the other interns—possibly a female, definitely a chair-sitter—walking cheerfully back to the pen with a yellow rectangular box. But I didn’t bother to confirm if I was just projecting really potently.
It didn’t feel right breaking the news to Erin about by early leave just as she was on the eve of her trip to Los Angeles to do a podcast with Haim. So I kept our planned chicken marsala dinner on the celebratory end. The High-Concept Man’s mystery wine actually came in handy then.
“What is this, Sean?”
“Just something I picked up. Recommended by the man himself.”
“Hm. Interesting.” She uncorked the bottle and winced at the strong aroma. “It’s very … almost cinnamon-y.”
“Is that good?”
She poured the glasses and we toasted to, at the very least, a weekend away from Mud Coffee and (to myself) a weekend of writing cover letters for the fall.
Tasting it I was overtaken by a sharp, almost candied sweetness, like the hobo wine the guys at the off-campus house drank to indulge and mask in irony their substance dependency. I would have been embarrassed but for the sudden swell of good feeling from my abdomen up. All the dejection, disappointment, and frustration of the past week felt drowned by this fluid. I looked at Erin across the table beaming like an icon to intelligence and integrity in addition to beauty. Her hair flew up in strands as if being lifted by invisible cherubs.
“Are you … feeling anything,” I asked as if I was standing on a cardboard box in the middle of the ocean.
“Yeah,” Erin replied in heavy breaths.
Then I just did it, I reached over our small table, spilling my plate and kissing her for a minute, maybe more. We went to bed. As we made love the feeling intensified to the rest of my body. I felt strong, and resilient, but also sluggish. Soon I was turning upside down. My arms were not wrapped around Erin, but around a branch. I tilted my head back and saw Toby, smiling sweetly in a safari outfit and a Dinosaur Jr. shirt. Behind him, were my fellow interns in fanny packs, baseball caps, and holding up their phones. In Toby’s hand was what appeared to be a melon, but when he came closer the melon was in the shape of the High-Concept Man’s head, red-shaded and bearing the grim expression he shot me at that fateful meeting. Toby took out a large knife, cut slices out of the melon, and held them up to me. When I reached back I saw my hands were long arched claws, like a sloth’s. I took the slices and ate them with a wide, placid grin. The intern-tourists took photos and videos with their ooos and aahs. I ate the entire fucking thing. At the last bite I came to climax. I heard myself whisper into Erin’s ear, “Best of luck in all your future endeavors,” pouring from my mouth like syrup.
I was catching my breath, I could barely see.
“What was that?”
“I was saying … I love you?”
She jolted back. “No you weren’t.” She leapt out of bed, wrapping the sheets around her. “Why the hell would you say that? That’s like the least sexy thing anyone could say in any context.”
“I’m … babe I’m sorry … it was the wine, I’m su—“
“Oh don’t give me that,” she went into the closet and was getting dressed.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m getting out of here.”
“You have a flight tomorrow.”
“I can still make it.”
“Isn’t he, like … celibate or … ?”
“We’re good friends!”
She put on her gym outfit, hastily gathered her bags, and went for the door. I followed her into the living room, nearly tripping over the coffee table in the darkness. Erin opened the door and the hallway light knocked me back on the couch.
“Wait,” I said groggily.
Erin stood by the door impatiently. “What?”
“Please don’t write about this.”
“Get bent, Sean.” She slammed the door behind her, her angry footsteps resounded all the way up to the roof exit.
Rubbing my still-clearing eyes I reached to turn on the light. When I opened them my breath and body froze. Everything was yellow. More specifically it was the tint I’d be seeing if I wore the High-Concept Man’s sunglasses. I ran to the bathroom mirror, I was wearing nothing, but I could not tell if anything had changed on me because everything was fucking yellow. I paced about the apartment wondering what I was going to do. Then I remembered the mystery wine on the table. It was about two-thirds full. I sat on the couch and poured it back into my mouth, taking full swigs of it, moaning simultaneously in revulsion to the taste and in ecstasy to the effect. When I found I could not chug the rest of the bottle I poured it over my head and chest, forming a sticky resin almost instantly. I fell asleep.
The next morning, everything was still yellow, but also much clearer. The late summer sun was shining into the window. I stood in its beam, naked and wine-stained, feeling, if not transcended, then recontextualized. Suddenly my plans had changed. I would not write cover letters. The cover letters would write me.