That Millennial Marketing Verve

Last summer, a dozen people, mostly in their late teens and early twenties, crowded into a living room in Aldan, Pennsylvania, a small working-class suburb outside of Philadelphia. They toggled back and forth between smartphones and tablets while they downed an energy drink called Verve. “Did you know Red Bull and Monster can stay on the shelf for more than four years?” one guest told another. “That’s disgusting,” the other person replied. “Verve has a shelf life of eight months.” The chatter continued until Erin Wilkers, the twenty-year-old college dropout who had invited them into her parents’ home, quieted them and began her soliloquy. “I’m just going to start off by eliminating the people in the room that aren’t right for this,” she began. “I know this sounds blunt, but if you’re cynical, there’s the door, leave. Straight up. I don’t want to work with you. And that’s fine if you’re cynical—if you’re happy with what you’re doing.”

Wilkers put on a YouTube video. In the video, a twenty-three-year-old named Alex Morton stands in front of a wall plastered with the Verve logo, talking to a group at Verve Central, a company training center in Virginia Beach. His bro-ish drawl, combined with a rapid-fire speech pattern, makes him occasionally smear his words. “I’m not here to tell you it’s the next Facebook, but it’s the next Facebook,” he tells the audience in the video. “Society says, ‘You want to be a millionaire? Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ They make it some fantasy thing. You have to be on a game show to have a million dollars? That’s not true. That’s why three percent of this country own ninety-seven percent of all the money. Three percent own everything. So that means most of our moms, dads, teachers, professors and friends don’t know how to make money. So chances are the person in your life currently teaching you how to make money is probably broke.”

After the video, a man named Jim Brogan, a former San Diego Clippers player, appeared on the television screen. He had dialed in with Oovoo, a Skype-like service hooked up to the TV. Despite the poor frame rate and the mild pixelation that softly scrambled his face, he projected a bone-rattling ebullience from the television. “Learning about this business is easy,” he said in a mild Philly accent. “It’s similar to going to school. I don’t care if you’re taking philosophy, calculus, reading 101, economics 101, I don’t care. We see young people, fifteen to twenty-four-year-olds, that are making—there’s two fifteen-year-olds making a hundred thousand dollars, two twenty-four-year-olds making over half a million. Don’t be cynical about your chances. Don’t be cynical about what’s happening out in the world. Stop watching the news and all the crap and all the negativity that’s out there.” He eventually talked about Verve: “You’ve got a product that helps people,” he said. “If they have cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue, chronic headache, they’re a little overweight, why not say, ‘For thirty days, try this’?”

At the end, when he asked if there were any questions, I responded with one about how, once we started selling Verve, the payment plan actually worked. “The more people you help, the more money you make!” he said. “Haha! I love that line!”

A Guide to Visiting Iceland on July 16th, 2014

Your day in Iceland begins on a bus, the Flybus, which shuttles along Iceland’s edge from Keflavik airport to Reykjavik. In ten years, you might be able to do this trip on a train that will carry a thousand passengers every hour. Iceland has never had a public train before, so it’s possible that the first public train in Iceland will cater almost exclusively to tourists, whose numbers are projected to almost double by 2023.

Until then, it’s the Flybus, which traces a boundary between Atlantic Ocean and an inexplicable, bulbous network of volcanic rock. Observe as you travel that the treeless terrain, at once both traversable and inhospitable, makes it perfect for video game realms where characters can only move, jump, and shoot. Travel fact: Ridley Scott’s upcoming movie version of Halo just filmed in Iceland a few weeks ago.

Reykjavik is a driving city—a small Los Angeles, you will be told, with growing traffic problems. The traffic gets worse as the city gets bigger, in large part because of tourism—because of all the hotels they’re building. But still, we’re talking a really small LA, since its population is just a bit over a hundred and two thousand people. After stopping by a hideous cement church, a hot dog stand, and the shopping district, you will finish your city tour in forty-five minutes.

Now it’s time to see some of Iceland’s famous wilderness. Rent a car with a friend to go watch a performance of Cage’s 4:33 in an ancient ravine. Pile in with another guy and two girls you just met. One of them is best friends with that girl from your high school, which is the sort of improbability that you can still fathom, like the fact that all the water in Iceland smells vaguely of sulfur. Travel fact: that girl from high school had blond hair and responded to something you’d say with a scoff and a smirk and that either meant she disapproved or didn’t understand—you never figured out which. You spoke little to her and she to you. And now you and her best friend are careening across a well-marketed arctic landmass, united by that foreign visitor spirit, that desire for exotic curiosities and safe adventures.

How to Work for the Enemy and Feel Just Fine

I felt like everyone around me had attended a seminar on success that I’d slept through and I’d never be able to catch up.

This Week in Lines

12:03 PM Wednesday, July 9th — Halal Cart, 69th and Madison

Length: 11 people Weather: 81 degrees and partly cloudy Crowd: Construction workers Mood: Distracted Wait Time: Approximately seven minutes Lingering Question: How many Halal carts can one neighborhood sustain?

Why I Left

Legend has it that William Howard Taft once got stuck in a bathtub. It probably isn’t true, in the way that so many bits of history are just oversold dad jokes. But let’s say, for a second, that it is true. Or better yet: Taft didn’t get stuck. He just decided to stay in the bath.

I thought about William Howard Taft as I soaped myself. I’d left the door to the bathroom open, and I could feel the chill beyond the curtain; I knew what awaited me when I shut off the water and stepped, dripping, from the shower. Even though, when I’d come into the shower three minutes earlier, I’d known that, one day, I’d have to leave it — I’d known that the shower wasn’t, couldn’t, be where I belonged — the thought of Taft’s bulk gave me pause. His considerable girth warmed me. If Taft could stay, maybe I could stay, too. Maybe I could make it in the shower. If I could make it in the shower, I could make it anywhere.

I have a rain shower. It has black and white tiles. When we’d moved in to the apartment three months earlier, I’d thought, “This is a good shower.” Now, I thought again, as though no time had passed, “This is a good shower.”

It’s funny how time passes, even when it feels like it doesn’t. Because it does. The comfort I felt in that shower, warm-ish droplets of water cascading down my head, made me think of time, and how it passes. Hairs from my own body littered the floor of the shower. They weren’t there, once. And that’s when I realized: even if I stayed in the shower, one day I wouldn’t be there. Because, I realized, I have to die. Plus, there’s a drought going on, and I should probably stop using all this water. That’s when I left the shower.

The Dangers of Recovering Your Stolen Bike from Somebody Who Is Much Larger Than You Are

People drop things on the Internet and run all the time. So we have to ask. In this edition, college student Michael Rosen tells us more about what it’s like to have your bike stolen and then have to confront someone stronger than you later on in order to get it back.

Not fun: getting your bike stolen. Also not very fun: seeing your stolen bike w/ a group of homeless people and asking for it back

— Michael Rosen (@michaelrosen3) July 19, 2014

Michael, so what happened here?

Really, this whole ordeal is Richard Linklater’s fault. That sounds like a non sequitur, but I promise it’s not. For the Daily Cal (UC Berkeley’s student newspaper), I was assigned to review Linklater’s most recent movie, Boyhood, and as a kind of perk/thank you for writing the review, the arts editor allowed me to interview Linklater as part of a press junket-y thing. It’s important to understand that Richard Linklater is not just any movie director to me: Me and my buddies watched Dazed and Confused every weekend for at least a year. Waking Life and the Before series are movies near to my heart. And I really loved Boyhood. So I was pretty stoked to meet this guy whose movies I’ve worshipped since puberty.

I was also a bit nervous. I’ve interviewed dozens and dozens of people, but without fail I clench up into a throbbing ball of anxiety before each and every one. The prospect of interviewing Richard fucking Linklater upped my built-in pre-interview anxiety a couple standard deviations. So as I rolled up to the restaurant adjacent to the Berkeley Public Library, I evidently forgot to lock my bike to the bike rack. Which I never do! I am religious about locking my bike, especially since I just bought it a few months ago.

You can probably guess what happened next.

The Legend of Poison Jim, the Mustard King

In the Museum of Chinese in America, two blocks north of Canal Street in New York City, a small, illuminated tile informs visitors that “sometime before 1865,” a Chinese American squirrel trapper known as “Poison Jim” found the mustard plant “growing weedlike in the Salinas Valley.” By selling the seeds, he “unintentionally turn[ed] mustard into a commercial crop” in the United States. A textbook published in 2010 repeats the story, with Poison Jim making and selling mustard until it “became a major California product.”

“Poison Jim Chinaman” was first documented by the little-known writer Owen Clarke Treleaven, who published a six-page story about him in a 1919 issue of the Overland Monthly, a magazine serving middle-class readers a diet of human interest pieces and folksy caricatures of the American West long after its wildest years were behind it. Writers glibly peddled stereotypes about the multiethnic fabric of frontier societies; the issue in which Treleaven’s story appeared also included an article on “Queer Korean Superstitions” and a poem called “Loleeta—An Indian Lyric.”

According to an old stagecoach driver, Leagan, whose yarn makes up most of the narrative, Poison Jim earned his nickname for having “more luck than anyone else ’round here mixin’ poisoned grain to kill off ground squirrels.” But when wild mustard overtook the valley one spring, threatening wheat production, Jim knew what to do: He rounded up a hundred Chinese laborers who swiftly set about clearing the fields, drying the plants, and storing away the threshed seed. When the mustard crop in South Africa failed later that year, a French condiment manufacturer, having gotten wind of a large harvest of mustard seed, showed up in San Francisco to buy Jim’s stock for thirty-three thousand dollars. With his earnings, Jim purchased a small ranch but lived modestly. Several years later, a drought blighted two consecutive grain crops, intensifying already strained conditions in the local “Indian village.” When a dispute erupted there over a stolen sheep, the owner who went looking for it opened fire, killing a man and a young mother. “Then,” Leagan recalls, “we saw what ‘Poison Jim’ was made of.” He stoically gathered up the murdered woman’s baby, then returned four days later to distribute fifteen thousand dollars worth of provisions to the sick and hungry throughout the entire valley.

What a Pack of Cigarettes Costs, State By State

Every year, we check the prices of cigarettes in all fifty legally recognized states of this fair Union. (Previously: 2013; 2012; 2011.) Predictably, the results are mostly—but not entirely!—grim: for the first time in the short history of this survey, not a single store in any state state offered us a pack of cigarettes for less than five dollars. So do smoke them, if you happen to have them, since nothing is ever going to get better.

This year, reigning affordable tobacco merchant Kentucky was resoundingly knocked out of the top spot; four states now offer cheaper cigarettes. If obtaining the cheapest possible cigarettes from nearby convenience stores is the overriding factor in the choice of your domicile’s location, you can set your Google Maps coordinates for Virginia or Missouri. While New York and Illinois both offer some relief, they manage to retain their position as the states where cigarettes are most likely to cause you to bounce your rent check. Also of note: Oklahoma cigarettes cost 21 percent more this year than last, and Minnesota’s are up by 36 percent.

As for where these numbers come from: we called convenience stores and gas stations in the most highly populated areas of each state (obvious disclaimer: prices aren’t the same in every store in every area), and asked politely for the cost of a pack of Marlboro Red cigarettes. The current price is in bold; last summer’s price is in parentheses. As always, YMMV.

The Legend of the Legend of Bunko Kelly, the Kidnapping King of Portland

In the late eighteen hundreds, the port cities of the American West were dangerous nests of sailors, prostitutes, and gangsters—none more so than Portland, Oregon. The most infamous relic of those bad old days are not the wooly beards of its male population, but the Portland Underground, the city’s network of so-called “shanghai tunnels,” which tourists today are often told were used to spirit unsuspecting men, perhaps lured by a half-naked prostitute to an establishment where they were drugged and kidnapped, toward their final destination: pressed into service on a ship.

These kidnappers were known as crimps, and the “king of the crimps,” according to folk legend, was a man named Joseph Kelly. By his count, some two thousand souls owe their time at sea to him. Kelly spent his early life on the sea as well: In his memoir, he wrote of once being shipwrecked on the island of Madagascar. Rescued from the shipwreck by the natives, Kelly was fed soup. Afterward, he looked into the clay jug that stored the rest of the stew and discovered the right hand of one of his shipmates. When a typhoon struck, he and some other sailors followed the lead of a man described as an old pirate, and escaped from their rescuers; they were promptly picked up by pirates. Fortunately, Kelly and his band managed to lock the pirates in the ship’s belly before heading ashore in India.

In 1879, Kelly got off a ship in Portland. In those days, since sailors weren’t allowed to leave their ships until they reached their final port, many sailors disappeared when they arrived—fleeing for jobs in the local logging industry, for instance. About three-fifths of all sailors who arrived in Astoria or Portland ditched their ships. These desertions were a problem, since captains needed able-bodied men to set sail again. This gave rise to the crimps: If a ship needed to find more men, the captain sent for a crimp, who supplied bodies for up to fifty dollars a head. Kelly took up the trade and became so good at it that Stewart Holbrook, a “rough writer” who specialized in selling local Portland history to the reading public of the East Coast literary establishment, and Kelly’s somewhat besotted biographer, described him as “an artist, for the magnificent imagination he applied to his occupation was nothing short of creative.”

Sympathy for the Comcast Rep from Hell

Above is eight solid minutes of empathic pain. It is a recording of a calm, polite caller, Ryan Block, attempting to cancel his Comcast service. The representative, by the time the recording starts, already sounds angry: He demands, again and again and again, to know why Block is leaving Comcast for a smaller provider, to know what it is that he—that Comcast—can’t supply that this other company, this obviously objectively inferior company, this loser company, can. Just tell him what he did wrong, he says. Just explain to him. Just make him understand this stupid mistake.

The rep sounds, when he demands to be convinced of something that is both his company’s fault and none of his company’s business, like an abusive partner; that is how I interpreted this call, anyway, the first time I heard it. Judging by Twitter, where people are sharing similar experiences, many others did too. (One of the last times I dealt with a cable company, Time Warner, it was to try to reinstate an account and associated email address that had been removed for days because a young rep insisted there was “no other way” to transfer the decades-old account from my deceased father to his spouse, my mother; a few weeks later, moving apartments in New York, I realized that here, as at my family home, as at my last apartment, I had no other option but Time Warner, who I then called and have been paying ever since. That’s why people hate monopolies.)

But overnight my sympathies shifted: If you understand this call as a desperate interaction between two people, rather than a business transaction between a customer and a company, the pain is mutual.