Several years ago, a manager who no longer represents me offended me fairly deeply. Twice.
In Hollywood it is important to have representation. In many ways it separates the wannabe’s from the legitimate participants in the entertainment industry. It is a signature of professionalism, when someone takes an interest in one’s work, to be able to say, “I’ll have my manager send that over,” or “call my agent to set up a meeting.” When I am without a manager I go into a blind panic that I am a failure and will never find anyone willing to take me on and represent me.
This former manager of mine – let’s call him Hank – didn’t mean to offend me. He’s a really good guy, a sweet man. He’s gay, in a committed relationship and seems to genuinely adore his husband. When he first started managing me we went to a meeting together and, he took a light-hearted jab at me for something I’d said. He turned to me and said, “Jew,” which was clearly intended with ironic derisiveness. It confused me and stung, but I’m a performer and a comic and I knew how that particular bit of banter had to play out so I said, “fag,” in exactly the same tone of voice and everyone in the room chuckled at our playful, no-holds-barred relationship.
After the meeting, when we were in private, I told Hank that he had put me in a difficult position that made me very uncomfortable. I did not like calling him a fag. It’s not a word I use. I don’t trust people to understand the irony. For him to call me “Jew” in that context felt like an anti-Semitic attack and I did not want to make him look bad by calling him on it in a meeting, but it bothered the hell out of me.
He told me that he didn’t ever want anything to be off limits. He wanted us to be able to say anything to one another.
A few months later, he pointed out a dime on the ground and said, “How weird is this? You’re a Jew, I’m a Republican and neither of us is picking up the dime.”
I wanted to tell him that I am not comfortable with the casual use of stereotyping. I wanted to tell him that the stereotype of Jews as miserly is offensive, was used as part of the justification for the German atrocities against Jews, grew out of a time when finance was the only option for Jews who were not allowed to own property in Christian-dominated Europe, but also existed outside the anti-usury laws as they were not proper Christian citizens. I wanted to give him a history lesson in the ways in which groups are singled out, marginalized, forced into specialized subcultures and then ostracized for their specialization, their separateness, their cultural adaptations.
I didn’t. I didn’t say anything because I needed to have a manager for my career to advance. I needed a manager on my team to keep working toward greater financial success and he had told me that he wanted us to be able to say anything to one another, which I correctly, though unconsciously, interpreted to mean that he could say anti-Semitic things and I could not call him on them. I kept him on my team for years and, in fairness, he did a great deal of good for my career. He also screwed some things up.
He’s human. He’s flawed. I’m human. I’m flawed. That’s not the point, really. I know it seems as though this is a blog about my ex-manager and what an insensitive prick he was, but it’s not. For a long time, in my head, it was. That was why I didn’t write it. I knew that wasn’t right. I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to talk about.
I like the guy, still. For a long time he was, by far, the best, most supportive manager I ever had. A hit piece on the guy didn’t make any sense, despite my simmering resentment, my anger over those couple of remarks and my inability – no – my unwillingness to express myself fully in the moment of my rage.
I’ve had way too little work for the past couple of years. After Hank and I parted ways there was a brief time with another wonderful manager who took ill and then a little bit of free fall. Also, in the last months of working with Hank, he had gone into something of a midlife crisis and I found out after the fact he had destroyed some terrific professional relationships that had taken me years to build. Now I’m starting again with a new manager, building that relationship from the ground up, sussing out the kinks in our working dynamic.
I’ve had little gigs here and there, hundred-dollar checks for magazine articles, hundred and fifty for NPR commentaries . . . a weekend in Indiana headlining a great club, but nobody to help me build other gigs around it to make for a profitable Midwest tour. It’s been a rough time financially. I’ve gone through my savings. My wife’s income alone is not enough to support us.
A potential client met with me last week about a ghost writing job. I needed the work. I needed the payday to help restore the coffers, but also to help bolster my self-esteem, which suffers mightily when I do not bring in my portion of the household income.
I sat with this lovely young woman in a restaurant and she told me about her project. I began to position myself to give her a great deal so as to maximize my chances of landing the gig and to let her know that she was likely to be able to get a decent deal out of me. I said, “I’m terrible at negotiating these things on my own.”
Her immediate, unselfconscious response was, “What? Aren’t you Jewish?”
I blinked slowly, offended, but still wanting to close the deal.
She went on to say, “That’s not anti-Semitic. My husband’s a Jew and he always gets the best of everyone he does a deal with. I’ve always admired that about him.”
I closed the deal. It wasn’t a huge pile of money but it was as much as I felt she could afford and I managed it so that I would not be overworked for the amount I’d agreed to.
In a second interview before I sat down to write my client made some odd sweeping generalizations about Philippinos. I said, “Yeah. I won’t include that in the writing. I don’t think the race of the guy involved has anything to do with the story.”
With that same lack of self-awareness that I had seen days earlier, she said, “Sure. Probably not. Wait’ll we get to the Persians I’ve had to deal with. Those people are just impossible!”
I did not say, “You should be aware that ethnic generalizations make you seem like an unabashed racist.” I did not say, “Please do not assume you know things about how I do business based on my cultural heritage.” I did not say, “Find someone else to write your book, I don’t work with bigots.”
I said, “I can set pen to paper as soon as the check clears,” and that is what I did. I kept my mouth shut about the rest of it.
I wrote what was needed. I got paid. I made sure that she didn’t come off as a bigot on the page. There may be more pay down the line if the project moves on. It helped fix my month and it’s a start on my battered manly ego and my financial-sadness.
The Supreme Court has said that money is speech. There’s a dangerous and ugly corollary to that. Poverty is silent.
Thus Capitalism doth make collaborators of us all. For a pittance we rent the stillness of our tongues, lease our voices, sell the very songs our souls long to sing. Is this a price we should pay in a country that calls itself free? If it is not, how best can we pool our resources, ungag the poor and set free the great chorus that might, in glorious harmony, sing down the walls of industry and finance, the barriers of racial and cultural and gender division?
I consider myself liberal, a devoted progressive, an artist, a good man. But the forces of our economic system press so hard against me that for a paycheck I will still the claxon of my own conscience to better follow the siren’s sinful call to legal tender.
This is so much a fabric of the experience of my life that when I play the game on which my own survival depends, it is myself I hate for my weakness, and not the pressures that crush me into ugly compliance.