MY FIFTEEN MINUTES OF SHAME
Vancouver, BC is dominated by a half-dozen glass residential towers, which are monuments to the unique housing needs of the Chinese elite who bailed out of Hong Kong when Mao’s minions took over the metropolis a few decades back. Designed to fit the special needs of the exiles, every apartment has a solarium. In February 2002, Tara and I were living in a luxurious two-bedroom apartment overlooking a soccer field and the marina. We were alternating two or three weeks a month in Canada with an equal amount of time in Oregon, making the ten-hour drive in two-day relays. My son Josh was living at home, and took care of the place during our absence. It was a long drive, but we had fun getting our apartment together and living in a small, cosmopolitan city where we could eat out anytime, take walks by the water, and be out of the USA.
Being out of the USA had seemed like a good idea ever since the towers fell in broad daylight on that very bad day in New York City. It had been a crime so big that even after they connected all the dots, the FBI and the Department of Justice could find only one pathetic madman to charge with the crime. We were getting war instead of prosecution, and war on everyone but the people who’d crashed the planes. I asked my friends to consider what would have happened if seventeen Cubans, rather than seventeen Saudis, had piloted the hijacked airplanes?
My biggest problem came when I saw three office buildings fall neatly on that nine-one-one day, collapsing like decks of cards in the palm a demonic dealer. Because only two of the collapsing buildings had been hit by airliners. At that moment, I had the distinct perception that the emperor was wearing no clothes. Then the forensic evidence was spirited away, the landlord made a killing, and the mayor and police chief went on to mine the security industry for the new gold -- paranoia.
Yes, as I quarreled with my former partner over the spoils of an empire of smut, the world toppled over the brink. We slipped from the dot-com crash into the Enron implosion, into a new world of terror where we would never be bored again. Fox turned up the volume on the hero machine, the president girded for war, and the cheerleaders in Congress seized their pom-poms and started spouting slogans with a will. None would be last to their feet in swearing allegiance to the homeland and its protectors. The peace dividend Clinton had left behind was suddenly as safe as if Cohen had gotten hold of it. Sex had been eclipsed by death, the fire of lust by the lust for destruction.
Yes, the bad craziness was upon us, and it was eclipsing even the darkness of my own situation. There was plenty besides my missing share of Sex.Com to be depressed about in the good old USA. It was a relief to speak to Canadians, who shook their heads in woe at the unsurprising news that the Americans were on the warpath again, and this time, it was forever. And I had work to do.
Working for Sweet Entertainment Group was turning out to be quite an education in many things I probably should have learned before I signed on. Tom was not Steve’s brother, and Mike was not an elder relative. Steve was a black belt in Thai kickboxing who had taken a few months out of his porn career to help his teacher, famed in Vancouver as “The Blade,” build his martial arts school. He enjoyed eating sushi in restaurants where he affected the manner of a porn paterfamilias, buying endless amounts of everything anyone wanted. He sponsored employee trips to the local amusement park, where he would dare everyone to ride the scariest rides, and clearly had the most fun of anyone.
For me, joining a pseudo-family of kooky and somewhat legendarily outrageous pornographers seemed likely to be a profitable lark. Aside from turning down Steve’s request that I adopt the name of “Charlie Sweet,” I was fully on board. At the 2001 Internext show in Vegas, I was there wearing an SEG t-shirt, adding Gary Kremen’s former legal muscle to Steve’s team. Ana, now 21, came along for the trip. She wore a Bebe pinstripe suit to the Pimp ‘n Ho Ball and when asked, told everyone she “was a pimp.” My friends vied for the right to protect her from lowlifes, and Steve had only five words of advice: “Stay out of the business.” She took his advice, but had a great time at the show, which was one big carnival to her.
The job had long stretches of what were supposed to be fun. One night during August 2001, I was sitting on the beach in Florida at night with a number of pornographers. Darrin Babbin was there with a smiling black woman who laughed easily. Darrin, who looked nerdy with a black moustache and big glasses, was drinking Jack Daniels from a 1.5 liter bottle with no apparent effect. He told me he started out playing piano for the Christian Broadcasting Network, and was now working for Sex.Com in search-engine optimization, but Gary’s scene was a zoo, and Darrin had already accepted a new job at New Frontier. There were other sleaze luminaries sitting by the lapping shore in the indolent night. Joe Elkind, a famous cokehead with the schnozz to prove it, had induced a foolish young thing to blow pot smoke down his throat, easing the labor of sucking on his own joint. Joe was briefly distracted when he had to discipline one of his bodyguards, who had gotten into a little scuffle on the hotel grounds, but it didn’t mess up his mood. Oystein Wright of Mansion Productions, a tall Norwegian in the software business, was there with a caramel-skinned beauty. It was a pleasant gathering.
At some point, between his slugs of Jack and pulls of reefer, a young man whose name I don’t remember, asked me if I really was the lawyer for Sweet. I pointed to the SEG logo on my t-shirt and told him that, yes, I was. Sweet’s most popular product was a series of short films called SweetLoads. He asked me if I’d watched Sweet Loads. I told him that I hadn’t watched the movies, just the site tour. He seemed incredulous, and with his eyebrows raised for emphasis and his face nodding, advised, “You should watch them. They’re incredible. I’ve watched them all two or three times.”
So, the next time I had a high-speed connection, I watched a couple of the Sweet Loads vignettes. It was my introduction to the POV genre, for point-of-view, which in porn, describes the practice of shooting your own video with a handheld camera while having sex. In each movie, the set was simply Steve’s grey office. The first victim was a big blonde with large tits, who reminded me of a cow. Her mascara and the whites of her eyes showed large below her pupils as Steve insisted that she keep looking up at him. It went on and on, looking like difficult work for the woman. The girl looked miserable and humiliated. I watched another video, and it was just the same. I stopped at two, and couldn’t understand how anybody could watch them all, much less twice. There were dozens of them, and Tom later told me that not a one of the girls got paid a penny to do Sweet Loads videos. They were “auditions” for movies that Steve never intended to make.
One day in early February 2002, Steve got all excited about a new deal we had to pursue with a self-made pornstar named Max Hardcore. I had never heard of Max, but Rey had explained to me that his content was hugely famous on video, and had the raw qualities that would make it a natural for a co-marketing deal with Sweet. Sweet, I realized, was a leader in all things gauche, and had pioneered such innovations as shoving baseball bats, large fruits and vegetables, and other household items into the sexual orifices of their models. I could hardly imagine what tremendously novel way of using women’s bodies Max had devised that would drive Steve’s interest in him to such a pitch. But I would soon see, because Steve had bought plane tickets for us to fly down to LA and meet him the next day.
Max Hardcore was the most charming misogynistic bastard I have ever met. Steve and I flew into LAX on an early flight, then jammed down the freeway in a tiny SUV to arrive early at Max’s house in the Pasadena hills east of LA. It was a beautiful morning, and the weather was lovely. Max’s webmaster met us, showed us the house and the hot tub. It was pretty good-sized, nicely laid out, no porn in evidence anywhere, and the feeling of sex everywhere. Max, I learned from the webmaster, was a fucking machine who scripted, performed and directed the shooting of all his own work. Right about that time, the great man rolled up in his lowered white pickup truck, wearing a white cowboy hat and mirrorshades.
He and Steve hit it off famously. It wasn’t a question of whether they would do a deal, but of what it would be. Max described some of his signature screwing styles, which included of course pissing on his partner, using surgical equipment like a speculum to dilate her vagina, and having her drink milk from the cup so created through a length of clear surgical tubing. He had a favorite model to work with, named Catalina, about whom he couldn’t say enough good things. She had my silent admiration. Anyone who could make a career out of fucking a jerk this big had to be tough. Max always referred to women as sluts, even Catalina, in marked contrast to Steve, who always called them content, and liked to give lectures about “how to treat your content.” Very impressive, unless you’ve watched SweetLoads.
Like Steve, Max liked to register his intellectual property. He had registered his own trademark, “Max Hardcore,” which he proudly displayed, pulling the official registration from a file folder to display the gold-embossed treasure he’d received from the US Patent & Trademark Office. He also assiduously copyrighted everything, designed all of his own video covers, and retained all of the rights to his work. He only licensed his productions for a term of years, and never sold a title, because, he explained, porn never gets old. “Take it off the shelf for a few years and then reissue it, and the sales come right back.” I had to admit, I was getting an education from a guy who had managed to beat the odds by a considerable length -- male porn stars are utterly disposable, but this man was in control of his career.
Still, it was scary to be sitting there in Max’s study watching him get on with Steve as if they were father and son. They spoke each other’s language. They liked the same things. They had each dominated hundreds, maybe even thousands of women with their voices and their looks, their air of command. I was learning secrets I had never wanted to learn.
Once I asked Steve directly, “You’re the devil, aren’t you?” In return, he only gave me that sharklike grin. As I watched Steve and Max magnetizing each other with mutual admiration, I asked myself what my mother would think, seeing me here with these men. I asked myself why I was cementing deals between two misogynists who had their own unique reasons for hating women, and only needed me to seal the deal with contractual language. Sure, I could do it, but did I want to broker a merger that would flood the Internet with more nasty shit? Suddenly, the words burst into my mind, “Can money be this important?” I was seriously pondering this question when the Mexican maid came up to let us know that lunch had been served.
It was a lovely lunch. She had laid out a spread of cold cuts, cheese, fresh sliced tomatoes, lettuce, and open jars of mayonnaise and relish. The plates and silverware were sparkling clean, and the lettuce was crisp and freshly rinsed. There was good bread. By way of enjoying what good there was in life, I put together a tasty sandwich and bit into it. Delicious. Steve was headed for the kitchen table when his cell phone rang and he stopped. He stepped outside to take the call.
A short while later Steve returned to the kitchen, very pale. The police had raided the shop in Vancouver. The employees were all standing in the hall in handcuffs, while the cops searched and seized. We had to go back to Canada immediately. We hurriedly excused ourselves from the meeting with Max. As we were leaving, Max made a touching offer. Did we, you know, need anything? I assumed he meant a little session with a mirror and a straw, which we declined. He didn’t detain us any further then, just encouraged Steve by saying that he’d been to jail more than once, and to hang in there, that it would all come out right.
Although I thought Steve should think twice before flying back that night, because he might be arrested at the airport upon arrival, Steve is too much of a field commander for that sort of thing. After a little dithering about his own safety, and much more anxiety about what his troops might be thinking, he overruled my cautionary advice, and we flew back to Vancouver on the first available flight. It is not, I realized, that the devil has no character. It is just that he has a different agenda.
There were no cops at the airport when we returned, just Jamie and her brother Thor, a serious, sedate geek who seemed to work at Sweet so he could keep an eye on his sister. The next day we went to the shop, and everyone was there. We rejoiced that no one was in jail, assessed what was lost, and started figuring what it would take to get back to work. A lot of equipment had been seized and had to be replaced. But no one had given any incriminating statements to the police. Steve rose to the occasion like a wartime leader standing in the ashes of his fortress. But my time with the organization was effectively over.
A week after Steve and I returned, I got word that my dad had passed away in the Eastern Star Nursing Home in Phoenix after two years of silently taking his meals through a tube in his stomach. He had never understood the meaning of Sex.Com, or how it had kept me from visiting him more than a few hours in his last two years of life. We made a quick round trip from Vancouver to Phoenix to attend the funeral, then packed up the apartment and returned to Oregon. It had taken only ten months to exhaust my fifteen minutes of shame.