the minnesota review n.s. 50-51 (1999)

Bradley Tusk

How To Get Ahead In A Downsized World

We're the first generation of Americans that isn't supposed to do as well as our parents. All of the good jobs have moved south of the border, the exciting opportunities now reside in Caracas and Beirut, and our prospects for long-term success are about as likely as Tom DeLay escorting Latrell Sprewell to the Daughters of the Confederacy cotillion. But don't despair. There are jobs in this newly downsized world. There are opportunities. You just have to know where to look.

Grand Theft Auto

We Americans are a forgiving people. We like the idea of a second chance.

Remember when that kid from Brooklyn stole the A train? A life-long mass transit freak, this kid spent every waking moment studying subway operations, train maintenance, and graffiti removal. He had the tools, he had the clothes, he even had the swagger of a civil servant—the kind that lazily rolls from side to side, screaming, "You can't fire me! I'm with the union!"

One day, he grew tired of reading manuals and studying subway maps, so he donned his conductors uniform, strapped on his tool belt, and headed for MTA headquarters on 189th Street in Washington Heights. Staring straight ahead, he marched onto the next departing A train, walked into the conductor's booth, and took the controls. He made it half way to Queens before anyone figured out what was going on.

Booked on charges of stealing the A train, he was sent to Riker's Island. But after his heartbreaking story landed on the front page of the Post ("Subway Swiped By Brooklyn Honor Student—Mother Cries, 'He Coulda Been A Conductor!!'"), a gaggle of civil liberties associations, public radio stations, and Al Sharpton impersonators rushed to his defense. They caused such a tumult that the DA not only dropped all charges, the MTA offered him a job after he finished high school.

There's a lesson to be learned from this: stealing modes of transportation is a great way to get government jobs. Sure, hijacking can sometimes result in a stiff jail sentence, but it took Interpol years to catch Carlos the Jackal. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "Why send the kid to jail when he already knows all the stops on the G train?"

Which Way to the Internet?

Society, or at least the media, is wholly obsessed with the internet. Every subway poster, bus stop billboard, and TV commercial prominently displays an internet address, as if anyone wants to spend half an hour pointing and clicking so they can see yet another advertisement for Bud Lite.

Those who have the power to hire and fire don't really understand how the web actually works. This scares the hell out of them, and creates another opportunity for you—MIS.

Anyone who's spent a few hours playing "Tomb Raider" can find her way onto the World Wide Web. Just pass yourself off as an expert (you are, you've been playing video games since you were six), and charge outlandish fees for providing valuable services like "monitoring the company's status on the information superhighway" or "designing the firm's home page (i.e. scanning the annual report)."

Computer consulting is one of the highest paying jobs around, and the perks are unbelievable. Shave before the interview? Don't bother. The more you fit the computer genius stereotype, the happier they are.

Just spend an afternoon strolling through West Chelsea, or an evening at one of the fab SoHo sake bars, and eavesdrop on your boss: "You know Stan, I just got this great computer guy who handles all of our internet stuff. He's brilliant. This kid is so wrapped up in all that high tech mumbo jumbo, he doesn't even realize that he wears the same t-shirt every day. You know, I think we should give him a raise." So do we.

Going Native

I'm ethnic. You're ethnic. We're all ethnic. In today's political climate, we're not only all ethnic, we can claim almost any heritage we want. Despite recent challenges to affirmative action, declaring yourself a member of any particular tribe is pretty simple. And while it may not help you get into law school, your newly found ethnicity can be manipulated into a quick buck. Just declare yourself an original inhabitant of the land of P.T. Barnum, T.J. Hooker and F. Lee Bailey, file for a gaming license, and open for business.

Gambling is America's favorite pastime, and its popularity is growing exponentially. Since Americans don't like to travel far to satisfy their addictions (which is why there are bars, drug dealers, and Korean deli's on almost every corner), whoever brings the fun close to home stands to make a fortune.

Opening a casino doesn't require building a virtual Gotham or detonating full scale volcanoes. Simply turn your den into a glitzy show room (replete with old Tom Jones recordings, Wayne Newton videos, and a couple of those bootleg Jerry Lewis skin flicks that were so popular in France back in the 70s), convert your kitchen into a wet bar (you need a liquor license to sell alcohol, but there's no law against giving it away-besides, what's a few drinks amongst friends when they're trading last week's paycheck for a stack of red chips you found in your Uncle Manny's attic?), and line your hallway with slot machines. Sure, your personal space may be a bit cramped, but baby, it's worth it!

Only Suckers Pay Rent

Rents these days are absurd, especially in New York, where a one bedroom apartment with the bathtub in the kitchen and the toilet underneath the intercom can run upwards of $2,100 a month. You shouldn't have to put up with this, and thanks to lenient housing laws, you don't.

It takes, on average, eighteen months for a landlord to evict a faulty tenant. Between securing a court date, case postponements, jury deliberations, appeals, renegotiations, and out of court settlements, suing almost isn't worth it. This is an invaluable advantage for you, and there are two ways to play it.

Plan A is more conservative. Pay the security deposit, the broker's fee, and the first month's rent so they take you seriously. Then, with no warning, cut them off. They'll threaten to take you to court, but hold your ground, let them know that your mother's a lawyer, and that you'll be happy to evacuate the premises in a year and a half, when the judge finally takes the case. Or, you mention casually, "we can make a deal." You agree to move out after seventeen months. They only need to pay you a one time token fee of $500, and you'll promise not to tell anyone in the building about your little arrangement. If they still try to evict you, threaten to call a tenants' meeting.

Plan B is more risky, but the potential rewards are greater. Like Plan A, stop paying the rent, but instead of cutting a deal, refuse to negotiate. Do everything you can to infuriate them (smear excrement in the elevator, invite building inspectors over for coffee, send little love notes to your landlord, proclaiming, "Boy, this is a great place to live! Rent free and everything!!"). They'll initiate a lawsuit, but that won't be enough. You have to make them so angry that they'll do anything to get you out at once. Like shutting off your heat, water, or electricity. Then you make your move.

Hire the best lawyer you can find and sue for human rights violations. Call your local tabloids and TV stations and offer them the "exclusive" story about the slumlord who just won't quit (it helps if you can tie your story into another network property, like a sitcom or an offshore bank in the Cayman Islands). Then sit back and relax as the media frenzy incites multiple marches and demonstrations, forcing the judicial powers that be to grant you an immediate court date. Your landlord's lawyers will try to settle, but hold strong-a jury deliberation is always the way to go. You'll not only wind up with a rent free apartment, you'll own the building.

Where Are We, Sweden? Taxes Are un-American

Let's say you do find a job. Even if you don't pay any rent, your disposable income is negligible, thanks to the Internal Revenue Service. Between federal income taxes, state income taxes, local income taxes, sales taxes, wage taxes, sin taxes, capital gains taxes, property taxes (especially if you own apartment buildings), FICA, energy taxes, gas taxes, and a slew of surcharges on items like airline tickets, concert tickets, and speeding tickets, there's almost no point in working.

Even if you've got a good tax shelter to hide those mutual fund dividends, or a decent deferred compensation plan to avoid wasting your money on Social Security, you're still doomed. Unless you deal in the one medium everyone loves. The one that transcends taxes, surcharges, and fees—cash.

You have to be somewhat selective with the tax free plan. A Madison Avenue boutique doesn't need your money badly enough to commit sales tax fraud, but an Army/Navy store in Bushwick does. The most difficult part is requesting the initial discount. It's like asking someone with six inch heels, pink hair, and a nipple ring to dance. It takes a little chutzpa. So have a few drinks, saddle up to the counter, whip out your billfold, and ask, "Is cash okay?" Wait until they ring up your sale, and then give them that sly Abe Vigoda look that says, "Come on. After all the business I give you?" Then mention, "there's plenty more where that came from." If you don't get mugged outside the store, you're set.

The easiest taxes to avoid are income taxes. After a few paychecks, request a meeting with your boss, and simply ask to be paid in cash. In a way, you're doing them a favor, since paying you off the books reduces their official payroll, which makes Wall Street happy (employment goes down; stocks go up). Besides, no one wants to risk losing their favorite computer genius.

Don't Leave Home Without It (Especially When It's Not Your Address)

Buy now, pay later. Then defer your payments, cover the minimum, and make sure you have enough for the 18% interest charge, per month. No, this isn't our answer to paying your credit card bills, it's the sacred dogma of Visa, MasterCard, Discover Card, even Diner's Club (if anyone knows exactly which diner they're referring to).

In their haste to sign up the free world, the credit card companies instituted very lax membership procedures. You don't need a prior credit history, a letter of recommendation from your 6th grade Sex Ed teacher, or a perfect score on your MCATs. All they require is a name, address, and a social security number.

The name and address are easy enough to invent, so all you need is a new social security number. Remember those guys in college who made fake IDs? The guys who were always a few strands away from producing the perfect $50 bill? Find them (although that may mean traveling to Damascus, or Leavenworth). Reproducing a social security card takes only half the effort, with just twice the risk (the benefits are vastly superior, since the freedom to spend wildly is far more enticing than covertly drinking a Mai Tai in some sketchy campus bar).

Like avoiding sales taxes, you have to be somewhat selective about the types of purchases you make. You don't want anything sent to you, and you don't want to have to retrieve anything that requires photo id, so rule out any kind of tickets, unless scalpers take American Express. Each credit card has a limited life-span, since investigators generally catch on after a month or two. But for a few weeks at least, feel free to buy all of the electric appliances, shower curtains, and Hank Williams CDs, your cheatin' heart desires. Credit card fraud—it's everywhere you want to be.

The Product Of Our Environment

As mega-corporations continue to merge, senior management continues to purge, and the number of uninsured continues to surge, the traditional roles of citizenship, employment, and residence no longer apply. Too many young Americans have already suffered from the after-effects of years of voodoo economics, hooked-on-phonics, and lunch-time gin and tonics. So when "temp" is no longer a four letter word, it's time to dig out those old psychology textbooks, learn a little Sioux, muster some courage, and upsize your way through this ever more gullible, increasingly downsized world.


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