At the Airport
I’m still at the airport. I had just met my friend Nolan during his stopover. I’m daydreaming. Staring into space while I’m still thinking about the conversation we just had.
A family walks in. Mother, father, teenage daughter. They sit down in the nook next to mine.
They look nice together. Kind, friendly, genuine. You know, the way you imagine a family, not how they usually are.
They have a brief conversation, a couple of sodas, hugs. Then the mom and the daughter leave.
The dad morphs into the solo-guy-waiting-at-airport position: slouched against the backrest, butt slid forward on the bench, both hands hugging his half-empty pint, blank stare at the TV behind the bar.
They’re showing angry protesters outside a manufacturing plant on the local news. A few dozen people at least. Blue hats, yelling, gesturing, holding up signs that say things like “Will Work for Secure Job”, “The union doesn’t feed me. My job does,” or “A strike against unions.”
We both point our empty stares toward the screen. I notice his lips breaking a smug smile while mine hug my glass tightly for another sip of beer. He bobs his head from side to side as he’s watching. In disagreement by the looks of it.
“You know this company?” is my attempt to start a conversation. Just one guy in a bar with some time on his hands to another.
He turns his head and looks at me, “just professional interest, I guess. My line of work.”
“Ah. Manufacturing? Or unions?” I inquire in a smalltalk kind of way.
“Manufacturing,” he says with a smile, “I guess you could call it that.”
“What do you make?” I ask him.
“Hm. Guided awareness?”
“Guided awareness? That sounds cryptic. Haha.” I laugh. But I’m not sure if he’s joking.
“See the signs they’re carrying?” he points at the flatscreen that’s mounted above the shelf with vodka bottles from around the world. “They’re well designed. Too well. They look too professional. See that? They all come from the same designer.”
I look at the signs.
“Check out the girls in the first row there,” he takes one hand off his pint and gestures at the TV. “They should be cast as soccer moms to protest against a child molester at a local school or something. But this is blue-collar territory, man, they look too middle class. Get some more rough around the edges types for this. Clothes, demeanor, everything. The details make or break the design of a grassroots movement, you know. This is what you get when you skimp on your budget for events like this.”
This sounds like I need to clarify what I think I’m hearing, “The budget is too small to design a grassroots movement?” I ask.
He shuffles back on his bench, straightens his back, and leans over, “By the looks of it, It’s not enough dough to hire someone who knows what they’re doing.” He scoffs and nods his head at the scene we’re following.
I try to make a face that says “I’m not following.”
“It’s a service you can book. I do this for a living,” he explains.
He fumbles around in the inside pocket of his jacket and hands me a business card that says, ‘Bespoke Crowds, Colin Johnston’.
“Screaming fans, angry opponents, fist-pumping supporters, pesty paparazzi, ecstatic audiences,” his fingers tally up the options. “If you want a sympathetic crowd at your general meeting or riled-up allies at your political rally out in the sticks,” he winks at me, “or just some demonstrators to bust a union meeting at your plant,” his head motions toward the TV, “you call me.”
A little piece of my steadfast belief in how the world works is starting to crumble inside of me, “you rent out crowds to sway public opinion? To people who have more money than support?”
He coughs up a telling laugh, “look at it this way,” he starts, “opinion is like tap water. Depending on what filter you use it’s somewhere between cloudy and disinfected. Some people hire us to muddy the waters. Others want it sterile. I’m not in the business of determining which filter is best. I’m just the catalyst. You know what I mean?”
I nod. Without sounding too stunned I mutter, “these days there is, it seems, not much that’s real anymore.”
He smiles, “real? Real is where you’re sitting right now. The bench you’re perched on. The piece of ground you’re standing on. I supply raw matter to create reality. We act out stories about a reality that just hasn’t become real yet. That’s all. Reality is a process, not a thing. Somewhere along the way you get real life.”
He turns around to check the screen with the departures before he looks at me and continues, “what we do is not a secret. People just don’t give a damn. They just want to watch the show and chant along.”
He continues, “heck, some of the artists we use in these events are well known to the media, they’re making a name for themselves by doing this. You’ll find them in tabloids, gossip blogs, or scene magazines — and our rallies. And the media loves it. We give them good stories, easy to follow, and simple to communicate.”
“Remember the QAnon Viking guy with the silly hat with horns and stuff. You’ve seen him everywhere, from Trump rallies to the insurrection at the Capitol. Front and center. Every newspaper, every TV station, every blog. Even international outlets. Everywhere. He wasn’t one of mine. But those who invented him created a masterpiece. Go ahead, google him, he’s an actor. They even paid him union rates. They made up this whole batshit crazy QAnon nonsense and then created a bare-chested Viking with a fur hat and clown make-up to give it a face. And people ate it up. Can you believe this? Hahaha. You’ve gotta tip your hat to that.”
I came here earlier to drop off a friend, for a coffee and a chat. Now I’m starting to feel like I need something stronger than the beer I’ve moved on to.
John notices my confusion.
How the World Works
“Look, that’s how the world works. I’m not the only one doing this.”
He looks at me for a second, “does that shock you? Are you surprised? I guess I’m giving you the answer to what is real anymore.”
I’m having a hard time making sense of what he’s saying. It makes my head spin.
“Shows are rigged, the news is nothing more than product placement, movies are so realistic you can’t tell what is real anymore. It’s up to everyone’s opinion. And that’s what I provide my clients: ingredients to form opinions. To create the one thing that’s still real. Reality.”
“Don’t believe me? Remember the Trump rallies back when he got elected. Do you think anyone in their right mind really supports this gibberish? They just threw together the most outrageous things that people are passionate about and had him repeat them in front of our crowds. The media picked it up and spread it across the country like a virus on steroids. Until everyone believed it. The rest is history. You know, fake news has been a gift to our industry.”
He’s on to another beer and he’s on a roll: “Many in my industry didn’t get paid after the election. So we all decided not to send our people to the inauguration. Remember those photos of the half-empty square? Hahaha. They tried to explain it away but the photos don’t lie. We got paid and had four years of great business. End of story.”
I’m unsure how to react. So I laugh and say, “holy cow. You’ve got to be confused about what’s really real and what isn’t sometimes. I sure am. You know, I have children like you. My son must be close to your daughter’s age. I guess that’s one of the few things that are still real. You know, family and the people close to you.”
He takes a deep breath and looks me right in the eye, “you know how I got started in this business?”
He doesn’t make any effort to wait for my response, “I ran an escort service. Provide companions for people who don’t have one. That kind of stuff.”
His face looks glum.
“You know how it is when you start a business. You literally do everything. Hustle. Sell your idea. Keep the cost down. I even rented myself out. One year, the week before Christmas, this lady gets in touch. Her husband had left her. Her little daughter was miserable without a father. So she hired me. To be a dad.”
He takes a deep breath.
“And I’m still the dad. For birthdays, soccer games, weekends, and even get-aways. My longest-running gig. One day I’ll be a father in law, and a granddad, and it won’t end until I end. Good business? Curse? I’m not sure.”
“Nothing is real,” I utter while I collect my wallet, phone, car keys, and thoughts.
“Everything is real,” he says.
For each issue, you get the facts that have an impact on our next stage. Here are this week’s picks:
- Hired Dad: This is the true story of a girl who doesn’t know that her dad is hired. Read it HERE.
- Hired family: Renting family members, friends, or co-workers is a thing in Japan. Check out one such agency HERE.
- Only in Japan? Of course not. Check out this guy if you’re in need of a dad right now: Take a look HERE.
- Crowds as a service: The company Crowds on Demand is your go-to provider for protesters, audiences, PR stunts or political rallies. Get your quote HERE.
- Fancy feeling like a VIP? This guy hired an entourage of paparazzi to follow him around. Read his story HERE.