In 2010, I was 22, driving up the California coast from a summer job on a rattlesnake-addled mountain overlooking Palm Springs to San Francisco, where I would live for a while, I hoped, in various cousins’ basements. I was sick: a propensity for sinus infections had blossomed to the point that I had begun to use an inhaler, and ran into a corner in IKEA to wheeze-vomit, unable to suck air back through my nose. My face assumed a shape I didn’t then recognize as odd, but in the photos now, I see myself as uncomfortably swollen: these weren’t sinus infections, it would turn out; my tonsils and adenoid were lush with bacteria. The adenoid, in particular, had enlarged to the size of a golf ball, the doctor would tell me, somewhere thickly in the center of my head.
No, I couldn’t really breathe, I was a fresh little idiot, I didn’t know how to see myself; things will come to me, I thought, the right things, eventually. I applied to jobs over Craigslist and ordered a beautiful cherry-colored hutch on eBay. It was so cheap (eighty dollars?) for what it was and so pretty, with pressed tin decorating its cabinets. And when it came, in small parts, surely, I thought, opening the petite box, I realized I hadn’t looked at the measurements. I had, assuming I’d gotten a great deal, albeit one I could barely afford, ordered a piece of dollhouse furniture. But I kept it for years, setting it in apartment after apartment, like it was some kind of unimaginative, altogether manageable curse I had set on myself.
In other words, I was already delirious in a way. Not oxygenated enough, young and new to a city that was just barely doable, still, for someone like me. I found an apartment across from the part of Golden Gate Park where Dianne Feinstein’s husband’s buffalo still roam. And every morning I drove across the red bridge, over sharky waters, then through a rainbow tunnel, the city seemingly carved in stone behind me, to the company where I worked as a receptionist now, the company that gave names to the world, of which I believed I was an intelligent young member.
Blueberries, airlines, storage facilities, a health supplement for dogs, software, software, software – these were the things that the company named. The process went like this: a representative for a company, often the CEO, would call: the company was new and she couldn’t decide on its name, or the company was old and he knew it was time for a new name, or there were simply “too many cooks in the kitchen” and they couldn’t settle on anything, or there was a new product being launched that needed to fit with the company’s established brand but no one could figure out what to call it. Often, they knew the shape of what they wanted: something like “Apple” or “Target,” they said: simple, striking, insanely successful.
And then the naming process would begin. My colleagues would begin to do research. They would visit Onelook.com, a dictionary that spits out related words and phrases to whatever thing needed naming: like this, for instance, a self-storage company might be offered the name “Big Tent.” They would visit Wikipedia, enter the complicated warrens (rabbit holes) of a topic, emerge with a few tentative ideas. They would choose and arrange, then, ten or so names to present in the first wave, and then the conversations with the client would begin. Often, those same people who had wanted an Appley name balked: no. ARCHIVE was too bald, too bold. So was CACHE: people wouldn’t know how to pronounce it. In wave two, then, their expressed sensibilities would be negotiated. By the end of wave three, everyone hoped, a few potential names, thoroughly discussed and legally vetted and explored for their SEO potential and their domain name availability would float to the top.
Sometimes a CEO would come in and pace. He needed to “think out loud.” We’d have pastries, coffee; I remember feeling at a loss: how do I behave in front of this client when I have truly no idea what I’m supposed to do or be? No one, seemingly, knew what to call me: I was simply in charge of decorative strategies for the office, ordering various pieces of necessary equipment, figuring out minor reservations, maybe. I felt like I was on a make-work program some days: we need plants for the front of the office, I was suddenly told, and spent an afternoon researching what might grow, what might look good. I’d always loved plants and weird plant names. Overeager, I sent a long email to literally everyone listing dozens of possibilities, names, sunlight requirements, potential combinations. Just pick something, one of the main namers said, in his reply-all.
Occasionally, out of that unfortunate, unquenchable desire for involvement that I have always possessed, I did dabble; I performed Wikipedia research on the topics about which I heard my colleagues speaking around me: some computer thing called rasters, and defined contribution plans, and healthcare, and basically all these structures of the world that I had never before really looked at, but suddenly seemed foundational. These were the structures of the world! And we—they—got to name them! I murmured a few potential names from my section of the long desk we all shared. I knew I was a language person. But the names I floated tentatively, nearly just to myself, never made a wave. The namers tightened their lips slightly to show they’d heard me but didn’t need to comment.
And though I possessed the unquenchable desire for involvement, I also possessed a deep and abiding desire to stay altogether uninvolved with the basic structures of the world. I don’t even want to name this naming company; it feels like pinning their work just to them when really something much larger was happening. Structures then were becoming clearer and clearer, it seemed; they were being laid down and fortified at some kind of speed. In San Francisco, I lived on a far-out edge of the city usually socked in fog. There was a sense of being pushed out to the edge: elsewhere in the city, people were beginning to really use smartphones, which were three years new. Occupy would bloom the following year. The Bay Guardian would be bought, then shut down. I was biking everywhere, trying to breathe, trying in the streaming-past fog to decipher the directions I’d written down on the back of my hand in ballpoint pen. Restaurants were opening and closing, opening and closing. Bookstores were just closing. An ex-boyfriend was moving to the city to work a place—I didn’t, and don’t, know what to call it other than that, because it wasn’t a shop, and it wasn’t an office—that made inflatable robots shaped like elephants and pterodactyls, on order for the Department of Defense. Or maybe that’s wrong. Maybe I have the dates, the order of things, the facts, the names all wrong. This time, which stretched for me, all in all, for about three years, was full of fits and starts, realizations and wrong turns and dead-ends, confusions tinged with sudden bursts of clarity, and vice-versa. As it should be, I guess.
But before the end there were the names, names which I still see out in the world, on boxes, bottles, websites, signs. There were very few other companies like ours at the time, though now they seem to have proliferated. Our extreme specialization added a veneer of whimsy, maybe, to our workplace, which could only very generously be called an “open office.” Yes, we all worked in the same room, but it was into this same room that the boss drove his dark green sports car, parking it nearly directly in front of my section of the long desk. Clearly, then, I’m only realizing now, we worked in a garage, that’s what it was. A garage! It was like a poetic nod to the folklore of Silicon Valley startups, many of whom we offered names, except that when the boss arrived, and the garage door opened, and he slowly entered the workspace, and I felt my swollen face assume a friendly rictus, I didn’t feel particularly buffeted by poetry, or by a sense of a mission, or of the future, I just felt…weird. I began to spend lunch breaks at Ross Dress for Less.
I guess the personal question I think about more than any other, at this point, more than ten years later, is just a sharpened version of the feeling that I had there for the tiny amount of time I worked at the naming company. Now, it’s something like what do I have to stomach to continue along? Of course, the immediate counterpoint to this question is what makes you so special? But that was the whole thing, actually, about this slice of San Francisco at this moment in time—an entire, incredibly lucrative subsection of the city was obsessed with its own specialness, obsessed with its own branding, obsessed with rhizomatically repopulating the place with the wealthy and the connected and the well-named and the delicious and the glossy and the expensive and the beautifully off-kilter and the minimalist and the carefully plated and the monetized history and sun sliding down over the ocean and the fig trees. It was easy to make fun of, but the scale of the gentrification, the money, and the “entrepreneurial attitude” was difficult, actually, to distill in understandable terms, because it was sliding over the surfaces of everything around.
Our naming style was expansive, inclusive, but altogether a counterpoint to the corporate names that have now become ubiquitous and laughable, slapped together like linguistic prefab: extra Ys and .lys and clouds and Is (just yesterday, I saw an ad for “Swimply,” the “AirBnB for pools”). No, our style was different, it was literary, really; the words we provided were never made up. They were not chimeras, portmanteaus, impossible hybrids. They didn’t grovel, really, or pander. Ours were often old or overlooked things, repurposed and gleaming things we had dredged up from the corners of the Internet, which served as our dictionary and thesaurus. They were words, in other words, that made a sudden, bright sense in the way that, while writing a poem, the right word might, with strange ease, be summoned. Many of these words often had not been thought of for a very long time. They hadn’t been applied in the way we were applying them; they weren’t yet corporate. And, in fact, the idea of language turning corporate was the opposite of what we were attempting. No, we—they—were fitting corporate structures onto the old, beautiful structures of language, and in this way, naturalizing all these new, huge things that might otherwise prove difficult to pinpoint.
I realized the other day that all the poetry I’ve found lately has come from Twitter. I drove to a big used bookstore out in the country, housed in a dust-laden barn, and I rifled through all these donated books looking for anything that felt concrete and weirdly vital, unmarred, and that’s how I found a book of CK Williams’s poetry, which I hadn’t really read before, and it felt like a dose of some kind. Because he seems to always be searching for the right words, and not finding them. “I sit in my room,” he wrote. “Outside, haze. The whole world is haze and I can’t figure out one room.”
Of course, I wanted to be a writer then, secretly, but I didn’t really write. But if I’m to work towards precision and distillation of that time in my life, I remember reading Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country in the Whole Foods down the street where I used to get emergency coffee before work, and being repeatedly confronted there by a man wanting to talk to me about Eckhart Tolle; I remember making friends with a Whole Foods cashier and going out one night to a karaoke bar in Larkspur; I remember walking around the impossibly wealthy neighborhood near my work and seeing the house where John and Yoko had stayed for a summer; I remember visiting the library there on my lunch break and being stunned; I remember a colleague saying that homeless people should have made better choices (and being unsure whether or not this colleague was joking); I remember how this part of the Bay Area had in fact stringent restrictions against homeless people even passing through; I remember first reading about POPOS (Publicly Owned Privately Operated Spaces); I remember one night being on a bus and hearing a drunk man say my name: LUCY! LUCY! LUCY! and realizing he was talking happily to a dog (Lucy was, at this time, the second most common dog name); I remember biking furiously through Golden Gate Park at night, and I remember the day that my tonsillectomy scabs fell off while I was on the phone to a potential client.
No one really tells you how involved the recovery is, as an adult, from a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy. You have to sleep sitting up, on heavy painkillers, and are basically unable to eat, drink, or speak above a catchy whisper. My mom flew out to nurse me. Sleepless and fed by cooled broth, all I could really think about was that I just wanted to stop driving out of my neighborhood for work and get to know my neighbors instead. One day we slowly walked up two blocks of 36th Avenue to the Balboa Theater to see The Fighter, me in a haze of Vicodin, unable to understand what the fuck was happening or who was even in it, and I realized I could technically probably drive back over the bridge, back to work, park, go to my job. So I did, a few days later, I walked back to the garage, put my tepid coffee down at the desk. Someone called, I picked up the phone. They gave me their spiel: something about a low-cost airline, I don’t know, it needed a name. I felt my throat close up, though I could breathe, for the first time in years, out of my nose. I knew immediately that it was happening—it’s too gross to describe in detail, but this moment happens at some point to anyone recovering from a tonsillectomy—and I remember that I felt panicked, and then the silence stretched on, and I became briefly grateful that even as hard as I was trying, no words could leave me.
Lucy Schiller is a writer based in Central NY. You can find more of her work at www.lucy-schiller.work