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Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Last autumn I sat in a midtown cubicle sorting receipts for my boss’s monthly expense report. I had recently earned my master’s degree from Harvard and had accepted a coveted yet thankless entry-level position at a well-known philanthropic organization in New York City. My parents were proud of me, and I was proud that they were proud of me. Convinced that I was doing the “right thing,” I spent a year botching Excel spreadsheets and crying in office bathroom stalls. This is the American middle-class 20-something’s dream, I told myself.
At best, I completed simple administrative tasks, such as printing paper and hoarding Post-its, with mild competence. I relished these peaceful moments, for the majority of the time I felt more like a 2-year-old filing estate taxes with crayons. At my annual employee review, my boss placed me on “Performance Probation,” citing at least five or six reasons why I could not be trusted with so much as a stapler. She added that in spite of my attempts to reach out, touch base and other mildly suggestive office essentials, my communication skills were “not improving.” Maybe I’m just dumb, I thought. Maybe I really can’t communicate with people. Maybe I shouldn’t communicate at all.
Tell that to Marina, I now think, staring at the unlikely reflection of a smoky-eyed 25-year-old woman in my lipstick-strewn bathroom. Marina, my online alter ego on a popular adult webcamming site, is the new and improved “me.” She dazzles men with discussions of Indo-European languages while seducing them with her perky derriere, bending over before the camera to reach for her pen, with which she scrawls on a memo pad: Dyno_Schlong. That username, one of over a hundred in her chat room, is simply too good to forget.
Upon first glance, the only semblance Marina bears to her office-dwelling predecessor is her penchant for Post-its, which now testify to a to-do list decidedly more perverse:
* Mail panties to Faroe Islands
* Send cucumber video to HuckleberrySin
* Add Hitachi Magic Wand to Amazon wish list
And yet, as she poses in lacy white stockings – a gift from a virtual admirer – atop her squeaky Ikea armchair, the only thing that surprises her is how ordinary it all feels.
* * *
The afternoon that I was placed on Performance Probation, I left work early. Riding the N train back to Queens, I quietly wept upon the sympathetic cashmere shoulder of Ann Taylor and brainstormed responses to my imminent dismissal. Should I go back to school? I wondered. No way – my aversion to scholarly discussion is so intense that I still wince whenever I see a round table – even the kind with an umbrella. Another nonprofit job? A new set of directions to botch, a fresh cohort from which to alienate myself! Motherhood? Now that’s a perfectly respectable excuse not to pursue a career! But who am I kidding? I hate kids.
For the first time, my intellect and perfectionist work ethic had failed me. Without these crutches, I had nothing. Except, perhaps, for my body. I remembered a conversation I had several months earlier with an acquaintance, whose ex-girlfriend, he claimed, made a decent living as a camgirl. “What exactly does a camgirl do?” I asked him, familiar with the phenomenon only through sidebar Internet advertisements claiming that Jessie19, conveniently located in my neighborhood, wanted to fuck, like, tonight!!
“Well,” he said, “usually they just strip, tease and get themselves off in front of guys online in exchange for money and gifts. It’s super easy – most guys aren’t looking for some airbrushed Barbie. They want real, intelligent girls – like you.”
Now I’ve heard everything, I thought. What guy in his right mind would pay to see someone like me to take off her … I paused, looking down at my austere gray cardigan. While I’m not unattractive, my waxen face, sturdy brown glasses and easily detectable baggage (both under-eye and emotional) hardly suggest that I’m someone you might want to see naked. And while most camgirls are veritable social butterflies, fluttering from one flirtatious conversation to the next, I am more like a moth, perched in the shadows for fear of crashing and burning into a floor lamp. In short, not your average adult entertainer.
Deep down, I also felt that I was “above” sex work. Much like waitressing or washing floors, professional masturbation was simply incommensurate with my educational background and perceived level of dignity. While others were free to parade around naked on the Internet, and even had my respect for it, I was intended for some higher, nobler cause – something that would make people gasp in a good way, and not out of horror.
But now, none of that mattered, as though losing face before a single human resources department was tantamount to being condemned by humanity as a whole. So I did what any reasonable young professional would do: I purchased a high-definition Web camera, excavated a cache of lingerie from the basement and submitted photocopies of my driver’s license to become an adult webcam model. Even if my employers discovered this sack-worthy secret, it was empowering to know that I was deliberately sabotaging my own career, as opposed to letting it deteriorate organically.
The first time that I logged on as “Marina,” I wore a tight black tank top and a comfortable pair of shorts, figuring that if the camming thing didn’t work out, I would at least be dressed for consolation pastries afterward. But before I could even finish doubting myself, a swarm of users flooded my chat room, tipping liberally with “tokens,” the website’s local currency, and barraging me with questions. (Pervs love new girls, someone later explained.) Needless to say, the only buns purchased that night were my own, freshly delivered to the computer screens of over 300 strangers.
“Why did you start camming?” asked someone with the username TiredForearm. “Well, I came here because I hate my real job and wanted to see if this could be a viable financial alternative,” I said, tweaking my nipples a bit in hopes of resuscitating some of the erections I undoubtedly just lost. “How does it feel getting naked in front of hundreds of guys?” asked OldnFat1 – a user who deserves kudos for his realism. “It’s OK, I guess. Neither here nor there,” I said instinctively before correcting myself, “but I still have my panties on, so let’s get them off and see what I feel like after!” Much to my surprise, I was infinitely more embarrassed to call my underwear “panties” than I was to remove them.
I began leaving the office sharply at 5 p.m., applying my makeup on the subway ride home and often skipping dinner in order to log online faster. I broadcast my webcam show until 10 or 11 p.m., then rolled into bed exhausted, exhilarated and up to $600 richer. After only a week of moonlighting as a camgirl, earning twice the wages of my desk job in half of the time, I handed in my notice. “Freelance work,” I told my boss and parents alike. “I’m going to take the certification exam for Russian-to-English translation.” While not entirely ludicrous – I am fluent in Russian – I saw no hurry to pursue this option so long as I was still certified to flash my boobs over the Internet.
For weeks, I fielded calls from anxious relatives, inventing excuse after excuse as to why I had still not produced a groundbreaking retranslation of “War and Peace.” “So, you’re just … doing nothing?” my father finally asked, his voice leaden and despondent, as though his Rottweiler had just died. I couldn’t take it anymore. If there was going to be a funeral, I thought, at least let me dig my own grave.
“You know what?” I snapped up in my chair, clenching the phone. “In fact, I am doing something. I’m not just some lazy ass. I’m a camgirl. If you’re not familiar with it, that means I take off my clothes for random people on the Internet. Don’t worry, the pay is great.” For some reason, I actually thought this news would cheer up my father.
“Camming is the gateway!” he said, echoing erroneous anti-vice rhetoric of my childhood. Much like cannabis use supposedly opens doors to heroin and coke, it was only a matter of time before I’d be turning tricks on the Bowery for some drugged-out pimp, who might as well be wearing a purple suit with leopard-skin lapels. “This was your idea,” my father railed against my mother, who once worked in the sex industry herself.
My mother always told me I could be whatever I wanted to be in life. Still, I doubt she ever considered “amateur porn peddler” as even a remote possibility. “I’m not going to judge,” she assured me upon learning of my new activities, “But you? You’re so reserved!” While it is true that my mother used to have to physically pry the threadbare notebooks and Vivaldi CDs out of my hands to get me to “go play” with the neighborhood kids, money changes everything. Had she been bribing me with hundred dollar bills, I might have socialized more readily. And, if my camming experience is any indication, I might have even liked it.
* * *
The men I meet online rarely fall into the category of “anonymous assholes who have abandoned all social etiquette,” nor do they resemble the pasty, calculator-wristwatch-wearing forebears of chat rooms past. Many, in fact, are successful professionals in their field – whether it be law, the arts or academia. “I came for the tits, but stayed for the intellectual banter,” remarked one visitor. In addition to more classic webcam performances – wet T-shirts, oil slathering or run-of-the-mill masturbation – some of my most popular performances entail me reading erotica, perhaps Anais Nin or the Marquis de Sade, in the buff. Oftentimes, the books are gifts from fans, who will probe me for literary analysis, if I don’t probe myself with something else first.
As a result, according to numerous viewers, I have unwittingly created a powerful “brand” for myself: the wild intellectual, the bluestocking in garters. One regular, an academic from Finland who goes by the name PantyWashbag, always reminds me: “You are serious woman. And serious women are best.” I recognize that this is not a brand of woman that most men want to buy. Whereas most camgirls market themselves in dazzling packages overflowing with a scientifically engineered ratio of crave-inducing sugar and fat, my product is sold in a more understated container. Maybe there is even an impassioned, self-aggrandizing story on the back of the box describing how I came to be. While most people will roll their eyes at the mention of “wholesome ingredients” and “ancient grains,” a select few are left to devour my contents with gusto.
Of these individuals, my most devoted fan is Bob – a 40-year-old dump truck driver from Delaware. I am still not sure how our paths crossed, but I am glad they did. If I am online, he will be there, tipping far too lavishly and making jokes with the other regulars. Occasionally, some of the more erudite members will publicly correct Bob’s grammar. “It’s you’re, not your,” they write. “My bad,” he always replies, respectfully not giving a damn. Bob is simple and kind, and understands the economics of camming: camgirls, no matter who they are, are moved by generosity, not verbosity.
Occasionally, I enjoy more taboo interactions online. One man wanted to know all about my sneezes, and then paid me to sniff my cat’s fur on camera in hopes of eliciting a tantalizing spritz (I am mildly allergic). The cat, while slightly confused by the advance, was ultimately unperturbed. Yet another customer spent $150 in a private session for me to wear a panty liner and sit on my boyfriend’s tie – just sit on it. A hat would have been better, he said, but sometimes you just have to work with what you’ve got. After I relayed the story back to my main chat room, someone asked to purchase the tie.
My customers have written stories for me, and I have written stories for them. Just recently, I finished Chapter 5 of a 15,000-word saga for an Adult Baby, a regular who occasionally calls me Mommy and signs his emails as Your little snuggle butt. Another day at the office.
* * *
But once lined with hundred-dollar bills, the pockets of my birthday suit now jingle with grimy pennies and nickels. By my third month of camming, I noticed a marked drop in earnings as I struggled to engage a novelty-driven audience. At first, I sought answers. How come last week’s spank-a-thon show yielded record-breaking tips, and this week – hardly anything? What am I doing wrong? Is it my hair, my glasses? Try as I might to analyze the causes of my sudden downturn, all I found was a jumble of arbitrary factors, both endogenous (how ebullient am I today?) and exogenous (how many high tippers are online?). In other words, in the mercurial world of camming, logic is as scant as pubic hair.
As I enter my seventh month, I am only left with more questions. How much money will I earn this week? How long will I continue to cam? Who is this painted and coiffed person beaming at me in the mirror – and is she really as happy as she looks? Where does Marina end and my true self begin? Does it even matter?
Fortunately, I still enjoy the occasional lucrative Saturday night. I still receive support from a handful of devoted followers, several of whom I chat with during off-hours and consider friends. In spite of an overall decrease in traffic, I continue to garner new viewers, whose antics never fail to nourish the soul, if not the bank account. Just this week, I received a pitch for an erotic story about L. Ron Hubbard, in which “The RAND Corporation, McCarthyism, and a demented Air Force general make appearances.” I’ll admit – I never thought L. Ron Hubbard could be sexy. But then again, I never thought that I could be, either.
Anna Katzen is the pen name of a real writer and camgirl living in New York.More Anna Katzen.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, U.S.
Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Lost City of Petra, Jordan
Read it on Salon