Q.: When did Jared Laudenslager (age 33) start realizing his full potential as an American citizen?
A.: Not the morning of Thursday, March 4, 2004, when he called in sick to his latest telephone solicitation job, this one at Burke-Gower Fundraising, Inc., a national firm in downtown Pittsburgh that represented conservative to right-wing political advocacy groups.
He’d been at that job five months, cold-calling married, middle- to lower-middle income Midwesterners for the firm’s most prestigious client, Citizens for a New Alaska (CNA), an energy industry front in Washington, DC, supporting unrestrained oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (The name of the group’s president, Henderson Morse, had appeared in the lower upper-half of the short list of potential invitees for Dick Cheney’s pheasant release-and-hunt at a Connecticut country club two years ago.) Jared had raised over $39,000 for CNA, winning Burke-Gower’s coveted award for employee excellence, a $20 gift certificate from Super Wal-Mart, a record five months running.
On the phone to potential donors, he would good-naturedly (to forestall any offense) describe environmentalists as “nature freaks” who “want to keep us hooked on foreign oil” and “at the mercy of the next Saddam.” Domestic drilling “makes America stronger, and that makes families stronger” by knowing “they’ll have gas for their cars and heat for their homes.” And he’d tell callers that he himself had a family he wanted to keep strong. His nonexistent wife Beth Ann liked to crochet cute covers for the TV remotes in the neighborhood, and his nonexistent 12-year-old daughter Emily wanted new boots for her horseback riding class. “Hey, she likes horses, what else can I do?…Hey is for horses, after all, heh heh.”
“You have the gift of gab,” Jared’s supervisor, Ray Armagast (age 41), told him one day over gourmet pesto rolls (Ray’s treat, from the local supermarket chain Giant Eagle) in the employee break room. “You’re going to move up in this company.”
“Yeah, well, with His help, you’ll be head assistant supervisor in another six or eight months, knock wood.” Ray tapped his fist twice on the wood-look table where they sat. He was a Southern Baptist who wore a lapel pin shaped like a cross, a two-inch by four-inch cross in Army camouflage, “PRAY FOR THE TROOPS” inscribed on the horizontal bar, quotes included. Jared had been raised Catholic but now—outside of work, to friends, semi-friends, and strangers—called himself a member of the “Church of the Blessed Virgin Jeffrey. Well, not exactly a virgin, heh heh, thanks to me…and a hundred pizza delivery guys, heh heh.”
After calling in sick, Jared took off his undershirt and boxer shorts. He stood in his bedroom naked for a few moments, staring at the wall. Then he stopped staring at the wall and put on (in this order) a pair of white lace panties, a white padded bra (size 34A), a pair of pink capris, a long-sleeved white blouse (tucked into his capris), a women’s turquoise cashmere sweater, a pair of men’s jogging shoes, an imitation pearl necklace, an imitation diamond bracelet on each wrist, and a long topcoat buttoned up to his neck. He drove from his apartment on the South Side (an area known for its artistic piercings and its drunken vomiting) to a parking garage downtown, a different garage from the one he usually used. He parked. He walked four blocks to the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, careful not to attract any attention (which is why he hadn’t put on women’s shoes, plus they made his feet hurt). He took a pair of white lace gloves out of his coat pocket and tugged them onto his hands. He took off his coat and tossed it into the back of an SUV parked on the street. He reached into the SUV and took out a Halloween-style hard plastic mask, a white female face complete with painted-on blonde hair. He looked at the elastic band at the back of the mask for a few moments. He stopped looking at the band. He put on the mask. He grabbed a HOMOPHOBIA IS A DRAG picket sign from a pile on the sidewalk. He walked to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender protest in front of him, his first protest rally ever, 95 people (including him), a protest against the Southern Baptist national leadership conference, which was meeting inside the center at that moment. He joined a contingent of five other male protesters in similar masks and attire, with similar signs. The six men chanted “Holy hate / Ain’t so great” and “Gay fashion / Not gay bashin’ ” for the TV news cameras. The men even sang “We’re going to the chapel / And we’re gonna get married,” though Jared didn’t sing with much enthusiasm, since he had no interest in even dating anyone at the protest, male or female.
Jared Laudenslager didn’t start realizing his full potential as an American citizen the next morning, either, when he walked past the newspaper vending machine outside his building on the way to work, stopped, took a closer look at the paper in the machine window, carefully fed the machine two quarters, carefully opened the machine door, and purchased his first copy ever of the right-wing Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, whose front page featured a full-color photo of an “unidentified protester” from the convention center the previous day, his sleeves rolled up, his right forearm sporting a large, obvious, grayish-brown birthmark—Jared’s birthmark, the one shaped like Rhode Island, maybe Massachusetts at a certain angle, the birthmark his coworkers, including Ray, liked referring to in a jovial manner as “that thing,” as in “You gonna paint that thing green for Saint Patrick’s Day?” and “Hey, did that thing just wink at me?” Almost all Jared’s coworkers, including Ray, read the Tribune-Review every morning. Jared took another look at the photo and regretted his subconscious habit of rolling up his sleeves to signify hard work, self-motivation, self-confidence. He’d never worn short sleeves to work, not even during those unseasonably warm casual Fridays in November.
And he didn’t know if he’d appeared on the TV news and if everyone had seen the birthmark. He didn’t watch the news.
Jared really did support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. “We have to reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” he explained over low-carb wine coolers one night at Tubular, a retro-Eighties dance club in the Strip District (a former warehouse district in Pittsburgh now transformed into a locus for yuppie clubs and drive-by shootings), to his occasional sexual partner, Kendita Maraccas (born Kenneth McCray), a 31-year-old pre-op male-to-female transsexual. “Plus we need plenty of petroleum so I can drive to the store to buy some scented aloe lotion, ’cause my job sucks. It sucks me raw.”
“Good heavens. Your poor organ.”
“Yeah. I guess I’ve developed a conscience. I feel guilty about taking money from families who must be struggling in this economy.”
“But think of it as doing a public service. If it weren’t for you, they’d probably spend their disposable income on booze or drugs or NASCAR tickets.”
“Stuff that would keep them happy. Postpone their suicides another day.”
“But what abaht those pests who really should kill themselves?”
“What abaht them?”
Kendita spoke like a New-England finishing-school version of Rita Moreno, but still bore traces of a Pittsburgh accent, as in “abaht” for “about.” Jared liked referring to that faint accent in a semi-jovial manner.
This story first appeared in The Front (a now-defunct Pittsburgh alternative newspaper), issue #23, July 18, 2005.