Sacred Rites


Our Daily Correspondent


William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Crown of Flowers (detail), 1884.

The food takes awhile which gave us time to watch a waitress deliver a Dutch Baby and envelop us with its fragrant, perhaps sacred, steam. A tray of ruby grapefuit [sic] juice in large glasses made me think of luxurious jewels. Obviously we had traveled back to a past time. —A review of the Original Pancake House

When I was about twenty-six, a friend sent me a listing for a job at an online review site, which, at the time, had not yet gone public. It seemed to me a good idea to apply to lots of things, so I sent in a letter.

“We’re looking for someone hip and quirky for this job,” said the woman, Tyler, who interviewed me from San Francisco; she’d mentioned an improbably high salary and a host of benefits and perks. “You seem hip and quirky. But we need someone more integrated into the Web site’s community. I notice you have no reviews, no profile, and no ‘friends.’ We’ll need to see more of a commitment.”

I attacked my new assignment with determination. I set myself a quota of ten reviews a day and implored everyone I knew to join my network. In my capacity as manager of the lingerie store where I worked weekends, I commandeered the computer, knocking out reviews of the coffee at the bodega on the corner (“too subtle for the common palate”), the new artisanal pizzeria (“a horseman of the gentrification apocalypse”), and the local nail salon (“The nail technician was slovenly and surly; her coat was soiled; she started cutting my cuticles without asking”).

While I placed a premium on quantity, I began to take my task seriously: I was appalled by the cavalier manner in which fellow reviewers dismissed small businesses after a single visit or graded spots where they hadn’t bothered to wait for a table. I took special care in rebutting what I felt to be thoughtless and uninformed reviews. My tone became hectoring.

It was pathetically easy to become popular in this Web site’s universe. “You seem to really know what you’re talking about!” one stranger wrote me. “I like your strong opinions!” said another. In two weeks, I’d acquired more than a hundred “friends,” who complimented my every review with the pre-fab tags that indicated things were awesome, useful, or witty. I’d achieved the honorific of “Notable.” On the message boards, I was put on someone’s list of “Hottest Girls on the Site (NYC Area)”—presumably based on a blurry picture of myself posing with Mr. Met—and had been awarded two “Reviews of the Day,” for critiques of a cheese store and Pretty Nails.

After some time, having met, apparently, my uninformed-harangue quota, I was invited to attend a “Notables event” at a midtown bar called Sapphire, so the higher-ups could see how I dealt with the community. The “Notables”—a title bequeathed purely on the basis of review quantity—arrived in full force. The theme was “gangsters,” or maybe “roaring twenties”: several guys sported fedoras, three girls wore boas, and there was a plastic tommy-gun in evidence. One girl, for reasons I never ascertained, had on a Renaissance Faire–style corset. “That’s Julia S,” I was told, “the hottest girl on the site.”

The event was sponsored by a jalapeño-flavored vodka, so that’s what everybody drank. One girl started vomiting almost immediately. I found her a plastic bag. A joke video made by one of the staffers played in the background, but no one paid any attention, and you couldn’t really make out the words of the parody song, which seemed to be a take on Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body.” There was light dancing.

“We’d like to fly you out to San Francisco,” said Tyler, the woman at the main office. “We hear you’re hip, and quirky, and handled the Notables really well at the Sapphire event.”

I went. The interviews took place in what might have been a set decorator’s idea of an Internet startup, decorated as it was with dogs, Foosball tables, and expensive coffee gadgetry. The founders of the company were young and confident; one of them lounged on an exercise ball. I tried to project hip quirkiness with every fiber of my being.

“We were really impressed with how you handled Angela,” said one of the founders. “She’s the Notable who threw up.”

The job didn’t pan out; looking back, I guess that was some kind of fork in the road. Maybe my life could have been different. Maybe, had I been hipper and quirkier, my life would have been more straightforward and successful. Certainly I would still have, at the very least, my status as a Notable. But is there any point thinking that way? Sacred steam or no, there is no way to travel back to a past time.