Unlike most of us, Davy Rothbart enjoys being thrown off balance, even if it leaves him uncomfortable or embarrassed — or even humiliated.
In another life, this quality might’ve made Rothbart merely the life of the party, a risk-taker in a world of the risk-averse. But Rothbart happens to be a storyteller, using a first-person technique honed over years spent writing journalism for outlets such as GQ, The Believer and New York, producing radio stories for “This American Life,” writing a memoir and performing his work at events hosted by publications such as Pop-Up Magazine.
“I like to leap into some situation and explore it, experience it and sort of write about it from that perspective,” Rothbart says. “I do find that when I write first-person, experiential pieces, I can kind of be an avatar for any reader who might have been there and gone through the same type of thing.”
It’s no surprise, then, that when The California Sunday Magazine editors Kit Rachlis and Doug McGray approached Rothbart with an idea for a story about Crowds on Demand, a company that offers hired crowds for a fee, it didn’t take much convincing. He leaped into the abyss of pay-for-protest audiences, faux cheerleaders and pretend paparazzi without much time to prepare. Just the way he likes it.
This interview took place over a series of phone calls. It has been condensed and edited.
Did you always intend to be the main character in this story? Do you prefer writing from the first person?
I wouldn’t even say I am the main character. In a way, Adam [Swart, CEO of Crowds on Demand] is the main character, but I did intend for it to be told through my eyes. I do prefer writing from the first-person. It just comes naturally to me. Not that I haven’t tried my hand and enjoyed my stabs at reportage, but writing from the first person and kind of just being in a place and talking about what it’s like, what I’m seeing, what I’m thinking and what I’m experiencing, it’s just kind of easy but it also seems relatable for the reader. They can imagine if they were there in my place, they’d be seeing these same things and maybe having some of the same thoughts.
I love being thrust into a new world and just being disoriented and trying to figure out what the hell is going on. For example, I once went to Las Vegas to interview the world’s most famous UFC fighters, and I was interviewing the top two or three guys in the world. But I didn’t know the first thing in the world about MMA or UFC. They were sort of amazed that I was a complete novice and dunce. Why was this guy assigned to cover this world?
But I also think there’s value in bringing fresh eyes to something. You don’t have to be an expert in something to go and cover it. You ask some of the elementary questions that a lot of readers might ask — they won’t be experts, either. You can kind of get away with asking stuff that someone more well-versed in this area or subculture would know better than to ask, or would be too polite to ask. My favorite thing is what I call “Being Columbo” — the detective played by Peter Falk. He would kind of act a little dumb and dense and ask stupid questions, but sometimes smart questions. He would just kind of circle the criminal mind and outwit it.
I like to leap into some situation and explore it, experience it and sort of write about it from that perspective. I do find that when I write first-person, experiential pieces, I can kind of be an avatar for any reader who might have been there and gone through the same type of thing.
So did you enter this story completely blind as well?
I wouldn’t say that I intentionally kept myself blind to stuff, but I was aware that some other reporters — maybe Jon Ronson for GQ — had written about this company, and I purposely didn’t read what others had written about them. I didn’t want my ideas contaminated — even helpfully — by other people’s experiences. I checked out the company’s website and poked around a little bit, but I didn’t do much beforehand. I just kind of landed there. Part of the conceit for the piece was that I would do a [performance] piece for Pop-Up about it as well, and I needed that in a couple weeks. So I kind of went in quickly.
You drop right into your first Crowds on Demand assignment, and the reader’s never told whether you’ve gone completely undercover or whether people are aware you’re reporting. Can you talk about that choice?
I applied to work at the company, online. After a few days, I got no response. The ideal situation is to apply and kind of just go in undercover, but we needed something quickly, so I reached out to the company and said, “Hey, I want to write this article about you. Is there an event I can participate in?” I would say Adam probably didn’t know what Cal Sunday was. He wasn’t sure if I was just looking for a job or really looking to write an article. But he said hey, if you wanna work, I’ve got a spot open for you on this day. What had happened was the client had changed the time of the event at the last minute, so a couple of people couldn’t come and he was scrambling to find people. So there’s some random applicant-slash-journalist, this guy. Let’s bring him.
You could have written this story in a completely different way, sending up the whole absurd-sounding enterprise, but you take a more earnest, unassuming route. What made you decide to take it in a more sincere direction?
I’m kind of a sincere guy, probably to a fault. That includes my writing. Really, yes there are absurd elements to this company and the people you interact with when you’re working for the company — the clients, the life coaches, the Masons coming from Greece or Zimbabwe — and yet, to me, and this is true with how I look at the found notes in Found magazine [Ed.: Rothbart publishes an annual magazine, Found, based on discarded items found and submitted by readers], usually the least interesting way to view anything is by mocking it. The truth is I saw moments — there were life coaches at the LAX Marriott event who teared up, people getting really animated about some of these protests — and the effect the company has on these people is no joke. It’s real shit that’s really interesting. People have strong feelings and strong reactions to these things. It never occurred to me to approach it from a parody angle, but then again I’ve never approached any story that way.
My questions are in red, his responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button
By Davy Rothbart
Originally published in The California Sunday Magazine in March 2016
The text message says to show up at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel at 11 a.m. on a Monday. Very few pieces of journalism — not to mention longform — begin with a text message. What influenced your decision to start here? I think it was just the idea of: Let’s just get me into a scene. Let’s get the story started as quickly as possible. Let’s just start right with a scene. Also, I wanted to convey the total weirdness of having a job where you don’t know what the job is, or where the job is. It is pretty bizarre to show up somewhere, this completely random place, a hotel near the airport, and start at 11. ‘OK, I’ll be there!’ But through some combination of traffic and my own chronic lateness, I find myself rushing into the lobby at 12 minutes after, aware that it’s not a good look to be late for work, my first day on a new job.
I’ve been hired by a company called Crowds on Demand. If you need a crowd of people — for nearly any reason — Crowds on Demand can make it happen. Now it has taken me on as one of its crowd members, although the specifics remain a mystery. It’s an odd sensation to be headed into a gig with no idea what task I’m expected to perform. All I know is that I’ll be making 15 bucks an hour.
In the hotel lobby, Adam Swart, the company’s 24-year-old CEO, is greeting a dozen other recruits. Handsome, fit, sporting slacks and a button-down shirt, Adam bears an uncanny resemblance to House Speaker Paul Ryan, though he’s more than 20 years younger. He circles around us with manic energy, as though jacked up on six cups of coffee. While he gently reprimands me for my lateness, I take his tone to mean, You’re off the hook this time, but don’t do it again. He leads us downstairs to a ballroom in the basement and gives us the lowdown.
The Marriott, Adam explains, is hosting a conference for life coaches from around the country. As these folks arrive in the ballroom to register and pick up their badges, lanyards, and gift bags, our job is to treat them like mega-celebrities, to behave like a wild throng of fans desperate for their love. As it turns out, this is one of Crowds on Demand’s most popular services.
Before the “celebrities” start filing in, Adam and his talent coordinator, Del Brown, a joyful, exuberant woman in her late 30s, provide each of us with roles. They post a young, energetic guy from South Central named Lloyd Johnson closest to the door where the life coaches will enter the room. Lloyd’s assignment, as Del puts it, is to completely “lose his shit” each time someone walks in. Lloyd laughs. “You want me to get all white girl wasted?” he asks.
“Exactly,” says Del.
Lloyd’s friends, Michelle and Secilia, are cast as autograph hounds. Six or seven photographers have been hired to act as paparazzi — actual freelance photographers, some of whom hadn’t realized they’d been hired only to take fake pictures. A hulking guy in a dark suit and sunglasses named Deon Mason is assigned to play the life coaches’ bodyguard, escorting them past all of us, from the door of the ballroom to the registration table. Deon is one of Crowds on Demand’s rising stars, known for his prowess not only as a fake bodyguard but also as an opinionated fashionista at art openings.
My job? Adam appraises me thoughtfully. “Tell you what,” he says. “You be the Selfie Guy. Whatever it takes to get a selfie, make it happen. Get rabid.” As a non-confrontational, withdrawn person, this makes my skin crawl. How did you react to these instructions? I was like, “Awesome, that sounds perfect! That sounds like a real role where I’ll have to get my hands dirty and do some shit.” I had to really kind of get each person’s attention, pull them over to my side of the velvet rope, try to grab them and convince them to come over and get a selfie with me. For my purposes, I wanted to have a visual component for the Pop-Up Magazine piece, so those selfie pictures turned out to be kind of amazing, since they’re just so hilarious and strange. Maybe part of the reason I gravitate towards these first-person stories is because I like to participate. I don’t think I have to be the story, and even in these first-person stories, the point isn’t me and my life, I’m just a vehicle through which people can experience it themselves. You write in multiple formats. Is it difficult to transition from strict reporting to experiential journalism like this? I would say it’s a knob that can be dialed and modulated, and through experience it comes naturally for me to find the right setting, depending on the piece. For me it makes it easier to just describe things as they happened while I was there, versus removing yourself completely. It allows you to acknowledge certain details. Once, I wrote a piece about Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans Jr., in the typical magazine style where they give you an activity to do. We went to a casino. Those guys are pretty cool and interesting, but to me what was just as interesting were the other people at the casino and how they interacted with those other people. So by bringing myself into it a tiny bit, I’m able to paint a fuller scene. I’m barely in that piece, but you have the sense that someone is there telling you the story.
Adam and Del give us a couple of hurried run-throughs to practice, and then, within a couple of minutes, the life coaches begin to trickle in.
Instantly, the room turns into a mad scrum. As each life coach slips into the room, Lloyd erupts, squealing. Michelle and Secilia beg for autographs. The paparazzi stalk the rope line, flashbulbs popping, as Deon and a second bodyguard try to keep us all at bay.
To be successful in getting a selfie with each life coach means becoming completely unhinged: I have to reach out over the rope, cry out each person’s name, and fend off Deon while desperately pleading for a quick pic. “I’m so happy you’re here! Come on, just one little picture, please!”
It becomes something of a dance between Deon and me as he shoves me firmly but good-naturedly out of the way and only occasionally — if I work for it hard enough — allows me to lean across the rope for a shot with the life coach who, in that moment, has become the object of my feigned adoration. As a half hour slips by, and another half hour, we do this over and over and over again, time folding into a continuous 20-second loop. With each pass down the aisle, Deon and I shift our strategies subtly, jousting and parrying with my iPhone and the palm of his hand.
The most surprising thing about the whole crazy scene is this: Even though everything about the situation is fake, the joy in each life coach’s face is authentic. Most get it that this is all a charade, but still they mug for the cameras, give us gleeful hugs, and graciously sign autographs.
As for me, any initial qualms about a display of such goofy insincerity have rapidly dissolved, and I’m struck by how fun the morning has become. I’m proud to be the Selfie Guy! Looking around the room, I see that my colleagues are enjoying the hell out of this, same as me. In real life, when we see our favorite musician, writer, or movie star out in the world, we’ve been taught to check our excitement, to leave her alone. I’d have never guessed how pleasing it would feel to geek out over these unknown life coaches from Cincinnati and Tampa. The most sterile, lame space imaginable — a conference room in the basement of a chain hotel — has been transformed into a surreal dreamland where everybody is desired, everybody is famous, and where famous people, thrillingly, return their fans’ embraces. It’s interesting that you let the scene unfold to its conclusion, then come in with your thoughts on things in the above two paragraphs. Was this a conscious choice? Again, this is just how I always write. Some events go down, so let’s write about what happens and tell the story, then reflect on it. I would say it’s a formula I learned in all my years working with Ira Glass and “This American Life.” It’s sort of standard operating procedure for TAL, and for me it works well in any piece of journalism.
Two and a half hours later, the event is over. As I head to my car, I see Adam and Del, along with some of their crowd members, hurrying off to their next gig, a documentary screening where they’ve been hired to bolster audience numbers and lob softball questions at the filmmakers during the Q&A.
Adam waves me down. “You were late today,” he reminds me. “But I liked your commitment to the part. Ready for more work?”
He nods. “Good. Welcome aboard. You’ll get a text from someone soon.” Were you concerned about the way the different scenes were set up in this story to backload the more morally ambiguous events? It starts with a lark of an event, harmless, then gets into the news-making – and potentially perceived as sinister – events like the fake protests. Much of Crowds on Demand’s work involves these spritely, fun and harmless paparazzi events. It seemed fair to start there, especially since this mirrored by unfolding experience as an employee. This was my first event with them, and the way that I worked my way deeper into the organization. Not to compare Crowds on Demand to the Mob, but Henry Hill and Billy Bathgate didn’t get their start burying bodies of Mob foes. They started out as bartenders, janitors, jugglers, errand boys. The reader gets to enter the story as I did, and slowly infiltrate more deeply.
ADAM STARTED Crowds on Demand as a 21-year-old UCLA undergrad. He’d volunteered with Jerry Brown’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign and found that it could be challenging to rally large crowds to speeches. Adam believed a niche service providing crowds might appeal to campaign directors. But once he launched the service, he found that he was asked to wield his crowds in a way he hadn’t anticipated — not only to support a candidate but to protest a candidate. A candidate might muster 500 supporters to a speech on a college campus, but if Adam sent just five recruits to demonstrate outside the auditorium, he discovered that the media would give equal coverage to both the rally and the demonstration.
That was only the beginning. In New York, the advance team for a well-known but controversial foreign dignitary hired Adam to send people all over Manhattan holding signs and flags supporting the guy, without his knowing, to buoy his spirits before an important speech. Adam has summoned crowds for a Danish artist’s performance piece. He has sent angry mobs to picket outside car dealerships, law firms, and restaurants. His company is like a Charlie Kaufman movie come to life. There’s a number of references you could’ve made here. Why this one? To me, this just kept reminding me of either “Being John Malkovich” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” the strange companies in them. I just felt like the fact that it’s such a ridiculous premise — you have a crowd, and you do whatever you want with them, and all the imaginative uses that Adam has found for using these hired crowds, it all seems kind of preposterous. So the fact it’s a real thing is kind of insane. It made me think of all those Kaufman movies where his jumping-off point is the idea there’s this weird company that does this weird thing.
After I reveal to Adam that I’m a journalist, curious about his business, he invites me to join him for dinner in San Francisco, where he’s come for a Crowds on Demand job. Why did you decide to eventually make the reveal? Just wanted to share more about who Adam was and what his company is all about, so this seemed like the place. We had a fun top, with a strange event going down. Now let’s learn more about the guy who runs it and what exactly they do. He suggests the Fairmont Hotel, and we sit in the grand atrium as a piano player fills the room with a bright rhapsody. Adam has what NFL draft experts call “a high motor.” He talks in hyper, precise bursts, listens with intensity, drives a silver Tesla, and works out for two hours a day at the Equinox gym in Santa Monica, cranking through P90X workouts and pushing weight-laden sleds. To launch his company, Adam parlayed profits from his teenage investments in Southwest Airlines and Toys “R” Us. Now, just two years out of college, he has an office on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, two full-time employees along with some part-time staff, and he claims his business is bringing in more than $1 million in annual revenue.
Crowds on Demand, he says, serves several clients a week, sometimes a day — most in L.A., San Francisco, and New York but an increasing number in smaller cities like Nashville, Charlotte, and Minneapolis. When people inquire about a potential event, Adam guides them through the possibilities and the approximate costs: $600 for fake paparazzi at a birthday dinner; $3,000 for a flash mob dancing, chanting, and handing out fliers as a PR stunt; $10,000 for a weeklong political demonstration; $25,000 to $50,000 for a prolonged campaign of protests.
According to Adam, protests have become the company’s growth sector, and just as with advertising, repeat impressions are key. “When the targets of our actions see that we’re going to be back, day after day, they get really scared,” he says. “We’re in it for the long haul, and the problem’s not going to go away on its own.” This quote is so revealing, in that it shows Adam to be almost painfully earnest, but it’s almost like the reader needs to be reminded that he’s talking about something that, at its core, is fraudulent. Did you ever point this out? Adam delights in the fact that it could be a Kaufman-created world. He’s a self-aware guy. On one hand he’s very results-oriented, and comes from the world of politics, which I think is one of the most manipulative and results-oriented fields. In political campaigns, I think everything is fair game and you do what you can to get the results you want. In a certain way he doesn’t think what he’s doing is that strange, he just thinks it’s effective and that’s what matters. But he can also take a step back and laugh at how bizarre it all is. I think that’s what makes him likeable, he can have a bird’s-eye perspective on all this. But he’s really a crusader and really likes when people who have power, a corporation, a legal entity, etc. are challenged.
When he can, Adam trains his hired crowds himself, but more often he relies on local coordinators who manage the events. In Los Angeles, Del Brown — the woman I met at the Marriott — is Adam’s point person. Del moved to California in 2012 to pursue an acting career and soon landed a Doritos commercial, but after that, she mostly found work as an extra in student films and small indie projects. She worked a gig with Crowds on Demand, and Adam was so impressed he immediately put her on staff. Del has established a wide network she can reach out to when she needs, say, 60 crowd-fillers for a party on the roof deck of the W Los Angeles hotel or a 6-foot-6-inch man in a leather kilt to act as a fan at the launch of a book about S&M culture. Many of Del’s recurring crowd members are background actors she’s met on film sets, yet she is continually trawling for fresh faces.
At the Marriott, I’d met Jackie Greig, who typifies the crowd members Del and Adam often hire. She participated first by mistake. Is this what you mean by typifies? I don’t think it’s because she was led to be confused about the event. I don’t know if that’s exactly typical. What I meant is that she’s just a middle-aged person with time on her hands and could use some extra cash. Few people who have full-time employment are signing up to do this stuff. Either people like Jackie or young students who are scraping to make a few bucks on the side somewhere. Jackie is 50 years old, a film student at Los Angeles City College. A teacher had shared a posting about what she thought was an upcoming film shoot that was looking for paid help. Jackie showed up at the Marriott only to discover that this was not a film shoot. Yes, she was being asked to aim her camera at the life coaches, but whether she hit record was immaterial. On one hand, Jackie was frustrated. She’d skipped class and driven more than an hour to be there. On the other hand, after a couple of hours, she’d made $37.50 and could now afford a Foo Fighters concert for her daughter. “I just wish they’d been more transparent about what the gig really was,” Jackie tells me.
The tricky thing, Adam says, is how many of his clients insist on secrecy. If you’re hiring a crowd to fill a campaign event or a film premiere, the last thing you want to do is let anyone know. Adam must balance his goal of spreading awareness of his company, so he can attract more clients, with the benefits of keeping the public in the dark. If people start to doubt the veracity of crowds, his business might suffer. “Right now, we’re still kind of this secret weapon,” Adam says. “We have the element of surprise. Yeah, you might’ve heard about political candidates paying to bring some extra bodies into their campaign events, but it’s beyond the realm of most people’s imagination that crowds are being deployed in other ways. Nobody is skeptical of crowds. Of course, in five years that could change.” Does he realize he’s telling this to a magazine reporter? He’s spilling these sorts of trade secrets, saying, “My company succeeds because people don’t really know we exist.” I think he’s probably both underestimating California Sunday’s reach, or it may be we had established we had enough of a rapport that he felt comfortable telling me these things. I’ve talked to a number of outlets about this piece, including “All Things Considered,” which has something like 11 million listeners. So I don’t want to ruin the efficacy of his company, but it’s also not my job to not do that. Like I told Ari Shapiro, 99% of crowds in general are genuine, so even if people know Adam’s company exists, the vast majority of crowds will still be real and people shouldn’t and won’t be skeptical.
Adam says he gives Del wide latitude to recruit crowd members. Most often, she presents the gigs as background acting work. This is only slightly misleading: Crowd members won’t bulk up their IMDB profile, but being part of a fake crowd is a kind of acting. In a world where everybody is constantly playing a part, staging moments to be broadcast later on social media, the line between counterfeit and authentic has become blurred. Is curating a version of yourself on Facebook any less fake than pretending to be a superfan of a life coach? Some would say the answer to this is yes, there IS a difference between fake and fraudulent. Can you talk about why you made this assertion? People take selfies with celebrities and post them on social media as though they are best pals, as an example. If anything, pretending to be a super fan of a life coach seems less deceitful, since everyone is in on the gag. But I can totally see why some people might view this differently, and I do think the sentence is not constructed in an ideal fashion. It doesn’t reflect exactly what I meant here. Maybe “any less fake” was the wrong way to put it. I think “any less egregious” would have been clearer, or we could have flipped the sentence and said, “Is it any more harmful to pretend to be a super fan of a life coach than to post misleading stuff on social media?” Or something.
YEARS AGO, in Chicago, I threw a launch party for my fledgling zine, Found. To make Found seem like a bigger deal than it was, I recruited three friends to scalp entry tickets along the block where our party was being held. The event wasn’t sold out, but the impression that it might sell out — that scalpers had flocked to the venue as if Prince were playing a show — had an instant effect. I overheard people on the street calling their friends, urging them to hurry over.
Once the party reached full swing, my scalper friends came inside to join us. They hadn’t sold many tickets, but one pointed out an older guy who he said had bought a ticket from him. “Reporter for the Chicago Tribune,” my friend said. “He was freaked out, thinking he wouldn’t be able to get in.” In the Trib the next week, the reporter wrote a glowing piece about Found. Would he have given us such generous coverage regardless? Maybe, maybe not. For me, though, it was clear: A crowd — more precisely, the illusion of a crowd — had done its work. Was this an anecdote you had in mind from the first you heard of Crowds on Demand? Or did it only connect after you attended a couple of events and were looking for ways to widen the scope? It’s funny you ask that. When I first had lunch with Kit, and we talked about this piece, I mentioned this to him. He thought it was pretty awesome, that I had kind of wielded crowds in the past for my own nefarious reasons. So we thought, hey, maybe that’s something that works its way into the piece. As it turns out, it ended up fitting. I’m not as much of a mercenary as Adam is, but there is a part of me that is fascinated by these methods, and has employed them in the past, in tiny ways. We basically wanted to have a section where we thought more globally and talk about why hired crowds work, what’s the history of them, are the ways that we’ve used crowds or been swayed by crowds ourselves .
A crowd means something matters, that it has value. Bands know they get more buzz from selling out a smaller venue than from having a cavernous space half-full, even if the bigger venue means more people are able to attend. The crowd out on the street who couldn’t get in is an advertisement of the band’s rising fortunes. You know how it goes. You’re on a road trip. You find two Japanese restaurants side by side. One has a dozen customers, and the other is desolate. Which place has better food? No need to check Yelp — just follow the crowd. Accurate or not, its presence tells a story of its own.
Hired crowds have a long history. The Roman emperor Nero required that 5,000 of his soldiers show up for his performances and respond with enthusiasm. The 16th-century French poet Jean Daurat bought tickets to his own plays and gave them away to anyone who promised to respond favorably. A ringer crowd, prone to easy applause, became known as a “claque,” and in the 1800s, agencies in Paris — precursors to Crowds on Demand — began to supply claqueurs to theaters and opera houses looking to fill seats or guide an audience’s response.
Just as Del Brown had assigned roles to each of us at the Marriott, claqueurs had specialties. Some chatted up their row mates between acts, going on at great length about their favorite scenes; some laughed raucously at funny moments, while others feigned tears during sad ones; and some simply cried, “Encore! Encore!” when the show was done. In Italy, crowds were used to extort money from famous opera singers, who were threatened with boos if they didn’t pay a hefty fee. It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that claques lost favor, but the practice still continues in Russia with the Bolshoi Ballet. Were you surprised at some of this history of crowds? Where’d you go looking for it? I would say I wasn’t all that surprised, but I loved the details I learned about in my online research. Just the fact that these claqueur agencies had seven different jobs. You could be just the encore shouter, just the person out in the lobby talking about how good the play is. If you’re that guy, you’re not going to be the laugher, or the cryer. We didn’t want to get lost in grand historical views on this, but we thought it was worth mentioning, definitely, to economically convey the fact that this is not a new thing, but something that has been going on for hundreds of years.
Back at the Fairmont, Adam breaks down his schedule. In recent weeks, Crowds on Demand has handled an array of requests. In Dallas, a woman who was a member of a European royal family hired the company to solve a troubling problem: She felt that her security team didn’t show her the desired level of respect and didn’t believe their presence was really warranted. As she toured the city, Adam arranged a series of “coincidental” run-ins — countrymen who would spot her at the airport or at a museum and come rushing up to her, wanting to shake her hand and take a photo with her. Did it work? “By the end of the week,” Adam says, grinning, “her security detail had a new sense for her importance as this global inspiration.”
According to Adam, a young man hired Crowds on Demand to provide support at a college expulsion hearing. The school allowed the subject of the hearing to present testimony from members of the community. While the student had two friends willing to stand before the board and testify, he asked Adam to provide 20 more. One after another, they introduced themselves as the student’s longtime friends, mentors, classmates, colleagues, and employers and read heartfelt endorsements, all written by the student himself. The board elected not to expel Adam’s client.
Fake fans at the Marriott are one thing. But here, Crowds on Demand was wading into murkier waters. If this had been a court of law, Adam’s hires would all have been guilty of perjury. That this was a college hearing and unbound by the same legal standards amounts, in my mind, to a technicality. What if the student had sexually harassed classmates and deserved to be expelled? “I look at each client on a case-by-case basis,” Adam says. “In this instance, I believed the kid was being railroaded. Yes, I’ll accept jobs even if the client’s beliefs don’t align with my own, but I have some very clear boundaries.” Crowds on Demand is often contacted by hate groups, Adam says. “Sorry, KKK, we’re not going to send crowds out to help you.” Did you strategically set up this morally murky scene here, to lead into your next gig, which is a little more dicey than the paparazzi at the Marriott? Certainly not strategic on my part. I think it happened probably by accident. I definitely thought the expulsion hearing was shady as hell. Everything else Adam told me about was either fun and games or more serious stuff, but where he seemed to be on the side of righteousness. Here, it was way more shady and complicated. But, to be clear, he doesn’t only work for progressive causes. He works for all kinds of groups even if he doesn’t believe in them. Picture a campaign advisor who works with both parties. And yet, he just didn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would show up to an expulsion hearing. People get expelled for all kinds of reasons, and I wasn’t able to get Adam to reveal the details of this action, but I kind of maybe gave him the benefit of the doubt that if it was something too diabolical, he wouldn’t have wanted to be involved. My sense of it just from the flow of our conversation was someone got caught cheating on a test and in order to not get kicked out, had all these fake people stand up and vouch for him. It definitely was the most shady thing he shared with me, to the point where I’m not sure he recognized this was way weirder than some of the stuff he told me about.
THE TEXT SAYS to arrive at an address on California Street in San Francisco’s Nob Hill neighborhood at 5 p.m. on a Thursday. Was it intentional to open this section in the same way as the first one? Yeah. Even though I’ve gotten to know this guy and know all about his company, I’m still showing up for jobs where I don’t know what the job is going to be. It’s more of the Charlie Kaufman bizarre-job stuff. As far as the lateness [mentioned below], it’s kind of lame, but I tend to write long. Any article I write, I tend to write twice as long as the assigned length. I like to give the editor a chance to whack away and chisel away at the piece. I like to tell the full experience in glorious detail. The lateness thing was a detail I included in the first draft that managed to stay in, and I guess it humanized me a little bit. First day on the new job, and you’re already late. Like my previous Crowds on Demand gig, I have no idea what my work is going to entail. All I’m told is to wear a suit.
Again, I’m running late. As I crest the hill at California and Taylor, I see elegantly dressed older couples streaming into a palatial white building. Photographers and TV news cameramen swarm around each pair, while a reporter blocks their path, bombarding them with questions. Getting closer, I realize that this isn’t a TV reporter — it’s Adam wielding a reporter’s hand-held mic.
“What’s your opinion on the Georgia edict?” he shouts at a couple in their 70s who veer around him, making a beeline for the front door.
“No comment,” the guy says. “We’re from Greece.”
“No comment?” Adam shrieks, as they duck into the building. “What are you saying? Greek people can’t stand up against bigotry?”
He spots me and comes over to say hi, making note of my lateness. Breathlessly, he gives me a hurried orientation. This is the California Memorial Masonic Temple, where Masons have gathered for their annual world conference. Recently, the Georgia grand lodge passed a bylaw — known as the Georgia edict — prohibiting homosexuality among its members. Our job? To pose as a TV news crew, confront Masons as they arrive for the opening gala, and challenge them to take a stand. “Just watch me for a few minutes,” Adam says. “You’ll figure it out.”
Sprawling camera crew in tow, Adam intercepts the Masons and interrogates them as they struggle to rush past him. Most ignore his questions, but now and then a couple stops to talk. “It’s a state’s rights issue,” a courtly, silver-haired man from Florida tells him. “Do I agree with what they’re doing in Georgia? No way. But one of the main things about Masons is, we don’t interfere with other chapters.”
Adam inches closer to the guy, raising his voice. “If you don’t agree with it, isn’t it your duty to stand up and say so?”
The guy shrugs. “I’m not a lodge master.”
Adam goes berserk or, as I observe him more closely, puts on a controlled show of going berserk. “What an embarrassment!” he shouts. “Listen, I go to the Equinox gym in Santa Monica. If the Equinox in Boston bans gays, I’m damn sure going to do something about it!”
Two cops barrel over, a burly male and a spike-haired female. The male cop says, “Hey! You guys can do whatever it is you’re doing. That’s your right. But knock off the swearing! There are kids around.”
Adam wasn’t really swearing, and there are no kids in sight. Left momentarily speechless, Adam allows the Florida Mason to hurry up the temple’s front steps.
Adam turns to me. “All right,” he says. “You got the idea?”
Actually, I don’t, but Adam deputizes me on the spot, passing me a mic. Were you curious as to why you were given such an important position, as the interviewer, as opposed to the boom-mic holder? It’s possible it’s because he knows I’m writing about this, and being the interviewer would make for the best story. But at the same time, he had seen me perform at this opera house for 200 people or whatever, and he had hung out with me, so he might’ve thought I was good person to do this job. I’ve done a lot of man-on-the-street interviews over the years, so maybe he thought this would be a natural position for me. He assigns a ragtag band to shadow me — six altogether, ranging from 20 to 60 years old. We’ve got two photographers, two videographers, a soundperson with a mic on an extendable boom pole, and a young woman balancing the brightest floodlight I’ve ever seen in my life on a rickety monopod. We don’t look like any kind of TV news crew that I’ve ever seen — more like students in a community college filmmaking class — but for Masons visiting San Francisco from Arkansas, Oregon, Portugal, and Uganda, unfamiliar with the local media, maybe we’ll pass.
What brought my fake camera crew here tonight was a Craigslist ad Adam posted earlier in the week: “Adventurous videographers wanted,” with few other details. Emily Ivker is the person wielding the boom pole. She’s a recent college graduate from Wayland, Massachusetts, who just landed in San Francisco the previous week with dreams of becoming a travel blogger. “Twenty bucks an hour,” she says. “I couldn’t pass it up.” (Crowds on Demand wages vary depending on the type of job and the local cost of living: $10 an hour in New Orleans, double in the Bay Area.)
Over the past half hour, the group has done its best to improvise. Now everyone huddles around me, waiting for me to do my Adam impersonation. Taxis keep pulling up to the curb, disbursing Masons, but it’s hard to blast from zero to 60, especially when I have such a flimsy grasp on the issues. I know next to nothing about Freemasonry: Don’t Masons have something to do with that pyramid with the giant eyeball on the back of a dollar bill? Are they connected to the Illuminati? Wasn’t Tupac a Mason? I know even less about the Georgia edict.
Adam, who’s continued working with his own crew down the block, sees me floundering. He makes his way back over. “Look,” he says. “It’s all about building awareness.” Some Masons, he tells me, don’t even know about the Georgia edict. For those who do and oppose it, our job is to motivate them to take action, however we see fit. “There’s no wrong way to do this,” he reassures me.
That’s a nice sentiment, but over the next 45 minutes, I find some impressive ways to prove him wrong. The gala has already started, and Masons are in a hurry to get inside. When I bark questions about the Georgia edict, they give me the same look they might give a homeless guy screaming about aliens. Others poke me menacingly, slap my shoulder, or shove me away. Many are from Europe, South America, and Africa and don’t have a great command of English — or claim not to. It’s almost impossible to start a conversation with anyone in the few seconds it takes them to cross the sidewalk.
Finally, I try a new tactic, and instead of confronting them when they step from their cabs, I offer a cheery welcome instead. This changes everything. Rather than hurry to get inside, they pause to talk to me. I introduce myself, shake their hands, and ask their names and where they’re from. While they’re still bewildered by all the cameras and lights, they seem to think that I’m associated with the Masons, maybe a curbside greeter. Quickly, I pivot to the question at hand. Are they aware of the Georgia edict? What do they think of it? Some know about the edict and profess disapproval, but all say they’re powerless.
“Don’t you feel that this kind of ugly discrimination stains the entire organization?” I ask a couple from France. “People may think that all Masons are bigots.”
“Yes. Perhaps,” the man says.
I borrow a line from Adam: “Why don’t you pressure the Masons to withdraw recognition of the Georgia chapter?”
“Is not so simple,” says the man. “We have to go.”
The work is exhausting, and after another hour, Adam and I take a short break. The client who hired him, he says, is extremely well-known, and he has promised not to reveal his identity. Afterward, though, I traded emails with the client, who tells me that he’s a senior Bay Area Mason appalled not only by the Georgia chapter’s openly anti-gay discrimination but also by instances of what he views as anti-black, anti-Jewish, and anti-female discrimination in chapters around the world. He and a group of like-minded Masons believe this kind of intolerance is dooming an organization they’ve come to care so much about, and they decided they couldn’t let Masons from all over the world congregate in San Francisco and just party it up. So they hired Adam’s company to make sure that the topic of discrimination within the Masonry was unavoidable. “Ruin their vacations,” the client ordered Adam. “I want everyone talking about this.”
Adam could have staged a more standard protest, but the decision to create fake news crews instead was canny. Were you surprised he took it upon himself to come up with the news crew idea? I wasn’t surprised, but I was impressed. Adam is a really impressive, canny operator. He’s really smart about media and human interaction, and obviously it’s kind of a brilliant twist. If we had all been just protesting, the effect would have been way less. I would’ve never thought of it. Knowing him, I wasn’t surprised. This guy is really good at what he does. And what he does is wield crowds in order to create social change or help clients win legal battles or personal battles or make somebody really happy. It’s like Improv Everywhere, which does these things to entertain people and help them think about the world in different ways. Adam is doing something similar, except with concrete goals that he’s frequently able to accomplish. “It’s easier to ignore protesters than a reporter,” Adam says. He turns to face the Masonic Temple. In the lobby, Masons clink their glasses, sipping wine and Champagne. “Look,” he says, “there’s 15 of us and a thousand of them, but we changed the conversation tonight.” As though to affirm his claim, several of the Masons seem to be pointing out the front windows at us, watching in silence while the rest of Adam’s crew continues to stalk the sidewalk out front, flashbulbs popping, accosting latecomers as they arrive.
During our break, Emily Ivker, the woman holding the boom pole, has picked up my mic and taken on the role of truth-hunting TV reporter while the others film the action and offer questions of their own. As Adam and I have been talking, my fake camera crew has morphed from a group of strangers looking to make a buck off a Craigslist gig into a team of passionate activists. Fantasy has become reality. Why do you think people not only agree to do this, but buy into it? There seem to be a few people mentioned who really get into it, but none who laugh and leave. Were there both? Maybe there were both, but for the most part, most people were just kind of game. Some people had worked for Adam more than once and knew what the deal was, but also it’s kind of a fun job. You’re doing something strange, but active, and I would say most people were completely embracing their role. Some stood in the background, punch-in, punch-out, get the paycheck types, but most people are super-enthusiastic and enjoying it. The sort of incredible thing about the protest event was people who showed up to make a few bucks, they started getting invested, believing in the cause and turning into real protesters. That was sort of an incredible transformation. It’s possible that at other protesting events, if the cause is a little less clear, it’s possible people wouldn’t perform with such vigor, but for anyone who believes even casually in gay rights, this is an easy cause for people to get behind.
An hour later, the gala starts to wind down, and Masons stream out of the building. Many now seem more interested in talking. Maybe it’s because they have time on their hands, or maybe our initial conversations have had a chance to sink in.
A young guy from Brazil whom I chatted with briefly on his way in pulls me aside. “The Georgia chapter,” he says. “That stupid ban. Everyone in there was talking about it. They added it to the topics for us all to discuss this weekend.” My camera team appears, and the spotlight’s glare sizzles to life, but rather than shrink away, the man seems to bloom. He leans in over my microphone, picks out the video camera, and stares directly into it. “Georgia chapter does not represent us,” he says gravely, as though he’s being broadcast in Times Square and splashed on airport monitors. “We are Masons. We include all.” This could be interpreted as a tacit endorsement of Crowds on Demand, that it changes the conversation in this way. Why did you decide to end the story here? I had about three endings. As you know, my draft was twice as long, so I had three for them to choose from. They were all along the basic lines of this, very similar to this. Kit chose this one. I’m not paid to promote Crowds on Demand, this is not an infomercial. I tried to be totally balanced and write about the company as I experienced it from the inside, but my overall feeling was that wow, this company is doing some pretty cool work. So if I left it with that vibe, it’s because that was my ultimate takeaway.