Adventures In Self-Respect

I never share my craziest stories publicly, but this article gave me some major #TBT last week, and I think, I hope, the lesson is worth sharing.

Last Summer, smack dab in the middle of my Tony Awards Week, I suddenly found myself in ten interviews, from the Yale Club to the top of 1 World Trade, as the sole candidate for the newly created role of Editor-In-Chief, Experiential across all of Condé Nast’s titles. It was to be the first non-magazine, Editor-In-Chief role in the company’s history. (A role that, for the time being, would two months later become obsolete. But just imagine for a moment my wide eyes and slacked jaw when they told me that the in-house stylist was going to redo my entire wardrobe!)

I’ve had too many major job almosts to count. This one was certainly one of the most fascinating. It was a bananas, super “who me?” experience, and everyone I met with during that period was beyond wonderful and encouraging.

But through this experience and a confluence of other well-timed events, it was the first time in my life, at age 32, when I realized I was worth something. I’m not speaking of monetary value. I’m speaking of human value. Over the course of this wild year, I recognized something so essential: I was a human that was worthy of respect and worthy of love, just like everybody else. Perhaps I always knew that on my skin. But now I knew it deep in my bones. My college mentor told me “You are enough” on graduation day. I guess it took me a decade or so to finally listen.

Maybe it was the years of working some of the most degrading gigs I could find to barely make ends meet. Maybe it was the hundred No’s after auditions and festival submissions and directing program applications that came with every once-in-a-blue-moon Yes. Maybe it all goes back to my at times fanciful, at times miserable childhood. Maybe it was all the other external factors I could name that would ultimately take the responsibility off of looking after myself. “You can’t blame nobody but you,” Janet sang. “I’m starting with the man in the mirror,” Michael sang. Whatever it was, I don’t think I had much self-respect. Not love. “R. E. S. P. E. C. T.” (Aretha SANG.)

After I started to respect myself a little more, that’s when I found love.

After I started to respect my opportunities a little more, that’s when I found strength.

After I started to respect my life a little more, that’s when I found joy.

I’ve been talking to a lot of friends and family lately about Pascal’s Wager. “You might as well believe in God.” I can’t vouch either way for that statement. But I do believe, “You might as well believe in Good.” In this life, you might as well try to be good. You might as well try to feel good. You might as well try to do good. You might as well believe that humanity as a whole has the capacity for good. Every person’s unique circumstances could certainly argue otherwise, and this current administration does nothing to support my claim. But I can choose only how I aim to live. And for me, I think this is a directive worth aiming for.

Social media has become a scientifically proven dust bowl of psychosis, misinformation, and ultra targeted marketing. It’s the ultimate “You are NEVER enough.” Whenever I log on, I see that congratulations are in order for a multitude of things – a big job or promotion, a marriage or a baby. Heck I’ve seen people sincerely congratulate others on finding their light in a grungy bathroom selfie on the Lower East Side.

If you’ve read this far into my meandering, 2 am thoughts, here’s what I want to say to you:

I AM PROUD OF YOU.

Yes, YOU. I am proud of the jobs and the babies, yes. I am also proud of you on just a regular Monday like today. I am proud of you for taking the time to apply to all those jobs. I am proud of you for soldiering on after heartbreak. I am proud of you for busting through barriers on a regular basis. I am proud of you for waking up every morning and charging ahead when the world wants to eat you alive.

I am proud of your optimism. I am proud of your kindness. I am proud of your resilience.

If you ever need a reminder, let me know. You have to remind yourself every day.

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Adventures In Leaving Home

To the past and future ghosts of W. 84th Street –

I moved to W. 84th and Amsterdam in September of 2007.img_8044

Apt 2E. “Tooey” as I affectionately called the place, labeling it as such on the front door the month I moved in. It’s the nickname Seymour gave the plant in “Little Shop Of Horrors”. You know, the thing he nurtured that eventually ate him whole.

I was in New York three months earlier, the youngest participant in the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab. I was a 22-year-old film actor in LA, masquerading as an assistant in the studio system, and I wanted to be a theatre director in New York. It was to be the smartest financial decision of my life. (🙄 )

I found this one month sublet at W. 84th and Amsterdam on Craigslist from a guy named Jonathan who was leaving to volunteer in Cambodia for a few weeks. I was back in LA, so “Cousin Jen” investigated the apartment for me. One room had a young girl from Texas. One room was acting as a storage closet for a rich girl who lived elsewhere with her boyfriend. And the third room was an office turned bedroom with a futon on the floor.

That room was to be mine.

I packed my bags. I had one month to see if New York was for me.

Then. Jonathan e-mailed me. He decided to stay in Cambodia. Full time.

The futon was mine if I wanted it. The lease was mine if I wanted it as well.

So I took over the lease and I found a steady gig as a middle school tutor.

Then. A month later, I booked a job on my first Broadway show. Sunday In The Park With George.

I guess I was staying in New York after all.

But things weren’t supposed to happen that fast, right? Where were my years of living pay check to pay check and feeling terrified I might end up sleeping on the streets? Oh that was to follow my Broadway debut? Got it.

Sunday In The Park opened. And the recession hit.

My Dad always told me, “Everything is negotiable.” So I negotiated my rent down. I hesitantly asked for a $300 decrease, thinking they’d laugh in my face. They said…”Sure.”

I was officially a lease holder on West 84th Street. 84. My birth year. 8, my lucky number. 4, the members of my immediate family. 8, the symbol for infinity, my greatest fear. 4, like a sail of a boat ashore, my greatest love. It is possible to find so much meaning, and yet look at an 84 sideways and you just might see a guy sticking his tongue out at you. After all, in Hebrew numerology, “84” means “G-d laughs.” Apropos. Do not look for meaning!

84th Street is also known as Edgar Allen Poe Way, but I won’t bore you with any far-reaching connections there.

In 2007 I became a New Yorker. I hustled and I hustled and I hustled. I took every job under the Sun. I did in fact live paycheck to paycheck for 6 years. I poured every dime into my work. I went broke twice. Red. The ATM actually said negative.

Every year I thought I’d finally move into my “real” place. But it never made sense to leave. There are fewer apartment buildings on W. 84th Street than any other residential block on the Upper West Side. That’s because there are two schools on 84th between Amsterdam and Columbus. My living room looked out on to a private garden and the bright blue sky.

The rent stayed down. And the neighborhood went up, up, up. Old Jews made way for New Strollers. The Columbia kids moved down. Good Enough to Eat moved to Columbus. And Jacob’s Pickles transformed the 7 block stretch.

Things changed after my bike accident three and a half years ago. I started writing more. I became more entrepreneurial. I created my own projects. And I started to make a living. I became a working, thriving artist. It was all I ever wanted to be.

I also started spending about a third of the year in California. Subletting out that office-turned-bedroom was the only way I could make it work.

W. 84th and Amsterdam has been my home for 9 years and 3 months. In that time, it has been home to a lot of other people as well. A LOT. I could tag half of my Facebook friends right now. Roommates and sublettors. In Betweeners and assorted vagabonds. People I met on Craigslist became roommates became lifelong friends. Thankfully, there was only one true crazy – the very first new roommate. She worked in “fashion”, did coke binges in her bedroom, and came out of her bedroom every five days to eat pizza on the hallway floor and scream in the middle of the night. img_9051

I stand now in this empty space staring at dead walls. But I’ll remember life here. I’ll remember profound joys and surmountable challenges. I’ll remember madcap Hanukkah celebrations. I’ll remember my roof. Oh will I remember my roof.

But more than anything else, I’ll remember the people. Roommates and friends. Deaf and nearly blind Miss Faagata across the hall. Sweet Miss Zingone on the 5th Floor. She must be 90 years old now. I always felt so bad living on the first floor while she slowly climbed five stories to the top.

I’ll remember Joe and Joe at the hair salon downstairs. I’ll remember the kids of Brandeis and PS 9. And I’ll remember Vivian at the laundromat on the corner. Vivian. Sweet, funny Vivian. I think I’ll miss you most of all.

I will be the keeper of this block. I will be its historian. W. 84th between Amsterdam and Columbus. 2007-2016. I walked this street a million times. I took notes. I told its stories. Now new people will come. I hope they’ll smile at their neighbors. I hope they’ll water the plants. Most of all, I just hope they’ll laugh at all of Vivian’s jokes.

My time here had its fair share of problems.
But for nearly a decade, this place was full of dreams.
For nearly a decade, this place was full of love.
For nearly a decade, this place was my home.

I might as well end with a quote from Poe himself:

“I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.”

Fondly,

Michael

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Adventures In Voting In The 2016 Presidential Election

November 8th, 2016 img_7356

Today is the 19th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah and please PLEASE no gifts. Okay the only gift I’ll accept is your help in electing Dorothy and Hugh’s daughter as our next President!

PS. My Haftorah portion was about the evolution of Avram’s name into Abraham. Kinda like Mister President into Madam President. So Bible Belters, it was written all along!

PPS. Shout out to volunteer Leticia at Frank McCourt High School on the Upper West Side. She was having a rough morning, though she wore her brave face well. I asked her if I could give her a hug, which she accepted. She held tight. When my ballot scanner said “Error” twice before finally being accepted, I looked to Leticia with concern. She said, “Don’t worry, baby. Your vote counts.” Then SHE asked if she could hug ME.
Obvi, Leticia. Obvi.

PPPS. I read Susan B. Anthony’s biography while I waited in line for my ballot. “Failure is impossible.” This morning, 19 years after my Bar Mitzvah, as I audibly wept in line and conversed with my sweet neighbors and hugged Leticia and bought a cupcake from the children and helped an old man find the disability entrance and thought about all the incredible women in my life and filled out a bubble next to our first female President’s name, I think I finally became a man.

November 9th, 2016

Mexican friends, Muslim friends, LGBT friends, Disabled friends, Immigrant friends, Female friends…The list goes on. Know and trust how many millions of people stand behind you. Who stand with you. Who will fight for you. Tonight. Tomorrow. Always.

I don’t know Trump, but I met him a few times when I first moved to New York. I was his waiter at Ivanka’s wedding. I remember watching him, in his yarmulke, with his arms around his new son-in-law, proud, respectful, curious, chanting with the rabbis for hours into the night. This whole election, I haven’t been able to get that image out of my head. It has simultaneously disgusted and infuriated me, while giving me the single shred of hope I cling to about him.

I encourage everyone to watch Secretary Clinton and President Obama’s speeches this morning. I couldn’t sleep all night. I walked these streets in the rain this morning feeling all sorts of things I’ve never felt before. I tried to sing. I tried to pray. I tried to summon the strength of my ancestors, today, of all days, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht.

But after watching both Clinton and Obama’s speeches, I do feel just a bit better, a bit more hopeful, a bit more galvanized, than I did last night. It’s a start.

My faith lies in all of you – my friends, my allies, my communities. I vow to work every day moving forward to ensure a more vibrant, inclusive, open-hearted America. Join me. Let us mourn. Then let us get back to work.

“This is the end of nothing. This is the beginning of something new and solemn and so important. You must be part of what comes next.” – Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Adventures In Handing Out Pasta Sauce Packets At The Children’s Leukemia Jazz Street Festival

When I first moved to New York, I enjoyed, and did not enjoy, a multitude of side jobs. A side job is a gig that supports your primary job. It should remain on the side, as noted by it’s straightforward title. Catering, Bartending, Promo Modeling, Filing, Mannying – You name it. I’ve done it. All in support of my primary career, as a theatre maker and filmmaker.

The promo jobs are usually the most eccentric. I say, you haven’t lived life fully until you’ve stood on a hot, muggy corner in Herald Square for 9 hours next to the hysterically screaming Black Israelites, handing out little toy dogs with oversized anuses that poop out chocolate flavored jelly beans. Or dressed up as a Viking at 4 am and posed for photos with celebrities that end up in the Second Look section of People Magazine.

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No, I wasn’t kidding.

Now I am a relatively mild mannered guy. But sometimes, a side job comes along that is so strange, and so eccentric, that it leaves the periphery of your life and instead consumes any and all sides, cracks and corners it can get it’s greasy little hands on. Then manners get spicy fast. Most of these jobs involve A) The Hamptons, or B) The Upper East Side, two magical lands where money has no price, and apparently, neither dignity nor good taste. Easy targets, I know. But this particular adventure was written 5 years ago, during much snarkier (and long-winded) times. It is set in Times Square, around a U-HAUL truck filled with one very special product…

I think I found Unnamed Marketing Company on Craigslist when I first moved to New York. I had good experience as a brand ambassador and promotional model, or “live model” as I like to say, because it can only infer that all other types of modeling involve dead people. I heard from Unnamed Marketing Company a couple times, but no opportunities arose. Then one day, I was suddenly asked to participate in an Unnamed Pasta Sauce Promotion. We were to give away free plastic bags of pasta sauce on 53rd Street in Midtown at the Children’s Leukemia Jazz Street Festival. (Because the thing jazz loving kids with Leukemia crave the most is a plastic bag of Vodka Sauce.) I was only available for one of the two dates, so I thought no dice. Then, a few days prior to the second date, I got an e-mail from the marketing company simply stating, “Call Me”. (Simply placing a call to me directly would clearly have been too difficult.)

They still needed someone for the second date of the promotion, Sunday, July 26th. The dead of Summer. In fact, they needed a manager. And I needed money. So I said yes, without hesitation. I learned that my managerial duties would include picking up the product and bringing it to site, and then supervising my very own “live models”. Sounded great for the resume. I was so game.

I had a catering gig scheduled the night before the promotion, so I told the Unnamed Marketing Company that I would pick up the vehicle and the product on Friday. I had never driven a U-HAUL in New York City before. Oh yea, that’s right, I had never DRIVEN in New York City before. That’s OK. I’m a good driver, and we should all do one thing every day that scares us, right? So I picked up the vehicle in Chelsea, 45 minutes after convincing U-HAUL that I wouldn’t offer my personal credit card information, and that they could charge the company’s corporate account instead, and then went on my merry way.

The storage unit with the pasta sauce was located at the beginning of Spring Street, that small one-way street right next to the Holland Tunnel. It was 4 pm on a Friday, and New Jersey was apparently the hottest destination in town. I was not offered specific driving instructions from the company. So I used Map Quest instead, that website that doesn’t care what city you’re in or what traffic conditions are like, you’ll still make it down a few blocks in 8 minutes or less. So I headed down the West Side Highway – my first time driving in New York City. And. Skip to 90 minutes later, after 6 near death experiences and one scraped Lexus convertible on MacDougal. (I am SO sorry, sir.)

I met up with my manager, Sam, and loaded about 550 boxes of pasta sauce into the van. Each box contained 6 packets, which equaled about 3,300 packets of sauce. For once in my life, I could be underestimating a figure. I headed home to the Upper West Side, where I could park the vehicle for the next two nights. After leaving a plum parking spot on the street directly in front of my apartment (because Sam feared someone might steal all of the product – HE FEARED SOMEONE MIGHT STEAL 3,300 PACKETS OF PASTA SAUCE), I convinced a parking garage nearby to take the van. They were hesitant, but as I soon learned, you can always barter any non-Italians with pre-made pasta sauce.

Sunday morning: The day of the promotion. A lovely morning – birds chirping, sun glistening. I pay the garage $160 total for parking. (The marketing company didn’t offer me any petty cash, but promised they would later reimburse me. Never heard that one before…) I head downtown, but wait. Broadway is closed off. (Thanks for letting us know about the Triathlon, NYPD!) I head two avenues East, and Columbus is closed off as well. Some busses collided. Or something. So I head four avenues West to Riverside Drive, which is also closed. Streets are marked off with yellow tape and police officers can be seen running in and out of a brownstone. So I stop and ask a police officer how I can possibly get downtown.

“Well, the West Side Highway is closed off for the Triathlon, ya know?”

“Yes, I learned this just two minutes ago. Thanks for assuming I knew, go on.”

“Your best bet is to cross over to the East Side at 86th Street and head down.”

“10-4.”

Sure enough. 86th Street was also closed. The next police officer I stop tells me 96th Street will work. You guessed it. Closed. The final police officer I stop simply looks at me and says, “I have no idea.” While I appreciate his honesty, I must offer apologies to my dearly departed grandfather, a noble New York City Police Officer himself, when I say, Why don’t these guys know what the fuck is going on?!

So I drive all the way up to Harlem, above the park, cross over to the East Side, and head down to midtown. Sam assures me that I will find street parking. Aw Sam, ever the optimist. 30 minutes go by, and no such luck. I text my two female live model assistants to be on the look out, but they say they’re going to stay put in the air conditioned Hilton Hotel lobby, so as to avoid any mix-ups. I pull over outside the hotel, rendezvous with the two ladies (one a last minute replacement, both of whom turn out to be great sports), and load up a few bags of pasta sauce so that they can start the promotion as I continue to look for parking. (Random Side Note: One of the girls finishes EVERY sentence with “Cool Beans”. Every Sentence. EVERY SENTENCE.)

Another 40 minutes pass, and I soon realize, how can I possibly parallel park a U-HAUL by myself in the Times Square area, especially on a day when half of the city seems blocked off? I start looking for parking garages, and of course, none of them accept trucks or commercial vehicles. I return to the Hilton Hotel, and remembering my incredible pasta sauce bartering skills, convince the guys to keep the U-HAUL near the entrance for a few hours while I engage in Operation: Get All The Fucking Pasta Sauce Out Of The Fucking Truck As Quickly As Possible.

Now this is when the fun starts. Unloading the pasta sauce takes a lot of work. You have to open every cardboard box with scissors, and then remove the pasta sauce packets from another smaller box within each box. Both boxes then need to be compacted and put in to a trash bag. I was given two trash bags, which were able to hold about 2% of the total cardboard. (In exchange for 6 more sauce packets, the garage attendants give me a few more garbage bags. God Bless the Polish. Every one.) Next, the sauce packets have to go into the trash bags, which are to be carried to the site. Pasta sauce is not light, and the trash bags all tear open en route.

Giving away the pasta sauce itself is a tricky endeavor as well. Street Fair in Midtown = Tourists. Tourists have very little use for a plastic bag of pasta sauce that can easily puncture and can’t travel home with them. I call Sam up and express my concern having only two promo models getting rid of all the pasta sauce, as I continue to stay with the U-HAUL, opening and compacting the boxes.

Sam tells me, “I only care that you get a few good pictures of families with the product to show the client. Just figure out a way to get rid of all the sauce.”

“Get rid of all the sauce?” I say. “I have an already extended 4 pm deadline to return the U-HAUL, and only 2 hours left to get rid of a truck load of pasta sauce. I just don’t think this is possible. With eight assistants spread out around town, maybe, but with two, and with THIS much product?”

“Why don’t you just drive down to Union Square and give it all away? There’s always big crowds in Union Square.”

Never mind that there is no parking in Union Square. Never mind the time constraints. Never mind that it would be impossible to unload all the product there, another tourist dense locale.

“As long as you get a few good pictures, I don’t care how you get rid of the sauce. Just get rid. of. The Sauce.”

Click.

I now have 90 minutes left before the U-HAUL is due. I try calling them to extend our deadline once again, but U-HAUL seems to only let you talk to their out of state headquarters, and the operator I got was NOT in a good mood.

Only about 20% of the product has been given away at this point. It’s hot and it’s humid and I’m dressed in all black. I haven’t eaten, and my bladder feels fuller than a bag of fucking pasta sauce.

The cops won’t take the sauce.

“We can’t take anything with vodka in it.”

Again, REALLY NYPD?!

WACA. WACA. WACA.

The cab drivers won’t take the sauce.

“I don’t have a microwave in the car, sorry.”

Really Cab Driver? REALLY?! I’m sure your dashboard in this heat would do mighty fine just about now. I can find you a fucking straw!

The Soup Kitchens are closed, and it’s illegal to dump all this product on the side of the road. As I text my two assistants to quickly reconvene at the van to come up with Plan B, I notice them fast approaching.

“We were kicked off the street. We don’t have a permit. The other vendors are complaining and we’re not allowed to give away the pasta sauce anymore.”

With ginormous sweat beads dripping off my face, I let out a maniacal laugh and start punching babies in Times Square.

I breathe. I smile. I fill them in. Cool Beans Girl proposes, “I think if we just drive up to Harlem and open up the back doors, all the black people will come and take all the pasta sauce.”

As tempting as her ridiculously racist idea is, there isn’t enough time. So she calls one of the head supervisors at the Unnamed Marketing Company, the one who got me the job in the first place, and explains our predicament.

New Plan. We are to drive a little uptown, pick up the storage unit keys from employees working a different promotion, head to Union Square and get rid of as much product as we can, and then head back downtown to return all the remaining product to the storage unit. Fine. FIIIIIIIINE.

We grab a quick bite, take some pictures with the Parking Garage Attendants (How about THEM Family Pictures, Sam), pay for parking (which is discounted by half because the guys initially give me the keys, and the ticket, of a more recently arrived U-HAUL), head up town, pick up the storage unit keys, completely BYPASS Union Square because I have 45 minutes left and no time for such a preposterous idea, fill up the gas tank so the van is ready to return, and then head straight for the storage unit on Spring Street, the safest little nook in all of New York City barring any appearances from U-HAUL driving neophytes.

The three of us form a line and unload hundreds of boxes of pasta sauce onto 3 dollies. We head to the elevator, and the towering boxes all fall off the carts. We reassemble, head down to the basement, and again, the boxes all fall off the carts. We unload 2 carts worth into the unit. I head upstairs, and leave the last cart to them. Make way, ladies! I’ve got a sauce-free U-HAUL to return! The storage unit attendant tells me he’ll charge me $35 to leave my four trash bags with him. I tell him to go fuck himself. Which I don’t really say. I really just smile and tell him, “Thank-you so much kind, sweet sir.” I load the trash bags back on to the truck and head back to the U-HAUL Center in Chelsea.

The rental return entrance makes no sense, so I mistakenly get back on my favorite street, the West Side Highway, make a quick U-turn, because returning a vehicle has never sounded so much like nirvana and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get rid of it, and head back to the rental return. I leave the trash bags on the corner like lonely hookers in the night and head inside. I ignore the long line and head straight to the manager and ask what else I need to do to get this God forsaken truck off my hands.

“I’m just going to need the e-mail on the account, sir, for verification and receipt.”

What E-mail. What. E-mail. I call Sam. No answer. I call Sam. No. Answer. I call Sam. He picks up. I get the e-mail.

He asks, “Cool. So I heard you put the rest of the product back in storage. Great. Ya know, I thought you might run into a couple problems today. But it seems like you guys got everything taken care of. How did you feel the day went?”

“Great, Sam. Just great…I’m tired…I’m hungry…I’m going to go home and take a nap…Thank-you so much for this opportunity…I’ll be sure to write up a little report and send it to you tonight.”

“Oh, no worries. Take the night off. You can send it to me tomorrow.”

“Oh, that’s so kind of you…Thanks…Talk soon.”

I’d love to tell you that I walked off into the sunset. I’d love to say that I got the money, Cool Bean Girl and I settled down and started a family, and everything worked out great in the end. Truth is, the day was only half over, and I looked like such a hot, sweaty mess in my all black uniform that the Orthodox Jews spoke Hebrew to me my entire subway ride home.

Life will always provide you with great challenges. My idiotic and vivacious tapestry of experiences can only muster so much wisdom. In the end, only you will be able to figure out how to navigate the ebbs and flows of your own life’s hardships. There is one thing, however, that I can so sagely impart: If you can, lay off the sauce.

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Adventures In Love At First Sight

A couple years ago, I saw two strangers, a gentleman and a lady, lock eyes across a room, a heat and attraction so immediate and so intense that it threatened to destroy every notion that “it could only happen like that in the movies”, ironic considering we were at the premiere of the lady’s first film. With camera in hand, and having just purchased a new lens earlier that day, I slowly backed up into a corner and watched silently as the dashing gentleman cooly approached the resplendent lady, as if they were jungle mammals in some nature documentary narrated by Richard Attenborough. I quietly but quickly held my camera to my face, snapping up just one photo before the lady noticed her old friend being a creeper with a camera in the corner. Later that evening, I apologized to the lady, telling her I had taken the photo because I wanted their grandchildren to see the moment Grandma and Grandpa first met on that perfect Autumn day in New York City. But really, more so, a couple years down the line, when I would at long last gaze upon her sparkling ring finger…I just wanted to be able to smile and say to one of my oldest friends, “I told you so.”

I TOLD YOU SO.

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