In a café in Glens Falls, N.Y., Will Smith is telling those of us at this particular table what a bummer it was that his recent film Concussion was basically ignored. He is eating scrambled eggs and hash-browns (later, he has a bit of chicken breast, because you should never say no to protein). People just love football too much, we all agree. It’s religion. There may be a separation between Church and State, but the Founders never said anything about separating Americans and football, chronic traumatic encephalopathy be damned. Then between bites, Will Smith tells us that the film did indeed have some reluctant admirers, including former beloved General/disgraced CIA Director David Petraeus, who, apparently, is someone Will Smith knows.
But first: record scratch, freeze frame, you’re probably wondering how I got here. I wish it was because Will Smith and I are best friends who like to chill and just talk about movies on the reg, but it’s actually because of water. JUST Water, to be precise. And the Fresh Prince was really only there as a friendly and gregarious supporting player. The star of the day was his son, the inscrutable, gender-bending, swashbuckling sensation wrought from stardust, Jaden Smith.
If you are a person mildly interested in the adventures of Jaden Smith or just a person who is sometimes on the internet, it is possible that you may have seen a few photos of Jaden Smith with a strange blue-and-white box of water pressed up against his ear. This was not simply happenstance or the well-known quirky affectation so-called millennials have for pretending their beverages are cell-phones. It was actually some paparazzi enabled viral foreplay for a passion project nearly a decade in the making. You see, Jaden Smith is an investor in JUST Beverages, an eco-friendly water-packaging company utilizing a primarily paper Tetra Pak bottle, which, is sort of a box-shaped thing, but not so box-shaped it’ll alienate people who passionately hate drinking water from boxes. The JUST bottle is made from 54% paper, 28% plant-based plastic, 15% traditional plastic, and just 3% aluminum. Retailing for just 99 cents, it’s both good for your wallet and your carbon footprint. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The legendarily inscrutable Smith doesn’t seem to just be a famous person throwing in some walking-around money at a generic noble cause either. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch messed him up when he was a kid (a younger kid), and in the JUST mythology, he’s something of a Chosen One. All the other players were sucked into his orbit—other extremely famous people like Queen Latifah, Calvin Harris, Lionel Ritchie, and Luol Deng are also part of the JUST team, but none of them had the decency to be waiting for me to arrive in Upstate New York for a tour of the facilities. Only Jaden was game for that.
We arrive at the JUST packaging plant around noon. It’s me and a few other online #content creators. Many of them would soon write their own version of this day. Once they’re all compiled we can prepare a gritty reboot of Rashomon that will be a critical success but a commercial failure. In the factory, we’re all surprised to see Will Smith, the star of Wild Wild West and Enemy of the State. He is cracking jokes, being loud and friendly, basically just being what you’d imagine Will Smith is like. He’s goofily charismatic, so much so that I restrain myself from walking up to him and saying, “Why the fuck weren’t you in goddamn Independence Day 2, Will?” Quite unlike his dad, Jaden is quiet and self-assured, but weirdly charismatic in his own soft-spoken smirk-y way. He’s wearing a maroon hat, and a denim jacket that says Volunteer Firefighter with flames running down the sleeves. I introduce myself, shake his hand and think, so that’s what Jaden Smith’s hand feels like. We are quickly introduced to other luminaries of the JUST Team: CEO Grace Jeon, COO Jim Siplon, and founding member Drew Fitzgerald, a Glens Falls native who goes way back with the Smith family. Will Smith cheers loudly when everyone is introduced.
At this point, Jim Siplon takes the lead. Siplon has the friendly face of a doomed sidekick, a yellow baseball cap, and a good bedside manner. Tangents are one of his passions, but so is water. He loves water so damn much that once he even looked for it on Mars as an astrophysicist working with NASA. He leads us on a tour of the facility. We shuffle along, gawking at humming machinery and bulbous water tanks. We wear hairnets (I sense a spiritual connection when Jaden wears his hairnet under his hat, as I do). We take pictures and notes. Some people ask questions, but not many. Jaden watches quietly, like a general observing his troops from high ground. Will Smith did not follow us on the brief tour. Jaden says it was hairnet-related.
Facts and figures fly at us. Some I remember. The bottle that JUST produces is 80 percent more carbon effective than a regular plastic water bottle. That’s not good enough for Jaden, who proclaims, “80 percent is good, but we’re trying to get it to 100 percent.” He’s an optimist.
We get back on the bus, but this time, Jaden Smith, Siplon, and Drew Fitzgerald join us. Jaden passes out recycled notebooks like candy, looks at me and says, “You want one, bro?” In my brain I respond, “Fuck yes, I want a goddamned recycled notebook, dear friend Jaden,” but I just nod, like a normal person. Later, I realize that I forgot the notebook on the bus.
Siplon talks about Glens Falls, which sits at the base of the Adirondack Mountains and likens it to many struggling towns across America, once thriving, now much less thriving. Across the street from the water packaging plant is public housing. Most industry in the town is gone. Glens Falls is four square miles. There are no school busses. If you live in Glens Falls, you are expected to be hardy enough to make it to school without the aid of one. It’s landlocked, surrounded on all sides by more prosperous communities, much like Swaziland or Uzbekistan.
But they have something valuable, elsewise why would Jaden Smith be hanging out here? What Glens Falls does have in abundance (besides pride in not taking the bus) is water. Lots and lots of water, billions of gallons, most of them unused. Drew Fitzgerald is one of the more important heads of the JUST Beverages hydra. He looks like the sort of guy you want in your corner, an outgoing dude with ironed shirts who closes deals and answers his phone by saying “Talk to me, baby!” He is a native of Glens Falls, and he takes over the narration. Jaden insisted on riding with Drew, which is why he’s on our bus. Drew asks me where I’m from and I tell him Baltimore. Jaden is pleased, and tells me “Baltimore is fire.” I agree, solemnly.
We drive towards the forest and plunge into the primordial heart of darkness of Upstate New York. Tall trees surround us. It is verdant as hell. Pebbles crunch under footfalls. It feels like elementary school again. We are on a field trip, learning how the world works for the first time. Will Smith has rejoined us. “One of the issues we’re concerned with is there’s a Bigfoot in these woods,” Will Smith warns. Siplon, less of a cryptozoologist, delightedly exclaims, “I’m told there was a bear here!” We continue into the woods nonetheless. Jaden Smith sidles up next to various strangers striking up casual conversation. We walk down a hill to a pseudo-reservoir, which is not the reservoir the water originates from, but a sight to behold in any case. You can see the hills of Vermont from here, if that is the sort of thing you want to see. On the way back someone points out to Jaden a little clearing where they intend to build something with which to start utilizing solar energy. With gusto Jaden exclaims, “Solar panels for liiiife!” We get back on the bus.
After another short drive, we end up at the café in downtown Glens Falls. This is the quiet sort of Main Street America community that politicians lionize at every chance. People seem friendly and it doesn’t seem unlikely that if Soviets invaded this place that the Varsity Football team might take to the forest and mount a noble resistance. Both Smiths take turns playing an out of tune piano while we are instructed to sit down and eat lunch. I manage to steal a seat next to Will Smith, which is where he reveals his regret about Concussion.
I manage to shock him by telling him I’ve seen one of his earliest films, Where The Day Takes You, at least ten times. This makes him laugh, and since it’s always been a dream of mine to make Will Smith laugh a few times in a small café, I mentally check out, considering my work here finished. But then the conversation turns towards Jaden again, and Will Smith plays the role of the proud father, and regales me and the four other media people at the table with Jaden tales, a few extremely relevant. He tells us that when he was younger, Jaden got really into surfing, but eventually the sight of plastic bottles floating in the Pacific Ocean depressed him so much he started workshopping ideas (at age 11, the age at which I would only read books if they featured elves or trolls) with Drew Fitzgerald, whose office was close to Smith’s house.
People generally take a cynical view towards celebrities and their lip-service to big causes and such, but everything we know about the space-boy that is Jaden Smith just seems to indicate his authentic passion for this stuff. There are so many things I don’t really know about or care about, until I run into someone with unbridled genuine enthusiasm for them. But Jaden Smith, who I don’t really know much about, obviously gives a shit about this stuff.
When I finally sit down face to face with Jaden, it’s almost time for us to go. I figure he is tired of talking about water, and glancing at my list of dumb questions, I just start yapping at him extemporaneously, to mixed results. The mythology of JUST has been hammered into me, and I thought even as a person who found eco-friendly water bottles captivating, he was probably bored of answering the same questions over and over again. So we just talk. He is cool, but of course it is weird, because he knows Jackie Chan and I don’t.
He tells me that he was shocked when he was a young surfing dude to see all the plastic, and thought to himself, “Aren’t there people whose job it is to get rid of those bottles?” His first plan was to use nets to cleanse the ocean of stray plastic, but he gave up on that when he realized that it wasn’t the ocean he should focus on, it was the bottles themselves. At this point he burps softly. I want to know what his ideal JUST beverage would be, and try to lead him down a dark path by suggesting “JUST Whiskey? JUST Rum? What are we talking here?” His eyes sort of light up and he immediately says, “Definitely JUST Kombucha!” then explains why it would be impossible to put Kombucha in the JUST packaging. He talks a big game, drops all sorts of “science facts,” but it seems for real, so much so that I feel bad for assuming this was all PR bullshit.
We have to leave the café shortly after. Jaden wends his way through all the people who asked him water-related questions and says his goodbyes. He shakes my hand and I repeat his earlier words back to him: “Baltimore is fire.” He laughs, releases my hand and agrees, “Baltimore is fire. It’s flames!”
Will Smith points to me from the door and I point back. We’re frozen in a moment of public pointing. “Go where the day takes you!” Will Smith instructs me, and like an apparition, saunters away, hopefully not bumping into anyone.