Monday, February 22, 2010


All right, even though I’ve had many more day jobs than three, I’ve been spotlighting only those that deserved a spotlight. And by “deserved a spotlight,” I mean, “scarred me so badly that even now, all these years later, I feel a need to vent.” I also had some good jobs and good bosses; I’ve mentioned those before. But those make for boring blogs.

So, the worst of all my day jobs gets highlighted today.

It was short-lived. I only went out twice for this particular day job. It was during my time at NYU. I needed some income that I wouldn’t have to pay back; I was living off my loans. I had classes during the day and needed something flexible, at night, and hopefully something that wouldn’t keep me sitting any more than I already was, with classes and the writing. I decided to think out of the box, be creative, try something new and unusual and fun.

I went into catering.

I’m not sure what I thought this job would be; but it really did sound fun. I didn’t think of the practical side: carrying plates, glasses, serving people, cleaning up. I don’t know, I guess I just thought of parties and food.

I signed up with a temp agency that staffed catered affairs. They gave me instructions: call in when you’re available for work, it’ll be evening positions, and you have to buy a tuxedo.

Seriously. A tuxedo.

I went to the uniforms place to pick up my tuxedo. It was the kind of place that has an outfit for every occasion; great for Halloween. They had bellboy outfits, maid uniforms (none sexy, though), doorman uniforms. Tuxedos. For men and women.

It wasn’t expensive: the pants, jacket, bowtie (bowtie! I had to wear a bowtie! In anything other than a real tuxedo, worn for a formal occasion, they can be pulled off only by the most extraordinary man; women should not be subjected to them! A bowtie!!), and two shirts—one with fancy black buttons, one with regular white ones—cost about $60. I was promised I would pay for the tuxedo with one gig. I tried this thing on, looked in the mirror, and flushed red. I looked stupid. Oh, so stupid. I had fairly short hair at the time—not man-short, but collar-length—and somehow the whole combination just did not work. I looked so stupid. Have I mentioned, I looked stupid? And yet I thought this job might be fun, might be some good extra money, so I bought the tuxedo and took it home in a blue plastic bag, still feeling a faint tinge of embarrassment.

My first gig was at a Lehman Brothers (RIP) Christmas party. It was a gigantic open dining area that overlooked the Hudson, quite a nice space. We were instructed to wear the tux pants and shirt, but no jacket. Mercifully, at the venue, they gave us blue smocks to put over the dumb tux. I was relieved. I wore silver hoop earrings, which somehow made the ensemble a little nicer, and was told I had to remove them. “Earrings can’t extend below the earlobe.” Okay.

We were told not to speak to anyone unless spoken to. We were not to speak to each other, even if we were standing next to each other. Even if we were manning the same station, serving roast beef and chicken. Even if we were bussing the same tables. Unless we were speaking about portion sizes or cleanup, we were not to speak to each other. “You will be sent home immediately and not paid for your time,” they said. Somehow the image of two lowly catering personnel CHATTING ABOUT SOMETHING was so awful to them, so unprofessional—speaking about something other than food, while serving people!!—it was a firable offense. Okay. (Now, I do shop at Fairway, where the checkers are so busy chatting to each other in Spanish that they can’t even bother to tell the customer how much the total is. It is annoying to be ignored by someone who’s supposed to be attending to you because s/he is too busy having a personal conversation. But still: “We’ll fire you if we see you talking”? Really?)

My first station was standing as a greeter, holding a tray of glasses of white wine, with an inviting and welcoming smile. “Welcome to the party. White wine?” That was my line. So I stationed myself accordingly, held out the tray, and quickly realized THIS BLOODY TRAY IS INCREDIBLY HEAVY. And a moment later, IF I HAVE TO HOLD IT FOR MORE THAN FIVE MINUTES I’M GOING TO DROP IT. A moment after that, I HAVE MATCHSTICK ARMS AND OH MY GOODNESS THIS TRAY IS HEAVY. So bankers drifted in, happy to have gotten off work early, and I smiled pleasantly and said, “Care for some white wine?” or “Would you like a glass of white wine?” “Welcome to the party. White wine?”

People either acknowledged me or didn’t, and most of them walked past… without …taking … a glass of white wine. My pleasant smile grew strained and I shifted to try to balance it on my hip. It didn’t work, and I went back to holding it out in front of me. “White wine?” I said. JUST TAKE A GLASS OF THIS BLOODY WINE BECAUSE OMG IT’S HEAVY! “Welcome to the party. Care for a glass of white wine?” THROW IT OUT, DUMP IT IN THE PLANT, I DON’T CARE, JUST TAKE IT FROM ME! “Hello, happy holidays! Would you like a glass of white wine?” FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE TAKE A F***ING GLASS OF WHITE WINE.

At last my tray was empty. I deposited it in the kitchen and went to my cleanup station. For a long time, as people got their food and ate, I just stood there. Fellow catering temps were friendly; they smiled and tried to chat. Remembering the firing threat, as soon as they asked what I did, why I had to have a day job, I smiled and fled.

After an hour of standing around, we had to start cleaning up. I was in the least crowded area, thankfully, and I took people’s glasses and plates right to the kitchen. I didn’t have to fight people to get through. More and more people finished dinner and then went to the dance floor (not in my station!) to shake it loose. Picture drunk bankers shaking it, I dare you. (and the poor saps stationed in that area, loading up trays full of very breakable glassware and trying to navigate through them to the kitchen.) I dutifully cleaned their glasses and plates and silverware, and then began cleaning up the tables with the food, skirting the friendly conversation of fellow catering temps.

This is all exhausting. You wouldn’t think it would be; you would think, hey, you’re just taking plates and glasses and silverware across the hall to the kitchen. But you would be wrong. All the standing, all the walking back and forth, all the transporting; within an hour, I was ready to go home. I didn’t want to, of course, because we got paid by the hour, but physically I was ready. I knew it for sure when I spilled a glass of beer. It was half full, and the banker said he didn’t want any more, so I had picked it up and set it on the tray, and then when I picked up the tray I didn’t do it fast or decisively enough, and my matchstick arms, already fatigued from holding a tray of white wine, tipped the tray forward. I dumped the beer. Into the banker’s lap.

Profuse apologies all around, of course. And he was drunk, so he didn’t seem to care. I escaped to the bathroom for a little while to shake. I knew, had someone dumped half a glass of beer into my lap, I’d be pretty darn pissed. I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d yelled at me, but he hadn’t. But I was shaken. And very tired. And the evening was about half done.

Everyone finished shaking their booty things and drifted off into the night. I felt that emotional easing as the room emptied out, feeling (against logic) that it was time for me to go home, too. But no, it was time to clean up! I dropped two more glasses in the next hour. None into anyone’s lap, but both shattered.

I started to think maybe I wasn’t cut out for this catering thing.

I had paid for my tuxedo (and did I mention how utterly horrible and stupid I looked, wearing the tuxedo?) with my night’s job. But I needed at least one more. And oh, what a doozy that was.

I got a call to be at the Park Avenue Armory at seven p.m. This is quite late for a regular catering gig; usually you’re supposed to come in at three, because they’re, you know, dinner. But this one was special. We were told to wear our full tux outfits. I put mine on and stared at myself in the full-length mirror, wincing. Can I say it again? I LOOKED STUPID.

We arrived at seven and waited around until eight (this is where I learned that you ought to bring a book to catering gigs; several people had them). I was informed that I would be on coat check duty, and there were hundreds (I mean, hundreds) of coat hangers set up on racks. Hmm.

I began wandering around the place, waiting for the shift to begin. It was fascinating. The Park Avenue Armory is a big, empty floor that you can make into whatever you want to make it into. There was a lagoon set up in a corner, with a real waterfall and pool and tropical plants. Another one in the other corner. There was the food setup area. There were tables set up, though not many. And … there was a bar.

Plastered to the wall behind the bar there were at least a hundred Playboy centerfolds. In their full glory.


I stared at this backdrop dispassionately for some time, pretty much reaffirming my heterosexual status. But I found it very, uh, interesting that it was up in the first place.

“What is this party?” I finally asked.

“It’s the Playboy anniversary party,” they said.


People began arriving. Young women, mostly, all pretty nondescript. They took off their coats and gave them to us, and we handed them their little tag for eventual retrieval. We were right in front of the door, and it was December and pretty soon my toes were freezing. The young women went downstairs, and emerged half an hour later. Dressed exactly alike. Dressed like Playboy models.

Now, they didn’t’ have the regular bunny outfit on. No, I guess this was passé by that time. They wore:
A black shoulder-length wig with blunt bangs;
A black strapless shelf bra
Black tight boy shorts
Black fishnet stockings;
Black knee-length boots
Lots of pink makeup, too.
Wow. It was pretty impressive. I glanced down at my (STUPID, AWFUL, UGLY) tux and was nevertheless glad I was wearing it rather than what the waitresses were wearing.

Guests began arriving. I wondered who they were, exactly; who gets invitations to the Playboy birthday party? I couldn’t tell by looking at them. They were businessmen, women; young and old. Maybe more horny young men, though.

And I spent my night behind the counter at the coat check, greeting people in a stupid tux, taking their coats and exchanging them for a little tag. I watched Pamela Anderson come in (who could be a more appropriate guest?); she was going to jump out of the cake. I watched a young singer whose name escapes me (Ashanti? Maybe) and her enormous entourage; she was going to sing happy birthday to Hef. And I watched Hef come in, too, with five skank blondes. He’s about my height (five-five) and very thin. A small man, whose life has been the mother of all overcompensations. They had his voice on a loop, talking about the inception of Playboy, where he was saying he started it for guys to “have a little fun.” Sigh.

I took a bathroom break midway through. One of the (scantily) black-clad waitresses was sitting in the bathroom, in the corner, in a huff. “All of these men here keep looking at me!” she snitted.

Ya think?

She went on: “They don’t know, I’m not these clothes! I’d rather be at home in my sweats right now!”

Yeah, sweetheart, but you’re not.

Maybe I was in an overcompensation of my own, feeling so very dowdy to begin with, but even more so in this STUPID UGLY TUX next to this girl in a black shelf-bra and boy shorts with a taut stomach. She was very cute, and… I was not.

So the evening begins its windup. People begin claiming the coats we have stashed in the hundreds of hangers on the dozens of coat racks. They try to tip us, a couple of dollars or five. Or twenty. And the captain has us under strict instructions: we are NOT to accept a tip of any kind. We are to say, “Hef is taking care of us.”

The thing is, Hef was most definitely NOT taking care of us. Saying “Hef is taking care of us” implied, somehow, that there’s a big tip waiting at the end, and no, we were earning an hourly salary and that was all. There would be no pajamaed Hef coming around and pressing hundred dollar bills on us in a state of boozy generosity. I watched a parade of drunk people get out higher-denomination bills than sober people would, and I had to turn them down. I was not able to make myself say, “Hef is taking care of us,” so instead I said the next-best thing: “I’m not allowed to take tips.” This angered the captain, who repeated, “You’re not supposed to say that! You have to say, ‘Hef is taking care of us!’” The next man came with a $10 for me, and the captain eyed me as I said, “No, I’m not allowed.” She didn’t fire me, but she did get mad.

One drunk guy came with his friend. The friend was pretty sober, and the drunk guy had lost his coat tag. He was so drunk, he practically had bubbles coming out of his ears. He stood there, half asleep, with a little grin on his face (the centerfolds behind the bar? The waitresses?), swaying back and forth, as his friend begged us to find the guy’s coat. We had no idea what it was, and drunk guy was not coherent enough to tell us what it looked like, other than “It’s black.” Sigh. Semi-sober friend was dying to get him home, but they had to wait a good hour before there were few enough coats that drunk guy could pick his out.

So the party trickles out. It’s after midnight, and now we have to clean up. Cups on the floor, napkins in the oasis pool. Chairs get put away, dishes get done, coat racks get taken three flights down to storage. On and on. It’s now one-thirty, and I’m ready to drop. I caught a glimpse in a mirror, and my hair was flat, my makeup smeared, and I looked tired in addition to STUPID IN MY TUX.

I walked by a man who was probably in his fifties, very unattractive and with Michael Landon hair. He did a giant, over-obvious double-take and said, “You look HOT in that tux.”

I laughed my loudest cackle-laugh and kept going. Methinks someone saw too much of the centerfolds behind the bar, and wanted to go home with someone. And maybe he did. Just not with me.

The Playboy party was my last catering affair. I just hated it too much—and I would have even if I hadn’t staffed the Playboy party. I went back to assistant-type work, sitting at desks and working on computers. Yes, I get injuries from sitting (tendinitis! Stiff back! Bad shoulders! Sore legs!) but they’re better than venereal disease.

The tux hangs still in its blue plastic bag in my closet, a reminder of an earlier time.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


And the series continues! I’ve had a few of them, you see. Day jobs, I mean. Some of them have been great. I probably won’t write about those here.

After I quit working for Jane, I had a long, hard summer. I have always referred to it as the “Summer of Unemployment,” because I’m literal-minded like that. And it was…hard.

The weather was lovely. For anyone who has experienced a New York summer, you know what a crazy statement that is. What? No, New York summer is like walking through warm pudding! Summer in New York is humid and stinky, and no matter how freshly showered you are, the moment you walk out the door you begin to sweat. It’s that not-so-fresh feeling…everywhere, for three months on, men and women alike.

I get what you’re saying, I do. I’ve lived through a lot of them, which is where the above hypothetical comes from. But for bulk of the summer of 2001, the temperatures remained mild and the humidity relatively low. (This comes from an accustomed New Yorker; “relatively low” means anything under 70%. Contrast this to the Utah weather man who announces, with 30% humidity, “It…is…muggy!”) I do remember one solid, steamy week that August with temps in the low hundreds, but besides that, it was delightful. There were several nights that I would get off the subway and perk up at the fresh, beautiful night, and thank the powers that be for such a great summer. Weather-wise, I mean.

So I would walk outside during the day and marvel at what a lovely summer that was. And then marvel at what a crappy situation I was in. I had quit my job with Jane, and I hadn’t saved much money. Seems to me I did get a nice (for me) tax refund that year, so I had that in my account. But the account—and this happens, when you’re taking out and not putting back in—was rapidly draining.

I stayed in a lot. I ate a lot. I put on weight, I got depressed. I watched a lot of TV. I still had the “I want to write” idea in my head, but every time I tried to write something I marveled at my own lack of inspiration, lack of ideas, lack of talent. And I turned the computer off and went to do something incredibly uninspiring.

I had signed up with three temp agencies. None was calling me. This was the end of the dot-com boom, and companies were in one of their many belt-tightening periods. “Wait—money doesn’t just fall from the sky? We can’t put a Foozball table in the lunch room and have all-day tournaments in our pajamas and still make money? What’s that about?” A period of renewed seriousness. And when companies have realized that they’re not making money in their pajamas playing Foozball, they’re not going to be hiring temps. In fact, they might just get rid of the Foozball table.

This summer was such a time.

And we all know what happened at the end of that summer. One beautiful Tuesday morning I awoke to a phone call—I had hoped it was a temp agency—with my friend telling me to turn on the television. I did, and it looked like our world was ending. My thoughts about unemployment went out the window; I knew there would be no temping in the near future. As far as New York was concerned, there may not have been a near future at all.

Two months after that, I got a job.

It was set up by a friend of a friend. I was at dinner one night, sitting by the window, and heard a knock. It was an old roommate whom I hadn’t seen in about five years. I dashed outside and the two of us chatted and exchanged emails. The former roommate, whom I’ll call Robin (I’m not sure why) had started dealing with a self-help group called the Landmark Forum. The Landmark Forum, she said, was revolutionary and I needed to do it. And then she left. So we emailed a few times, and she told me that a fellow Landmark Forum friend was looking for an assistant, I got into contact with him, had an interview, and got the job.

The Landmark Forum works!

The boss…let’s call him Steve…was in his fifties and had experienced the Landmark Forum’s transformational three-part series in a way that absolutely changed his life. I am going to try not to denigrate here, because I’m sure it really did. But…it’s hard…not to be sarcastic. Steve, see, told me that when he was five, his cat ran away. His mother told him to pray for the cat to come back, and it did not. This taught him not to trust pets, God, or people, and he lived the next fifty years with that creed. Until the Landmark Forum came along…and now he has 8 cats and got married and had started this company that was going to be the next Standard Oil.

Okay, he really did have 8 cats. And his wife seemed lovely. The Standard Oil part…that’s where things got wonky.

Again, trying not to be too indiscreet. It was an energy company. An energy company with a revolutionary idea. A revolutionary idea involving something that could reduce the country’s dependence on oil…during the Bush administration. During Enron’s heyday. Since Steve’s real name was not Ken Lay, and he didn’t have any insider buddies, he didn’t really stand a chance.

Steve had received an enormous initial investment in his company. Well, “enormous” to a layperson. To an experienced businessperson, the initial investment was good but not substantial. Not enough to run a startup for more than a year, not with the international travel expenses they were incurring. Not with the high-priced consultants he hired with abandon.

Steve and his henchpeople needed to travel back and forth to Dallas quite often. Steve always wanted me to get the best price, but Steve didn’t realize that I didn’t have a magic in with the airlines. I would get my flights off Orbitz, sad to say. Sometimes I called travel agents, but they had their fee, and Steve would get upset that we were paying that for something I could do for free on the internet. So that’s what I did.

Once Steve decided he had to travel to Dallas with Henchman #2, “Max.” I went to Orbitz and got two tickets for $300ish each. Three weeks later, about two days before traveling to Dallas, Steve decided that Max should not go to Dallas with him; “Dan” should. Orbitz would not let me change the name on the ticket. The airline would not let me change the name on the ticket. I called the airline to get a new ticket, and they quoted me a price of $1800 for the ticket. Steve was furious that I would get such a crappy price—not with the airlines, with me. It was my laziness and refusal to dig deeper that caused him to have to pay this exorbitant fee. I apologized (that’s what sucks most about the assistanthood) and waited for him to make his decision. Ultimately he said, fine, we’ll pay the $1800. I called the airline, and they said that because we were paying such a high price for Dan, they’d put Dan in first. I asked if Steve could also be in first, and they said no. Now, here was my mistake: I mentioned this to Steve. Steve freaked out. He said it was because he and Dan needed to be able to work on the plane ride down; I suspect he was just pissed because he wasn’t the one in first. I again called the airline; they again refused. Steve said they absolutely had to sit together. I said we could downgrade Dan; he said no, he had to be upgraded. The airline said fine, if Steve wanted to pay another $1800 for his ticket and upgrade. Fury all round.

I went to lunch then, and lingered.

After lunch I got a call from Steve’s wife, who said, “What’s this about a three thousand dollar ticket?” I explained the whole situation, ending with “The problem is, Dan is in first class and Steve isn’t.”

“Well, SO WHAT?” the wife said.

“That was my question,” I responded.

She phoned her husband and told him off, and I wished I were allowed to do the same.

The real problem was, I simply didn’t like Steve. Where there were some likeable qualities to Jane, Steve just annoyed the hell out of me. He was brusque (he left notes like “Buy green pens NOW” and “Hang helicopter picture NOW”—the helicopter picture in question, a shot of him in an orange jumpsuit in front of a helicopter, somehow made him feel virile) and a slob. I’d try to tidy up his office, and by the end of the day it looked like someone had just stood in the center of the room with a box full of paper and blown it up and wouldn’t do anything. I needed to file an extension of his income taxes once, and he needed to sign it. I put it in his inbox and told him he had to sign it today. He didn’t. I asked him to sign it when I left, and he said he’d get to it later. I said, “No, it needs to go in the mail tomorrow. Tomorrow is April 15.” He said he’d get to it and promised to put it in the mail as soon as he signed it, which would be immediately. (There was a stamp on it already, because that would have been too much to ask of him.) I went home. And returned Monday the 18th, to find it signed but waiting for me on my desk. I didn’t know if there would be repercussions, but I knew I’d be the one facing them.

Again, there’s so much more to be said about this particular job. Not a lot of it is inventive or interesting or funny—it was dreary. I remember trudging up the subway stairs at the Wall Street stop, every morning, thinking “People do this for twenty, thirty YEARS.” Wondering how the hell I was going to survive.

It was a rough time for everyone, of course. The office was literally across the street from Ground Zero, and for months I had to walk past the stories-high wreckage. I walked past a church that had been decorated with pictures of the deceased, with flowers and stuffed animals and memories. I was grateful to have a job at all. And I hated it. But survive I did.

The job ended that June. I went on a trip with my family, and returned to a note from Steve telling me he only needed me one day that next week. I was getting paid by the hour, not a salary, so this was a problem. The following week, he also said he needed me only one hour. And then he said he had a proposition: I wouldn’t get paid in money, but in stock options. “They could be worthless,” he said. “Or they could make you rich.”

I bowed out of the stock options, figuring that it would make more financial sense to be paid in Monopoly money, since at least that’s good somewhere. Steve had a wife making money to pay his rent, but I didn’t. I started temping again and got a couple of nice jobs. I was relieved.

Steve occasionally emails me, still. He seems to want to know what I’m doing. It’s usually phrased in an order: “Report in.” I never reply; I haven’t told him about the book or any of my writing projects. (Especially not about the blog.) I haven’t heard word one about his company since I left, so I figure it’s good I didn’t take the stock options thing. I remain able to pay my rent.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Real post coming Tuesday

I'm observing President's day by not typing.

In the meantime, I will say this: Do not invite someone in if you are not ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN everything in your apartment is clean.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Day Jobs: part Deux

Ah, day jobs. I’ve gotten a few comments addressing my last one. Yes, Veronica, there is more to be said about this particular job. As I mentioned last week, I only endured this job for one year – maybe a month shy of a year, in fact. On my pathetically small part-time salary, I finally worked out a budget (my net was $317 a week, after taxes) and deducted out rent, groceries, pharmaceuticals (depressingly mild ones), etc., and realized that I had $60 a week left over for food, entertainment, and transportation. Now, we don’t need cars in New York, which was good; it was also good that I was able to walk to work. The office was across Central Park and 12 blocks down from my apartment, which meant that a brisk 25-minute walk got me door to door. The brisk walk was lovely when the weather was lovely; when it was freezing cold, not so much. And I was working afternoons, so when I finished at 5 pm in the dead of winter, it was dark and it’s just not the best idea to traipse through Central Park alone in the dark. The paths are well lit, but still. I solved this problem by walking in the street, pretty much. There are a few cross-streets that traverse the Park, and one of them has a sidewalk running along its side. Was this safe? Probably not. But with $60 a week for food, entertainment, and transportation, this “not so safe” was still safer than the going-through-the-dark Park “not so safe,” and the rest didn’t necessarily enter into my computations.

So. Jane.

I was young, just out of college, and pretty naïve about money. But this was nothing compared to Jane. She was incredibly extravagant and incredibly cheap at the same time. This was the woman who was withdrawing $1000 to $2000 in cash, daily, and making credit card charges on top; since she had sold her apartment, she was staying for weeks on end (six weeks was the longest) at a high-end hotel, for a bill of more than $15,000 at a shot; she was the woman who promised $35,000 to the Met Opera, on top of buying high-end seats for the season, for an additional $35,000. (She had a box, you see, and back then each seat in the eight-seat box was $250. And she was out of town most of the time! I got about $8000 of free opera seats that season, and it was terrific. The only actual perk of that job. Now when I go and have to sit in the nosebleed “Family Circle” I remember the box and sigh.) Am I getting too specific, and therefore indiscreet? I hope not. I’ll just sum up this part and say, I always had an image of someone standing on top of a building and throwing money into the air.

Once we helped hold a big charitable event—we cohosted it with her favorite charity. After it was over, the charity had to store things from the event in our office. Somehow we ended up with fistfuls of pens. Jane looked at these pens like they were gold. A rep of the charity came to our office to pick up the larger items, and Jane mouthed to me, “Hide the pens!” I didn’t—I wouldn’t even have stolen them for myself, on $317 a week—but the charity woman still left without them. Afterward Jane laughed: “I was so worried she was going to take the pens!”

Best guess as to the total cost of these pens: $3.

These “cheap” moments are actually pretty few and far between. I think it’s because she hadn’t figured out how actually to be cheap. I was pretty good at it then (and I’m an expert, now), so I would give the occasional tip. She got an enormous tax refund after I had been there a few months—enormous, as in twice my current gross salary—and needed to figure out what to do with it. She wanted to invest it in the stock market. “What stocks should I buy, Kathy?” I am not making that question up. I told her she needed to find a financial adviser. “Who should I call, Kathy?” (She also had a thing for saying first names in all sentences. Whereas if I were looking right at someone, I might not say their first name with every last exchange, she did.) Now, on $317 a week I wasn’t employing any financial advisers, so I didn’t know. I got my taxes done at H&R Block, for crying out loud. “So what should I do with this money, Kathy?”

I told her to pay off her credit cards. At that point, she had 4 and each one of them had a balance north of $13,000. “Look at the interest,” I said. I pointed out how much she was getting charged each month on each card, and she was shocked. (What was it, $400? $500? I don’t remember.) “How can they do that, Kathy?” she asked.

“It’s interest,” I responded. “There’s an agreement you sign, saying you’ll pay interest on outstanding balances.” She nodded. Maybe she even understood. (“SERIOUSLY?” you’re saying. “SHE DIDN’T KNOW WHAT INTEREST WAS?” And I think she actually did, but this was the first time she had seen it, had it affect her.) And she said that paying them off, now that she knew she was paying interest, was a great idea.

I took her tax refund check to the Private Banking building in Chase (there’s a separate room where you go make deposits; none of this ATM crap for the rich! Or, more specifically, their assistants), and three days later wrote out checks paying off all the balances. I actually felt relieved, as if part of the burden were mine.

Two weeks later she decided she had to buy another season in the box at the Met. $35,000, due by the end of the month. As I said in the last entry, she decided to divide that up among 3 cards, 2 payments per card. Except both payments went on all 3 cards in one month, so in a month she’d gone from zero to $35,000 all over again. And had no intentions of paying it off any time soon.

She went to her high-priced dentist shortly after that to get her teeth bleached. She paid $1000 for this—a full day’s cash withdrawal!—and was angry that she’d been taken to the non-teeth cleaners. She was in her mid-sixties, so her teeth were, you know, in their mid-fifties. I’m sure she had taken good care of them, but they didn’t look great. She came back from her bleaching session and was just angry: they were not white. “Come here and tell me if they look different to you,” she said. We went to the window and she made me study her teeth at close range. For way too long. It may have been a minute, it may have been thirty seconds—or ten—but it was way too long. Her teeth were gross. Any teeth are gross at close range (apologies to my periodontist brother. He sees something that I don’t, obviously. And makes more money doing it, or will as soon as his practice revs up, which it will do, shortly. Hi, Bill.) and the most I want to do is a quick, “No, you don’t have anything stuck.” But here we were at the window, me with a screwed-up face and Jane showing her teeth to me like a horse. Sigh. And for the record: still completely yellow.

So as I said, I made it nearly a year. Walking out of that place was one of the happiest feelings of my life, even though I didn’t have a job lined up, and obviously I didn’t have savings. But it was sweet freedom, at last.

A few weeks after I quit Jane’s establishment, I was waiting in line for an ATM at my local Chase. An older man was standing at one of the ATMs, cursing. “I can’t do this G—D—thing…” he grumbled. He turned around. “Anyone care to tell me how to figure this out?”

He really did look lost. So I walked up to him and showed him where to put the card. He was not grateful. “Now what?” he demanded.

“What’s your PIN?” I asked.

“What’s that?”
“It’s a special number that allows you to make withdrawals.”

“I don’t know anything about a G—D—PIN,” he said. “I just need my money.”

Suddenly I knew exactly the kind of person I was dealing with. He had money—somewhere!—but how to get it? Where was his assistant? Why wouldn’t this stupid girl here just HELP HIM? I smiled, knowing how angry he was.

“They won’t let you take out money without your PIN,” I said.

“I don’t have one!”

“Then you don’t get your money.” And I turned and walked out the door.

I saw his face as I turned, the frustration. Utter helplessness caused by years of dependence on everyone else. I saw Jane. And when I looked out the door, again I saw freedom.

Of course, I continued to be an assistant.....

Monday, February 1, 2010

Day Jobs!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any person with talent and proclivity for the arts must be in search of a day job.

Apologies to Jane Austen. But it’s true.

Arts, you see, most often don’t pay the bills—at least not when you’re starting out. The singer needs to take years and years of singing lessons before she’s ready even to start auditioning. The lessons cost *money*, yo, and if she’s gotten a degree (undergrad or graduate) from a big-name musical institution, she has student loan payments to pay off too. A singer’s voice doesn’t start fully maturing until he/she’s at least into her late 20s; more often 30s. What to do during those years of training? Then there are actors, going to auditions. Most actors go to dozens, hundreds of auditions, and get five or ten jobs. And I’m not referring to the breakout “Friends” role that’s going to pave their way to fame and fortune; they’re “Third Dead Hooker” roles that require disfiguring makeup and a talent for lying still. Meanwhile the rent is due and really, it’s good to be able to eat.

Writers are no exception. While writing doesn’t cost money, there’s a lot that goes into it. I like to study. I have a dozen-plus books on writing on my bookshelves, which I consult on and off; in fact, I just got into a frenzy and bought six more, which I’m making my way through as they come. (I am not an “intuitive” kind of person.) The books cost money. Getting a degree, as with singing, costs money. Not all writers decide to get writing degrees, but most of them have a Bachelor’s in something, and again, STUDENT LOANS rear their ugly heads. Writers’ groups don’t cost money—yay!—but there’s rent and heat and clothing and food, and all the caffeine you’ve gotta drink doesn’t drop out of the sky! And then there’s the small issue of health insurance, and trying to put money aside for retirement, to say nothing of the rainy days. Where does the money come from?

I’ve had a series of day jobs through the years. Some were better than others. I’ve mentioned that I temped, and usually the temp jobs were surprisingly good. But some of my other jobs were horrendous. This is a description of my first true “Day Job.” Day Job Number One.

I was a fresh graduate of Columbia University. Not as young as most fresh graduates, but still young enough to be naïve and optimistic. (Sigh.) A friend called me up, someone who knew I wanted to be a writer. She worked for one of the preeminent literary agents in New York. I shan’t give names, but anyone in the business would recognize this name. (Friend told me once that she had deposited her boss’s two-week paycheck, and it totaled more than my friend’s yearly income.) She said that her boss, the big agent, had a friend who ran a small publishing company and needed an editor/office manager; would I be interested? It was part time, so I‘d have time to write. Good Lord, I said, where do I sign up?

I interviewed for this position and I was very excited; it was a tiny publishing company that mainly focused on republishing out-of-print titles. The woman I would be working for—let’s call her Jane, just because of the quote at the top of the page—said, “I’ll be abroad a lot of the time. I expect there will be days that you can just sit on the couch and write.”

Two weeks later I had the job. Celebration. Part-time, so I could sleep in (a night owl needs that…or at least wants it), a lot of down time. Fantastic! As far as a part-time salary, well, I’d been living on the student loans for a while and hadn’t had to draw out an actual budget. I had no idea how much I was living on. Fresh and naïve, as I said.

And the first few weeks were great. Jane was in the final throes of putting out her latest book, which was an English translation of a French how-to bestseller. She usually did only nominal publicity for each of her books—they were out of print books, and, well, books often go out of print for a reason—and I got to copy-edit galleys and witness the production of a real book! Jane had high hopes for this one, too; it had been a bestseller SOMEWHERE, after all.

Some backstory on Jane and her publishing company: For years Jane had been married to a wealthy man. Extraordinarily wealthy. We’re talking, private jet wealthy. Oil money wealthy. She had been raised with money and then married more, so all her life she hadn’t had to worry about it…until now. She and the extraordinarily wealthy man were divorcing—or she was trying to, anyway. She had initiated the divorce four years earlier, and he was contesting, and New York has some archaic, ridiculous divorce laws, so it was dragging out. As far as I could tell, he had been an absolute bastard to her most of their married life, and since she’d left him he had ratcheted it up. Rich Bastard Husband also cut her off financially (until he was court-ordered to give her money) and told their grown children to choose sides. (They chose the one with the money.) Jane had started her publishing company while she and RBH were still married, so she didn’t worry about her titles making money or not; he put money in, she made books, she was happy. But now she had really high hopes that this French bestseller would become an American bestseller and she could thumb her nose at RBH and his bastardly, stingy ways. (one quick anecdote: the Concorde crashed while I was working there. As Jane often jetted back and forth to Paris, RBH’s assistant phoned to make sure she hadn’t been on the flight that crashed. I relayed that to Jane, and she said, “Ha, I can’t AFFORD to fly the CONCORDE!” with enough annoyance that I realized, this was quite an imposition for her.)

Well, it was a bad book. I read through it and was shocked at the awkward prose. I found out that Jane herself had done the English translation, and it was in final galley form, so it was too late to change. Jane hired a publicist (her first, since this was the first book she actually thought would sell) and really expected the publicist to make it Number One. For weeks, maybe years. This is an expectation publicists are accustomed to, but Jane really put on the pressure. Jane, after all, had spent the past fifty-plus years ordering people around and seeing every wish granted, and thought she could do the same with this book. She absolutely expected an Oprah appearance—for the book’s author and for herself (just to translate, bien sur!).

Our publicist did what she could. And it wasn’t enough, because nothing would have been enough, and the French bestseller became an American dead-in-the-water bookstop. And Jane was angry. Angry at the publicist, and angry at me: we hadn’t done enough. Things became tense. It was bad already because of the tension with RBH; I was frequently a relayer of messages between Jane and RBH (via his assistant, actually, a nice woman) and Jane would say, “Did you tell him I already did that?” Well, no, because you told me to tell him that you were going to do that. “You tell him I already did that!” I’m actually not on the phone anymore. That kind of thing.

Jane also had a drinking problem. I didn’t figure it out for a long time; during her stints abroad she would phone in the afternoon, perfectly lucid-sounding, and ask me questions about the dead-in-the-water book and sometimes about me. I’d answer them in detail. And then the next day she would ask me the exact same questions, in the exact same way (and tone of voice) and I would answer exactly as I had the day before. Confused. Sometimes she would remember that we’d already had that particular discussion, but usually not.

Well, as I mentioned, I had a lot of down time, and I spent several days cleaning out the office. Four years earlier, she and her husband had vacated their enormous Fifth Avenue apartment; she had taken a lot of the junk with her to the office. And by junk, I mean unopened mail—four-year-old unopened mail—and documents and things that didn’t matter a bit. No cool furniture or designer clothing or anything like that (that was in storage), just paper. So I spent days and days and days sorting through paper, throwing most of it out, making the office presentable. There was an enormous table in one corner, and literally, it was like a shelf in a sea of paper; there was paper jammed below it, from the floor to the table, and then from the table to the ceiling. There were cupboards stuffed with it. I was putting garbage bags full of paper into the recycling. I kept a few things, most of which were divorce-related documents. I put them in a small, fancy chest which I referred to (in my head) as the “divorce chest,” filed them chronologically. And read them.

A lot was made in these documents about Jane’s drinking problem. I thought this was interesting, because I hadn’t noticed one. Until she spent a few weeks in town, and returned from a lunch reeking of alcohol. She sounded lucid, but she began asking me the exact same questions she had asked me the day before, in exactly the same way, and didn’t react when I gave her the exact same answers.

Ah ha.

After the first book came out, there wasn’t any book-related stuff to do, so I was now just her personal assistant. She wanted me to keep track of expenses, which was fine, except that she spent like nobody’s business. She had hundreds of thousands of American Express points and mileage on different airlines (which she kept trying ineffectually to redeem; she’d pester me to try to pay for things with MILES. “What about my MILES, Kathy? Won’t they honor my MILES? Tell them how many MILES I have.” To this day, when I hear the word “miles” uttered that way I shudder. But she didn’t know what MILES actually did. Sad.). By the time I came along she was getting an unholy amount of alimony (or whatever it is when you’re not yet divorced)—I mean, she got per month what I now earn (gross!) per year. Tax-free, and no children to take care of. And she couldn’t live on it. I had to call the bank every day (this was before online banking) and see how much she had withdrawn the day before; it was often in excess of two thousand dollars. (I’d still love to know what she spent it on.) This was on top of credit card expenses; she had 4 credit cards (and applied for one more while I was there) on which she was floating maximum balances, around $15,000. I made her pay them off when she got an enormous tax refund, and within two months three of them were maxed out again. She asked me to get her a debit card and I refused; there was no way I was going to try to manage that one for her. In fact, she didn’t even seem to know how credit cards worked. She wanted to put a $35,000 charge on her cards, but each one had a $15k limit. She said, “Can we just put it on different cards? Two different payments on three different cards?” Unfortunately the $35k balance was due at the end of the month, so those two payments on three different cards all happened the SAME MONTH. Net effect: the same.

I was working part time and netting just over three hundred dollars per week, having figured out exactly what a budget was and realizing just how EXTREME my budgeting needed to be—once I went to Gracious Homes and bought a $2 orange peeler, and I can’t describe how naughty I felt, with that splurge— watching that money disappear into the ether. I was going crazy.

I also wasn’t writing. I had a lot of down time, yes, but I was in that state…that “I want to be a writer but I don’t have anything to write” state. It was awful. There were many days I sat at the computer, staring at the Microsoft Word screen. I tried. But I had nothing.

I made it one year. Truthfully I think I made it that long because she spent so much time abroad. I started looking for a new job in March, but that was just when the dot-com bubble started bursting. Companies were retrenching, not looking for more help. After two months, I found a job on, interviewed, got it, and gave notice. Now, the job looked sketchy. I won’t even tell you what it was because that will embarrass me; you would look at it and say, “Really? You fell for that?” (The fact that sixty people came for the interview at the same time—a group interview—and all of us were offered the position might indicate a little something.) I was too happy to look at any real issues.

The funny part is, I was not brave enough just to tell Jane the truth: I’d gotten a new job. I had a perfectly legitimate reason for looking, more than just “I don’t like you”—I could have said, “I’ve realized that I need benefits and a much higher salary.” Instead I made up a completely random, stupid lie and told her I needed to go to Utah for the summer to deal with family issues, and therefore needed to quit. (I have never done that since, I promise. Really.) I gave the two weeks’ notice. Unfortunately, by the time my final day rolled around I had already realized that my new job wasn’t quite real. (Long story…yes, I do take that into consideration sometimes.) I had no job lined up, and no job to go to anymore. No writing that I was doing, no real prospects. It was a long summer.

The following fall I realized I desperately wanted to take a playwriting class. I called the Columbia writing department head, Austin Flint, and asked him if I could possibly do this. I didn’t know how I’d pay for it, but practicality had taken a backseat. (it backfired on me with the job in May, but oh well.) He said yes, and then told me he would give me a fellowship designed for writing majors who wanted to return and take writing classes. I ended up taking the playwriting class for 3 semesters, and paying a total of $180 for all of them. (Back then they would have totaled $9000. More now, I’m sure.) I wrote a full-length play, submitted it to NYU, and got into their grad program.

What was the play about, you ask? Oh, a wealthy woman who’s trying to divorce her rich bastard husband, grappling with money issues for the first time in her life. Who has a drinking problem.