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.


veronica said...

Have we not all known a few too many Steves? (or is it Steve's? I never know.)

Kathryn Maughan said...

Ha -- if we've worked as assistants, yes, we have.

Definitely no apostrophe. Apostrophe for possession or "steve is."

Anton Brunner said...

Very thoughtful post. I think your experience is not uncommon when working for any entreprenure. At some point if you work for one you will be taken for granted. It is funny you mention Landmark. I di the courses and thought they were fantastic. If you never got around to doing it, I reccomend it.

Kathryn Maughan said...

Thanks, Anton. Yes, I did first the Landmark course, and I liked it. (It was actually at Steve's behest, and the company paid for half. Out of the initial investment he was burning through.) I did get a lot out of it. Just not 8 cats.