Thursday, March 27, 2008
Took me forever to get out there on the R Train, an hour and a half from Times Square. (Wish I’d known my trains better in Brooklyn, and taken the N Express, thus shaving a half hour off the trip, but life went on.) I was hoping to get there early, grab two slices of pizza, eat them folded in half, check out how my fine new leather shoes compared to the same pair in the window of the local haberdashery, and strut down the street carrying two paint cans in my hands while “Stayin’ Alive” by The Bee Gees blasted on my iPod, but no such luck. I had to bolt from the train to the gym, which was at a prep school near a golf course about seven blocks from the train.
And what an odd set-up this was as compared to the Harlem PAL gym. I was walking by where I thought the school should be, seeing only golf-course style expanses, saw a guard at an isolated gate with no one in sight for blocks, and asked him if he knew where the Prep School was. He said this is it, go through this gate, follow the road through the grounds, and the field house is at the end. The grounds? Field house? I should have asked for a golf cart to take me there. The grounds had two ponds on it that were swarming with migrating geese, quacking and shitting away. I know from harsh personal experience on golf courses to leaves geese alone: nasty animals that will bite. So I hustled through there, and sure enough found the field house. Understand that the only human being I had seen in the past 10 minutes was the lone guard at the gate. Brooklyn. 7:30 at night. Big boxing event. This was strange.
While the gym wasn’t a day/night change from the PAL gym in Harlem, it was a good bit nicer, which is what happens with swanky private schools. Powerful lighting, much larger gym, camera crews. Then again, this was also the last round before the finals, and thus more heavily attended. The same master of ceremonies who was dressed like a Trojan in Harlem was there – turned out he’s a DJ for Hot 97, the local Top 40 station, and he was doing the same thing, hustling the crowd with his microphone. This time, there was a bevy of white girls in hot pants, all of whom looked Italian and about 16, walking around handing out raffle tickets for a Harley. A lot of white folks in the crowd, too, as opposed to the night in Harlem. Again, not a totally different vibe, but surely not the same either.
Ben’s match wasn’t slated to go on immediately, so I got a chance to see a few fights in the lighter weight divisions: good stuff. It was the difference between seeing baseball games at the Class A level, and then Class AAA, as compared to that earlier night in Harlem, where there were a few fighters who should have thought twice about entering. These guys in Bay Ridge were on the cusp of the finals, a few wins under their belts, and the level of competition was that much better.
After awhile, I saw Kid, Ben, and his dad/cornerman Ron, a few feet away warming up by the bleachers. Ben was in his standard-issue Golden Gloves robe, can’t recall if it was blue or gold, as they go with those colors, and looking all business. I was worried with this “Hebrew Hammer” nickname that he might have shaved his head and had the Star of David tattooed on it. But he looked much the same, in a different place, shuffling around, not focusing on anything. Understand that when I see him like this, Kid guiding him through some small combinations, Ron looking just as intense as his son, I have zero urge to go over and talk to them, as I feel like I’d be breaking some spell. It’s a definite vibe I saw, not just with them, but with all the fighters, some strange zone where the two corner guys and the fighter are truly alone, know what has to be done, and don’t want to be bothered with anything else. On one hand it seemed overly serious and a bit campy to me; on the other, I could see that this was like any sporting event in public, i.e., if you’re participating, you’re nervous as hell until that first tip-off/punch/pitch/etc. And with boxing, you get in that ring, you’re all alone: a much different head from team sports.
Another thing about the Hebrew Hammer: I was worried that with the press coverage he was getting in the Daily News, this would put a target on his back. He’d received two glowing write-ups – earning “fighter of the night” status – in his earlier wins, along with the information that his boss had fired him from his investment banking job upon finding out why he was phoning in sick the day after each fight, and that he was spending his days focused in completely on training and winning the Gloves, with a quote along the lines of “even if I come up against a boxer more skilled than me, I’ll find some way to win.” I can gather that the remaining fighters in his weight class must have read things like this and thought, “We’ll see about that.”
(As for the job, Ben’s boss must have been a flaming asshole. Not the norm for investment bankers, despite their bad rap. I spent four years working in an investment bank, and many of those guys fancied themselves as worldly financiers who would have delighted in having one of their underlings fighting in the Golden Gloves. Sounds like Ben got that disappointingly rote corporate boss with no zest for life outside of work. He’ll probably be better off in the long run not having to deal with such douchebaggian behavior on a daily basis.)
The time came, and Ben and his opponent lined up. Right off the bat, I got worried. This guy looked like a fighter. Same height as Ben, but with that sort of wiry, natural muscle tone that always looks intimidating. He moved right: smooth, controlled, relaxed. I later found out this was a 17-year-old kid in his first Gloves competition, but it was clear that someone had been training him well, on top of whatever natural abilities he had.
Wish I could detail a fight for the ages here, but the reality this time was Ben got whacked. He came out swinging, his style, and within 30 seconds, his opponent had tagged him hard enough to require a Standing 8 count. This had happened in his previous fight, so I think the expectation was he’d do the same: weather the round, come back and win in the next two rounds.
Unfortunately, this kid was a monster – he really looked almost professional, and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t take the title. (If he doesn’t, the other guy will have to be an Olympic-caliber boxer.) With a few seconds left in the round, he tagged Ben with a hard overhand right that you probably could have heard landing in the Bronx, just a crushing blow. Ben went down on his knees, but not out, and it was clear that was the end of the fight. This kid simply did what I’d seen a few fighters already do. When a guy comes out charging like that, cover up, don’t let him hurt you, wait for the right pause, then drop in a knock-out punch. I’d seen one of the boxers in Harlem, who was like a bouncer rushing a crowd of drunks, lose a tooth like that when his opponent calmly side-stepped his barrage and belted him square on the jaw.
Gratefully, Ben didn’t come up bloodied – I was just glad he didn’t lose consciousness as this was surely “that punch,” one I’m sure he’s not going to forget any time soon. Afterwards, I just got the fuck out of there. No other way to put it. Didn’t want to hang around and console anyone, as I knew these guys would be inconsolable. Ben had made a great run of it, surely felt himself growing in confidence and experience as he went along, and Ron was there with him. Kid was probably reminded of his own Gloves championship experience and sensed how ragged it felt to go out like this, one bout away from the big one.
So, I sat shiva for the Hebrew Hammer on the subway train, all the way back to Astoria, a long fucking ride by any standards, made even longer after this experience. If you haven’t read the book Fat City by Leonard Gardner, I recommend doing so, even if you don’t like boxing. It’s the best book I’ve read about boxing, not so much the actual experience of it, but all the emotions and situations that spring up around it, and as I sat there on the train cruising through each abandoned station, I felt like those broke-assed guys in Fat City, heading home after a rough match in Stockton, driving through bean fields and woods, beat-up, some winners, some losers, just headed home alone after another night of fighting, in a cramped used car, listening to country music fade in and out on the AM radio.
That’s the main thing I’ve taken away watching Ben go through his Gloves experience: you win and lose alone, and that sense of aloneness is what boxing is all about, for better or worse. When I say alone, I don’t necessarily mean the boxer himself – throw in the trainer and the corner man, and you have these three guys on their own. When I’d glance over and see Ben, Ron and Kid in their pre-fight mode, all I could think was these guys look like they’re waiting outside the gaits of some walled city, where they’ll either be accepted by the king or thrown out on their asses. And either way, whether its friends and well wishers slapping your back after a win, or the same people with tears in their eyes, the core sense of being is still three guys who probably can’t wait to walk out of there and talk about what went down.
And this is not to paint too grim a picture. As far as I’m concerned Ben kicked ass, and pushed this thing as far as he could, before running into a kid who may be destined for bigger things. The quotes in the paper today from this kid make him sound like an insufferable asshole … which is pretty much what you’d expect from a teenager headed to the Golden Glove finals. About the only way Ben should feel bad is in having his ass kicked by a 17-year-old – I know this would make me feel awful – but the reality is this kid is a solid fighter with great training, and as stated earlier, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t take the crown. Ben came out of nowhere, burned brightly for a few weeks, and found his limit for the time being. (Boxing is also very much about learning your limitations.) He can surely try again next year if he wants, or apparently many more years if he so desires, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he could somehow make it all the way. Whatever impulse compelled him to get into the ring in the first place isn’t going to go away, and the choice is his. I’m just glad as hell that he took a path that most people in his life probably thought was total insanity and made it work for him. There’s some kind of greater moral victory in that, even when you get your ass kicked.
Saturday, March 08, 2008
There have been two incidents in my work life that transcended the routine level of bullshit that goes on in offices. The first was detailed here. I’ll explain the second one now, which isn’t far removed in terms of overall spigotheadedness.
By around 1997, I found myself extremely burned out at my job, which was working for management consultants going on four years. I was also making the most money I’ve ever made as an adult, and considering that my rent was $320/month in the Bronx, I was living like an exiled king. I was also pretty burned out on the Bronx by that time and would move out that spring.
But the job was killing me. I had two bosses, one a Type A woman, not a bad person, but she had to be constantly busy and productive, the same way a shark can’t stop moving or he’ll asphyxiate. If she saw me doing nothing, bam, something new. Granted, I learned a lot about discipline working for her, but the pressure was non-stop. My other boss was an extremely sharp guy who had been with the firm since its inception in the early 70s and was riding out his last few years before a wealthy retirement. He was known for producing these enormous think-pieces regarding the Securities Exchange Commission. We’re talking 20-30 single-space pages, all of which he’d write out long-hand on a tablet, then pass on to me to interpret (his handwriting was maniacal). Invariably, this would happen before 4:00 and 5:00 pm every day. I always got warning – I would hear him feverishly tearing off page after page from his writing tablet, which was his signal to me that a shitstorm of work was coming.
It was like a 1-2 punch after dealing with the stream of work my other boss was producing all day. A constant flurry of rabbit punches followed by a few knockout blows from a heavyweight. Not every day, but surely a few times every week. The guy never got busy until 4:00. She never let up. The work that I would have done for her from 4:00 on got piled up on my desk for the next day, so in theory I’d always be behind in my work.
It got pretty tiresome. So I quit … after taking a vacation to Scotland, which went real well. But I came back, gave the job a month, then filed notice. Why, they asked. Honestly, I was just burned out and having real doubts about doing any kind of office work anymore – an honest answer. I took the summer off and lived off savings, which was a mistake, as I nearly blew through my whole kitty. (I’m just now re-approaching the amount I had saved at that time, which makes me happy. You build up quite a nest egg making that kind of money and living on that low a rent.) That was the summer I watched World Cup soccer matches in their entirety. Fiddling like Nero while the Rome of my bank accounts burned.
That fall, I had to start working again and signed on with a temp agency that would keep me in and out of work the next few years. Actually, I wanted to start working again. All that down time made me realize I was more productive in general while working, doing any kind of work. Some people get down time and tear ass on new projects – I get down time and get lazy and depressed. I made the mistake of telling them I was trying to get out of “corporate” work. Meaning I just shaved about $3.00 off the hourly wage I could charge, since they were going to shoot me into non-profit and creative places that didn’t pay as well. But I’d be working with cool, relaxed people, right? (I think you know the answer to that one.)
The first spot they got me was working for the head of the fund-raising department at a local university. Turns out this woman was just as crazy as anyone I’ve ever met in a strictly corporate environment. Then again, her job wasn’t easy. The school’s dean was going through people in her position like Henry the VIIIth with his wives: one head rolling after another. There had been three different department heads in place the three years before her. It was a no-win situation where she was destined to be fired after a year or two, unless she could find some magic key to unlock the insane dean’s head.
Fund raising is a fairly nefarious vocation. It involves kissing up to wealthy people in ways some might find questionable and dishonest, but so be it. It also involves manipulating various social circles of wealth, and then nurturing whatever relationships that develop for all they’re worth. A lot of false emotions. Hurt feelings when money is spent elsewhere. Thinly-veiled pressure masked behind a toothy grin. Berserk charity events where everyone goes around like a mental patient fretting over every minute detail, and then gets obscenely drunk and stops caring anymore. It’s a strange, twisted dance I’ve seen on a few different jobs – and there’s a real talent to it (that I, thankfully, don’t want or have).
This woman I’ll call Sadie was a holy terror with her department. We got along in a strange way, but she struck terror in the hearts of so many people working there. When she laughed, she sounded like a baby crying. The woman wasn’t much larger than a dwarf, but she could make people feel like they were being chased by a linebacker. I found that so long as you learned her rules and followed them, you’d get along reasonably well with her. The problem is you wouldn’t want to, after recognizing she spent a good part of her day bitching at people who didn’t grasp that. She also suffered from an affliction called "guess my mood" that plagues many executives. Assholes, your employees should never have to worry about your mood, and vice-versa, if you're in any way professional.
Since the department lacked continuity, the place was an organizational mess. And half of the staff were students, who came and went each semester, some very good and sharp, others just punching a clock and not doing much of anything. The work environment itself was lax with a lot of down time. I could see the attraction if one had a sane boss, save the rigid pay scale sucked for all but a handful of top-rung employees. You can take classes for free was the battle-cry of the under-paid. For those of us who didn’t want free classes, it just seemed like a raw deal. I stayed free-lance in that place. And I’d come back for a return engagement, as Sadie burned through the full-time person I trained, and then the next one … I think Sadie got canned before she could spook away another.
Actually, it was a kick to work with the students. I hit it off real well with a girl from Connecticut I’ll call Denise. That was probably the last job I had a boombox on my desk that I’d play CDs on. One day, I was playing Elvis Costello’s first album. Denise heard it, stopped in her tracks, and sighed, oh my god, I can’t believe you’re playing this album, I’ve been playing it nonstop the past month – in that special way only a 20-year-old girl can. I told her that I remember when it came out, but didn’t buy an Elvis album new until Armed Forces (his third). Jesus Christ, she snapped, how old are you. I told her, which must have been 32. I can’t believe how old you are, she added in a derogatory tone. Look at it this way, I said, my era was Elvis Costello, Talking Heads, The Clash, David Bowie, and all those other cool bands you probably worship now. What’s yours?
She laughed, because she was smart enough to acknowledge Modest Mouse wasn’t quite cutting it in that company. We got along immediately because I could see she was much wiser than her age, and she could see I was fairly young-minded for mine. She did all the gnarly teenage girl things, like write notes on her hands and arms. I scolded her: what if you were to lose your arm in an industrial accident? Then you’d no longer have that cute guy’s phone number. She starved herself regularly and was known for passing out in class or in her dorm room. I counseled her on potential boyfriends, which usually had one universal message: dump the fucker. The guys she was hanging out with sounded like a bunch of arrogant pussies, which I guess is the kind of guy artsy girls attract in college.
Our relationship? Clearly older friend/younger friend. She still wore braces, for crying out loud. Any hints of romantic interest? Not a lot. Sure, some flirting going on. She was a pretty girl, and of age. If I were to meet her now, she’d be in her early 30s. But not much flirting went on. No dating. Nothing of the sort. There were a lot of attractive young women working in that department, and always low-level flirting going on in all directions. This is what happens when you work with a lot of attractive people around that age. They’re curious. They can talk to an older person like a normal human being and not have him respond like a parental figure or teacher. Think about it: it’s probably the first time in their lives they’ve done this, without those roles and constraints they had enforced in high school. It’s liberating for them, and a nice experience for the older people to recognize not all kids are flaming assholes.
I guess you can see where this is going. But first, let me introduce Cassandra, one of the staff who was about third in line of authority in the department. The most notable thing about Cassandra was she looked exactly like a teenage Britney Spears, and she was my age, in her early 30s. Just a stunningly attractive woman – great face, great body, clearly very intelligent. Divorced. Had been in the military and married to a military man. Don’t know what happened there, but it happened. She was living with a guy in Brooklyn, which seemed like an afterthought to her. I recall the guy getting scratched by their cat to the extent that he needed stitches in the emergency room. I remember her describing this to me, shaking her head, and saying, I don’t know what I’m doing with this guy … as opposed to being even mildly concerned with his injury.
Something odd about her. She looked great and would often show it off. Low cut dresses in which you could see about a third of her breasts, and the covered part looking firm and form-fitting. A woman dressing like that wants guys to look at her tits, otherwise she would cover them. Yet, I recall a few times walking into her office on days she was dressed like that, not even ogling her tits, and she made a big display of “covering” herself in front of this supposedly leering, out-of-control male. I’m not the kind of guy who stares at women’s tits. I’m a “corner of my eye” type looker. I’ll glance then let it go. Which is probably what I did to her when she was displaying her goods. Most women who dress like that want guys to notice how attractive they are. With her, it was like a warning.
But we got along pretty well. She was smart and often used my editing skills for the endless string of “give us money, please, you pricks” letters to wealthy alumni. She was the next office over from Eugene, second in charge, and a nice guy, the guy who should have been running the place, but didn’t have the fund-raising cartel/pull of someone like Sadie. Eugene had pictures his kids had drawn framed all over his office – he was kind to everyone. A little hyper, but never in an abusive way. You could sense that beneath the madness of the Sadie era, Eugene and Cassandra saw themselves as the clandestine brain trust of the department.
My first stint there lasted close to three months … the amount of time it took for Sadie to find someone she was comfortable with. The woman she found was sassy, therefore it was determined that she knew how to deal with someone who was more than little psycho. (Of course, just the opposite tends to be true: relaxed, low-key people know how to deal with psychos. Sassy people tend to be sassy; sassy and psycho don’t mix, they clash.) I had no idea if she would “last” or not. Since Sadie’s regime had the feel of the last days of Pompeii to it anyway, no one was looking too far down the road.
My last day, Denise wasn’t around, so I dropped her an email, basically stating, hey, last day, if I don’t see you around, here’s my home email and number, drop me a line, let me know if you want to come and hang out in the neighborhood (something we had talked about doing earlier). Said goodbye to everyone else, was glad to get out of there as any work situation with someone like Sadie is destined not to mellow with passing time.
Sure enough, three months later, I get the call to return. The replacement girl has had enough and is moving on to brighter horizons. I was to come back, do my training thing again, and help them transition to the next victim (whom I can’t even remember now … whoever she was, she probably got buried with the pharaoh when Sadie went).
I came back, and nearly all of the same people were there. Denise was – we hadn’t been in contact at all after I left, which I figured was just how it went. She had mentioned that she was going to try to study abroad for a year, but I guess it didn’t happen. A day or two into my return stint, I was helping her pack some media kits in the supply room, when Cassandra walked in and eavesdropped on us talking about Belle & Sebastian, a band I had earlier turned Denise onto. Not sure what Cassandra gleaned from that brief conversation, but she left. About an hour later, I was sitting in an office doing some letters when Cassandra walks in, shuts the door and asks if we could talk.
It went something like this.
“Bill, this is awkward. But I want you to stay away from Denise, or at least watch yourself around her. I’m not sure what’s going on with you two, but I get the impression it might be more than work. I’ve been talking a lot with Denise the past few weeks, and while I wouldn’t say she was suicidal, she does seem to be having some emotional problems right now. All I ask is that you watch yourself around her. I say this out of concern for her, more than anything. But out of concern for you, too.”
I was flabbergasted. Concern for me? One of those deep “what the fuck” moments you sometimes get with people who are simply operating on another more twisted wavelength than you are. I sat there figuring, well, I could argue with her on this, point out that there is actually nothing going on with us, and that her insinuations are humiliating and off base, and that if she really is that concerned, we should be having this conversation with Sadie in her office. But all I could think was: “My bank account is near rock bottom. I need this job. Fuck it. Just nod and smile along. Tell her you understand and will help out with this troubled young girl.”
But you know I was offended beyond belief, getting a full dose of reverse sexism university style. (You think a man would ever pull the same shit on a woman in an office situation? That’s generally called sexual harassment and grounds for firing.) There were any number of variables present here. What exactly was Denise talking about with Cassandra all those weeks? Did it in any way involve me? Did my last email spark some kind of misguided stalker vibe in Denise, and she had complained to Cassandra? (Even though I left it completely up to her to contact me, which she didn’t, and which didn’t phase me one bit?) What kind of bizarre power play was it for this woman to corner a freelance worker in an office and position herself as a mental-health authority who felt the need to have a closed-door conference with this walking erection? An even more far out angle: was Cassandra a closeted lesbian who had a thing for Denise and wanted any vestige of competition out of the picture?
As outrageous at that may have sounded, what the hell, it couldn’t have been more outrageous and insulting than what Cassandra had done to me in private. I thought of going to Sadie immediately and blasting her ship out of the water, but what good would that have done? The department was already strange and splintered with Sadie’s wild mood swings and “fear me, I’m nuts” leadership style. And if Sadie took my complaint the wrong way, it could knock my working relationship with the agency off course.
To this day, I have no idea what Cassandra was trying to accomplish with those few uncomfortable moments, or what she thought was going on between Denise and me. Nothing was. After that episode, I avoided both of them like the plague. Denise seemed a bit standoffish around me when I came back anyway – so I’m assuming there must have been some type of girl-to-girl bullshit between her and Cassandra that must have involved me. I’d done nothing! I could perfectly understand if I had made a pass, or touched her inappropriately, or said something inappropriate, or even looked at her inappropriately. But none of these things ever happened, to her or anyone else in that place. Whatever ill intent was being attributed to me was implied, and poorly and illogically implied at that.
The second stint didn’t last as long, about six weeks. As noted, I didn’t have much to say Denise. If she really was that fucked up, I didn’t want to inject myself into her psychodrama. If she had portrayed me as a monster in some inexplicable sense to Cassandra, fuck it, even more reason to stay away from her. I have to believe something along those lines happened while I was gone, because no way was Cassandra going to pull a stunt like she did based on a nonsensical 30-second conversation regarding a Scottish alternative band between two people at work.
The strange thing was, there actually was a girl there, a senior about to graduate, whom I flirted with openly and gladly would have gone out with if the planets aligned the right way. A beautiful Greek girl in the next department who sat down the hall – probably one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. I’d find bullshit reasons to talk to her – mainly the Greek connection to Astoria and bantering with her about restaurants. Now, if someone had wanted to sit me down and bust me for that scenario, guilty as charged. I was openly flirting with this woman. She was beautiful. We worked in the same building, but not together. I threw my hat in the ring. It didn’t happen. She just never went past flirting. The older crabs in that department would see me talking to her and give me the stink eye, sensing my lustful intentions. And they were right. But none of them were brazen enough to pull a Cassandra.
My last day this time around was pretty quiet. Aside from any job-related dialog, I had nothing to say to Cassandra for six weeks. So she knew I was put off by that conversation weeks earlier as we had been chummy all along the first stint. But I had kept my promise to stay away from Denise – wasn’t hard at all when I considered she had hung me out to dry. As I’m getting ready to leave, Cassandra pulls me into her office. What the fuck, I think , here we go again. She doesn’t close the door, but pulls me aside and hugs me for a good long time, whispering “thank you, I’ll miss you” into my ear … while the theme from The Twilight Zone played in my head.
You tell me. I can’t recall if she was wearing a mini-dress with black stockings that day, but it was probably something like that, while the “all men are pigs” motif surely ran through her head. I was going to miss her and that whole fucked-up department like a dose of Herpes. I didn’t say shit to Denise. I recognize now there is a minute possibility that she could have been somehow innocent in this whole scenario. That she had said nothing regarding me to Cassandra in those weeks I was away from the department, and that Cassandra had just acted impulsively on some screwy women’s intuition regarding me and my supposed intentions when I came back. But I kind of doubt it. Denise’s coolness before Cassandra did anything should have signaled me that something was awry.
And Denise had blown me off after the first time I left – we had become genuinely good friends, and she let that relationship go. I left a door open for her, and she walked right by it. What was I supposed to do? I dropped her an email letting her know I wanted to stay in touch, no strings attached, kindred spirits and all that. Nothing happened, but I wasn’t exactly crying myself to sleep every night over the situation.
Never worked for the university again, which suited me fine. I didn’t even get into the time I got reprimanded for wishing someone a merry Christmas in an email. I guess I should consider myself lucky that I've only had two episodes in my work life where I felt wronged in ways beyond the usual petty complaining. Most people seem to have many more, some a never-ending litany, but that's more how one sees the world than how the world takes a bite out of one's ass.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
Guten tag, meiner mann! Wie gehts? Nicht sehr gut? Ach, das tut mir leid.
All right, enough of that shit. Or scheiss. (Looks like the transfer into blogger knocked out my ess-tset symbol.)
Sometimes it behooves me to admit my German heritage. Look at my surname. That’s German. I imagine somewhere along the line, some German dude got off the boat at Ellis Island, and whoever processed him dropped the “c” from “Repscher” because it didn’t cut it in the English language, and there you go. My lineage is a foggy blur, even at the level of my grandparents, which I write down to my parents and people of their generation being strangely tight-lipped about the past. A majority of my lineage is apparently Scotts-Irish. But my name aint McRepsher. I have to admit to having German heritage.
Why does that bother me? The Nazi thing doesn’t bother me so much. Shit happened. My father and his brothers fought against the Nazis in World War II. Just about every country goes off the rails, sooner or later. The 1930s into the 1940s was Germany and Japan’s turn. Nothing against Japanese folks either, although these cultures are a lot more similar than you’d think. I once tutored a beautiful Japanese girl (whom I eventually went nuts over and had to find another tutor for), and what I noticed about her was how incredibly driven and disciplined she was. I love seeing that in other cultures, ditto toughness, which is why I’ve never met an Israeli (probably met about a dozen) I didn’t like. (Say what you want about their situation, but those have got to be among the toughest, no-bullshit people on earth.)
I guess it bothers me because Germans have got to be some of the most uncool people I’ve met. Usually very intelligent, but with a deeply odd (some might say non-existent) sense of humor. Possibly the whitest people on earth. "Anal" is the word I’m looking for. Think Kraftwerk. (Then again, Kraftwerk lampooned their stiffness and made some fun music – the first time I heard “Autobahn” I laughed my ass off, with them.) “Constricted” is another. I can see these qualities in myself, too, which I write down to being part German, although you’ll find plenty of stiffness in Irish and Scottish culture.
Even the German teacher in high school, Mrs. Kratz, got a bad rap. She was a nice person; we got along very well. But she had the reputation for being short-tempered with kids, which, in retrospect, means she wasn’t hard enough, because I would have been beating the same wayward kids with a gravel-filled whiffle ball bat for their indiscretions. Instead of calling her Fraulein Kratz, wise asses would call her Fur-lined Crotch. She didn’t deserve it.
My junior year in college, when I had to get a part-time job during the week to make my meager rent and have enough left over for records and beer, I checked out the intra-campus job boards an quickly came across an ad for the German Department. Typing and organizational skills. Check. Knowledge of German language. Check. I had taken my full allotment of German classes, was done with my second language, so I was ready. One catch: while working there, I had to speak German all the time.
When I showed up, the staff was so desperate to have anyone help, as the language barrier noted in the bulletin had scared away most candidates, that I got the job on the spot. As it turned out, I had the German language skills of about a fifth grader, which suited their purposes fine. I often caught minor grammatical errors on tests, which were geared towards kids with even more rudimentary language skills than mine. (The language stipulation was placed by the department head, Dr. Schultz, a basically friendly, smart professor who did have that steely German edge to his personality.)
The office consisted of a woman, Teresa, the head secretary (who was in her early 30s), her boss, Inge, an older German woman who was Dr. Schultz’s assistant, and Dr. Schultz, with two other students who spoke broken German like I did. That was the main office, with an entire hall filled with professors of varying position (most full/tenured) and a bullpen for the numerous grad students who handled teaching the basic language courses. We were to help the professors when we could, which would amount to mimeographing tests and typing up dissertations and manuscripts. But the main gig was to help out Teresa with whatever fire needed putting out. She was a high-strung woman, driving in every day from Lock Haven (a long ride), who had married a guy roughly my age and was dealing with him like a son, to go along with her son from a previous marriage. We got along pretty well, but most days found her in front of Burrowes Building, smoking like a Turk from dealing with anal German professors and various pieces of malfunctioning office equipment, which, I imagine, is par for the course for any university liberal arts department.
This was where I found out how organized I was, which went over like gangbusters with my teutonic supervisors. Man, I was and am still organized. Laugh all you want, but having your shit together on that front is a worthwhile trait. And I could type about 90 words per minute, which only got faster once word processors rolled around. I got real familiar with the mimeograph machine, squirting the blue ink (which smelled sweet, like the paste we used in art class) onto the roller, pasting the carbon copy with the neat lines and lettering intact onto the roller, then letting her rip, be it the electric machine or the shitty hand-crank one we’d use when the electric one invariably broke down. I recall how the sheets used to come out moist and heavy with ink. Copy machines? They surely must have existed at the time, but not in our departmental budget.
It was a good gig: about 20 hours a week, enough money to tide me over, and I found myself speaking fluent German after a few months. You pick it when everyone around you speaks the language. Professors are strange birds. German professors, even stranger. Dr. Schultz was obsessed with B. Traven, elusive author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Who was apparently German.
A tidbit from Wikipedia: “This persona was uncovered by the investigations of Mexican journalist Luis Spota, who discovered a bank account in Acapulco in the name of B. Traven, operated by an innkeeper locally known as Traven Torsvan, nicknamed El Gringo. His history was traced to 1925 when he first emerges in Mexico; like Croves, he was a member of a number of archaeological expeditions and he had shown great concern with the welfare of the Indian population.”
El Gringo! The enigmatic foreigner in panama hat, hankie tied around neck, reading a dusty Bible by his pack mule in the desert, Pancho, fetch my canteen, there’s a stream on the other side of that canyon. Who are you, mystery man? Or some such shit. For me, it meant typing endless, dull-as-dry-dogshit dissertations by various professors in the department on B. Traven and his influence on culture, which amounted to a cool movie with Humphrey Bogart to me. It would have been torture, save it made me king of the word processor. Again, computers existed at this time, I know they did, but not in our department budget. They had a Lanier word processor which seemed like hot stuff, just as good as the blank-faced DisplayWrite 4 programs we were using at the newspaper across the lawn. The good part about typing up this morose crap was it kept me off in the isolated room with the Lanier, i.e., more peaceful than the always buzzing main office.
My only issue with college professors was that I couldn’t make the connection between their middling salaries and their comparatively wealthy lifestyles. I used to get rides from Dr. Gerhart, a genuinely nice guy, out to the student parking lot on the edge of campus … in his Mercedes. This guy was a full professor, but couldn’t have been making more than $50K a year. A Mercedes? Of course, I later learned the dirty little secret of not just colleges, but many nonprofit industries: they’re heavily populated by good-hearted people who come from money. That was usually the difference between a guy like Dr. Gerhart living in a beautiful house a few miles off campus, and some adjunct professor from my socio-economic background, with a pregnant wife living in the barracks-like campus housing project.
Otherwise, I dealt with these people pretty well, which was excellent training for handling insane corporate types, although that surely wasn’t my motive in taking the job. And I often think if those professors could see me now, they’d be disappointed in that I was doing such basic “day job” work. They see kids at that age all the time, which is like walking around in a dream world, populated by a never-ending stream of people who aren’t really anything yet, but want to be a lot of things. And I imagine seeing anyone at that age is like seeing a person’s ideals worn on the outside of his body – everything’s an ideal at that point, untested for the most part.
On the other hand, they’d be glad to see I’ve maintained some of those ideals, especially regarding my sense of personal freedom, no mean feat in the shitty corporate environments I’ve maneuvered through, although I find the concept of championing that to people who quietly go through life dealing winning hands from a stacked deck many of us never get … like confessing my sins to a pedophile priest. Give me a paid-off mortgage on a beautiful home in a wealthy neighborhood, and I’d be knowing and benevolent, too, as I worked my way through the low-paying rungs of academia to that rainbow of tenure, which looks like planned obsolescence to me.
I dealt much more with the grad students, most of whom were German. My favorite was Tomas, a way out-of-the-closet guy from Hamburg who was in love with American trash culture. Every day, he’d bring in something he’d found – Pop Tarts, Elvis Presley t-shirts, a can of Pringles potato chips, G.I. Joes, and ask for an explanation, as they probably didn’t have militarily-themed dolls called Stormtrooper Sigmund in Germany. When I explained the concept of Pop Tarts, he asked, “Aber Wilhem, what food group is this?” I didn’t really know. I still don’t. Is there a special block for pure chemical shit in the food-group pyramid? Every explanation would have him howling with laughter over the idiot savant nature of so much of our cultural flotsam.
Tomas was at loggerheads with his office mate, Heinrich, an extremely anal guy from the Black Forest who was married to another grad student, an American girl named Jenny, who was fag-hag crazy for Tomas. I’ve never been to The Black Forest. Or Hamburg. But I gathered from the way Tomas treated Heinrich, that he perceived The Black Forest to be the German equivalent of the rural Deep South, and Heinrich the kind of guy who probably had a spike-topped German army helmet he wore when line-danced to country music in his apartment. I take it Hamburg was a pretty wild, urbane town by Tomas’ estimation.
They fought like Germans: steely glances and mildly deprecating one liners that never erupted into blow outs. I don’t know if it was fair to say Heinrich had an issue with gay guys. He probably had more of an issue with his wife being best friends with a gay guy, who was wildly effusive, out-going, emotional … the exact opposite of Heinrich’s icy demeanor. I keep picturing these people as being much older than I was, but they couldn’t have been more than mid-20s at the time, still kids themselves. There was another girl whose name I can’t recall who was just this lovely, wan girl from Berlin, pale almost-blue skin, long, straight blonde hair, blue eyes – just that classic Aryan beauty. Shy in a good way, didn’t fully grasp how beautiful she was. Could barely speak English, so I spent a lot of time breaking her in on slang and speech patterns. I never grasped this about foreign languages, but they’re often just as different in rhythm as they are in things like verb tenses and gender. She would often listen to me speak English, and I could see her turn her head away to hear just the tone of voice, how the words flowed, so she could copy it herself.
The days rolled by in the department, the clacking of typewriters, phones ringing, the crank/squirt/crank/squirt of the mimeo machine. Inge was always laughing her ass off. It seemed like with Germans, there was no in between. They were either soulful, beer stein-swinging partiers, or stern/stiff disciplinarians. I imagine any German recognizes both qualities in his demeanor and probably leans more towards one than the other. They were good people to work with overall, fair-minded, nearly everyone extremely bright, I guess you’d say civilized in a way I appreciated. Even the extremely uptight professors weren’t abusive in their stiffness, like I’ve seen so many corporate folks in America be. There was a sort of quiet humanity underneath the cool exterior. One guy in particular, Dr. Schroeder, would send fear into grad students with his appraisals of their skills. By the same token, when they needed help, he’d be the first one they went to because they knew he’d be fair and attentive with them.
I ended up doing probably the most germanic thing of my life while working there. The department had a library that was hardly ever used. More a research library that staff would take books out of, but rarely sit there and read them. It was a nice little room, too, a few windows, quiet, away from the din of the main offices and cubicles. I had to go back there a lot to re-file books and magazines.
It was late in my tenure there, probably just after I had graduated, but had chosen to hang out for the summer semester, something I’d never done, and just relax. Take a few months off to enjoy the town in lazy summer mode, spend time down at the local record store talking about The Replacements and old soul music with the guys who owned the place. Get tan on the lawn. Run seven miles along the golf course every morning. And support myself by doing 30 hours a week in the German Department, one last time.
It was a slow summer, a long goodbye of sorts. Most of my friends weren’t around, a few were, so we’d hang out a lot, getting drunk and listening to records. At work, there was hardly anything to do, and the professors would only check in once or twice a week to keep in touch. I don’t know what overtook me, but I recall one sun-dappled afternoon in July, going back to the library, making sure the coast was clear, then lying down behind the main desk, dropping my pants to my ankles, and masturbating, probably with thoughts of the gentle Berlin girl swirling in my head.
If I’d actually fucked the Berlin girl in the library, that would have been a very French thing to do. As it was, I jacked off, and this was a very German thing to do. I put myself at risk, to make a horse’s ass of myself, as opposed to going all out and getting caught in an act that would have been way beyond the pale, but at least understandable in terms of the risk and reward. Picture Hitler on the Russian front: this was my Stalingrad.
I don’t know what I was thinking. But it somehow seemed like a fitting send off. I try to think what I’d do now if I worked in a place, went down to the library, and walked in on a summer intern masturbating on the floor. I’d probably ask him which part of The Black Forest his ancestors came from.