Saturday, March 08, 2008

Corporate Amazonia II

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.

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