chapter 2

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chapter 2

Post by firsty » February 9th, 2010, 1:36 pm

When I have to take the bus to the PATH terminal I sometimes don’t wake up completely until I’m on the train rolling through the tunnel. Normally I’d be awake earlier but this morning I took the bus through Hoboken, straight down Washington Street and then around those short corners to the terminal. It’s easier than walking even when the weather is nice, but after drowsing on the bus my brain is still in low gear getting on the train. I haven’t found a seat so I swing my slung bag back around my right hip and lean on my left leg to hold it in place and wrap a fist around the flimsy chrome pole nearest the car door on this end. The newspaper’s sports page is overloaded with baseball news but my attention span is no good for baseball’s 162-game schedule — it usually it takes me until the Fourth of July to think to check the standings. Shifting more to maintain my balance and my bag on my hip I fish into the outer pocket of the bag for a pen — with the rest of the Times folded under my arm — clenching it to my ribs, so the slippery thin sheets don’t slip out embarrassingly in this swaying crowd of legs and wet boots and heels, I fold the crossword over so the section is the flat dimensions of a book and the puzzle owns the page. I have to plant the fleshy side of my palm on the page — through to my other hand — to keep my hand steady and the letters readable. Still the ballpoint trails thin strings of ink where the pen was supposed to be lifted between strokes, but where I couldn’t do it for all the bouncing.

The train struggled with its heavy length to worm its way through the tight turns getting us to the main mostly straight tunnel. The artificial light is so naturally enveloping — it seems almost organic, normal — hundreds of feet below the surface and if it weren’t for these light bulbs buzzing overhead we’d all be in utter darkness — sometimes that happens even just for a moment — it happens as if the wobbling train shakes loose the worn master plug from the loosened old outlet — and when that happens it happens only for an instant — you hear just the normal underground train sounds and then a click-fwoop to silence and the lights are out like they were never ever there — and then before you even feel the sudden and complete darkness it’s over — finished — all lit up again. Another rattle and the lights might blink again — and then the buzz comes back — silence is forgotten so suddenly — all this time nobody stops doing what they were doing before the blackness fell and lifted — clouds passing under the sun.

It’s important not to stare — we’re all sharing this personal space — since backing away — the normal reflex — is not an option. The only solution is to pretend that the reflex stimulus isn’t there — not normal — the busy work helps, so I read, or write, or sleep, or do a crossword puzzle. It’s mostly women — girls my age or younger — sitting on the benches, which run in a row along the length of the car, on each side, facing the middle and facing all of us standing. I hate sitting with someone looming over me like these girls, and we’re standing so close to them — obviously our cocks are hiding just behind these always thin pants right at their eye level — and I feel just terrible about that — why can’t the seats or the middle floor be height-adjusted to fix this — sexual engineering is though hardly a priority for transit engineers — or maybe it is and I shouldn’t be bringing this up at all. I’m mostly shoulder-to-shoulder with other men, all of whom are tending to mind their own business in their own ways — right in front of me, barely exposed around the square edges of my folded newspaper puzzle, though: wearing a light blue skirt — short enough to make her stockinged knees look awkward, forced to poke out straight — they’re all packed close together on the plastic bench too — normally girls lean their skirted knees to one side or the other but there’s no room for that — in longer skirts I suppose they usually cross their legs but these outfits aren’t built for trains, just for chairs under desks — her nylon stockings are a pale color approaching white and underneath is nothing — no hint of sexy flesh, just slightly softened bony knee shapes poking out from her light blue skirt — of course attached to the thick limbs of her thighs, disappearing into the line of shadow hidden under the little lip edge hem — I can’t see what she’s doing to occupy her time, maybe her distractions are all in her head. Beside her is another girl, though possibly slightly older — I really can’t see the girl in front of me because her top half is all the way behind my puzzle, but I think she’s a youngish girl — younger than me — a bump along the way jolts my paper up and I catch a glimpse —

— into the darkness then, another heavy wobble and then lean of this almost too-long train car shifting through the curves — sometimes it’s almost too much trouble to keep on your feet on a ride like this.

Soon the light inside the car is washed away by the light that comes as we pull into the WTC platform. No no — that’s not how it was — the lowest level of the WTC terminal was darker — no, not dark, just another ordinary subway platform, but cleaner. I remember it being cleaner. It was a wider than normal subway platform, with gleaming floors and sleek walls. Once out of the train a short, narrow flight of stairs led to the larger lower space, where the turnstiles and booths were. The tiled floor across the way led past a newsstand to an opposite set of stairs going down to the Newark-bound trains. From there, between the two entrances to the two platforms, tall flights of stairs, with escalators on either side, rose up into the shopping mall, the fun horizontal glow of brand-name merchandise coming slowly into view, and the suits and polished shoes mall-walking by. It was a beautifully easy path from the trains to the street. The floor was pale and reflective. Flooded with commuters, we could all still get up the stairs without bumping into one another, though there were still sometimes awkward or aggressive moments of jostling for position, people pretending not to see you as they step in front of you, or you pretending not to see them. But it was neat, and shiny, not like the rusty, leaking and filmy filth of NYC subway stations that shared the same basic undercarriage. The mall was a regular mall — swept, scrubbed every evening — shop windows given daily attention, signs well lit and screwed on straight, people moving in most orderly directions, not like the beehive that was Grand Central Station or even the slightly more linear but always more overcrowded Penn Station, and nothing at all like the bus stop Port Authority, with its persistent haze and grime.

Funny how things get dirtier once you get familiar with them. Our office building was so bright and gleaming when I first started my job. Now it was just heavy and dead. The carpet in the hallways had spots, the walls were scuffed, the break room cluttered and showing signs of years of people barely cleaning their spills. Of course, not much had really changed since I started. It just seemed that way. I was blinded by the gleam and now I was mired in a smog. But I had been blinded willingly — going on five years of a childish city-crush that I would have been humiliated to admit at the time. The size and legend of it kept me away for all those years after college. I was scared of it, but it always loomed just over my shoulder, keeping quiet and out of the way, and it was finally impossible to avoid its presence. Then I arrived. And I saw what I had been trying to avoid, and I saw that it was full of answers, not problems or threats.

Everything about the city fit like puzzle pieces into what I never realized was missing from anywhere else I had been, much less lived. The grime in the subway tunnels was just atmosphere — it was fine, and it fit the city the same way the city fit me. All of its parts and even all of the mere ideas of it lay scattered across the grid, a grid I could access like an index I learned more about how to read every day. In pieces, up close, some of it was dirty and mean, but even those mean and dirty parts made up something else — something you could see if you paid attention. You just needed the right view.

And me with this window office in lower Manhattan. The view isn’t much, but there aren’t many windows with views down here. It’s a typical NYC building where people go to work. It occupies the front half of a small block between Whitehall and Broad Streets. On the first floor was a Duane Read drug store, a small but well stocked book store franchise, and a big card and party store. Those are on the front of the block. Towards the back of the block, along Broad Street, are a couple of restaurants facing the square opposite the old hotel where George Washington once drank a beer, probably as he was running out of town to escape the British. Or maybe it was later, a victory beer, or a calm cool and collected presidential beer. He was inaugurated of course right up the road on Wall Street, and he’s still got a statue going over there. My office and all my staff is on the sixth floor. Offices generally line the square perimeter of the building, but the sixth floor was the first smaller floor of the building — the windows to the logistics department, which I managed, looked out towards the Broad Street rear of the building and a wide rooftop area. My window looked down onto the side street below, somewhere down there through the heavily tinted windows. Towards the front of the building were the executive offices — where my boss was, and his boss, and so on.

My first boss at Art’s was Ken. He was the production manager and like all good production managers he was a control freak. And like all good NYC managers he was hyper about his job. He didn’t just have a plan and stick to it. He raised it to a neurotic art form. His boss was Gene, the production director, who was neurotically productive but more calculatingly political than Ken, which is why he had been promoted to production director. Gene had been with the company all his adult life. It was his first job, and he had moved up steadily since then, although not as quickly as someone with a little more political savvy would have. Gene worked for John, who was the VP of Operations, and who had one of the sixth floor’s corner offices. John had a kind, calm demeanor. He was productive, but his skill now was in dealing with people. He always said the right things in a way that made you confident he knew they were the right things to say, and that he was deliberately avoiding saying the wrong things. He didn’t start out in the mail room, but he was younger than Gene and started working in the accounting department as an intern, and now he had the plumb corner office overlooking Bowling Green.

Everyone gets to where they belong in places like this. Ken was finished moving up. If Gene ever left, Ken might be considered for the director position, but only if it was the only alternative, and unless he also changed his personality, it would be a temporary and tragic promotion. Ken was a great production manager as long as he stayed the production manager. If he were promoted to director, the company would lose both.

But a company that doesn’t move anywhere is no company at all, not around here. There is always another penny to be squeezed, another tempting offer to be used to convince people to accomplish short-sighted tasks or forgo their own happiness for the sake of the stockholders. The sheer momentum of movement at these places almost demands that all questions be tested, even if we already know the answer. We all knew that Ken (or me, for that matter) would make a terrible production director, but it was hardly a foregone conclusion that he’d never be promoted. Even if it’s not that but something else, some other horribly conceived idea, it all follows the same patterns. The place where I work is the worst of them all. It’s the same as them all — all these corporate plantations. They’re all the same, but when you’re in them, you’re in the worst one ever. It’s invariable. Every place has its own quirks and madness, but they only matter if those things are being inflicted on you. What other workers in other places have to deal with is nothing compared to the specific madness you see at your job. It’s the same for everyone, but it was worse for us. We’ve created such a mess with this. Nobody likes their jobs, but it’s our own fault — we’re lacking in any revolution of change. Nobody cares. Nobody likes their jobs, but nobody ever really does anything about it. I got the feeling that nobody really liked their marriages, either, or most of their friends, or their car, or where they lived. When you have a lot, you have a lot to hate. When you have nothing, your hatred is more focused. If no one had a good job, the divorce rate would be even higher. If we were all homeless, we’d all be fighting for the perfect job. At some point the logic runs out. It always does. I don’t pretend to have all the answers.

The corporate belching of the place was ramping up and I was right in the middle of it. Again, it was all my fault. The boredom had made me ambitious. It had nothing to do with the prospect of more money. The longer I stayed at any one position in the company, the less interested I became. I had been managing the proofreading department — “Quality Assurance” — during this time and most of my time was divided between trying to finish my novel and trying to lobby for a promotion to another department.

I went from the lonely proofreader to manager of the QA department pretty quickly. They needed to build the department, and after a few months of watching me work, they decided to go ahead with the plan. I was growing into quite the little corporate elf. They liked me at first because I was good at the job. I was very good. Because it was easy. Proofreading was all about making sure that one thing matches another. It’s not that difficult. If it matches, it’s okay. If it doesn’t, it’s wrong. What they were really having a problem with, I discovered later, was finding someone who cared so little about other people’s problems that he didn’t mind telling people that something was wrong.

They were right to focus on a QA department as one of their needs. Things were a mess. The legal and licensing departments were being overwhelmed with problems from mistakes that caused sports leagues or entertainment groups to try to sue the company. Production costs were unpredictable and unrestrained. The later a mistake was caught, the more expensive it was to fix. After becoming familiar with the products — the cards — and what they were made of, I put together a chart of every element that went into each product. For a baseball card, for example, there is the player’s image, and his name, and his position, etc., and there is a legal line, based on the league and the brand, and there were logos that were there for certain reasons, and there were borders and designs on the card, and information like statistics and jokes and legends and interesting facts, that went on the back. I identified each element and then determined who was responsible for telling us what it should be. Then I said, “As long as this person gives us this document to feed this element on this card, I will be responsible for making sure it happens.” And it happened, and the whole thing worked, and they gave me the department. It was easy. They just needed someone to do it.

First I had two employees, then three, then four. When we stopped hiring, and once all the proofreading documents had been arranged, and systems put in place to make things run smoothly, I got bored. Quality was up but our jobs were difficult because things were so rushed. And that was managed by the traffic department — they moved things around, managed schedules, and stayed on top of staff and vendors to make sure things were delivered on time.

Dana and I worked together great. She managed traffic — she was hired as a coordinator right after I was hired, and she was promoted to manager after Joel left for another job in New Jersey. It was good to have friends at this level, and she and I did our best to keep things moving between our departments. But she was overwhelmed. And now I hated proofreading. I wasn’t proofreading anymore, not much, but even managing it was boring. It was boring because it was the same thing I was doing last year, and the year before. I’m a writer, after all, not a proofreader or production manager. If I was going to play this game, I wanted to have fun at it.

I plotted my takeover of the traffic department from within. It wasn’t going to be a forceful coup but a reasonable one. Dana couldn’t do that job, but there were ways of keeping her in a management position that utilized her skills in a way that would better benefit the company. “Management position,” “utilize her skills,” “better benefit the company” — that’s how you have to put these things.

And Ken could have the proofreading department back and he could get off my back about how I was managing it. It was perfect. Except that giving the department back to Ken was seen as a backwards move. Having Dana manage the creation and coordination of the master schedules without being technically demoted, but still losing management of the staff, wasn’t a backwards move because she would occupy a new position entirely. We had to move somewhere, but we could only go forward, even with small steps. Because any movement backwards, no matter how rational or productive it might have been, was, by definition, something the stockholders could not abide. Not that we had to have their approval for hirings and firings, but if it was going to show up in an annual report, which new positions do, it needed to be consistent with the company’s bottom line.

The day it came down was nerve-wracking. Late in the winter, when everything was wet and loose outside, the generals gathered and set their plans in motion. I felt so bad about Dana. I knew what was coming — that’s how these things are planned. I got it done over the course of a few months, during which I had become so bored with my job at the time that I even began sending out resumes. I just needed to change something. I got things going by just bringing it up. I had to wait for the best time, and had to say it just right, but once something like that is mentioned, you know on the spot if it’s going to have a shot at happening or not. Gene was surprised, but not put off, and so I was in. Within a few weeks, his curiosity had been piqued enough to ask me for more information. So I gave him a new organizational chart with Ken managing QA and me managing Traffic, and Dana still reporting to Gene but also working as a liaison with other departments, to make better schedules. What was in it, in the end, for Gene, was another report. In this world you are only as valuable as the number of people who report to you. And with Dana occupying a new position, Gene would gain one report. Gene was always looking to expand the production empire, and to have Ken manage QA would push Ken backwards, so the compromise, as arranged by Gene, was that QA would move away from Ken’s group and would report, via me, directly to Gene. And the traffic manager, once Dana and now me, would continue to report to Gene.

So instead of a nice, horizontal shift of job duties, designed to keep me interested and active in my job, I got a promotion and was given six more staff to manage, and double the responsibilities. And, of course, I got a raise. But it was commensurate with the bottom line. What I wanted was to stop proofreading, but what I got was another job at a bargain basement price.

I tried to get them to make Dave the new QA manager, and that may have been a miscalculation. He wasn’t the kind of guy who lent himself to be trusted by hyper-paranoid people like Gene. Just a strange individual, not someone easily identified with. He collected stuffed ducks — all kinds, as long as they were ducks. He had hundreds of them lining the top of the cabinets that wrapped around his cubicle. He told everyone that his favorite sports team was the Carolina Panthers, because he liked their team colors. He had a photographic memory, which was great for a proofreader, but bad for interpersonal relationships, because you had the feeling that his eyes were never quite focused on you — that they were instead reading and re-reading something from his memory, even if he was doing it in an effort to have a conversation. He didn’t have conversations that fit the pattern of what normal conversations in a corporate environment are supposed to be. Whether he didn’t know what he was doing or knew the game but had chosen not to play, Gene didn’t trust him, and my endorsement wasn’t enough to promote him. The other proofreaders couldn’t be considered, not even as supervisors instead of managers. But I had a lot of work to tend to in the traffic department — a lot of things to fix, so I started sort of ignoring QA.

It was more than professional, I have to admit that. I liked the people in traffic better. They were normal, or at least what I considered to be normal. I played poker on Wednesday nights with Connor. Jon and I often had personal conversations over lunch, and I liked that he was young and inexperienced professionally but also genuine and hard-working. Cassie and Tara were an Abbott and Costello team. They were relentless in making fun of Ken behind his back. Kevin and Pia rounded out the team — both were recent hires when I took over.

This day I went to work just like any other day. Just the normal routines moving from one place to another — literally too boring for words. The problem with arriving early was that it gave extra time to get nabbed by my boss and stuck in some “quick” meeting or situation for most of the morning, and this was one of those days. It was a scary trap — I tried to rush time with my mind, to make it until 8:30 without Gene buzzing me up, because at 8:30 I was stuck in the production meeting for a good twenty minutes, and then another meeting after that. But if Gene buzzed me my whole morning might be shot. That’s just the way it went around here with first-thing-in-the-morning closed-door sit-downs.

Nobody wanted to go to the production meetings except for Ken. It was his favorite time of the day, and the rest of us were just determined to show up every morning and find a way to waste twenty minutes without grinding our teeth to sand. It was childish — Ken ran it with the trust and respect of a psychotically paranoid daycare hack, and he demanded detailed explanations for any malfeasance, and there were many. But the level of detail to which we tracked and managed these projects required face-to-face conversations and challenges —

“Will the film be on time?”

“Yes, Ken.” (Here I have to glare at Cassie to keep the demon down — easy does it — don’t get us both in trouble.)

“And you’ll have approval today?”


“Does Scott have to approve it?” asks Chris from the far end of the table. He’s the manager of the sports department, gets a good giggle out of these things, and Cassie answers yes, but “Scott’s not here today.”

“Oh great.” — but now we can figure out what to do, which is that Chris can approve it, but Chris is a busy guy — like me he’s in management — we can’t be expected to remember by the end of the day that we haven’t been brought some odd piece of paper to sign, nor can we be expected to make a note for later, because we’ve got plenty of other work to do, and seven months ago the same thing happened with those basketball cards and we ended up losing a week on the ship date because we lost a day on approvals because nobody told Chris he had to sign off on them. We learned from our mistakes all right. But since you can only have someone to blame if you both agree on exactly what that person is to do, we never neglected a detail, in the hopes of never repeating a mistake.

Or we tried not to, but nobody’s perfect. We piled each new required question on top of the one before and soon we were going to have to speak in super-abbreviated code to keep the daily morning production meetings from running right into lunch. So we sat there every day at that mahogany conference room table with our coffees and went through this tedium. It was the perfect corporate mess. Empty details numbing us but we couldn’t stop staring at them because they were the only thing holding this place together. It takes a lot of time to be this efficient.

I unpacked my bag and waited for my computer to boot up with an eye and an ear on my desk phone. The clock ticked from 8:20 to 8:21 and I was rolling downhill to the production meeting, where my routine would be normal for maybe at least the next whole hour.

Even if I made it to 8:30 without a buzz, I’ll have to spend most of the rest of the day avoiding Gene’s office — trying not to walk past it, trying not to talk too loud in the hallway nearby, trying not to run into him in the elevator. Every time I got near him there was a different nightmare being thrown at me and eventually they all meant my doing some amount of extra work. Documenting details, writing things down, making sure that every move was tracked and proven out as valuable, meaningful and profitable. That’s not as easy as it sounds. It involved asking questions, following up, and doing research. And that meant getting into other people’s business, which meant suspicions being raised, and then those people start asking their own questions — Why are you doing this? What’s going on? What are you counting? And they’re not asking those questions in order to get answers, not directly. They’re asking those questions in order to show that they’re on to you. They know you’re trying to measure their corporate value, and they’ve read enough Dilbert cartoons and seen Office Space enough times to know what that means. Loaded questions, from the top down. Loaded with the bottom line. It’s why they tell me to track my staff’s performance and time management skills and it’s why they ask why I’m doing it. The company wants to save a buck and the employees want to maintain their income stability. Can’t blame anyone. It’s unavoidable.

But if you delayed talking about the unavoidable and just kept it off camera for as long as the frame would hold, sometimes it would change. That was the only way out — they’d become something else. In the end, while you always ended up doing something distasteful, every once in a while you could slow the constant corporate march of innovation just enough to allow the machine to work as they said it should, which usually also demonstrated their generally bad judgment. Small victories.

To keep busy and out of trouble, I stayed on top of my staff. Helping them out was a good way to stay on top of them, keep myself busy and still do my job. I called them in one by one to go over their projects and guide them through the day. Keeping someone in my office, keeping myself in their cubicles, keeping aware of the things around me, so the people deciding while passing by whether or not I’m busy enough to leave alone can see that they gotta leave me alone, and leave my staff alone, too.

Because I hated firing people. And I liked my staff. They were pretty good. They each had their own little things that bothered people, and if they bothered a person named Gene, I had a problem. What bothered other people made me want to help them, to keep Gene and the sneaky thieves away. Unlike the company, they didn’t have enough money. Money is relative, sure — a penny to me is like a cool grand to a corporation. But a penny that goes to food is truly different from the cool grand that gets divided up between yachtsmen and movie producers sitting on the board of directors. Bottom line concerns for my staff and myself were means of survival, literally. For the company, it was profit enhancement, and other things only definable by other soft euphemisms for greed.

But Gene always caught me. Unavoidable is unavoidable and I’m only fucking around with language here, after all.


“Addie!” said the intercom on my phone. Gene’s voice.

He probably thought something was wrong with my phone, like a speakerphone delay, because I paused to think when I heard his voice pop up. I thought — should I pretend I’m not here? He can’t see me. He doesn’t — can’t — know I’m here. Am I breathing too loud?

Every time, I thought the same thoughts. Maybe someday it would be different, so I had to keep thinking them. I couldn’t give up yet. Someday I’d have the courage to stand there and hide.

“Hey,” I called back into the blinking button.

“You’re there,” he said. Yes. “Good. Have a few minutes for me?”

Another pause. Only difference is that now it ends with realizing that I’ve already given away my location. “Of course.”

There was a speakerphone delay from there, too, even after hanging up. And now I’ve got no choice but to beg out of the production meeting and get my ass down to Gene’s office. Finish a line in a report (thoughtfully), think about what else I had to do before heading into his office (distractedly), and finally start down the hall (slowly), looking around first and during to see if anyone else needed me for something. Something, anything.

But I think Gene has ADD because he’s never fazed about how long it takes to get there — how long between calling me and seeing me. He was already on the phone to someone else, and I had to wait. Bittersweet, that. I still had to wait. I had played my cards and bided my time but when I got to his door, it was over and then I just had to wait. Then he hung up.

“Come on in,” he called.

I smiled in pain to his secretary, Diane. She knew. Then I went into his office. I started quickly to try to create a sense of urgency in him. “Hey Gene howreyou doing what’s up?” — words strung together. It didn’t work.

“I gotta talk to you,” he said, smiling, and arranging some papers on his desk. I knew him too well. If he had said, “I have to talk to you,” it was something more serious and likely something I’d disagree with. That’s how important each word is in this place.

“Okay,” I said. He finished straightening papers and looked up at me.

“I got approval for a new hire,” he said.

Gene has it all. He can have it. He’s pampered — well groomed and fine-tuned, living in Westchester with a third wife and a pair of out-of-control twin boys in elementary school. He never sees his family. He has children with one of his two previous wives, too. Sometimes one of them calls him at the office during a meeting and he takes fifteen or twenty minutes out of our time to cover some matter of no importance — money or vacation plans or college or cars or shopping lists.

If it wasn’t one of his kids, it was his stock broker calling about massive quantities of money moving around with very short notice but only if quick decisions are made, or his wife or one of his ex-wives, or some old brother-in-law looking for another loan. Everything about one of his conversations reminded me of something that I didn’t have. Money or children or relationships that meant something — good or bad — or the meaning of the future and plans. Even if I didn’t want them, I knew they weren’t there for me. And I didn’t want to be sitting in someone else’s office while they talked on the phone about all their money, either. And I didn’t want to be sitting there thinking about someone else’s things going on when I had my own things going on, while I had my own reasons for being there, my own reasons for having to be there, gaping voids in my life and all.

I hadn’t even figured out why he was working. He made himself panic at each small normal crisis. He had a great paranoia that kept him from trusting anyone who worked for him or who he came into contact with at work. He kept a digital voice recorder going in his desk drawer at all times, spurred by a past attempt by a malcontent to file false sexual harassment claims. He confided in me deep resentment for others, and I suspected he did the same in the company of others regarding me. It was habitual. He was a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, a former wannabe rock star, an aging hippie, something of a madman out of place in the corporate world. He had to surround himself with trusted subordinates, but he still didn’t really trust anyone. I should be making fun of Gene. I should be finding gaps in the story even in the fullness mess of his life, but instead I was worried about what wasn’t going on for me.

We were all just compensating for something, worried about our own lives. Nothing was really going the way it was supposed to go — there were always those gaps to watch out for and — oh, shit — what about my life insurance, and the fact I can’t afford it?

Matthew Ryder was my insurance agent out of Connecticut. Life insurance was next on the list. Ruth put it there. It replaced “$800 rowing machine” as the next thing to do. Not that I could afford the rowing machine, either. But I still had the list, because otherwise what would I worry about? But now that life insurance was at the top, it wasn’t so easy to push out of sight.

“This is Matthew Ryder, Addie, and I’m calling to see if you’ve had a chance to go over that material I sent. Please give me a call. Again this is Matthew Ryder at Amica and the phone number is blah blah blah blah blah blah blah,” that was the message on my office phone every day. “This is Matthew Ryder, Addie, and I’m calling —,” “This is Matthew Ryder —,” “Matthew Ryder,” “Matthew Ryder” was going through my head every fucking day that summer. No, I didn’t go through that heavy envelope, man. I haven’t even opened it.

Things were mostly going pretty well but Matthew Ryder was the bane of my existence. I had to screen my incoming calls at work because of him. It’s true that I never gave him my home phone number, but he could have easily found it, and since he never called me at home I guess he wasn’t all evil. At first I actually almost liked him. But it was too much — I showed too much interest, or I encouraged him too much as a person, or something — because now it was all the time. We had already gone over all the details of my life — where I lived, where I worked, how I got to work (he was shattered to discover that he couldn’t lump an auto insurance policy in with my funeral arrangements), how often I exercised, what my personal habits and hobbies were — and now he had me. He knew me all right. Now it was all just a matter of numbers, and my policy choices were all in this envelope, and that’s when I noticed that I had run out of time to call the whole thing off, so I was ignoring it.

The life insurance policy was for both of us and it was supposed to make us stable enough to have kids. It really was a good idea. Lots of people at the office were getting them. Chris got one, and so did Jon, just that spring. You dated for a while, then you rented a 2-bedroom apartment together, then you got married, then you got life insurance, then you had kids, then you bought a 2-bedroom apartment (or a 3-bedroom one if you both had great jobs) for five or six times what starter homes were going for back home, then you had another kid and moved out to the suburbs, somewhere close on the commuter lines, in New Jersey, or maybe Westchester or Rockland Counties. If you had family and they made you do it, you’d find a nice place on Long Island. Now, that’s not a precise set of instructions — sometimes you might move one thing ahead of another, or take one out altogether (if you were lucky), or (if you were even luckier) you might get to sneak an eight-hundred-dollar ergometer up to the top of the list. Otherwise, though, those were the things we all wanted and all worried about wanting. We also worried if we thought we didn’t have them in time, and we judged that based on what the rest of us were doing. We were actually looking for peer pressure, yes.

But the role models offered nothing as an alternative, so if we didn’t like what we saw down one road, all we could do was try to aim in a slightly different direction. Gene was where I was headed, but where I didn’t want to go. I worked like he worked. I wasn’t politically concerned enough to make it to where John was, and I definitely wasn’t capable of it, even if I cared. I cared. Of course I cared. The pie in the sky was John’s job. Not to take his job from him, but to be in line for it someday. I knew that it was a long shot, so I didn’t really include it when I was worrying about where I was going. I just didn’t want to end up working like Gene was working at his age. I thought I’d want to be around my kids more, were I to ever have any (but they were on our list — they were on everybody’s list), and I knew I’d never want to live that far from the city, or have that long a commute. So I was working towards something I didn’t want, and hoping that somewhere along the way I’d find an alternate path. What I really wanted was to sell that book, but in the meantime I had to eat.

Ken didn’t overwork himself. He went downhill after the production meeting. His diligence was all neurotic and at 4:30 every day he slipped out of the office and went across the street to the athletic club, where he spent the next couple of hours before going home to Long Island. He had a routine, and it was working for him.

“There goes fucking Jack LaLanne,” said Cassie, walking a set of proofs down the hall in the wake of the wobbly black security doors falling slammed shut behind Ken and his gear. Four-thirty was the witching hour. Workaholics like Gene stuck around sometimes until six or later, but the rest of upper and senior management were gone, and I didn’t blame them, because they had to take a train and then a bus or two, and sometimes then a car, all the way home. It was a killer commute and nobody who couldn’t afford to do it wanted any part of it. Strange. Something must happen when you start making a real shitload of cash. This was when we got in trouble. Giddy from all that serious work and somewhat suddenly overwhelmed by a rush of material being turned in at the end of everyone else’s day, we got a little rowdy as the day died off.

“Jack LaLanne has left the building!” Cassie called again as she wound around the corner and into the traffic department, smiling quickly, her face getting red, as she saw me in my office listening and laughing. “Oops sorry boss,” she said.

“Yeah yeah,” I said. It was hard walking the line. Before I was her boss I was just a supervisor of another department. I wanted to continue the joke but it wouldn’t have been appropriate. You really have to watch yourself around here. When I got the big boss job, I had to stop eating my lunch in the cafeteria amidst the casual careless banter of speculating and vindictive office professionals, and I had to watch what I said in the can, or in line for tampons and aspirin downstairs.

No need to go digging through each other’s shopping lists. I had my secrets to keep myself sane. Connor and I still played poker together every week with Greg and Zachary and a rotating gang of other friends up at Zachary’s apartment near Union Square. It was a big deal we joked about, “So Smitty now that you’re Timmy’s big boss are you gonna pass the joint or pass the joint?” said Greg, saying “pass” in two different ways to make his pun — but I went right along, wasn’t going to stop getting high now, not after Gene’s stories about smoking pot outside in the alley during his work breaks with half the people who were now in upper management at Art’s.

Cassie was my access to the rumor mill. Without the lunch breaks, within weeks of being promoted I had lost all sense of context. The schedules and daily reports only get you so far, and now that I was working directly for Gene, I was in his office all the time. Cassie came in to sit down and talk. I loved the way she talked. Cassie and Tara were among the few native New Yorkers on the staff at Art’s Cards. Cassie was from Staten Island.

“What’s going on out there, Cass?” I asked.

“People are gettin pissed, boss.”

“About what?”

“About your boy Kevin,” I hadn’t hired any of them, of course. Kevin was slipping.

“Are you helping him with that — what — that basketball job?”

“Of course, and it’s taking all my time, too. Don’t worry. My kids understand. I just tell ‘em it’s Smitty’s fault.”

“They probably hate Smitty, don’t they?”

“They love you, boss, just like I do.” Fucking hilarious with the flattery. But we had a thing going. It was all right.

“What about Kevin?”

“He’s fucking up, Smitty. I hate to say it, but he is. I ask him if he needs help and he always says yes, but I can’t help him. His folders are a mess — he puts things through fifteen proofs for no reason. He really doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

“I know,” I rubbed my forehead. Kevin was a problem. Not everything wrong with the traffic department had been Dana’s fault. But now he was my problem.

“Scott freaked out on him today,” she said.

“Freaked out?”

“Kevin brought him the same proofs three times in a row. And so they ended up sitting on Scott’s desk all day, and they were those relic cards, the ones —”

“Oh no,” they were the ones that were late, and that Scott and everybody else in the building had been told to rush through on sight. The company grabbed old stadium seats from the War Memorial football stadium in Buffalo — the old Rockpile — and cut them into tiny pieces. The cards we printed would just have holes in them, where the pieces would be glued in manufacturing. But the manufacturing deadline had been pushed back because it took them so long to figure out how to cut the seats, and then when they figured it out, they discovered they couldn’t get as many pieces as they needed, so they had to cut up more pieces from a different seat, but those ended up being cut to the wrong size, which meant that the cards had to be ready earlier so they could be shipped to two different plants to insert the two different-sized relics. It was the new thing — cutting up pieces of things and sticking them on cards as souvenirs. So we cut up seats and jerseys and balls and hats and gloves and cleats and patches and pants and bases and pucks and sneakers and we even cut up parts of goalposts that were torn down in celebrations, and we sliced off paper-thin wafers of baseball bats and hockey sticks, and glued the strings of championship basketball netting and the shoelaces from championship sneakers to empty square spaces on the front of basketball cards. If you could cut it using some tool available to some manufacturer, we put it on a card. They were even more popular than autographed cards.

“So, they were actually approved and ready by like noon today,” Cassie said.

“I spoke to Dave an hour ago and he said they went out.”

“They did, but that was because Dave told me he was giving them to Kevin, finally.”

See — Dave didn’t tell me that. He had just answered my question, “Did they go out?” “Yes.” “Good.” But it wasn’t good. Even with production meetings you still miss this stuff. Without rumor-mongering every so often with Cassie, I’d never get the inside scoop in real time. Now that I was the boss, people were afraid to tell me things. I had changed. Without talking to Cassie like this, I would have left myself open to being blindsided by problems. That Dave knew Kevin was fucking up was one thing. They both worked for me. But Scott was a different department, and if things had gotten that bad today, the management in sports was aware of it, and so now it was a different problem, because I had damage control to do.

“So it did go out?” I asked.

“It’s in preflight right now,” she said. “I gave it to Evie to give to Rob.” Preflight was: collect all the computer files that comprise the project and pass them through a software application that gets them ready to be printed on film, which we’ll send to the printing press right away. It wasn’t a big deal, but because it was the very last thing we did, it was usually stressful. Since it was something done by an application, it couldn’t be rushed or skipped. And the bigger the job was, the longer the preflighting took.

Tara blew by the doors and saw Cassie sitting in my office. “Oh no somebody’s got more work for somebody to do!”

Cassie was for real. I wouldn’t have talked to her about this stuff if I thought she wouldn’t keep it to herself. And Cassie could trust me, too. She was helping me, but it was sincere, I knew, and even if it was sincerely to protect her own ass down the road, well — I respected all of that just fine. She was helping me, after all. Cassie was abrasive, a lot of people thought. Ken wouldn’t have been surprised, though it would have pissed him off, to hear her make fun of him like she did. I heard about her attitude problems all the time. She was on the top of Linda’s list, and that caused me a lot of grief, but I didn’t think Cassie was abrasive, I thought she was hilarious. She was disorganized, messy and sometimes inadvertently rude. At the same time she was humble, persistent and smart. She had no problem admitting her mistakes, and she was actually really patient most of the time. But not with Linda. Linda had one too many faults for Cassie. I don’t know which one tipped the scale. Linda had either just enough or not quite enough faults for the rest of us. But for Cassie, Linda was intolerable, and Linda sensed it, and she goaded Cassie, using her seniority and rank to make Cassie miserable. Every couple of months it would boil over and I’d have to get involved, but it never came to anything more than just bad feelings and awkward moments.

Ken was Jack LaLanne but Linda was Bozo the Clown. She was a lanky thing and oddly shaped, which I feel terrible mentioning except that it’s important to how she looked, which is something I still feel terrible mentioning except that it’s important to how people treated her. She did a good job, I think. She worked in licensing, and lots of us probably gave her some extra wiggle room right around intolerable because she’s who you talked to if you wanted free baseball tickets.

She was a very single very forty-ish redhead who was scrawny all over except in her hips, and who wore candy-colored suits of the worst fabrics imaginable with hemlines and layers and huge belts, or buttons on shoulders, tassels and other strange things, all of this hanging or clinging to her already awkward figure. Wobbling down the hall on shoes that must have been too high in the heel — having never worn them I can only guess at what could be making a woman’s legs shake like that, like they were holding up a dancing walrus. She moved like the shit had just hit the fan, too — and her life depended on keeping ahead of it and fixing this guilty problem she left behind, like she was running after people in a rage, to try to make up for something she’d just fucked up. On those unsteady ankles and pinpoint high heels. Even if she had been the nicest person in the world, Cassie would have destroyed her and I couldn’t take those kinds of punchlines away from people, not with all the shit they have to put up with around here.

Victor and Jackson worked for Linda in the publicity and promotions department downstairs. Victor was young, always acting just off the farm. Jackson was my age, a nice guy from Long Island. Linda had a crush on Victor that was manifesting itself in a cruel attitude towards him. Victor, being from the midwest, had struggled to find a solution to his problem. He thought he could find a way around it but she broke him and turned him into a cynical and sarcastic person. He learned to keep his mouth shut around her and focus on his work. This helped on a practical level, but it made his lunch breaks and after-work complaints a hundred times worse.

She loved Victor secretly and romantically, and she loved Jackson as a friend and out in the open, but she could harbor no significant feelings towards either because they were both Christians and she didn’t allow herself to date anyone but Jewish men. She was genuinely confused as to why she had such a hard time finding the right guy. She was a professional single person and had regular stories about blind dates and mixers of all kinds. Even though she was shockingly candid with Jackson about her bad romantic experiences, which never failed to end before they became romantic, she was otherwise very guarded and paranoid with other people at the office, like she expected us to always be laughing at her behind her back, which we were. Laughing to laugh, but also to cope with her very strange shit, bordering sometimes on the sociopathic. Maybe it was all a put-on — there had to be a reasonable explanation, but she was stranger, when it came down to it, than any of the random loose ends of humanity floating around lower Manhattan in those days.

It was getting close to the time we wanted to leave but I had to check on those goddamn relic cards or it was going to be a bad time. When things go wrong so close to printing, it can go real bad real fast, and the real big guns are paying attention — the marketing directors, the VPs, senior management. Especially on these relic cards, because they were so expensive to produce.

Evie was the team leader for the artists in Ken’s production crew. Ken also managed the retouchers, but they worked strange early hours in the dark on photographs before they had real deadlines and fates attached to them. Ken was always running and Evie was always standing in the way with a smile and, usually, a solution. She was unflappable, which could be disconcerting if things were really going to shit and you expected a certain amount of normal hysteria in the people around you, but she was also usually the person who could get down to the business of getting things done once the chaos produced a solution. She didn’t have to spend precious minutes settling down her head, like I did, like I think most of us did, after the dust had settled. She used to bring in these wonderful sticky spicy homemade candies, some specialty from India, where she was from. Her accent also worked to slow us down, because we really had to listen to her. You went to her if something had gone wrong and needed the attention of one of the production artists. These were the ones who put the cards together on the computer. They merged the image, the design, the copy, and various logos into each player’s card.

“Hey Evie,” I said slowly, giving her time to psychically assess the situation.

“Hey Addie,” she said, pushing back in her rolling chair and turning to me. A single card was up on her screen, but it wasn’t the relic cards. Good sign. “I just gave them to Rob,” she said, and thumbed her thumb in that direction.

“Great. Thanks,” I said. Rob was just around the corner. “I’m preflighting them now!” He called. He got nervous with people around his cubicle, in the darkened room where the retouchers did their magic. Trapped by clumsy tilting stacks of CDs in thin clear plastic cases. Big drives stacked under the desks, some in boxes, some just piled onto one another. He hated being harassed and was a little like Ken, with the neurosis, but since Rob wasn’t in control of anything and was only responsible for doing as quickly as he could whatever he was handed, his anxiety manifested itself more frenetically.

“How’s it going?” I asked, carefully, trying to be chipper. I had to watch the kind of question I asked because he was already hyperventilating without my having yet said anything. “I know we fucked up getting it to you on time but I just found that out. Sorry about that.”

“It won’t be long,” he said. “It’s only six cards.”

I looked at my watch. “I can send Kevin to the FedEx box for the six o’clock pickup, and that gives you more than a half hour?”

“Well then don’t stand around here making the computer nervous and it’ll be done in fifteen minutes,” he said. “Are you going out to Fulton Street after work?”

“Yeah,” I said. “You?”

“Me and Evie.”

“Good. We can celebrate getting these files done.”

“Darling,” he said, “I don’t celebrate this.”

Back to the cubicles and there’s Kevin gone for the day, cubicle all cleaned up, chair pushed in, some notes stuck carefully to the table as reminders I guess but he had left without making sure the one job he had to get out today actually got out.

“Shit,” I said out loud.

“Do you need someone to drop off that package,” Tara shouted from her cubicle, “that Kevin forgot to drop off?” She was only helping me to make a point about how much of a burden Kevin was becoming on all of them, but I took it.

“Can you?” I asked.

“You got it, boss. It’s on my way.” I thanked her and went back to my office. Now Jackson was there, just waiting for me.

“I have to wait a little while for this job to go out but I’m ready,” I told him. “Have you ditched the bitch yet?”

Because she did love both Jackson and Victor, whenever they left the office after work for a social gathering, they had to pretend they were just going home or Linda would try to tag along. It wasn’t paranoia. It happened a lot, and we were all dedicated to losing her. Linda usually worked late, as if waiting for someone to ask her out for drinks, or just to monitor the possibilities, waiting for the chance to follow others out for them. So Victor left first, alone going nowhere, and smoked outside and Jackson drifted from office to office, buying time, until I finally wrapped things up and came downstairs. We had to bolt away from the front of the building’s double glass doors because if she came down the elevator just then and saw us moving off together, the shit would really hit the fan and she’d berate us like a monster until we let her be our friend for the night.

And fuck — another weekend and I forgot to stuff that stupid life insurance envelope in my bag. “This is Matthew Ryder.” I didn’t want to walk around town with it anyway, dragging on my shoulders. I hadn’t forgotten it. A silent part of my brain decided not to bring it, yeah.
and knowing i'm so eager to fight cant make letting me in any easier.

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