It was not often that I had a chance to be wholly removed from the outside world. As I sat here in the living room on the day of my mother’s 67th birthday, in the midst of a global pandemic that ravaged the city and continued to do so, despite the slight abatements in its cases of hospitalizations, and which had barred our physical contact with others for the past month save my trips to the grocery store in which I had worn both a mask and the lower half of a balaclava, I thought to myself how exceedingly odd our sense of communion and communication had become.
My mother had descended the stairs this morning and I left my room to greet her, lest she discover alone the greeting card I had left for her on the kitchen table. I had awoken earlier; I had not planned time the night before to prepare a gift for her, and so was left to my own rare moments of ingenuity. A week earlier, in preparing a cake for my own birthday, my mother had broken her electric mixer that had served her nearly forty years, though its infrequency of use more than likely allowed for its longevity. That we were to avoid nonessential travel for the past month proscribed any forays into stores; I had not ordered any devices online, either. And so, with the illusion that the device was already on its way, I had printed a cutout a picture of a mixer from Amazon, and inserted it into the birthday card that I had already customized (my mother, wont to admire animals, often threw scraps into the backyard as fodder for squirrels; some printed photographs I snapped of the rodents would suffice).
My mother was, I think, pleasantly surprised, and we continued the morning routine, which had evolved out of our time home during the stay-at-home directions. The only difference was that I, unlike the past month, had no work to attend do. I had completed my last day of my job the day prior, and was on a very short vacation before starting my new position on Monday.
On Prior Employment (“Please Wait; System Processing”)
It had been time. If I couched my experience in the trajectory of my career, I was still a beginner in many ways. It was necessary, however, to understand my position from a holistic point of view starting in the past.
I had prior cast my career experience as a series of middling actions that resulted from disastrously short-sighted planning. That I had no exposure to a career as something that one pursues – something that not only runs its course but that one, as well, directs – only muddled the concept. This was truly in the nature of my upbringing. No one around me – not even my father, the nominal breadwinner in my family’s idea of roles, had any profession that could be construed as voluntary. We had all followed needs: there was no room for want.
Though I was, without question, elevated in the eyes of employers above the general population given my degree from a top university, I was soon exposed to the extraordinarily ordered world of career planning that I had not learned once in my wayward past. Newly-minted bachelor degrees, admittedly, had little clout in the professional world, and so a compelling story was worth all the more in excelling one from the rest of the muddled mass of aimless degree-holders. This is precisely where I failed, for it was precisely where, for lack of a better term, the “rubber met the road.” I had no desire to enter into whatever shadow I construed as the professional world; my mind – though most certainly not my history – still insulated from real financial hardship, I had not the notion of how to work myself out of such a situation. Instead, I reasoned, a smart, eloquent, energetic and helpful young man would be the ideal candidate for any number of jobs, surely; openly, my traits would compensate for my lack of experience; internally, however, my enthusiasm would mask the empty and confused trajectory I found myself swerving into. The plan, as one would foresee, failed. The first reasoning was not as major as I had thought; the second undeniably more weighty than I could have accounted for. In other ways, bad advice I had too unscrupulously taken had protracted my search for stability; a severe neurosis undoubtedly delayed any success in overcoming obstacles.
That was then, of course: I found myself nearly drowning in sadness, diffidence, and debt. I had complained to my family members; I had shamefully revealed to my parents the depth of my helplessness. It was my sister who had spotted a listing on LinkedIn: a high school friend had posted a job opening and she wrote to him about it. It was June 2017: I was off to my Alma Mater’s annual weekend fete for alumni, and during my brief respite (sweet from memories and old friends) I had my first phone interview. Of course, to my friends during that time I had appeared happy, though not without any psychic burden: to a number of acquaintances, when prompted about my job, I relayed an even if tedious description of work; to my closer friends, in meet proportions, I revealed something more akin to a jeremiad. For I had been beholden to a job that not long after its outset was doomed to stalemate, and the job’s kind was such that it could breed only likewise. I remember, with weird accuracy, the moments that signified a mote of progression out of my dire professional straits: the call as I walked up the street to inform me that I had been given an offer; the call in a café that informed me of my counter-offer’s success. What could have been more significant at that time than a claim to normalcy and a semblance of prosperity? ….
Yes. It was borne out of warped circumstances, weird surroundings, outlandish paths through young adulthood. Why was it that I – meek, earnest, and with a religiously humane worldview that the outside would unquestioningly brand as “simple” – find myself in a hall devoted to contemporary art in the most wanton and moneyed city in the world? Why was it that my devotion to the word, the unseen, the slow, halting nature of unassuming thought be thwarted by an obligation to serve commercial television advertisements?
It was a play of contrasts, of contradictions, of incongruous parts. I had prepared to the best of my ability for what I would assume to be a “full-time job,” wearing the only black suit jacket that I owned. I arrived for my interview and was greeted by who would be my future manager. It was at best awkward: the room was messy, and the man unkempt and ill-dressed, the conversation stilted and rambling. We spoke briefly: I had very little to contribute in terms of business knowledge and expertise (I was wholly unaware of the nature of the business, as usual, though it was an entry-level job), and with posing what I thought a few wry questions and compulsory prattle, I was sent to the next round of interviews. Who greeted me in the next room were two tall, young adults, one a swarthy hairless man in glasses and the other pale girl with long hair. I had blathered to both of them at the time, apparently showing an air of gingerliness and caution, which seemed to reflect in the woman’s question of why I wanted to work there. After this I was sent upstairs, where I was interviewed by whom I would have considered a boss of some sort, given his office with floor-to-ceiling windows and his attire of a white dress shirt with a wide mustard-colored tie. Odd, but I seemed to have generated a healthy amount of interest from this man, distinctively named Lucian, and we prated about – of all things, Victorian literature, which seemed (and would be) an island in this locale. After this, I was sent to yet another bald man in an office, where the interview was cut short on his bidding, with a rather terse line: “I’m hiring for a career, not a job.” Evidently, my equivocation on a rather rudimentary question of what I preferred in television was a red flag for this man (rightfully so); aware of the impetus to nab this necessary advancement, I pelted the man with astute-sounding questions about the direction of the industry. So I was left with a similarly foreboding parting words: “Thanks for coming in,” and at home I sent emails of thank yous to each individual with whom I had interviewed. Such was my experience: a blind mimicking of competence and professionalism.
Had it not been for the “personal connection,” namely, that my sister was longtime friends with who would be one of the heads of the department (and the first man to interview me), I more than likely would have relegated this experience to the inbox-dustbin of historical failures. Given the surroundings otherwise, I was on my way to this new chapter within a few weeks. It was uncanny, come to think of it, that I had situated this change as a major step in the right direction: surely, on paper, it was, but in hindsight it was nevertheless a mostly lowly position in comparison to my relentlessly adroit peers. My roommate at the time – a friend, mind you – gave me rightful praise, seeing the desperate emotional circumstances that had swallowed the past months – on another occasion, after we had parted from our dwelling and met up again months later, gave words of encouragement in that I was “moving up.” Another close friend was likewise sanguine about the change until I had answered his question about the rate of my pay (hourly as opposed to a salaried); fluent in the language of business, he rightly penetrated the veneer of success to ascertain that indeed, this was nevertheless below me and his expectations. Words he had uttered to me remain in my memory: “I predict your behavior will not change;” and with that silently closed something in my heart I could not describe.
With my ancient comrade departing for the time, I was left to construe my own successes. The travel time to my occupation was perhaps the shortest I will ever behold in my lifetime: a mere 30 minutes from leaving my home to arriving at the workplace. I was happy to walk through the bright mornings in clothes that spoke to social distinction: dress pants and a dress shirt with a black portfolio. And the new midtown crowd mirrored my appearance save the men’s buzzed hairdos.
Upon being led into work, I was presented with my desk ensconced between two workers of approximately equal age. On my left I would find out was a young Dominican woman with a gap-toothed smile she frequently bestowed on me; to my right was a young, lank white man with a rural twang in his speech. These were the people I would consult throughout the course of my training, as it were, aside from my manager who sat behind me.
The setting of the position was as follows: men (and some women) would conduct “research” through a database of numbers that would be loaded on a regular basis. The numbers were calculated through a methodology that proved too abstruse for those in charge to adequately explained to the workers. As one employee phrased it, I would have a moment, probably sometime within three to six months, in which I would suddenly assume the totality of what I had been doing every day, and “it will all make sense.” Suffice to say that this magical moment eluded me, and I was left with my brute milling of information that was faultily provided at best.
It was a bizarre setting for someone like myself. I was used to being an outsider throughout my time in what most jaded individuals would describe “the real world;” this was, with an odd continuation in the cultural style of my last “office” position, not an exception. I would soon learn that there was an exceeding lack of abstract explanation in the tutorials that were given, as well as the advice; my attempts to assume a truth or axiom for a course of action in a given set of circumstances were countered by attempts to couch my question within the task at hand. This would only serve to frustrate my learning, for each given was dealt with on a case-by-case basis, and the application of each learning experience was subsequently proved incorrect by the department head’s captious rubric.
It was a failure on many levels. I would learn the vocabulary of this: it was a failure of “onboarding.” But there were a number of hindrances one could only truly reckon after one gained clarity in the nature of the office’s social dynamic.
There was a number of eccentric people that worked there, though the view that many were not indeed eccentric was prevalent. Most people, woefully, were quite boorish. Having little to do with serious inquiry and very much to do with results and the generation of money, employees –particularly those on the team dedicated to sales – valued quick answers and eschewed problematizing. To the extent to which this eclipsed a serious – and necessarily slow – process of learning was not a question for most but painfully real for myself. There were numerous slights to the idea of learning for its own sake; one sales manager, when recounting his daughter’s winning of a school honor, remarked that “that and $2.75 will get you on the subway.” Other characters, hailing from rural areas in the surrounding metro area, were vigorously partisan politically and made little attempt to conceal their expressions of frustration and disdain for current trends. Disparagement of expertise was common, too, from a bewilderment in the certainty of unintuitive scientific claims to the mock relaying of specialized knowledge. One cohort that shared our space but was not technically part of our company was particularly egregious (or, I suppose, at the very least, loud). I became an unwilling eavesdropper of their conversations that often belied critical thinking and were at times ludicrous. In one conversation, a young man claimed there to be no issue of concern with the bringing of nationalism into the current political administration’s calculus; when asked to define his term (“What’s nationalism?”), the young man responded that it was pride in one’s country.
And yet it was not accurate to say that, as rustic as many of the people were, they were completely foreign. I was, as it were, a product of the same outer-borough first- and second-generation kin. Some rituals were uncannily familiar: the necessity of greeting one in the morning; the obligation of letting women and girls out of an elevator first; the necessity of hedging one’s requests and questions.
I relearned not only these customs (which were not universal from a college that had co-ed bathrooms), but to modulate behaviors that were outside my own upbringing, too. As was the case with many people unused to high amounts of care, the most effective communication was when I was slightly absent; it seemed applying the full force of my mind and intention proved to discomfit my manager, perhaps out of what was seen as an unusual seriousness.
The culture was such, and there were many examples that I had come to rue. Gossip circulated on the current events of sports; if about the news, there was a tremendous likelihood for tales to skew towards the outlandish, the gruesome, the blatantly idiotic; shows such as “Jackass,” a program in which men, evidently with an hardy supply of pent-up energy, would perform reckless stunts that almost always ended in physical pain and injury, were cited as currency; “Impractical Jokers,” a show in which a cohort of men, once again, dared each other to conduct inane stunts that similarly led to outrage or absurd situations, was often featured in employees’ banter. And my attention was not infrequently requested to peruse the headlines of the NY Post about stories, perennially stupid, that were eaten up by those around me and then forgotten. One manager was unsettlingly fascinated by stories of enormity and the macabre, and would make no attempt to conceal his interest or stanch his retelling of them; there was not a few number of conversations that concerned serial killers, in which the men, with already blunted affect, seemed too willing to engage.
Glimpses of past lives were espied in conversations that often waxed nostalgic: times of the old days where men would prank each other, of ridiculous drunken escapades or telephone antics. “You can’t do that now,” said one manager. “Everyone is too sensitive and serious.” So I was, I admitted in private with a laugh, exactly.
Women played little part here, and those that were there were exceptionally quiet or exceptionally feminine. In a land of branding and corporatism, men often frequented quick service restaurants and returned with the fast food for lunch, while snacking was relegated to other mass-produced candy. I reckoned that out of the men in my department, seventy-five percent were either overweight or bald; it was an odd assortment, though perhaps the abundance of certain hormones, namely testosterone, may have had a connection.
My linguistic skills were sometimes seen as something miraculous by the man that sat next to me; when using a interrogative pronoun in conversation over the phone, I found one manager (who was technically younger than I) announce to the team after I finished that it be noted I used the word “whom.” There were other ticks that but slightly aggrieved me, given my heightened attention to words; a woman who, upon hearing a grisly story on the news, remarked the alleged assailant had not a “mental health” problem but that he was “sick;” and, within the same minute, modified the judgment to his behavior being “not sick; it’s evil.” The same fragility with words abounded in conversation; email correspondences were wrought with lapses in grammar and punctuation; I kept silent, mostly, except when it genuinely hindered my understanding of the request.
One might wonder at the point of outlining these tolerably unpleasant and trifling details outright; and whether my time was spent well in doing so. To this I might say that there existed a number of instances – perhaps that occurred daily – in which I was forced to ignore the events around me, and, in effect, become inured to them. For that, I resolve – that in the interstice between two jobs, on a vacation, as you will, in which I am afforded the rare luxury (and such otiose use of time truly is one) – to recount the entirety of my experience and, in a sense, to comprehend it all. For my failure to do so would simply enable such behavior that had been impressed upon me but had not been thoroughly understood to become, as it were, second nature; and I resolve that such a course be unacceptable.