Enclosed Please Find a Resume
I need a job. Especially now, when my wife Jill is pregnant. As the man of the household I need to get a job because staying home with her and a baby all day would drive me insane.
I've always looked for jobs before they make it to the want-ads. Any lunatic can answer an ad, but it takes a special lunatic to sniff out a job before it hits the papers. But by now I'm reduced to flipping through the classifieds, blackening my fingers, looking for the magic ad that will unlock the future.
"Leading financial publication is a seeking a multi-talented prof'l w/at least 3 yrs exp." "We're seeking a creative professional to meet the following challenge." "Your writing samples should show clarity and style."
"Must be comfortable w/nudity." Mine or theirs?
I continue typing letters heavy on clarity and style, trumpeting a past that seemed interesting at the time, but now slumps on the page even if tarted up with typefaces. Yes, "I have been a working journalist for 12 years." Yes, that period included "seven years freelancing in New York City, two years with a daily in upstate New York, and most recently three years with a weekly chain in Baltimore." Yes, I make sure that seven plus two plus three equals 12.
Then I type, "Enclosed please find my resume, submitted with my hope of finding an editorial position." I spell-check. Then I count the words. Then I glance at the desk calendar and see Jill has an upcoming doctor's appointment. I wish I could dig up a stronger word than "hope."
Not that I haven't played with tone. I've done cynical, ending a two-sentence letter with, "Thanks for reading this far." I've also blown a trumpet crescendo: "My workload was dizzying -- I kept myself fed and housed at $50 a story."
More or less true. Why in God's name did I do that?
Then comes the part of job hunting where I get up from the chair. I yank the paper tray from the printer to make sure there's white stock in there, then jam the tray back in and print the letters. Then I call up my resume -- which always reminds me of every creative writing course I ever took -- and yank the paper tray out to make sure there's light-green stock in there. Then I jam the tray back in and print. Then I play "Epic Pinball" on the computer until Jill walks in.
Then I lay the letters out on a bed in our study, hoping nobody turns on the fan in the corner, and blacken my fingers by flipping through my old papers for the magic clip that will unlock the future. Then I walk to Kinko's to photocopy the clips, which often requires a Michael Jordan-like dexterity with the reducing button, and I bring the clips back and sort them into piles to be slipped into colored envelopes.
Then I start the labels!
As I'm agonizing over whether to abbreviate "Postal Drawer" and wondering what these letters will sound like when typed beside a screaming baby, I try not to recall the time I snagged a job with a faxed resume.
It arrived precisely when an editor had an opening. One reporter had died. While looking for a job. (Spring, 1998)
I just got a new job, and new co-workers I see five days a week. They are Howard, Mary, Stu and Mike. Howard is the boss. Stu and Mike are across the hall. Mary is the secretary and I feel funny about asking her to do anything, because I should be the secretary. I wear a tie three days a week.
The door of my office looks out on Stu and Mike's doors, which are often closed. I've been there a month. I also feel funny closing my door, like a freshman in a dorm. I feel funny a lot there, in the sense of "definitely not right." Stu and Mike never wear ties.
I don't know the color of the carpet in my office, but the walls are a dirty white. Mary drops off accounting stories I have to read for the magazine. She tells me which contributing authors are dopes, and she also tells me about her cats. Frisky ran away a few weeks ago. He came back, and the dog licked him. This I understand.
I have no posters. "Looks like a dungeon," said one guy down the hall.
In the past month I've also come to understand something about accounting, such as "write-up work," "receivables," and that most accountants loved "As Good As It Gets."
"I loved it," said Mike. "It was very good." I didn't see it, but I did see "Paul," which Mike liked and so did I. So we have that.
Jill, my wife, asks me if I like my job. I always assume this question means, do you hate your job? No. I like that we have a soda machine, and a coffee machine that makes smooth mocha. "Nobody drinks the mocha," Stu said. Sometimes Howard wears a tie, and once he and I wore the same color shirt and tie. I hoped Stu and Mike didn't notice this.
Stu has a full head of gray hair. Mike's hair is close-cropped, salt-and-pepper, and vanishing. All three guys are older than I am: Mike by a decade and a son, Howard by two decades and two grown kids, Stu by a few decades and a few grandkids.
Howard was born in Brooklyn, and often smells like after-shave. Once when he was being ribbed by Stu and Mike he turned to me and said, "See Jeff, this is what I put up with."
Mike used to teach college. Howard is a lawyer. Stu was a news bureau chief in Moscow and Rome. I've never been to Moscow or Rome. I didn't graduate college.
Shortly after I arrived, we all went to lunch. It went well. We all ordered what Stu suggested, shepherd's pie. Stu had chicken salad. I didn't spill anything. On the way back to the office I told Stu I had no idea why this company had hired me. "Join the club," he said. Later he talked to me about sciatica, which I have. Now.
This club has no reason to notice me. I've pulled no weight nor pitched in a whit. But that's about to change, because after a month I just finished my first story -- 5,000 words, and for all I know the thing is riddled with 4,000 errors. For all I know that shepherd's pie was my last with these guys. Howard will kick open my door while I'm in my office feeling funny and sipping mocha. He will scream "Incompetent!" and rip the company pass card from my hand like de Gaul ripping off chevrons. Mike will get a club soda from the machine, drink it, and throw the can at my back. Mary will see who the dope really is. Stu will shake his head and think how in Moscow he would have had me shot.
Before the story comes out, I intend to swipe a better chair from down the hall. "Why did they hire me?" I will whisper to my new chair. I tell myself it's OK, though, that I want to be the George Costanza of this office, that there are plenty of other jobs just down the street. I tell myself that such thinking is how people survive.
"What are 'receivables?'" Jill asked me one Sunday.
"I don't know," I answered.
"I thought you said you did."
"I do know," I said. "During the week." (Late Spring, 1998)
Leaving Las Vegas
I recently went on a business trip to Las Vegas. I haven't taken a business trip since I worked for a laundry trade newspaper and went to Myrtle Beach and Memphis to find out what Confederates thought about wet folding. This Las Vegas thing was about accounting. Edward R. Morrow in the London Blitz I am not.
But I imagine I could be. Huddled in a bomb shelter with a microphone, telling the world and especially the people I went to high school with what the front lines are like, describing the krum-krum-krum of incendiaries demolishing city blocks, describing searchlights stabbing the night and airplanes falling in flames. This is Jeff Stimpson, in London, or Indochina, or somewhere in the deserts of Saudi Arabia.
Las Vegas is in the desert, and from my room in Caesar's Palace I could see the planes land at the airport. None fell in flames, through many searchlights stabbed the night through the soft glow of neon. I watched it all. I walked through the casinos and watched the Iowans feeding machines from big plastic cups filled with quarters and thought, "What's the point?"
Earth, Wind and Fire was scheduled to appear at my hotel, but not until three weeks after my departure. Wayne Newton was around, and Paul Anka. You could see Legends in Concert and watch a mock pirate ship battle. I did see the pirate battle, but little else. I meant to. I meant to play more and lose more and in general become more comfortable with this place in which I had to spend a week. But I didn't. I ate dinner alone. My wife Jill asked why and I told her I liked it that way.
Maybe. Breakfasts and lunches were taken up with accountants from Honolulu, Tennessee, Oregon, Arizona, New York, Toronto, Rhode Island, and a host of other places I'd longed to visit when I was still in high school in Maine. At age 36 I'm not in high school anymore, thankfully, and I tell myself that I ate dinner alone because I wanted to, because my breakfasts and lunches were taken up. And they were, as I said. At 36 you should be living the way you want to. This may not involve bomb shelters and microphones, but over the past several months I've learned it does involve accountants and ties, hotel chicken with strangers, working around the schedules of chambermaids and trying to learn about an industry for 13 workdays so that, on the 14th, someone will hand me a paycheck.
I didn't want to go to Las Vegas. Jill is expecting our first child, and she also caught a mean cold and all in all had a rough week. Every night we'd speak to each other across the time zones and I'd hear her hacking in that empty apartment, hearing how she'd had another fruitless fight with the insurance company and how doctors were no help at all, and she'd ask me how was my day and I'd tell her. I left out how I believe that a good scrounging reporter would have found a free dinner somewhere. I didn't, so I don't want to think what would happen if I'd had to scrounge up a bomb shelter as incendiaries began demolishing Las Vegas Boulevard at Flamingo Road.
This is the last night. I guess to break the pattern a few hours ago I dropped by a video poker game, saddled up beside the Iowans -- who do look happy -- and lost 17 quarters. For just a few minutes I must have looked like everybody else I've seen here, plus I can describe the ding-ding-ding of televised playing cards as they steal my money. This is Jeff Stimpson, somewhere in Las Vegas. (Summer, 1998)
Only the Lonely
My friend J. called the other night, and we talked about bosses. I told him to look for a new job.
J. has two bosses, and he believes they both expect everyone to get up at 3 in the morning, like they do. I donít doubt it. Thereís no doubt either that sooner or later theyíll demand J. come to work at 3 in the morning too, if, for no other reason, theyíre tired of being lonely.
"Lonely" is the kindest adjective for some bosses. The first lonely boss I had came along 12 years ago, and he came with fetid breath and nobler callings than paying his familyís rent. He was never a boss in the sense that he gave me a paycheck, but heíd placed a want-ad in The Village Voice claiming to have a new newspaper and to be looking for staffers. He claimed to be important.
He also claimed to be hard as nails, big of heart, a magnate-to-be, manager of bands, an artist and writer and street-wise reporter who could survive on a slice of pizza and a cup of that morningís coffee at 11 p.m. He wore a broken beeper on his belt. He also had an extremely annual weekly newspaper, and heíd stay up all night tapping run-on sentences into a borrowed laptop and at five in the morning crawl into an office chair and clutch his head. He could talk without pause, deep breath or a sip of water, for hours. Iím still scared of whatever it was inside me that compelled me to listen.
One day this guy disappeared. I hope heís in jail now.
About that same time, I also got snarled with a lonely boss who ran a kennel out of her backyard in Connecticut. This boss didnít just want somebody to hose her runs. She wanted a bathroom scrubber, housekeeper, grocery shopper, gardener, home repairman, pooIman and companion during her interests, which ranged from hawking her public speaking career to screaming at golden retrievers while they ran from her -- fast -- across a meadow.
I should have followed them. She claimed I didnít know how to give a shot or wash a dog bowl. I let a golden retriever out one morning, a well-set routine in this asylum, and at the same moment she let loose two boxers. It could have been a bloodbath. She screamed at me then, and later admitted well no, it might have been her fault. I raise three profitable litters for her, and never saw a bonus dime.
I escaped one foggy morning, and the last I saw her she was hosing the runs viciously, probably wondering why Iíd never been able to do it so well. We all have talents. I hope sheís in jail now.
Recently, I almost got another lonely boss. He hired me for a try-out, then came in an hour late and pretended he hadnít. He sat me at a phone and computer without showing me how to dial an outside line or boot up the system. He asked me if Iíd ever used a word processor before. He was never around when I had a question. He blamed co-workers for lost faxes. He bragged about frequent all-nighters that I could see were no more necessary than biting your hangnails. Then he offered me the job.
I typed my refusal on an old Olympia, striking the keys hard.
My wife backed my decision. When I described this last guy she shuddered from boss memories of her own, memories of a boss who liked to sit at home in the dark and bend spoons.
"You have to decide what you think about bosses," my wife says.
OK. Most shouldnít be in charge of the potato salad, and the rest should be in jail. (Summer, 1998)
In April I got a new job, and a boss named Milton.
The job is as a reporter for an accounting magazine. I knew nothing about accounting. Still donít. Two months after I was hired my wife Jill and I had a baby boy, Alex; he was premature.
Iíve had bosses who would have been all gushy about something like this in the beginning, then as the crisis groaned into its sixth month, as this Alex crisis could, those bosses would have hardened.
Milton has not hardened.
"You need to take a long lunch hour and go the hospital, I'm saying you donít even have to visit but just get the lay of the land, go ahead. Don't worry about closing." Closing is when we go to press. Not many editors will brush it off. In daily newspapering, lofting your deadline above a hospitalization is considered noble. I used to think it was noble.
"You take care of your wife and kid," Milton said once. "You take care of your wife and kid. That's more important-" He jerked a hand toward the papers on his desk. "-than this crap. Well, this isn't crap, but you know what I mean..." Not long after that, I brought a picture of Alex to show Milton before a staff meeting. I moved to put the picture away as the meeting came to order.
"No no, leave the picture here, leave it here," Milton said, propping Alex up. "He can help us."
Milton is a large guy from Brooklyn, and he reminds me of Jackie Gleason with glasses under a sweep of salt and pepper hair. On Fridays he wears black pants, a black dress shirt and a black tie. He's a lawyer, but the good kind of lawyer. You could hand him the Manhattan White Pages at noon, and by 12:30 he'd hand it back and tell you who in it mattered.
I had a hunch I was talking to a lawyer on my job interview. He seemed like a big guy for his office, obscuring the screen of his computer as he leaned over my resume. I asked what had caught his eye. "The journalism experience," he said. Paused. "Certainly not the cover letter." Funny how I didn't feel angry.
I know good bosses never last. Milton's doctor has told him to take it easy. I gave Milton the name of my physical therapist who's has a little gym overlooking West 34th Street. Milton said that was very nice. But the guys I work with have come in at 6:30 in the morning and found Milton eating a fat corned beef sandwich. They say he never uses vacation time, and theyíre scared that one day theyíre going to come in at 6:30 in the morning and find Milton on the floor.
And he's got some stresses now from a new boss, and from his own son. Milton's son has left college to join the navy.
"He said he needs some discipline in his life," Milton was telling us one day in the office corridor. I don't usually wander over to office-corridor conversations. But my own son was in his second month, and I decided you could not start learning this fatherhood thing too soon. Milton sounded worried. Milton's son made it into the navy, and right now is flying to the Mediterranean to join a warship off Iraq. But in basic training he kept failing his running test, and his recruit class marched right past him at graduation.
Milton was there, beside his son. "It was a hard thing to watch," Milton said.
Family means a lot to Milton. For his brother's 50th birthday, Milton had two classic Dodgers baseball cards framed and mounted, because when they were kids he and his brother used to watch the team play. I think I'm going to remember that present from Milton to his brother longer than I'll remember a lot of presents that I've received. Years ago, Milton had to put his mom in the hospital, and when he did a psychiatrist told him that because he was putting her in the hospital, he didn't love his mother. "He told me I was a bad son," Milton said to me one morning, leaning on a filing cabinet.
I've had a lot of bosses who must be coming up for parole soon, and I was just coming to believe that power in the workplace was the most pernicious cancer possible for a personality. I had one boss who had breath that killed flowers, another who treated every editorial decision like he was Eisenhower deciding to invade Normandy. Most of my bosses I wouldnít have put in charge of the potato salad. The lazy ones have been abusive, the abusive ones lazy. Around most, including Milton, I guess, I've spent most of my time keeping my mouth shut.
Milton has a high shelf in my pantheon of bosses. The guys I work with say Milton is secretly terrified of getting something wrong in our magazine, and taking the heat. Iím terrified that Iím the one whoíll get something wrong in our magazine, and heíll take the heat. Iím afraid that the guy who said Alex could help us in a meeting will indeed wind up on the floor. And Iím afraid that, with all thatís wrong in my life, Iíll be the guy who puts him there. (Late Summer, 1998)
I work at a business magazine, and every now and then something crosses my desk that makes me realize how far I am from having a real life.
This morning, it was a newsletter from an accounting firm, and one of the articles was "Do Some Financial Spring Cleaning": "This spring, besides cleaning floors and patios, you should also commit to getting your financial house in order," the newsletter said. The tips that followed were sensible and down-to-earth and had nothing to do with me. This is not the fault of the people who wrote the newsletter.
It's nobody's fault, I guess, that my baby son Alex remains in the hospital at the age of nine months. It's nobody's fault that my wife Jill and I sit by the living room window every night after "All In the Family" and wonder who's to blame. Sometimes I have the orange chair and Jill has the red, sometimes the other way around.
The other night Jill sat in the red chair, looked at me and said, "We don't have a real life." True. We look forward to the weekend, then wind up with maybe three happy hours. We talk to doctors, 10 minutes that feels more exhausting than nine hours of a job. As I type this, Alex is having his first neurological exam, and a few days ago an X-ray of his head revealed dilated ventricles. Before that X-ray I didn't know how to spell "ventricle." I'm afraid of what I might learn how to spell next week, when he has CAT scans.
Jill spends days at the hospital, bending over Alex's crib with physical therapists, scrutinizing his eyes for recognition and hoping he doesn't twitch a limb in front of the therapist and trip some land mine phrase like "cerebral palsy." I spend my days thinking about this, and reading newsletters of financial tips.
I say such tips have no connection to my life, but I see I have done the first one: Pay Off Credit Card Debt. Jill and I have three credit cards. Last year we racked up stuff like a move from Baltimore, dinners out to escape our apartment, and $1,300 worth of bookshelves so we could empty the cardboard boxes and get them off the floor. We whittled these debts in January after Jill's step-dad gave us a generous holiday check just days after the credit card companies sent us generous holiday bills.
Next tip: Re-evaluate Insurance Policies. Examine Changing Needs. Well, yesterday Alex's first hospital left a message on our machine asking that, if possible, could we send them half a million dollars? Today I put that hospital in touch with my insurance company, and have heard no more about it. Re-evaluation complete.
Rearrange Your Priorities. This was done on June 14, 1998, by 21 ounces of premature baby boy. He breathed through a tube down his throat for all of July and some of August, then stopped breathing for half an hour in October. He was home for four days before Christmas, then something -- we're still not sure what -- clogged his airway and he spent January breathing through a tube that was again down his throat. More recently, he smiles a lot and makes more and more sounds like a smart bird. He likes music. We have a snapshot of him in the hospital: Framed by the blue plastic tubing taped to his face, his mouth is set above a miniature of daddy's chin. He looks straight ahead through his long-gone grandpa's brown eyes. I tell Jill that we'll look at Alex doing something in 20 years and say, "My God, he looks just like in that baby picture."
He's a reasonable baby; something's wrong and you fix it and he calms down. Nurses have told us we're "spoiling" Alex, but I've given up trying to understand nurses' priorities.
Review Your Employee Benefit Package. A few days ago a co-worker told me I had a fax but the that the machine was out of paper. I didn't understand him, and only noticed the fax was for me when I happened to walk by the machine. Realizing my mistake, I thanked him using electronic inter-office mail. A few moments later, he e-mailed me back and said, "You're welcome." He works two doors away. This is how I spend my weekdays; I tell people I don't have a job so much as an insurance policy (see "Re-evaluate Insurance Policies")
Become a Regular Investor. Every time we get a few hundred ahead, Jill wants to sink it in the stock market that has, in these days of lint-like interest rates on savings accounts, become our bank. We're not broke yet so her idea seems sound.
My most complicated asset-management investment is my subway pass. It costs $17 for unlimited rides for seven days. Every weekday I ride once to work, then after work to the hospital to see Alex for about 90 minutes, then home. Often during my visits, Alex sleeps. But on weekends Jill and I drive to the hospital because it's faster. Except lately she's been taking Sundays off, and on those days I take the subway. Also, during the work weeks, I've been taking one, sometimes two, days off from seeing Alex. I don't like these days. On those nights I go to bed feeling like something's unfinished. The next day, when I think nobody's looking at me on the sidewalk I whisper, "Daddy knows you can do it, Alex."
Spend Less. OK. Jill and I eat out one night a week, but the bill rarely breaks $25. I refuse to go to movies, which cost $9.50 in New York now and which have come to look like two hours of people being paid a lot of money to pretend they have problems
We do watch TV. The other night Jill and I were watching "The Sopranos" when the main character drove his daughter to college. They were getting close over dinner. She admitted to him that she once did speed, and he admitting to her that he was in the Mafia. She called him daddy.
"I wonder if Alex will ever call me 'daddy'?" I said.
I think I'm more positive about the future than Jill. She's read statistics linking preemies to all those things that could, in a few years, make people in parking lots look away from Alex, get back in their minivan and hug their own kids tighter. But here's a tip: I moved to New York without knowing a soul in eight million, and that convinced me that bad statistics must be conquered. I think I wrote this to Alex in a letter on the night he was born. I stayed up late, even though I had to head back to the hospital at six. It was all part of my how my needs were changing then.
Some day he will read that letter, and I hope he will consider it a good inheritance. (Spring, 1999)
Go to Chapter II.
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