MY CLIMB UP the corporate ladder lasted for six semi-sweet hours in the summer of 1991. It started one morning when I went up to the office where I worked on East 26th Street in Manhattan, ready not for a usual day at work but the company picnic. We met at the office to figure out who was riding with whom, and in a few minutes I found myself in the front seat of some pretty fancy sedan sandwiched between Roland, the company president, and Natalie, who was one of the company’s several vice presidents and who also happened to be Roland’s girlfriend. Maybe I still had some alcohol in my system from whatever I’d done the previous night, but sitting between them, I felt pretty comfortable, as if they’d suddenly embraced me as one of their own, as someone who fit in with the corporate culture of their line of business, the direct mail marketing of costume jewelry.
So, as we drove out to some park on Long Island, I sat back, stretched my legs, and just gazed out the window at whatever we were passing. Roland had the radio on, probably to WPLJ, and when the Rascals’ 1966 hit “Good Lovin” came on he said, “Ah, the Rascals! You know, Felix Cavaliere is an old friend of mine. I went to school with him.” Felix Cavaliere, of course, was one of the lead singers of the Rascals.
“Really?” I said. “Man, they were great!” Now, I wasn’t just saying this to get on his good side–I really did like the Rascals a lot, and “Good Lovin” was one of the first singles my brother bought when we began buying records as kids. Roland went on, talking about Felix Cavaliere, about the old days, and so helped set the tone for the next several hours. As far as I was concerned, it was a summer day in the mid-60s, and I was a kid again, wide-eyed or wild-eyed (for me, back then, the differences between the two weren’t that important), ready for the day to begin.
Now, to make it through brief conversations with people whose souls are driven by their huge profit making ventures is, for me, not that big a deal. But to make it through something as long as a company picnic takes some work. I can think of a hundred things I don’t want to talk about with people like this before I can finally find a topic of conversation that won’t make me want to angry or sick to my stomach and that won’t make them wonder how to make money off of it. For me to feel comfortable in this setting means I must have somehow forgotten whatever it was that drove me. Plus, when I’m in the company of people who have or are obsessed with money, I always feel like asking them (maybe it’s some strange Tourette’s tic on my part), “Are you all right?” Usually, I had the distraction of the sales reports and statistics I managed to keep me from asking Roland or Natalie or any of the other vice presidents or the founder of the company that question; and here, on this nice summer day on Long Island, there wasn’t much to keep me from asking that other question I liked to ask: “What the fuck is the deal with you?”
More often, these are probably the questions people want to ask me. I’m sure many of my co-workers and bosses at the costume jewelry company had wanted to ask me one of these questions at some point. And, the company picnic was probably exactly the sort of place where they would have, but there was the matter of the food. Just like at the office holiday dinner, where we had dinner and unlimited drinks at a fancy Italian restaurant on Park Avenue, the company provided the best possible picnic food I could have imagined. As always, food broke down those differences and dampened those sharp edges so that we were all, for a little while, just people shoving fatty, oily, and delicious organic substances in our faces.
Before I knew it, it was time for the game – softball. It had been at least fifteen years since I’d last played. I wasn’t even sure if I knew the rules anymore, or what the definition of a strike was, or how many strikes it took to call you…er… OUT was the term I finally remembered. I still followed football at the time, but baseball in any form was something far in my past. I’d stopped paying attention to baseball when the Washington Senators were taken out of DC and shipped to Texas in 1971, and here I was twenty years later playing softball and, for some reason, wanting to seem at least slightly aware of what I was doing.
I don’t know what was going on – I remembered that the last time I’d played softball I had trouble hitting even a single pitch – but somehow, this time, I did it. I didn’t get any home runs, but I got one solid base hit after another, and, as a pitcher, I struck out several batters. Roland, whose team I was on, was elated. “We’re going to start a company softball team!” he exclaimed, “And with you as our star, we’re gonna take everyone on!”
After having been with the company for nine months and still feeling like the weird misfit outsider, I was getting along with everyone, and, on top of that, I was now pals with the company president. It was never what I was after, but I admit, it felt good.
“Hey, we need to get together at happy hour to get our team organized,” Roland said to me.
By now I was feeling pretty damn confident, and I tried to think what the best place would be for a corporate happy hour spent planning the company softball team. I decided that maybe I could turn things up a notch, and after a moment, I said, “Hey, we can meet just a couple of blocks away from the office. At Billy’s Topless.”
“Billy’s Topless?” Roland said, then his eyes widened. “That’s a great idea!” I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Then Roland said those words again, as if he could hardly believe it himself. “Billy’s Topless!”
Billy’s was more dive bar than upscale strip club, which was what I liked about it. It was also the only bar in New York that I was ever kicked out of for not drinking enough. But that wouldn’t happen until one night about a year and a half later, just as the big blizzard of March 1993 was getting started, when I went to Billy’s with a large group of my writer friends. We’d probably gone there after some reading and at that point in the evening I, for some undoubtedly strange reason I don’t remember, wasn’t in much of a mood to drink anymore. So, after I’d been nursing a layer of beer at the bottom of my mug for half an hour, one of Billy’s huge bouncers suggested I leave, and I took his advice. That early blizzard night at Billy’s was, as far as I can remember, the last time I ever went there.
As for the happy hour at Billy’s with Roland and the gang from the office, that never happened. I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling it was the ride home from the company picnic that undid (or at any rate began the process of undoing) the connections and camaraderie I’d achieved during the day. Because at the end of the day, I got a ride back from the picnic from Melissa, another of the vice presidents, and her fiancé, this French guy named Mr. Guerard. Things were going fine, with all of us chatting, until we got closer and closer to my neighborhood and the streets started looking grittier and grittier. When Melissa stopped her car in front of my apartment on Avenue B and Third St (which back then was still on the rough side, at least for some people), she looked tense and distressed. My neighborhood, obviously, was not her idea of New York, while Mr. Guerard actually looked scared. I was concerned, but I didn’t feel too badly – and then it happened. I said goodbye, put my hand on the door handle, and as I eased myself from my seat, I let out the biggest and loudest fart I’d ever had in my life. Well, maybe it wasn’t quite the loudest, or even the biggest, but coming when it did, I felt it more than any other one, and there have been quite a few in my thirty-five years of living. Melissa, who was trying not to breathe, opened and shut her mouth quickly enough to let out a perfunctory “OK,” while Mr. Guerard, I could have sworn, was closing his eyes – as if that would keep him from smelling what he was sure was the horrible stench I’d just let out on top of the less than quaint odors of my neighborhood.
It wasn’t until the following spring that I was told I was being laid off – replaced by someone who could keep track of sales and do some programming as well. They gave me a week’s notice and during that last week, I had to train the person who was replacing me or else I wouldn’t get any severance deal. That was on a Friday, then the following Monday when the person replacing me came in, she whispered her apologies to me about taking my job. The funny thing was, I actually got along really well with her and had more in common with her than nearly anyone else in the company.
On my last day on the job, I went around to everyone at the office and said goodbye, then walked home, as I usually did, to my apartment. Pretty soon, I had to go right back out again because I was the featured reader before the poetry slam that night at the Nuyorican, just down the street from me. When I arrived, there was a film crew from Good Morning America getting ready to tape a segment about the downtown poetry scene. They put a mic on me, and by then I’d put away a decent amount of bourbon, and so put on my standard drunken reading. One morning the following week, after staying up all night, I turned on the TV and saw myself reading my poems on Good Morning America. It felt damn weird, because it was like evidence, proving to everyone, including myself, that it was all real.
A week or so after that, I went into my old office to pick up one of my severance checks.
“Hey, I saw you on TV!” the receptionist said. A few other people came around, among them people who’d mostly ignored me while I was there. “Hey, wow, you were on TV!” they said, suddenly cheerful and interested in what I was doing. Then another day, when I was out taking a long walk (which I did much more often after being laid off), I ran into Roland, and he said the same thing. “Wow, I saw you on TV!” And I felt, after they’d let me go, that they believed in me again. That, now, after seeing me on TV, I was cool again.
But then I remembered it was just television, and that’s the way it is for so many people. You can say the most amazing, brilliant shit, but if they don’t see you saying it on TV, you’re just nuts, another loser pulling shit out of your ass. They didn’t realize the beauty of it, and they didn’t understand the point of it, and they didn’t believe the reality of it. Because after I’d appeared on national television, I wasn’t any cooler that I was before. I was the still same person they’d laid off.
Or, maybe they did understand that I was the same person. And maybe what I would have heard, if I could, after “Wow you were on TV!” – after I’d gotten on the elevator and made my way back down to 26th Street – was: “Man, I’m glad I’m not working with him anymore. He fucking SMELLS.”
And, I would have gone across the street to walk through Madison Square Park, then past the Flatiron Building, and down Broadway. Then on and on through the downtown streets of this beautiful, imperfect city that I’d grown to love perhaps even more than my own hometown. I’d walk and walk, snaking my way through all the noise and motion with my hands in my pockets and not really caring what would happen next.