Chilly Young Suits

2006

Until September I’m the Word-Excel-PowerPoint guy in the Corporate Finance division of Kuchs, Buchs, Ilgott & Gainz (KBIG), a blue chip firm in the city.

Initially, I’d turned the full-time job down. During my interview, the blond, bosomy Human Resources lady hinted at ambiguities in the power structure and possible late nights at very short notice. I have regular evening commitments to keep, and so the job sounded iffy and tiresome even though the money would be good. I said no.

Human Resources lady called back a day later and asked if I’d do a contract to get the position up and running while they kept looking. I agreed, after pushing my hourly rate up a few bucks for the temporary work (a friend said I should have demanded more). Looking back, it’s clear that contracting has paid for most of the paving stones that have lined my path through life.

*****

The longest stretch of my working life has so far been served in New York. During my first years in the Big Apple I worked as a freelance singer on weekends and an office-horticulture guy during the week. I was a downtown Plant Guy for five years until I hurt my back in the mid-nineties, lifting a Ficus tree into a service elevator at one of the World Trade Center towers. It was for an executive office on the 106th floor. I had to rest, then rethink my major source of income.

I did temp jobs for the next decade, mostly in lower Manhattan, getting a corporate start—after a year proofreading good history books and dreadful novels for Simon & Schuster—as the Quality Control guy on the 17th floor at Goldman Sachs, proofing text, charts and numbers which the Desktop jockeys churned out for the bankers.

The document manager on that floor was a big black queen from San Francisco, and most of the computer operators were fringe showbiz types. The big queen was a friendly tease during my first couple of weeks, my shy period, but when, in our rowdy little forum, I finally whipped my wit out, measured against his I became an unwanted challenge. Drag names went round. I dubbed him Tequila Mockingbird and I was cast, contrary to type of course, as Helena Handbasket (Hell in a Handbasket) by one of the young playwrights, a skinny downtown type who we dubbed Tawdry Hepburn. There were a couple of soap-opera hopefuls working with us too, and they’d do huffy mid-afternoon melodrama for our amusement.

“Don’t try to tell me the words ‘Rockwell Extra Bold’ mean nothing at all to you Slate.”
“Ever since you came back at me with those font changes Sable, I’ve seen the hatred in your eyes…”

One morning Mockingbird asked me smoothly “so Larry, which one of our bankers do you think is the cutest?” I responded with unthinking candour. The next day and thereafter, that executive (a tall, blushing American Dane in his twenties) along with all the other young Masters of the Universe on our floor avoided me like I was a leper.

I never found out what was said.

I did well for a year, but lost my proofer’s gig during a rundown period. I’d been popping Prozac for a month and had not noticed its edgy side effect. I became reckless, and started scribbling the occasional editorial comment in the margin of a financial document.
“Interesting oil price spikes!”
“Downsize at GE by 15,000. Why not 150,000?”
One morning my agency called and told me not to go in. I heard on the Goldman temp grapevine that my immediate manager wasn’t told why I was no longer required.
I ditched the pills, did a two-week Microsoft Office software course through another agency, and got a seat in the 24th floor document production room at Merrill Lynch over in the World Financial Center.

Merrill is apparently known for its affirmative hiring policy, taking on award-winning percentages of minorities, meaning, giving African Americans a fair go. I saw only a few black executives during my time there. Most of the “minorities” were hired as managers in Support Services such as Desktop Publishing. Each floor at Merrill had its own DTP centre and almost all the bosses were big black women. A steady but rotating stream of temps of all colours, shapes and opinions got the work done. We sat hunched over our computer cockpits, mouse-clicking by the seats of our pants with the sword of Damocles dangling over each carrel. We traded skill tips and learned fast.

Our 24th floor boss was a tyrant named Patty. We’d be copying, pasting and formatting away, our fingers tripping and dancing over our greasy black keyboards like fleas hopping on and off hypodermic needles. As we slaved away, Patty would sit her huge rump down on the front desk talking big and loud with her sistahs about “who gonna get sanctified at church this Sunday.” We were terrified daily of losing our assignments.

Disappearances were barely whispered about. Patty would get back from lunch and stomp around the corner into the document production room glaring left and right, like the Queen of Hearts in Alice and Wonderland: “I’m gonna faah me a temp today!” she’d roar. “Now which one of you ‘m’ah gonna FAAH?” No one crossed her. Work got done.

I stayed nearly two years, learned the trade, paid off my credit card debts and put ten grand in the bank. The day I left I got hugs and kisses and shouts of “oh we gonna MISS YOU Larry” from Patty and her friends. I’d survived, and went on to earn a few bucks an hour more at Deutsche Bank, McKinsey and PepsiCo. But I haven’t had such terrorized fun in a corporate office since, though I’ve still got the scars to scratch.

Occasionally a half-familiar face, one of the show business hopefuls from my Goldman Sachs or Merrill Lynch days appears for a few minutes on the New York cop show Law & Order. He’ll either be a sardonic, fast-talking, “I seen-it-all buddy” Deli Guy, or she’ll be a sardonic, fast talking “I seen-it-all buddy” serial rapist victim’s ex boyfriend’s estranged sister.

I smile warmly at them for the three minutes they’re on screen. “You made it in New York like I never did.”

*****

This three-month gig in Melbourne has to be about recouping losses and saving money. Went to Target and bought new business pants for forty bucks, a ten-dollar silk tie and a few twenty-five-dollar cotton-polyester shirts off the mark-down rack and wore one of them on my first day. Maybe the young dudes in suits didn’t notice, but I looked and cheap and discomfited in the elevator mirror. A greyhound in black cashmere and pearls gave me a sympathetic look as I stepped off on the second floor. Wearing a TARGET designer label on my shirt pocket would have been no more down at heel. I spent a few bucks more on muted shirts and ties the lunch hour after that.

I got a cubicle, a laptop, and no introductions. I started by saying hello and goodbye to the guy in the next cubicle, and he responded nicely. The guys on the other side didn’t return initial greetings, and things haven’t warmed. Early this month Friendly Guy moved to a faraway cubicle in the centre of the floor. Most of the Corporate Finance executives do not want a “desktop publishing” person there to interfere with how they do their PowerPoint presentations, even though they spend too many hours fiddling with bullet points and ugly financial tables. There’s apparently confusion and procrastination a step or two higher up than me, and key power wielders have been off on summer vacations in the northern hemisphere. I am often idle. Idling all day at work depletes anyone’s tank, unlike running around and getting a chance to pump some gas back in every now and then. On busy days I feel I earn my pay.

KBIG’s grey imperial atmosphere is much the same as that of Goldman Sachs, though with somewhat lower roentgen levels of oppressive self-importance than that radiated by Wall Street firms. It’s an iceberg of chilly young grammar school men in suits. For the most part the female executives are self-effacing versions of the boys. The ones I overhear in the coffee room chat in better-suburb accents about their private school days and their corporate boyfriend prospects. Most of them wear black dresses or black pantsuits and black pumps.

It’s a relief that my supervisor is mellow: a non-chilly and very pretty blond. She’s risen to management from being a Personal Assistant a year ago, which shows what she’s made of, but the young dudes don’t respect her behind her back. Maybe we can help each other out. Maybe I’ll meet an interesting middle-aged weirdo during my short time here, someone to hold heretical conversations with.

An enriching education once consisted of the Trivium: grammar, rhetoric and logic. From that three-fold path was built the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music and cosmology. These days, the replacement for these ancient disciplines is a lean, results-oriented quinquepartite path: the outcome of a corporate suit’s education being mastery of the five viable roads to fulfilment: money, sport, women, real estate and cars, prioritised according to the seeker’s inclination.

It must be a stressful life, balancing the shifting burden of Things, having to win the game on a daily basis, and not just play along. Furthermore, corporations seem less like competitive capitalist enterprises and more like ministries in centrally planned totalitarian states, allocating resources and rewards according to obscure formulae. Sometimes I wonder if success is based more on favour than merit, with a toadying, sniping culture deflecting threats to personal or departmental prerogatives.

Last month my supervisor sent me up to Sydney for a day, to sell them on what I am hired to do, and help them with “template conversion issues.” I got my old job interview suit cleaned, and a new hundred percent cotton shirt. It was a long day. Up at five, and at the airport by six. The plane was supposed to leave at seven. Even though it was two or three degrees Celsius (above freezing but too cold for us) there were icy fuselage issues. Melbourne has no de-icing equipment so we had to wait on the runway until the sun rose and warmed the plane. The flight got off the ground at nine thirty.

I walked into the Sydney office at eleven thirty, and gave a couple of short info sessions, nerve wracking at first, but easy. The people who came wanted to be there. After the sessions I opened up and spoke my few words of Corporatese to a couple of hard talking, humourless Associate Director hunks whose brief was to get document creation standards up to those set by KBIG London: global branding, the right fonts, standard colours, professional reports and presentations. I larded my conversation with words such as “scope” and “directives.” It seemed to go over well enough.

I was supposed to go around to various young analysts, introduce myself and talk about the standard of their work. I did with a few, but some responses made me feel like a bashful middle-aged school teacher confronted by the passive, insolent triumph of teenage boys, their faces wearing an easy confidence which comes from a lack of experience. After a few tries I left them alone and snuck out at four forty-five. At least I got to spend the evening with an old high school friend. We went to Chinatown and feasted, and I staggered off to the airport at nine, and collapsed into my solitary bed sometime after midnight.

Before my term ends my supervisor wants to send me around the country to do software-training sessions in the major offices and troubleshoot everyone’s bad habits. I’ve been dreaming about templates, spreadsheets and formatting before waking in the weekday wee-hours, tossing and turning until the alarm goes off, squirming under an imaginary sword dangling from its thread. There are several lines of authority over my head that don’t interact, and foisting my “services” onto a floor of dudes who don’t want them will not work. It’s getting to the point where I’m making comments, opining last week to a young suit as we walked from the privacy of the coffee room onto the busy floor, “you know, this is really not my universe at all.”

I got looks.

On Monday the manager two levels above me, the one who’d pushed for this position, came over for a chat. She’s Irish and sensible. I vented freely. She liked that I don’t give a shit about office politics. She hinted at the stonewalling blocking my job. The Partner who doesn’t give a damn about what I’m hired to do is moving on, and the Partner who does is moving in, so there’ll be a change in attitude in a week or two.
It’s like working the Kremlin, the Vatican, or one of the squabbling Nazi Reichs ministries.

*****

And as I observed once, a shot at the top of the corporate ladder can fail spectacularly. It was back in my Merrill Lynch days in the late nineties, on a lunch break in one of the cafeterias in the World Financial Center’s Wintergarden. I became aware of a big commotion a few tables over. Some corporate guy had collapsed off his chair and was wailing, “I wanna die, I wanna die!” the smooth bass timbre drumming urgently under his piteous, crackling agony. It was a shocking sonic spectacle in that muted, power-drenched space.

I thought I recognized the suit that’d lost it; an extremely haughty young Merrill go-getter, one of the few African American executives I’d seen. He had obviously worked too many hours vaulting intangible odds before snapping. I kept my distance but got my journal out. Nearby, a thin, helmet-haired blond in a navy blue power suit sniffed, “Christ, he shat himself.” She pushed her coffee away from her in disgust, got up and hurried off, frowning at the tiny steel watch hanging off her chicken-bone wrist.

I turned my attention back to the drama. I saw an older, heavy-set, motherly woman, someone from the typing pool, lean over trying to calm him down until the medics arrived, but even she started to sound impatient. There was a rank whiff in the air. People hurried past, hiding their ice-tempered Schadenfreude behind tungsten-tough Manhattan faces, hints of disdain, embarrassment, maybe crumbs of empathy, but not too much. Overt pity would be patronizing. It might also draw unnecessary attention to one’s self.

I sometimes think about that guy, desperately trying to hide a mortifying physical crisis under a loudly emotional one and hope that he bounced back, or rather, sideways and forward.

Melbourne, Australia, 2006

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org

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