On my first day of the assignment I was pointed toward a stack of newspapers and told to find a pair of scissors so I could cut out any articles mentioning Hillary. My supervisor’s name was Jennifer. She was waving an adding machine above her head and ticker tape hung by her face like a fez tassel. “Howard! Is this yours?” she asked a room in which I was the only man. Around us, highly credentialed editors used ballpoint pens to slit open cardboard boxes, and then dispatched their assistants to fish for their staplers and rolodexes. A well-known writer walked in, adjusting his bowtie and asking if anyone had his contract to sign.
Everyone else seemed very busy but nothing really seemed to be getting done. The publisher was calm, twirling his unlit cigar in one hand and patting journalists on the back with the other while they rummaged through boxes for the equipment they needed to get the smallest administrative chores accomplished. Windows peninsulated his corner office, with two glass panels looking out on Central Park and the third displayed his magnificent sanctum to the rest of us through burnt orange blinds.
In spite of my difficulty getting a pair of scissors, I was thrilled with the chaos. The more ill-formed this well-publicized venture was, the greater were the chances that my name could make its way to their masthead. My plan was simple– employ my administrative expertise to deflate the pressure that deadlines were applying to the editors’ temples in the hopes that it would lead to a conversation long enough for me to mention that one of my screenplays had been optioned. Then, once the editor was duly impressed, she would see the gleam of talent outshining the glimmer of hope in my eyes, raise her wing and I would tuck right under it.
Stygian though the wing of a magazine editor might be, where I could expect to be fed upon rather than nursed, I just wanted to look as journalistically succulent as I could. Every interaction I had was an opportunity to make an impression. “Hillary who?” I asked.
“Clinton,” Jennifer said.
I had thought that doofus humor was mainstream enough that Jennifer would recognize the deadpan tone of my question and realize that I was kidding. But contempt so pure it made her freckles disappear indicated otherwise. This crushed me a little, because Jennifer was a great looking woman, with a strawberry and milk complexion and a body that mingled the firm and the bountiful in ways that seemed so elegant to me. So while I wanted most of the staff to think I was brilliant, I wanted her to think I had too many clothes on. And now she thought I was an imbecile. Was I the only one who remembered how Letterman used to refer to her as “President Clinton’s lovely wife Valerie”? And if I was, couldn’t retention of such facts be immensely valuable to this crowd? But I refused to employ that ultimate loss-cutting phrase, “just kidding.” I just shrugged and took my lumps for getting too aggressive with irony.
Jennifer had found some scissors for me, so I hooked my fingers into their plastic orange loops and commenced to earning my $12 an hour.
Desks were scarce so I set up shop on the floor outside the publisher’s office. And while I daydreamed of editorial darlinghood, I noticed a lot of the staff around me dreaming up excuses to visit the cigar-sucking publisher in his office. This was not my path, but I understood the attraction to the advertising side with its spartan talent and lavish perks.
The papers depressed me, for the news in them and for the way that the task reminded me of my pathetic life. I found several items on Hillary and, when I found a few concerning Talk, I conflated the performance of my duties with detection on a Sherlockian level, as if I were the one garnering press about press about this magazine concocted by the chairman of Miramax and the editor of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker.
“Um, Jennifer, what if I find items mentioning the magazine but not Hillary? Hillary Clinton,” I asked.
From what I could tell, Jennifer was the administrative assistant to the magazine publisher’s assistant, a moon to a planet to a star (which made me an astronaut?). She had a lot of important things to do. She was under enormous pressure. And the quality of my scrapbook was probably small potatoes to she of fire down below.
But I could tell from Jennifer’s rhyming of Weinstein with “Einstein” instead of “I’m clean” that it wasn’t the success of a burgeoning synergistic cinematic and glossy empire that mattered to her. It was her job performance and how that was rated by her superior, plain and simple. She just wanted to be a good little cog, nothing more and nothing less. And I, wanting to get my dick stuck in those very gears, wanted to be helpful. I wanted to go the extra mile. Give 110%. I felt as if I improved Jennifer’s image all by myself, armed with nothing more than right-handed scissors, and handicapped at that, since I am a lefty.
Jennifer sighed and wiped something invisible from her forehead.
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s fine. Just keep the articles about Talk separate from the articles about Hillary.”
“You got it,” I said. “Do you think I could sit at a desk at any point today?”
“I’m not sure,” she said.
So I sat back down on the floor and clipped out six items on Hillary and two on Talk, and then I went to the copy room to Xerox them into more wieldy, 8 ½” x 11” form. But after I had been standing at the copier for less than a minute, trying to arrange multiple articles on the same page, in walked the bow-tied writer and the magazine’s editor-in-chief.
“Will you leave please?” she asked me. And I don’t know why she didn’t say, “Will you excuse us please?” or why I was offended by the difference between the two, but I felt as if my shins had just been kicked. She wasn’t being brusque because of the pressure she was under so much as because she was just one well-hydrated lioness in a digital jungle. I was just trying to do my job. Why couldn’t she take Mr. Bowtie into her office?
And how did this multi-million dollar venture expect to take transcendent flight if they didn’t have Xeroxed sheets of press items with the clippings lined up symmetrically without any words cut off at the margins of the page? And surely, before one cent of revenue had been collected, they couldn’t just pay me $96 a day to do nothing. And obeying the boss isn’t a service rendered if the boss’s order is to abandon your post.
This sucked. Hard. And maybe it was also because of how riled up Jennifer made me, but I rolled my eyes and stalked out of the room, leaving my menagerie of press clippings fluttering in my wake.
Standing outside with nothing to do, looking derelict in my duties, I felt like Joe Buck when he realized he’d have to go out on 42nd Street and sell himself to men if he didn’t want to starve. There I stood, leaning against a wall, looking around for someone to pick me up, because then I’d put my increasingly far-fetched plan into action and dazzle ‘em with my intellect, with my litany of colorful experiences and TV memories and exhilarating plunges into their subtextual depths. But everyone around me was filled with such a sense of mission, such determination. God, I hated them.
Nobody was paying me any attention and if Jennifer did, she’d wonder why I wasn’t doing anything. And then I looked at a clock. You’ve gotta be fucking kidding me. 9:30?
I was staring at another seven and a half hours of this treatment, ranging from indifferent to contemptuous. I was a temp. There was no vertical mobility. Hell, even time couldn’t get ahead here. But I’d been in worse places, maybe not with higher hopes and greater disappointments, maybe with a desk and internet access, but dungeons of dysfunction nonetheless. In this very building, I had worked in the Planet Hollywood corporate office trying to secure visits to the restaurant from Liam Aiken, the child whose big scene was when he cuckooed from a kitchen cupboard at his new mom Julia Roberts after his parents Ed Harris and Susan Sarandon divorce in “Stepmom.” Young Master Aiken did grace the restaurant with his presence and sent his hot cocoa back three times on the grounds that it made bubbles when he stirred it – also for $12 an hour. And when a day was going slow and the world was giving my soul a redbelly, I knew the perfect way to pass 15 minutes.
I waited until I was allowed back into the copier room, finished my copying, making two sets and throwing away the newspapers whose mutilations were commensurate with the glory they conferred upon Talk Magazine, and then walked head down into the bathroom.
It was a small bathroom with just two stalls, but I had the place to myself. I wiped the seat with toilet paper, dropped my pants, sat down and started spanking it. I had become a pro at this. I knew how to keep quiet. I knew how to lift my thighs from the seat and shift my position so that my wad would drop successfully into the bowl, all without moving my feet. Sometimes, if I thought the lighting made visible shadows of any stroking or flopping or shifting or squirting, I waited until I was alone again, hoping the neighbor who came and went while I sat there would assign me some form of deficational stage fright, which was fine because interruptions in my delicate process only prolonged this time spent alone comforting myself instead of out there in the office with people who thought I was poor office trash.
I was tugging away when someone came in and sat in the stall next to me. I waited and listened. And I heard my neighbor pee and then start to get up. I looked under the stall and wondered, “Who is this dude with the fat pink ankles and egregiously queer white shoes?” I hadn’t heard anyone come in and occupy the urinal. And then I looked through the crack between the stall and the door and there was no urinal. Of course! Well, I thought, if not Sherlockian, then Holmesian at least.
As soon as the lady with the perfectly sensible white shoes left, I stood and redressed myself. But just as I was about to leave, the door swung open again. Without thinking, I sat back down on the toilet seat and waited.
One woman remarked, “You don’t see a full house in here very often.”
To which the other remarked, in a telltale British accent, “No, you really don’t.”
“Well,” said the first. “After you.”
“Thank you,” said the editor-in-chief, and she entered the stall to my left, took down her skirt and began taking a fairly boisterous dump. I figured I could make my escape while she was in the stall but I could see through the crack that the other woman was just standing there waiting by the sink. Now would have been an appropriate time to ask me to leave. But I felt trapped. And then it occurred to me that, yes, I had been masturbating in the bathroom at work. But now I sat with shoes masculine enough that it wouldn’t be very hard to tell, not only that I’m a guy, but that I’m a guy with his pants pulled up. And if I were the woman waiting for my stall, I might wonder what a man who wasn’t really using the facilities was doing sitting there. Does he like to… listen to women go to the bathroom? Well, that’s just disgusting.
And so before I could allow anyone to do any more math regarding this situation, I stood up, flushed the toilet, opened the door, gave a ZZ Top wave in the direction of the stall and said, “All yours, ma’am.”
She was surprised, which is a good sign since it made it unlikely that she had realized until that point that a man was in the stall, which meant she probably hadn’t considered what I might be doing in there. Yet. And she was also probably just glad to get the commode since she had had to go bad enough to stand there waiting for it.
Well, needless to say, I was glad to escape that bathroom. What an embarrassing mess I’d made out of the simple desire to cheer myself up by rubbing one out in the bathroom at snooty yet destined-for-failure Talk Magazine. But even amid the hot-nettled worms of shame that sweltered and squirmed in my veins, I felt more sure of myself than ever that I was destined for greatness. For I knew that I was touching what I call pioneer fire–that ineluctable spirit that carried the first white Americans through hardship not merely to endure, but to turn wilderness into football stadiums. I knew that I was no distant cousin but a direct, patrilineal descendent of the Spirit of ’76, of the resilience and audacity that consecrated this land and hallowed its laws so that my grandparents could sail here from their hovel on the steppes and toil their fingerprints off so that their children could go to college so that their grandchildren could have the nurturing necessary to dream big dreams, the gumption to make them realities, and the education to disseminate them for profit.
Any doubts that I was marching up the same fat part of the rainbow as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington Carver and Elvis vanished as I marched right into the Men’s Room and finished up.