Six months out of college, with an undergraduate degree in English literature and still operating on the assumption that my real life had not yet begun, I was offered a job conducting interviews for a market research company. The firm occupied a converted warehouse in a Garden City industrial park, but most of my assignments were to be “random intercepts,” that is, spontaneous encounters at area shopping malls, in which respondents would be asked to address various urgencies such as regular or extra-crispy.
Clearly, these were not the sorts of mysteries for which I believed my education had equipped me, but I was in debt by then the way the Grand Canyon was in Arizona, and reasoning that it was better than living at home, or the bondage of graduate school, which was also much like living at home, I calmly filled out my tax and benefit forms and then made my way to a cubicle with a glass door near the copying room where I was to be interviewed myself for the company newsletter.
“Oh what is this, a new face? Step inside, step inside, I’ll take your picture. No, by the cork.”
I stepped in front of a cork panel while he pulled a Polaroid camera from the drawer of a filing cabinet and fiddled with the adjustment knobs. “You know I’ve been expecting you for some time,” he said. “I have your vita here and everything.”
He raised the camera to his eye and brushed the hair away from his face. “You have to smile. It’s a rule.”
I smiled, and the flash failed to go off.
“See that? Though why I’m surprised I cannot tell you. This morning I found out how it feels to be a victim of kleptomania. What else could it be? It’s infuriating. Who steals a man’s pipe? You can’t smoke it, you can’t sell it.” He gestured at a rack on his desk where five other pipes were clustered. “It was right there on Friday, no question about it. Today it’s gone. Well?”
I shrugged, and he shrugged back. “You’re right, it’s hopeless. Life is hopeless and man is doomed. Well, let me take your picture.
“Who hired you, Robinette? I thought so. He hired me, too. You think he’s legitimate? I mean, don’t mistake me, I like him, but I wonder if he’s a business person. Otherwise what am I doing here? There I was, an ABD-Ph.D. in American Literature, I needed a job so I’m proofreading telephone directories for Simpson and DiBello and I run into Miriam. What a honeybun. You know this woman? Robinette’s girlfriend. So we become acquainted, next thing Robinette wants to meet me. Believe me, life is very, very strange. That was some outfit, that Simpson and DiBello. Institutional telephone directories. Well someone had to print them. And did they make money? It was a gold mine. Most of the employees were ex-cons. Company policy. When they found out I was Jewish they had to convert me. It was a circus. Ex-cons who go straight, very big in the Jesus department. And yet it was interesting, compared to the work I mean. So tell me, how do you like it here? No, wait a second. Smi-i-i-ile?!
“Very nice. And where is the picture meanwhile? The picture is noplace.” He returned the camera to its drawer in the filing cabinet and glanced briefly at my résumé. “Oh look at this, I see you went to college. Did I tell you I’m an ABD? All but dissertation. I don’t think there could be more than twelve gazillion of us. I used to live in Florida you know. Would you like to eat? Come we’ll grab a bite. What I do usually, I’ll tell you what I do. I go to the supermarket and buy a sandwich, how does that strike you?
“You have to meet Elliot, this friend of mine. Now there is an interesting human being. He came home from Cambodia, had about an ounce of shrapnel in his head so they had to put in a plate for him. He got married in Florida, his third, a real pinhead, finished school in Miami, English lit’, moved to South Carolina, moved to North Carolina, went to work for the state in Raleigh, he was like a caseworker with these battered kids, went to that college they have there for his master’s in sociology, divorced his wife, a terrible woman, terrible, hopeless, converted to something God knows what, Sufism, Ba’hai, and he’s getting married again next week. It’s strange isn’t it, I mean how eventful things can be. We became friends — I don’t know, it was an epiphany or something. I mean how we saw ourselves in each other, like a pair of ushers at life’s rich pageant. When we left Florida this friend of ours, this hooker we knew, she lent us five hundred dollars.
“It was a good thing she did it. I used to play tournament chess for a living, I didn’t have a nickel. In fact I used to give blitz lessons right in my office. Regrettably a fellow, I won’t mention his name, but this man has made life for me altogether impossible. Can you imagine? I’m working an endgame, ‘That’s mate!’ he says. In the middle of a match? I’m sorry, that’s not allowed. Listen, not to influence you, but there are certain persons in this firm, they could use a few lessons in common courtesy. Fortunately it’s no longer a significant problem because I only work three days a week. Confidentially I think they’re delighted. I’m certain they’d like to phase me anyhow. Fine, let them. All I want is to finish my dissertation, Bronson Allcott’s influence on personalism. Trust me, a bear. Also its relation to logical positivism. Don’t laugh, it’s an important inquiry.
“In the last analysis behaviorism and social control are only products of logical positivism. I see you didn’t realize that. Oh yes, certainly. Ayer didn’t have the last word you know. No sir, my friend. Are you familiar for example with Lemont Ferrigno? No? That’s odd.”
We were in the shadow of some oaks at the furthest corner of the building’s designated parking area, where it did not come as a surprise altogether that the very favorite of my new friend’s pipes was a little rosewood fellow with a tiny brass bowl.
“Everybody smokes, what are you crazy? How else could they stand it? See her?” he said, pointing to a woman just leaving her car. “She’s high. She’s a complete shithead. Believe me, I know about that. I stayed high like that for eight years once. And that other one there,” pointing now to a tweedy 36-regular, “that one’s fatootzed when he comes in in the morning. Loomis the professor, one-two four-two. You get it? He’s counting things. ‘Hey Margaret,’ he called, ‘Margaret, you wanna hit?’ Look at the face on that woman. That’s a cytoplasm there.
“The whole outfit’s in coma. Everybody except Miriam, Robinette’s secretary. It gives her terrible headaches she says. Although I suspect it may have something to do with this dealer we’ve got. Here is a man, a first-magnitude calamity, all of a sudden he starts dealing cocaine. And you know the funny thing? He, understand, he’s this complete idiot, and we, understand, we would buy his stuff.
He would do us a favor, see, he would separate the buds from the toilet paper and he would sell us the toilet paper, and he made out so well from this that he decided to float some cocaine. So where was I? Right, floating, floating, he goes shares on a piece, fronts twelve hundred dollars, only he ends up with half and it’s stepped on like dogshit. Figure it out. If a disaster like this can score pieces who can’t? So there he is with half a piece, worth maybe half what he fronted, so he figures at least he’ll make back his buy, he beats it again and now he can’t give it away to little children. Finally some guy out in God knows where says he wants a taste, so Mr. Dreck schleps out to do business, like Mamaroneck or something. Only the score says it’s not brown so he doesn’t want it. You see it? Two of a kind. I’ll tell you what it is about this man. There are people in this world, seriously, utterly malequipped for life as we know it, disjointed, misplaced, neurotic, crazy, they tell you stories so complicated and ordinary they don’t even know what they’re saying to you. Am I right?
“But it’s so interesting, I mean how you’re on the same planet together. So you listen, you listen, next thing you’re asking yourself, My God, how did it get to be four o’clock? Have you noticed this? It’s a phenomenon of some kind.
“Anyhow, comes the dawn, three days he’s holding and nobody wants it? Correct, good night. Two days it takes him, stretching it out, five hundred bags right up his nose. Is this tragic? He couldn’t sell aspirin now.
“But tell me, are you saying this was a career move for you? Of course not, what was I thinking? Still, you must need the work, this goes without saying. What I mean is, do you see yourself fitting in here, maybe that’s the question. Although who fits in here I don’t know. Actually it might be more subtle than that. I don’t suppose you play chess at all? No, I didn’t think so. Probably it was too much to expect.”