In 2004, I sold a book idea to the publishing house I’d worked with. I planned to collect firing stories from well-known writers. The title: Faulkner is Fired. I was thrilled when one of my favorite writers, Geoff Dyer, said yes.
This is the piece he wrote, exactly as he wrote it. To the best of my knowledge, it never appeared anywhere else. Sadly, the book itself never came together. It itself was, ironically, a failure. This piece deserves the light of day, though. That’s why I’m sharing it here.
I intended giving a full, frank and unadorned account of how I came to be fired from my first proper job after leaving university but that has proved more difficult than I imagined. It’s not just that I can’t remember things clearly enough; what really happened has been overlain by the recreated version of events in the first novel I wrote, The Colour of Memory. The fiction has coloured my memory to such an extent that it is nearly impossible for me to get at the literal truth of what occurred.
The facts, or what remains of them, are as follows: I came down from Oxford in 1980 with no real idea of what I intended to do. Having applied, without success, for various jobs in advertising and television I moved to London where I got a job teaching part-time at a tutorial college in Chelsea and at Lucy Clayton Secretarial College. Both of these jobs were for just one term. After that I worked in Harrods during the busy period of their January sale. I was not sacked from that job but a friend who worked in personnel and had access to my employee assessment form told me that I had been classified as someone never to be re-employed. For most of 1981 I lived on the dole before starting teaching again at another tutorial college in September. I also applied again for more jobs in journalism, TV and advertising. One of these jobs was at the Periodical Publishers Association (PPA). The company was run by a Tory MP whose name — Tom Something? — I have forgotten. My first interview took place at the House of Commons while my prospective employer was taking a quick break from a masochistic-sounding part of the democratic process called a Running Three Line Whip. My second interview was at the offices on Kingsway. To my amazement I got the job.
I began work in September while living in Islington, renting a friend’s room while he was on holiday for a month. I know this because I can distinctly remember cycling to work down Rosebery Avenue, past Sadler’s Wells Theatre. I also remember being astonished at the amount of time a job soaked up. If you went for a drink after work — I mean “went for a drink” in the English sense of “got totally plastered” — the whole day was shot to hell.
London was exciting to me back then. There were many things I wanted to do — like going to Kensington Market to buy clothes — and having a job really interfered with my ability to do this. I can’t remember what my job involved but I assume it was boring and completely pointless.
One day the second-in-command took me out for lunch. It was the first free lunch I’d ever had even though it wasn’t really a lunch, just some disgusting sandwiches on white bread smeared with too much butter. I thought I was going to be sick, partly because of all this rancid butter and pink ham, but mainly because this pink-faced deputy-boss was a rancid old bore. He told some stories he had reheated hundreds of times before. I was a vehement young leftie at the time and spent quite a bit of the afternoons debating politics with my colleagues. Gallingly, the other graduate who had been hired at the same time as me was a member of the Tory party and had actually published some short stories in glossy magazines of some kind. He shared a house with the person who would go on to become editor of Private Eye and a minor celebrity in Britain. This other new employee and I had many arguments about politics and I greatly preferred that to working. Some days I didn’t do any work at all, I just larked around. It could be said that I had a bad attitude, in fact it probably has to be said that I had a bad attitude. I’m like Meatloaf; I was born with a bad attitude. All I’ve ever wanted from a job is to skive. Maybe the word doesn’t exist in America but it certainly does in England. England is built on skiving. Skiving is like bunking off — but with a certain amount of dedication thrown in. Skiving is a whole way of approaching — in the sense of avoiding — work. It’s not the same as slacking because skiving can involve a far greater investment of energy and initiative than doing the work could have ever have necessitated.Get in late, knock off early and do fuck-all in the interval except steal stationery: that’s my attitude to work. Get paid for work you haven’t done. Why? Because this stupid job required that I give up my valuable time, time which I would rather have used in some other way even if I did nothing with it.
I think the reason I have this bad attitude to work is because my background is working class. My parents worked hard and I didn’t like the look of it at all. University made me realise that you didn’t have to flog your guts out working at some piss-bin job. It also gave me a taste for leisure which has, if anything, increased over the years.
After about a month I was called into the deputy-boss’s office and sacked. I can’t remember exactly what happened, only that he gave me a month’s pay to sort myself out. For a more precise and extended — though not necessarily accurate — account of what took place the curious reader is directed to the first chapter of The Colour of Memory.
After leaving the office I went to meet my friends Robert and James at a cocktail bar where we got totally plastered. I felt pretty bad — not because the sacking was unjustified but because, effectively, I’d been caught, found out. I deserved to get sacked. (I am all for firing people. More people should be sacked form all sorts of jobs. The number of people doing jobs and doing them badly — thereby creating extra work for other people — is incredible. The world is an inefficient place and sacking people can only make it more efficient.) Although I felt pretty bad about being sacked I realised that it was not for me, this world of work, that I was too selfish to do a job, that I actually valued my time — my life — so highly that I would rather waste it than work at a job.
My memories are a little vague from this point on. I know I moved into a house in Balham, full of apprentice lawyers. That was a really grim phase because they all went out to work in the mornings and I was left in this grim house with nothing to do all day. Fortunately I only stayed there for a short while. After a month or so I moved into a house in Brixton with a whole bunch of people who, like me, were on the dole. From there, to cut a longish story as short as possible, I ended up becoming a writer.
That’s all I can manage in terms of recalling the period of getting sacked from my job. The more I think about it the more confused events become. The chronology is all uncertain. I just can’t untangle the sequence of events. I’ve had to give up. Perhaps there’s a connection here with getting sacked from that job. Getting fired turned out to be a good thing — even though it felt like a very bad thing — and I have tended to carry the lessons I learned from it into the rest of my life. That is to say, I’ve adopted a policy of quitting, of doing without perseverance. As soon as I get fed up, bored, tired or weary of anything I abandon it. Books, films, writing assignments, relationships — I just give up on them. (Is it possible to live without perseverance? I think it is, as long as one perseveres with the idea of doing so.) So I should, by my own principles, have given up, without a second thought, on this attempt to write about being sacked. But something about this period of my life continues to gnaw at me. I’m curious about it, would like to learn more about it — and, fortunately, I’ve just had a breakthrough.
I’m writing this in New York where I landed what I thought was going to be a cushy teaching gig for a semester but which actually involves a certain amount of work. My wife is in London and a few days ago I asked her to have a rummage around in my filing cabinet to see if she could find my old diaries for the early 1980s:
“81 or 82.” I said. “Hopefully in September or August there’ll be an entry saying ‘Started work at PPA’ or something.” This turned out not to be the case but in my little 1982 diary she did find the following entry, dated 24 September, “Sacked from PPA”. Significantly, I had noted the date I was fired but not the date I’d started work. My wife is coming to visit this weekend and she’s bringing the diary. All will be revealed.
I have this diary in front of me now. How funny, to end up being one’s own biographer, to have to resort to the kind of research required by writing someone else’s life. On the evidence of this diary, though, it’s not surprising, either that I have so little memory of what was going on or that I got sacked. If ever there was a case of un-unfair dismissal this was it. The diary is two and a half inches by four, not all the entries are legible; many are blurred as if by damp or by time itself. That’s what amazes me most about this diary — the simple passage of time between my writing it then and reading it now. To think that I am looking back at things that happened almost a quarter of a century ago…
At the beginning of the year I was living in Brixton, sharing a flat with my friend Robert who was working as a lawyer. (I no longer know any lawyers but there was a time, I see now, when I was surrounded by them.) Robert had gone to the same school — Cheltenham Grammar — as me and had been a year ahead of me at Oxford but I only got to know him afterwards. I was teaching at a tutorial college over in west London. I see I was always going to gigs (a quick selection: Bow Wow Wow, The Au Pairs, Pig Bag, 23 Skidoo, Kid Creole and the Cocoanuts) nightclubs (the straight nights at Heaven, the Language Lab, the Kareba, the Beat Bop) and films (Circle of Deceit, Reds, The Passenger, Badlands, The Battle for Chile, State of Siege, Barry Lyndon, Prince of the City, The Loveless, to mention a few). It seems that most weeks I went to the cinema and clubs twice and probably to one or two gigs as well. I was also reading a great deal, far more than I do now. (I used to keep lists but the one for 1982 has gone missing.) It was a period — as it often is for people in their early twenties — when I was doing many things for the first time. On 4 February I went to see Stalker — but not for the first time. I’d seen it the year before with Robert and had found it pretty boring. But then, walking with Claire — one of my ex-students from Lucy Clayton whom I had begun going out with after I had stopped teaching there and with whom I had taken my first ever aeroplane ride, to Anguilla, in the Caribbean, where she lived — in Richmond park we had watched a bird flying low over the ground. It reminded me of the bit in Stalker where we see a bird flying in the Zone before it suddenly disappears. From that moment on the whole film began to exert a hold on me. This time I went with Kate, my girlfriend who dressed in what I suppose was a kind of New Romantic art school way. I’d been fucking her sister, Ginny, on a freelance basis but then I met Kate and we began going out together. At this showing of Stalker, at a cinema in Oxford Street that is not there any longer, the projectionist got the reels the wrong way round — easy to do in a film like that — so we left and went back to see it again the following Sunday. Then we went to a tea-dance (a brief craze in London at that time.)
When my wife first looked through the diary she was surprised to discover that as well as going to the cinema a lot (which I still enjoy now) I had also gone to hear the London Symphony Orchestra a great deal (something I never do now). This, I see now, was a code. On Friday 12 February Robert and I went to meet a client of his in the branch of McDonalds near Warren Street tube. She was waiting with a copy of the Evening Standard newspaper folded up in front of her. We were there to buy LSD (some code, huh, changing the D to an O?) but when we walked back to her squat in Kings Cross she unfolded the newspaper to reveal a huge amount of heroin. Did we want some? I definitely didn’t. Just the acid was fine, thank you. But my friend Robert was adamant. This was something we had to do, an experience we had to have. So I did have some of this experience and most agreeable it was too. We spent a couple of hours there snorting this brown powder with Robert’s client and her moronic boyfriend. Robert was violently sick, both in his client’s flat and on the tube on the way home. I felt fine and went to meet friends (principally Caroline, Robert’s cousin, who he was always trying to fuck) at a party at the Royal College of Art. Robert felt better the next day so we took the acid that we had bought. We walked around Brockwell Park and sat in the blue room of our place in Brixton. It was winter in the park and the walls in the blue room rippled and breathed. The floorboards were painted a glistening blue and sitting on the sofa, watching the walls ripple and breathe was like being on a raft in the middle of a calm blue lake. The sun sank in to the gas fire on the horizon.
There’s another coded entry for 18 March: “A!!” This meant that I had anal sex, for the first time ever, with Kate. “I would love to fuck you in your arse.” I said. I used the porno words, but this was before I had ever watched porno. Back then we were anti-porno. Porn was woman hatred. I said it in this relaxed way but in reality I was as tense as Jeremy Irons or something. Certainly I was a lot less relaxed than Kate who coolly said, “Then why don’t you?” I had never done this before, though Kate had (she had also slept with women). She was the first woman I had been out with who was really into sex, who was really interested in sex.
The next day Robert and I took heroin again with his client and the day after that we did two micro dots of acid each. Kate cooked a huge vegetarian meal for us. She didn’t take acid but she smoked a lot of pot (which I didn’t do back then because I hated the idea of smoking so much).
5 April: “Pink Flamingo club”: it’s all coming back to me now. It’s a reference to the Soft Cell song (“standing in the doorway of the Pink Flamingo, crying in the rain…”) and it meant I had split up with Kate. Immediately after this I fell ill with gastro-enteritis. (Looking through my diary I see that I got ill an awful lot more then than I do now.) My second interview at the PPA was at 10 am.
7 May: “Camden Palace — French girl.” Another new romantic type evening. The French girl was a hotel chamber maid. We came back to Brixton on the night bus (I never took taxis and do so now only rarely and reluctantly) and we had nothing-special sex. This was on the same day (I remember this though I’ve not noted it) that I sprained my ankle playing 5-a-side football: the first of a number of occasions when I have torn the ligaments in my ankle.
I had become quite friendly with one of my students, James, a rich, charming guy who’d been kicked out of Eton and who was now re-taking his A-Levels (though his only real ambition in life was to become a heroin addict). Another of my students was a promising tennis player. He was a member of the club — conveniently located round the back of my tutorial college — where, every June, there is a grass-court tournament which serves as a dress-rehearsal for Wimbledon. When my tennis-playing pupil did not need his card (either because he had classes or some other obligation) he lent it to me so that I could go and watch the matches. Members were allowed to take a guest and so one afternoon, after we had completed our tutorial, James and I dropped some acid and went to watch McEnroe and Connors in their quarter finals. James was wearing fluffy blue slippers. I remember Connors or McEnroe complaining about these slippers because we were in the front row (it was a very intimate tournament back then, like watching top players in furious competition at the vicarage) and James had his feet resting on the net post. Well, that’s how it seems in retrospect. Certainly they were resting on the canvas barrier separating the small crowd from the court. According to my diary I went to the club again on Friday the 11th, took acid again on the 12th and went to the final on Sunday, the 13th.
30 June: I went round to Kate’s and had sex all day. She was living in Siddenham Hill, a short bus ride from Brixton. I don’t recall the exact nature of our arrangement but over the course of several years after we had split up, if circumstances were propitious, we would have blissful sex together.
The next day I took a train to Italy en route to Corfu where I was due to meet James. I stopped off in Venice where I spent two nights sleeping outside the station so that I would not have to pay for a hotel. I also went to Florence. In fact one night I took trains back and forth between Venice and Florence just so I could sleep comfortably It was a shitty way to see both cities because I was so tired all the time and I was obsessed with not spending any money.
Things got much better when I arrived in Corfu, via Brindisi. This, of course, was in the days before email and although I knew the name of the village I didn’t know exactly the pensione James where was staying. Miraculously, the first place I tried turned out to be his place. He was there with his girlfriend, Julia, who was gorgeous. I booked into cheaper boarding house and then the three of us took acid and went down to the beach and got sun-burned. It was the start of an amazing week. A football match was arranged between tourists and the local Greeks. We were one-nil down, I scored the equalizer but then the game had to be abandoned because there was so much animosity between the two sides. We got to know all the other tourists in the village and went carousing every night. It was like Ibiza before raving and E and house music which means we got plastered every night at the disco. Julia was becoming increasingly upset by James because he was so bent on seducing a woman from Norway. It was probably to get back at him that Julia ended up having drunken sex with me in my squalid room. James came in while we were still lying there. I remember him going out and saying to someone next door, “I need a cigarette quite badly.”
A few days later Julia suddenly took off. The note she left read: “James, I can endure your company no longer. Last time I left you my soul, this time I leave you money.” James was depressed by this because, contrary to what Julia had said in her note, there was no money to be found. Shortly after this he and I went on to Alexandria and Cairo. There are photos of us riding stallions in the Sahara, near the pyramids, on the edge of Cairo. James had said that one of the great things about Egypt was that you could go into a pharmacy and buy drugs over the counter but this turned out not to be true. We kept going into pharmacies and asking for amphetamines but they shook their heads and looked at us like we were junkies. Alexandria had nothing going for it. It wasn’t attractive and there was none of that Lawrence Durrell feel about it as far as I could tell (though I hadn’t read the Alexandria Quartet at that point and still haven’t).
Back in England for the late summer I drove with Robert from Cheltenham to Hay-on-Wye, doing hits of amyl nitrate on the way. Why did we do that? Not only is amyl a horrible drug but it is a totally inappropriate one for a trip to a place like that. In late August I must have started my job. I had only been there a few weeks when I went on holiday to Dublin with Robert and James. The reason for going to Dublin was to visit my old girlfriend Claire who was now at art college there. She lived in a house with three other women and they all slept in the same room , on a row of adjacent mattresses. One morning, when everyone else had got up, Claire and I had sex quickly for no particular reason and without much pleasure.
Back in London I got sacked on Friday the 24th. The entry for Sunday the 26th is more representative of this period. “The Conversation at NFT. LSO with R[obert]. Fucked C[laire], in love with C.” Claire was only in London for a few days and I can’t remember why she had come; she was only there for a few days. After she went back to Dublin I moved into a room in a new flat in Notting Hill. I was now being paid by James’s parents to give him tutorials for the Oxbridge entrance exam which meant that our relationship reverted to its semi-formal, semi-recreational basis. James had gone from wearing slippers to going barefoot. This behaviour was sufficiently unusual to give a police constable cause to stop, question and search him whereupon he was busted for possession of grass.
The room I’d moved to in Notting Hill was only available a month and I had to begin looking at a new place almost immediately. At a rental agency I got chatting to one of the women working there. Her name was Lucy and we went out, first to see Blade Runner, then to a club called The Bat cave.
Some of the codes for this period don’t make sense, or at least I no longer understand them. 28 October: “C + S!!! at Alison’s”, for example. I can’t remember who Alison was. Maybe she was a tall woman with back-combed blonde hair who I met when the Clash played at the Lyceum. One imagines the C stands for coke and the S for speed but I don’t think I ever came across coke at that stage. Being October, though, I certainly came across a lot of magic mushrooms, partly because James and spent so many of our tutorials looking for them. The weather must have been mild and wet because there was a bumper crop of mushrooms that year. On the evidence of my diary it seems I did mushrooms twice a week for about six weeks. Mushrooms were fun, but my motives for taking them were not entirely recreational. There was a visionary, Romantic aspect to it as well:
“Thence did I drink the visionary power;
And deem not profitless those fleeting moods
Of shadowy exultation…”
I even put together a little collection of writings about some of these escapades and made five photocopied booklets on blue paper. I called it Memories of Hallucinogenics and gave copies to Robert, Claire and James. Lest we get too transcendental about the whole thing, though, a not untypical entry — for 10 November — shows how casually tripping had been integrated into the normal rhythm of the day’s social life. “Some mushrooms — evening in pub with James.” That was at the tail end of a season which had come to a climax on Saturday, 30 October when Lucy and I had gone to Brighton for the day. She had a bag full of an unspecified number of dried mushrooms. We took half each and within ten minutes the world went completely berserk. The beach was as tidal as the sea. We were delirious. The walls of a bouncy red castle swayed over us. We spent the whole day clinging to each other, shrieking hysterically, trying to stay out of trouble. We both agreed that we had never been so out of it in our lives. When we got back to London — punch-drunk, bedraggled, relieved to not be permanently deranged — I assumed we would go home together but Lucy didn’t want to. We met again on Monday and went to a club called Sound and Vision and she asked to come home with me because it had been a mistake not to on Saturday.
The next day I moved into a room in a house Balham and, in the evening, went to see the Thompson Twins. James had started going out with a woman called Sammy who lived in Flood Street in Chelsea. There was a tremendous glut of mushrooms and everyone who passed through that apartment seemed to be off their heads on something. There didn’t seem anything unusual or untoward about this but an unremarkable entry from 3 November suggests, I think, how routinely unacceptable our behaviour had become: “Met James and Rob at Master’s [a bar, presumably] — got thrown out, then went to Lucy’s.”
On Sunday the 14th I saw Bob Dylan’s four-hour-long film Renaldo and Clara — for the second time. The stamina I had back then! Lucy phoned to say she didn’t want to see me any more. I said I had the right to some kind of explanation or appeal. She told me to stop hassling her. It was around this time that I finally got the hang of smoking grass. I’d never smoked cigarettes and on the few occasions people had passed me joints — when, for example, we went to see Ciao! Manhattan at the Scala — I was violently sick. It was James who insisted that if grass was smoked without tobacco it would be fine — and he was right.
From this point on, I think it’s fair to say, things got really crazy. I started sleeping with Sammy — who I fell in love with (and who I was still in love with when she started fucking Robert) and James started sleeping with this very druggy, privileged girl called Bella (the kind of person, I used to think, Dylan might have had in mind when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone”). At some point I must have torn out part of the page itemising what took place on 9 December but later, in an attempt to at least partially restore the historical record, I added, on the opposite page, “The Flood St massacre!!!” God knows what happened.
Everything got messier and messier — and they didn’t get any less messy when, in January, I moved into a shared house on Brixton Water Lane with five other people (all of whom — like me — were living on the dole). I’m not sure how it happened but after a while these five were joined by a sixth, James’s friend Bella, who I hated. I tried, unsuccessfully to have her evicted from the house on some kind of ideological grounds but the others decided she should stay on the same grounds — because it would be good for her political education. Having been infatuated by James’s poise, wealth and decadence I now found myself starting to loathe him for his poise, wealth and decadence. In the course of an argument about something I punched him in the face.
“I won’t take this lying down,” he said, from a prone position. One day a brick was thrown through the window of our front door, no one knew why. We were always having parties at our house, I was always getting NSU and we were always in the local pub, the George Canning. I fell in love with Bella. We went out together for about three or four months, during which time we took a trip to Venice. Then, when I was out of London, visiting my parents, she called to say she had started sleeping with Karen, a woman who lived near by. Shortly after this Bella moved out of the house on Brixton Water Lane and deeper into the local anarcho-lesbian-squatting scene. She worked for many years at Brixton Cycles and was the first woman I knew to completely shave her head. A couple of other people moved out of our house and new people moved in. A new phase began which was, in many ways, a continuation of the previous phase. I gradually moved out of this very druggy phase into more of a stoner phase with occasional mushrooms thrown in. It was a great time. Later that year I published my first book review — of a new translation of Milan Kundera’s The Farewell Party — in a magazine called City Limits.
I hope the foregoing provides some context to my getting sacked from the PPA. It had taken two years to find a proper job and less than a month to lose it. It is tempting to say that from that moment on I decided to become a writer but this is not the way things work. Certainly, getting sacked was one of the things that contributed to my becoming a writer but, more immediately, this job was another possibility — another possible direction — that came to nothing, led nowhere. This is part of the process of becoming a writer. As often as not one ends up being a writer as attempts at doing other things fail to pan out. Writing is what you are left with. It’s always possible, even when — especially when — nothing else is. Having said that, my novel, The Colour of Memory, starts with me getting sacked from my job so in this invented version of things (which is, in many ways, the most truthful version) my life as a published writer did literally begin on that day.
I am no longer in touch with any of the people in this account. James achieved his ambition and became a heroin addict. I think he lived in Thailand for a while, was disinherited by his parents, and ended up working as a banker. Robert’s client and her moronic boyfriend also became junkies, I think. (Neither Robert nor I felt the faintest tug in that direction.) The last I heard of Kate she was living in France. I don’t know what she is doing now but I assume it is grand, international and highly expensive. Kate was beginning to make a name for herself as an artist-photographer but then she got ME and her career stalled somewhat. After meeting again at a wedding Bella and I got back together when I was in my late thirties. Her parents had just bought her a house in Brighton where she lived with her daughter. She had become a posh, languid mum and had lost neither her looks nor her capacity to make me unhappy (she chucked me again after about six months). Robert — Robert the communist, the beat, the Buddhist, the friend who could always be relied on to fuck your girlfriend — is now a judge.
And me, I sit here at my desk, looking out of the window on 9th Street as I’ve sat at various desks in the long years since the events jotted down in the pages of that little diary. As I look back through it I find myself thinking two things. First: Wow! That was a lot of fun! And second: What an exemplary way to spend your early 20s! But the thing that I’m most struck by, the thing I most love and of which I am really proud, is the way that the job hardly merited a mention, either in the original diary or in this annotated commentary. It meant nothing to me, that job. Compared to the books, the films, the parties, the drugs, the women, the sex, the laughing, the drinking, the clubs and the friends, that job — and the career of which, had I been unlucky, it might have formed a part — was insignificant. It merited the amount of time I devoted to it in my diary: about two lines.
It takes a bit of getting used to, the idea that spending 365 days a year doing exactly as you please is a viable proposition. Getting sacked from that job was what allowed this notion — that the three years spent as a student could actually be extended indefinitely and rather profitably — to gain some kind of purchase on my adult consciousness. Since then I’ve done pretty much as I pleased, letting life find its own rhythm, working when I felt like it, not working when I didn’t. I’ve not always been happy — far from it — but I’ve always felt responsible for my happiness and liable for my unhappiness. I’ve been free to waste my time as I please — and I have wasted tons of it, but at least it’s been me doing the wasting; as such, it’s not been wasted at all, not a moment of it.
Mr. O’Hara was our boss in the payroll department and I was the only one in the office who knew he stole money. By union contract, our elevator operators and janitors were paid in cash. On Friday, an armored car delivered the envelopes with exact amounts in bills and coins and they were then distributed to the employees. If they were absent, and there were always a few, the undelivered envelopes stuffed with cash were returned to our office late Friday afternoon. Mr. O’Hara locked them in a safe and returned them to the bank on Monday morning, except, he did not return them all. He’d swipe one or two and never put back the money. How I got wind of that is the story.
I was totally broke one Friday. My rent was past due. They were going to cut off my phone and electricity. I had gotten paid that day but I was still short. In complete despair, it occurred to me that I could borrow money from one of the envelopes since I knew the combination of the safe, pay the bills, get a loan from a friend or my parents and return it early Monday morning without anyone noticing. I waited till everyone left the office that Friday night and opened the safe. I knew exactly how many pay envelopes were supposed to be there because I signed a receipt for them an hour ago. Their contents varied. Some were thicker than others because the employees had worked overtime or held higher-paying positions. I looked for a fat one, but something didn’t seem right. I went to my desk, found the receipt and counted the envelopes. One was missing. I was terrified. Did I make a mistake when counting them when they arrived? I was sure I was going to be in big trouble. Of course, I forgot my rent, took nothing and locked the safe quickly.
All weekend I was in terror of anticipating the indignities that awaited me on Monday morning. I expected Mr. O’Hara to blow his top. He came late, elegantly attired as always, and after fussing for a while in his own office, he gathered the envelopes from the safe and went to the bank. I sat on pins and needles expecting him to return any moment screaming at me. Nothing happened. He came back from the bank without a glance at me. I remember thinking that perhaps I imagined the whole thing that I probably signed for the wrong number of envelopes. In any case, the week passed. We went through the same routine on Friday afternoon and when everyone left the office I checked the safe. One envelope was again missing, the one containing the largest amount of cash.
After a few weeks of this, Mr. O’Hara shocked me by stealing two envelopes on Friday. If he was in serious trouble, so was I. I ought to have notified someone, but whom? Mr. O’Hara was in charge of twenty-five of us. The ladies, especially the older ones in the office, simply adored him. He didn’t push us hard. He was handsome and exceedingly polite. We met his wife at one Christmas party and she seemed okay. Still, anyone taking a close look at him first thing in the morning when he arrived at the office would have had to conclude that he doesn’t get much sleep and that he drinks plenty. I debated whom to tell my secret and finally decided that there was no one I could trust in the office.
What I had to do, instead, was march into his office and confront him. I was worried, however, that he would deny it and accuse me of taking the envelopes. In addition, he would ask me how come I did not report the missing envelopes all these months? Of course, that would have made no sense since he was the only one taking them Monday morning to the bank and so had to know how many he was handing over to the teller. Still, who’d believe a lowly employee like me even if I eventually proved that I’m right.
It was no fun trying to make up my mind, deciding precisely what to say to him. The dreaded day came. It was Monday. He had just arrived in his office and was making a phone call before going to the safe to fetch the envelopes and take them to the bank. I had them in my hand already. I walked into his office and after a long moment of silence during which we just stared at each other, I said simply that I knew that he has been taking the envelopes from the safe for months and not making up the difference when he returned them to the bank. He grew very red as if he was about to have a stroke or punch me in the mouth and then he just said, it won’t happen again. I was so happy I had summoned the courage to tell him that much , I turned and left his office without saying anything more. He kept his word, it never happened again. In the meantime, he watched me closely, probably wondering how many other people in the office I had told about him. Even the two others who had the combination to the safe would not have examined the box where the envelopes were stashed away and would not have known some were missing. That’s why I never suspected anyone else. They would have been caught immediately had they tried. The strange part of this story is that it started with me attempting to steal some money. What if he hadn’t beaten me to it and I, myself, had started making little loans to supplement my income at the end of each week? Although I was always broke I tended to live high on the hog like a typical aspiring embezzler. Years later, I finally told the whole story to a friend who surprised me by saying that I was stupid. He figured, once I discovered O’Hara was stealing, the smart thing to do for me was to take an envelope or two myself. He couldn’t report me and I couldn’t report him and we’d live happily ever after until some auditor down the line got wise about our scam and we both got fired. This is where my father’s advice came in handy and saved me from prison. Never steal from petty cash, he said. In New York you have to be big time thief like J.P. Morgan and the Rockefellers.
- Charles Simic
My mother and I were fired on the same day from the same company. It was the first time I had ever been fired from a job. It would also be the last. My mother’s story was slightly different. For her, the dismissal was one in the middle of a decades-long series. There had been several such episodes already in her working life and there would be many more to follow. This probably explains why I took the news much harder than she did.
The two of us lay sprawled out on her bed on that warm June afternoon, still wearing the pantyhose and button down blouses that our ex-jobs had required. We’d both taken a muscle relaxant to combat our termination-related headaches and were waiting for relief. I was furious. My mother was much more philosophical.
“I’m just glad I don’t have to go back there tomorrow,” she said. “That place was awful.”
“Yes, well, I agree, but still,” I said. “They had no reason to fire me. It had nothing to do with my work at all!”
“Why do you care?” my mother said, yawning. “It was only a temp job. Obviously, you weren’t meant to be there. It was the wrong place.”
“Really,” I said, “it’s the principle of the thing. How am I supposed to explain — ”
“You don’t have to explain anything,” my mother said. “Take a nap. You’ll feel better.”
But I couldn’t fall asleep, despite the melting effects of the muscle relaxant I’d taken. I was too busy stewing about the injustice that had been done to me. My mother was right about one thing — the athletic sportswear company we’d both been fired from was grim and dark. I’d only been there for one day, but I’d sensed, after my first fifteen minutes, that the heavy atmosphere could quickly crush the most ebullient of souls — one possible explanation for why there were so many openings. My mother and I had both been placed there by a well-known temporary employment agency and there were many others like us clacking away on typewriters and giant mainframe computers (this was the mid-eighties, after all). The position I’d been filling, however, had “the potential to evolve into permanent employment.”
Well, so much for that brass ring.
Office jobs have never been my forte. On an intellectual level, I can understand that there are millions of people who go to such jobs every day and that many of those people enjoy their work. But on an emotional level, I can’t even imagine what that would be like. To say I feel incarcerated in an office would not be much of an overstatement. At the time that my mother and I were fired, though, my feeling was that office work was what I should be doing.
I had just turned twenty-three and the ink on my college diploma was still wet. I had a B.A. in English Literature and student loans that were about to come due. I had no desire or resources to go to graduate school. What I wanted to do — what I’d wanted to do since I’d been old enough to formulate any desires at all — was to write and be published. I wasn’t foolish enough to believe that this was going to just happen, though, and I knew that I’d have to make a living — preferably a living that led to a career that led to being published. The idea of writing novels in a cold garret wearing a black turtleneck and subsisting on bread and cheese was moderately appealing but somewhat impractical. There was a shortage of garrets in Portland, Oregon where I was living, for one thing. For another, I’d spent the previous year shivering in a small apartment because I couldn’t afford to pay for heat. It was very difficult to type with frozen fingers and nearly impossible wearing gloves.
My best pal from college, an arty type who had graduated two years ahead of me, had already been working in the office trenches for a year, donning wingtip shoes and three-piece suits and making enough money to rent himself a chi chi apartment with all the amenities in downtown Portland. It wasn’t an ideal situation working for a Ross Perot-owned corporation, he maintained, but it was a necessary step to get where he was going. Which was the same place I thought I should be going as well. So I’d signed on at the temporary agency, claiming excellent secretarial skills even though the results of my typing test and my ignorance of shorthand (again, we’re talking about the eighties) stood in direct contradiction of this claim. If push came to shove, I assured the agency, I could also file like a demon.
My first assignment had been for an insurance company out in the distant sticks of north Portland. The round trip journey to and from the job required six buses and three hours of commute time. I dressed in cheap shoes and skirts from JC Penney that always seemed too tight at the waist. I managed to lose at least one button from every skirt I owned and could often be found in the restroom, fastening my clothes with safety pins and paper clips. There was nowhere to go for lunch within walking distance so I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for myself every day and ate it outside on a concrete bench that had a marvelous view of the parking lot. I was a pretty pathetic sight all around, but that really wasn’t the worst of it. Nor was the mind-numbingly boring task of filing endless, bottomless claims that I had to do every day. No, the worst of it was the fact that I had to call people and demand that they pay up.
Soliciting payment is not a good job for non-confrontational or passive types, and I fit both categories. I got sweaty and started stammering every time I picked up the phone to make one of these calls and found myself searching for any opportunity to avoid them. And those were just the calls to debtors who were still alive. I reached my nadir with this job when I had to demand remittance from people who had died. Okay, not from the actual dead people themselves, but from their survivors. I would rather have spent twenty-four hours a day filing in hell than thirty seconds on one of those calls. It wasn’t easy to shirk this duty either. People were watching. The office was just a long, wide open space planted with rows of desks.
Despite the fact that my performance was less than stellar (aside from some ace filing), the insurance company offered me a permanent position at the end of the gig. I declined. My next assignment was at a telecommunications company near the banks of the Willamette River. It was much closer to home, which was good, and it was also a “prestigious” position as the head receptionist for a group of thirty-something engineers.
The lobby, where I was to sit, was done up in black marble, chrome, and deep wine-colored carpeting. There was a rich hush in the air. The outgoing receptionist, who was taking a two-month maternity leave, spent two days training me on the phones (multiple lines and all kinds of hold buttons — it was a telecom company, after all). I would be the only woman in the entire building, she said, and it was very important that I look extremely professional. Very, very important to the company. And I had to answer the phones in a very specific manner. It went something like this:
“Gooood…uuhhh…morninnggg. Uhhh uuhhh…North…Telecommunications…. May I…mmm…help youuuu?”
Essentially, I had to breathe into the phone and pant out a greeting as if I were in the middle of a $4.00 per minute phone sex call. And that was the job. Flirting breathlessly with voices on the phone, both those coming in (“Well, hiiii North Telecommunications, this is Georgia Telecommunications here. How are you, sweet thing?”) and those going out (“Could you get me Bob from Southern on the line, hon?”).
I upgraded my wardrobe. I bought a couple of nice silk blouses and a gray linen skirt that I matched with silvery pantyhose. There was a nice Italian restaurant across the street and, about once a week, a group of the engineers took me to lunch there. After six weeks or so, I was settled in, but bored witless. And this is probably why I agreed to go out on a date with Mike, one of the engineers.
In my defense, I hardly ever saw these guys. Most of them came into work before I took my seat at the large circular front desk and burrowed into their offices down a long white hall. Most of them were still in there when I left at five. So, I’d only seen Mike in passing and he seemed okay in a side-part, sandy-haired, vaguely-soft-in-the-middle kind of way. Not handsome exactly, but clean. He also seemed a little shy and really pleased when I agreed to go out to dinner with him and I found that appealing.
I wasn’t thrilled to see that Mike had leopard print seat covers and fuzzy dice in his Camaro. I was less pleased when he suggested we take a detour to his house (so far out that it was almost in Washington state) before dinner and downright concerned when we entered said house and I saw that it was devoid of furniture save for a large leather chair, a huge TV, and a glass coffee table that still showed traces of the cocaine that had been snorted off it. Mike popped open a beer and asked me if I’d like to listen to some Fleetwood Mac CDs (in 1985, compact disks were still an expensive novelty). I was beyond nervous at this point — Mike had busted out the coke and was twitchily snorting it off the coffee table — and asked if we could just head to dinner. I knew, at that point, that I’d made a big mistake and was trying to figure out why my judgment had been so far off.
Mike’s choice of restaurant didn’t have an actual name, merely the words “Chinese-American cuisine” printed on the greasy stained “menus.” I was afraid to touch the table, let alone consume the “cuisine.” Mike drank as if he was dying of thirst in the desert — the Las Vegas desert, that is, because what he was drinking was an unending series of rum and Cokes. While he quaffed, he told me that he’d been busted for several DUIs and that he was on the verge of losing his license. Then he suggested, not subtly, that we go back to his place and screw like minks. I sensed that he wasn’t going to take a “no” with any kind of grace and I was beginning to feel scared. I observed him slugging his drink and made a decision. Sometimes, out in the wild, one has to live by one’s wits.
“Listen,” I said, “I’m kind of a little embarrassed to say this, but, I’m…” I paused to look down and fiddle with my napkin. “…I’m a virgin. I kind of… Well, I know this sounds very old-fashioned, but I’m saving myself for marriage.”
Well damn it if he didn’t buy it all the way.
Suddenly Mike became terribly chivalrous and polite. He was going to court me. But first he was going to take me home so that my parents (I’d told him I lived with them) didn’t worry about me being out too late. When we arrived at my house, he asked if he could kiss me goodnight. I offered my cheek. He asked if we could go out again. I smiled and said I’d see him at work and we could talk about it then. And then he let me go.
The next day, I managed to get myself reassigned. Which brings us back to the job at the athletic sportswear company. My mother, as I mentioned, had joined up with the same temporary agency and had already started her job at the very same company. My mother was doing high level work there (typing, dictation, shorthand) whereas I would be doing filing again and data entry. Despite the fact that there was no natural light in the office and that everyone there looked as if they’d had their spleens removed without anesthetic, I was excited at the prospect of having a “real” job that could “turn into something.”
At about midday, my supervisor’s supervisor came over to greet me. I knew who she was because the tired woman who’d trained me that morning had pointed her out as she sat in her glass office several steps above the main floor. I hadn’t expected to meet her personally, though. At least not on the first day.
“Hi,” she said and stood, head to the side, observing me critically. There was a twisted half-smile on her face as if she knew she was supposed to offer one, but couldn’t quite follow through. Her skin puffy, the color of old typing paper, and her hair was a faded bottle bronze. She was moderately overweight and wearing clothes that looked like she’d spent way too much money on them for what she’d gotten. The overall effect was unsettling — unhappiness stuffed full with frustration.
“Hi,” I said.
“You’re the temp, right?”
“I recognize the name. Ginsberg.”
“You related to Lola Ginsberg?”
Lola was my sister, about fourteen years old at the time. There was an unfriendly glint in her eye but I ignored it. I smiled big and told her that Lola was my sister. What a coincidence!
“Yeah, your family used to live on our street,” she said. “Your sister knows my daughter Bridget.”
Warning bells went off in my head. What was it about Bridget? The name? The situation? Some trouble there with a Bridget…
“Um, yeah, I think I remember. Sort of.”
“They had a falling out,” she said.
“Yeah. Okay, nice to meet you.” She turned on her heel and went back up to her glass office. Some minutes later I saw her glare at me from her perch and pick up the phone. About an hour after that, I received a call from the temp agency telling me that Bridget’s Mother had requested they remove me from the job and send someone else the next day. There was, the agent told me, “a personality conflict.”
“But there was no conflict,” I insisted. “I think my sister had some fight with her daughter years ago and that’s why she wants me gone.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter; she wants you off so you won’t be returning tomorrow.”
I was fired. I could hardly believe the absurdity of it.
My mother hadn’t been given much of a reason for her termination either, but that wasn’t a huge surprise. It was never my mother’s abilities that got her fired from jobs. In fact, she often received raises right before getting a pink slip. The problem was somewhat more amorphous than that. Although she was never insubordinate per se, she could never suffer fools gladly and she reflected that in her manner. It wasn’t something that could be articulated well on a pink slip. At the time of our joint firing, however, she hadn’t quite figured this out.
“Obviously, you weren’t meant to be there,” she’d told me and it was absolutely true. I wasn’t meant to be working under Bridget’s Mother at the athletic sportswear company. I wasn’t meant to be in an office at all, collecting money from the deceased or going out on potentially dangerous dates because I’d lulled myself into an office stupor by breathing heavily into a multi-line phone all day. Getting fired sealed it for me. I was finished.
A couple of weeks after the debacle with Bridget’s Mother, I landed a job as a waitress. Waiting on tables, it turned out, was what I was meant to be doing. It took some time, fifteen years to be exact, but eventually I published my first book; Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress.
I disliked getting fired enough to make sure it never happened again. It’s a terrible feeling, getting canned and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone…okay, almost anyone. Still, I’m actually grateful to Bridget’s Mother. Had I not been dislodged from that job, I might have spent years chasing the ridiculous notion that an office job held the key to my personal success. So, to Bridget’s Mother, and all those like her, I say this: You can’t fire me. I quit.
In addition to commissioning new pieces, I sought out great writing on the topic (there was less than you might imagine), emailing copyright and permissions departments of publishing houses.
A Working Girl Can’t Win
Is this the birth of a pundit
or a slut? Is she the woman
they courted for her youthful edge
or a kiss-and-tell bimbo,
a careerist coquette?
The loyal daughter to spin doctors
losing their hair or soul sister
to feminist essayists everywhere?
Is her meteoric rise the source
of her potential demise?
Is her worldview equal parts
yuppie whine and new-age rumor?
Can we get a biopsy on her latest
breast tumor? Is she a failed
anorexic, or diet-pill faddist
who’ll let it all go and get fat
in her fifties? Are her roots
rural, right-leaning? Is she Jewish,
self-hating? Past her sell-by date,
or still ovulating?
Will her husband talk?
Does he mind her success?
Does anyone know — does he see
her undressed? Has she been
photographed? Will she play
truth or dare? And more to the point,
does anyone care?
Come next year, will the masses
be reading her story? Will she be
on the cover, or well past her glory?
Either way, we’ll move on, and she’ll tire
before long: only her children will grieve
at the way she was wronged.
Why I’m Sharing This Now.
I always felt I had failed at my book about failure. It didn’t come together and was never published. By putting this up today I hope to give Faulkner is Fired life. It feels good to re-approach an old project in a new way.