Monday, March 22, 2010

What Does I.M. Pei Have To Do With Postage Machines?

I’m going to jump ahead in my Bermuda saga for two reasons: nobody says I have to do everything in order and a brief conversation with a long lost friend yesterday reminded me of the year I returned to Connecticut . . .

We had been Involuntarily Repatriated, my husband and I, and like a space capsule at the mercy of the spinning of the earth, the atmosphere and gravity we landed haphazardly in my old home state of Connecticut. I know, I know, you want to know what on earth led us to be Involuntarily Repatriated, but I’m jumping ahead, so you're going to have to eat another cookie and just be satisfied with the aftermath of being I.R.’d.

I can tell you how it feels to be I.R.’d—its a shabby gut hollowing—the Involuntary part means that you didn’t ask to be sent home, that someone else decided it was time for you to go home. And the red stamp on your passport stating that you were I.R.’d is like a thing that your meanest teachers in school told you about, that Permanent Record thing, that file that is kept on you in a basement somewhere, Permanently holding all the Good things you did, and all the Bad things too. Involuntary implies that you never saw it coming. We didn’t and so it leaves you walking through the airport with all your stuff and your dog in a daze, with this thought in your head, Now What?

In our case we followed the job trail to Connecticut. Py found a job with a consulting company that would farm his skills out to various financial trading floors in New York. And I thought, sure, why not, let’s move to the state I grew up in. It will be fun! We’ll ride the train to the City, go to museums, go to the beach, revel in the fall weather — its my old home town, it will feel like home in no time. But there was something I didn’t think of. I wasn’t a kid anymore and Connecticut wasn’t the place I had grown up in anymore. Can you go home again? Like another Wolfe, this Woolfe could not.

We landed like refugees in a one room guest quarters over the garage of my mother’s best friend Bessie. It was no bigger than a space capsule, but it accommodated me, Py, Jack, and two cats as comfortably as a flop house in Harlem. Bess was more than generous to let us parachute into her lovely home. We had full kitchen and laundry privileges in the main house and she even loaned us her behemoth Suburban until we found wheels of our own. We were literally starting over.

In the first week we found a car and a house, not a great house, but a house in New Canaan of all places. Py began working and I hit the pavement looking for a job. Within two weeks, I had my first interview. I had sent my resume to a small software company looking for a database manager. Despite my odd resume—the most recent job on it being a two year Volunteer position on the island of Bermuda developing a database of captured Turtle information—they called me. Maybe they just wanted to see how weird I was. I was once again without appropriate clothes. I had just gotten the hang of dressing in Bermuda, and now, here I was in Connecticut, fall weather all around me looking like a beach bum. But now I was in the land of plenty . . . plenty of Interview Suits. So easily fixed. Yet, when I looked at myself in the mirror, there was something not quite right. Something looked all wrong. Ah, yes, my hair was long and bleached from the Bermuda sun and while I never felt particularly brown in Bermuda, I looked like the Girl From San Tropez in a business suit and heels. It was as though James Bond brought Honey Ryder back from the islands to London and her oyster knife was poking out from under her Chanel Suit. You can take the girl away from the island, but you can’t take the island away from the girl . . . or something like that.

I decided that I was being far too self-conscious and that my prospective employers wouldn’t even notice my tropical appearance. But it probably didn’t help matters that I was still communicating like a Bermudian. Certain inflections had snuck their way into my every day speak and Thank You and Please were apt to just come out of my mouth at any random moment. Sure, you’re asking, what’s so wrong with being polite? I’ll tell you that politeness is taken to a whole other level in Bermuda, a level that Americans cannot fathom. There is no such thing as a silent transaction in Bermuda. You go into the drugstore to buy a pack of gum and it goes like this: you pick out your gum and put it on the counter for the lady at the register to ring up for you. She rings up the gum and asks, “How are you today?” and you answer this way, and no other way, or else, “Fine Thank You, And How are you today?” And she answers, “Fine Thank You. That will be one dollar Please, Thank You.” and you hand her the dollar and you thank her for taking the dollar, “Thank you.” and then she thanks you for giving her the dollar and she gives you the gum and you thank her AGAIN, and then she says, “Have a Bermudaful Day.” And You thank her and tell her to have the same and she Thanks you again as you go out the door and you feel guilty that she got the last thank you in. You see? Its nuts.

Py and I found out very quickly that we needed to lose our Thank You habit. We were practically laughed out of a diner in Greenwich Village when we had thanked the waiter far too many times. Every time he brought us something or a refilled our water glasses we both said, Thank You and when he had heard Thank You one too many times, he began to curtsy and say snidely, “You’re Welcome.” and Py and I finally realized what was happening. All the waiters behind the counter were gawking at us as though we had just flown in from some strange Nordic country. We paid our bill silently and ran out with our tails between our legs. As we walked the city streets we quietly told ourselves to stop being so courteous, or we were going to get mugged.

So there I was, bronzed, blond, overly courteous, tending to include Bermudian slang in my otherwise normal sentences, completely overwhelmed by the shock of being in civilization again—the grocery store alone was enough to put me in a full on anxiety attack—and I had to stuff myself into a little navy blue suit, city shoes, and carry my well-worn brief case into some office and prove to them I could manage their database better than the pale non-turtler sitting in the waiting room next to me.

My notion that my appearance would go unnoticed was just that, a notion. I was shown into the Director’s office by a secretary who eyed me not unlike the girls I went to high school with . . .that upwards and downwards glance that left you feeling as though you had been touched inappropriately. A realization came over me as I was sitting in the reception area and it was really bothering me as the secretary told me to have a seat, the Director would be along shortly—I wasn’t wearing any hose. Every woman in that office was wearing panty hose, but not me. Women in Bermuda don’t wear hose. From the waitresses, to the bank ladies, to the women of Parliament, to the Premier herself -- none of them. They all go bare legged under their pretty suits and dresses, its the tropics, there is no reason to wear Nylons! It was a fashion habit I gladly adopted. So there I sat in my lovely crisp new suit and heels and no stockings to speak of . . . just my nut brown shins between me and the Director’s desk.

He came in the door, slightly out of breath, holding my resume in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. He was neither pleasant or brusk, he began the whole affair of interviewing me as seriously as any Director might do. But no less than five minutes into the process things began to break down. “I see here that your database management work in the past two years was Voluntary, not paid.” There was that word again, Voluntary, Involuntary, haunting me. As he said this he craned his neck over the expanse of his desk that separated the two of us, and let his glasses fall down the bridge of his nose. He was looking at my legs, no doubt about it. I answered him, “Yes, I was an unpaid volunteer. I was not allowed to work in Bermuda under the agreement of my husband’s work permit.” I decided to stop there, why talk too much, and besides he wasn’t listening to me, he was looking at my legs.

He gazed up at my face again and paused, looked at my resume again, and then back at me, “How do I know that you really did all this work? You don’t look like you’ve been working. You look as though you've spent quite a bit of time on the beach.” Well, this was slightly akin to a punch in the stomach, I had never been faced with a line of questioning quite this accusatory in an interview before. The walls began to close in. I thought for a moment about just getting up and leaving. I didn’t want to work for this man, no harm in just leaving right now. But something chained me to my chair, some sticky sort of obligation kept me seated, and I answered him, “I believe my references are attached to my resume, they can speak of my work accomplished on the island, paid or unpaid, I was diligent in my duties. I built a research database for the Turtle Project from the ground up, from nothing. I wrote a user’s manual and populated the database with nine years of data that had been sitting in a file cabinet. ” I wanted to add something about going to the beach, but I bit my lip.

“But you’ve never actually worked in a business that had to make money before?” This question completely baffled me.

“Excuse me?”

“Your entire resume seems to be work for non-profit organizations -- libraries and conservation . . . environmentalists!” He uttered environmentalist as though it were a filthy word.

“Sir, I assure you, everyone I have worked for had to make money somehow. The research database was not only for scientific purposes but for the procuring of grants.” I realized he was insinuating that non-profits were somehow unserious because they were not meant to be cash cows like his company, which existed solely to create software that enabled corporations to find loopholes in the tax system.

“Do you think you will be able to work a full time job? I mean, 8 to 5, Monday through Friday?” It was here that I began to lose it. I had been back in the U.S. exactly two weeks. I had no money, no job, was experiencing the throes of culture shock, was realizing that Connecticut was no longer the place of my childhood, and this guy was clearly an Asshole, and I don’t use that word lightly. My bottom lip began to tremble, and I thought, oh boy, I am going to cry, please, don’t cry, please please please don’t cry in front of this guy! Don’t give him the pleasure of making you cry. He could see I was about to cry and with that, he stood up and excused himself. He just left and when he shut the door I burst into tears. I fell apart completely and then I desperately looked around that office with the golfing photos on the wall for a box of Kleenex. Nope, none to be had. And then the door opened. It was his secretary. She closed the door and magically handed me a tissue. I looked up at her as she leaned back on Director A-hole’s desk. “Are you okay?” She asked in a surprisingly sympathetic tone.

“Do I look okay? What’s his problem anyway?”

“Oh, he’s just had a bad morning. He told me to tell you he likes you and would like you to come back for a second interview tomorrow. Can you be here at 8:30?”

“Are you serious?”

“Yes, completely. Don’t let him get under your skin. He’s really a good boss.” I began to imagine the good cop/bad cop relationship these two had.

“I think I’ll pass. Thank you. But no.” I stood up and asked her if it was okay for me to leave now, for some odd reason. As though I was being held against my will. She told me how to extricate myself from the building and said she was sorry I wouldn’t be returning for another interview. I thanked her, in a good Bermudian way, and escaped.

The following week a Temp Agency took me on, stockings or no stockings. They sent me to work as an assistant to a VP in Charge of Selling Things at Pitney Bowes in Stamford. They warned me that she was difficult and demanding and that previous temps they had sent to her had either disappeared under mysterious circumstances or been eaten by large cats. I took the warning seriously and I could see the plea in the Temp Agency woman’s eyes; I was their last hope of providing employees to the big company and they needed me to last a while. So go bend over, okay girl?

I fought traffic all the way up I-95 and the tremble was in my lower lip again. I fought back the tears as I parked in the massive parking garage. Ms. Tempeater met me in the enormous glassed-in lobby. The building felt more like an international airport than the corporate headquarters of a company that made its fortune making postage machines. I looked all around as she shook my hand, “Its fabulous, isn’t it? I.M. Pei was the architect.” Well, then no wonder. She turned on her high heels and asked me to follow her. With the preciseness of a stewardess pointing to the emergency exits she showed me where the corporate bathrooms were, where the corporate break room was, where the corporate cafeteria was. They had their own pharmacy, their own convenience store, their own post office (of course), and their own medical center. All this was so that one never had to leave work to do the piddley things of life, Pitney Bowes owned you and your days. But most interesting of all was the art on the walls. As we went down this hall and that hall, I mean narrow halls with anonymous doors leading to the desks of anonymous people, she pointed to various paintings and drawings framed and hung with care, some were large and some were small enough to fit in a brief case, “And that is a Bracque and that is a Jasper Johns, and that drawing is the only Picasso, although I hear there is another one on the way . . . ” The building was filled with a modern art collection worth a small fortune. I was breathless.

And then I had to work. She showed me my desk and gave me a list of things to start on right away. Filing, lots of filing. Travel arrangements—she had her own travel agent and a direct line to this person, so I needed to call this person and book tickets to London, Tokyo, Paris, Rome. All of these cities needed postage machines and this was the woman who was going to sell them what they needed dammit. I was to go to the cafeteria to get her lunch, sometimes she had lunch meetings and I had to get everyone’s lunch. There was coffee to be made and did I mention filing? I had to file piles of paper in these vast valleys of filing cabinets that sat in a lonely corridor at the end of the hallway we worked on. I was filing on my second day when a voice came from around the corner, “So you’re Ms. Tempeater’s new girl.” A face peeked round the wall of cabinets, it was the face of a man/boy -- he was olive skinned and he wore a deep blue shirt and a deeper blue tie. He was looking at my legs . . . still no stockings, I hadn’t learned yet. “Yes, I’m the new victim I guess.”

“Has she started calling you at home yet?”

“Well, actually, yes, she called me last night to ask me to do some last minute things for her before she left for Paris.”

“Ah, well, she’ll be calling you every night pretty soon.”

“How come you know so much about her habits?” With my question, he moved closer to me. He smiled at me. I didn’t like the look in his eye.

“I’ve known all the Temp Girls.” And I didn’t doubt it. I put the large pile of filing down on the floor between us. He continued to move closer, “Hey, she’s gone to Paris right?”

“Um, yeah, she’s gone til Friday.”

“Why don’t you come have lunch with me?”

“Oh, that’s sooo nice of you really. But I have sooooo much to do. I thought I would take advantage of Tempeater being gone to get alllll this filing done.”


“Yeah, really.” I opened a large file drawer with one long sweep and it hung there between me and The Temp Girl Chaser. He raised his coffee cup in defeat and went back to his cubicle.

I quit two weeks later. Tempeater had begun calling me at home on nights and then weekends. She lived in New Canaan and when she found that I only lived a few blocks from her she figured she could ask me to run errands for her. I figured I needed to quit. And so I did. I left a voice mail for her while she was in Tokyo, “Ms. Tempeater, I am terribly sorry to leave this position so abruptly and by way of your voicemail, but something tells me that its time for me to go back into the non-profit world.”

And I did. My only regret was that I didn’t put that little Jasper Johns in my briefcase one night on my way out.

1 comment:

Mr Brown said...

Beautiful post, wolfy.

what you get when you google "involuntary repatriation"?