November 24, 2009

Mad Women

I began a short-term job at an advertising agency that designs websites for the pharmaceutical industry. It’s an old-school shop where copywriters and creative directors sit around conference tables eating sushi while coming up with random ideas on how to get people to harass their doctors about new drugs. The place is dominated by women. They dress up fashionably, clip-clopping down the hallways with earnest self-importance. They exaggerate exasperation, they scold, they wear jeans that are too tight, and heels that are too high. They throw cake parties when colleagues become pregnant. They talk to me as they might a five year old, and around them I begin to act like a five year old. I sit near an elderly man who wears his glasses on a chain and who has come up with a character he calls “Nosey.” Nosey represents some kind of sinus medication.

“Explain this to me,” Nancy, the account director, asked him one day.

“His name is Nosey, and he guards your nose from all the bad stuff, the infections. Your nose needs Nosey!

“I see,” said Nancy skeptically.

I have some friends here. That’s how I got this job. Yesterday, I visited one of them on the 3rd floor. Sophie. I told her that my desk was fine but that I needed a new light bulb for my lamp. So Sophie took me to the maintenance window. An unfriendly-looking man had already girded himself in anticipation of our request.

“Hi, we’d like to get a new light bulb?”

He looked quizzically at us. He was bald in that dangerous way. You could tell that if he caught you walking around the building without an ID, he’d call the police even though he knew who you were. He’d do it on principle, just to teach you a lesson.

“We’re out of light bulbs at the moment.”


“I can have someone bring you one when we get more. Where do you sit?” He looked from Sophie to me and then back to Sophie.

“I’m not sure exactly,” I said. “I just know I’m on the 15th floor.”

“Wait,” said Sophie. “Why don’t you guys bring the bulb to me and I’ll take it up to David?”

OK,” said the man. “Where do you sit?”

“Actually, I’m not sure what the number is. But it’s on this floor. Towards the back.”

The man looked wearily at his ledger.

“I’ll need both your names. And IDs.”

Sophie and I went back to her desk to wait for the light bulb. I told her what had happened to me a few days earlier. First a guy came to my desk to hang a sign on my cubicle. The sign had my name on it. Then five minutes later another guy came, removed the sign, and told  me that they were transferring me to another desk. An hour after that, they moved me back to my old desk and re-hung the sign after they realized they had made a mistake.

“They kept on asking me, ‘Are you David?’ ”

The men are bumblers at this company; they are children, boys.

Sophie’s face fell a little. “You’re just here for a few weeks. Imagine working here day in and day out for years.

Sophie is a lifer. She throws everything she has into into her job, working late almost every night, thinking herself heroic, though no one who matters ever seems to notice her devotion.

Just then a maintenance guy appeared holding a work order.

“Are you David?”

With my new light bulb in hand, I began to head back to my cube on the 15th floor. I had lots to do, like design a website for an anti-psychotic drug.

On the way to the elevator, I passed the offices of the Den Mothers, those senior people who were once like the young hot ad babes who populate the cubicles. The Den Mothers have gone beyond that. Now, secure in their private offices, they have dressed up their spaces with oriental rugs and fancy lamps and artwork. And they don’t wear the high fashions that the younger ones do. They’ve settled into a casual kind of comfort clothing. Some wear necklaces of wooden beads, like aging poets. It always surprises me to see these little living rooms they’ve created in the heart of Midtown.

But I get it. They come here every day, after all. They work all hours. Pharmaceutical advertising is their life. And this is their home.

November 15, 2009

Lesbians on the F Train

There are two trains on either side of the platform at my subway station. Both run uptown, but eventually the lines diverge. One of them originates at the station and leaves fairly empty of riders. The other just stops briefly on its long journey to Queens. This is the F train, coming in from Brooklyn. During rush hour, it pulls in packed with irritated passengers smelling of shampoo, shaving cream, and damp wool. No one ever knows which train will leave first. Sometimes there is a mad dash across the platform if there’s an announcement. That’s what happened this morning. I got onto the train that starts here, which, save for a few other passengers, was luxuriously empty. Then the F pulled in, so me and a few others ran over to it. Then came an announcement it was going to be the other one, and so we ran back with about a third of the F train’s passengers who wanted to travel in a bit more comfort.

There was a man already sitting on the train as though waiting for us. A vagrant. I hadn’t noticed him before. A big, bearded man with the wry smile of a lunatic. He was dressed in rags. He carried a cane fashioned out of a tree limb. His beard was gray, his skin weathered and wrinkled. He was laughing. He was laughing at us.

“You run like mad to get on the F! Why do you want to ride the F train? You can’t get a seat. So why run to it? There’s plenty of seats here!”

He stamped his cane on the floor for punctuation. Some people looked over.

“You know who rides the F train? Lesbians! Lesbians ride the F train.”

He stamped his cane again. The man wasn’t entirely off base. It’s well known that the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn is fancied by lesbian couples. One of the riders in our car — a man — was amused and smiled broadly. Then the woman he was with slapped him lightly on his coat.

“Now how can you tell who’s a lesbian?” The vagrant had a powerful voice that flowed with authority. It was impossible to ignore him. Everyone was paying attention now.

“You can tell a lesbian, because lesbians drink blood. Lesbians are blood drinkers, they’re blood suckers. Lesbians drink the blood of babies and men. They ride the F train. Why would you want to ride the F train? You can’t get a seat and lesbians are on it.”

The tattered vagrant was confusing lesbians with Jews. It’s a common libel against Jews — that we drink the blood of children. I got up to head over to the next car.

“You know how you can tell someone’s a lesbian? They hate men, children, and sex!”

The new car I had stepped into seemed peaceful. The riders looked blindly in random directions, wires hanging from their ears, pacifying their heads with music. I found a seat away from other people, sat down, and opened the book I was carrying, which was a history of genocide in Africa.