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.