the office

The Exquisite Pleasure of a Dead-End Job

A New York office in 1955. Photo: Lotte Jacobi/University of New Hampshire//Getty Images

I got my first real job in midtown Manhattan on Sixth Avenue. Or, I should say, off Sixth. This was not the Avenue of the Americas of Time Inc. and other places to which I aspired. I was with a small company hanging on for dear life above an Indian restaurant in a dilapidated five-story building with stairs behind a steel door and an ancient elevator that would as soon plunge you into hell as take you up 25 feet.

The office had once been somebody’s long, narrow apartment and was now the home of the ancient-times version of a content farm. At the back end were two rooms, each with three or four desks and an ever-rotating group of sallow young men like me, who were hired to produce capsule movie reviews for an encyclopedic book intended to capitalize on the new craze for videocassettes. I was paid $275 off the books for a 45-hour week. The checks were handed out just irregularly enough to keep everyone in a constant state of anxiety and grievance.

At the front end were two more rooms for the boss and the underboss, who were rarely seen. (A coat on a rack outside those doors, or sometimes a lustrous, special-occasion toupee hanging casually from a hook, was often our only hint that management was in.) The two ends of the office were connected by a hallway covered in yards of badly damaged harvest-color shag. Off the hall was a file room filled with ominously tilting cabinets that groaned when you pulled at a drawer, the tortured vestige of a 1930s kitchenette, and a bathroom with a large tub in which mice would get trapped after falling through a vent in the ceiling. As the junior employee, I was told to kill them.

I loved it. I was a 21-year-old who felt that my important opinions on movies needed to be heard, and they were going to be, by someone, eventually, once I inputted them into one of the giant non-portable computers that were connected to the dot-matrix printer. There were a couple of guys a little older than I was knowledgeable, weary, quietly sarcastic — whom I instantly took to as role models; a beleaguered boy who insisted that a movie called The Last American Virgin had changed his life and was bullied by the rest of us for his bad opinion; and an unnerving weirdo or two, one of whom burst into uncontrollable laughter on the day the Challenger exploded and so infuriated everyone that he was banished to a room by himself for weeks. Office drama! It was exciting.

For most of us, the job felt like something we would do for a couple of years, not more. It was no place to be stuck forever. After the videocassette book went to press, occasionally I would be allowed to write nightly TV listings for local newspapers that couldn’t afford their own critics. “Tonight on ALF, the Tanners get an unexpected visitor,” I would type. “A special episode of The Cosby Show features guest appearances by Gilbert Gottfried and Sinbad.” Months later, a clipping service would mail us the papers, from Anchorage or Dayton or Tampa, where my words had run. There were two men above us who served as middle managers and head writers. One had been there so long that his rage at both the boss and his payroll idiosyncrasies was bottomless. “Remember,” he would intone every Friday as he left to catch the subway to Queens, “we must never stop praying for his death.” The other man had been there even longer and thus regarded everyone’s foibles and rivalries and furies with benevolent amusement. He would take me to dinners and Off Broadway plays, and I always thought he was about to, you know, but he never did. He was lovely.

“What are you still doing here?” the boss said, not unkindly, after I had been in the office for two years and our half-assed book had finally been published to utter indifference. I realized I didn’t have an answer. It was time to leave. I had gone from being the new guy to being the guy who could be counted on to show the new guy the ropes. Wasn’t I meant for greater things? I gave notice and packed up my writing samples and newspaper scraps and my five free copies of a book with my name in it and marched into what I was certain would be a lucrative career as a 23-year-old freelancer. A week later came the crash of 1987. But it was too late: A grown-up had told me I’d outgrown something. I had to try to believe it.

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The Exquisite Pleasure of a Dead-End Job