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What Doesn’t Kill You

Stuck In The Middle With Me

September 22, 2003

You either live somewhere, don’t live there, or exist somewhere in between. Brooklyn, for me, falls into the last category. I’ve celebrated a birthday, brought in a summer’s worth of mail, purchased four month-long subway passes and now pronounce the hard “g” in Bergen without hesitation. But don’t ask me what I’m doing here. It’s only answerable on reflection.

On reflection, I’ve done much watching. People contrast “watchers” with “doers,” but out of context this is a mistake. Watching in New York is not passive activity. To hit street or rail bare, without newspaper or prop, takes resilience and savvy. You must gauge your glance to appear neither indifferent nor invasive. And if you dare cross over to the select role of observer, the dimensions are overwhelming. Humanity parades with pornographic inflection, allowing only momentary consideration before switching form.

I’ve jogged some, too. At first in the old neighborhood past funeral homes and delis, using the Promenade as turning point. Now I trek around Prospect Park, past soccer games, the occasional used condom, and lounging Brooklynites soaking the last of summer’s sun. In August, I noticed that temperature and humidity rose cruelly, closer to the expanse of turf and sod. I wore the same tank top most days, rinsing and wringing it out in my sink after each run. Some people seem able to exercise repeatedly in one get-up and always look neat and refreshed. I sweat like a pig and leave whatever I wear looking like hell.

***

My dad told me the best thing about the army is it teaches you to take shit from assholes. I never considered the multi-leveled brilliance of this statement, though I did understand his intended meaning. “Asshole” falls under many definitions for my father, and is used both as slight and term of affection. But in this instance it simply means those whose abuse you don’t feel entitled to. Or, more to the point, morons. It is strangely appropriate, finding inspired encouragement in his words, as most would not list optimism as his defining quality. And yet there is truth to the idea that there’s value in getting better at tolerating the intolerable.

In the prevailing spirit of somewhere in between, I’ve accepted an internship. There is no pay; only the offer of free classes and seminars. But it means several hours a day in a real office in the middle of Manhattan- a setting outside the subway and Fall Cafe. After taking the gig, I remembered an article I read about a guy who showed up at a dot-com office one day, neither paid nor hired, and started doing the job. It took a year before anybody realized he didn’t really work there. I think this is the role I was born for. It carries a certain amount of responsibility as other legitimate employees become accustomed to your presence and depend on you being around. But technically, you’re under no obligation. There’s no monetary compensation, but it’s small price for complete autonomy. An internship lacks this level of sophistication, but it’s a start.

***

I arrive an hour early my first day, typically responsible and overly punctual, but already doubting the wisdom in accepting an unpaid job. On one level it’s brilliantly subtle and understated, but on another I feel like such a sucker. Like life, it isn’t forever. I decide that an hour early is too much, and will give other employees further reason to hate me, on top of my working for free. So I kill time in the ground floor Starbucks. A nineteen-year-old barista feigns enthusiasm, asking repeatedly if she can “help the next guest,” as she’s obviously been instructed to do. Apparently there are no longer customers at Starbucks. I briefly consider requesting an extra key-card for room 402, but figure it can’t been any more fun for her to say than it is for me to hear.

I sit in a cushy chair next to a table where a pudgy, bespectacled man in yellow collared shirt sips espresso greedily from paper cup, through small, budded lips. He is a manager, a Starbucks honcho, and in front of him are three teen recruits, anxious to greet more guests for minimum wage. As they give their best sincerely interested looks, he relates his climb to the top.

“The day you have to start paying for college yourself is the day it all changes. I wouldn’t be where I am now, had that never happened.”

Shortly after, I get my first taste for the office. It’s cramped and I’ll be the only male in the room, paid or otherwise. There is a dangerous estrogen factor, apparent in the occasional chopped, curt statement and threateningly affectionate reply. I’m seated next to Doris, a dowdy woman pushing fifty with the air of a quirky, apprehensive outsider, even though she’s been around for years. She laughs nervously when asking to borrow a stapler and attempts to make small talk about the fliers I stuff in envelopes. I am exceedingly polite. Later, one of the guys in the office across the hall relates a story of how Doris “lost it” and lit into an attractive young female intern who was receiving inordinate assistance from the male employees. The story makes me smile.

My first day goes by slowly, but I have new appreciation for the hours after work. They couldn’t put a price on this. On the train home, I think of something my San Francisco friend Dave expressed about his job. “I just don’t want to have to take shit from anyone anymore.” It may be too early to make the call, but I don’t anticipate this problem with Doris.

2003 Rick Monaco All Rights

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