My first real job was in the PR department of a financial corporation in Manhattan. I was as out of context as a nun buying a condom. I had a ‘Noo Yawk’ accent around people who sounded like Thurston Howell III. Managers there mocked the new CEO — he bailed out the company…but he used ketchup in the executive dining room.
I was a secretary, but the first in my family to have a corporate job. I had to make coffee, but I had great PR program ideas and I ran them. Secretarial work was just paying my dues. After writing a program proposal for a large philanthropy, it was time to make my move. I asked Jeff, my boss, how to go about it. He told me to write a Hay Group Proposal.
I had never heard of a Hay Group outside of a cowboy movie. After weeks crafting my proposal, I handed it in and pictured my promotion being weighed by guys in spats and monocles, like the rich guy in Monopoly. A few days later, Jeff’s little white moustache drooped a bit as he told me the answer was no. “No room in our budget and our headcount for another ‘exempt employee,’” he said.
But magically enough, the very next week the tumblers aligned and the doors opened for a loan officer for Latin America. This guy joked about the limos, packed with girls and champagne, waiting for him at the airport in Rio. His only brush with public relations was hiding his out-of-town activities from his wife. Apparently the Hay Group was okay with that.
My friends told me “Whatever goes around comes around,” and bought me another round. It was blatantly unfair, but I finally got the memo: I could have raised Marilyn Monroe from the dead to endorse a new credit card but the next day I’d still be making coffee. I was NOKD.
I quickly found a PR agency job and left. Sometimes, though, I’d fall asleep hoping one of those guys would be found in a limo with a dead hooker in the trunk.
Fate steps in
About a year later, Jeff called me about meeting for a drink. We hadn’t shared so much as a saltine when we worked together, and if this was a Ninth Step move it should be coffee, not cocktails. I was certainly curious.
We met in the lobby bar of the Algonquin. (Was the limo waiting outside his?) It took a few minutes before he came out with it. He was being downsized. Were there any openings at my agency? Or any agency? Could I brief him on what agency life was like? Could I suggest some ‘smart things” he could say in interviews?
For just a second — just because it was too perfect — I wondered what – or who – was in the trunk of the limo outside the hotel.
My Sicilian temperament was in the red zone, somewhere between indignation and jubilation so I excused myself and went to the ladies room to plot The Big Payback. The story was too good to keep, so I told every woman there. They high fived me. They grabbed other women coming in and said “Listen to this!” Some left and came back with friends. The Big Payback was like Christmas for them, because it wasn’t just mine — it was theirs, too. It was for everyone blocked for promotions or stuck in jobs below their abilities because they didn’t have the ‘right’ background or college diploma, or had a Lower East Side patois or a Bronx honk…or maybe…just because they were different from the white males who ran the show.
Everyone in the ladies room was jubilant. They were ready to carry me out on their shoulders. Everyone had advice: some suggested the bludgeon (“Throw the drink in his face!”); others favored the needle (“Tell him to ask that Banking guy for a job!”).
I chose my weapon carefully, and picked….the shiv. The improvised weapon of choice for underdogs.
I went back to my seat, ordered a very expensive drink, and looked around the room. Eager faces glanced my way, waiting to see the outcome — our outcome.
”Well, Jeff” I said, after a thoughtful sip, “I work at a small agency. It’s a lean operation. There’s no time for a learning curve. All the agencies I know are like that. Besides,” I said, leaning forward, “You’re a corporate guy. You would never be happy in agency life. It’s such a jungle.”
And I smiled with just the right amount of regret. And malice.
He nodded with an expression that said “Yep, I had that coming,” made a few minutes of small talk, picked up the check, and left. I glanced around the room and raised my glass in a silent salute, and saw, scattered around the room, knowing glances exchanged as they raised their glasses in return.
It’s great to be there when it finally does come around. But how sweet to be the one who can finally, and personally even the score. With interest.
But don’t get me started about that.