Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Ides of August

Irene knocks down a tree in Central Park (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
This was initially supposed to be written at the end of July or beginning of August but it got lost in the shuffle. Of course, had I managed to get it out there it would've seemed more than a bit prescient.

Reflecting on the calendar's eighth month as it approached this year, I realized that August has been a particularly stormy, eventful, and often painful month in my personal history. Or at least as far back as my journals go (four years).

August 2007 - After graduating from Pace University in May with a business degree I didn't really want, I set out to try and make some money with it for a little while. I needed to save some funds so as to execute a major cross-country move from New York to San Diego in the near future but I had no desire to wear a sycophantic suit and tie and sell my soul to some dull accounting firm. Most of my classmates immediately went into big accounting jobs in Manhattan with high salaries but I not only wanted to get away from New York City, I wanted to avoid the monotony of a regular office job at all costs.

My resistance was relatively futile. My mom brought up doing temp work and got me a brochure about it. Even though the plastic smiles and business attire of the figures on the pamphlet frightened me, I gave it a shot (I was an unemployed college grad and my parents weren't going to be patient with me mooching off their estate). Over the next few months, I worked a couple of relatively harmless and manageable positions. In July, I was doing accounting work at a chemical manufacturing plant in New Jersey working inside of a little cabin. As bad as that may sound, I enjoyed it. It was laid back, I got to eat lunch outside amid grass and trees, the people were nice and really appreciated my work. Best of all, the workload was small and I was actually able to read and write in between tasks.

Then at the end of the month, after having been acquired by a bigger firm, the company started laying people off and suddenly they had to choose between me and a secretary who had been there for 19 years. I endured the awkwardness of training her to do my job for a couple days and then was let go.

The temp agency found me a new position quickly and I was to spend the month of August working at an egg product manufacturing plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The job was about as shitty as you would imagine from reading that previous sentence. In fact, it was much worse.

My first day coincided with a Nor'easter storm that found me stuck in traffic on the trip from Staten Island to New Jersey and when I did finally make it over to the hideous industrial grid of Elizabeth, my destination was nowhere to be found. I drove around the supposed address a few times screaming curses and stressing out before parking somewhere and calling the temp agency as the skies poured a steady dump of water on my windshield. Apparently, the business had changed their name but didn't bother to change any of the signs displayed outside.

After parking in the crunchy, muddled mess of a rocky parking lot, I stepped knee-deep into a puddle before failing to locate the door to the warehouse where I was to spend the next four weeks. When I did finally make it inside I was soaking wet and an hour late. The warehouse was dark and stunk like eggs. The office where I would work was situated in a little box within the warehouse. They didn't really care how late I was and immediately put me to work.

The job itself was ridiculously easy, leaving me way too much free time after finishing my workload by late morning. My boss was a bipolar Vietnam vet who would often bounce from jovial laughter to furious screaming within the same breath, something I've never encountered before or since. I worked alongside the warehouse forklift drivers, a couple of ex-convicts who treated me like a new piece of meat in prison and constantly, til the very end, gave me shit because I wasn't doing "real" (i.e., physical) work and got to sit at a desk most of the day.

Without even taking into consideration the terrible commute each day (standstill traffic morning and afternoon every single day as cars squeezed onto the narrow Goethals Bridge), it was an absolute nightmare. I was stuck there for the entire month of August before managing to escape in September to one of the best jobs I've ever worked.

August 2008 - Not nearly as bad as some other Augusts, this one was still memorable.

I had been living in San Diego for two months without having established myself at all aside from moving into a little studio apartment. No job, no friends, no idea what the hell I was doing with my life. When I left New York, I only put thought into the journey (a 10-day road trip across 15 states) and focused on getting myself safely to the other side. The rest would figure itself out.

Well, two months had gone by and nothing was figured out. I was drifting aimlessly in unfamiliar territory. Depression started hitting me and often sabotaged any attempt to do anything productive. One night things got so dire that I resorted to a therapeutic session of writing down all my fears, worries, desires, etc. and seeing what came of it. What came of it was the realization that I had a lot to offer and a general plan (soak up knowledge, write books) but no direction.

The solution proffered itself on my notebook pages: contact some universities that fit my mental framework. I started grabbing my favorite recent books off their shelf and looking for the names of universities that had lit a spark of interest for me in the past. Pacifica Graduate Institute, C.G. Jung Institute, California Institute of Integral Studies. I looked up some of their e-mail addresses and started contacting admissions offices. Plenty of responses came in the ensuing days and suddenly I was flying up north to San Francisco to visit schools.

My first experience of the Bay Area was one of the most interesting and memorable times of my life. Initially, I absolutely hated the place. It was cloudy, freezing, windy, reminiscent of the crisp autumns in New York, except it was the middle of August. I roamed around the city in a state of mild depression, raw cold, and confusion. I visited one school and it was an enchanting experience as I befriended the bookstore clerk and he brought me up on the roof to look out at the Bay Area skyline. We talked books for a while and then he left as I sat amid the roof's Zen garden and tried to reflect on all that was happening. "I'm on a rooftop in San Francisco. In a Zen garden."

The trip ended as quickly as it began and there I was back home in San Diego trying to figure out a way to get myself into the school for free. It never happened and three years later, I still haven't gone to graduate school.

August 2009 - Possibly the worst month of my entire life. Shortly after returning from the Bay Area trip one year prior, I finally found a job in San Diego and stayed there for about nine months. It was a great job in many ways, the people were great, the business was interesting, but the pay absolutely sucked. The salary was better than no salary, but I couldn't keep my head above water when it came to monthly bills. Southern California is a very expensive place to live after all. I sought a better job and found one, a place that offered a much bigger salary but demanded a lot more work and, as I would later find out, feats of emotional strength that I couldn't maintain.

It was an office made up entirely of women, mostly attractive women, though not friendly women. The owner of the business was a genius but a loose cannon. She spoke openly about wanting to retire soon and pass the business on. I should mention that this was a highly successful operation with numerous wealthy clients and the owner had become obscenely wealthy herself. (On the day I was hired, she insisted on showing me pictures of her huge house as well as her summer home, which she offered to let me and my girlfriend stay in.) Her minions were eager to please her and inherit whatever she was about to drop them. Suddenly I stepped into the mix and, while just trying to catch on with the fast and complicated operation, understood everything they taught me a little too quickly.

My first day at the job was Bloomsday, June 16th, and by early July I understood the basic mechanics of how things worked. But it was an extremely complicated enterprise with seemingly infinite variables and understanding the basics only meant that I could now begin to learn how everything else worked. I was given a stack of 75 (!) clients and managed to get through about three of them in the first few weeks before hitting a huge wall of complexity with the other clients. But my training was seemingly over. I was reprimanded for asking questions, given snappy, bitchy responses and chided for not getting it.

In late July, I flew back to New York to participate in a hockey tournament that had been arranged long before I started the job. The owner approved of the trip when I was hired, there was supposedly no problem at all with me missing two days of work to play in the tournament.

It was great to be back in New York and skating on a team with all of my good friends who I'd left over a year prior. Playing five games over three days, I somehow had one of the best hockey performances of my life (probably THE best) and led our team to the tournament championship. We lost because of an insurmountably poor performance by our goaltender.

Our goalie for the tournament was my good friend Mike who I'd known since I was about 8 years old. He was two years older than me and played goalie for the first team my older brother ever played on. Our families always car-pooled to the games and I got to know him very well over the years. In college, I joined an intramural team with him and his brother and we played together for the next six years or so, still driving to the games together because we lived in the same part of Staten Island.

Even though we remained friends when I moved to California (he was one of the few people who would call to check up on me), he had changed a lot in the intervening time---he'd gained weight, started smoking cigarettes again, and didn't look well at all. But he did manage to find a new girlfriend who he spoke about endlessly.

When I returned to New York for the tournament, as always, we drove to the games together. It was great because we got to catch up on things after I'd been across the country for a more than a year. Mike's performance in the tournament was all over the place. He singlehandedly won us a game, then fell apart in the next one. Everything collapsed for him in the tournament final. We battled a team from New Jersey in a back-and-forth affair, scoring 10 goals (I had two and assisted two others) but still we found ourselves tied because Mike wasn't stopping anything. We kept falling behind, fighting back, taking the lead, and then falling behind again before finally losing when Mike let in two easy goals at the very end.

My teammates, who had been playing with Mike regularly for the last few months, were furious and they lambasted him for his poor performance after the game. He had no excuse. It was the worst I had ever seen him play. He looked like he was half asleep. In years past, Mike had always complained to me that he had trouble sleeping. Oftentimes, after our late weekday night games, we would often have to pick up some Tylenol PM for him at a gas station so he could manage to fall asleep when he went home.

I drove him home after the final game and he was distraught. I didn't know how to console him other than to suggest that he quit smoking (something I always got on him about) and start exercising again. He agreed. We didn't get to talk much as his girlfriend called him and they had a long, unpleasant conversation. He argued with her the whole way home. Mike's birthday was coming up and they wanted to go out to have dinner together, but neither of them had a car (a recent accident had wrecked his only means of transportation) and Mike didn't have the money to pay for a cab. Neither did she. It was ugly.

Right before I dropped him off I calmly told him to stop yelling at his girlfriend because it seemed he was taking his hockey frustrations out on her. He hung up and we said our goodbyes as I dropped him off. As he dragged his goalie equipment into his house I looked at him feeling a deep sadness and regret. I couldn't help him. I had tried to help him for years and he wouldn't listen and now I was flying back to California when my friend seemed to need me the most.

Two weeks later, on August 14th, my ringing cell phone woke me up 6 AM. It was Mike's brother. Mike was dead. He went to sleep and didn't wake up. It was two weeks after his 26th birthday.

At this point my job had gotten pretty bad. When I returned from the tournament in New York, everyone seemed mad at me. I heard them talking about me down the hall saying things like "maybe he should work harder or stop missing work for hockey." My days were numbered. The day I learned of Mike's death, I was in shock, didn't cry at all, and went on in to work to endure the bullshit. A day or two later, the owner left to go spend a week at her vacation home and all hell broke loose.

The girls turned a shade of evil that reminded me of the demonic females that flanked Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate. The main devilwoman, the owner's main lieutenant, warned me that if I didn't step it up at work I would be fired. Yet when I asked her a question about a complex project, she yelled "can't you see I'm busy!" and didn't allow me any of her time again until it was after 5 PM and everyone went home. I had gotten a cold that was becoming increasingly worse with all the stressful drama and as I sat in her office I blew my nose in a handkerchief. She looked up with an annoyed glare and snarled, "Did you just throw your snot in my garbage?"

A day or two later I had descended into a bad fever but couldn't miss work because my job was seemingly hanging by a string. Mike's death had finally sunk in and I was having moments where I'd burst into uncontrolled tears as his voice and image haunted me. The rest of August was spent in a state of physical and emotional decay. Everyday I woke up to liquid snot pouring out of my nose and it lasted throughout the day. Combined with a steady stream of tears in grievance for my lost friend, I was a pretty pathetic sight.

On the final day of August I sent the boss a scathing letter of resignation, detailing the way her sycophantic soldiers had sabotaged my position and never saw any of them again. The whole experience inspired me to turn my journey into an autobiographical novel and soon this blog was born as a means to hone my writing.

August 2010 - Another trip back to New York. This one was so eventful and thought-provoking that I've been meaning to compose a huge essay about it but something keeps holding me back from it. I haven't even managed to write the whole story down in a journal. The whole thing was surreal and, as time passes and I don't transcribe it all, the experience becomes "fabled by the daughters of memory."

Shortly after her birthday (one day after Mike's birthday, actually) my grandmother died. She had just turned 101 years old. The interesting thing about it is that it happened the same day my brother and I were to fly to New York from California for my nephew's baptism. He was to be baptized in a fountain that my devoutly religious grandmother had funded with a big donation to the church.

It was all a pretty magical experience with lots of instances of synchronicity once we got there. Since this post is already exceedingly long, I don't want to go into all the details now except to mention that my nephew was baptized and my grandmother buried on the same day. It was all quite surreal and, as the creative/artistically sensitive person in the family, it really struck me. I wrote my grandmother's eulogy and my sister delivered it.

Just this morning I drove my sister to the airport at 5 AM to conclude her visit here in Austin. She had been at a business conference last week and then stopped over here to pay me a visit since I haven't seen any of my family members since January. Interestingly enough, she avoided all the natural disaster drama in New York.

The last few Augusts have pretty rough on me but this one, despite being busy and leaving me sleep-deprived, has been relatively peaceful. But my hometown was rumbled by an earthquake and then battered by a hurricane. In fact, Staten Island bore the brunt of the storm worse than any other part of New York City. I'm just glad the month is almost over.

1 comment:

  1. You've got some good story material here. Pack it all away and it will serve you well.

    I'm okay with August, but I have had some very rocky Fourth of Julys.