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Bitter is the new black, p.12
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       Bitter is the New Black, p.12

           Jen Lancaster

  Ohmigod, this is going so well! I knew I was on the right track with the phone call business. Granted, no one’s had an open position yet, but everyone I’ve spoken to has been very positive, and a lot of them asked me to send a résumé! Joe Thompson, national sales director at the company I’ve dubbed the Mother Ship,71 wants me to touch base with him every month. Said he “liked my moxie”72 and would speak to me in person as soon as he had an opening. Yay, me! And yay, Wall Street Journal! Which reminds me, I need to go downstairs and get today’s issue.

  I head down the four sets of crazy orange catwalks that lead to the bottom of my building’s atrium. I spotted my paper down there earlier today when I kissed Fletch good-bye at the door, but now it’s gone. Where is it? The atrium is through two sets of locked doors, so it’s not like some deadbeat walking by could pinch my paper. One of my neighbors must have grabbed it by accident. Oh, well. I guess I’ll just pick one up from the newsstand across the street. No biggie.

  One missing paper? Not a problem. Two missing papers? A bit of an oversight. But FIVE missing papers? That the folks at the Journal’s customer service office swear they’ve delivered?? Fletch says I should check with our building’s maintenance department, because it’s probably just the cleaning people tidying up. Uh-huh. A likely explanation. But I know with every fiber of my being that one of the motherfuckers in this building is STEALING MY NEWSPAPER. I am about to get all Sean Penn on these people. How dare they swipe a paper from a penniless unemployed girl? Everyone who lives here is rich. Our parking lot looks like a BMW dealership. We’ve got a couple of doctors in residence, and a gaggle of attorneys. And there’s that girl in 2C who’s an exec officer at the only dot-com to ever turn a profit, with the Mercedes and the boob job, so I know that SHE can afford to buy her own damn paper. I just can’t believe the nerve of these people. Taking someone’s newspaper! How low is that??

  “This needs to stop NOW,” I growl at the customer service rep given the unfortunate task of trying to soothe me.

  “Ma’am, again, I am so very sorry for your trouble. We’ve credited your account, and you won’t have to pay for any of your missing papers,” says the shaken representative. She’s been dealing with me all week. I suspect she drew a short stick somewhere along the line.

  “I do not understand why the paperboy can’t just leave the paper in front of my door. I will tip him generously, so please help me comprehend the nature of the freaking problem.”

  “Ma’am, as I’ve explained, our delivery people have large routes they must cover, and they can’t climb four flights of stairs just to give you your paper.”

  “They can’t just throw it up there? The kid in Better Off Dead threw hard enough to break John Cusack’s garage windows every day, and he was just a little boy. Are you saying that you employ a bunch of girly-armed lazy people who can’t toss a paper to save their lives? Huh, is that what you’re saying?”

  “Ma’am. I-I don’t know how to respond to that.”

  “OK, then answer me this. What would happen if I were to catch my neighbor in the act of pilfering my newspaper? Is that considered burglary? Could I have them arrested?”

  She’s quiet for a minute, and after a deep breath, she says, “Technically, I think so, but, ma’am, don’t you have to live around them? Wouldn’t that be kind of awkward after the fact?”

  I take a quick mental inventory of the neighbors I know. Would I regret it if I were to alienate any of them? Let’s see, the folks in 1A annoy me because they always put up little signs on their door to welcome guests. Sure, it sounds like a nice gesture, except they recycle paper to make said signs, so there’s typing on the flip side of the sheet that shows through their glass door. Why can’t they use a blank piece of paper? If they were the thieves, I wouldn’t miss them OR their stupid signs.

  The King of All Bad Taste just moved into 2D. He offends me because he converted his gorgeous urban loft into a faux country club full of brass trumpets and hunter green fabric and plastic ferns. Ugh! He covered the exposed brick with fake walnut paneling, drywalled the timber ceiling, and enclosed the ductwork. Why not paint a pair of leopard-skin Speedos on the David while you’re at it, you barbarous philistine? So if he’s the culprit? Pas de problème!

  Mr. and Mrs. We-Like-to-Leave-Our-Trashbags-on-Our-Deck in 3F would be no great loss, as I’m convinced we’re going to get raccoons because of their slovenly habits. And Brown-Thumb McKills-Them-All in 4A with the planters full of last summer’s dead hibiscus bugs me, too. And don’t EVEN get me started out the Too-Much-Sexingtons next door. Their busy bedsprings have forced me to sleep with earplugs. How can ANYONE do it that much? Don’t they ever just feel like watching Conan? I am mortified every time I run into them at the mailboxes. Frankly, I’d love it if they were arrested. Maybe I could get one night’s sleep without hearing Barry White through our communal bedroom wall. And the added bonus for them is they have a penchant for handcuffs.

  “You know what?” I tell the customer service person. “That’s an eventuality I’m willing to live with.”

  Lying on my belly in the front hallway, peering out the bottom part of the glass door and angled to see the atrium, I have my binoculars, the cordless phone, and a thermos of coffee handy. I’m on a stakeout and I WILL catch this thief. At daybreak, I snuck downstairs and placed an X on the bag containing my newspaper, and it’s been in my sights for the past hour. I’m actually rather uncomfortable since our floors are highly polished oak, and I’ve had about six cups of coffee already. My bladder is so full that I can feel it pulse with every beat of my heart. How do cops handle stakeouts? Do they, like, go in a Coke can, or do they get to use a bathroom proper? God, I would so love a rest stop right now. MUST QUIT THINKING ABOUT POTTY BREAKS. I can’t take my eye off the atrium.

  Wait, I think I see something…. The guy in 3F has just left his apartment—WHY DON’T YOU PICK UP THAT GODDAMNED TRASH BAG—and is headed down the catwalks. I grab the phone while holding the binoculars steady, fingers itching to dial 911. Aha! He’s stopping to grab a paper! Thief! Thief! You are so busted, motherfu—Oh, damn. He took the USA Today. At least that proves he’s a moron. And I still really have to pee. However, I’ll ignore the physical discomfort because I’m committed to seeing this through.

  Uh-huh, here comes President Jugs out of 2C, bouncing down the stairs. Boing, boing, boing. She just bought an Audi convertible and still has her Mercedes. You’d think with all that extra cash she could afford a bra with decent support. She pauses to take a pull from her travel coffee mug. Oh, please don’t drink that. Can’t stand the idea of more liquid. Am crossing my legs at this point. But I must focus to catch this criminal. And jiggle, jiggle, jiggle, she’s headed for my paper and…walks right past it. She heads out the door and I see her drive away. So she’s innocent. For now.

  A few minutes later, I hear the whoosh of water through the exposed ductwork above me, and I can’t take it anymore. I dash to the nearest bathroom and the dam breaks. Sweet relief! I wash my hands lightning fast. Wiping my hands on my jammies pants as I hurriedly return to my post, I pick up the spyglasses and…



  I missed my thief! I throw open the door and look around, but there’s no one in sight. It’s gone! And I drank all that coffee for nothing.

  Oh, this means war.

  I spend the rest of the morning pacing, plotting, cursing, and sending Fletch instant messages about the best way to seek revenge.

  10:22 a.m. from allaboutjen: I know! I could get some orange paint and pour it all over the paper. Whoever steals it won’t notice because the bag the paper comes in is orange. So when they open the paper they’ll be covered in paint! Ha, ha! And then I will point and laugh when I see them return home in paint-splattered Mark Shale! Huzzah! Payback is a bitch!

  10:26 a.m. from allaboutjen: Or, I could write in big red letters on the back of the paper “I LIKE LITTLE BOYS” so when they go to read the paper on the train
, everyone will think they are a perv. Heh.

  10:31 a.m. from allaboutjen: Six little words: bag full of Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. Is that not perfect?? Victory is mine!

  I send Fletch a total of forty-six IMs, my schemes getting more and more insidious, until he finally responds.

  12:47 p.m. from fletch_at_work: Me=busy. You=fucking lunatic. I beg of you to put this energy to productive use. See a movie, paint the bedroom, find a hobby. But please do something.

  Sheesh. He takes things so seriously.

  I’ve decided to volunteer since it will get me out of the house and provide me with an excellent opportunity to wear my new boots. I tend to yell at homeless people and kids are annoying and germ-ridden, so I set my sights on working at an animal shelter. I found an opportunity in about five minutes going through the classifieds in the Chicago Reader. Wish it were that easy to unearth a paying job! I called the shelter, and the director sounded thrilled to hear from me, and I go to orientation today.

  I show up in my luxurious $600 Mongolian lamb-trimmed coat from Bloomingdale’s73 and a flattering pair of wide-legged trousers teamed with my darling boots. I ask at the front desk for the director. She comes out and I introduce myself. “Hi, Katie. I’m Jen Lancaster. A pleasure to meet you.” I try to give her my firm but friendly power broker shake, but she doesn’t accept my proffered hand.

  “Is that what you’re wearing?” Katie barks by way of greeting.

  “Beg pardon?”

  “That,” she says, gesturing at my ensemble. “Is that what you plan to wear out with the dogs?” Um, hello, rude much?

  “Why? Is this some kind of, I don’t know, naked shelter? Because I’ll have no part of that.”

  “Of course not, but your outfit may not be appropriate to work with the animals.”

  “Why, is it illegal to walk dogs covered in dazzling accoutrements? This is the Gold Coast, for crying out loud. I may see people I know, and I am not going to be out and about dressed like a”—I eye her up and down, noting her cargo pants, work boots, giant watchband, and shapeless, faded sweatshirt…don’t say lesbian, don’t say lesbian—“a janitor.”

  Curt as can be, she snaps, “Fine. Come with me.”

  I follow her to the room where the rest of the new volunteers have gathered for orientation. Again, I’m the only well-dressed person here. Why is that? Do these freaks enjoy looking like the creatures from the bar scene in Star Wars? Regardless, it’s charity, so I’m going be on my best behavior and not make fun of the mutants. Maybe I’ll even try to be friendly.

  Katie passes out a bunch of forms we’re to complete. In an effort to be nice, I begin to chat with the earnest-looking male hippie to my right, “Why the heck are there so many waivers? I mean, how dangerous is it to play with kittens and walk dogs?” The hippie shrugs. I continue. “Besides, I have tons of experience with animals. We’ve had big dogs in my family my whole life. George, our Great Pyrenees, was over one hundred pounds, and so was our Newfoundland, Ted.”

  “Is that right?” the hippie asks, eyes transfixed on his paperwork.

  “Oh, yes, and Nixon? The malamute I adopted in college? He was 130 pounds at his last checkup. Of course, he doesn’t live with me anymore. I stashed him at my parents’ house shortly after I got him because my landlord was showing my apartment.”

  “You don’t say,” he replies.

  “Uh-huh, and as it turned out, Nixon was my father’s soul mate, and Big Daddy wouldn’t give him back at the end of the weekend.”

  The hippie shushes me before I get to tell him if Nixon could bake a decent pumpkin pie, my dad would leave my mom and marry the dog. Huh. Apparently everyone here is ugly AND socially retarded.

  “First, you need to know what makes this organization unique. We’re a no-kill shelter,” Katie says, addressing the group.

  “Oh, that’s nice,” I whisper to the dark-haired girl to my left. She looks all dot-commy with her tattoos and piercings, so I assume she’s an out-of-work Web developer. “I’m so glad that I came. And I’ll get exercise walking these dogs, too. Don’t know about you, but I’ve widened a bit during my unemployment tenure.”

  Katie continues. “We take in animals that other shelters want to euthanize. We work with a lot of abused and abandoned dogs.”

  “What an honorable place this is!” I continue in hushed tones. “I’ll be sure to have my boyfriend write a generous donation check.” Web-dev girl flashes me a look, which is probably of approval.

  “Our specialty is rescuing those used in dogfights. The bulk of the dogs we take in are pit bulls, and your job will be to rehabilitate them.”

  Pit bulls. Pit bulls? Baby-mauling, jaw-locking, people-attacking, dangerous-at-any-speed pit bulls? And ones trained to fight at that? Oh, I don’t think so.

  Just as I’m about to grab my bag and make a dash for the door, Katie says, “I get a lot of sorority types who come in here and waste my time because they didn’t understand what they were getting in to. They think this job is all romping with Lab puppies. I wish they would just LEAVE DURING ORIENTATION”—she glowers in my direction, and then continues—“rather than claim a bunch of volunteer slots and then never show up for them.”

  Everyone in the room is looking at me like I’m a cigarette butt in their salad bar. Great. Now I’ve been challenged, I’m obligated to stay. I open my purse and take out my shiny Dior compact. I figure I may as well get a good look at my face one more time before a rabid pit bull tears it off.

  Want to know something weird? I’m really good at this volunteer stuff. I’ve only been here a few weeks and Katie already trusts me with the level two dogs. That’s an honor because it usually takes six to eight weeks for the volunteers to progress past the docile, easy-to-manage level one dogs. I worked hard to prove myself because I really like the validation of a job well done, even if I’m not getting paid. Also, it’s fun to show up Web-dev girl and Hippie guy, who are still languishing with the easy pups.

  Now that I have my choice of dogs to walk, I gravitate toward the pit bulls. I used to believe the media hype that these are inherently bad dogs, but that’s not the case at all. They LOVE people and are so eager to please, even the ones whose sweet faces are covered with scars from a hundred dogfights. They aren’t evil; they’re just misunderstood.

  Today I waited to take Florence out last so I could spend extra time with her. She’s a beautiful gray pit with a huge smile, sleek cropped ears, and kohl black–rimmed eyes. She’s my favorite. I wore my pretty cashmere twin set, and I bought Florence a pink rhinestone studded collar so that we’d both look stylish cruising around the Gold Coast on our walk.

  On the street we ran into an old Asian man, who took one look at her giant jaws and powerfully muscled body and said, “Oh! Pit bull! Scary!” as he backed away.

  “No, no! She’s very sweet! See?” To prove it, I leaned down and gave her a big kiss on her muzzle. He smiled and gave us a polite bow. Of course, she tried to disembowel a Norwich terrier a couple of blocks later, but who could blame her? I hate little rat dogs, too.74

  When my shift is over and Florence has eaten her own weight in the special treats I brought her from the gourmet doggie bakery, I head up to the office to grab my bag. The room is so packed with pet crates, sacks of dog food, blankets, and toys that I almost don’t notice Katie with her head down on the tiny desk.

  “Katie, what’s the matter?”

  “I just agreed to take a couple more dogs, and I don’t have room for them. None of the people who usually foster can help me because they all have Easter plans. I’ve called everyone on the list, and there’s no one available. What am I going to do?” Katie asks with tears in her eyes. I’m totally over her initial rudeness. She only gets cranky because she wants to save all the stray dogs, and it’s not always possible.

  But maybe today it can be.

  Before I have a chance to remember my beautiful new hand-woven cream-and-taupe rug, I blurt, “Do you need me to take a couple of them?
I mean, just until you have space or they get adopted?”

  Katie knocks her chair over in her haste to hug me. I make arrangements to come back later with the car to pick up a shepherd puppy and a tiny pit bull. I’d walked the shepherd earlier that day, and he was so cute! He looked like a bear cub, black everywhere except for tiny patches of white on his chest and bunghole. As I ride home in the cab, I figure it’s only for a few days and they’re small, so they can’t do too much damage.


  Cost to clean deeply soiled rugs: $200.

  Cost to replace shiny black, stacked-heeled, pilgrim-toed boots: $185.

  Cost to fix every single delicious table and chair leg in the house: $490.

  Life with two shelter dogs: Fucking priceless.

  The puppies, whom we call Bull and Bear since they are being housebroken on the Wall Street Journal, are equal parts endearing and destructive. We’ve become attached to them over the past few weeks. The five to eight minutes a day when they aren’t running around biting each other like escaped mental patients are a lot of fun, though I could do without all the trips up and down the stairs. Since they’re small, they have to make potty anywhere from eight to ten times a day.75

  Bull, the shepherd, is really smart! I’ve already taught him to sit, stay, and shake paws. I refuse to believe that he knew those things when he came into my life and prefer to credit my training prowess.

  Bear, the ten-week-old pit, is an entirely different story. All she does is pee, whine, and beg for snacks. I guess since she was found emaciated, it makes sense that she’s perpetually looking for food. Also? She is not a pretty dog. Her ears point in different directions, she’s practically hairless, and she has an underbite. You know how most puppies are woolly and cute with tiny heads and giant floppy feet? Not Bear. She looks exactly like a regular pit bull, only miniature. And kind of ugly.

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