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Bitter is the new black, p.26
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       Bitter is the New Black, p.26

           Jen Lancaster
 

  I settle in front of the television in an attempt to get my mind off our situation. I’m flipping through the channels when the face of another one of my stupid choices appears. Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN, is on and I’m suddenly reminded of our interview when I was in college.

  Brian was my friend Dee Dee’s uncle and, from what I understood, a damn fine one at that. He doted on Dee, and if she asked him to interview one of her friends as a favor, often he would. Although getting the internship was contingent on the applicant’s talents, he’d always give her friends a chance.

  As a poli-sci major, I salivated at the thought of working for C-SPAN. So when Dee told me the date he’d be in town (and planned to have dinner at the restaurant where we worked), I knew I’d have the opportunity to meet him and would happily pimp myself for a job.

  We didn’t have a formal sit-down planned. Brian didn’t know we’d be meeting. I was too chickenshit to ask for a proper interview because I thought I’d be more natural in a social setting, so Dee agreed to just spring me on him. When my shift ended and I waited for him to make an appearance, I had a quick cocktail to calm my nerves. I wanted to be confident and relaxed. If I met him in the state I was in, I’d seem like an anxiety-ridden basket case and no one gives internships to mental girls. I had one tiny Johnnie Walker Black Scotch and soda because I was too nervous to eat.

  After my drink, I felt less tense, but thought that maybe one more drink would make me even more confident. I mean, really, this was my career we were talking about! I had an obligation to present myself in the best possible light, so yes, please, add another Johnnie Black to my tab. Imagine, then, how much better I felt after drinks three, four, and five! By the time Brian came in, I was relaxed, let me tell you.

  Dee led me over for the big introduction. This was my chance! My whole postgraduate future loomed before me! If I played my cards right, I could turn a C-SPAN internship into an entry-level job with a lobbying firm, at which I’d excel. I’d quickly go from lackey to power broker, and all the most important folks in Washington would have me on speed dial. “Oh, yes,” they’d say. “J.A. Lancaster’s the person to call to get things done.” I figured I’d go by my initials because they’re gender neutral. And then? When I showed up in a fabulously short skirt and long jacket? I’d blow their minds, and all the rich men in the office would want to take me out to dinner, where I’d floor them with the one-two punch of beauty and brains, and they wouldn’t bat an eye when I ordered both the pistachio crème brûlée AND the chocolate lava cake because I wanted “just a small taste” of both.

  I’d be the toast of Washington and news shows would clamor to make me a special correspondent. I’d tool around the Beltway in a convertible and a pillbox hat, having single-handedly resurrected Jackie Kennedy’s Camelot style. I’d live in a deluxe town house in Georgetown, just like Murphy Brown, and I’d have two giant, slob-bery bulldogs who I’d name Winston and Churchill. The Washington Post would name me “D.C.’s Most Eligible Bachelorette.” Next thing you know I’d be Mrs. Senator So-and-so and my soirees would be so cool that Us Weekly would cover them. Then my husband would get an ambassadorship somewhere really awesome like Fiji, and I could live out my golden years tanning on the beach with lots of white-jacketed butlers bringing me drinks served in pineapples so I wouldn’t dehydrate.

  Envisioning my glorious sun-soaked future, and with a great deal of confidence, I looked Brian Lamb square in the eye and said the three little words that would seal my fate with C-SPAN.

  “I likessshh Congresssshh!”

  Brian shook my hand like a trooper and returned to his meal, surreptitiously dabbing my spittle from his brow with a napkin.

  There would be no big house in Fiji for this Congress-liking political scientist.

  And I learned that without doubt regret-based hangovers are the worst.

  Without stopping to consider my actions, I grab an empty laundry basket and march straight to the closet. I toss a pile of expensive purses and outerwear into it, then immediately go to the computer to pull up my eBay account. Within half an hour, I’ve listed everything but my Prada bag for auction.

  I’m keeping it as a living reminder never to be stupid again.

  Today I managed to get Fletch out of bed before noon, so we’re watching The Price Is Right together. I’ve become obsessed with this show and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because watching TPIR reminds me of being a kid home for summer vacation when my only concern was which bathing suit I’d wear to our swim club later that day. Or maybe it’s just nice to see happy people. I swear I tear up every time someone wins a car, especially if the person is elderly or in a military uniform.162

  I’m so into the show that conversation is only allowed during the commercials. At the first break, I ask Fletch, “What did Bill say?”

  I’ve called our landlord repeatedly for the past six weeks to complain about our air-conditioning. Or lack thereof. Each time I talk to him, he politely brushes me off, explaining that our AC unit is new and top of the line and couldn’t possibly be malfunctioning. It finally occurred to me that Bill might be one of those men who prefer to discuss business with other men, so I had Fletch call him right before the show started.

  “He said he’d send the contractor over right away.”

  “Ha! I told you he was a misogynist.”

  “Misogyny isn’t the problem, Jen. I suspect your explanation may have been faulty.”

  “Pfft. I told him fifteen times the blowery thing worked fine but it never made the big whoosh full of cold, cold air so the pipes didn’t get sweaty and the issue was a lack of the chilly-making juice. I said we probably just needed another box of neon like we did when our AC was out in Lincoln Park. I’m not sure how I could have expressed the problem more clearly.”

  Fletch rolls his eyes. “I stand corrected.”

  “Did I tell you my mom called first thing this morning?”

  “No. What did she have to say?”

  “I got the ‘You have to do something’ speech again. I told her about selling the car and my purses and coats, and then I read her the list of all the places I’d applied, yet she still wasn’t satisfied. She kept repeating, ‘You have to do something,’ and I pictured her clutching her knees, rocking back and forth, all hot-water-burn-baby-like. I finally hung up on her because she was giving me an anxiety attack.”

  “Sometimes I can’t believe she’s a licensed therapist.”

  I shrug. “She’s really good in a professional setting. But with me it’s like ‘The cobbler’s children have no shoes.’ Remember when she didn’t hear from me for a few days, and she wanted to send Todd up to Chicago to look for me?”

  “Weren’t you traveling on business that week?”

  “Yes, and that would have been any normal person’s natural assumption. Instead, she thought I’d run away from home.” Bob reappears. “Shh—it’s on.”

  The next contestant wins a trip onstage by bidding $2 when the person before her bid $1. “That’s dirty pool, missy!” I shout at the television.

  “What just happened?” Apparently Fletch did not spend his childhood stalking Bob Barker, which probably contributed to why it was such an unhappy one.

  “When the first few contestants bid an amount that seems too high, another contestant can choose to bid $1. Which is fine. It’s almost a guaranteed win, and it’s a good strategy when competing with morons who have no idea how much stuff costs. What’s not fine is when a $1 bid is followed by a $2 bid, which totally screws the $1 person.”

  “Doesn’t the $2 person generally win with that maneuver?”

  “Yes, and that’s why it’s wrong. Look…see? That jackass just won the washer and dryer. Hmph. I hope she gets the putting challenge. No one ever wins the putting challenge.”

  Fletch yawns deeply. “Explain to me again why it was so important that I get out of bed to see this.”

  Before I can answer, the dogs start to go wild Vegas-style. I peer out the window and se
e a guy wearing a tool belt bending over our air-conditioning unit with a giant screwdriver. Unfortunately, it’s not the kind of wild you’d hope for when a total stranger appears unannounced on your deck, holding a blunt instrument. It’s more of a tail-wagging, dance-in-your-pants, could-this-be-the-happiest-momentin-all-of-canine-history? sort of wild. The dogs had this same exact reaction when the crackhead pulled a rubber knife on Fletch when we lived in Bucktown…utter and complete joy at the pleasure of making the vagrant’s acquaintance.

  “So much for their careers as guard dogs,” I say.

  Fletch goes outside to talk to the contractor while I watch the end of the show. The jackass makes it to the showdown and totally overbids on her showcase, which includes a new car and a boat. HA! Justice is served.

  “You won’t believe what the problem was.”

  “What?”

  “No one hooked our unit up to an electric source after it was installed. Although we could get the fan to run because of the furnace, it wasn’t connecting to the AC’s compressor, which is chilled by freon, hence all the warm air. The contractor’s putting in a fuse now so we should be up and running within the hour.”

  I mull over this information. “What you’re telling me is the blowery thing worked fine but it never made the big whoosh full of cold, cold air so the pipes didn’t get sweaty and the issue was a lack of access to the chilly-making juice. Which means I was right.”

  Fletch nods. “Too bad Bill doesn’t speak gibberish, or this could have been resolved weeks ago.”

  I’ve feared this day for many months. But each time our savings dipped to the level where possibility turned to reality, some sort of miracle occurred such as the arrival of a long-lost commission check and I was able to stave off the inevitable. I consider myself lucky to have been able to hold out for a professional job as long as I have.

  But the day has come.

  It is time…to work retail.

  I imagine the hiring process will be easier for a retail job. Instead of being asked about my five-year plan, I’ll simply have to confirm I can work on Saturdays and can lift fifty pounds. To land the gig, there’s a good chance I won’t have to do a PowerPoint presentation about market segmentation because their potential customers will be the ones who walk through the door. Although I don’t know that a retail job will be easy, I’m confident that the search parameters will be a lot less stringent.

  I’m off…. Wish me luck.

  * * *

  To: Michigan Avenue Pottery Barn

  From: [email protected]

  Date: May 3, 2003

  Subject: Sales Associate

  Hello,

  Attached you’ll find my resume sent in con sideration for open positions within Pottery Barn.

  I’m an ideal candidate for employment because I paid my way through college by working retail.163 I have almost seven years of retail experience and became famous within my old company for creating the “Ten Commandments of Customer Service.” I’m particularly proud of Commandment Seven—If a customer tells you to dance, strap on your tap shoes and ask if they’d prefer show tunes.

  I seek retail work now because I’ve gotten off the corporate fast track. When I was laid off from an executive position back in 2001, I worked a variety of temporary assignments 164while searching for a position commensurate with what I had. But in so doing, I discovered I had a passion for writing and now getting published is my priority.165

  However, I can’t write all the time, so I seek a part-time retail position. Pottery Barn is the natural choice for me as it’s my favorite store, not only for the merchandise, but also because of the service provided by its team members.166 And with my service background, I could never work for a store that didn’t treat its customers well.167

  I’d be delighted to discuss my qualifications in person, should any opportunities be available.

  Best,

  Jennifer A. Lancaster

  * * *

  I haven’t heard a peep from any of the stores where I applied last week. I think I may have gone in smacking of anxiety with a bit of crazy about the eyes. Today I’m changing my tactics. Maybe if I look like I don’t need a job, my indifference will drive them MAD to hire me.

  I stack all my jeweled bracelets on my wrists, make my hair big, and exchange my very average-sized wedding ring for the one Lagos ring I haven’t yet sold. It’s a large white topaz, and everyone assumes it’s a gigantic diamond. I put on a cute-but-casual khaki skirt and the new sweater my mother got me last month—the only truly stylish-right-this-second item I own at the moment—and squirt myself with my few remaining drops of J’Adore Dior. (I hope it’s enough to cover up the stink of desperation.)

  I sail out of a cab and into Barnes & Noble on State Street. I chat up the information booth guy and, in what’s supposed to look like an afterthought, ask for an application in my best bored-society-wife-looking-for-a-bit-of-a-diversion-and-if-this-doesn’t-work-out-I’ll-just-nail-the-gardener voice.

  I turn in the application with a flourish, cursed Prada bag causally slung on my shoulder, an iced latte clutched in my freshly manicured (by me) hand. I assure the desk guy again what a jolly good lark this working thing would be for a restless, kept woman, before sauntering out the door.

  Then I walk ten blocks to the bus stop so I won’t have to pay an extra thirty cents for a transfer.

  Faux casual didn’t work either.

  Now what?

  “Why is someone calling us so late on a Wednesday? It must be after midnight.” I glance at the caller ID.

  “Who is it?” Fletch is half in the bag on a school night. I tolerate this solely because it’s about the only time he smiles or laughs anymore.

  “Dunno. We don’t know anyone with a cell phone in the 630 area code, right?”

  “Probably a wrong number. Let voice mail get it.”

  A minute after the phone rings, we hear the doorbell.

  “What the hell?” I ask. I look out the back window and see a couple of unfamiliar cars idling in our parking lot. “Fletch, what’s going on?”

  “I don’t know. I’ll go down and answer the door.”

  “Here, take this.” I thrust a rolling pin at him.

  “Do you want me to bake them a pie? I’ll be fine.” He heads downstairs to the front door.

  I stand by the phone, ready to call the police. I see Fletch walk out to his SUV and talk to the small group of people gathered around it. One of the guys appears to have a badge. Exactly what is going on here? Did these guys catch someone trying to steal our car? Uh-oh, I hope our insurance is up-to-date. Fletch handles all our bills but I’m starting to wonder what kind of job he’s been doing. Lately we’ve gotten calls from bill collectors, although Fletch swears it’s by mistake.

  I watch as he begins to take items out of the car. He makes a small pile of CDs and his emergency road repair kit. Then I see him take his keys out of his pocket and hand them to the man with the badge. Mr. Badge gets into the car and starts it, slowly backing out of our parking space.

  A couple of minutes later, Fletch returns.

  “What is going on? Who were those people? Why did he have a badge? Where is he going with our car?”

  Fletch silently goes to the fridge, gets out another beer, and lights the first cigarette I’ve ever seen him smoke inside the house. He sits down heavily on the couch and puts his face in his hands. I rush to his side.

  “Fletch, what just happened to your car?”

  Fletch puffs slowly and pensively on his cigarette, finally answering, “It was repossessed.”

  “I don’t understand. We’re current on the car payment.”

  “Jen, we’re not current on anything.”

  “What do you mean?” I look at him, waiting for a reaction, but he sits motionless. “Wait. Are you saying the repossession wasn’t a mistake? What do we have to do to get it back?”

  “We have to pay off the loan in full.”

  “Which is how much?”


  “$7000, which is approximately $6995 more than we have. The car is gone. We’re not getting it back.”

  I sit quietly for a few minutes, absorbing the information. “But what are we going to do without a car? How are either of us going to get a job without a car?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “If you didn’t pay the car note, then what about the rest of our bills? Are we still OK? You said we’d be OK on bills for a while.”

  “I lied. I haven’t paid a lot of them in a couple of months. All the money we have has gone toward rent and utilities.”

  I walk into Fletch’s office and find a stack of unopened letters marked Delinquent, Past Due, and Third Request. “Why didn’t you open these?”

  “I knew we couldn’t pay them, so I didn’t bother.”

  “Honey, why didn’t you talk to me about any of this?”

  “I didn’t want to worry you.” Fletch drops his cigarette in an empty beer bottle, where it fizzles for a couple of seconds.

  “So what can I do now to help?”

  “I don’t know, Jen. I just don’t know.”

  * * *

  To: [email protected]

  From: David

  Date: June 12, 2003

  Subject: Idiots with Jobs

  A year ago my wife and I got laid off from two different companies in the same week. Like you, the money runs thin eventually. So I am driving down Long Island wondering what I can do about it and I come upon a diner advertising for people. Well, shit, I thought, I will give that a go.

  Apparently not.

  Apparently you can’t get a job in a diner until you’ve had a number of years experience, or so the toothless wonder who ran the place informed me. “Oh no, you don’t wait tables in a 3 million dollar diner straight off.” So it would appear that while I was out there running 50 million dollar computer operations in Europe and the US, I was actually wasting my time. I should have been in Mamma’s Greasy Poke Shoppe paying my dues for my future career.

 
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