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Bitter is the new black, p.8
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       Bitter is the New Black, p.8

           Jen Lancaster

  Today has been particularly bewitching. We had one of those glorious Indian summer dawns you never forget. Warm but not humid and the light was beautifully muted. Fat bees buzzed around my wave petunias, and the smell of rosemary and basil from my herb garden was intoxicating. I sipped and gazed and it was totally Zen.

  I decide to brush up on financial news before my interview, so I head to my home office and switch on CNBC’s Squawk Box. I love Squawk Box! Every morning I learn something useful from their colorful array of analysts. There’s Bald Guy, Handlebar-Mustache Guy, Faboo Power Suit Gal, and Silly Accent Guy, plus a bunch of other funny, smart people who make the world of high finance interesting and accessible.

  My goal someday is to be the foremost expert in my field and have big-time cutie David Faber interview me. But since I’m cool and totally a show insider from watching religiously, I’ll call him by his nickname, the Brain. (Hey, maybe I could become one of their regular industry analysts and they’d come up with a clever moniker for me! The Wall Street Diva, perhaps?)

  From the CNBC studio, it appears to be a glorious morning in New York, too. Mark Haines, the show’s straight man, delivers his broadcast flawlessly, his soothing tones comforting me while I read my e-mail. Retard-y Arty has an asinine question about product features, and instead of looking them up on the shared drive, where I keep them for just such an occasion, he wants ME to find the information. Yeah, pal. I’ll get right on it. What else? A couple of the Texan AEs want me to join them for lunch meetings next week. Let’s see…YES to lunch at NoMi, and an adamant I DON’T THINK SO to lunch at Chili’s. Ick…who takes a client to Chili’s? Ryan’s e-mail wishes me big, screaming bunches of luck today—oh, isn’t he sweet? One of the stupid PR girls needs—

  Wait a minute. What just happened?

  It’s been a week and I’ve barely eaten or slept. All I can do is watch the horrifying images again and again on my television. Even when I close my eyes, I see buildings crumbling and streets filled with debris. I’m devastated. I can’t stop thinking about the victims. How many other girls put on their new shoes that morning, excited to go to work in the World Trade Center on such a beautiful fall day? How many moms and dads placed hand-packed lunches they would never eat in Pentagon refrigerators? How many of my favorite Squawk Box analysts didn’t make it out of their tower offices in time? How many children boarded planes bound for Disneyland, not knowing they’d never see Mickey’s parade?

  Like most Americans, I’m back at work,48 but I’m a total zombie. I can’t concentrate. Today’s my first day in the office, and each time I hear a noise, I’m sure it’s a plane headed for my window. I took a Xanax and I’m still shaking like a Chihuahua.

  I am NOT here by choice. Kathleen’s upset with our recent level of activity, so she called everyone in for a phone blitz. Yes, because NOTHING SIGNIFICANT happened last week on 9/11, and our meeting numbers fell because we were all goofing off. I am beyond outraged. People aren’t even buried yet, and we’re supposed to smile and dial, begging for business while pretending everything is just super! And maybe this initiative would have been more effective a month ago when we were busy doing her homework?

  That woman is the devil.

  It’s been two weeks and life feels a tad more normal. Planes are flying again, prime-time television started broadcasting its fall season, and this morning I kind of yelled at a homeless guy for touching my skirt. People are beginning to bitch about how long it takes to get through the building’s increased security. However, I didn’t complain when armed guards spent five minutes examining the under-side of my SUV for bombs. Do whatever it takes, guys. I finally went on a sales call, and it was actually fine. Of course, we spent the first fifteen minutes discussing how trite we felt talking about business, so that made it easier.49

  I’m at my desk going over ’02 business projections when my phone rings. I jump at the sound because my nerves are still on edge. The number on caller ID is unidentifiable. Ugh, these are never happy calls. They’re either angry clients or clueless technicians, and I don’t care to deal with either right now. I hesitate before retrieving the handset.

  “Jen Lancaster speaking.”

  “Jen, how are you?” a voice lightly tinged with a Southern accent asks.

  “I’m doing well, thanks.” The voice is familiar but I can’t place it.

  “Listen, Jen, it’s John O’Donnell, and I need to talk to you about something important.”

  Hmm…John O’Donnell is the vice president of the whole Southern sales region. Being part of the Midwest, I’m in no way under his chain of command, so I have no clue why he’s calling me and sounding so cagey.

  “Sure, what’s up?” I ask cautiously.

  “Jen, we had to make a very difficult decision today. There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m going to tell you flat out: We’ve eliminated Laurel’s position.”

  You dirty rat fucks!! Laurel rocked, and you all know it! It’s all I can do not to tell him off. But somehow, I manage to stay professional. Through gritted teeth, I say, “I’m really sorry to hear that. Laurel was an integral part of our group and I’ll miss her. But I appreciate your telling me this yourself.” No, really, why are you telling me this? Does this mean I’m fired, too, you fat bastard?

  “You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you this.” Bingo. “Well, we can’t leave the South without a product manager, so we’re promoting you. As of today, you’re in charge of the South and the Midwest. You’ve proved yourself to be a valuable asset to this organization, and we want to do whatever it takes to keep you.”

  “Well, John, it’s gratifying to have my work recognized. Also, I spoke with Ryan yesterday, and I hear he’s volunteered to take on some AE’s duties where needed. If you need me to do this in Chicago, please let me know. I’ll do my part to make sure we stay competitive and successful.”

  “Jen, I do believe you’re the future of this company.”

  Just as I’m about to say thanks, I sneeze loudly into the phone. “Ahhchoo!”

  “You’re welcome. Let’s touch base next week to discuss your travel schedule. Bye, Jen,” he says and hangs up.

  “God bless me,” I reply, replacing the phone in its cradle.

  And even though the speculation makes me feel like a terrible, awful, shallow person at a time like this, I wonder if I’ll get a raise.

  Because I kind of want that couch again.

  I took my first sick day ever at Corp. Com. yesterday. After I got off the phone with John, I felt congested and achy and decided I needed a day for myself. I’m not superimmune or anything, and I get sick all the time. But I’ve never had the opportunity to call in and not actually still work.50

  I rested in the morning and went to see the new John Cusack movie in the afternoon. I mixed Nestle Crunch minis with popcorn and enjoyed my salty-sweet downtime thoroughly until I saw a shot of the New York skyline. They must have reedited the movie before release last week because the towers were gone. So much for the escapist nature of movies.

  I tried to get back into Birchton & Co. for another interview just in case, but they’re mad at me for canceling on 9/11. Gosh, I’m sorry. How rude of me to be more concerned with the potential Armageddon than talking about the best cover art for your clients’ annual reports. Oh, well. They’re probably jerks, and I’m better off not working there. Besides, from what John said on Monday, my job is totally safe.

  It’s seven a.m., and as usual, I’m the only one here. After flicking on the lights, I sort through the pile of yesterday’s accumulated mail on my chair. I work uninterrupted for the next hour and a half before the next employee arrives. Kathleen flounces in around nine thirty—way to set the example, BOSS. Her face darkens when she sees me and she doesn’t return my greeting. Hey, thanks for asking. I am feeling much better this morning!

  I’m knee-deep in a cost-benefit analysis spreadsheet when Kathleen approaches. “Jen, I need to talk to you.”

  “Sure, just a sec. I’
ve got all this data I’m crunching, so if you don’t mind, I’ll finish off this column and—”

  “That wasn’t a request.”

  Bitch. Someone’s off her meds again.

  I follow her to her office and watch as she closes the door behind us. I haven’t been able to see in here since she installed blinds. She said it was so she could use her breast pump during the day, but I suspect napping. What a mess! There are stacks and stacks of paper piled two feet high around empty filing cabinets, their drawers thrown open. Her desk is littered with textbooks, covered with discarded Starbucks cups, and smeared with nasty coffee rings. And is that a dirty ashtray I spy? For God’s sake, she’s still breast-feeding. When her kid can’t do math because she smoked, she’d better not come crying to me.

  Without blinking an eye, Kathleen says, “We’re letting you go.”

  “Excuse me?” This is a joke or a prank of some sort. I surreptitiously glance around for a camera.

  “We’ve eliminated your position.”

  “You’re kidding, right? I spoke with O’Donnell two days ago, and he told me I was promoted. He said I was the future of this company.”

  “We’ve had a change of plans.”

  “What do you mean ‘a change of plans’? How do I go from getting promoted to fired in forty-eight hours?!?” I am astounded. She’s actually serious.

  “You aren’t fired. You’re laid off.”

  “Thank you. That’s a really comforting distinction.”

  “There’s no reason to be snotty, especially since we’re being so generous with your severance package. Now, if you’ll just look here—”

  “Whoa, wait a minute. Don’t talk to me about my package. I want to hear the thought process behind this decision. And I think I have every reason to be snotty, as you so succinctly put it. I work at least sixty hours a week for you with no overtime, and I spend half my weekends in this office. I’m the first one here in the morning and the last to leave.”

  “Jen, you don’t understand the bigger—”

  “Excuse me. I’m not finished. Yesterday was my first sick day in the year I’ve been employed here. Sales in my lines are up one hundred sixty percent and I won the national market leadership award. I created our entire marketing platform. My business plan was sent out as required reading to every single sales manager in the company. In light of my accomplishments, I would really appreciate knowing exactly what went awry.”

  She starts, “Well, since 9/11, we don’t really know what’s going to happen and—”

  I interrupt. “Do NOT blame this decision on terrorists, OK? If anything, the attack will INCREASE demand for my Web-based products because people will travel less. I’m sorry, but that line of reasoning simply does not compute. I demand you level with me. I’m owed that much.”

  “It was a business decision.” She shrugs and fumbles a cigarette out of one of her piles.

  “Do you know how many friends I’ve lost since I started working here because I didn’t have time for them? Do you understand what I’ve given up in my personal life in order to come this far? I’ve gone above and beyond the line of duty in this job every single day, so I think I’m entitled to more than ‘It was a business decision.’”

  “Jen, what can I say? It was a business decision, and I’m sorry.”

  “Don’t tell me you’re sorry when you’re not. Your patent lack of sincerity makes me sick,” I snarl. “But I don’t want to leave here without an answer. Please explain where things went sideways for me. Was it because my child care issues kept me from putting in a full forty hours? Or is it that I squandered company resources doing my MBA homework? Or that I had wholly inappropriate conversations about the dissolution of my marriage to my underlings? Oh, no, wait, that was YOU. So, frankly, I don’t have a fucking clue why I no longer have a job with Corp. Com. and you still do.” I am livid.

  Kathleen tries to stare me down, but I see the slight quiver in her chin. With a trembling hand and wavering voice, she gives me a piece of paper. “Now if you’ll just sign this form saying you’ll make no further claims against the company, I can release your severance check to you.”

  I read the document. In addition to holding the company harmless, I have to pledge never to speak ill of the organization or else they can take back my check. Fine, whatever. I sign the document because, really? I have no other choice. I push the form back with so much force a cold cup of coffee spills onto one of Kathleen’s textbooks. She ignores it and hands me a thin envelope.

  I tear it open and examine the enclosed check.

  It’s made out for one week’s salary.


  A full year of pushing myself to the limit is worth one week’s pay? I missed my niece’s birth for one week’s pay? I gave up my best friend’s wedding for one week’s pay? I skipped every major holiday with my family last year for one week’s pay? I have to cough up $300 a month to cover up all the gray hair I’ve gotten from job stress for one week’s pay??51 I imagine I’ll be violating the “not speak ill” clause very soon.

  “This is bullshit and we both know it,” I state in a matter-of-fact voice. “And at some point, Corp. Com. will discover exactly how worthless you are.”

  Her eyes damp, Kathleen barks, “We’re done here. I’ll give you a few minutes to clear out your desk, and then I have to escort you off the premises.”

  Silently, I stalk out of her office and return to my cubicle, where I promptly purge every single document I ever wrote from my computer. I created them on my time, and I’ll be damned if someone else is going to benefit from my intellectual property. Zing! There go all my spreadsheets. Zap! See ya in hell, cross-referenced customer database! Bing! Good-bye, case studies! Poof! Au revoir, award-winning marketing material! And just for good measure, I wipe out my entire hard drive with a trick Fletch taught me. They’re going to need computer forensics to retrieve any of my information. For a minute, I consider bringing down the entire network, but I restrain myself.52

  I toss my cell phone, PDA, and office keys on the desk, and take a last look around. Grabbing my purse, I decide to abandon all my desk tchotchkes. It’s not like I care about some stupid Dr. Evil action figure, and I refuse to I be one of those assholes you see all over the streets these days, boo-hooing and carrying a box full of shoes, plants, and kids’ pictures.

  Right before I’m escorted out, Courtney returns from her morning appointment. She quickly figures out what’s happening and a single fat tear rolls down her cheek, cutting a path through her foundation. “How am I going to do my job without you?” she asks.

  “You’ll have to talk to Kathleen about that,” I say. “Call me later.”

  In the cab on the way home I remind myself things aren’t so bad. I’m smart, healthy, and talented, right? I mean, look at all I accomplished in a year with virtually no local management support. I kicked ass! I won the national market leadership award! Any company would be lucky to have someone as driven as me. I should be able to land another job in a minute.

  You know what? Maybe I’ll get an even better position, one where I don’t have to work with Retard-y Artys and soulless sales managers and stupid PR hacks. I’ll have a nice salary and my own private office with a door and girls to get my coffee again. Everything is going to be just fine.

  As the cab pulls up to my building, it hits me that I won’t be able to buy my couch anytime soon.

  And then I start to cry.

  Shaken, Not Stirred

  * * *

  From the desk of Miss Jennifer A. Lancaster

  February 1, 2002

  Dear Rush Limbaugh,

  Not only have I been a devoted listener for ten years but your program inspired me to major in Political Science. I loved using your arguments against my Marxist professors! (Really, anyone who doesn’t like Capitalism has simply never been shoe shopping at Nordstrom.) The point is I rarely disagree with you. However, I heard you clash with the President’s intention to extend unempl
oyment benefits.

  How come? Do you think every unemployed person is a dirty hippie, too busy supporting Chairman Mao to seek gainful employment? Because it’s totally not true.

  My company laid me off at the end of September, blaming the attack on America. (Which is BS, by the way. A lot of companies used 9/11 as a convenient excuse to lay off good people without looking like ogres.) Since I’ve been “on the dole,” I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs, hit dozens of networking events, registered on every single job-search portal, and hounded corporate headhunters to the point of criminal harassment. It’s not like I’m sitting around the house smokin’ fatties, waiting for the guv’mint to cut me my check.

  I’m concerned my benefits will run out before I find work and I’ll be forced to do something awful like waitressing. It’s difficult for me to rationalize going from advising VPs at Fortune 500 companies to inquiring about their choice of salad dressing, you know? Because of this I believe those extra 13 weeks could really make the difference for my future.

  So, please, enlighten me on why you feel this is a bad idea. I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

  Many thanks,

  Jen Lancaster

  P.S. You look fabulous since you lost weight. Hey, why don’t you talk about diet tips more often on the show? I bet it would bring in that crucial 18 to 45 female demographic.

  * * *

  I need some time to feel sorry for myself. Flopping down on my four-hundred-thread-count Egyptian cotton, tulip-print bedding, I kick off my Chanel slingbacks and commence moping. While staring at the rough planks of my beamed ceiling, I relive the past year. I try to figure out how I might have prevented this layoff. Could I have worked harder? Did I really give the company my all? My eyes trace the intricate brickwork on the wall while I wonder if I could have been more innovative. My ideas were totally fresh and original, right? I glance down at the gleaming baseboards and continue to brood. Did I take advantage of every opportunity? And didn’t I always put forth my very best efforts? I scrutinize the pristine slats on the blond wood venetian blinds while I ruminate on my interpersonal interaction. Could I have built stronger relationships with my client base? Or with my team of account executives? Or with Kathleen? Was my attitude ever an issue? Looking deep within my soul in the silence of my cavernous apartment, I come to a realization…

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