Apr 28, 2010

The other day a old friend called for a reference. She was edgy and in no mood. She'd just been fired from her job as a senior editor in a large publishing house and needed to find something "quickly."

How quickly, I asked.

"It's impossible, I know. What is it? One month for each $10,000 you make. I am just so sick of this. Lately, I don't have the ambition to put one foot in front of the other."

She's been working as an independent contractor and so was not able to collect unemployment benefits even though she'd been at the house for several years.

This is the currency lately: you work as a contractor, with no benefits and an 'at will' contract. The employer pays no benefits and lets you out the dog door when convenient. But in this case my friend discovered that the IRS takes a dim view of this arrangement and found out that she might negotiate an 'unofficial' severance.

She didn't provide details but she did describe the scene in which she went to the publisher, a man in his 50s, with the home in Katonah, the wife in her 30s, the American eagle over the front door, while the middle aged ex-wife lives in a studio down in White Plains with the child and the dog.

"Now you understand," my friend began, "this man believes he's the master negotiator. If his office were suddenly taken over by terrorists he would be ecstatic. 'Ah yes, why don't you come into my office. I'm sure we can reach a settlement.' And before you know it they would be out the door with half their guns, amo and panties.

"So we sit down. His office overlooks Grammercy Square. He starts telling me he's just read a book — hooray, I thought — and did you know that until a couple of hundred years ago 25 percent of males died in Wars. Now it's down to 2 percent.

" 'That's very hopeful,' he said. 'Don't you think?'

"'How interesting,' I said. I'm looking down into the street thinking this is always the male world: always the fight. What we need is more flight.

"'I never go to war,' he went on. 'I always find a way to settle.' And then he set out to lay waste the countryside. But he's very clever, he takes away all the option and couches the whole discussion with a hopeful twist.

"'I know the economy is rough out there,' he said, 'but actually it grew by 2.3 percent in the first quarter. Of course there's joblessness and editors are especialy hard hit... And you have a child, no?'

Yes, I said. And I'm thinking I've been here almost five years and this is the first time we have ever had any kind of communication. In an office with 10 people?

"But you have a great education and you're smart as anything, I'm sure you'll find something quickly."

So then of course you can't say anything that implies you're not well educated and in great demand all over the world."

Then we began to talk numbers and his left eyebrow went right up when I mentioned a number.

'Now you realize, I don't feel as if I should pay anything. We've treated you fairly and you've been paid a reasonable sum.'

There was so much I wanted to say — that I had never worked a simple 40 hour week, that I had never took off any holidays. It's my own fault. I took the job far too seriously.

'I never go to war,' he repeated. "And we want to end things on good terms, we don't want to end badly. Because this is a small industry and who knows we might work together again. Anything is possible so I think we want to end on good terms. Let me say this, I think the number we're looking for is the one that you will feel as if you didn't get what you wanted, that it was too little and I will feel I paid too much. That's a settlement. Don't you think?"

Apr 14, 2010

Suddenly, I wake up. I'm in the mezzanine at A.C.T., watching Vigil, with Olympia DuKakis and Marco Barricelli. It's intermission.

The woman to my left has a small faux leopard-skin pillow that she keeps against the small of her back. She's wearing a matching blouse. She's pretty, on the very last day of 49, blonde on top of brunette, a tall woman with short fingers and a lot of wrist bangle and billidoux. She's saying to the two men to her left that she completely sympathizes with Grace, the dying woman in the play. "I'm not going to have anybody when I die."

"That's why people have kids," says the man next to the man next to her.

"But I don't have any kids," she replies.

The man next to her appears to be her husband. But he doesn't fit her, except that he's tall. He's been to Big and Tall Men but all he got was blue jeans and a sleeveless wool sweater. This doesn't go with anything she's wearing or thinking about. You get the feeling he's out of her league. My first thought is that the escort married a client. He's from a small town. She went to college. He made his money with a hardware store. Her father loved hardware stores. It's a stretch but he's safe and he's rich. He started out on a whim as he always does. In the beginning he was full-hearted, now he's half-hearted. The black underwear has worn off. But it's okay. He doesn't talk much and she doesn't mind. They're taking care of each other. They're an echo from the play.

"But there's always my kids," he says. "They're nice."

She drops her head. "Danny's fiancee is a horror."

The man falls silent. She puts one hand on his arm and then another hand and then takes away the first and puts that on top, like that child's game you play. And then she squeezes. "No he's not. I didn't mean that. I mean I just want to die with people around me I know."

He nods but doesn't say anything because perhaps he notices that the people in the row in front of us seem to be listening.

The lights go down. The play goes down with it.

During the last 10 minutes it seems Panych has had a misunderstanding with his characters. As though he said to them, 'Should I be funny, should I be serious? I've been clever but what can I do now?' The characters shake their heads. They're of several minds.

He settles for sentimentality. That resonates here and there. Someone in back of me is clearly choked up. But the woman in front of me is snoring. Next to her the man is cleaning out his ear and making a terrible racket.

Lights up. Two rounds of bows. People get up to leave and it's as though the play has spilled over its banks into the audience. Everyone is old. The youngest man is wearing a cap with a pin from the Boer War. I notice another man wearing a sneaker but it's on a wooden leg. Meanwhile, Olympia Dukakis has gone to photo shop. She's replicated. That white hair in a page boy cut extends as far as the eye can see. Along with men in old black check coats, badly cut red-tinted hair pieces, gigolos of yesteryear with women bouffed and pouffed. Ancient CEOs, heads of small states now living in Atherton, great grandmothers from San Ramon. Everybody feeling the dead weight of age. Men hobbling off to the can, totally exhausted from their naps. Women slowly turning in circles, holding on to the banister. Trying to remember something or other.

It's the play and it's the times. This is the last theater audience. Who will replace them? They're the same ones that go hear a lecture on the Iliad at Stanford. As stricken as they are, they're holding up local culture.

And so that's all to the good, but you realize once more that this is going to be the scene from here on in: the theater is going to include very last boomer's story of becoming old and irrelevant, and the audience will always be coming to get some last atta-boys, wishing to God that someone could explain what happened in a life and how to go on without thinking too much.

I get to the garage on O'Farrell and the herd is flowing into the elevator and out at each floor. People go to their fine cars. You notice that each car has a noticeable dent. From the time the driver forgot the steel post in back of them or the pedestrian in front of them, or got haunted by that stranger's face in the rear view mirror.

Apr 1, 2010

Yes, I do. I still do. I thought of her the other day and then right away I think of the first scene in The Stranger. I remember the dust on that road like it was yesterday. That scene is clearer to me, and will always be clearer to me than her funeral. That distance Meursault felt means more to me than any feeling I can still find for her, and I've gone through every last drawer. But then I think of how frozen-stone cold her wrist was. I was smart to touch it. Otherwise, I would be unsure the heat ever properly turned off.

I think of her as not being separate. I think of her as though she were a former personality that I never quite left, that I've seen news of in the back of an alumni magazine, that I thought I saw once in the street, that I always mean to go back to, that I imagine, without expectation, not meaning to, certainly not intending to, but, genetically doomed and altered and modified, I have... I have or I will. It's not clear. I think that's how I left it with myself when last we spoke.