Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hostest With The Less-test

This afternoon, I was thinking about this woman I worked with a few years back and what a train wreck she was.

Today I went out for a manicure, and my manicurist and I were talking about our respective week, past and incoming. I told her about my green food week and she laughed. From there I stopped at the library to pick up some books on hold: a new one on Lincoln's correspondence, a book about socialite Brooke Astor's final years, and I grabbed Food TV's Dave Lieberman's Young and Hungry; just a portion of a huge toppling stack now next to my bed.

While I was doing some work at the computer this afternoon, a friend of mine in San Francisco sent me an instant message to tell me about her week of Junior League fashion shows and her "ex" boyfriend (who had been married to a prostitute, but didn't know it until much later.) That's an ongoing story because the woman has since become politicial and is always popping up in the news out there, shooting her mouth off about women's rights, when in truth, she uses a political agenda to justify her whoring years to her daughters, I expect. So from that to plastic surgery and posting on You Tube and honoring dead parents and beautiful homes and bouncing around from one subject to another with the ease of old friends who are in sync.

I went to lie down a few moments because I knew I had to be working on a house I am restoring tonight with my nose pressed to a baseboard to get the paint "just right," and thinking of being in an underheated house and all of the prep work and exactitude involved in good painting and what cd's to haul over and if I should stop at a Home Depot to buy new door knobs tonight or later.

I started going through the stack of books, putting aside the ones I wanted to be reading later tonight, and I picked up the Dave Lierberman book. In under five minutes I knew there wasn't one thing of interest in the book for me, I speed read the recipes, and I won't be making any of them. I couldn't even figure out who would be making these recipes. They were about three steps up from dorm cooking for the college crowd, and that crowd wouldn't bother. On the flip side, if you were interested in cooking, you wouldn't want to take the time to make and eat this stuff. A quick "back to the library" book. In his defense, the blue shirt he's wearing on the cover brings out the blue of his eyes.

For some reason, this triggered memories of a woman I used to work with, and to protect her privacy let's call her "Ellen." Ellen was married to a famous local politician of his day, and they had five children. She came from this tidy little Irish couple that always looked as neat as they could be, yet Ellen, her husband and her litter of piglets were just filthy, fat, and had the most disgusting ways about them.

Her father had been a candymaker, and in discussing Christmas candy, Ellen told me of how her father knew how to make candy canes. I asked him if he would ever make me some. He did, and they were works of art. Intensely red and white, with the finest, most delicate and delineated lines through them. I wrapped them and save them for years until they gave up the ghost, but they were things that spoke of skill and beauty. The next time you buy a box of candy canes, look at how blurred out the lines are and how washed out the colors and you'll see what I mean.

One day Ellen walked into my office and while relaying some information to me, she let rip a huge extended fart. Without a break (minus the wind) she said, "This is what happens when you've had too many children," and continued on. Sometimes, she would bring the youngest child into the office for the day, and the little girl had her mother's little puffed eye slits and mousy, greasy stringy hair and this skin that reflected no light. Just this flat, dun gray dead looking stuff that seemed so abnormal on a child. The skin looked filthy. Ellen's open toed dress sandals always showed nude hose with the toe in (or torn out) and black with filth and holes in the hose. Why go on. She was a mess.

When the office closed, she said she wanted us to all come to her house for a picnic, and a few months later, the invitation came. Then just before the picnic she called us and asked each to bring a potluck dish. I don't have a problem with potluck, but I do when it comes up a day before the event and it's not an agreed up plan. When I arrived, Ellen had cooked and put out a large, sliced ham. Within minutes of the party's start, I had to go into her kitchen to get something, and she had already carved off a few slices of ham and left them at the picnic table, and there she was wrapping the bulk of the food back up, explaining to me "I have a family to feed."

The office had closed, and I don't want to say more since it was a newsworthy event of the time, but when that happened, she asked me to hold off looking for work for two months so that I could go work for her husband. He, in turn, was waiting for his top aide to take off. It was a guaranteed hire at good pay, so I agreed. The problem being, when I got there, Ellen's husband asked the aide to start teaching me, then immediately left town on business. At some point during this two week stretch, she decided she wasn't going anywhere, refused to teach me anything, and here I had wasted two month in preparation for this new job to come my way. I was socially isolated in the office. No one seemed to ever speak to anyone else. They never seemed to lunch together. It was hard to even find food sources nearby. I remember just before I quit, (and this was the first of two jobs I ever quit,) I remember standing in a Metro car with tears just streaming down my face, realizing I was serious screwed and was going to have to quit. People actually moved away from me. I don't blame them. It wasn't the quitting. I knew it had to be. But now what?

Ellen had found work on Capitol Hill working for a New York State Congressman, and I remember going to her office to turn in her husband's office key, so upset I couldn't even get into it with her as to "why." God love him, he paid me a month's wages and begged me to come back, but I knew I couldn't. I knew the woman I was replacing wasn't budging. And that left me Mr. "X."

Mr. "X" was an underling of Ellen's husband, and he had asked to meet me the day I went in for my formal interview. It made no sense. I would never be working with this man in any capacity, yet I agreed. I'm sure Ellen's husband wondered about it, himself. The man was a horror. He sat in his office, blue with smoke, ashtray overflowing, puffing away, in between bites of a huge submarine sandwich smothered in onions. I wanted to wretch it smelled so bad in there. He sat back in his chair telling me how I would never succeed in the office, how I didn't know what needed to be done--basically playing "the big man," but given the fact I was working with his boss on projects one on one, his behavior was bizzare. Equally bizzare? Ellen's husband told me just after this meeting that Mr. "X" didn't want me hired. Which is how I acquired this information. But why tell me this?

Ellen's husband had left town. Mr. "X" pulled me from the work I was supposed to be receiving instruction on, threw his weight around with the boss gone, hauled me into his office and told me I would be working for him. He pushed this mess of jumbled paper across his desk and "explained" things (quotes meaning "his" version.) A national study was to be conducted requiring the gathering of data from every state. I asked him how much data had been gathered. None. Now whether that data was even available for the gathering was unknown. Statistics would be used. Charts would be made up. A report would be written. Are you ready? Sit down. I have to laugh.

Mr. "X" had been given two years to do this. The day he threw it across at me, it's due date was one week. Yes. ONE week. I looked him dead in the eye and said, "There is no way you are dumping your failure at me and asking me to fall on the sword and take responsibility for what you have obviously not done." (This, by the way, I think explains what he didn't want me hired. Him judging my capability of this "bail," for him.) In truth I did have statistics under my belt, despite my youth, but I also wasn't the lamb he thought I was. And this is why I quit. I could see the woman I was to replace had flipped and was not going anywhere. Ellen's husband was on the road a great deal of the time and not around to protect me from this nonsense, and I knew I would be stuck with this reeking, miserable man, and thought, "Better unemployment than this."

It's odd to think that a bad cookbook triggered all of this, but let's get back to how Dave Lieberman made me think of Ellen. At our annual Christmas party, the staff would bring a variety of festive foods. This particular year, Ellen's contribution was two tiny cans of Vienna sausage. She popped the tops, so kuddos to her for that hostessing gesture. There "may" have been toothpicks provided, but moot point since no one wanted to eat them. They just sat there in their cans. We had Secret Santa, and that was always a treat. My employer gave gorgeous gifts: jade bracelets, Waterford vases. She gift wrapped everything herself in imaginative ways, (a tiny skater on a silver foil pond!), but she loved doing it. I still have everthing she gave me: a carriage clock, a velvet lined silver box from England, a translucent white jade carved dragon pendant from China she had bought for herself when she was one of the first to go into China. (I still wear it on a thin silk ribbon in the summer and remember the geneorsity of such a rare gift.) Just the prettiest things.

One of my co-workers one year gave me a box for my pierced earrings (when I did not yet have pierced ears.) I was so naive I actually had to ask "What is this for?" Ellen beamed when she got my name one year. She had been in Baltimore and seen this coffee mug with a decal of roses and my name printed on it in heavy black Gothic font. Since my name isn't usually on those things that have names that are more common, it made her even more proud that this was, indeed, something that shared my name. I found a visual on eBay that is darn close to the original. I'd been taught to accept gifts graciously and write my bread and butter thank you's promptly, and this was definitely a "get a smile on your face fast" moment. For a few years, it sat in the back of my cupboard, and when friends would see it, they would tease me about not using it.

I don't know why, but one time I was studying it and thinking how it had been bought with affection and pride in the find, so I decided, "You know, you poor ugly duckling. Out you come from hiding." I took to drinking my coffee in it every morning. I remember a few years after I had been using it, and it came up in group conversation again, one friend said, "My God you still have that thing?" I said, "Yes, and oddly enough I've grown quite fond of it's ugliness." Fast forward to about three years ago, a friend came into the room where I was with this crestfallen face and said, "I have something terrible to tell you. I broke the (fill in my name here) cup," (because that's what we had taken to calling it. The (fill in my name here) cup.) I said, "You didn't," and they said "I did, and I feel just terrible about it."

Don't laugh, dear readers. Do you know what we did? We held a burial for it's shards in my back yard, and there it remains. R.I.P. little mug.

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Blogger WDCD/DRFS/aka Sue said...

Cube...I loved this post. You are quite the writer and I love that you are posting more regularly

11:40 AM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Thank you, Sue. As usual, there was so much I had to leave out of the true story, like names, or what happened to my office that we had to close it, but with truth, you get the jist of a person's qualities. In re-reading the piece, it was made even more poignant in that my employer who was far too important and busy made time to ensure those who worked there were given something the point you might even receive a treasure of theirs. And. They were Jewish, so the holiday should have meant nothing, yet they loved Christmas. "Ellen," on the other hand was Irish Roman Catholic and should have been filled with the spirit of giving, yet always fell short. She came from people who also understood beauty and giving so one can only guess an attempt was made in her youth to instill those same qualities, if only through observation and habit. People used to say of "Ellen," (and trust me, it was far worse than I described,) but people would say "I think she has a good heart," which is the great social cover for all time.

1:47 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

The Guv'na once worked alongside a person like Mr. "X", in that his Mr. X felt like he could exert authority over the Guv'na when, in fact, he couldn't, and the Guv'na took great pleasure in letting him know as much.

But my favorite thing about that whole situation was something the Guv'na once said, which was "I can never respect a man who says "supposin'" in a sentence. ("Supposin' we had a a million dollars...")

6:48 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

I've had a few positions like that, Phil, starting when I was a teenager. I was having a discussion with a friend this past Saturday about past employments, and how there are times, despite your talents, you have to "dim your shine," to keep the office peace, and while you are more inclined to do this when young (say, still in your twenties,) you do reach a point where you get tired of trying to balance working with the blown out neurotics and psychotics and whateverotherotics and you just want to do your best, and if being good at what you do makes others nervous, too bad.

I worked with a woman (she was out of this area in one of our four district offices, I was in D.C., but the head of those four offices didn't even want to hire her, she seemed so problematic, yet her Daddy had weak political connections, and so it goes.She got hired over the objections of...everyone.)

People tippytoed around her for years. Towards the end, when our office would be closing, one it years of kowtowing to the obviously insane, instead I just spoke the truth to her. My boss called me into his office, his head in his hands. He had just taken a full blown screaming psychotic break with her. He looked up at me, shaking his head, weary-eyed and said, "Why did you do that?"....Meaning...why did you stop tippytoeing and tell her the truth? Can you believe? Oh fine. You. A powerful man even. Let's just all skirt this so we aren't lying in a potential pool of blood at the end of the day. Shaking head. Supposin' you should never have hired the crazed bitch in the first place?

And supposin' I tell you a postscript? She was never hired by anyone again. Her pill addled drunk of an abusive father finally kicked off after being in an accident driving home drunk from a full day of drinking at the Statehouse as a lobbyist, she lives with her subservient mother, she's too poor to divorce a man who is a screaming drunk who hates her, and her brother, in a fight with HIS wife standing on an interstate overpass one fine Memorial Day weekend after boozing at Sis' party; "fell reaching for his John Deere hat that blew off" and was instantly killed by multiple 18-wheelers. I guess he showed her. You can't make this shit up. My former co-workers beg me constantly to write a book about what we went through. I just call it "Your Congress In Action."

7:17 PM  

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