**this essay is also viewable on www.thenervousbreakdown.com**
Fresh out of college in 1993, I landed a job with a literary agent. Don’t ask me how.
The job, however plummy it seemed, was actually insane. Every day was a lesson in Real Life.
The first thing I learned was: Don’t let the bike messengers use the bathroom. They’re usually shooting up in there.
I got screamed at, reamed out, when I let the messenger use the bathroom.
“Don’t you know what they do in bathrooms!?” My new co-worker was horrified.
I could imagine it, yes, because it is hot in NYC in summer, and bike messengers must drink a lot of water.
“Heroin!” she shouted. “Smack! They’re junkies!”
“What, all of them?”
“A lot of them…can’t you tell a junkie when you see one?”
This colleague, the foreign rights agent, was staring at me like I was just the dumbest person she had ever met. How could Seamus have possibly just hired me to be his new assistant? You had to be whip-smart to handle that, as the job was sort of like running a small nation (and you also had to be really stupid on the other hand--or, let's say naive. He would make you put up with stuff any rational human being would object to. But I didn’t know that part yet).
I had never really thought about people shooting up around me. My only exposure to heroin use had been repeated viewings of the über-depressing German film Christiane F. (my best friend used to love that one, while frankly, it made me want to kill myself to watch it…observing the fast decline of a once-promising and pretty young German teen into the dank underworld of the evil H).
Lesson #2: When the grocery guys deliver the boxes of food, do not even say “thank you” because then they think you’re not going to tip them…as if the words coming out of your mouth are each substitutes for dollars.
“Oh, thank you! Thanks so much. Thanks for bringing up these boxes,” I said as the delivery man lugged up cookies, strawberries, coffee, and paper towels.
The next thing I knew, he had actually, in a fit of rage, tossed a box back down three flights of stairs. “Lady, I do not work for THANK YOU!” he spat. “I work for TIP!”
He stormed off.
“What just happened?” I asked my co-worker. I was dazed, incredulous. I was just being polite. My plan, which I thought was just normal, was to tip him at the end.
“Duh, don’t even speak to them. They’re crazy,” she declared. “Just stand at the top of the stairs with a few bills in your hand so they keep coming back up.”
Okay, then. Now I knew.
Lesson #3: Stop boring conversations in their tracks. Life is too short.
My boss’ pet peeve was talking about wine. He had no interest in wine, except for drinking it. Of course he didn’t like bad wine (who does?), but that was about the extent of it. One of his friends--I think it was just a political relationship, actually--was an insufferable oenophile who was always inviting him over for dinner. As good manners dictate, and I knew this, one should always bring wine when visiting someone’s house in the evening.
Seamus would send me out to his neighborhood wine store beforehand to get the goods. “What will you say to my wine guy, Brian?” he quizzed me.
I thought fast. “Please give Seamus two bottles of wine that are good enough so that he will not be embarrassed. But not so good that they will cause him any further discussion.”
"Yes, exactly!” He sent me off.
Life lesson number four: If someone says, “Don’t let my kid win,” he does not actually mean it.
Part of my job, and I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, was playing tennis with the boss’ son. My boss had a country house in Connecticut. With a tennis court.
“Bring your racket,” he’d say to me, every couple of weeks. “You’re going to play Rex.”
Great. Rex was eight. I am not much of a tennis player, but I can return the ball and sometimes I even have a wicked backhand, so I thought it would be a reasonable game, evenly matched. I hoped.
“Don’t let him win,” the boss reminded me, looking grave, as if not winning was something Rex really needed to get used to. I wasn’t sure if this commandment meant never let Rex win, or don’t purposely or obviously give up the game so that he wins. Either way, I sort of forgot about it.
I won, though not by much.
Rex cried big hot tears. His face turned sort of purple. He hid under the dining room table. My boss seemed furious. But what had he told me, repeatedly, about not letting the kid win? I felt terrible because Rex was a nice little boy, well-mannered, quiet; besides, it just happened.
Rex apparently thought he was a much better tennis player than he actually was because the truth is that tennis is not, and never has been, my thing. I basically suck except for getting lucky on occasion.
Still, Rex sucked worse.
Lesson #5: When you’re being ridiculous, don’t let yourself get so carried away that you don’t realize you’re being a jerk. That’s unforgivable. Also, don’t cry if you can laugh.
My second day on the job, I was asked to call up the Austrian café around the corner and order some take-out cappuccinos (this was, needless to say, pre-Starbucks).
I never realized, at the age of 22, that there were so many possible permutations of milk and coffee. It never even occurred to me. But now I was being asked, “Skim or full-fat milk? Shots of syrup? What kind? Temperature of the steamed milk? What do you want sprinkled on top?”
After every question, I had to put down the phone and scribble on a dry-erase board and hold it up in front of Seamus, who was making deals on the other line. He looked increasingly annoyed with each interruption, and I felt myself shrinking, withering, about to die.
Finally, after the last question, I responded to the cafe worker quite snippily, because I couldn’t really take anymore: “What do you mean, what do I want sprinkled on top?” I didn't know there were options for the garnish.
She meant, did I want chocolate or cinnamon? I wrote this, cringing, on the dry-erase board. “Last question. I promise! Chocolate or cinnamon on top?”
Seamus put down the phone calmly, but then he started to yell. He was unnaturally pissed. “Elizabeth! Let us get something straight right now. Because I never, repeat never, want to be asked this again. I am always chocolate; I am never cinnamon! Chocolate!! Not cinnamon! Ever!!”
I felt like sobbing, but it came out as a laugh.
“Okay, sweetheart? Okay, then!” Seamus himself seemed relieved, as if he realized he had just said something both incredibly mean and stupid. It was so mean and stupid, it was funny. If I had cried, it would have been a bad scene. But I laughed, so we could brush it aside.
Lesson #6: When you work for yourself, the work day never ends. So this was true for my boss, who had his own literary agency. I did not, however, expect it to—by association—also apply to me. But there were days when I had to wake up at 5 a.m. and take a car service up to rural Connecticut. I remember getting there one day around 8 and being told to wake up the new client, who was sleeping in the guest house.
We routinely recruited big brains to write books. I spent days with these people, helping them figure out what they might write a book about, and banging out a book proposal that could be sold (back in the days when books could be sold without actually being written).
This man, a scientist—let’s call him Errol—had stunk up the guest house with unwashed male reek. I cracked open the cottage door and called to him. He looked up as if he couldn’t believe his luck.
“We’re having breakfast,” I told Errol, in a business-like tone (No, you idiot, I thought, you are not sent girls when you start working with an agent. At least not here.) “Do you eat omelets? Poppy-seed cake? I made some. And then I’m going to help you with the book proposal.”
All day, I worked with Errol, who barely spoke. He sat on a divan in a Federal-style drawing room, looking a little bored, while I tapped furiously on a computer keyboard. The day was long and painful.
I didn’t think Errol had any good ideas, or any ideas for a book at all. I wondered how he had ever been hired as the new star science professor at Stanford. Why had he been written up in the Times? Damn theTimes. We found many clients there.
When Errol did grunt something, it was an obscurity about particle physics. It was not sexy, and it was taking all my energy to come up with ways to spin this incredibly dry information.
I wasn’t sure how this book was going to get sold…but Seamus was a master, and I was pretty good at helping, too. If it could be done, it would be. I just hoped Seamus would take over because Errol was such a dud, personality-wise, and being around him all day was giving me a headache.
We had dinner at some roadside, rural CT restaurant because we were starving all of a sudden. Absolutely everything on the menu was fried. Seamus and I were sort of thrown by this (both being arugula and pomegranate-eaters back in the city), but we managed. I think I ate fried mushrooms, reluctantly. Errol was nonplussed. He said little, if anything, during the meal.
We got back to NYC very late. Seamus dropped us off outside his penthouse on Central Park West. We had to take a cab at that point—which I didn’t think was necessarily a class move on Seamus’s part, but he had used his own Mercedes to drive back, and now it was past midnight. I just wanted to go home to Brooklyn and sleep (Seamus completely disapproved of my living in Brooklyn, but the man did not pay me enough for me to consider living anywhere else).
I hailed a cab. Errol was stuck to my side, like a mouse on a glue trap. “Where’s your hotel?” I asked him, intending to drop him off. He brightened, but said, rather insistently, “I don’t want to go back yet. Let’s go out. You show me New York.”
I hadn’t heard him talk this much all day.
“It’s midnight,” I reminded him. “I have to work tomorrow. I’m tired.”
“I want to see the city,” he whined a bit. “You have to show me the city. Seamus said.”
“Seamus said what?”
“Seamus said you’d do anything I wanted to do. Anything.”
I gave Errol a look. Not a nice one. “And what do you want to do?”
“I want to see downtown. Let’s hear some music. Have some drinks.”
All I kept thinking was Seamus is not my pimp. Seamus is NOT my pimp. Who knew that Errol was such a whiny little slimeball? And if Errol wants to see downtown…he’s going to see it.
“Fine,” I said. A cab pulled up. I considered taking Errol to Alphabet City and somehow dumping him there, this sheltered, strange man-boy from Palo Alto, but I myself didn’t want to traverse those dark streets alone at night. I couldn't imagine just pushing him out of the cab.
So I compromised with a tranny bar on the lower East Side (though I didn't tell him about the transvestites). We went inside, Errol went to get drinks and a table, and I took off for Brooklyn. That was the next place Errol had said he wanted to see. As if I would ever take him home.
The next day, Seamus called me into his sanctum and asked, “Did you dump Errol at Madame Lulu’s last night?”
“What? No! He wanted to go there. I was tired. I told him that.”
“You need to entertain the clients,” Seamus said. He sounded both exhausted and ticked.
“After a 19-hour day?” He couldn’t be serious. Could he?
“However long it takes. Keep them happy.”
There’s no way I was going to make Errol happy. Especially not if making him happy made me unhappy.
“Well…” Seamus’s voice trailed off suddenly. I think he knew he was asking the impossible, the utterly unreasonable. “So what do you think of Errol? Can we get a book out of him? Fast?”
We could get a book out of a stone. But Errol was just annoying, and I did not like the way he smelled.
“Yeah, of course,” I said, but I wasn’t enthusiastic, and I didn’t sound that way, either.
“The hell with it,” said Seamus, pushing some papers off his desk with finality. “I’m cutting him loose. I’ve lost interest and he frankly doesn’t care that much. He’s looking for something else. And if you have no interest in your client anymore, babycakes, then you have to pack it in.”
That’s another thing I learned.