Saturday, May 14, 2005

The one with the breakdown at Borders

The gold-plated badge emblazoned with John Hancock’s stately signature read “G. Sterling,” but I knew him as George. He knew me as Wildcat, and he greeted me as such at precisely 8:28 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday.

For the first two weeks, it was always: “Floor 36 again Wildcat?”

After my third week of signing in, turning over my identification, and clipping that obnoxiously lime-green plastic VISITOR badge onto my messenger bag, it turned into: “Morning Wildcat. They still haven’t gotten you a building ID yet?”

I tried to be chipper with my reply: “Not yet, George.”

By the end of my first month, I knew that George’s niece was going to start at Northwestern in the fall, studying psychology and shooting for med school. He knew about my supposedly swanky gig as a fashion magazine designer in an office with floor-to-ceiling windows* and a lake view. He also knew that, from April, when I started interviewing, to the beginning of July, he’d had to sign me in as a visitor and check his electronic list to make sure I was clear to be in the building.

There were a couple weeks when they forgot to put me on the list. I’d show up bright and early, mentally prepared for a day of logging every minute spent, racing to squeeze in a 15-minute lunch break, and being virtually ignored by my eight too-flustered-to-bother-with-niceties coworkers.

And then my name wouldn’t be on the list.

George would have to call the icy receptionist and remind her with a slightly scolding tone, “I have Erin down here.” He’d roll his eyes upward toward Floor 36 in an attempt to make the call seem like nothing more than a formality. But I could tell he was embarrassed for me. I was embarrassed for me.

Even now, it shames me to remember that George was the first unfortunate casualty of The Day With The Crying At Borders.

I’d endured yet another day of no human interaction; I’d overheard a muffled “tell the new girl…” and received, while on my lunch break, an unsigned memo reminding me to arrive no earlier than 8:30 (I’d come in at 8:25, because I’d left 5 minutes early the day before); I’d started daydreaming at 10 a.m. about the bottle of cheap raspberry vodka in my fridge; that’s about three hours earlier than I normally started thinking about it. And then my editor had dropped by to “chat” for the first time since the day I accepted the job. She didn’t have anything to say about my work, or about hiring me on full-time like she’d promised to do after two weeks. She just stopped by to tell me that I should start looking for independent insurance, because I wouldn’t be receiving any through the company.**

Usually when I relinquished my badge at the end of the day and was released back into a world where I wasn’t just a visitor, George and I exchanged friendly goodnights and see-you-tomorrows. But not this time. I think – but I can’t remember exactly – that I slammed the badge down on the glass-topped security podium. I know that when George said “Have a good night,” I snapped back, “Yeah right! I quit!”

“See you on Thursday…?”

“I guess.”

I had every intention of making it home and having a vodka tonic in my hand before breaking down, but, as it turns out, I only made it across Michigan Ave. to Borders. I did make it downstairs to the bathroom in the basement before I started sobbing aloud, which I’m kind of proud of (the making it downstairs, not the sobbing). I thought I’d gotten it all out of my system, and I headed back out, ready to hike the usual route (past six Starbucks, with a stop in Crate&Barrel if I was in a particularly lousy mood) back to my apartment.

And then… the tourist. Even on a good day, I don’t like being railed into scaffolding by a clumsy guy weighted down with armfuls of brimming shopping bags. But today? Buddy? Yeah, really not a good day.

“What do you think you’re doing? Are you fucking crazy?”

[Eyes wide: bewilderment.]

“I don’t have insurance. Do you get that? And not only do I not have insurance ... I don’t have any family here, either. So if you would have pushed me a little harder, buddy, you know who would be riding with me in the ambulance to the hospital? YOU! And you know who would be paying my bill, which would be outrages since I don’t have insurance?! YOU! So don’t fucking mess with me.”

At least now, in retrospect, I can rest assured that I went a little easier on George. George was a good guy, and I bet he would apologize if he bumped into a weeping young coed on the busiest street in Chicago.

When I slouched up, like a dog with her tail between her legs, to get my visitor’s badge the next day, George didn’t look surprised or smug, and he didn’t say anything. Well, nothing except, “‘Morning, Wildcat.”

* The workspace at AssPubs was arranged in a sort of crescent, such that all the editors’ offices were on the outside and had gorgeous views of Lakeshore Drive and Navy Pier and the Ohio Street Beach. The archives, printer room, and lobby were on the inside of the crescent, because who needs an archive with a lake view? Then there was my office. Also on the inside of the crescent. Tiny, cramped, and outfitted with a lovely view of a taupe wall. Talk about an environment that nurtures creativity…

* I went to three in-person interviews at this company. I asked about insurance at the first one, and was told the company offered a generous benefits package. Lies!