Eight months after college, I was earning sixteen bucks an hour as a temp in the compliance department of a very large and well-known bank, taking the bus into New York City every day from my parents’ home in suburban New Jersey and entertaining the thought that, at 22 years old, all hope for a rich, full life had already evaporated. Like most embittered people staring into the chasm between hope and reality, I could point to a specific moment where it all “went wrong.” It occurred in an executive boardroom at NBC’s headquarters in Rockefeller Center.
My Name is Earl
I wanted to be a comedy writer, and the plan, hatched on some more optimistic day during my senior year of college, had been to get hired into NBC’s Page Program. From there I’d follow the path of former Pages like Regis Philbin and Steve Allen into the annals of network television glory. Lead a few tours, shake a few hands, write for Saturday Night Live. Simple.
It’s tough getting a Page job — thousands of folks apply every year for just a few dozen slots — but the plan wasn’t as far-fetched as it might seem. I’d interned on Conan O’Brien’s show the summer before, and had made some contacts who put in a good word on my behalf. I breezed through the first two rounds of interviews, and by time I headed in for the final interview the job seemed like a lock.
I arrived at NBC in a new grey suit, purchased for me by my grandmother from the men’s store at Nordstrom’s. I was led to one of the very top floors in the building, into a room where five people from different areas of NBC were seated around a large, dark wooden table. They asked the kinds of hypothetical questions that one must neccesarily ask a recent college graduate with little job or life experience to speak of. “On a scale of one to seven, one being poor, seven being excellent, how would you rate your ability to resolve possible conflicts with other people, and why?” That sort of thing. I answered these questions with aplomb, because discussing potential ability, the chance of being good, is a specialty of mine.
Then someone asked what I thought of NBC’s fall lineup. And I didn’t know a single new show. Not one. The best I could muster was something about My Name is Earl “showing promise.”
Incredibly, it took months for me to figure out why I didn’t get the job. If anything, I had left the interview feeling that my dexterity on the lineup question was to be commended. I should mention I was smoking fistfuls of dirt-cheap weed at this point in life; I suppose the pot, along with the sense of personal manifest destiny I felt toward landing the Page job, contributed to a generally hazed sense of self-judgement. But by time I realized just how I’d screwed up, I was already at the bank living my unanticipated existence.
Loogies and compliance
I don’t actually remember applying to the temp agency. All I know is one day after NBC stopped calling I got an email from a woman with a terrific name: Tamara Lovelock. She told me to come in for an interview. I did as I was told. At the interview I was asked a few questions more or less designed to suss out that I was not, in fact, a serial killer, and then they placed me at the bank, in a building on the end of Wall Street, at the very tip of Manhattan.
The first day kicked off in a grand style. While waiting nervously in the ninth floor lobby for my new boss, Ted, to come meet me, I crossed my legs and saw someone had hocked a fat loogie on the back cuff of the right pant leg. I wiped the cuff on the fabric of the seat next to me, looking over my shoulders to be sure no one saw.
Then Ted appeared: mid-forties, fit, smiling, clothes not visibly tarnished by another person’s mucus. He walked me around the massive floor, past cubicle bays filled with pleated, business casual humans; past the pantry, the copy room, the conference rooms, into a windowless auxiliary room where a half dozen other people sat amidst endless stacks of paper looking dazed and vaguely feral. This paper was what we’d been hired to corral; these people, other temps, were my new colleagues.
It will help to know what a compliance department is and how it functions in order to understand our task. There are federal mandates that regulate the language by which financial advisors and financial services companies are allowed to advertise themselves. For instance, an advisor cannot use what’s called “promissory language,” meaning she can never promise a client or potential client they’ll make any money at all, only that the advisor will try very hard to make them money. And there are all sorts of other rules like that. To enforce them, each bank hires what are known as compliance officers; specially trained and licensed people that review and approve/reject materials generated by the firm and its advisors. The officers are supported by an administrative staff that helps manage the massive flow of paper and communications associated with the process. And that’s basically a compliance department, at least as I came to know it.
We know that some people in finance have little use or regard for regulations. And if you’d been at the bank with me in January 2006, you would’ve seen a sliver of what this disregard looked like: thousands and thousands of documents that had been reviewed by the compliance officers, and then just tossed into piles rather than being logged or filed, meaning there was no functionally accessible record of communication between the advisors and the compliance office. Meaning if something went wrong compliance-wise, the bank was fucked. It was the job of me and the other temps to alphabetize the compliance files, record them in an Excel log, and file them away. To bring order to years of chaos and neglect.
Call me “Tisha”
It’d be disingenuous to say the job was all bad, because it wasn’t. We temps shared a natural esprit de corps, and Ted was a good guy: he was new to the bank himself, and recognized the basic absurdity of the project. Every few weeks there’d be an office-wide happy hour, and he’d bring the temps along and let us drink on the company card. At one such event, I befriended a young doctor named Janice (known to all as “Dr. Janice”) who I guess was a friend of someone at the office, and she and I wound up making out in her Jeep outside of the Chevy’s near Ground Zero. These were modest, authentic pleasures.
It was my first time working in a corporate setting, and I came to know the various quirks of office culture. The quiet discussions about where to go for lunch, and who was or wasn’t invited that day. The hushed and reverent way that the men in the office regarded the bathrooms on the 11th floor, where all the servers were housed, meaning there were hardly any people up there and that the bathrooms were empty and immaculately clean: a crapper’s paradise that we labored to shield from exploitation.
The sheer range of humanity on display at close range: “Spider Man,” a tiny bespectacled person, so nicknamed because whenever anyone walked past him in the hall he’d press himself flat against the wall to let them by. Jack, one of the compliance officers, with his eczema and drinking problem, who’d come back from two-hour lunches half-drunk, flakes of skin crumbling from his very red scalp and face. Sandra, the curvy single mom with whom I cultivated a terrified (and unbroken) sexual tension.
And then the stupendous boredom. The long stretches where my only true function was to feign busy-ness, broken up by the occasional trip to the 11th floor. One day, once I’d been given access to a computer, I went on Google Maps, and took an hours-long virtual drive across the United States, starting on I-80 in New Jersey, and click-clicked my way through the Heartland, over the Rockies, to San Francisco, where a better life perhaps awaited.
Eventually, my knack for alphabetizing and stacking sheets of paper landed me a kind of promotion. Tisha, the compliance department admin, had taken a job at another firm up the street, and Ted asked if I wanted her desk, a few of her responsibilities, and a little raise. I said sure.
What I found upon taking over Tisha’s desk is that Tisha had left the bank in spirit long before physically departing. Her voicemail inbox was filled to capacity with angry, unanswered messages from advisors wondering where their stuff was. We found hundreds of unaccounted-for documents in her desk’s drawers and cabinets, along with an unidentified set of chest X-rays.
With the bar of performance set so low, my efforts as Tisha 2.0 seemed downright heroic. I cheerfully answered the phone, speaking through a little wireless headset with advisors around the country. I faxed back documents promptly, checked the voicemail regularly, did not store medical images in company property. By doing the absolute bare minimum of what had been asked, I was being recognized as a “go-getter.” Which meant it was time to leave.
The so-called adult world can alter one’s priorities with frightening speed. In the span of months I’d gone from being hell-bent on becoming the next Robert Smigel to simply wanting a job that would allow me to write — anything, really — and move out of my parents’ house.
I spent afternoons discretely scouring Craigslist job boards, grew familiar with the various scams and shit offers foisted at people who want to write for a living. “New fashion site… Write three articles a day, five days a week… Must have in-depth knowledge of fashion trends and extensive industry contacts… At least five years’ experience required… Chance for pay if/when we secure funding… ” It’s difficult to measure how depressing it is searching these things every day, feeling like you’ve seen everything, or you’ve been too slow to the good stuff, but mostly that you’re in all ways inadequate for the ostensible career of your choosing.
Aspiring writers are some of the most desperate people on Earth: probably a quarter-notch below aspiring actors in terms of overall willingness to degrade themselves for opportunity or validation. By time I found the “writer-wanted” listing for a place called Corporate Insight I would’ve done a lot of weird things for a decent writing job. I would’ve dressed up as a schoolgirl. Or a schoolboy. Or even a school janitor. But the Corporate Insight people only wanted a cover letter and resumé. And when they called and asked me to come in for an interview, I vowed to myself that I’d avoid past mistakes. I went online and read eagerly about the company’s business: they were recruiting consultants apparently, and worked for with some of the biggest corporations in the world, helping them “hire eagles and avoid ducks.” Eagles. Ducks. Eagles. Ducks. Eagles, better than ducks. Got it. Was I an Eagle? I believed I was. First name: John. Middle name: Eagle.
I was interviewed by James and Tim, two managers. First question: So what do you know about Corporate Insight?
I spoke at length about the eagles and ducks.
When I finished, Tim and James both wore blank expressions on their faces, a kind of anti-response that let me know something was deeply wrong. Tim said, “I’m sorry, that’s not at all what we do.”
And I said, “I see.”
What we determined, after some back and forth, is that I had researched a different company, called Corporate Insights. This was Corporate Insight. I asked if people had made this mistake before. They said, no, this was the first time. We were on the 27th floor, and I thought of opening a window and casting myself headfirst onto the street.
But then a strange thing happened. We just kept talking. They told me that Corporate Insight provided competitive intelligence to banks, so there were a lot of reports to write. I said writing competitive intelligence reports for banks sounded like tremendous fun, and that given my extensive working experience in the financial services industry, I’d probably be a great fit. A few days later I received a job offer. I took it. I had a job. It was something.