BOTTOM RUNG.

HOWEVER ALL-CONSUMING, CONFUSING AND ULTIMATELY WRONG, HER DOTCOM GIG REMAINS AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER
[posted 01.01.2002]

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I’D AGONIZED OVER IT for months, chickening out on every attempt to break it off. For too long I had fooled myself into believing that everything would eventually get better…but today I could finally accept that it was over. As I lay in bed and cried, I recalled how giddy I had been in the beginning and wondered for the millionth time how it had all gone so wrong. What had I done to deserve such heartache? But even in my misery and frustration, I was proud of myself for making the decision at last. I had been a doormat for way too long. Tomorrow was the day.

I had to quit my job.

My strategy was to end it with just a few well-chosen words. I’d let my quiet, burning indignance speak volumes, the pain and hurt of the past year smoldering just below the surface. I would listen to the inevitable groveling in scornful silence and then stalk out, leaving my boss desperately scrambling in my wake.

It didn’t go quite as planned. I started out strong, but my voice soon began wavering dangerously. My hands shook, my voice seemed to be coming from somewhere over my head and I barely heard myself say it. I had to clear my parched throat and try again — “I’m leaving.” The anguish I had imagined on my boss’ face was merely a mildly confused stare. Then, “OK, I guess that’s it,” followed by a terse handshake, and I stumbled out of the office, barely making it out onto the sidewalk before I burst into shaky sobs.

A few days later, I was moping around, bitterly plotting revenge — but really, what was I going to do, poison the coffee supply? march back in and quit again? — and wishing for a rewind button for my life so that I could reclaim some dignity. Why, oh why hadn’t I found a job before leaving? I had quit jobs before, but had never been so shattered. What was wrong with me? “You’re just sensitive because you’re on the rebound,” said my friend Rebecca. “You gave up a year of your life — it takes time to get over something like that.”

THE WAY WE MET

It had started out so perfectly. A friend called one day with an intriguing proposition, an interview at the hip Internet music startup where she worked. I almost didn’t take her up on it. Although I was mired in the Most Boring Dead-End Job in the World at a book publisher, I was only starting to think about playing the field again. While my friend was a little vague in her descriptions, she swore it was a perfect match, so I took her word for it. I put on a nice-but-not-too-dressy shirt and casual-but-not-too casual pants and headed over to a grungy-but-not-too-grungy East Village loft. I paused in front of the door, heart pounding, palms sweating. I brushed my hair one last time, checked my breath and examined my makeup in the filthy, cracked window next door.

We hit it off right away, chatting easily in the tiny conference room/kitchen, which was furnished with mismatched office chairs and a dorm-room mini refrigerator covered in jam-band stickers. I couldn’t really understand what the company did — something about selling banner ads — but it was the summer of 1999 and I sure as hell understood “stock options” and “IPO.” The job description was a bit foggy, but the two guys interviewing me were so gung-ho about everything that I didn’t bother asking questions. Their offhand mention of “light accounting” gave me a little stab of fear, but I was assured that a content-writing position would soon be mine. “You’re getting in early; you’ll be able to do whatever you want in a few months,” they sweet-talked, and I was putty in their hands. I walked out of the office slightly confused, but already starting to envision our future together.

I met my friend for drinks later on and she told me excitedly that she had heard that the interview had gone well. I was apparently “really cool” and she just knew it was going to work out. Sure enough, I had a voice mail the very next day — no games, no waiting three days before you call. I was flattered, but suddenly hesitant. Such an abrupt change from an established publishing corporation to an unproven outfit run by a ponytailed 30-year-old seemed pretty irresponsible. What would my parents think? What if I got dumped? I frantically consulted all of my friends that day, and they all told me to take the plunge. Why not, they all said, you have nothing to lose. So I picked up the phone and called back.

Thus began the yearlong saga of my relationship with Everyonelovesmusic.com. I was so blissfully infatuated for the first couple of months that I could hardly wait for Mondays. Everybody was so warped and weird and funny, and we all worked in one big room, blasting Howard Stern all morning and eating takeout lunch together around the battered conference table. It hardly seemed like work at all. We even had an office dog who’d leap oh-so-charmingly into the laps of the chuckling venture capitalists who waited for meetings on the ratty couches near my desk. Answering the phone consisted of putting the caller on hold and yelling (“John, your mom’s on line one! Alex, Britney Spears’ manager on two!”). I felt at home and appreciated; like I could finally be myself. Miles away from my old cubicled, soul-sucking job, I pitied the poor corporate chumps who hadn’t figured out the wave of the future. The crazy dotcom parties, the rampant, all-day Napster downloading, the free beer in the fridge…it was enough to make me forget that I was crunching numbers all day. This was forever, I thought. I was in loooove. If someone had told me I would be nursing a broken heart only a year later, I would have laughed in their face.

SO MUCH FOR COURTSHIP

Six months later, we moved to a swanky new office and suddenly became a Real Business. Within days, I was working with Ted, a no-nonsense, briefcase-toting, pleated-slacks-wearing Real Accountant with a razor-sharp part straight down the middle of his head. Ted was baffled by my primitive accounting system, the main component of which was a pile of Post-It notes, but seemed impressed that I had kept things running for so long. After a few stabs at asking me about receivables, fiscal years and gross revenue — which were met by my slack-jawed stares in response — he learned to just point and say, “That number there,” if he wanted any kind of coherent answer. But while Ted was adapting to his new situation, I was sliding into the downward spiral of despair. I churned out reports for Ted all day and had horrible dreams about Excel spreadsheets at night. Day after day I gazed longingly at my co-workers frolicking around the new office with the dog, looked back at Ted hunched over his laptop and wanted to cry. This was not the same place I’d fallen in love with. This was not how it was supposed to turn out.

I spent the next few months trying to move into a new position — politely at first, then with increasing desperation. I slowly came to the uncomfortable realization that it wasn’t going to happen, although I was doing a “great job” and being a “good sport.” You have to get the hell out of there, my friends urged. You’re totally being taken advantage of — they don’t appreciate you at all. But I still couldn’t admit that it was over. They really care about me, I would plead. No way are they going to let me just walk away. I couldn’t bring myself to send my résumé out. Somehow, it felt like cheating, and I didn’t want to sneak around. The thought of working somewhere else filled me with dread. My sanity was withering away, however, and I finally broke, setting off a succession of frantic ultimatums that culminated in the humiliating quitting scene.

After a few days of inhaling the requisite pints of Ben & Jerry’s and watching soap operas in my pajamas, I forced myself off of the couch and back into the world. It didn’t take me too long to remember the drill; I shoved my work outfits of jeans and sneakers to the back of the closet, put on some makeup and turned on the charm. Don’t just settle for something on the rebound, I reminded myself. There has to be long-term potential. But interviewing turned into an ever-worsening progression of awkward pauses, weak laughs, nervous coughs and dead-fish handshakes. With every “describe yourself in three words,” I wanted to run screaming and sobbing for the nearest exit. But I pasted on my most detail-oriented, hard-working, team-playing smile and went home to wait by the phone, saying a silent prayer every time it rang.

Then the interviews stopped entirely. “Don’t worry, things will pick up after the election,” my legions of evil headhunters smoothly assured me. “October is always slow.” I soon learned that every season is mysteriously sluggish in job-hunting land. Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas, post-Christmas, President’s Day, my mom’s birthday…. I drifted into a series of tawdry temp jobs, each more menial than the last. Often, while trudging to a Xerox machine or trying to transfer calls on dauntingly elaborate phones, I’d find myself ambushed by fleeting pangs of nostalgia. How is everyone doing? Do they miss me? Is the dog still peeing on the floor? I secretly gloated when ex-co-workers relayed tales of my replacement’s blunders. They couldn’t find anyone who could compare to me, I would chuckle to myself. I bet they wish they had me back. But I would leave my temp jobs every night feeling vaguely cheap and used, sometimes not sure if I’d be there the next day, or if they even knew my name. As the months wore on, I avoided my old office buddies more and more, dreading the inevitable moment when I would have to admit that I had no earthly idea what I was doing with myself. I was no longer the “take this job and shove it” rebel; I was just another unemployed loser.

Nine months later, confidence and self-esteem worn down to a bitter nub, on the verge of executing my plan for the untimely demise of all human resources professionals in Manhattan, I finally got a job. And it’s a perfectly good job — stable, dependable company, dental plan, 401k, free soda in the fridge, no number-crunching, pleasant people to chat with around the water cooler. I can sleep at night and don’t wake up with a knot in my stomach anymore. But, although I swore up and down that I would never again fall for a grungy loft and a dog, as I sit here in my new cubicle, eyes woozy from dull fluorescent lights, I can’t help longing for the days of Howard Stern and Chinese takeout.

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alison evans would like to stop temping. send her any and all job leads. be there when she refreshes her hotmail. please.