When I was twenty-two and just out of college, I left the green mountains of Vermont and moved to Boston. An English Literature major, I was looking for a job in publishing, which I saw as a gateway position to my true profession: renowned book critic. I pictured a tasteful apartment in Cambridge, witty, cultured friends. I knew this manifestation might take some time, but I was certain of my trajectory. This was the life I wanted: why would I sabotage it?
Fortunately, I had a friend living in a Boston suburb who offered to put me up while I searched for a job and an apartment. Each morning I boarded a commuter train, then fumbled my way through the city, often taking the wrong subway line and winding up far off course. Exhilarated by everything around me, sights and places I’d only heard about—Quincy Market, Faneuil Hall, Copley Plaza, the Swan Boats, the Common—I didn’t mind these accidental forays and saw them as part of the adventure. At that point, you see, I wasn’t afraid of anything.
Three weeks into my search, I got a call from one of the four employment agencies I had registered with. A small publishing company on Columbus Avenue needed a billing clerk—was I interested? Not the position I had in mind, but a foot in the door, right? Anyway, I was running out of money and didn’t want to impose on my friend any longer. The apartment I found (a tiny studio off Beacon Street) was also a disappointment, but I signed the six-month lease anyway, figuring I’d be moving into something better by then. I slid my name into the mail slot and beamed at it. There I was: a voter, a tax payer, a citizen.
If anyone else had wanted me, I would never have taken the job at Benson Publishing. I might in fact have fled the interview, having seen enough.
Benson Publishing, I soon learned, was a vanity press, though we were not supposed to call it that. Housed in an old warehouse, it was dying by degrees, dying along with its owner, an 88-year-old Christian Scientist named Edward Fleese. To this day, I can recall his Dickensian scowl and the croak of his voice, and I can see the greasy brown suit coat he wore every day, the shoulders littered with dandruff. Every few seconds, if you were close enough, you could see the bits of skin falling off his waxen face and onto his desk pad. A few long strands of oily brown hair looped over the spotted dome of his scalp. His yellowed fingernails, which I couldn’t bear to look at, were long and chipped.
Somehow Mr. Fleese managed to employ seven of us, though of course he paid very little. We all sat at what looked like military surplus desks, in a big room that was always too hot or too cold. Each of us comprised our own department. I was the billing department, and my desk was next to the room’s entrance. What I did each day was type up letters to our clients, requesting prompt payment for services rendered, and at the bottom of the page I’d stick on a Dunn and Bradstreet label for emphasis. These letters were sent to the same list of authors on a rolling basis; when I reached the end of the list, I would start back at A.
Sandra had the job I wanted. She was our editorial department and was responsible for evaluating and editing the occasional manuscripts that came her way. Because new authors equaled revenue, Sandra approved most everything before turning back to her real passion: her elaborate wedding plans. Sandra was a tall, soft-spoken woman, and nothing ruffled her, a knack that made me wistful. She had a habit of tilting her head to one side, probably to keep her long blonde hair out of her face, and so she appeared kind and attentive.
Sam, our funny man, was in charge of marketing. I’m not sure what exactly he did for Benson Publishing, but he was very skilled at marketing himself. We were all trying to get out of there, but Sam was especially energetic about it, each week coming up with ingenious new resumes—which he’d hand over to me for proof-reading (there was no automatic spellcheck back then; this was the era of noisy, balky typewriters). I adored Sam. He made me laugh, the way he mugged faces when Mr. Fleese walked past, and I loved the notes he used to drop on my desk on his way to the men’s room, quips that amused and sustained me.
Ida was the art department, in charge of designing book covers. Ida had a face like a fox and was nasty in a smiling, backhanded way. No one liked her. She was a lousy artist, which didn’t seem to matter to Mr. Fleese, either because didn’t know this or didn’t care. Ida spent weeks laboring over a single awful cover, which she would then hold up for applause.
Fitz was…here’s the thing: I never knew what Fitz was hired to do. Much older than the rest of us, Fitz was a corpulent alcoholic with flaming cheeks and a sweet nature. Stubbornly, oddly, Fitz dressed for success: black slacks, rumpled white shirt, striped tie (the rest of us wore casual clothes that reflected our opinion of our status). Fitz had positioned his department strategically, his desk being the only one that Mr. Fleese couldn’t view from his office, and he could usually be seen with his head buried in his arms, peacefully sleeping the day away. We all liked Fitz, and on the days he didn’t make it into work, we lied for him, assuring our boss that he had indeed called in, with the flu, a funeral, whatever we could think of; we usually agreed on something before Mr. Fleese arrived.
Last was the shipping department: Eddie and Zach, two part-time college students who could rarely be depended on to ship a box of books without incident. Much of what they sent out came right back to us—insufficient postage or a bum address. At these times Mr. Fleese could be heard haranguing them—the shipping room was a dark cubby off to the side—and looking up from your desk you could see, beyond Mr. Fleese’s flying arms, the bored postures and hangdog faces of Eddie and Zach. Eddie, the more talkative of the two, would promise to do better, while Zach, who was constantly stoned, would just nod and smile. Then Mr. Fleese would shuffle back into his office, Eddie would try to look productive, and Zach would amble off to the stock room, where, in the towering stacks of books we would never sell, he had made a nest to nap in.
As you can imagine, booksellers were not exactly clamoring for our products, but we did have a few pearls—tabletop books with gorgeous photographs, slim volumes of surprisingly good poetry. Several of our authors were foreigners who did not understand the contracts they were signing; others simply trusted us, assuming we’d keep up our end of the bargain and get their beloved works out into the world. Sandra said that was the worst part of her job, calling those unwitting authors to give them “the good news.”
It was a job, as one would say, and after a short time I got used to the degradation. My tasks were not difficult: answering the mostly silent phone and typing up form letters. Easy as the work was, it seldom passed muster. My biggest challenge was trying to figure out what I did wrong. When Mr. Fleese found an error or disagreed with my wording, he’d crumple up the letter without a word and toss it on the floor. After he went back into his office, I’d get up from my chair, pick up the ball and smooth it out. Sometimes I spent an hour looking for where I went wrong, which did, on the upside, fill the time.
When you’re twenty-two, time is something you think you have a lot of. I stayed a year at Benson Publishing, rescued not by a better job but by the misguided notion that I needed to leave Boston and move to a place where my luck would change. Things had not worked out so well. No matter how many excursions I went on, the city held me at arm’s length, kept her pleasures to herself. Finding no way in, I gave up and stayed home. The red felt squares on my bathroom floor kept peeling up, and the plaster on the ceiling was falling into the bathtub. The failing motor in the half fridge was waking me up at night, along with panic attacks that kept me wide-eyed from midnight to dawn. The man in the basement apartment below me had lost his job at Honeywell and was now agoraphobic. Sometimes his letters wound up in my mail slot, and when I went down to his apartment to deliver them, he would not open his door all the way: I never even saw his whole face. I began to fear the same fate, that one night my panic would never leave.
Little things helped. Lacing my morning coffee with Jack Daniel’s. Watching TV before work, some mindless show from childhood. Checking my reflection in plate glass windows to make sure I was still there. Fortunately, I had made friends with a beautiful young woman down the hall who dated a succession of doctors and happily supplied me all the Valium I began to require. Panic attacks are common in the young, especially in women making the transition from college to career. You think you’re ready for the world and you’re not. There’s nothing to be done for it; you just have to heal as you go.
My plan to become a book critic had slipped a few notches; I was allowing modifications, leeway. I had no idea how or why this happened. It is said that everything occurs for a reason, and we all wind up where we should. I doubt it. I don’t think life has that sort of structure. I think youth is something we mostly bumble through, and usually squander, and that it can’t be and shouldn’t be any other way. We are old so much longer than we are young, and there is ample opportunity to be wise.
I live in Napa now, three thousand miles from my past. Napa is a lovely place, and one that suits me. But Boston will always be my favorite city, because I was young there, and scared, and hopeful anyway.
I remember one particular afternoon at Benson Publishing, when dust motes floated above us, and the hands on the wall clock weren’t moving, and a mantle of submission had settled over the room. Sandra was filing her nails, Sam was crafting another resume, Fitz was sleeping, I was leafing through a travel magazine, when Ida said: “It’s snowing.” We all got up then—even Fitz roused himself—and gathered at the dirty windows and watched the first snow of the year fall between the red brick buildings. Who would have guessed that decades later, I would look back on this scene, would see each of us with such clarity and tenderness, would love even Mr. Fleese, who did not come out to see the snow.