An excerpt from Steve Belanger’s new book: My Penthouse Past: Failing My Way Up the Corporate Ladder of an Empire Built of Skin.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Steve Belanger’s new book has got to be one of the most hilarious memoir’s we have read recently. At the age of twenty two, Steve begins work at Penthouse when a friend of his, eager to be promoted himself, weasels Steve into his old job. A job Steve does not have the skills for and knows nothing about. By the time Steve leaves Penthouse eight years later, he has “failed his way up” to Budget Director for Bob Guccione’s entire enterprise. This chapter of the book recounts Steve’s first day on the job.
Up until this moment, in all of the myriad jobs and enterprises I had been involved in, I had never lived more than ten minutes from where I worked. This made getting up, out the door and to my post a pretty straightforward process. Those days were gone. I now had a ninety-minute door-to-door commute to deal with. Like everything else, I got used to it eventually and passed the time reading the paper, doing crosswords or dozing off. But for those first few weeks, each trip into and out of the city felt like I was taking the red-eye to Los Angeles. It was cramped, exhausting and endless. Especially on that first morning. I was squashed in between two train-commuting veterans who weren’t going to give up an inch of space to a tall, gangly neophyte, no matter how uncomfortable I looked.
The ride went even slower with the added stress of not really knowing what I’d gotten myself into. The spreadsheet thing still had me scared. In the two weeks since I’d gotten the job, I actually had a friend teach me some Lotus 1-2-3 basics, so I was hopeful I could at least start figuring things out once I got there. As long as I stayed away from the RCE, I thought I could work it out. I sat on the train and went over my notes for what felt like hours. I was finally distracted by the conductor announcing the Larchmont stop. Larchmont? I was barely halfway there! Son of a…
My new commute consisted of a one-hour ride on Metro North Railroad, then a quick ride on the Times Square Shuttle over to 7th Avenue, and then a three-stop jaunt uptown on the ONE train to 66th Street. An annoying little adventure that in time I could do half-asleep, but on Day One I did with the steely cool of a high school freshman who can’t quite read his class schedule. I thought I was golden until, while sitting on the ONE train, I realized that the first few stops looked unfamiliar. And the numbers were getting lower, not higher. I got on the wrong effing train! We were at 18th Street before I could jump off to try and correct my mistake. I now had ten minutes to get to my first day on the job and I was almost fifty blocks from my destination. I ran across the street and had to use another subway token to go back uptown. That was half my lunch money! I sweated through the long subway ride and found myself racing through the lobby at 9:15.
I assumed that when I got off the elevator, my new boss would be standing there pointing to his watch with a disappointed shake of his head. The doors opened and… he was not there. No one was there. No one except for the scary security guard. He sat there at an ornate, if slightly gaudy desk, which looked too good to hold the New York Post that he was currently devouring with a scholar’s eye. He looked up and gave me the once-over like a street cop eyeing a perp. In fact, he was a cop. A retired one. Penthouse had a small security staff composed entirely of retired cops. One was posted on each floor and a few more protected Bob Guccione’s house. They all wore the same uniform of tan slacks and brown polyester sport coats. They also all wore the same slack-jawed look of bored frustration. As he stared me down, I could already feel my voice going up a few octaves, until I finally broke the silence with a very high-pitched, “Hi, today’s my first day. I’m going to be working for Howard Hobner.” He looked me over wearily, then picked up the phone and punched in a few numbers. “Yeah, I got a kid here for Howie.”
He went back to his paper and I just kind of meandered. I strolled over to the same couch I’d waited on nervously two weeks earlier for my interview. Now I was actually here as a real Penthouse employee. Everything had seemed so nice that first time. White leather couches, gold-trimmed walls and lighting fixtures, granite floors. As I waited nervously the second time, I got a closer look at things and realized things weren’t as glamorous as I’d thought. The leather couches were actually closer to lightly stained vinyl pleather. The gold trim everywhere was quite tarnished in a lot of spots. The place was spotless, but it was easy to see that everything had aged. Kind of like the Penthouse brand itself.
I looked over at the security guard again, and for the first time saw the gun he had holstered to his hip. They have armed guards here? What the hell for?
While I sat there trying to contemplate the need for an armed militia on every floor, a woman finally came out to get me. “Steve? I’m Annette. Come on in.” The security guard barely looked up as she he led me into the inner offices. She explained that she was the secretary for the Cheeky Brit. My mind started racing. Was she bringing me back to see him? Where was Howard? Did the RCE finally get through to him and tell him I wasn’t fit for the position? Are they pissed that I’m so late on my first day? Am I going to be back out on the street in five minutes without a job? Why does that guy have a gun?!
Before any more panic could swell up inside me, we’d arrived at our destination. A dingy beige cubicle in a sea of other dingy beige cubicles. Annette led me in. “Here you go. Howard’s not in today, but he said you should just go ahead and get started.” Then she turned and left. Huh?!
I really thought it was a joke. Like I was on some bizarre episode of Candid Camera (Punk’d was still fifteen years from existence, kids). I sat in the chair and tried to take in my surroundings. The cabinets above the cubicle were lined with every magazine we published in chronological order. The row of Penthouse Magazines was a porn collector’s dream. Then there was a stack of their digest-sized books, Penthouse Forum & Penthouse Variations, as well as their newest magazine, Penthouse Hot Talk. In another cabinet, which I’m guessing was the scholarly side, was every issue of Omni Magazine. I wasn’t very familiar with that one but I remember the cool kids in my high school reading it. That made me think back a bit to what my younger self would think if someone had told him, when he was a boobie-obsessed thirteen-year-old, that in the not-too-distant future, he’d be sitting in the middle of enormous stacks of endless erotica. Every issue of Penthouse lay before me, including I’m sure the very first one I’d ever seen that day a little over a decade earlier which my friend Kevin had stolen from his brother.
I spun around in my chair like a Bond villain and tried to figure out what to do. I turned on the hulking grey computer and when it stirred to life with an unbelievably loud “BEEEEP!” I assumed someone would come yell at me. No one did. I had that fear for most of my first few months, that someone would come yell at me, realize I was a sham and throw me out on the street. Not a great way to start a career.
The computer screen slowly grew brighter, but all it gave me was four simple characters,
followed by a blinking cursor.
I knew they worked off an early version of Windows, but I didn’t know how to get there from this ominously simple screen. I felt like the constantly blinking cursor was mocking me, inviting me to enter a command that would no doubt fail. After a lengthy staring contest with said cursor, I decided to at least try typing W-I-N-D-O-W-S to see if that would work, but I only got as far as W-I-N-D before deleting it, all for fear that it would set off an error alarm louder than the initial beep. I decided to lay low and read the company directory that was on the desk by the phone. Yes, on the first day of my new job, I was literally reading the phone book.
After what seemed like hours of boredom, I looked at the clock. 9:30. Uh-oh. Had I somehow stepped into a black hole where time is absorbed at an infinitely slower rate? The day had barely begun and I was already exhausted and had no clue what to do with myself. Then it finally hit me! My buddy Jack, who had done this job for a year, was right upstairs; I’ll just ask him what to do! I figured out how to dial another extension on the phone system (really, nothing was simple back then). Jack was thrilled with his shiny new job as an advertising copywriter and really didn’t want to deal with his old gig anymore, but said he’d try and swing down later and show me the ropes. Okay, that was a step in the right direction. One more glance at the clock…9:31.
What to do? I was done trying to figure out the computer. I was afraid if I started mucking round and screwed up, sirens might go off and a huge net would fall on me from the ceiling. I opened a few of the drawers and found some files that seemed interesting, but none of them made much sense to me, so I left them alone, too. I looked around again at the stacks of reading material that surrounded me. I had the urge to grab a Penthouse and take a peek, but that didn’t seem like the right thing to do at work. Even though I now worked AT Penthouse. In the interest of research, I grabbed an Omni and started reading it. It was a science fact-and-fiction magazine and I wasn’t a very big fan. Sure, I geeked out to Star Wars like every other kid growing up in the ’70s, but I couldn’t get into the magazine’s content. The science articles were about nuclear fusion and quantum physics and other stuff that went right over my head. Even the science fiction was too highbrow for me, so I slipped the Omni back into the rack while fighting a terrible case of the yawns.
My body was still adjusting to the early morning wake-up and long commute. No breakfast and no coffee had me ready to pass out by the time 10 AM rolled around. Since I’d been mostly ignored here on my new island of isolation, I decided I had no other choice but to give my brain a quick hit of stimulation by perusing a Penthouse. I grabbed one at random and flipped slowly through the pages. I didn’t stay on any one page too long for fear of getting caught staring at a picture of a naked lady. I eventually paused on one of the articles and decided to give it a read. It was something about Israel and the Palestinian state. Jeez, is this what the articles are really about? I continued to flip and finally landed on the first pictorial. That’s when it finally, truly, sank in. I work for Penthouse Magazine. Yikes.
It seemed cool in theory when I took the job, but now looking at the pictures in the bright light of day (or actually the dim light of a humming fluorescent), for the first time it felt a little weird. As I contemplated these new thoughts while staring at a picture of buxom young woman doing a headstand, I suddenly heard a voice from behind me. “What are you looking at you perv?!!” she shouted. I turned to see a very attractive girl, maybe a few years older than myself, standing there. I started to stammer and stutter and she just laughed. “Hi, I’m Susie.” Embarrassed, I just stared back. “I’m a friend of Jack’s, we met at Happy Hour the other night.”
“Oh right. Susie. Of course! Hi, how’s it going?” I still had no clue who she was; I met so many people that night. But I didn’t care, she was cute and friendly, and most importantly she was talking to me! A respite from my solitary confinement in cubicle hell.
We made some small talk, and then I embarrassed myself again by not being able to stifle a big yawn. I apologized and asked her where I could get myself a cup of coffee. “Didn’t Jack or someone give you the tour yet?”
“Not really,’ I said shyly.
“Typical for this place. Come on, I’ll show you around.” And she did, she showed me the coffee room (important!), the bathrooms (even more important!!) and kind of gave me the lay of the land, pointing out a few people I sort of recognized from the bar the other night. We continued making small talk along the way and if this had been a typical ’80s movie, the character of me (played by a young John Cusack) would have won her over with sparkling dialogue, a brief glimpse of my inner dark side and a hysterical wit that would hold the promise of years of entertainment. But it wasn’t an ’80s movie and by the time we headed back to my cubicle, I could already tell she had grown bored of me. She was a city-smart girl wise to the ways of the world and I was the clueless rube from Connecticut who just spent five minutes talking about Huey Lewis music. Idiot!
As I went back to my desk, she waved a non-committal goodbye and her conversation just drifted off like an audible ellipse. My “Thanks for the tour!” trailed after her shadow and fell on deaf ears. And just like that I was alone again. The magical ’80s movie connection was not to be. After her quick judgment call in that first ten minutes, she decided I had nothing to offer. She was probably right. Our only communication for the next eight years would be a smiling nod as we passed each other in the halls. Who says first impressions aren’t important?
Eschewing the weirdness I’d felt about looking at the Penthouse mags earlier in the morning, I now rifled through two years worth of issues. It only took about forty minutes for the allure of the naked pictures to wear off. It was shocking how quickly the fascination dissipated. Maybe it was because there was such a vast array to choose from that the taboo was now gone, and with it the desire. Don’t get me wrong, I still loved the idea of naked women, but staring at pictures of them for hours at a time? Turns out it wasn’t my thing. Before long I would be comparing working there to working at a donut shop…the first morning is great as you gorge yourself on all the free donuts, but pretty soon you never want to see another chocolate-glazed again. And that’s how it was with the girlie pics.
I eventually started flipping past the pictorials looking for something to read. Luckily, I found that mixed in with the pictorials they actually did have some pretty decent articles (Middle Eastern politics aside.) A profile of David Gilmour talking about his Pink Floyd days and a mob informant who worked for the FBI kept me entertained for the better part of the morning.
Finally, at around 11:30, Jack came down. Not a moment too soon either. I was seconds away from falling asleep at my desk. He didn’t have a ton of time because he had to get back upstairs. I should have realized then that my new job must really suck if he was so desperate to get away from it. He was now a copywriter up in the advertising promotions department. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but he said he wanted to be more creative.
But for now, he showed me just enough about my job as a Production Analyst so that I could keep up appearances. My main duties were budget reports and paper inventory. For the budget stuff I just had to write up an analysis of how much each issue of every magazine had cost to produce once all the bills had come in. He showed me the drawer full of previous reports (which I had cluelessly looked through earlier) and gave me the broad strokes of how they were done. The paper inventory part seemed a little tougher. I was supposed to order and keep track of all of the paper used to print all of our magazines. Penthouse alone produced millions of copies each month. Add in all of the other titles and we were looking at literally tons and tons of paper. Jack showed me the order forms, but I had trouble comprehending that I would be placing orders for millions of dollars worth of paper. Surely someone with more knowledge and experience should be in charge of that! Would you let a kid with forty-four dollars in his bank account be in charge of millions of dollars worth of purchases?
Like he did with the budget sheets, Jack just showed me some examples and told me to keep doing it like he’d done it. Then he left, back to solve some advertising copywriter emergency upstairs. I stared at the pile of folders and papers in front of me. I was still pretty clueless but at least I had a starting point.
After reading Jack’s past budget reports, I started seeing how repetitive most of it was and figured I could keep doing the same type of thing. As I said, in my last job as a computer programmer, I basically just took the company’s programs and reformatted them for whatever client I was working on. It seemed like I could get away with the same thing here. I just had to study what Jack had done in prior months and repeat the process. I could totally do that!
Emboldened, I figured it was time to take my lunch break. I strolled around the neighborhood. The office was at 66th and Broadway, so Lincoln Center was just around the corner. Part of me was still amazed that I was working in New York City. I was strolling around the Lincoln Center fountain just like those kids from Fame (not the movie, but the TV version). This was where they had shot West Side Story. I could look downtown and see the Twin Towers that King Kong had climbed carrying Jessica Lange. Everywhere I looked were apartment buildings like the ones Felix Unger and Oscar Madison lived in. To a kid so obsessed with pop culture, I’ll admit, this was pretty darn cool. I found a cheap-looking deli, bought my first over-priced big city sandwich and headed back to work.
For the rest of the afternoon I continued to pore over Jack’s old reports and at one point got brave enough to try my hand at the computer. This attempt went much better and I actually figured out how to get into the Lotus 1-2-3 program. The more I played around, the more I learned. I was beginning to almost feel like I knew what I was doing.
At some point in the afternoon, my phone rang. It was my new boss, Howard, calling to check in and see how I was making out on my first day. He said he was at some big paper conference, but the background sounds made it pretty obvious he was calling from a golf course. We could barely hear each other, so I had to keep talking louder and louder. He kept asking me questions I didn’t know the answers to, so while I was floundering I was also screaming and starting to realize that I was causing a bit of a scene. My new neighbors, who had mostly ignored me so far, wanted to know what the hell the racket was. Their little heads kept popping up out of their cubicles like some office-based Whack-a-Mole game. I tried to ignore them and told Howard I was inputting numbers for the new budget report on the computer and that satisfied him enough to get him off the phone. He said he’d probably be back in the office by the end of the week. And that was that. Little did I know that that would be my last human interaction for the entirety of my first week of work.
When five o’clock came around, I sort of expected something to happen, someone to come check up on me, or someone to come tell me it was okay to go home. The day seemed to have lasted forever already, but I wasn’t sure if it was okay for me to leave. I figured I’d stick it out as long as I could. By 5:06 I was out the door and headed to the subway. I still wasn’t sure what I’d gotten myself into, but at least the first day was over.
Like I said, the rest of the week went by like I was alone on a desert island. Except I was surrounded by lots of people, who all seemed to be really busy. I nodded and smiled to everyone, and it’s not like anyone was rude, but no one was going out of his or her way to be nice to the new kid. And I say “kid” because I was. I was twenty-two years old, and although I felt like a mature adult (as most twenty-two-year-olds do), I was still a pretty clueless kid. Especially compared to the world-weary publishing lifers surrounding me.
I did what I could to look busy and tried to figure stuff out on the computer, but the whole week dragged by interminably. My one friend in the whole building, Jack, was pretty tied up with his new gig. Worst of all, he was out of the office that Friday. I kind of was hoping the usual Friday Happy Hour would be different this week, since I was now firmly entrenched within the company, but without Jack around, no one really came by to invite me and I didn’t have enough confidence to stroll in by myself and make friends. My first week of work ended exactly like my first day had, with me alone on the subway trying to figure out what the hell I’d done with my life.