mean boss

Losing a Job I Loved Changed My Life in Ways I Could Never Have Imagined

They say that it’s not the first job you land, when you graduate and venture out into the world of business; it’s the second one. To that end, I remember—all those many years ago—being fierce in my determination to land something that would really boost my career (and, not incidentally, my ego) as my second job.

An employment agent directed me to a job whose prospect really set my mind aglow. It wasn’t the money—the salary was little more than the pittance I was then earning; it was the prestige and the glow of success I know I would feel just moving my few pitiful belongings from a noisy building on West 42nd Street in Manhattan to the august ambiance of a Fifth Avenue office tower.

A new department of a respected publishing company had been formed and had already begun staffing up. The man in charge was gracious—you might even say charming—but it was clear to me that he really didn’t know what he was doing. We met; we talked; we seemed to like each other; I felt certain I could work with him. But, as he kept insisting, he wasn’t ready to hire anyone yet.

Weeks passed, months even; I was in agony. I wanted that job so passionately—and so desperately wanted out of my current situation—that I found myself losing sleep. I was also losing weight. Like my mother, weight loss showed immediately in my face, which became even narrower and nearly gaunt as time passed.

Suddenly, I was called back for a follow-up interview. “This is it!” I thought. “The offer is coming.”  I told no one, which was wise, but my heart was beating wildly as I walked the few blocks from one office to the other.

The meeting was pleasant but hardly reassuring. The man in charge was eager to know if I was still interested in the position he had described. I tried not to overstate my eagerness, but, you know, it’s hard to be cool when anxiety and eagerness approach fever-like intensity.

I returned to my office disconsolate. Nothing had changed; no progress had been made; the man in charge was no closer to making a decision then than he had been many weeks earlier. I gnashed my teeth, wishing that another job of equal promise would suddenly present itself and be offered, so I could say no to this man and feel triumphant in spurning his apparent interest in me.

But no. I was stuck, and the drudgery of my current situation became ever more apparent and dispiriting.

Summer came, and I went on vacation—back to California to spend time with my family and a handful of college friends, all of whom remarked that I looked skinny and unwell. My mother just shook her head when she looked at me, convinced that the evils of New York had gotten to me and were bent on turning my life upside down.

Back in New York, I picked up the threads of my job, trying to maintain a modicum of enthusiasm through the tedium I was required to deal with. Then I received a phone call. It was from the H.R. director at that “other” company. Would I make an appointment to see Mr. So-and-So?  His office was on the 18th floor, down a few levels from where my other meetings had taken place.

Today, I think I would have been savvy enough to Google this man—and realize very quickly that he was important, that he had the top editorial job in the company, and that he probably had to put his stamp of approval on anyone being hired by the editors who reported to him.

Instead, I knew nothing. He was just another name. . . another impediment. . . someone else to raise false hopes and ultimately let me down.

I wasn’t late for my appointment, but I didn’t rush to get there. I dreaded it—not the prospect of being interviewed once again for a job I knew I could handle with ease, but because of my certainty that my hopes would, once again, be raised inordinately, only to be thrashed in a mire of disappointment.

Mr. So and So lacked the charm of the man I hoped to work for. Hardly looking at me, he studied my résumé without a flicker of expression and then began asking some desultory questions. He didn’t seem terribly interested in me, and, alas, I did nothing to fire up any positive feelings on his part. He was a shy man, as I would later realize, so dealing with strangers was not easy for him.

How did I handle myself? Well, in truth, I just sat there. I answered whatever he asked and volunteered nothing more, showing almost no expression. I was uncomfortable; I wished I were elsewhere; I saw disaster lurking behind every exchange.

Finally, he looked at my squarely and asked, “Do you have any enthusiasm at all for the job that’s been described to you?”  It was only then that I perked up, trying not to overstate what I suddenly felt were qualities he should be aware of, qualities which had convinced me that the job being filled should definitely be mine.

The man’s concluding handshake was a mite warmer than the limp grasp I’d felt before seating myself in front of his desk, and three days later, the job was finally offered to me. I accepted, and two weeks later left 42nd Street for the last time and began my new job.

It was everything I’d hoped it would be. I liked the staff; I even liked the man in charge—whom I was careful to support as securely and unobtrusively as I could in the months ahead. I knew he came to depend on me, and ultimately I was rewarded. Little over a year after I’d come to work for him, he took me to lunch and announced that the raise he’d initially put in for me had just been doubled. He congratulated me; I was floating; this, indeed, was the best of all possible worlds.

And then something happened; I never knew then and I don’t know now. Suddenly I was being faulted for everything that the über boss was critical of—he being the man with whom I’d had that nearly disastrous final interview.

I didn’t understand it and could hardly believe it at first. I didn’t know how to fight back—or if there was any way I could do that. The die had been cast; I just knew I had somehow fallen from favor.

Meanwhile, our staff had expanded somewhat, as our work load increased. Suddenly, one of the assistants to the company librarian was working in our suite. She and I huddled together regularly on the redo of one particularly troublesome, off-the-mark manuscript. We had common interests, we learned—and often saw each other coincidentally at the theater. As I recall, there was a time when we found ourselves seated only a few rows apart high up in the Family Circle of the old Metropolitan Opera House.

Why didn’t I date her? Well, I knew she had a boyfriend, a young lawyer; at least that’s what was being said. I knew also that, in an office situation as intimate as ours, our dating could be a one-way trip to unhappiness. So, much as I wanted to ask her out, I held back. She had a boyfriend; that was my excuse—it’s what I told my friends, who knew how much I’d come to regard her.

Then the axe fell. I was being let go—”released,” I think was the euphemism in use at the time. The man in charge was clearly distressed at having to tell me. Why? Well, it seemed that “management” (that would have been the top guy) wanted someone with different talents, different skills, in the position I’d held for two-and-a-half years.

I was devastated. How could I deal with this? What would I tell my friends, my family—all of whom knew that I considered this the job of a lifetime, the best of what New York could offer a 28-year-old eager to get ahead

I had plenty of time to contemplate and plan, because I wasn’t being shown the door so quickly. The plan was that I was be “released” only after I’d completed an initial rewrite of a manuscript I’d been working on for several weeks. Which meant I had a few months to deal with my plight and begin reaching toward whatever lay ahead in the future. The absurdity of this arrangement didn’t begin to penetrate until long after I’d left the company.

“He’s saving his ass!” a fellow worker suggested, when word of my coming departure finally seeped its way through the company’s junior staff. I knew my boss was not eager to plunge into a manuscript in desperate need of fixing, not when I’d directed the research and had made solid progress on the rewrite.

But what could I do?  I came to work, did my job, but finally started looking. . . writing letters . . . sending out résumés. My heart wasn’t in it; there was nowhere else I wanted to be except in that office, doing that essential work with people I’d come to love and depend on.

My researcher said little; we continued to work together, as needed, just as before. But when a termination date was finally set—about three months after I’d been given notice—she announced that she wanted to give me a farewell party. “It won’t be in the office,” she assured me. I said I’d be there.

The party, at her apartment, was fun. Relaxed. A lot of laughs. At some point, as people began to leave, my hostess’s boyfriend showed up. I disliked him on sight and, possibly after drinking more than I should, left the party in something akin to a jealous rage.

But since I was no longer working with her, or with anyone else in my former company, I no longer felt constrained. I phoned her—at home, not at the office—and asked if she’d have dinner with me. She seemed surprised. Pleased? I wasn’t sure.

After a few dates, when it was clear to me—if not already to her—that we were a very good fit, I suffered something akin to a divine revelation. I still think about it.

If I hadn’t been “released” back then, I’d never have approached her—and would probably have fumed and punished myself if she’d gone off and married her lawyer boyfriend. But no longer held back by the decorum of office teamwork, I could get in touch with her, arrange dates, set up weekends, without fear that everyone else we worked with would know.

Yes, I got another job. it was okay, hardly a dream but serviceable. It was an acceptable transition—from what had seemed ideal to what would come next. My immediate boss? He lasted about a year, then suddenly became a “freelance consultant.” I never knew what had prompted him to leave or—as was likely—had finally propelled him out of the company.

The girl? I will not dissemble. I married her, about two years later.

That was long, long ago. We have a grown daughter, herself now married.  But I often do think back and do so with a kind of chill.

It was as though some hand had descended into the cluttered mix of my business and social lives and rearranged everything. It was bewildering back then and for many years thereafter. But whether it was pure accident or divine interference, I’ll never be certain. In truth, it was the best thing that could have happened.