Monday, Nov. 4, 1996
Woe, woe, and woe. The contractor who is a Robert Redford look-alike, who came back to verify dimensions last week and promised to let us have an estimate the very next day, has vanished again. How hard it is to live in a mostly gutted house, and without a bathtub! How hard to contemplate the sensitive intricacies of what used to be known, in simpler days, as “hiring”!
Firing is easier, but not much. Over the weekend, I happened to overhear a pair of executives discussing an inefficient secretary. They worried about how to dismiss her, and whether to do it at all. Would she be able to live on Social Security? How would she manage her rent? How, above all, would she deal with the anger and the hurt? In the end, it turned out, they decided to temporize.
I have been fired twice, in both instances with admirable speed. The first time I was 22, just out of graduate school with a master’s degree; this was at a time when the degree counted for something, and you had to spend a year writing a thesis. (Mine was on The Later Novels of Henry James.) It makes no sense to me now that I actually applied for a job with an accounting firm, and that they, in their folly, actually took me on. The firm was called Bennett, Chirlian, and the functionary who hired me was named David Hume. “Oh, like the British philosopher,” I made the mistake of saying. I had with me, for lunch-time reading, a book on critical theory by René Wellek and Robert Penn Warren, standard literary fodder in that innocently pre-deconstruction period. Monday, my starting day, I was given a mass of numbers and a set of long printed forms; my job was to type the numbers into the white spaces on the forms. Liquid white-out hadn’t yet been invented–if you hit the wrong key you had to scrub away with a typewriter eraser, which often enough scrubbed a hole in the page. I hit many wrong keys and made many holes.
Tuesday, my second day, I was summoned into the office of the potentate, who was either Mr. Bennett or Mr. Chirlian; I wasn’t sure which. My assignment was to go over to Schirmer’s, the music store, to buy a score for Mr. B’s or Mr. C’s gifted daughter, who was, I was told, just my age. This was especially humiliating; it put me in mind of a story by Mary Lamb that I had read in childhood, called “The Changeling,” wherein one girl is esteemed and the other humbled.
Wednesday seemed strangely quiet. No one asked me to type anything, and Mr. Hume, still unaware that he was a philosopher’s namesake, passed me by with cold indifference. Thursday, he handed me a small check and told me I needn’t bother to come back Friday. Carrying the talisman of my Wellek-and-Warren, I left that afternoon weeping with the shame of failure. My job had lasted four days.
The second time I was fired, the job also lasted four days, though spread over four months. The late Anatole Broyard was writing a monthly column for the New York Times Book Review, and Michael Levitas, who was editor then, had the idea of adding three other columns, one a week, by three different hands. The three new columnists were Denis Donoghue, the eminent critic, the novelist Marilynne Robinson, and myself. Broyard’s column was dependably witty, erudite, and always accessible. The newcomers, it soon developed, were found to be too cerebral, too dense, too–in short–highbrow. Shortly after I submitted my fourth (and final) column, the phone call from Levitas came; I knew the message before he spoke. I was in good company; all three of us were fired simultaneously, while Broyard went on as before, the unique master of his difficult monthly art.
This, by the way, is the sixth day of the 10 days I was hired to write this “Diary.” It seems to be more reminiscence than diary. Will I be fired before the rest of the week is out?