Wooziness has set in. I’m back at Newsweek for the hours dictated by my half-time leave. It’s Thursday and I’m keeping tabs on the “Cyberscope” page, which is, more or less, my usual job. I’m just sitting here, not doing much more than moving one finger as I click the left button of my computer mouse, and yet I feel like I’ve been piloting a jumbo jet for the past 18 hours. Which, in a way, I have. It’s surprising how much caloric energy working in a kitchen drains from your body even if you’re mostly standing around taking in the view. Then, when you get home at midnight or whenever, you’re way too pumped to go to bed immediately. You could try laying your head on the pillow, but your mind would just race around like a car at a speedway.
So you might as well stay awake and drink. In the past few days, I’ve been hitting the whisky bottle. I first drew it out of its hiding place in the back of our cupboard, where my husband puts his top-shelf stash, after my shift on Sunday. I reached in, grabbed it by its neck, just below the hardened dribble of red wax that seals the new bottle shut, and pulled it toward me. On the way out, the bottom corner of the bottle caught the edge of a cast-iron gratin dish with a loud clank. The clanking of bottle-to-gratin-dish quickly became a glitch in the process of me withdrawing the bottle each time I poured myself an inch of the brown liquid, one easily avoided if I could just hold it more horizontal as I took it out. By last night, there was no more clanking.
Being back at the office after a few days in a so-called blue-collar work environment accentuates what I find to be neurotic behavior on the part of my white-collar colleagues. Everyone who works on my floor, an editorial floor of the magazine, went to very good colleges, filled with other ambitious pre-professionals like them. If you’ve made it to Newsweek, the thinking goes, you’ve probably clawed your way up through a series of jobs and landed at what could be your last. Or, maybe, you’re a journalistic star and this is just one stop on a fabulous ride through the upper echelons of the media kingdom. (Or, if you’re like me, you got lucky and then held on for dear life.) Smart people, in other words.
My fellow Newsweekers are a joy to work with: They’re funny, responsible, and they don’t take themselves too, too seriously, which is a godsend in this business. But they’re also deeply neurotic individuals. They think too much, and that begets weird social behavior. For example, you know how when you’re walking down a hallway and you pass someone for the fourth time that day? Normal people either exchange polite grins or say hello anyway, or, alternately, don’t make eye contact at all. Here at Newsweek there are people who will look you directly in the eye as you approach each other from opposite ends of a corridor, continue to stare you down as if itching for a gun fight, and then walk right by you without acknowledging the passing or the staring or the fact that this was a weird thing to have done. As I like to say when I’m feeling young, “What-ever!”
Another thing is that people here don’t deal well with the natural hierarchy of ability levels. Everyone knows that when you get a group of workers together there are going to be some people who are really good at doing stuff, and others who are less good. Let’s examine the reporting-writing-editing side of the magazine for the sake of simplicity. These folks all share certain attributes: the ability to say or write what they think in a direct way (“good communication skills”); the ability to look across unrelated-seeming occurrences and see the connections between them (“good analytic skills”); a mental database of facts and the ability to draw upon it in a timely manner ("smart”); attention to detail; and a love for the craft of writing, which is simply putting well-chosen words together in long strings.
For those who are naturally great writers or great reporters, life here is easy. You are good, and that’s that. Cheers and amen! For the less-than-stellar or the just plain incompetent, life can be socially humiliating in the most tortured ways. You’re on the receiving end of fleeting, uncomfortable glances. No one asks you to lunch. It’s similar to how some people react to meeting a handicapped person by totally ignoring the fact that he or she is sitting in a wheelchair or has no right arm. At Newsweek, if you have no right arm (belatedly discovered, of course, only after they’ve given you the job and you’ve sailed through the probationary period), you won’t be fired. You’ll just be ignored. Unseen. The underlying message is: “We have no use for you.” This is ultimately more devastating than “Hey, you have no right arm!” could ever be, because armlessness, as we know, is not the end of the world.
In the kitchen, I would imagine, there’s not much you can do to hide a missing arm. On top of that, the ethos seems different: Everything is fixable. You have value; it’s just your ability to judge meat-doneness that sucks. I could be idealizing this kitchen. In fact, I probably am. After all, it’s only been four days and, for all I know, I might be getting the royal treatment because I am a working journalist and these people are no dummies. I should stop. Thinking about it too much won’t make me chop any faster.