Any illusions I had about the end of college being the glorious culmination of two decades of education and personal growth crumbled the spring of my senior year. I’d lost the thrill of writing by becoming an expert at regurgitating the analysis-thesis-evidence structure in English class after English class. Reading 700-page novels under duress and then talking about them for twenty minutes in seminar had started to feel more like punishment than education. My vision of college as a golden era came abruptly to an end one miserable spring day when my best friend since high school exploded at for me for reasons she refused to explain. Life in the apartment we’d shared for three years deteriorated into an exercise in silent awkwardness. Then, after patiently waiting for my finals to be over, my boyfriend unceremoniously dumped me, leaving me no choice but to move back home after graduation.
Given my academic burnout, I’d decided I would work after graduation, rather than apply to law school right away. My attempts to visualize life without school’s familiar structures always failed when the future would disintegrate into a formless void. Yearning for stability, security, financial independence and ‘real’ adulthood, I agonized over my resume, which while it featured good grades, outlined few ‘skills’ and no real ‘experience’. In the midst of my first true existential storm and down a best friend and a boyfriend, I wallowed in defeat, convinced that I had little to offer the world but dumb hurt and confusion. As a poster child for the early 2000s’s brand-new social media experiment, combined with a natural tendency to hemorrhage prose, I responded to the world’s cruelty not with determined action, but by excessively sad and thoughtful…blogging.
I attended my graduation ceremony and the celebrations feeling more like a guest at my own funeral and wake, then dutifully moved back home, leaving life as I knew it behind. From my childhood bedroom, between bouts of tears, I scoured job listings, hoping that with each new day I’d feel less numb as the summer bled by.
The interview was going well, better than the others I’d had. The law office, on the 9th floor of a shiny humming behemoth in the financial district of San Francisco, looked out through floor-to-ceiling windows over the tiered hills of Chinatown, and was filled with art and leather chairs at price points a recent college grad couldn’t fathom. The two strangers, at whom I had been nervously but enthusiastically babbling for over an hour, seemed pleased.
The man, after whom the office was named, wore exclusively what I’d soon learn was Ralph Lauren’s current season of menswear. He was a loud, wiry-gray-haired dead-ringer for Jack Nicholson, whose sharp intelligence was framed by ferocious eyebrows. His snarling smile featured the perfect banks of white teeth of a retired politician, which is exactly what he was; a former multi-term California state representative.
“There is one thing you have to be OK with before we offer you this job,” he said, pointedly making eye contact with the business-suited woman sitting across from me, with whom he shared the office.
“I have a wife, and a mistress. You will interact with both of them.” They looked at me, waiting for my response, probably entertained by the scene. I looked right back at them without flinching, wondering in the tense moment of silence they’d left me to fill, if I was supposed to have been more alarmed by this admission. My gut reaction didn’t matter. I needed the job.
“OK,” I said.
I had successfully entered the professional world, an alternate universe of tired, stressed-out, power-suited power-lunch and power-dinner attenders. They wasted no time making the successful operation of their political consulting firm and certain elements of their personal lives my responsibility. I handled all communications and research projects, the accounting, the drafting of contracts, the nervous scurrying downtown carrying $30,000 in cash, the making sure all five luxury SUVs and four mortgages – for the man, the wife and stepson, and the mistress – were paid on time, and that everyone knew when it was done.
“I need yesterday’s draft of the shipyard contract,” he growled at me, storming into the office. “NOW!”
I lingered in the doorway to his office, tense as always. “It’s done. It’s on the left side of your desk.”
Flinging his jacket on his chair, he madly shuffled through the piles of paper, struggling to locate what I knew was there.“This isn’t the version we worked on yesterday. I need that one. NOW!” His pointed brows furrowed, and his skin would flush red as he bellowed that I was wrong, this wasn’t the draft we’d worked on yesterday, that I needed to organize things better, this isn’t how the office should operate. Any stoicism I’d developed during his legendary outbursts was either due to my becoming numb, or my being more self-assured – I couldn’t tell which. Then, as always, he’d locate what I’d had to fight to assure him was actually there. He’d suddenly go quiet and tell me to leave and to please close the door, without acknowledging that I’d been correct or that he’d just been yelling at me for no reason. Shuffling back to my desk after another senseless battle, I’d wonder whether he or I was the fool.
This was one of my first lessons from the real world – that you can render yourself invisible by doing your job well. When I’d call my mom to check in, mostly to cry into her eternal patience about another week of futile battles with my boss, or his mistress asking me to make prank calls to foreign countries, or something about IRS auditors, or how his impossibly tight cash-flow scheme would sometimes make my paychecks bounce, always the voice of reason, she’d remind me that in all organizations, “someone has to grease the gears”. Despite everything, I had to remember there was honor in doing my job well and making the machine run, no matter what the machine was, or if anyone cared I was doing it.
In addition to introducing me to the world of cash flow management, mortgage payments, creditors, mysterious tax forms and complex, protracted litigations, the man flatly refused to talk to anyone in customer service, like phone operators or bank tellers. The people on the frontlines of any organization, he declared, were “the C students,” and not worth his time. One other lesson came in his terse response to my concern about his never paying parking tickets, when he reminded me that “I make the laws. I don’t worry about them.”
I’d been invited to peer into the world of big-city real estate development and backroom politics, and introduced to how things actually get done in an urban metropolis, which is by the after-hours dealings of the old boys club, with money, and off the record. I was invited to fundraising events at piers where champagne and iced caviar hung from cranes over the waters of the San Francisco bay, where I had the opportunity to converse with past mayors, the political illuminati, to shake hands with Nancy Pelosi herself, and the then-golden boy, John Edwards, before his fall. After one year, over lunch in one of San Francisco’s iconic watering holes, congratulating me, they invited me to become a congressional intern for a good colleague of theirs in Washington D.C., an opportunity of a lifetime, I was told.
The sinister side to big city success, to the beautiful ex-wives, political rivalries, expensive dinners and business empires, seemed manifest to me in strained relationships and twisted families. I’d seen firsthand the level of professional achievement at which some people lose touch with their families, and where hubris and power frequently conflict with ethics. Did I want to enter a world where men of means and intelligence would keep mistresses who favored dumb antics, where estranged daughters would stop by only for money, and idle stepsons had their legs broken in fights outside clubs in Las Vegas? I was always going to be someone who was patient with customer service representatives and didn’t mind driving an old car, buying my own groceries, or simply living my ordinary life.
I felt like I was living in someone else’s dream. In response to the pressures of my first year of living alone in a big city, having earned the respect of the scariest boss I knew I’d ever have, and letting heartbreak and college fade into the past, my character and values had crystallized. I turned the congressional internship down, and thanks to exposure to the makers of the law themselves, never applied to law school – two massive life-altering decisions I’ll always wonder about, but don’t regret. Achievement in any endeavor always requires some sacrifice, but that year I learned exactly what I would and wouldn’t be willing to give up. Sometimes becoming who you are is more about learning who you aren’t.