I grew up in rural New Mexico and spent my early twenties broke and hitch-hiking around France and the UK. This experience shaped many of my...read more current sensibilities. My stories and essays have appeared in the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, PureHoney Magazine, Red Fez, The Daily Texan and Downtown Magazine. I am a former editor and now contributor-at-large for Fields Magazine. Additionally, I hold a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and an MA from the American University of Paris. I now live in Brooklyn, where I have a lot of work to do.
I also work as an office assistant at a boutique travel agency on the Upper West Side.
Getting laid off from a job you hate is like getting dumped by a lover you secretly always thought you were too good for anyway. It stings because you were supposed to be the one doing the leaving. But once the break’s been made, everything is actually better because… you’re free.
When I moved to New York I had in my mind, like most people, an image of what my life would be like here. I’d be working in a posh high-rise magazine office, with windows for walls and sunlight flooding in like piano keys.
I pictured myself wearing A-line skirts and hailing taxis with perfection. That’s not, obviously, what happened —not at first, at least.
My first job was at an ESL school in midtown. Every morning I led classes full of retired Japanese and Russian men through language exercises.
“Repeat after me!” I’d sing: “Today, I will visit the Statue of Liberty. The Sta-tue of Liberty. The Staaa-tchooo… of Liberty. of Liberty. Yes.”
Every afternoon I spent prowling and snarling up streets I’d read about in books. Through Murray Hill, Spanish Harlem and West End Avenue. Into art galleries and up to the top floors of public libraries.
I landed a part-time copy-editing gig at a fashion magazine in Tribeca. The office was actually an old apartment that had been painted entirely white and was barer than bones except for a few desks.
A battalion of skeletal interns stood at the ready —hopeful FIT students who worked unconscionable hours. It was a manic kind of office you could walk into and out of at any time of day, mostly because the pay was so bad. It was there I first understood an incredible thing—that New York is a never-ending carousel.
In an ordinary day, there might be only 24 hours. But in Manhattan, if you’re determined, you can stretch that 24 to 28. You can clock in a few hours at one shitty job, pick up a paycheck, step out the door and straight onto the express train to downtown—spinning round and round on a great mechanical cogwheel. This city runs on fumes and inertia. It doesn’t ever stop.
In my free time, I consumed novels. All kinds of novels—that saturated my imagination of the neighborhoods with life and color and texture. James Baldwin introduced me to Harlem, and Edith Wharton to the social elite. I became familiar with Renata Adler while crammed between strangers on the A train; Tom Wolfe, Joseph Mitchell, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and many, many more.
I was always broke, so I was always on Craigslist looking for extra work. Every ad I answered was like a glimpse into another microcosm of dysfunction—yet another local stop on the merry-go-round of urban schizophrenia. Often, I felt like a tourist gaping at the faces of all the people streaming past me, stepping on and off the wheel o fortuna, as if this was all just business as usual.
“Stand clear of the closing doors, please,” I thought every time I said goodbye to another odd job I knew I wouldn't miss. Another day, another dollar, another page filled in my notebook. I found it all exhilarating.
I am aware this isn't a lifestyle that most adults ascribe to. I am not, however, most adults. I came to New York in search of something. I was hungry.
I was happy.
I was free. I’d been living and working this way for about a year when I got offered a position at my first startup. At the time, I didn’t know anything about startups, but the salary offered was stupidly high. I'd have been crazy not to take it. The company bought me a laptop and everything. This fact thrilled me. It afforded me the false illusion that I’d “made it.”
And the truth was: my own laptop was desperately on the fritz. So it was a major stroke of luck that I should come into some money.
Of course I knew, deep down, that this job wouldn't really change my life. On the one hand I was proud of myself! I felt so quietly valiant because, for most people, it’s not easy. To move to New York alone and earn a sleek, well-paying job. I don’t care what the Ivy Leaguers say. It’s hard.
But do you know what changed? In that moment that I took the job in tech, I doubled my annual income. Sure. I joined a gym and bought some new clothes. I rolled up my sleeves and embraced clippy B2B marketing slogans as if they were my own. I reveled in the modern-day wonder that is the “millennial office” — Slack, glass walls, and standing desks — apps for everything. Cold-pressed juice, the 12-hour work day.
It wasn’t immediately clear, to me, what I had lost. That became more clear as time went on. As the bridle and cold metal bit of startup employment cut harder into my cheeks, trying to steer me by the teeth—stumbling, knobby-kneed and skittish, away from everything I thought and felt and knew.
What I’d forfeited was my right to self-agency. I’d never known a job could do that to you—rob you of your rights to ride the New York carousel. It was like someone had jammed a block of wood into the gears of the machine. My internal world screeched and sparked and came to an abrupt and jolting halt. It was like slamming into a brick wall.
The pressure at this job was tremendous. Our company was signing clients at a much faster rate than we could deliver work. It was explained to me that this was the point, that rapid growth is one of the central tenets of startup scripture. Exploding into a big company overnight is how you get important people to look at you. It's how you make your millions.
My new colleagues explained this to me with the enthusiasm of app (!) adherents who'd recently drunk the kool-aid. I absorbed the information with good-natured curiosity, but I found I had a saturation point when it came to the worship of cute tools that enhance productivity.
For example, look: here’s a shiny new app that lets you read your emails over here, instead of over there. It makes your phone ring like crazy with each and every notification. This tool was designed to make us more efficient, but secretly, it made me flustered.
And look: here’s another app that records, literally, everything you do, and broadcasts it to the rest of the office in real time. This particular monstrosity has a sneaky little ghost for a logo. It was allegedly invented to increase “transparency” and reduce anxiety. In my case, it amplified my anxiety by at least three-fold.
There was something else causing me anxiety, too, although I don’t know the right way to talk about it. It had to do with my relationship with my boss, who for the purposes of this essay I’ll call Leonard. Leonard was a smart and likeable guy. He was the founder of the company. He was the person who hired me. I believe he had a crush on me.
It all started innocently enough. Leonard paid extra attention to my work, which was vaguely exciting but also grueling because it dragged tasks out interminably. I was aware of the other people in the office being a little piqued that I was getting so much attention from the boss—it was a small office. There were six of us when I started, with only one other woman. So we were all privy to each other’s conversations.
With the others, Leonard bantered. But with me he made gestures. When he noticed me writing notes on printer paper, he ordered moleskine notebooks for the entire office. I didn’t have the heart to tell him yellow legal pads would have made more sense. And when he took us to a celebratory dinner at a trendy restaurant, he made a show of asking me to order the wine, which embarrassed me. At the same time, I liked him, and I found his gestures endearing.
It came out in time that we’d had parallel childhoods—our fathers were both mathematics professors in remote and utterly forgettable middle-American towns. My route to the city had been meandering, full of art, adventures and mishaps. His had been by way of startups. It was a business he was very good at.
Leonard had so fiercely metabolized the tech-world work ethic that he ignited it in all the people he hired. Ostensibly, that included me, and I did my best to play along.
In general, I found the gung-ho office culture to be mildly fun but mostly exhausting. The effect it had on most people was that they felt pressured to stay extra late, or to take work home on the weekends.
I realize that for a lot of people, long hours are the reality of the working world. A lot of people take pride in being committed to the companies they work for—to the point of their jobs becoming a major part of their identities. Most 20-somethings in New York, especially in this tech-startup “cool-kid’s club,” will smirk at you if you say you're not a careerist, or that you value your free time, or that on the train this morning you read a book instead of listening to “Product Hunt.”
Everyday at the office we were essentially required to put on goggles that altered our vision. Everything we did was awesome. Everything we said was punchy. The industry leaders that we swooned over at lunch were other startup founders.
We published articles in prominent business journals under the guise of ethical thought leadership, in which we name-dropped all our clients. Then, internally, we tallied every name drop as free advertising.
If nothing about that strikes you as fishy, let me spell it out for you: we were writing sleek marketing copy that masqueraded as honest journalism.
If you’re the kind of person who cares AT ALL that the newspapers you read not be swayed by unseen advertising dollars, then the fact that this was my job should infuriate you. Perhaps I was naive, but I was the only person in my office who balked at it.
Don’t get me wrong, I worked very hard at my assignments. And I had panic attacks often in the bathroom.
Journalistic qualms aside, for me, I began to feel strongly discouraged from expressing my own identity at work. This was partly because of the gender dynamic (the lack of diversity in tech is real and it's painful), and partly because I was the only employee who maintained an active writing life outside of work.
This came to light one day when I got an alert that Leonard was following me on Twitter. I flinched because I hadn’t changed my profile to reflect I didn’t write for my previous job anymore. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t update my social media accounts to show I worked for Leonard. We were ghostwriting. His company didn’t have a website or even a public name.
However, my Twitter feed showed that I was indeed still publishing the occasional, frivolous article in other places, just for fun. Most recently I’d placed a short story in a literary magazine. This was all wildly unrelated to the work I was doing for Leonard. And he’d never asked me to sign a non-compete clause, so there couldn’t possibly be a conflict of interest. But still, I knew he was offended.
The truth was, keeping a grip on my double life was difficult.
I found I had to squeeze myself into the margins around the demanding world of SaaS (“Software as Service”) marketing. If I was able to jot down two lines of my own thoughts, hunched over my notebook on the crowded subway in the morning, I counted myself lucky.
I started waking up earlier and going to the gym every morning before work. This became my silent rebellion against the day spent at a desk. And as weeks turned into months, I pushed myself harder and harder—to wake up earlier. To work out harder.
This was interpreted by my co-workers as drive—although, to be honest, I’m not sure that’s what it was. In my mind I was chasing after trails of thoughts I wished I had the time to write. The more “masculine” my day job blared, the more feminine I veered internally. But I felt that this was not appropriate to say.
Leonard seemed to swoop in and out of my peripheral vision like a bird of prey. He became increasingly negative and harsh in his interactions with me. He criticized my work at an excruciatingly microscopic level, in a way that he didn’t do with other people.
“This part sucks,” he’d get angry.
So I’d try to explain my line of thinking.
“You’re always arguing,” he’d shout. “Don’t do that.”
Everyone would be gawking at their computers with their ears perked in embarrassment. This was the beginning of a weird, subliminal tension between us that only escalated.
As an abrupt aside at lunch one day, Leonard said: "Rachel, dance!" It was meant to be a joke, but there was a violence in his tone that startled me. Another day it was: "Rachel, do you have a boyfriend?” He was looking hard at me. And in a weekly evaluation meeting, he yelled: “You’re resisting me! Why are you resisting?” It felt like being psychologically poked, pushed and throttled.
“YOU THINK YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT,” he’d bellow. “BUT YOU DON’T.”
I avoided discussing any of these tensions with my co-workers, although I believe everyone was aware that something odd was going on.
For the record, I liked the people that I worked with. But most of them were only a few years out of college (I was 27), and they’d all attended more prestigious universities than me. So everyone in the office was a little bit younger, and a little bit snappier in their witticisms, and a little bit more sheltered, in general, than me. Justin Bieber’s Instagram account was a frequent topic of conversation.
This is what I mean when I say there’s a lack of diversity in tech, by the way. It wasn’t just the stark absence of POC. Everyone I worked with had only ever been in private schools. They’d only worked at jobs that most Americans would consider elite. They were sweet and brilliant, but honestly: my co-workers represented a very narrow kind of life experience—one I did not identify with. One I didn’t feel I could share much about myself with.
You see: I’ve been poor. I’ve been borderline homeless. I’ve traveled long distances by hitch-hiking. I’ve lived in a foreign country long enough to learn the language (oui, je parle français). I’ve published intense personal writing about sexual assault, and I’ve spent hours upon hours in my room alone making art. But none of that seemed relevant to the work we were doing, or to our company culture of cracking ironic jokes about pop culture. So I never mentioned it.
In the midst of this, we were scouting for a larger office space because the company was growing—fast. Our tiny office on Bond Street was quickly filling up with strapping, healthy, silver-spooned millennials.
Leonard usually went on excursions with realtors alone, but one day around Christmas he invited me to tag along—perhaps it was the holiday spirit. My job was to take pictures.
The space we visited was three blocks away from our current office, on Orchard Street and Houston. Three contractors met us outside and led us up some flights of stairs. The space they showed us was vastly huge. It was an entire floor of the building. The walls and ceiling needed a major scrub, and, to be honest, the three guys who escorted us around the space struck me as sleazy (one of them stank of alcohol). But the experience was really fun.
While Leonard discussed costs with the three agents, I wandered to the far end of the space, kicking sawdust with me feet and taking snapshots with my phone—of the exposed brick walls, and the view of the tree-lined street below. The place was full of possibilities.
“Those contractors have got to be with the mafia,” Leonard blurted after we left, and we burst out laughing. Neither of us had ever encountered the real estate mafia before. We were both from hicksville, but this moment was decidedly cosmopolitan.
Leonard insisted that we pick up lunch from a new sandwich place a few blocks away. His treat. While we waited for our food, we discussed the potential new building in earnest. We weighed the pros and cons of various factors. A space like that could easily fit 50 or 60 desks. We could get couches. We could get a pinball machine.
Leonard had extended this outing to me as a gesture. I couldn’t remember the last time our conversation had been so easy or collaborative. We were enjoying each other again, after a long and painful freeze.
“You’re working really hard,” he said, eyeing me with a vulnerable, searching look. He was talking about my moonlighting.
He must have seen that I’d recently placed an interview with a respected theater director at another publication. I’d arranged the whole thing, and written it up on weekends and late nights. I’d worked myself ragged to pull it off, but I could never admit that to Leonard. I only nodded in acknowledgement.
When we returned to the office, everyone wanted to know what took us so long. They wanted to know about the other space. They were jealous that Leonard bought me lunch. I felt special, but also isolated. Honestly, it was awkward.
And then something really strange happened.
I arrived at work one day, and my computer wouldn’t start. I had to reboot it, which was odd because it was still basically brand new. Once I got it working, I saw that my documents were all rearranged.
The document, for example, where I kept notes from weekly meetings with Leonard was open. Next was Slack. It was open to a private channel, the one I used to talk to Cat. Cat was the only other woman in the office. She was the only person who’d ever reached out, privately, to say she thought my work was good, in spite of Leonard’s constantly berating me.
The channel had been scrolled to this:
Cat (6:42 p.m.): Are you okay? I don’t know why he yells at you so much.
Next was my personal email. My inbox was full of rejection letters from women’s magazines, writing grants, and an art residency. It’s not that I was looking for another job. There’s something about regular, large deposits in your bank account that just feels far too much like safety. But I was shopping my personal writing around… aggressively. The thought that Leonard would look at these correspondences made me feel extremely violated.
Had he read the emails from my father, about our family finances? What about the emails from a man I’d recently started dating? This was taking the concept of “transparency” majorly too far. And yet, I knew such things did happen.
That morning, I sat at my desk and flared and flashed and shivered. I wanted to tell someone. But who? I decided against it. My brain was blotted white with terror, and I couldn’t concentrate on my work. After several minutes, I had to get up and go to the bathroom in order to freak out fully. The private bathroom on the top floor was my go-to spot for such moments. Once there, I burst into tears. At the same time, I tried to strangle them.
The rest of the day was a struggle. I sat at my desk shell-shocked. I typed away as best I could, with shaky fingers and a mind like broken glass. The article I was writing—through some twisted sort of meta coincidence—was about software you can buy to improve your email security. I swear. I could not even make that up.
“ARE YOU TIRED OF GETTING SPAM?” I typed anxiously, aware that Leonard could be watching my every keystroke. He was at his desk ten feet away from me, but he hadn’t acknowledged me all day.
I typed: “PROTECT YOUR INBOX FROM PRYING VISITORS WITH THESE FIVE EASY STEPS...|”. I choked.
At lunch I attempted a quip about Justin Bieber’s haircut, but to be honest, it came off as brittle. I smiled frailly to show that everything was fine. I wasn’t rattled.
Later, I consulted a friend who was a lawyer. He informed me that I had essentially no rights in the situation. I couldn’t prove anything, and anyway, the computer belonged to the company. The best thing I could do would be to start logging instances that might prove a “hostile work environment.” At the very least, this would help me be less paranoid—which I had become extremely. I changed all my passwords, and I was censoring myself heavily at work and in my emails, for fear of making a slip that would justify Leonard firing me.
I honestly could not figure out why he was pinning me under such an intense magnifying glass. I was getting positive feedback from the clients I worked with, but Leonard continued to express dissatisfaction with my work. He started limiting the meetings I could sit in on, so my interactions with clients dwindled to almost none. He let my drafts pile up for days in his folder before finally, grudgingly approving them.
This slowed my output to a crawl. I felt I couldn’t move an inch without him pegging me for doing something wrong.
At the gym, I became addicted to all the blinky numbers on the screens. I joked to myself that this obsession with points—with efficiency and numbers—should be called Pac-Man syndrome. “Quantified self” disorder. That’s a real thing.
LOL, I thought.
I imagined I was Pac-Man on a treadmill, eating up mile markers like bonus points. Gobbling up calories burned, and my next paycheck, and 10 new followers on Twitter.
Life inside the Pac-Man sound loop is so fun! I screamed inside my head. I was stuck inside a high-speed neon tunnel. I was alienating my new love interest by talking incessantly about this stuff. My friends complained I’d grown preoccupied and cryptic. I was spending all my free time curled in a fetal position beneath my bed—. Something was bound to break.
Eventually what broke was me.
I made an oversight in one of my assignments that was both mind-bogglingly stupid, and indicative of my stress level. It’s so embarrassing that I almost cannot stand to admit it to you now. I’d handed in an article that failed to pass an online plagiarism test.
“9 SUREFIRE TRICKS TO CONVERT TRAFFIC INTO REVENUE.”
I was astonished when Leonard told me—blindsided. I’d labored over that article with my guts sucked up in my throat and my face two inches from my computer screen, terrified of stringing words together in any order that might suggest the slightest hint of me. I had no idea until it was too late: I’d somehow meticulously reconstructed, with my entire, trembling being, another blog post with a similar name.
How is it possible for the brain to even do that? It was as if I’d pressed myself so thin against a glass pane that I, myself, became transparent—capable of producing only ghostlike facsimiles. The lightbulb inside my brain was like the light inside a Xerox machine. Phantoms of words on computer screens danced before my eyes.
Part of me found the error fascinating.
Leonard didn’t. This was the last straw in his patience with me, and he let me go. It happened really fast. All the unsaid things between us—all the subliminal mental sparring, the jealousies of each other’s talents, the illicit flirting, the miserable game of cat and mouse—jumped neatly to the surface. We said goodbye as best we could in a brief but fraught exchange.
“You were getting better,” he grumbled, darkly and intensely. He was amazingly focused on running his business. I could see how this was a moment that tested his grit. I admired him, and, in this light, I realized he was probably right that I’d been underperforming all along.
Before I met Leonard, I’d always been proud of my knack for calling attention to the surprising things, the human things—the idiosyncrasies of life. But by now I had very little idea of what constituted good writing anymore. Leonard had been shouting at me that mine was bad for the past several months. All I could say was that I was sorry. For some reason, I was holding a pen lightly, carefully in front of me, with all of my ready fingertips.
If you’ve ever been let go from a high-pressure job like that, you know there’s a whole surge of complicated emotions that comes up in the aftermath. For example: Leonard and I might have almost been friends... Under different circumstances. I marveled at this realization with tremendous regret.
But at the end, what you’re left with is that old, familiar feeling of… relief:
On the afternoon that I was asked to leave, I remember stepping out into the street and being struck by how blue the sky was, and how the faces of all the people walking past me were so alive and interesting. Each one had a story at least as confusing as mine.
I wandered aimlessly for a while and stopped to listen to a musician busking in the street. He was an older, ragged-looking black man riffing on an electric guitar. I wasn't the only person who stopped to listen. There was a humor and a poetry in the way this guy plucked the strings of his instrument. The twanging melody that rose up from his calloused fingers had a way of drawing you into the present. It swayed you; it transported you.
Someone dropped money into the man's hat, and he looked up with a twinkle in his eye.
“Thank you kindly,” he smiled. “It’s a hard job, but somebody’s gotta do it.”
At that moment, I felt that I understood myself more clearly than I ever had before. I was wrong to torture myself trying to fit in at a job that wasn't right for me. I have my own work to pursue.
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