Monday, February 27, 2012

Memoir Monday: The Rules

I am a rules-oriented person. I don't exit through the entrance, or turn on red where the sign says I can't…all that. And not matter how ill-founded the rule, I feel obliged to honor it and oddly guilty if I don't. It took only one Census to break me.

As you probably know, Congress is constitutionally mandated to conduct a great count of all Americans once every ten years, and to keep things simple our good representatives have decided the count will be taken during years ending in "0." Since Wolf Block had folded at the end of 2009, come 2010 I was ready for temporary work and the Census seemed as good an opportunity as any. You have to take a test to qualify, though, so I took mine on a wet morning in February, at this dodgy-looking storefront on Washington Avenue. It was pretty simple stuff, I thought, but the proctor was so enthused by my perfect score that I felt guilty for not being equally excited. Six weeks later I received a job offer, and four days after that I became an office clerk employee of the Census.

My first task, along with a dozen or so other new employees, was to fill out a raft of paperwork, certifying that I was a citizen or else legally authorized to work in the United States, and that I hadn't been convicted of any felonies. At that point, one of my new coworkers piped up to ask if indictments counted as felony convictions. I reflected, "If you have to ask, then, yes, they do", and from her look, the gal in charge was thinking the same thing. The next step was to take an oath, swearing to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. I perked up; perhaps the job of office clerk involved more beat-downs and curb-stomping than I'd expected. (For the record, during my brief tenure as a Census employee, I was not required to thwart a single enemy.)

Then, we were told The Rules, and there was an abundance of them. No coming in early or staying late without explicit permission from a supervisor. No skipping lunch. No skipping morning or afternoon breaks. No taking a morning break less than 90 minutes after your start time, or less than one hour before your lunch break. No combining your morning or afternoon breaks with your lunch break. No fractions on your time sheet. Holy cow.

My primary task as a Census office clerk was conducting phone interviews to hire other temporary employees, primarily enumerators (the folks who go door to door) and the people who supervise them. Those folks earned way more than office clerks, and I couldn't help but wish I'd landed one of those jobs. Anyway, there was no real judgment involved in this work; I simply asked a bunch of yes-or-no questions from a script, recorded the responses, and if the respondent gave a certain number of affirmative answers I offered the job. It wasn't bad work, really; I like chatting with people, and once I completed reading the script, I had the opportunity to do so. I remember speaking with one veteran (vets were given preference for hiring, and deservedly so) who seemed lonely and really delighted not only to get the job but to speak to someone. Hearing "Gilligan's Island" playing in the background, I obliged him but asking him which episode he was watching, and commiserating over just how foolish it was for the castaways to repeatedly entrust the title character with that week's escape plan. After I hung up, I was told another rule: no socializing with the interviewees. Argh.

The Census Bureau is under the aegis of the Department of Commerce, and there are folks who have worked there Since Time Began and have little idea how the world has changed. I was assigned to one such staffer who set me to collating forms and explained to me in great detail – and utterly without sarcasm – how I might fasten them together using a device that inserted a thin metal clip right through the paper. I looked at her for a long moment. "So…you're asking me to use a stapler?" She nodded, proud that I'd caught on so quickly. Mother of all creatures great and small...

I didn't last very long at the Census, but before I left I took great pleasure in taking my morning break a mere 40 minutes before lunch, putting a fraction on my time sheet, and asking one of the interviewees her favorite brand of cereal. And I didn't feel one ounce of guilt. Who says government programs don't work?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Memoir Monday: The Best of Beginnings

Most of the best things in my life started from unlikely beginnings, and this is a story about one of those things.

I met Jack in 1994, the year that began the final phase of my downward spiral into depression. Although he came into my life when I was at my lowest and craziest, Jack saw something in me worth getting to know, and the oddest friendship was born. We had nothing in common except sexual orientation and a childhood of poverty. He liked house music and I was at the time getting into folk. He read very little and I read as if books would soon vanish from the earth. He was a conservative Christian (yes, and gay) who doubted evolution and I was a pretty dedicated atheist who put great stock by Darwin's theory. He had a great tolerance for people seen as freaks and kooks, while I just couldn't be bothered. There was a time in my life I would never have bothered with Jack either, but for some reason I was drawn to him.

Maybe it was because he was my first gay friend, and I his. We went to our first gay club together, naively betting that the person who did not hook up had to pay the toll on the way back. (We would up splitting the cost.) We rented movies we vainly hoped we could bring the other around to liking. ("Love Affair" still ranks as one of the longest two hours of my life.) We danced, scammed on guys, sang songs, and shared all of the life stuff we couldn’t share with anyone else. We were both promiscuous at that point in our lives, him happily and me crazily, and we compared notes about…well, things that probably don't have a place on this public blog. Our myriad differences did not divide us but made us more interesting, and after only a year it was like I'd known him all my life.

Things weren't all rosy, though. Even Jack's friendship couldn't fend off the deepest and longest depressive episode of my life, and he oftentimes bore the brunt. When I began dropping out of sight for days and weeks at a time, he kept calling until I called back. If I was emotionally numb when we started out for the evening I was smiling when we got back. When he landed a boyfriend, the first of us to do so, he was not put off by my confession at how intensely jealous I was. At the time I thought only his penchant for weirdos kept me in his life, but looking back I think he saw something in me invisible to others, including me. He stuck with me when I hit bottom, and was the only person who knew I was attending therapy. I was incredibly ashamed that I was getting mental health treatment, but Jack never made me feel unworthy. He listened to me talk about what I'd said in therapy, and never seemed uncomfortable or anything less than completely supportive.

After I emerged from the shadow of depression, we were talking on the phone about a fun evening we'd had the night before, during which I was accompanied by a fabulously cute guy who lavished me with attention. Jack said, "I never thought therapy was worth very much until I saw how much it helped you. You looked like a new person last night, and I felt so happy in my heart." I had to bite my lip to keep from bursting into grateful tears that even after seeing me through the worst he was still able to celebrate the best. I wish now that I'd just cried. I was too young to realize that he was worth it.

As the years passed Jack and I had periods during which we lost touch, only to reconnect later with no awkwardness. It was during one of these periods that Jack died, a legacy of the promiscuous days of his youth. It's cruelly ironic to think that, of the two of us, the one who actually enjoyed those wild sexual adventures was the one who paid the highest price, while I somehow escaped physically unscathed.

When I heard the news my world narrowed to a pinpoint, and all I could think was of a birthday gift he had given me years before. He barely had any money, and although I had insisted he not buy me anything, he presented me with a glass paperweight, inside which was sealed a red rose. It was, he conceded, perhaps the tackiest thing one could imagine, but he thought that on my birthday I should have a gift, dammit. Ten years before I would have turned up my nose, but I thought, then and now, that it was one of the best presents I have ever gotten.

How likely is that?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Memoir Monday: How I Spent Wolf Block's Last Summer

The day after WolfBlock announced its dissolution, I was stopped at the corner of 17th and Market by a young man who was soliciting donations for underprivileged children somewhere in the world. I've gotten used to this kind of thing; I evidently appear extremely caring to these kind of people and since I never have the heart to cut off their spiel with a time-saving, "No, thank you", they've got my number. That day, however, I was feeling a bit light-headed over the prospect of impending joblessness in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, so when the young man approached me I was less kind than usual.

"Do you have a minute for children in poverty?" he opened. People soliciting for charitable donations always start off with this line or something like it. Any answer other than, "Why, yes I do!" is an admission that the suffering of humanity's future is less important than getting to your Diet Cherry Coke thirty seconds sooner.

At the time I was not hankering for a Diet Cherry Coke, so I stopped. "Well, I'll tell you," I said, trying not to seem confrontational. "I have the minute, but if you'll turn around and look at that newsstand behind you, you'll see why I don't have the money." He turned and there, emblazoned across the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer, were the words, "WolfBlock Law Firm Will Dissolve."

He turned back to me. "Is that where you work?"

"For now."

"Dude," he said reflectively. "Maybe I should be collecting for you instead."


WolfBlock had been a decent employer, don't get me wrong, but it was not exactly the place I longed to work. I joined the venerable law firm in 2008, almost a year to the day before the announcement of the dissolution, mainly out of a need for a paycheck and health insurance paid for by someone else. The job I applied for, and was eventually given, was "conflicts specialist", although at the time I was desperate enough to have accepted "experimental drug test subject."

A word here about conflict specialists, folks who work at nearly every law office who have a devil of a time explaining to non-legal-folk just what it is they do. Let's say John Q. Lawyer decides to represent Person A in a personal injury case against Person B, but it turns out that his colleague Jane Q. Lawyer in the next office already represents Person B in an unrelated matter. That's known as a conflict of interest, and if you are an attorney that's very, very bad. As in getting-sued, losing-your-license-to-practice bad. Conflict specialists, therefore, spend their time examining every new case a firm brings in to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest with existing cases. I was always good at it, and it sounds complicated and demanding, but in truth the job requires only a modicum of judgment, vision and the ability to type.

I'd worked in conflicts years previously before leaving to pursue a career in communications. Over the next eight years I learned that communications jobs are highly competitive, low-paying, and rarely yield much success. So I switched to stand-up comedy, which was much the same in that you competeed even more fiercely for less pay and at a lower success rate, only in stand-up your failure is even more public. I was instantly hooked. I needed something to pay the bills, however, and when I heard WolfBlock was looking for a conflicts specialist, I jumped. The pay was decent and the hours would permit me to work during the day and continue to perform at night. Since the position was with a firm that had soldiered along for more than a century, I couldn't have asked for a more stable job.

Twelve months later, however, I was in a large conference room with the rest of WolfBlock's Philadelphia staff, listening to soon-to-be-former Chairman Mark Alderman say how sorry he was to announce that, after 106 years of operation, the firm would close its doors at the end of May. There was shock, disbelief, anger, and more than a few tears, but to be honest I felt only a vague sense of relief. The last two times I had been unemployed were by my own choice, so I couldn't collect unemployment insurance. This would be a genuine layoff, and faced with the prospect of receiving a regular check for not working...well, it would be the softest landing I'd ever had. Besides, when you've told jokes to a drunken crowd at 1 am on a Monday morning, the prospect of unemployment loses some of its bite.

The reactions of the staff varied. Mona, whose cubicle abutted mine, expressed sympathy for Alderman, who was taking the blame (unjustly, in her opinion) for the firm's collapse. Given that three days after the announcement Alderman was comfortably ensconced at a new firm whereas Mona was losing her health insurance at age 63, I thought she should have saved that pity for herself. Katie, a legal secretary on the same floor, was less forgiving; in fact, she expressed publicly her wish for Alderman's children to die. I couldn't figure out how the man's children were to blame, but that fine distinction escaped Katie, who put her disgruntlement into action by detaching the ceiling-mounted fluorescent lights from their sockets, leaving the elevator lobby in shadow. No one was quite sure how she managed to reach the bulbs in their recessed sockets, and I thought that feat was worthy of inclusion on a resume. Not a transferable skill, true, but it demonstrated ingenuity and initiative.

The attorneys were generally tight-lipped, and most of them had cleared out to other firms within two weeks, leaving them little time for editorial comment. A few were more verbose, and felt free enough to express their opinions via firm-wide email. One of those emails opined that the firm's leadership was "grossly incompetent" and had engaged in "financial insanity." Another blamed the dissolution on an "abysmal failure of leadership" and "a few greedy lawyers unwilling to cut back on high compensation." A third, in an ecstasy of disgruntlement, declared that she was relieved that the attorneys were now free to "find new places with better leadership and management that makes better efforts to harness the talents of their lawyers, with compensation that better resembles a meritocracy than the Ponzi scheme that ultimately developed at Wolf Block." Needless to say, someone promptly forwarded those emails outside the office, and when questioned by the press the authors were forced to "clarify" their statements. "Well, when I said 'grossly incompetent' I meant that in the most complimentary sense..."

Immediately after the announcement of dissolution, attorneys and staff predictably began looting the firm. The partners had wisely taken down all of the artwork even before voting to dissolve, but they left plenty of swag. Pens, pencils, paper, tape, packets of coffee and sweetener from the kitchenettes...all of these thefts were to be expected. I was baffled, however, when within two days every single plastic coffee stirrer had vanished like smoke. There wasn't one stirrer to be had anywhere in the firm. Was someone using these at home in lieu of spoons? Or did they have street value like heroin?


The firm's official last day was June 1, but a few of the staff, me included, were asked to stay on through the summer to begin the monumental task of clearing out literally tens of thousands of boxes of files that had accumulated over WolfBlock's one-hundred-year lifetime. At first I was reluctant to commit my summer to a business that was breathing its last, but the remuneration offered plus the ability to stay out of the job market for three months was too tempting and I signed on. Floor by empty floor we moved, emptying desk drawers and file cabinets, checking shelves and offices for anything that seemed client-related and worth saving. Lots of it was neither, and I learned anew the immutable truth that the more space people are given, the more useless stuff they will put there. We found boxes of unsent invitations to events years past, stacks of catalogs for continuing education courses that were never taught, and untold cartons of extra copies of pleadings, depositions and other documents for clients dead before Carter was president. Most of it was shredded or went into the trash, but whatever was valuable was bar-coded, boxed and stacked in offices now bereft of attorneys, awaiting transport to more fortunate firms. We also came upon cartons of miscellaneous items like mugs, hats, shirts, pens and other paraphernalia – even a kite, if you can believe it – all pathetically emblazoned with the WolfBlock logo. While working, my coworkers and I entertained ourselves by envisioning ourselves at the helm of a new company that would rise from the ashes of WolfBlock, one that would specialize in the practice of closing down dying organizations. We even made up mottoes like, "Winding down your future", "When your dream ends, we're there", and my personal favorite, "You fail, we bail."

More surprising than the case materials were the personal items that had been left behind. Coats, gloves, shoes, makeup, radios, and CDs...all of there were among the non-work-related items we came upon in desks and atop file cabinets. They seemed somehow sad, as if they'd done their best to serve their erstwhile owners but had been carelessly discarded because of anger at the firm. They seemed to gaze reproachfully at me from the trash bins into which we'd tossed them, and I soon made a habit of not looking at anything once I'd thrown it away. The worst were the family pictures, abandoned for reasons I couldn't fathom. Surely if Mark Alderman's children were not to blame for the firm's dissolution, Mark Alderman's secretary's children were even less culpable, yet their images found their way nonetheless to the bottom of a large, wheeled plastic dumpster. When discarding an attorney's mousepad, personalized with a picture of his children, I imagined little Bobby or Suzie asking, "Dad, what ever happened to that mouse-pad we saved for a month to make for you?" Glad I didn't have to answer for him.

In between trash runs, I sometimes aimlessly wandered the corridors, looking into offices and conference rooms that in better times had housed movers and shakers who made deals involving millions of dollars. How many dreams and ambitions had been born, or slain, in these now-forgotten places? How many clients had been rescued from financial ruin, how many divorces negotiated, properties bought and sold? Corner offices, once so coveted, were now home only to boxes of old records. How many associates had broken their backs to make partner and get into those offices? How many had broken their backs and failed? I was reminded of Shelley's Ozymandias. Like the works of that great king, nothing of WolfBlock beside remained, except some empty rooms and a few dazed employees who wandered amidst the colossal wreck.


At the end of that summer nearly one hundred thousand boxes remained, awaiting either rescue by their owners or their last journey to the paper shredder. I remained as well, along with those unfortunate enough not to find other work. I didn't regret the summer; truth be told, with the attorneys gone that was actually quite an enjoyable job. Of course it couldn't last forever, but as I learned over those three months, nothing ever does. That's easy to forget even though we're reminded every day, by news reports of failed companies and bankruptcies and other corporation misfortunes. Working as a stand-up comic isn't exactly stable employment, but whenever someone points this out to me I think of my WolfBlock kite, rescued from the wreckage of the firm, and ask myself, "Is anything?"

Monday, February 06, 2012

Memoir Monday: All from Five Words

The Indigo Girls once asserted that the hardest lessons to learn were the least complicated. I'd say the same is true of questions. The most difficult question I ever had to answer was posed by a stranger and was composed of exactly five words.

The stranger was a psychologist, the very person to whom my doctor had sent me. She was exactly what you'd expect a psychologist to be: middle-aged, serious-looking, and possessed of intense intelligence and unnerving patience. After the formalities of meeting had been exchanged, she looked at me and asked simply, "So what brings you here?"

I am not a person used to sharing intimate feelings or experiences and I was far more closed then, so we sat in that office for a long moment while I struggled to reply. Two minutes is not a long time unless someone's waiting for you to share the most painful thing you have to share, in which case it's a geological age. I've made some hard choices in my life, but answering that woman's question was the single most difficult thing I ever had to do. But I did it.

After hearing me out, she very calmly explained that in her opinion I was dangerously depressed, and she asked if I would consent to hospitalization. I tensed right up as my mind filled with images of every dirty, abusive asylum I'd ever seen in a movie, and she read that as my answer. She then asked if I would take medication. I had to think longer about that, but in the end I refused. I didn't know much about depression then, but I figured that dealing would be easier if my brain weren't clouded by drugs. I'm not sure medication would have clouded my mind – lots of people take it to good effect – but I wasn't in a trusting place then and I refused. She nodded and told me she would assign me a therapist who'd work with me, then looked at me levelly and asked me to solemnly promise that in the interim I would not attempt to hurt myself. I gave my word, meaning it. I was completely fucked up with depression, but I've always known how to work hard. So I treated depression as a problem to solve or a foe to fight.

And fight I did, although for this battle I had to keep my armor off. I met my therapist a few days later, who was most definitely NOT what you'd expect from a therapist. He was an older gentleman who looked like a little Santa Claus, complete with white beard and round belly. Every Wednesday morning Santa and I delved into my life. It was the first time I got to talk so much about myself, and after some initial reluctance I was surprised how good it felt. He didn't match my vision of a therapist, true, but he sure acted like one. Santa was always asking stuff like, "Can you talk about the guilt?", or "What do you think?" and all of those other questions therapists ask. He wasn't shy about pressing me when necessary though; I remember one exchange...

Santa: "So you were angry about what she said. Did you say that you felt angry?"
Me: "I would feel really guilty about saying that."
Santa: "So you didn't say anything?"
Me: "No, but now I feel guilty because she doesn't know I was angry about what she said."
Santa: "So you would feel guilty about saying something, but now that you didn't say anything, you still feel guilty." [cocks head] "Does that make sense to you."
Me: "No. It doesn't make any goddamn sense at all."

Or another:

Santa: "So how do you feel about him having a boyfriend and you being single?"
Me: "Jealous. Intensely jealous. I know that makes me a bad person..."
Santa: "Why?"
Me: "You're not supposed to be jealous of your best friend."
Santa: "Why not?"
Me: "'re just not!"
Santa: "Do you want him to lose his boyfriend?"
Me: "No."
Santa: "Do you want to take his boyfriend?"
Me: "No!"
Santa: "So you want him to have a boyfriend and for you to have one too?"
Me: "Yes."
Santa: "What's wrong with that?"
Me: "I guess nothing. So why should I feel guilty about it? That doesn't make any goddamn sense."

One nice side effect of depression is a willingness to admit when you're not making sense, which comes in handy when Santa Claus has you in a rhetorical corner.

Now in the movies, at some point during treatment there is a moment in which the patient understands the truth for himself, and then there is a dramatic explosion of tears and hugs and anguish, blah blah. Didn't work that way for me. After months of meetings, my therapist finally said, "Here's what I see." And he clearly detailed his observations, referring to my own comments when necessary to illuminate his insights. He wasn't mean or cold, but he didn't hold back, either, which is just what I needed. I gaped like an idiot through the whole thing, not from shock but from stunned agreement. After all the emotional ground we'd covered I was like a sponge, and this frank summation fell like water. The feeling of years of guilt and uncertainty slipping away was nearly physical, and it felt like breathing with two lungs instead of one. It was perhaps the sweetest sensation I can recall, and I've eaten chocolate-covered Nutter Butters.

After that, everything was different. I had gained the ability to analyze my emotions and determine exactly what I was feeling at a given time. Once I was able to realize I was feeling guilt, anger, resentment, or what have you, I could cope with that feeling and not just spiral down into an emotional hole in which I felt nothing but Bad®. In contrast to the bleak numbness that had been most of my twenty-seven years, I experienced an incredible surge of self-confidence. With my emotions no longer a dreaded enemy, for the first time in my life I felt that it was my life, and not a prison sentence. I took stock of myself: fat, largely friendless, lonely, and often bored, but no longer living in a toxic cloud of depression. As I came out of the haze, I decided that some changes were in order.

First on the list was my weight, which had ballooned to an unacceptable 190 pounds. (That's at 5'8.) Dieting isn't fun, but compared to battling depression it's a breeze. Within nine months I had lost forty pounds, gone down two waist sizes and looked like a million bucks. All the new clothes I had to buy were a burden on my then-modest income, but it was a burden I was delighted to bear. Part of that weight loss was due to Ultimate, which I had taken up that spring. Five years before I would never have considered taking up an unfamiliar sport with a bunch of strangers but those days of fear were gone.

Second on my list was my social life. I began volunteering around the community – art auctions, gay pride events, public radio, and whatever else required only enthusiasm and a willingness to make a fool of myself – and between those and Ultimate I made more friends than I ever thought possible. My calendar was always full, and I remember that my Saturday nights were regularly booked four or five weeks in advance. I also began dating, but this time I did it without either casual sex or making myself a punching bag. You see, along with self-confidence came the ability to perceive what was my problem, and what was the problem of some immature zero with control issues. And since my better spirits were accompanied by better shape, I resolved that the next guy who popped me one was going to get a surprise. A big, eye-punching surprise.

My brother, who witnessed this transformation, joked that I was now New Neil, which made me laugh without thinking too much about the remark. It must have been more apparent to others. About a year after I finished therapy, I was on a date with a sweet and attentive fellow, who after asking me about my various activities, said that he was worried he wasn't good enough for me. I had such a rich, full life, he said, while he was rather boring. I thought back to that night in the car, feeling bruised and doomed, and I thought, "Great Mother...if you only knew." Later, when I got home I took a good, long look at myself in a full-length mirror I'd purchased while I was dieting. Although New Neil looked much the same as the old one – minus some weight, of course – at the same time he looked reborn. And that seemed about right to me.

Five more words: Those five words fucking rocked.