When I was 11, my dad, a persuasively relentless schmoozer, got a Russian immigrant fruiterer to give me a summer job working on the truck he drove around Playa del Rey, the unremarkable southern California beach town from which I hail. It was my job to carry boxes of newly purchased fruit up to its purchasers’ homes. The Russian immigrant called me Muscles, sarcastically, and none of the housewives whose cantaloupes, peaches, and what-have-you I lugged asked me to relax with a cold glass of lemonade while they changed into filmy negligees. I nonetheless adored the job, first because of the glorious smell of the back of the truck, in which I rode (probably illegally), and because the work made me feel for a change like a real boy. I think my salary was $1 per summer, but of course a dollar was worth more then.
It would be around 40 years before I got another job I liked as much. as a graphic designer at an Oakland-based pyramid scheme that masqueraded first as a vendor of phone cards, and then as a vendor of salad dressings and skin care products (there’s such a difference?), and then was shut down by the state Attorney General. I arrived at work one morning to find the building surrounded by cops, and the company’s sanctimonious born-again Christian management team looking embarrassed.
My boss, the guy who hired me, was a hyperneurotic little gay fellow who played accordion at the company Xmas party, had one of those allegedly serenity-inducing babbling brook things on his desk, and had gotten it into his head that if he were to pronounce things “way cool,” he himself might be perceived as with-it. At first, I loved him for having given me my first design job, only to realize that he apparently intended to hire everyone in the Bay Area. With more alleged designers (most of them awful) than actual work, we all did lots of thumb-twiddling and snickering at our sanctimonious overseers.
Good thing, then, that I loved more of my fellow employees than at any other job I ever had. Paddy, who looked scarily like Homer Simpson, but with Bart’s personality and the energy of a child whose Ritalin supply had been cut off, was himself a Christian, but the kind who could both take and make a joke. Allison, who hadn’t received the memo about women spelling it with only one l, was a fellow depressive, with garish yellow hair, haunted eyes, and a job playing bass guitar in a ghastly alternative band. We three made each other laugh uproariously, no easy feat given my and Allison’s depressiveness, and enjoyed the visits of the immensely vivacious and endearingly cynical young intern Kathleen, and the company male sexpot, Handsomeboy (so called, by me, at his request after he heard me address my daughter as Pretty Girl), an intellectual thug whose idea of a grand time was to read Nietzche in the original German or get arrested at Candlestick Park for punching a security guard. He has gone on to become America’s foremost expert on excessive physical exercise. When Way Cool hired a Sri Lankan IT whiz to keep all our computers and software running smoothly even though there was no work, I started answering the office phone as though the office were his alone. “Mr. Abeygunawardena’s office. How many I help?”
Most revelatory of the lot was Dre, a black alleged photographer and perfectly dreadful graphic designer who soon had the born-agains eating out of his hand. He’d smile, and address them as homey, and they’d turn to mush, the thought balloons above their heads reading, “This actual black person from the actual ‘hood seems to like me!” I’d probably have done the same thing if I’d been he.
Paddy had forgotten more Photoshop than I’ve yet learned, and was a wonderful illustrator, but I came to regard myself as the best of the 750 designers Way Cool had hired — at least until he hired a Taiwanese packaging specialist whose work in Adobe Illustrator far exceeded my own. But my discombobulation was short-lived, as my ill-disguised disdain for Way Cool and sanctimonious hucksters got me fired a few days after his hiring.
When nearly the whole gang — minus Way Cool — turned out for the surprise birthday party Kathleen threw for me many months later, I was moved to tears.