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I I knew him only as a 22-foot tall projection on a movie screen.
But he was actually a short, middle-aged man who looked both ways before crossing the street.
There are better words than “stalked” to describe how I would follow him to work in the morning. I prefer “studied” or “observed, very closely.”
I mean, I didn’t tiptoe behind him like a Soviet spy wearing a fake mustache. I just simply walked behind him in a calm and non-threatening way.
He was the first bonafide celebrity I had ever seen in the flesh and I wanted to know what he knew.
Here’s what I found out: He was fond of poppy seed bagels slathered with cream cheese. Just like me! Celebrities are regular folks, except when they’re not.
When we rode the elevator together he never saw me glance at him because he never noticed me.
Temps don’t quit, they just disappear in a puff of smoke and reappear at another job somewhere else. The word “temp” is short for “temporary.” Life is temporary. So are the jobs I had when I first got out of college.
I didn’t know anything about computers in the last century, when I was young. I had no idea that the future was the ability to complain in real time over impossible distances to people you will never meet.
The very first temp agency I applied to openly mocked my lack of computer knowledge. I was given two choices: spend my last few hundred dollars on a computer class conveniently taught by the temp agency, or die of hunger.
This was a plausible fate — I lived off of $3 a day, which meant I ate nothing but potato knishes from hot dog carts, which cost $1 each. I didn’t know what a knish was when I moved to New York from Texas.
“What is a ‘nish’?” I asked.
“The ‘k’ isn’t silent?”
I told my mom they were like Jewish empanadas and tastes best with a squirt of nuclear yellow mustard. They were cheap and one would sit in my stomach like spackling paste for hours.
A meal, however, they were not. I needed a job. So I did what the temp agency told me to do and enrolled.
The first day of class was booting up the computer, and learning that a screen was called a desktop. Day two was a ballet class of point and click, point and click, point and click. Later, I learned how to cut and paste. Watch this: I learned how to cut and paste.
My temp career, which had an incandescent beginning, was fizzling out. I grasped at other options. I briefly considered enlisting in the Marines, like my older brother, but I’m just not the scream “oorah” type.
I asked a fellow classmate what she did when she wasn’t pointing and clicking and she told me she was an intern at a law firm. Oh la-di-da, a law firm. Then she told me all sorts of companies have internships. Foot, meet door. I applied for unpaid positions when I wasn’t in class. It was an act of desperation, like a starving cowboy eating his own horse.
Then I got a nibble.
The phone interview consisted of one question: Was I in school? Of course — I was about to start my postgraduate studies in Microsoft Word. Eventually, I’d get a Masters in Microsoft Office. When I found out I had gotten the job that didn’t pay, I ate two knishes.
The fact that an internship is a job where you work for free was such an alien concept to me that I just failed to comprehend it. Faith is ignorance with a sassy attitude. This was my big break. I just pretended like I had a new job at a big time entertainment company.
“Hello mom? Dad? I’ve made it. Please, please, can you wire me fifty dollars?”
It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I hung out near the 50th street subway stop at 7:50 AM, I could catch the comic actor walking to work wearing a large winter hat with floppy tassels. Sometimes I would walk behind him close enough that if I had been a ghost, I could have walked directly into him.
The studio was so pleased with his last movie that they set him up in a small office where he could produce another comedy blockbuster. He never did. I don’t think it’s really important to reveal his name but here’s a hint: he was famous, once, and then gave it all up.
He shared a suite with a casting director who was very nice and who worked long hours. She frequently ate lunch in her office and I would sometimes watch her devour the turkey sandwiches she’d get delivered from the corner deli.
She had an assistant who sat at a desk in what would have been a waiting room. I worked in a chair next to the desk of the assistant to the casting director and my job was to, mostly, separate audition headshots into a “yes” pile, a “no” pile, and a “dog” pile, which the assistant told me was the pile for headshots that were laughably pathetic. My desk was my lap.
He would occasionally exit his small office and chat with the assistant — a young woman who I thought, at the time, was a real power player in the entertainment industry. She wasn’t much older than me, but she was effortlessly cruel towards actors and I was easily impressed by displays of power, even cheap spectacles like casually mocking desperate glossy black and white smiles. The two would whisper-giggle, and I would just sit next to her, like a pet from space.
Sometimes he’d leave his door open while he talked on the phone. Never eavesdrop on your heroes. You will always overhear the saddest things.
For four days I chased his beat-up sneaker heels. He wore the same pair of pants twice. No one ever recognized him. On the sixth morning he bought a cup of coffee. Guardian angels are the creeps of paradise.
On the fifth day we both stepped into the elevator together. Only this time when I glanced over at him, he glanced back and said “Hey.” I responded with a nonchalant nod.
It turns out interns don’t really quit either, but I did anyway. My knish funds were depleted.
I marched into the casting director’s office without knocking and informed her that I was tendering my resignation, effective immediately. She had been eating her lunch but put down her turkey sandwich to give me her full attention. She asked me if I was sure. I apologized and told her that my mind was made up. She shook my hand, wished me luck, and then, at the last moment, offered me the second half of her sandwich. “I’m not going to eat it,” she said. “I’m full.” I pretended to think about it. “Well, if you’re full.”
Later, on the subway, I ate it.