Thursday, February 7, 2013

Home Economics

This half of what I brought home.
I ate the other piece!
My friend Marge treated me to a delicious belated birthday lunch where we shared a handmade pizza of tomatoes, mozzarella, basil pesto, arugula (and prosciutto for me) and a lovely salad of spinach, goat cheese, walnuts (pancetta on the side for me) in balsamic vinaigrette.  We talked, shared sadnesses, laughed (that during lunch she'd wondered why I had a nice little spoon and she didn't and then remembered why!) and given that I'm starting a new venture  she gave great advice. When it was time to go there was a nice piece of pizza (from her half) which she graciously urged me to take.  When I got the take-out container I looked up and said, "I'm going to take this pancetta home.  It'll be great on another salad," and while Marge smiled me on, I thought back to a job interview I went to in I977.

It was a step up the editorial ladder at another company, Butterick Publishing. They were young upstarts to book publishing.  Though they'd started in 1867 they were a pattern company and I was interviewing for a job to supervise the production of their first textbook.  Random House founded in 1925, more than 50 years after Butterick, was the more established giant.

This whole interview thing was new to me.  I'd been happily at Random House for over four years, but things were changing and in some ways falling apart.  The paperback series I was working on and loved (Choices for Tomorrow comparing differing viewpoints on controversial issues of the day: individual's right to privacy vs society's need to know, changing roles of men and women) was cancelled. In GALLEYS. (If you're too young to know what those are, look up "galley proof.") I was heartbroken.  It was such a great series for high schoolers.  One day, without warning the three top management guys (two I loved) were fired at 9 am, out by noon.  Management had changed and I wasn't thrilled with the abrupt implementation of a different direction. So when I was approached, when someone recommended me, I decided to go.

The folks at Butterick had been looking for someone for seven months. They wanted a home economist, who was a teacher, and an editor. I didn't have two out of three. Still they wanted to see me and already it had been a very weird experience. The first interview was with Mike, a guy running the division.  He seemed placidly pleasant but almost a dodo.  The interview was a breeze.  Then Mike called me to come back for lunch and an interview with the guy running the company, John "Scales". I agreed.  A friend called to tip me off that he was a stress interviewer.  

"What's a stress interviewer?" I asked.

"A guy that's gonna try to knock you off your game.  Someone who will want to trip you up."

Well, that disturbed me.  That actually pissed me off. Trying to make you uncomfortable when already you were uncomfortable because it was an interview?  GEEZ. That sounded nasty.  AND none of these guys were the editor I'd be directly reporting to...a woman.  So I went into the interview annoyed and cocky.  They wanted ME.  I didn't go to them for a job  they came to ME. I was gonna show those guys.

Well, it was some interview. Butterick was in a really hip, up-and-coming neighborhood called Soho (remember this was the seventies) I had to take the subway way downtown to Spring and Sixth.  I was brought into the office by the first guy who interviewed me.  I sat down.

"SO," he started out, "instead of me asking you a lot of questions and you asking me a lot of questions, why don't you just tell me about yourself?" he asked as he relaxed back in his rolling chair with a cigarette.

"Where do you want me to begin and how straight do you want it?" I volleyed back.

He sat up, leaned toward the desk, put his cigarette in the ashtray and said with a startled look on his tanned Greenwich, Connecticut tennis-playing face,
"Start anywhere you want and as straight as you want, straight from the shoulder."

"I started working in my parents' drycleaners at the age of eight..." and I continued on non-stop for ten minutes until I worked my way up to the present and Random House.

The whole time he kept looking at me, looking at me and staring at me, but not asking anything.  Just listening.  When I stopped finally, Mister Big Shot shot a look at Mike and grabbing his coat announced, "Let's go to lunch."

The restaurant was a dark, clubby, tavern-type place with those dark wooden clunky Captain's chairs and white tablecloths. The waiter approached.

"What would you like to drink?" John asked me.

"Are we drink-drinking or are we having beer and wine?" I deadpanned determined not to let this guy throw me.

"Have anything you like," he instructed and I ordered a Dewar's on the rocks with a twist. [Think Mad Men days in Manhattan.]  Liquor was a part of one's daily diet.  Dewar's was my daytime Scotch. At night, I drank Johnny Walker Red.  That lunch I had three straight Scotches in the span of less than two hours.  The asked questions, I answered.  John did most of the talking.  Mike smiled and stayed silent.  When I left them to take the subway back uptown to Random House, I suddenly felt very light-headed.  The whir of the train, the rush of the people, climbing the steps to emerge into sunlight once again and hike my way over to 50th & Third, quite simply I was plastered.  

The elevator whisked me up to the fifth floor where I stumbled into my cubicle and could not stop giggling.  It was after two and there was no way I was getting any work done.  Everyone could hear me laughing and came over to my cubicle to try and quiet me down long enough to hold out until I could safely leave.  At four, Mike called and said he wanted me to have lunch with the editor I'd be working for: Marsha McCormick. Could I meet her next week?  After I hung up I thought: Did I have the job?  It was an odd way to put it before I'd completed the interview process.  What if this woman didn't like me? Didn't she have a say?

When I met her the next week, Marsha was polite and reserved, conservatively dressed and very civil.  Immediately I knewwe weren't cut from the same cloth.  Still she was trying to engage and be open and I was trying to answer her many,many questions.  We went to a Chinese restaurant that was in a renovated sewing machine factory and it was the beginning of exposed duct work  reconditioned old wooden floors and high, high ceilings. I remember the waiter bringing what used to preface every meal in a Chinese restaurant, the bowl with the fried noodles and duck sauce to dunk them in.  These were really unusual they were cotton-candy-colored pink, blue, yellow, green and white Styrofoam chips these were the only things I had a chance to eat.  I spent so much time talking and responding that before I knew it the lunch was over, Marsha had finished and I hadn't begun.  The waiter approached.

"We're not going to let him throw this away are we?" I asked.

"Whatever you want," Marsha replied, looking at me with a question on her face.

"I'll take this to go" I told the waiter and said to her "I'll have it for dinner." After we'd said our goodbyes, bag-in-hand I headed back uptown, back to the office, back to my cubicle.

Everyone knew I'd been interviewing.  People were covering for me when I had to leave, so once I was back, people crowded into my cubby.  As I was describing Marsha and what she asked, and what I answered, someone looked at the bag on my desk.

"What's that?"

"My lunch."

"Whadaya mean your lunch?" one person asked.

Someone else asked, "You got a doggy bag?" 

"Well, yeah. I never got to eat my lunch, so I asked to take it home."

The crowd erupted. 

                    "You did WHAT?"    "You asked to take the FOOD?"    "Oh my God! I cannot believe you did that!"                  
  "GEEZ, are you CRAZY?"

"What is the problem?" I yelled out to stop their barrage, "we've all DONE IT!  What's the BIG DEAL?"

It got really quiet.

"Not on an interview" someone explained and they all drifted away  back to their own cubicles, heads downcast  convinced I had just blown all chances of getting the job.



  1. I love a cliffhanger! Thanks for sharing Denise.

    1. Well I didn't keep you hanging too long Selene...:)