Someone had misplaced a box of chemicals. Chemicals that would be combined with others to make some sort of skin or hair product. It must have been a big deal, because the lab/warehouse manager – I’ll call him Vik – was angry. Angrier than I had seen him in my (roughly) two months as lab/warehouse liaison. The chemists and I looked on as he yelled at the warehouse workers in the middle of the warehouse floor. What a lunatic, I thought, smirking. Getting his knickers in a twist over some silly chemicals. I’m an artist. I write movies. Films! I’ve taken the high road. I don’t belong in a warehouse. How ironic that I work here! How above all this I am!
Vik spun around.
“You’re welcome to leave at any time, Arun!” he scolded.
Is there anything worse than someone who begins a story with something like “Sometimes life throws you curveballs…” or “Sometimes life gives you lemons…” or “Sometimes life deals you a bad hand…”? No. There isn’t.
But seriously, sometimes life throws you curve balls. And when you get such a pitch, the best thing to do is wait for the ball to break over the plate. I think. I don’t remember how to play baseball. I wasn’t good at it and I was fat and the uniform was always too tight. But maybe I should have practiced or something, because I had never been prepared for any of life’s curve balls, lemons, bad hands, headlocks, etc.
Like any reasonable person, I blamed my parents. At some crucial point in my intellectual/emotional development, they did me the grave disservice of trumpeting persistence and hard work as the keys to success. The poor fools probably didn’t have screenwriting in mind, but I planned to write for the silver screen or die trying. And so I moved from New York City to Los Angeles to fulfill my destiny of ultimate show business success.
A few months after the big move, my mother died suddenly. No one loved me more than my mother. The loss was devastating. My hope and confidence turned to despair, and for the next year and a half, I clung desperately to my dreams while making minimal efforts to realistically fulfill them. I wrote very little and yet remained completely surprised when I failed to achieve the astonishing overnight Hollywood triumph that I had promised myself. Unable to try, destined to disappoint, all of the confidence and hope I had in myself and the world drained out of me. I would never amount to anything of value to anyone.
Completely deflated and utterly alone, I did the unthinkable – I moved into my childhood home in New Jersey with my father. A self-declared failure at just twenty-eight years old, I only knew that one day I, and everyone I loved, would die, and that all that was left for me to do was organize my iTunes library.
Completely hidden from society and avoiding all human contact, I spent the next few months doing just that in my pajamas in the room of my adolescence. I couldn’t think of a better way to forget all of the ways in which my life had gone wrong. I struggled with my organizational philosophy. Should Run DMC be Rap or Hip-Hop? I asked myself. Who even said “Rap” anymore? Do I have to refer to the Smashing Pumpkins as “Alternative”? I don’t know what that meant in the 90’s and I still don’t. Are the Killers “Indie Rock” or “Pop”? Should I categorize classical music by composer or by artist? Could my life at this point be described as vaguely “Pathetic” or explicitly “Finished”?
All this organizing led to less self worth, more depression and zero money. I had to find work. Perhaps there was a job that would pay me to get up at noon, be desperately sad, and then go to sleep at 4 a.m.
Eventually, I registered with a local temporary employment agency, which brought me closer to my goal of having money, but dragged me away from my goal of never receiving phone calls and talking to people.
The phone only brought sorrow, with callers reminding me of what had been done to me and what I was doing to myself. I screened everything from friends and family, people trying to “reach out” to me, who couldn’t realize that I was going to be like this forever and nothing could stop it.
One day, a “Restricted” call came in. The worst kind of call. Do not pick up, I told myself. That could be anyone.
“Hello?” I answered. Dammit!
“Hi, Arun, it’s Jenny from Personal Personnel. Are you available for work?”
Jesus, no, I’m not available, Jenny. It will probably take me another 5 to 10 years to pull myself out of this emotional black hole…
“Sure, Jenny.” Dammit!
She bombarded me with details. A cosmetics company… Industrial Chemical Department… $14 an hour… data entry… Vik (that’s what we’ll call him) is the supervisor… 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.… at least three months….
On my first day, I entered the building, which sat in the particularly depressing industrial area just off the Garden State Parkway (don’t ask me what exit – I don’t like that game).
I met Vik, the large-headed Indian department manager with a manic, toothy grin and a strong-accented monotone with the somnolent effects of a babbling brook. He led me through the chemical-mixing area filled with large metal tubs and vats. The stench was unbearable. A sharp, rubbing alcohol musk mixed with whatever final defeat smells like. And the mixing was loud. Loud like the sound of doves crying, screaming, begging to die. I was tempted to throw myself into one of the vats and not drag this whole thing out, but Vik kept the tour moving.
Maybe I’ve seen too many movies (or too few) but I assumed everyone working at the plant to be homicidal Norma Rae-types. They wore lab coats and hair nets and goggles and looks of quiet rage. And yet I was certain they were happier than me. As far as I knew, they understood who they were and where they were going and I envied them.
Please let this horror show lead to an office where I’ll be sitting alone at a computer and typing letters and numbers into a spreadsheet while I listen to music and check my e-mail. Please.
Vik sat me down in a conference room to go over my duties. Despite my years raised by an Indian immigrant father, I was unprepared for the slow, heavy accent and English-as-a-second-language that confounded and overwhelmed me when Vik launched into an overly complicated explanation of the chemical receiving and testing system.
“… Here Industrial Chemical System…We receive ithhh the law matelial in valehouse and entel indo system…lab in test thhhhen and….”
I started to nod off, then snapped myself awake as the instruction continued in the warehouse receiving office.
“… YA code hele notice…um, thaaaaat is um…Celtificate of Analysis extremely important…keep track…batch numbel…lot numbel….”
After absorbing very little information, I was escorted to the lab and introduced to the senior chemist – I’ll call him Kiran – a stern, middle-aged Indian man, who tilted his head upward and looked down when he spoke, as if always delivering a lecture. I was to report to him in the mornings for laboratorial duties.
Kiran, I would learn, had come to America years ago, studied, became a chemist and built a life for himself in New Jersey. He was divorced and had a teenage son. And he was fairly religious, maybe not in a fundamentalist way, though I have only a vague idea of what fundamentalist Hindus believe. I wasn’t sure if he drank alcohol or ate beef, but he did frequent his Hindu temple/community center, which seemed to be his main source of extracurricular activity.
His lab partner was Lili, a pretty, middle-aged Iranian woman. She seemed to have the calm confidence of someone who had escaped the Shah in the 70s and refused to be unhappy about anything, though I was probably reading too much into her with the overanalysis of someone who’s never had to escape a Shah and refuses to be happy about anything.
Kiran had been surly and cold while Vik introduced me, but after the boss was gone, his mood lifted. He sat me down in front of the computer in the warehouse receiving office, and asked me what I knew. I tried to repeat what Vik had explained to me.
“Forget everything he told you,” he interrupted. “Don’t make it hard on yourself. Life is hard enough.”
“Hey,” he interrupted, and pointed to his name on a piece of paper. “Who’s that guy?”
“You?” I said.
“Right!” he said, and started to laugh. This man is clearly insane, I thought, as, with dramatic arm gestures, he placed pieces of paper in various files, slapping them onto the desk.
“This goes here, that goes there. Understand? Tell me. Understand? Good. You ask me if you have a question,” he said, then something seemed to dawn on him. “Everyone has questions for me. Who do I ask if I have a question?”
“Your God?” I said. Oh, Jesus, here it is. Here’s the firing moment. You can’t joke around with people like that. When are you going to learn that the things that enter your head should not be let out? When are you going to grow up?
“Good answer,” Kiran said. Wow.
I lucked out. Kiran was a devout Hindu, so God was a pretty good answer for most things. Deity would sometimes come up as I walked into the lab from lunch.
“Are you still at lunch?” he’d say.
“What?” Is all this talking necessary? Don’t people hire temps so they don’t have to get to know them? Is there no way to be in the world and left totally alone?
“Are you still at lunch? Or are you working?”
I told him I was still at lunch.
“Okay. What do you think of homosexuality? Good or bad?” Uh-oh.
“I think whatever people do sexually is their own business.”
“But God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”
“But you’re not Christian.”
“I am everything.”
“If you choose to be a homosexual, you are making God angry. He doesn’t want you to be a homosexual.”
“I’m not a homosexual.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I don’t think sexual orientation is a choice. It’s biology.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay. Back to work.”
That was the easiest workplace conversation I had ever had about homosexuality. Kiran didn’t seem to really hate gay people and he liked to talk so eventually I felt comfortable enough to open up about how tough I thought life had been for poor motherless, career-less, loveless me.
“Stop it!” he yelled one day. “The past is gone! If I thought about the past, I would collapse. When I left India, my father told me to become successful or not to come back. I had to walk three miles to the bus every day when I first came to US. Did I complain?”
“That’s right! Accept everything. Never get angry.”
“What do I do instead?”
“Every day, I go home. I look at tree. I laugh,” he said.
I wanted to go home and do just that and suddenly feel lighter, freer. I wanted to learn this timely lesson. I wanted to be the kind of person who rolled with punches. I wanted to be someone else.
Kiran, understanding the dullness of the job, prescribed breaks.
“The company pays you to do something for them. If you are tired, you cannot do the job for them. So what are they paying you for? They want you to take breaks. Take breaks!”
For my daily break, I ate an apple in the hallway outside the lab door, which stood ten feet from the ladies’ locker room.
After a week of such breaks, Lili asked, “Arun, can you see into the ladies’ changing room from the hallway?” Here we go. Joke time…
“Not only can I see inside,” I said. “I take pictures.”
Lili didn’t laugh.
“And I post those pictures on the Internet!”
“Oh,” she said.
Later, Kiran pulled me aside. He told me that a woman had accused me of trying to get a peek at her goodies while she was changing.
“You don’t have anything to worry about,” he assured me.
“Okay,” I said.
“Were you peeping?” he asked.
“Then you don’t have anything to worry about.”
A Human Resources representative, cleverly wearing a suit I couldn’t peep through, sat me down for an official inquiry.
Can this really be happening to me? I try to step back into the world and get accused of a sex crime? How long before I appear on some predator watch list? How long before I’m officially the neighborhood molester?!
“Have you been looking into the ladies’ locker room?” she asked.
“No,” I said.
“I didn’t think so.” She leaned in. “You’re not the peeping type.” Fooled her!
Apparently, the whistle-blower was an older woman who worked in the mixing area and was notorious for filing frivolous complaints against people for staring at her inappropriately.
“She likes the attention,” said the HR rep.
“And so what then?” Kiran later ranted. “We can’t stand outside the lab? When I walk outside the lab I have to keep my head down? Locker room door swings open and there is lady in bra. I have to close my eyes? Close my eyes and fall down stairs and break my neck?! No. God gave you eyes. Use them. Any of those ladies should be happy to have someone peeping at them!”
I wasn’t relieved exactly. I had already sunk so low and thought so little of myself that it almost didn’t matter. I probably didn’t want to go prison, but maybe house arrest wouldn’t have been so bad. With the Internet, every man could be an island… and a galaxy! Or something.
The part of my day spent with Kiran and his ravings made the day go by more quickly. Working with Vik was another story – a depressing story of micromanagement torture where the hero dies slowly, waterboarded into submission by constant phone calls and office visits.
Vik hated going down to the warehouse. He couldn’t communicate with the ornery union warehouse workers and they made it clear that they didn’t like him. And so he decided that I would serve as a liaison between the warehouse, where the raw chemicals were received, and the lab, where they were tested.
“Hello, Arun!” Vik would say far too excitedly every morning over the phone.
“You have leceive it dthhhaaat celtificate of analysis come?”
“Let me just…e-mail…I…one second…computer…hello…itchy….”
Minutes of silence passed as he tried to put his thoughts together.
Suicide Note, Draft 1:
I thought I was better than this. Stronger. Of a higher calling and purpose in the world. But I was wrong, wasn’t I?
“Yes, hello, Arun…I…just….”
Suicide Note, Draft 1 (cont’d):
You win, Vik. I give up. I’ll see you in he –
“Could you please follow up with that?” he would say.
“I’m sorry, follow up with what?”
Even worse were the frequent visits I was forced to make to his tiny office.
Long pause. Why are we just staring at each other? What is happening here?
“Have a seat,” he would say, pointing to the chair wedged between his desk and the front wall of his miniscule office.
“I prefer to stand,” I’d say, thinking of my knees jammed against his desk.
But then he would have me rearrange the chair so I sat in front of the door, where there was just a little more room. And no way out.
In case of fire, we are both doomed. This is how it ends. The final humiliation. A recently acquitted old-lady-peeper, trapped with a madman.
“Are you leady to go?” he might ask.
Yes. I am ready to die.
“To go do what?”
More silence. No time for a note at this point. If I could move my legs, I would put myself through that window. Then…freedom.
Vik would start, “Okay, now I….” And then stop. “No, just…minute….”
“Does anyone like this guy?” I eventually asked Kiran. “Someone always likes someone, right?”
“Normally, I would say that nine out of ten don’t like someone. In this case, it is ten out of ten.”
“I almost feel sorry for him,” I said.
“I don’t feel sorry,” Kiran said. “If he dropped dead right in front of me, I would not care. If we were in the cafeteria, I would step right over him, and maybe drop my hot soup on him, so that he smelled like soup when he met his creator. Like soup!”
“I am betting that his creator hates the smell of soup.”
“No. Why don’t you feel sorry for him?”
“He chose his life. He’s cheap. Makes lots of money, does nothing. Takes no vacations. I can die tomorrow, because I have lived my life. I have taken cruises. I have been to Alaska. I am done. Take me when you like.”
As the liaison, I spent half my day in the warehouse. To be sure, a welcome break from Vik’s mind games, but not without its own complications.
One day, while attempting to operate the copy machine in the receiving office, I was approached by Marge, a 70-year-old forklift operator and raw materials handler. She had a strong New Jersey accent and a bit of a stutter that she offset with a mean temper. Nobody messed with Marge. She was built like wrestler and had a fierce sneer. Like some kind of short, 70 year old Andre the Giant with a George Washington powdered wig and much bigger arms.
“Arun, have you seen Chris?” she asked. “God, I have to get this paperwork done. That asshole upstairs (Vik!) is trying to make life difficult for me again.”
Like everyone else in the warehouse, Marge was not a Vik fan. While I tried to pass on his orders, she would say things like, “You tell his royal highness to come down here if he thinks he can do a better job. I don’t give a shit. Tell him to come down. I’ll show him.”
“Who’s Chris?” I asked.
“Chris. You know, with the chink eyes.”
She pointed at her own eyes and squinted. Chris, a warehouse supervisor, was Asian American.
“Orientals are Orientals,” she said, laughing.
“Orientals are Orientals”! Here we go. It’s racism-fighting time. But Marge sure is frightening, isn’t she? And her name’s Marge. You can’t tell someone named Marge not to be a racist. You don’t teach Marge. Marge teaches you. She learned fork-lift driving on the streets. A hard life in working class Jersey had left her old, wrinkled and squat. But probably fast and strong – she probably had to be, storming Iwo Jima with no weapons, using her bare hands to snap necks. The Cleaner, that’s probably what they called her. I can’t beat The Cleaner. Not today. Not with this hairnet on.
No, stop it! This racism is getting a middle class, liberal arts college knuckle sandwich.
“I don’t know where Chris is,” I said.
Marge wasn’t alone in her “chink”-itude. Every day at noon, a warehouse denizen named, let’s say, Bill came into the receiving office and ordered what he referred to as “chink food” for lunch. “You know, chink food,” he’d say. What would Chris think of all this chink talk? Would his chink eyes see that there’s a problem here?
Bill hated to work and didn’t seem to care who knew it. Often, after a little chink food-ordering, he would corner his supervisor, Steve, for a one-sided rap session.
“So Huffman Koos is going out of business, right? And I go over there, and I’m looking for a fuckin’ TV stand, right? I see one. Tag says $200. For a TV stand?! I’m like, that’s why you’re going out of business.”
“Uh-huh,” Steve said, barely listening.
“Anyway, Steve, I can’t have my kids come over because I don’t have my own place. There’s some fuckin’ rule about me not being able to live with my mother if I want the kids to come over or something. And get this. My wife can refuse my request to see the kids.”
Who is worse off here? Bill or me?
“Jesus,” was all Steve could muster.
“Yeah. Meanwhile, I’ve got to fix this piece-of-shit couch I got. I’m thinking I’ll put a block underneath the motherfucker instead of buying a new leg. No one’s gonna fuckin’ notice it, right?”
Good God, I probably can’t afford a new couch leg, either.
“So you know what I did yesterday? I had to go down to the police station to give my wife the check. Yeah, she don’t feel safe coming over to my mother’s place to get it. I don’t know if she’s afraid of me or my mother or what. I’m like, grow the fuck up, honey.”
“Jesus,” Steve said.
Bill has it pretty tough, I guess. Taking the child support check to the police station because his ex is too scared of him to conduct the transaction without the presence of men who can shoot him in case he tries to strangle her or something. Then again, at least Bill had been loved by a woman, who apparently also allowed him to put a child inside her. Yes. I would love to switch places with Bill.
Eventually, I decided to get around to signing up with a different temp agency, preferably in New York City. The idea gave me the confidence to feel like it was time to leave the Industrial Chemical Department. I visited Vik in his office, relishing his wide-eyed, open-mouthed look of blankness before I delivered the blow of a week’s notice. He looked so sad. So simple.
“Vik, I am giving you my notice,” I said. “I can no longer work for you.” Oh, how the tables have turned. Where are your certificates of analysis now?
“Please,” he said. “Sit.”
Fine. But this is the last time you squeeze me into your chair of ergonomic cruelty. Enjoy it, fiend!
“My last day will be Friday,” I said. “So…that’s a week….”
I panicked. Does he know something I don’t? Are there temp work bi-laws that won’t allow me to quit? Oh, Jesus, what have I signed? What have I signed?!
“Please don’t go,” Vik said.
“We need you,” he pleaded, suddenly coherent. The accent was still there, but the struggle was gone. “This place will fall apart without you. I need you. I have no one here. No one is on my side. I am being pulled in several different directions and everyone hates me. I have no peace, Arun. I am a man with no peace.”
I was softening.
No, stop. Remember the bad times! The hate!
“Well, the thing is, I want to work in New York,” I said. “I’m a writer.” “I’m a writer”? Who talks like that?
“You are so lucky, Arun. Your whole life is ahead of you. You’re not stuck working in a factory with…union workers…people who don’t respect you.”
“What’s your take on life, Arun?”
Oh, Vik, please don’t do this.
“Um, take it day by day?”
“Stay. Please.” My God, he was serious. How could he – or anyone – need me this badly?
“Do you have another job?” he asked. Of course I have another job! Wait…
Whatever confidence I had in my plan was quickly fading away. I was leaving one job without another, which meant more time with iTunes, but it also meant no more money.
“Okay,” I said. I can work here while I find another temp job, right? I’ll have the confidence to leave at any time. This isn’t so bad. I’m in charge now. Me.
“Gleat!” Vik exclaimed, then started to transform. “Now…dtheeerrre is just…thing…one minute…I…okay…no…okay….”
What. Have. I. Done.
Days later, my mistake blew up in my face….
“You’re welcome to leave at any time, Arun!” Vik said sharply.
I felt myself starting to sweat. I can’t handle this. I don’t have any self esteem. Please don’t make me stand up for myself. I just can’t do it. I won’t do it! Oh, God, can everyone see me sweating? I have to say something.
So I said: “What?”
“I need you to take this seriously.” I don’t take this seriously. I don’t take anything seriously. Except myself and my despair.
“I do take this seriously,” I said.
“Then why were you smirking?” Because I’m too smart for this. I’m too good for everything. I don’t even live in this world. I’m like a god, floating above you and everyone else, ineffectual and unaffected by your petty concerns. And useless.
“I didn’t realize I was smirking,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry I’m so wrong about how the world works. I’m sorry I don’t know what I’m doing or who I am. I’m sorry my mother is dead. I’m so, so sorry.
The box of chemicals was eventually found and a week later, a clerical error on the part of my temp agency forced the company to let me go. After months of isolation, my re-entry into the working world had yielded a peeping charge and a stern berating and life was moving on, again, without my input.
As I hung up my white coat and hairnet and goggles for the last time, Vik stood by me solemnly.
“Are you going to call, let me know how you are doing?”
“Uh…sure,” I said. Are you insane?
“Stop by and say hello sometime.”
“Absolutely.” Every day! I’ll even invite you over to see my impressive digital music collection! Introduce you to my father! He’s depressed, too! We can all go to therapy together!
I shook Vik’s hand and walked away from the lab and the warehouse. I was moving forward. Not from any courage or skill on my part. There was just no other way to go. And it wasn’t bad and it wasn’t good.
“God has a plan for you,” Kiran told me once. “He doesn’t want you to waste away in your father’s house, doing nothing. Don’t betray God. He will be angry. Be responsible and you’ll be okay.”
I wasn’t sure about God, but there certainly was no plan. I pretended that, by “God,” Kiran meant my mother. No one had higher hopes for me, for my so-called potential. She wouldn’t accept the idea of her son burying himself in his childhood home, terrified of the world. Having always thought I’d make a wonderful lawyer, my mother probably wouldn’t have been impressed with yet another temp job. But it was something.
I could get through this, whatever this was. It wouldn’t kill me. Maybe I wasn’t ready to laugh at any trees, but at least I wouldn’t let the phone scare me.
Come on. Give me a call. I’m available.