I got Laid...Off.
Only a rat can win the rat race.
I should have seen it coming.
I should have noticed the increase of down time between projects. Suddenly I had time to download 400 MP3s a day and waste time on websites like MySpace (www.myspace.com/eschersmallwater). But this didn’t tip me off. Neither did the hiring of a new designer, fresh from college, for about $10,000 less a year than me. Somehow I managed to stay blissfully ignorant. The day they let me go, however, I had an overwhelming feeling of doom from the time I woke up. I rolled into work with a travel mug of coffee and a mild case of heartburn. When I got into the office, the smiles from my superiors seemed just a tad bit too polite. I felt kind of like a terminally ill patient surrounded by friends who knew, but weren’t ready to talk about, it.
A little before nine that morning, I struck up a conversation with a coworker, Brian, about firing policies. Brian had been in the business for a long time. He got his start doing voice-overs during Saturday afternoon movies on a local network. (“Benji the Hunted will be right back after these words from your local sponsors.”) Brian had worked his way up to the role of media buyer by the time our paths crossed. He was a senior in high school the year I was born and had witnessed first-hand the death of free love and the birth of disco. He was just jaded enough to be one of the few people in my office I could trust.
“In your lifetime, have you ever seen anybody fired at the beginning of the day, Brian?”
He paused and reflected on his 20-plus years of employment.
“You know, Esch, come to think of it, I can’t say that I have. I’ve been canned more times than you’ve had jobs, and they always waited until the end of the day. I guess they wanted to squeeze as much work out of me as they could before they cut me loose. Bastards.”
Our conversation was cut short by the vice president of the interactive department, Bob, popping his head into my cube to tell me (for the twentieth time) that I needed to finish my layouts for the hospital website we were pitching at the end of the day. I found out about this project about fifteen minutes before I walked out the door the previous day. Short deadlines were one of many aspects of the advertising world that left a bad taste in my mouth, but I had enough caffeine coursing through my veins to get it finished, with plenty of time left over to download another couple hundred songs. My collection of cyber-pillaged MP3s had reached about 5,000 before I lost my job and my bandwidth. I haven’t purchased a CD in years. File sharing is a guilty pleasure I’m having a hard time living without. A part of me feels guilty for “sharing” music without paying. But that feeling of overwhelming guilt always washes away when I drop fifty bucks on a concert ticket and another thirty for a low quality t-shirt with the band’s name ironed onto the front. I used free file-sharing to its fullest extent, downloading 12 versions of every song, from acoustic to rare recordings with alternate lyrics, as well as cheesy pop songs—the type of songs I’m embarrassed to admit I like and could never purchase at a store without losing any integrity I might still have. After four months of 56k modems, I’ve found myself suffering from severe withdrawal.
At 4:58 p.m., I threw my briefcase over my shoulder and headed to the elevators. I was about five feet from the doors when Bob appeared out of nowhere, like an urban ninja creeping out of the shadows, blocking my path.
“Hey Esch, can we touch base before you go?” Touch Base? I knew what that meant.
I followed him into his office where the creative director Butch was waiting.
Butch was old school. He liked to call everyone “Bucky.” He came from a lineage of advertising folk who didn’t have computers. He used to say, “In my day, a desktop was where you put your pencils, Bucky.” From day one, he was threatened by this new generation of designers who understood a world he wasn’t ready to enter. His big claim to fame was a wildly popular campaign for a beer in the 80’s that revolved around dancing turtles. He’s been living off of that commercial’s reputation ever since. To this day I haven’t seen him write, design, or concept an idea for a client, although his name is on every project. Butch was staring at his shoes, avoiding any and all eye contact with me. I felt like I was being put in front of a firing squad, minus the blindfold and cigarette. I wanted a cigarette. Bob started the meeting with a little small talk. He asked me about my plans for the weekend, blah blah blah. I didn’t want to talk about my weekend plans, and he didn’t really care to listen, but I guess Bob wanted to ease into this. His eyes dropped, and he began twirling a ball-point pen in his fingers.
“Escher, this is never easy. I’m sure you’re aware that business has been slow.”
Butch chimed in. “We really like you, Bucky. It’s not that we don’t appreciate your work.”
“But,” Bob continued, still fixing his eyes on his pen, “we can’t afford to keep you.”
“It’s nothing personal, Bucky, just numbers.”
That was it. I was just a number. Another warm ass filling a chair, whoring out my art for chemical companies and pet supply stores. I’d known it was coming, but it didn’t make it any easier to swallow. I felt my hand clench into a fist. I stood up.
“You’re firing me?” I was shaking, half from shock, half from rage.
“After all I’ve given you guys, you wait until the very end of the day and then just let me go?”
“Escher.” Bob tried to calm the fires before they went out of control.
“Why the hell didn’t you do this at the beginning of the day? Because you needed one more deadline met before kicking me to the curb?
Is that all I am to you, a web designing machine, devoid of bills, and debts, and feelings?”
I could feel my adrenalin begin to pump. Years of indentured service to Corporate Charlie, all the way down to those dark years spent working at Starbuck’s began creeping to the surface. All the cubicle farms I’d inhabited, all the offices with windows that never open. All the annoying theme lunches dished out in an attempt to bring about a false sense of corporate unity (“This Monday is Cinco de Mayo, so everyone needs to bring in a Mexican dish and wear something festive.”) All of the inept ass-kissing monkeys who knew less than me but still somehow sat above me in the corporate food chain, all the buzz words, like “pro-active,” “powwow,” and above all else, “touch base.” All of this bubbled up to the surface, and I was about to unleash it in all its caffeinated glory.
“We’re giving you a three week’s severance check, Escher.”
“Don’t take it so personally, Bucky.”
I could feel my teeth grinding.
I needed a cigarette.
“Don’t take it personally?! You hire some inexperienced kid fresh from college, a kid I trained, pay him half as much as me and then let me go? I’ve designed 99% of everything in your portfolio, Bucky. I’ve been here for three years, have never missed a deadline, have never been late, frequently skip lunches to work, work at home almost every night, avoiding a social life so that a window and roofing company can have a website and you let me go?! How much are they paying you, Butch? How much do they pay you to roam the office, telling your old corny jokes, while nameless warm bodies like me continue to cover your ass by doing your work and padding your book? Butch, you wouldn’t know a good design if it came up and bit you on the ass. You do know it takes more than a pair of thick, black-framed glasses and a beret to be a good designer, don’t you, Butch?”
I was just getting started. Bob looked like a deer caught in the headlights of a Mack truck; he was in shock. Butch was finally looking me in the eyes, his face washed in red. I didn’t give him an opportunity to chime in, I wasn’t finished.
“And you, Bob, how much are they paying you to leave at two p.m. every day to play golf with clients, while I’m consuming my eighth cup of coffee at two a.m. trying to meet some ridiculous deadline? A deadline you set without ever checking with me before promising it to the client? You can’t afford to keep me?! I remember the good old days when someone willing to commit his life to a company was rewarded with respect and job security; now it makes you a target. Where do you get off? For three years I’ve endured the bitter old secretaries who’ve worked here longer than I’ve been alive, the false corporate cheer of company picnics, and birthday sing-a-longs. I’ve acted like the option of wearing jeans on Friday is a genuine treat to be looked forward to all week long. I’ve spent the last three freaking years marching along to the beat of your little office politics, and unspoken ruling classes. I adhered to your corporate casual uniform, even though I never ever saw a client for God’s sake, Bob, I wore khaki. KHAKI! I look like a strung out GAP model, just so I can sit in my tiny little cubicle complete with your stupid little inspirational print-outs taped to my monitor in a futile attempt to motivate me to produce more, all in the name of job security and how do you reward me?! Three week’s severance pay and a saturated job market? Thanks, guys, you’re so generous and compassionate. I’m touched, really.”
The room was silent, aside from the hum of Bob’s computer monitor. Butch’s head looked like it was going to explode. I walked towards the door, lit a cigarette, took the smoke deep into my lungs, and exhaled.
“Only a rat can win the rat race. I’m sure you’ll both do just fine.” And with that I left. So much for a letter of recommendation.