Transcript

208:

Office Politics
Transcript

Originally aired 03.15.2002

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/208

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Jacobs and the other guys did not like their boss, Manright. Manright was full of himself, he took credit for things that they did, he was hard to deal with. And they set out to sabotage him. A sociologist named Calvin Morrill, watched how they did it as part of a study of office politics in different companies. These guys all worked for an old line banking firm that he calls Old Financial. All the names in this story have been changed.

In traditional companies like this one, Morrill says, all the politics happen in secret. It's all subterfuge. Here is how Manright was destroyed by Jacobs.

Calvin Morrill

Manright used to rely on this fellow, Jacobs, to prepare him before he would go before the senior executive committee meeting. And Jacobs is very good, very smart guy. And he could anticipate some of the questions that his boss would be asked at these meetings. And so when he prepped him, he would just neglect to tell his boss about some of the key questions that he could anticipate being asked. And there his boss would stand at the committee meeting, naked, without the information that he needed. And eventually, he was removed as a result of this.

Ira Glass

Now did Manright understand that he had been sabotaged?

Calvin Morrill

He didn't. Actually, he got back each time-- this happened to him over the course of several meetings, where he was mis-prepped, if you will-- and each time he came back, he was firmly convinced that his subordinates were incompetent, because how else could this have happened? It never dawned on him that they were so competent that they might actually be intentionally engaged in sabotage.

Ira Glass

Another multibillion dollar company that Morrill studied is one that he calls Playco, in the toy and education product business. Unlike Old Financial-- where bosses were bosses and underlings were underlings, and so all the scheming had to go on in secret-- at Playco, there was no real hierarchy. It wasn't clear who was in charge of whom. And while that might sound like a kind of nice place to work, with no big bosses, it turns out that with no one absolutely in charge to make decisions and keep people in line, all the fighting was right out in the open. At meetings, people would try to humiliate and out argue each other. They would form alliances. The executives at Playco would talk all the time about honor and respect, as if they were medieval knights, or maybe mob figures.

Calvin Morrill

Then I even witnessed violence in this firm between executives. One of the incidents I talk about was about two executives actually getting into a fistfight in front of the world headquarters of this multinational firm.

Ira Glass

Yeah, just tell what happened between those two.

Calvin Morrill

Yeah, well one guy was called-- I call him Greer. And the other guy actually had a nickname, called the Terminator. And he was called the Terminator because, as this one guy said, he liked to hunt big game. He liked to look for executives who he could best in arguments at meetings. And so these guys were parking their cars in the parking lot. And they called each other out, essentially.

Greer accused the Terminator of playing around with women at a local health club and embarrassing the corporation. Meanwhile, the Terminator accused Greer of being a weak executive. This thing escalated. And after a few minutes, one of them had the other over his Lotus sports car.

Ira Glass

There is this idea in capitalism that companies are making decisions, and products, and strategy, based on rational evaluation of the market and their customers. To what degree is that true, based on what you saw? And to what degree are decisions being made based on office politics, and not a rational evaluation of where their company is in the market?

Calvin Morrill

There is some rationality. But thinking about the bottom line is sometimes a myth that outsiders tell each other about how decisions are made. And it's not always about the bottom line. It's about politics with one another, maneuvering with one another.

Ira Glass

Given all that, given all the conflict that Calvin Morrill saw at all kinds of offices, what is surprising is not how many fistfights there are in offices, but how few. I know I've been in one. This happened years ago on a public radio show that was just starting up. And I do not think of myself as much of a fighter. But here's how it went down. The guy who raised the money to start this show had this vision. And what his vision was, was he said, what if there were a radio show where you could turn on every day, and you would hear something like Spike Lee, and Philip Glass, the composer, and Stephen Hawking, the physicist, sitting down together, and just talking, talking about the things that interest them in common.

So this show was two hours a day. This guy had never worked on a daily program. He had done other stuff, but never a daily program. I and a number of the other people who worked on the show had worked on daily shows. At the time, by the way, I was not on the air. I was just a producer.

And so we're trying to start this show. And every day, we would come in, and we would work, and work, and work, and work. And every day we would have this experience of-- we would say, OK, here is what we think we can do. It was a very, very small staff. Very small staff. And every day we would say, OK, here is what we think we can do this week. And we would lay out the programs, and this, and this, and this, and this. And at the end of the whole thing-- all this work had gone into it-- at the end of the whole thing, the guy who had raised all the money and was our boss would say, you know, that's really very nice. But it's just not our original idea. It's not Spike Lee, and Philip Glass, and Stephen Hawking sitting down and talking to each other.

And those of us who had worked on daily programs would always say to him, you know, that is a perfectly good idea. That is a very valid idea. A perfectly good idea. But you have to remember that you are on for two hours a day. You have two people making phone calls and booking this, you have one or two tape cutters, one or two other people. It was a very, very small staff. And so even if you could get Spike Lee, and Philip Glass, and Stephen Hawking into a room, and you could figure out what in the world they actually have to say to each other, which would take a certain amount of research and time on someone's part, even if you could make all this happen, that's only one hour. That's only going to be one show. And so we have to think about what's going to happen in all these other hours. And so that's a very good idea, a very fine idea. But here are all these other ideas that we're going to do to fill all this other time too.

And this went on for day after day and week after week. And people were working very, very hard and sort of burning out. And finally, after weeks of this, we're all standing around. And we've just finished our first five shows. And it has been grueling. It has been really, really hard. And we're evaluating what to do next, and how we should change the format of the show, and all that kind of thing. And we get to the end of this long, long discussion. And it seems like we're all on the same page. And at last, we're all in accord. Here is where we've been, here is where we're going.

And our boss says, well, you know, there's one thing that we haven't gotten to. And that is, I think we're forgetting the original idea of the show, that really what it needs to be is-- I think every hour needs to be more like-- well, just imagine if Spike Lee, and Philip Glass, and Stephen Hawking could sit down together and just chat about whatever.

And it had been a really hard few weeks. And as Nelson Mandela said in a very different context, you know, we had tried reason, but reason had failed to produce a solution. And so violence was our only option. And I didn't really see anything else to do. Well, to say I didn't see anything implies a kind of thinking that really wasn't exactly happening. It was just straight, pretty much gut instinct. And I walked over, and I punched him in the stomach.

And his reaction, I have to say, was not really as satisfying as I was hoping for. He was sort of cushiony. I didn't feel like I was making much of an impression. And we're standing very, very close now, closer, I think, than we had ever stood to each other. And he looks me in the eyes. And he's a little bit sweaty. And he doesn't get mad at all. The whole thing just makes him get really, really sincere.

And he says, "You know, Ira, I really think that you should think about what you're doing for a second." Which I have to say, just made me madder. Like if you're really mad at somebody, and they just start to talk to you like they're your therapist, it just makes you madder. And so I punched him again. And again, not terribly satisfying and sort of a cushiony kind of feeling. And punches don't make as much of a sound in real life as you think they might.

And again, he sort of looks me-- our faces very close to each other-- looks me in the eye, and he says, "You know, Ira, I think you're really having some feelings here that maybe you might be expressing a different way." Which of course, made me punch him again.

At this point, at the third punch, pretty much people had gathered around us. And I was pulled off by the public radio staff of the show, which included a guy in a wheelchair, which gives you a sense of the tough kind of fight that was going on here. And I say all this now just to illustrate that even in the offices of an outfit known for its calm-voiced, let us all sit down together and reason together kind of reasonableness, even in the offices of public radio, even here, in the office where I speak to you from right now, feelings are so extreme that they can lead to hitting. Our relationships at our jobs, I think, contain all of the feelings we have in all of our personal relationships. There are people you like, people you don't like. There is gratitude, there is resentment, there is jealousy. It's all there. All the feelings are there. Except in the workplace we can't express it, because it's a workplace. You have to keep it bottled up inside, and then it ends up seeping out in all these other ways.

Well, today on our program, Office Politics, we bring you three stories of conflict and high drama from our nation's workplaces. Act One, Hang in There Kitty Cat, It's Almost Friday. In that act, a lowly office worker gets in a jam, and discovers that in times of trouble, when all else has failed, when all hope is gone, companies in her industry turn to one woman, one woman, my friend, in a suburban home in Long Island, who solves their corporate problems without ever turning off the TV that plays in the background.

Act Two, Sheetcakes in the Conference Room, Whiskey After Dark. David Rakoff discusses the world of birthdays and other holidays, as they are celebrated on the job.

Act Three, When the Job to Get You off the Streets Is on the Streets. In that act we hear stories of the intricate office politics that take place in a location where you might not suspect there is any politics because there is no office. Stay with us.

Act One. Hang In There Kitty Cat, It's Almost Friday.

Ira Glass

Act One, Hang in There Kitty Cat, It's Almost Friday. Starlee Kine tells the tale in this act of an office problem that refused to be solved by ordinary means, and so extraordinary means had to be employed.

Starlee Kine

Kelly worked for small start up. There were only about a dozen people on the staff. And the office was just one big room with no walls, like in a classroom. And a lot of the same office politics that happens behind closed doors in other offices happened in this one, except without the doors.

It didn't take long before the employees took on the established roles. There was a cool kid, the flirt, the gossip, the nice boss who was really mean, the mean boss who was really nice. There was even the person who functioned as the unofficial psychologist. Every office has one, the person who is everyone's confidant, who listens to your problems and gives you a shoulder to cry on. In this office, though, the politics were so extreme that even she couldn't be trusted.

Kelly

Our person would come in with the person who was crying. And the person who was crying would be like, "Thanks. I'll buy you a beer sometime. I really needed to get that off my chest." And the psychologist would be like, "It's OK, anytime. I'll be right back." And literally walk over to the person, who the other person had just been saying is torturing them, making their life hell, and that they think might want to kill them, and then go over and be like, "You see that person sitting right there? Yeah. The one right in front of you? She thinks that you might want to kill her."

Starlee Kine

Since it was a start up, the company was having trouble even staying in business. Pressure was high, hours were long. There was lots of stress, and breakdowns, and tears, and fighting, and of course, sex.

Kelly

There was one person, in particular, who was sleeping with one of the women in the office. And until the last day, I think that most of the staff thought he was gay. There was a woman who was heterosexual, but obviously had a crush on the one lesbian we had in the office, like a hot and heavy crush. And also on the men, too. She doesn't discriminate. And a certain amount of sexual tension is great. It gets you to get up in the morning, to actually wash your hair. But in this office it was flying at you from such strange directions. And there were couplings happening within office.

Starlee Kine

From Kelly's perspective, the creepiest coupling was between her two bosses. The three of them were working super closely on a new project. The two bosses had both pretty much already hated her, and it had been hard enough to deal with them as individuals. But together they formed this sort of invincible two-headed monster of hate. And Kelly was their number one target.

Kelly

When you're working with a very small staff, it's like being stuck on a ship with people. That's your only existence at all. So let's say you're stuck on this boat. You're out at sea, calm waters in the beginning, a lot of celebrating, I like you, do you like me? I like you too. Yeah! And then things start to get rougher. Things start to get rougher. People are testy, because they've been stuck in that boat for a long time. You now know things, things that you don't even want to know about people. You're forced to know in those environments. So imagine that. And then imagine the two people that I need to work with on a daily basis not talking to me, and not liking me, and sleeping together.

So imagine we're all on that boat. And we have to make room for them to sleep with each other. We're like, OK, move over on the cots.

They just wouldn't make eye contact with me, wouldn't talk to me for the entire deadline that we were on. And also this person is only sitting six feet away from me. So the uncomfortability of that was through the roof.

Starlee Kine

And then, slowly the ship began to sink. They were running out of money. The bosses grew paranoid, and started picking off their employees one by one. A person answered the phone incorrectly, and was fired that same day.

Malaise set in. Employees started coming in late or not at all. No one believed in the project anymore. And then one day, some irreplaceable photographs that Kelly was in charge of went missing.

Kelly

I looked everywhere. I looked in the bookcases, under my desk. I looked in other people's offices on our floor. I looked in the drawers that were public. We had public drawers where people could store stuff. And then we had drawers that were private, which I didn't go into when people were there. But I did get so desperate that I went through everyone's stuff. I was getting irrational.

Starlee Kine

Kelly suspected that one of her bosses had stolen the photographs. They knew that she had to return the photos to the photographer, and that her reputation was on the line. It would be a huge embarrassment if she had to actually call the photographer and tell him they were gone. In her office, sabotage was becoming trendy. Kelly has seen other examples of it. It just had never happened to her. She thought all was lost, until a friend told her what other companies in the industry did when objects like this couldn't be found.

Kelly

If the situation arises, they will hire a psychic to help them locate the images. A girl gave me a number of someone who she said was certified by the state of the New York, was a crime psychic. I called her. She said, OK, I've got a half an hour for you two days from now. Come.

Starlee Kine

Apparently once you've accepted the notion that your bosses are actually trying to sabotage you, the idea of going to a psychic just doesn't seem that crazy anymore. It seems appropriate.

Kelly called the psychic from her desk in plain sight of everyone, including the suspected boss. She didn't even bother lowering her voice. And then she set about following the psychic's instructions. She took Polaroid photos of the office and all the people working there. And then she got on a train to the psychic's house in Long Island. She was hoping that the psychic would be able to tell her something, anything about where the photos were. What she got was a whole lot more.

The psychic lit a cigarette while Kelly laid out the Polaroids she had taken. Then the psychic started describing the subtlest nuances of her coworkers' personalities.

Kelly

Sometimes she would just say words, like, "Oh, she's so insecure." As if she was having like a whole other conversation that wasn't with me. And she'd be like, "Oh, she's not pretty. Oh." And she would start to feel sorry. And then she would be like, "Oh, OK, he doesn't like women. Not like he's gay. He just never thinks that women are worth that much."

Starlee Kine

Of all the reading rooms in all the homes of all the psychics in Long Island, Kelly walked into this one, the home of Ann, the office politics psychic. Ann had Kelly draw a little map of her office with lines indicating where everyone sat. The psychic went from desk to desk to desk, describing the office politics between Kelly's coworkers. These two are always gossiping with each other. Don't trust them. This one was your friend, but they didn't like her, so she got fired. He's sweet. You can tell him things. Then she got to Kelly's two bosses.

Kelly

And then she said, "Oh, OK, the person who sits here talks to the person who sits here all day long."

Starlee Kine

She actually drew a line between the two bosses who are sleeping with each other? She drew the line.

Kelly

Well, she would draw a little stick person behind the desk. And then she would draw another little stick person. And she'd be like, oh, this area to this area. My two main bosses, she was saying, were constantly talking to each other all day. She went into things that I didn't even know happened, that later I found out happened. Like they went on a trip. She knew, basically, that he was living at her place. There was not anything that she didn't know. The same amount of information, with added psychic phenomenon, as if she'd been sitting next to me the whole six months.

Starlee Kine

I've never called Miss Cleo. I've never had a tarot reading or had my tea leaves read. I've never crossed over. But when I heard there was a psychic on Long Island who could tell who is lying about breaking the office fax machine, I had to go. I called and made an appointment. She had one stipulation for letting me come, no debunking.

Ann lives with her elderly mother and her seven year old daughter. When I get there, grandmother and granddaughter are nestled in easy chairs, watching Golden Girls. Ann is doing a reading in the back. And her mother turns to me and asks if I'm there for a reading too. I tell her I'm not.

We watch TV together in silence for a few minutes. And then Ann's mother turns back to me and asks if I'm there for a reading. This pattern continues for the rest of the show. I finally give in and say, yes, I'm there for a reading. Then she gives up and shuffles off to the kitchen. And I can hear her muttering under her breath, [BEEP] gypsies.

Then Ann comes in and takes me to her reading room.

Ann

--the floor we kept the red carpeting. It is a root shocker. And it gives me a lot of energy, because I'm actually in a beta level sleep state. So I'm kind of groggy. And the best thing to wake you up in the morning is that nice red carpeting.

Starlee Kine

Ann's reading room looks like a suburban guest bedroom. There is a daybed that she likes because it makes it feel more like a therapist's office, pictures of her family, and a TV cluttered with chachkas, like a jar labeled, ashes of problem customers.

Ann prefers to be called a clairaudient trance medium, which means that she can hear stuff that isn't there, as opposed to seeing stuff that isn't there. She goes into a trance, and then her three spirit guides feed her the information.

When I talked to Ann on the phone, she told me she would be in a trance when I got there. In fact, she had been in a trance when she told me that. It turns out Ann is almost always in a trance. At her house, I saw her receive payment for her services, recommend a good restaurant, and usher her client to the door, all while in a trance. This seemed to be a complete abuse of the word trance, not to be debunkey or anything.

Appointments with Ann are hard to get. She'll take anybody, but she is usually booked months in advance. People come for the usual stuff, like channeling dead relatives. But she does a big business of finding lost objects. And a large percentage of her clients come about problems at work.

Ann

If you think about it, that's where you spend most of your waking time during the day, in most cases, is in offices. That's why there are so many issues that people have-- the variety of issues, I couldn't begin to count or measure. You name it, I've had them all.

Starlee Kine

I watch Ann's clients drift in and out of her home from morning till night. And what I learn is this-- it doesn't matter that the people work in different kinds of jobs, all their stories are the same. There's the cop with the corrupt boss intent on making his life hell.

Cop

You know, you could be sitting in a room with five people. He would walk in and say hello to the other four, and just ignore me like I wasn't there.

Starlee Kine

There's a woman from the car rental agency with a boss who didn't like women.

Car Rental Employee

He had already been responsible for firing the two other girls in the office. I was the last remaining female.

Starlee Kine

This woman from the phone company who worked with a lot of people younger than her.

Phone Company Employee

There were a few managers I had a problem with. She was the type that will laugh in your face, but she actually did you in behind your back.

Starlee Kine

Talking to Ann about all this, every office is Othello, full of jealousy, and greed, and intrigue. Kelly's story wasn't surprising to her at all.

Ann

Surprise me? Not much of it, honestly, because I find it very common in the workplace. And very oftentimes enough, there is a lot of backstabbing.

Starlee Kine

At some point, I'm guessing, you have worried about investing too much emotional energy in your colleagues, your boss, your work. At least we're all doing it. In fact, for Kelly one of the best things about going to Ann about the missing photos is that Ann didn't view her freak out as excessive.

Kelly

Up until that point, I would be calling my mom saying, they've taken them. They have taken them. I know they have. And she would be totally freaked out, as all of my friends were. And they were like, let it go. You're going to find them. And I would be like, no, no. This is bad. This is a horrible place. And I'd be going on these rants. And my friends and my family were trying to be OK about it. But she was the first person that was like, oh, yeah, this is bad. And you're right, and that's unfortunate.

And I said, well, I brought photos. So I wanted to show her the photos, to show her the different places in the office. And she, basically, looked at the first one-- which was a Polaroid of all the guys in the office-- and said, oh, that's him. He was really mad when you were taking that photo, because he knew that you were coming here.

Starlee Kine

The man she pointed to was Kelly's boss.

Kelly

He is red in the face in this photo, glaring at me. His veins on his neck are sticking out. And it looks like he could probably hit me.

Starlee Kine

How much actual clairvoyance was involved in this is anyone's guess. Ann's clients all swear by her, love her actually. But Ann and her clients all say that a part of what Ann does is confirm what you already know. Kelly suspected her bosses. Ann told her she was right to. Armed with this new knowledge, Kelly did absolutely nothing. She didn't confront her bosses or go over their heads to the head of the company. She didn't do anything. She didn't need to. She felt better.

Kelly

I felt totally vindicated. I felt released after Ann. Yeah, I totally felt release, because before I went to her I kept waiting for them to break. I kept thinking that maybe they'd tell me, or that they would admit to it, or that they would just put them on my desk at night, and I would come in in the morning and then they would be there. I have had fantasies about that a lot.

And then afterward, I didn't have to worry anymore. I had no suspicions. I knew that everything that I had thought, she had told me was true. And I stopped caring. I felt like I could look at them from a different angle. And it wasn't personal anymore. It was just more like, wow, that's pretty pathetic.

Starlee Kine

The lost photos were never found, just like Ann said they wouldn't be. Kelly now works somewhere else. Ann is booked through next summer.

The problem with office politics is it never really makes sense outside the office. Your friends and family will never fully understand what it is you hate so much about the girl down the hall. With Ann, not only does she seem to understand, you don't even have to tell her about it.

Ira Glass

Starlee Kine is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - "LOVE IS ALL AROUND (MARY TYLER MOORE THEME)" BY JOAN JETT AND THE BLACKHEARTS]

Act Two. Sheetcakes In The Conference Room, Whiskey After Dark.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Sheetcakes in the Conference Room, Whiskey After Dark. Americans are, as everybody knows, spending more time on the job, which means more people's social lives are organized around their work lives, and more holidays are celebrated more intensely, and mean more, on the job site. David Rakoff wrote this next story while we at This American Life took our show on the road a little while back, doing our show before live audiences around the country. It is a parable of three such holidays as celebrated on the job.

David Rakoff

Holiday, the first. National Secretaries Day. At least, we consoled ourselves, we were assistants, not secretaries. In the world we were in, the world of New York publishing, these titles meant everything. It's a loathsome distinction, the almost meaningless difference between field and house slave. After all, we all of us-- secretaries and assistants alike-- had much the same duties. Filing, photocopying, taking dictation, and making reservations for meals we would never get to eat. There was one glaring discrepancy between us and the secretaries, specifically their salaries dwarfed ours. But our penury came with the promise that we were bound for better things. We would be mentored, promoted, and one day raised to our rightful stations as book editors, our faith in the East Coast meritocracy restored.

Still every April when National Secretaries Day rolled around, many of us took sick days, genuinely nauseous with worry that we might be mistook for them, and there on our assistant's desks would be the asparagus fern and baby's breath-surrounded long stem roses, with the heartfelt note from the boss who just couldn't do it without you.

Instead of National Secretaries Day, we assistants had our own folk traditions with our own holidays, one of which we celebrated often, almost nightly, in fact. We called it drinking. With disturbing regularity, the end of the workday found us at the old Monkey Bar, the Dorset Bar, the [? Warwick ?] Bar, all of which were attached to serviceable and somewhat down-at-heel hotels. Midtown Manhattan used to be full of just such comfortably shabby establishments, where career waiters with Brilliantined comb overs and shiny-elbowed jackets served marvelously cheap, albeit watery, drinks, along with free snacks. Withered celery sticks, unironic faux Asian Pu Pu platters, pretzel nuggets accompanying a cheese spread of a color that in nature usually signals, I am an alluring, yet highly poisonous tree frog. Beware.

Dinner and forgetfulness, all for $10. Youth is not wasted on the young. It is perpetrated on the young.

Hooch, happily, was one luxury we could afford. Our drunkenness was twofold. First, there was the liquor. But there was also the intoxication brought on by the self aggrandizing conviction that we happy few, we cheery booze hounds, were the new incarnations of that most mythic bunch of souses, the Algonquin Round Table. This pipe dream sustained not just us, but I suspect countless other tables of publishing menials all over town. So desperate were we to assume the mantles of Parker, Benchley, and their ilk, that we weren't going to let some silly thing like a dearth of wit or the complete absence of a body of work on any of our parts deter us.

With enough $4 drinks sloshing through our veins, even the most dunderheaded schoolyard japery qualified as coruscating repartee. What do you want, a repose might begin, a medal or a chest to pin it on? Oh, touche, we cried merrily, as we clutched our martinis.

That represented the high point of the discourse. Gradually, our tongues thickened and our moods darkened unpleasantly. As the evenings wore on, a hostile, gin-scented pole fell over everything. And our glittering aphorisms were reduced to the wishful and direct, I hope my boss is dead right now.

Paying the bill, we stumbled out into the street and back to our apartments, where we spent the rest of the night jealously reading the manuscripts of those who actually wrote and didn't just drink about it. Rising unrefreshed, we would return to the office, and-- rubbing alcohol and cotton balls in hand-- get down to work swabbing, leaf by leaf, the potted plants in our boss' office, a vain attempt to stop the outbreak of white fly that was going around the floor.

Impressing the higher ups became our constant purpose. We spent an inordinate amount of time attaching disproportionate significance to our message taking skills, our collating acumen, no small feat from under a hovering cloud of job hatred. How sad to realize, from the vantage point of years later, that the answer to the question that was perpetually on our minds, what do they think of me, was-- they didn't at all. Realistically, we were the help. And it was best not to forget it.

Holiday, the second. Christmas. Those three weeks or so of midtown Manhattan Christmas are an assistant's dream. No work gets done. And all is romanticized melancholy. It was precisely why so many of us had moved to the city, so that we too might gaze misanthropically at the corporate Christmas tree in the lobby surrounded with gift-wrapped empty boxes that fooled nobody, and in the institutional fluorescent-lit sadness of it all, feel something approaching depth. The phones idle, we spent our days going to the movies during lunch, returning hours later to troll the halls of the office, foraging through the gift baskets like a ravening pack of voles, subsisting on Carr's water biscuits, individually red waxed thick balls of baby Gouda, butternut toffee, popcorn, smoke house almonds, and fancy fruit preserves eaten directly from the jar. A diet that had our faces peppered with blackheads and glistening with oily sebum as unto the shining visages of the apostles.

Our bosses were away with their families at country houses having real lives. We wondered how they might greet the sight of the empty food baskets upon their return, such anarchy, such transgression. As usual, they never even noticed. We on the other hand, could not even conceive of a world wherein we did not know the exact quantity and location of our giant cashews.

Holiday, the third. Happy Birthday. After any moment of extreme assistant subjugation, say a morning wherein one might innocently open an unsolicited manuscript only to find that someone had mailed the publishing house a jiffy pack full of human feces. Or one might be sent to the corner to pick up a cappuccino for an author who had just been given a $1 million book advance, a coffee for which I was not reimbursed. After such moments, we would make our way to Sheila's cubicle, where we could always be guaranteed clear-eyed advice and cigarettes. Sheila was our bad girl leader. A poet and writer herself, she despised her job, and didn't care who knew it, smoking openly at her desk and standing on ceremony for no one. "These would be my pajamas that I slept in last night," she would say, indicating the black long sleeve T-shirt and black workout pants she was wearing. "And this," she would add, fingering a crusted white smear on the hem of the top, "this would be spilled food. Nice." Well, they say, dress for the job you want not the job you have.

So of course, it was immediately to Sheila that I went when I received my birthday card. It was late November. Opening the envelope, my eyes fell upon it, a reproduction of one of those tinted B movie stills from the 1950s. A woman in a smart worsted business jacket wearing a pair of glasses at which men seldom make passes, and a switchboard operator's headset out of which were shooting tiny lightning bolts, was shown to be thinking, someone needs coffee.

Above her head, in screaming sci-fi acid yellow type, was the title of this card's purported movie, The Amazing Tale of the Psychic Secretary. I slid the card back into the envelope, walked over, and showed it to her. "Get your coat," she said, her voice businesslike, her face unreadable. We went to the [? Warwick ?] Bar. "Don't talk for a while, just smoke," she said. And then as an afterthought, she added, "But you knew I was going to say that, didn't you, psychic secretary?"

Across from us in the darkened booth, a couple sat, a man and a woman. They had clearly been there for hours, because the woman's head was lolling about on her neck as she alternately whispered lubriciously or laughed too heartily at her companion's jokes. We had a clear view under the table, where we could see her rubbing ever higher up his thigh. I knew where this exchange was leading. Psychic.

Not long after that evening, I sat in a movie theater packed to the rafters. Just before the lights went down, a woman marched up the aisle, looked at me, and asked, "Is that seat taken?" I was nowhere near the end of the row, but trying to be helpful, I asked, "Which seat?" Looking directly into my eyes, she said, "That seat." She pointed. She was pointing to the center of my chest, to my very heart. "Well, I'm sitting here," I managed finally.

As if I were her college age daughter who had suddenly announced that I was a vegetarian, she shrugged in a kind of suit yourself indulgence of my fantasy of existence, and moved on. I looked up and down the row for some sort of laughter, some eye rolling commiseration, or just plain corroboration that this had just happened. But I got no response. To this day I can not explain it. Was this an emissary sent from on high at that time of year, not to trumpet the birth of the son of God, but to proclaim with heavenly proof my complete and utter insignificance?

She's right, I thought. This seat isn't taken. It was the perfect moment for that time in my life. I mean that, of course, in the worst way possible. The theater went dark. Up on the screen, the camera zoomed past a huge closeup of the Statue of Liberty, swooping down to find the Staten Island Ferry scudding along the water, transporting our working girl to her office job, where we already knew she would triumph, vanquish the harpy boss, and win the love of the man.

Sheila taught me a survival technique for getting through seemingly intolerable situations, interminable lunches, stern lectures on attitude or time management, being trapped by the office bore beside the sheetcake in the conference room, and the like. Maintaining eye contact, keep your face inscrutable and mask-like with the faintest hint of a smile. Keep this up as long as you possibly can. And just as you feel you're about to crack and take a letter opener and plunge it into someone's neck, fold your hands in your lap, one nestled inside the other, like those of a supplicant in a priory. Now with the index finger of your inner hand, write on the palm of the other, very discreetly and undetectably, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you, over and over again as you pretend to listen.

You will find that this brings a spontaneous look of interest and pleased engagement to your countenance. Continue and repeat as necessary. In the dark of the theater, I write my message, pressing hard into the flesh of my hand. Although I don't know who I am writing to, I'm just glad to feel that it hurts. Thank you.

Ira Glass

David Rakoff. He put a version of this story into his first book, which is called Fraud. Coming up, Philip Glass, Spike Lee, and Stephen Hawking sit around, have a casual conversation about, you know, whatever. That will be the day. In a minute, from Public Radio International and Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Three. When The Job That Takes You Off The Streets Is On The Streets.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Office Politics. High drama in our nation's workplaces. We have arrived at Act Three. Act Three, When the Job to Get You off the Streets is on the Streets.

In New York City, at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, pretty much any day you will see tables on the sidewalks, manned by scruffy-looking men. This extends for two blocks. What they are selling on the tables are magazines and books. Most of these have been pulled from the trash, found in dumpsters. Julie Snyder reports on the politics of this particular business.

Julie Snyder

After spending a couple of days on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street, what strikes me is not how different street vending is from other businesses, but how similar. As if the rules of business are so deeply encoded in us that as soon as anyone starts to sell anything, in any setting, the rules and hierarchies of a company start to gel around them, even if what they're doing is selling other people's trash.

On the corner, you've got your entry levels, and you've got the people who have worked and clawed their way to the top. That's more or less what Ishmael Walker did. When I visit, he has the best spot on the block, right on the corner, in front of the Barnes & Noble. And what got him there was simple ambition.

Ishmael Walker

At one time, I was down the block. I was just sitting out. I said, damn all the money is up there and everybody up there. Because see, that bookstore, people go and buy books, right? And I've got books on the table. I've got magazines. I might just got what they want.

Julie Snyder

There were other reasons Ishmael wanted the corner. Right across is Gray's Papaya, a hot dog restaurant with plate glass windows that looks directly onto the corner. When it rains, he can sit inside and eat and still keep an eye on his stuff. Also, there's a small alcove that is right in front of Ishmael's table, where he keeps a chair and can relax or nap during the day.

To understand how you rise to the best space on the block, or how you get demoted to the worst, consider Ron's story.

Ron

I told you one time I had this whole block from the light post to the light post. This was when I first came out here.

Julie Snyder

Ron is at the very end of the blocks in what is, arguably, the worst location. Years ago, before Ishmael made his move to the top, Ron controlled the entire block, including the area where Ishmael is now.

Ron

Now how I got control of this whole block was that I was living here. I was living right here on the sidewalk. There was no way anybody was going to get here before me. You understand? And I used to sleep over there. Me and a few other guys used to sleep over there. I packed my stuff up in a dumpster, a post office thing. And I would push it over there. You understand, I could be up 24 four hours if I wanted.

Julie Snyder

More than half the guys on Sixth Avenue are homeless. So it's easier for them to stay with their stuff and keep their spaces on the street. Eventually, Ron moved in with his aunt in Harlem. He lost control of the block, and now he doesn't get as much business as Ishmael does. He's away from all the action. But it's just not worth it to Ron anymore.

Ron

Because I'm not going to stay out here all night to hold down a spot. I have got a place to live now. You understand? I'm going to pack my stuff up at night and go home.

Julie Snyder

The way Ron started here is the way all the guys start. He was a panhandler. But you're lucky if you get any of the guys to admit that, because for the most part, the vendors are embarrassed about their panhandling past. The panhandlers, meanwhile, look down on the vendors, saying they have too much pride to sell someone else's trash. Ron remembers panhandling as just being humiliating.

Ron

I was panhandling over there on Ninth Street. And I remember one day I walked up to my brother-in-law. I didn't walk up to him. I was panhandling-- my back was turned. And he walked up. And I turned around and said, spare some change. And it was my brother-in-law. And he looked at me like-- he said, I have got a wife and kids to support. And he kept going.

And one time I was really embarrassed. This time, I was working at this job as a time keeper. And I was getting good money. And I ended up leaving that job, because I'm out drinking. One of the coworkers that I didn't really get along with that good was a girl. And she had a boyfriend. Her boyfriend was a New Jersey cop. And I remember one day I was panhandling uptown. And she walked up, and she looked at me like she was real startled. And she was with the guy. And I remember I was real being embarrassed that time. So I'm actually glad that I was able to start vending, which is more respectable.

Julie Snyder

When you spend time on the corner, what it looks like is there will be 20 or 30 guys all around the tables. And it seems like they're just hanging out do nothing. But it turns out they all have different and distinct jobs, with different responsibilities and pay scales. There are place holders, who camp out overnight on the sidewalk, holding a space that they sell to vendors in the morning. That usually pays around $20 to $30. Guys called storage providers have places either in their apartments, or under the subway tracks, or in empty store rooms, where they charge $7 to $10 for the vendors to keep their tables and crates of magazines during the night. The movers help the vendors haul their stuff on and off the sidewalks. They generally make $5 to $10 a move.

If you were to show up on Sixth Avenue tomorrow to start in the business, even with a high school or college degree, even with other job experience, you'd have to work your way up, the same as anyone, before you would make vendor. When sociologist Mitch Deneier came to the block to write about the vendors, he was first put to work getting coffee and helping out in little ways for months before getting his own table. He ended up spending years with the vendors.

Mitch Duneier

Not anybody can come out here and set up a table. You have to work your way through the system, because there's only a certain number of legal spots on the street.

Julie Snyder

The city regulates how many spots there can be.

Mitch Duneier

And so some guys show up in the morning, and their whole job is just to be a mover. And in fact, that's how Conrad got started out here. He was originally just a mover. And now he moved up to getting his own table. And there are many people who start out as table watchers, watching a table all night while someone else goes to sleep, or watching a table while people go to the bathroom. And they may wind up having their own table one day.

Julie Snyder

Mitch introduced me to everyone on Sixth Avenue and explained that excessive drug use is pretty much what brought all of the guys out here. Most times, a person's position on the sidewalk correlates to their level of addiction. If you smoke a lot of crack and aren't too trustworthy, a place holder is about the best job you can get. It you're pretty clean, you're probably a regular table watcher or a vendor.

So there are cliques on the sidewalks and mutual snobberies between the panhandlers and the vendors. But like in any workplace, there are people who sidestep those trivialities, ignore the politics. B. A. is one of those people.

B. A.

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] I told you that lady here, all right?

Julie Snyder

Some people say the B. A. stands for Bad Attitude. But B. A. prefers Business Administrator. It's an apt title for him because he's sort of a floater on Sixth Avenue, one of the few guys who jumps from job to job during the day. On this afternoon, B. A. is table watching. He is also place holding a space next to him for a vendor named Joe, an elderly white guy who sells rare and out of print books, but only comes to the sidewalks on weekends. And then on top of all of that, at 4:00 in the afternoon most days, he goes down to the PATH train station to panhandle, though today he isn't going.

B. A.

I've got somebody down there working for me.

Julie Snyder

At the train?

B. A.

Yeah, the PATH train station.

Julie Snyder

You pay somebody to go down there for you if you can't go, and then--

B. A.

No, they pay me when they come out. They pay me.

Julie Snyder

Because you have a spot down there too?

B. A.

Yeah, they take my time. Do you know what I'm saying? My time is from 4:00 to 6:00. So if they want to get on my time, I tell them, give me half. If you want to got down there from 4:00 to 6:00, give me half.

Julie Snyder

So right now you're making money down at the train station, and then you're also making money right now on the table.

B. A.

Of course. That's how I go.

Julie Snyder

And then you'll also make money tonight by holding the space for Joe for tomorrow.

B. A.

Got it.

Julie Snyder

What would you do if somebody just went down there from 4:00 to 6:00 and started panhandling, and you didn't know them, and they didn't pay you? Isn't that possible?

B. A.

No, no, no. They've got to go. Because I go at 3:30, and I check out my spot. Do you know what I'm saying? I got out at 3:30. I go make sure everything is clear. I go set myself up, my crate down there, get my cup ready. I change my clothes to look like a bum.

Julie Snyder

Wait. At the risk of making homeless advocates cringe, I want to make sure you caught that. Right now, B. A. is wearing a polo shirt from the Gap, khakis, and Adidas. But when he goes down to panhandle, he says, he changes his clothes to look like a bum.

B. A.

I change my clothes to look like a bum.

Julie Snyder

You change your clothes to look like-- because right now you look really nice.

B. A.

That's why I say I have to go change and everything.

Julie Snyder

When you have to go down and go panhandling, then what do you wear?

B. A.

I put on my overalls or something. I change my sneakers out. You know, just [UNINTELLIGIBLE] or my do rag or something like that. You know, I just sit down and just look homeless.

Julie Snyder

And in two hours, how much can you get?

B. A.

$60 to $80.

Ishmael Walker

Hey Shorty, where you get those babies from? What's that? Magazines?

Julie Snyder

At one point on the corner, Ishmael's friend, Shorty, pulls up on the sidewalk, and gets out of a cab carrying several cardboard boxes. Someone had cleaned out their apartment and given Shorty a bunch of old books.

Ishmael Walker

You've got something up in there.

Julie Snyder

The guys gather around and evaluate the books. Most of them seem pretty old, with titles nobody has ever heard of. But there are a few known sellers.

Book Vendor 1

Oh, look over here.

Book Vendor 2

We used [UNINTELLIGIBLE] The Baby-sitters Club.

Ishmael Walker

The Baby-sitters Club. These will sell, bro. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] A person that don't sell books or magazines don't know nothing about it.

Julie Snyder

Some of these guys have known each other for over twenty years. In the mid '80s, they lived together in Penn Station, before the city cleaned it up. After time in jail and treatment programs, the guys regrouped on Sixth Avenue. And they are close in a way that makes it nice to hang out with them. They joke around. They get into little arguments that last a day or two and then blow over.

Ishmael Walker

These are all good prices, my friend.

Customer

How much [UNINTELLIGIBLE]?

Ishmael Walker

I'll give you $1 a piece on them. That's a good deal for those.

Julie Snyder

Starting around 4:00 in the afternoon, the sidewalks start getting busier, the music gets turned up on the stereos, and what's known as the power hour begins. Each table has about 150 to 200 magazines laid out. The sellers, Vogue, Vibe, GQ, Martha Stewart Living, Architectural Digest. There are foreign fashion magazines, like Italian Vogue and the occasional specialty order.

Book Vendor 3

I have a girl right now, she wants Drew Barrymore Playboy issue. She said on the internet they're asking $60 for it. I've had that book many times. I'm waiting on it now. I'm going to just charge her $3 or $5.

Julie Snyder

The losers, any weekly magazine. The New Yorker, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek. Neighbors will often donate stacks of weekly magazines, like People, to the vendors. The vendors will take them just to be polite and later quietly throw them away.

It seems that smut sells the best. And there's a surprisingly large stock of gay porn that everyone is completely matter of fact about. In fact, it's all pretty relaxed, no hard sell, except for Ishmael, sitting in his premium spot at the top of the block.

At one point, a cab driver, who Ishmael has apparently dealt with before, pulls up next to the tables and asks Ishmael if he has any computer books or software.

Ishmael Walker

Yeah, right there. The whole section, the whole foot. Come on out of your cab. You've got to get up out of the cab and come on by the table, bro.

Julie Snyder

The cab driver is reluctant to leave his cab parked, sitting in the middle of a lane of traffic on the side of a busy New York City street.

Ishmael Walker

You've got to come on out. You've got to get up on it. We aren't going to have that accident no more, like we did last time.

Cab Driver

I don't want a ticket.

Ishmael Walker

Don't worry about the ticket. I want you to see the books, man.

Cab Driver

[UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Julie Snyder

Ishmael actually gets the cab driver to come out of his cab and to the table. He sells the computers book for $10.

Ishmael Walker

Now I don't understand how you're going to see like that. You have to go around the table--

Julie Snyder

What got Ishmael to the top of the block is pretty much what get someone to the top of any business. He just wanted it more. When he first started on the sidewalk, there was a guy named Scotty sitting at the corner by the bookstore. So Ishmael made a plan. He says he stayed inside, and rested up for a week, and got ready to make his move on Scotty.

Ishmael Walker

So the day comes, he ain't come yet. So my tables are in there. Next minute, here he comes. Oh, boy. I fought for three mornings, three days straight, physically fighting, tables in the street, comic books in the street, books in the street.

Mitch Duneier

You kicked his in the street?

Ishmael Walker

He kicked mine, and I kicked his. For three days straight, 8 o'clock till about 11 o'clock in the morning.

Julie Snyder

When Mitch first introduced me to Ishmael, Mitch said he'd met few people in his life with the determination that Ishmael has. And I know it's weird that the path to triumph would be kicking the ass of your opponent for three hours every morning. But if Coke and Pepsi could do the same thing, don't you think they would?

Mitch Duneier

Ishmael, I have seen you in 30 below zero weather, at 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock in the morning, I've seen you preserving this space out here when everybody else was gone.

Ishmael Walker

That's right. Because it's like this. They say the ghosts come out at night. And if you're not there, believe me, somebody is waiting to slip up in there.

Julie Snyder

On a good day, when the weather's nice and lots of people are out, Ishmael makes about $150. But he works seven days a week. And a lot of days it rains.

Ira Glass

Julie Snyder is the senior producer of our show. Mitch Deneier's book, documenting several years in the lives of the vendors, is called Sidewalk. Our thanks to him for acting as our guide for this story.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Thanks today also to Monica Hall and Chris Neary. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. When Spike Lee walks in on Torey, me, Philip Glass, and Stephen Hawking, this is what happens.

Cop

He would walk in and say hello to the other four, and just ignore me like I wasn't there.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.