Before the hard times came the flush times. They always do.
In the summer of 2007 the textbook company hired a fresh group of editors to work on a series of high school literature textbooks. We entered the cool hush of the building on a blazing hot day, disappearing into the base of a shining needle-nosed tower that shot up to pierce the sky above the lakefront.
We sat in rooms with names like Millennium Room, Lakeshore Room, Hemingway Room, rooms with thick carpets underfoot and ergonomic swivel chairs and long glossy mahogany conference tables. The outer walls of these rooms were windowed floor to ceiling and from our swivel chairs we gazed out on Lake Michigan in its infinite shades of variegated mineral blue. Other rooms offered a birds-eye-view of the park: the botanical gardens, the city-funded sculptures and fountains, the acres of bright green grass. In all directions the grand towers of Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham, and Mies Van der Rohe rose skyward. Sunstruck, they glittered and cast long blue shadows upon the grid of streets below.
We were taken through two days of corporate-speak known as the "Onboarding Process." We received souvenir notebooks with orange rubber covers and inspirational quotes printed on the pages, mugs with the company logo painted on their sides. (We would never drink from those mugs. We'd bring our own and store them in the kitchen cabinets, and would sometimes steal one another's, and then the victims would write nasty notes about thieves in our midst and tape them to the refrigerator.)
In those first weeks, senior editors took us out for lunch at upscale restaurants in the park. We, the new editors, the Onboarders, were encouraged to order appetizers, steak entrees, dessert. The senior editors asked if anyone would like a glass of wine. We declined, but Ted—who had been with the company forever, who smelled of old smoke and wore a fedora and a faded sport jacket, who sometimes went missing for hours in the middle of the day and was not infrequently spotted by younger editors sitting alone at a bar with a tall tumbler of whisky in front of him when he should have been at his desk, who looked lonely and cobwebbed in those dark taverns as the younger editors hurried past in the brightness of the downtown streets—Ted said What the hell, he'd have a glass of Cabernet. Ted ordered another glass with his steak. At the end of the meal as everyone reclined in their plush restaurant chairs bloated and sleepy, one or another of the senior editors slid a sleek corporate credit card across the table, folding it into the leather binder with the bill.
It was August. At the beginning of the month a bridge had collapsed over the Mississippi in Minnesota during the evening rush hour, dropping cars like pennies into the river. By the end of the month, with Standard & Poor's lambasted by media and politicians for giving AAA ratings to securities backed by rotten subprime mortgages, the S&P president would be ousted. The company that owned our textbook operation also owned S&P, so we were included on the company-wide email announcing that after numerous years of valuable service, the president would be departing in order to spend more time with her family.
There was no connection between these two events—the bridge falling, the S&P president exiting to the usual euphemisms. If there was a link it would only be seen much later, strung together with hindsight and metaphor: the failing of trusted institutions, decay of infrastructure, the sudden plunge from riding high to submerged.
That month the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 7,096,000 Americans unemployed.
We left the office at five. Some left at four. Every week Jennifer brought in chocolate chip cookies baked by her lawyer husband and left baskets of them on the credenzas. Some of us had never heard the word credenza before but loved it upon first taste and would whisper it quietly to ourselves in the semi-privacy of our cubicles: credenza, credenza.
In a matter of months we were as seasoned and cynical as the rest of the staff. We complained that the computers were too slow for the publishing software and that the multifunction color copier, which was the size of a compact car, jammed too often. We learned to leave our computers loading large files and take cappuccino breaks at a café of shining dark wood set off from the main lobby. The lobby had white marble floors and leather furniture, swooping ceilings and a hushed atmosphere that bordered on religious. The guards at the gilded revolving doors and at the card-swipe columns wore somber suits and ties. The card-swipe columns were made of gleaming dark marble and we could see our faces in them as we bent to press our cards against the sensors.
Especially, we loved the feeling of arriving. For an hour or two after dawn the downtown was redolent with the smell of dark chocolate, which pumped through the exhaust vents of a chocolate factory in the nearby West Loop. The streets were stitched with sunlight and the shadows of the train tracks overhead, the sidewalks crowded with well-heeled and purposeful walkers on their way to work.
Some of the men among us carried age-worn leather briefcases with stamped gold monograms and brass hasps, briefcases inherited from grandfathers and great-uncles or purchased at the Salvation Army, briefcases that contained nothing—or maybe a sandwich, gym shoes, but just as likely absolutely nothing—because what mattered was the briefcase itself, what mattered was belonging to the briefcase-carrying class of Downtown Men.
Some of the women among us liked to arrive in pointy-toed high heels though the dress code didn't call for them. The heels made an authoritative clicking sound on the polished marble of the lobby that on quiet mornings echoed up and up toward the vaulted ceiling; they propelled their wearers past the café where we always went for coffee. Then the twenty-something band boy who worked behind the counter would wave, and an editor could swivel her head in passing and call, See you in awhile! and he'd call back See ya! It was thrilling to be known at the café and then disappear into the thick-carpeted ether on the other side of the card-swipe columns and their row of dark-suited guards.
None of us enjoyed the actual work, which in that year was to revise the national literature textbooks for sale in California. This meant, among other things, checking for selections by California authors and inserting a small stamp in the shape of the state of California at the top right corner of every other page. We farmed written work out to freelancers, and when we didn't like their copy we wrote our own. Those of us who managed the Teacher Editions wrote scripts in the multicolored margins of the pages. The scripts were for the benefit of the gym teachers who'd been made to teach English due to budget cuts. We wrote:
Say: Now find antonym pairs in the last paragraph.
Ask: What feelings does the description of the setting evoke?
Write on the board: "Civil War".
By autumn, as the leaves flamed along the lakefront, we were staying late into the evenings, bleary-eyed from squinting too long into our screens, sick of Jennifer's cookies, sick of one another.
We entertained a number of private or less-than-private thoughts about each other. For instance we thought Rosalie always dressed like she had come straight from a Renaissance Fair, and Kevin was nasty because he took entire novels into the bathroom stall with him, sometimes not emerging for close to an hour, and then didn't even wash his hands, and Ted was a drunk and Louisa—who had perfect cursive handwriting and no understanding whatsoever of computers—could just as well be swallowed by a black hole for all the help she was. But she had been promoted to a senior editor position years earlier, probably before computers were invented, and this was the equivalent of tenure. We could do nothing about Louisa and her gorgeous, useless pencilled post-its.
In October the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 7,272,000 Americans unemployed, and our Vice President gave the designers petty cash to throw a Halloween party in the conference room. Jennifer brought pumpkin cookies and cleared a space for them on the credenza amid the towering heaps of edited and revised pages.
November found us staying past 10 PM, hunched over our desks reviewing page proofs while the night cleaners circled the office emptying trashcans. They clucked sympathetically at us as they floated past, their white orthopedic shoes silent on the carpets. We were tired and disgruntled but we knew it wouldn't last forever like this. We were wrapping the California project. We'd leave the office and step out into the bleak darkness, the frigid winds roaring down the empty avenues. We'd scurry toward the trains with our chins tucked into our collars, scarves wrapped to the eyeballs, thinking in an hour we'd be home and in six months it would be warm again.
At Christmas there were holiday bonuses to pad our checks and not one but two catered, open-bar parties at nearby hotels. A middle manager downed a few too many martinis and then tried to bump and grind with the younger staff on the dance floor, wobbling perilously in her heels. We took photos. She slurred, Are you gonna blackmail me with those? We said, Oh no Denise, we would never. We were all on the same team, then. We thought of ourselves as a unified front.
The lobby of our building had a twenty-five-foot Christmas tree draped in glittering lights, silver balls and crystal stars alongside a fifteen-foot statue of a toy soldier from the Nutcracker ballet. Hundreds of strands of white lights hung from the high ceiling like luminescent pearls; Christmas carols tinkled faintly in surround-sound. Building staff donned Santa hats and handed us paper cups of hot chocolate as we walked in.
In December the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 7,696,000 Americans out of work. On gelid winter evenings under pale violet skies we'd leave the office and duck into lounges with real fireplaces, bars where drink specials were served hot and tasted like peppermint.
Sometimes, most often in the afternoon, a quiet would settle over the office. We'd stroll along the outer edge of the cubicles, looking down from the windows at the brittle husks of trees lining the avenue, the ice-crusted expanse of the park, the lake dense gray and roiling. There were months in Chicago when a person would have to be out of their mind to be outside. Too many months, we thought. We all had escape plans, if not out of the city than at least out of the office, the profession. We'd all had loftier ambitions for ourselves. Most of the younger staff wanted to be teachers and had some kind of vague plan about going for a master's degree in Education. Most of the older staff had been teachers and would never again be teachers, not on their lives, but they'd seen themselves as writers, arts administrators, something more creative or noble than anonymous textbook re-drafters.
Still, the office was not an uncomfortable place to be. We were paid twice a month, got benefits, lived respectable middle-class lives. We comforted ourselves with the knowledge that what we did was at least more valuable than whatever it was the trade department was doing on the other end of the floor, which we could only surmise based on the freebies they set out on the kitchen counter:
Master the Art of Muay Thai Kickboxing!
Become a Better Bowler!
Learn Swedish in Just Six Weeks!
Think Yourself Thin!
In early January, 2008, we read a series of disconcerting newspaper articles about California. We read "Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, acknowledging that California faces tough economic times" and "proposed an austere budget," and we read "K-12 education…would take the biggest hit under the budget plan." Nobody told us—the lowly floor staff, the occupants of cubicles—that California wouldn't buy our books. No one said in so many words that the books would sit moldering in warehouses until they became obsolete. No one said anything. Months passed, the cold lifted, the cracked earth darkened as it thawed. We moved onto Texas editions in the spring, as Wall Street imploded, as the phrase global economic crisis grew familiar and then catchy.
At the start of a project our schedules were always easier. For weeks our only assignment was to "familiarize ourselves with the literature," so we'd kick up our heels on our desks and burrow into the textbooks. We read Frost and Dickinson and Eliot and Yeats. We read Chaucer and Kafka and Flannery O'Connor. We browsed the Internet for interesting images to accompany the texts, then sent them along to the arts editor so that she could buy the rights. We underlined words we thought might be perceived as "challenging". We adjusted author biographies, making certain there were no allusions to homosexuality or suicide. We came in late and left early. On Tuesdays we stayed a little later so that we could go to screenings of Summer Movies in the Park.
When the work picked up again we were ready for it. Looking busy, we'd discovered, was far more fatiguing than being busy. We resumed our late nights revising textbooks for Texas, which we referred to as Texafying.
In August the President of the Group sent out an email saying we had to watch our bottom lines and therefore there would be no Christmas parties. In September we heard rumors that there would be no bonuses, either. The company's stock had fallen to almost nothing; Wall Street executives were straggling out of their offices with the contents of their desks in cardboard boxes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 9,509,000 Americans were out of work.
In October the President of the Group flew in from Columbus for a Town Hall Meeting. We disliked it when the President came because he made off-color jokes at which we were professionally obliged to laugh, and because we had to dress up. The men wore jackets and ties; the women wore stockings and heels. Everyone was itchy and uncomfortable and eager for him to leave. At least there were bagels, halved and stacked on plastic trays at the back of the room. We felt that things could not really be that bad if they were still giving us free bagels.
The President clicked through a PowerPoint presentation displaying a series of charts. The charts featured multicolored lines, some jagged, others straight, all of them in steep decline. The bad news, said the President, was that our company was one of those lines nose-diving into the red. Company stock was worthless. The good news, the President said, was that even though everything was going to hell, our company was going to hell at a slower rate than the competition. We were still winning! The President then made some uncomfortable jokes, and everyone ate bagels.
The layoffs began in November. Caroline, who was Louisa’s best friend, who like Louisa did not know how to use a computer but unlike Louisa did not hold a sacred staff position, was the first to be let go. Janice was the other casualty of that day but she was home sick, so our Vice President said it would be okay for her to come in the following day to clean out her desk. Janice came in on Saturday, when she imagined the office would be empty and she could make a gracefully discreet exit. But the office was not empty. We were all there, working overtime in the hope that we would not become the next Janice. Janice pocketed a few items and left the rest on the credenza. Some of us swept in like vultures, bickering over who would inherit her mug, her bowl, her dusty packets of ramen noodles. Others refused to touch the stuff, as if it were contaminated, as if getting laid off were catching.
On November 4 we left the office and headed into the adjacent park to watch Barack Obama win the presidency and make a victory speech. We were proud of our city, which was his home, and also of our country, except for Texas. This was because our Texas consultants, paid to offer us the sorts of opinions and prejudices we might expect from the members of their State Board of Education, had told us to remove an Obama-authored article from our textbooks. They'd said it was "getting into partisan politics" even though it was only an essay about why Obama thought Abraham Lincoln had been a good president. But we were also grateful to the Texas consultants and their indignation over our alleged liberal bias, because we'd already signed off on final page proofs. Obama's biography would have said Senator from Illinois, and that would have cost us many reprint dollars.
It was around this time that we began passing around a recent novel by Joshua Ferris called Then We Came to the End. This was a darkly comical book about the plight of workers at an ad agency who begin to be laid off. To us it was apocalyptic. Not only did the novel take place in Chicago, it likely took place in the office building directly next door to our own. Ferris wrote things like: "He looked out his window at that proud parade of flags flying over the bridge across the Chicago River"…and we would look out our windows at the flags flying over the bridge across the Chicago River. Ferris's characters got takeout sandwiches from Potbelly around the corner, just like we did. Our Vice President had the same first name as the boss in the fictional office. Ferris's boss had breast cancer but was a workaholic and kept her illness as low profile as possible. So did our boss, or at least, she did according to rumor. She would not confirm the rumor. She worked like a maniac.
Ferris's novel had a character, Frank Brizzolera, who "smoked like a fiend. He stood outside the building in the most inclement weather, absorbing Old Golds in nothing but a sweater vest." Frank died mere pages into the book. We had our own Frank, though his name was Mark. Mark wore a limp parka of an indeterminate color—brownish green or greenish gray—and spent most of his workday on a wrought-iron bench outside the office, smoking furiously while bent over a file folder. When we started reading Ferris's novel, we thought, The only difference here is that Frank is dead and Mark is alive. Though we weren't sure how Mark managed to stay alive, smoking continuously for seven hours a day—and those were just the hours we witnessed. By the time the first round of us had read the book and passed it along, Mark was in the hospital with lung cancer. By the time we'd all finished the novel we were sending flowers to Mark's wife.
The book messed with us. Sometimes we'd say to Amber, Remember when you said that? and she'd look at us like we were crazy. Then we'd realize that we were thinking of Book-Amber, not Real-Amber, though they were easy to confuse since they spoke so much alike. Nearly all of the characters in the novel had a real-life counterpart who could be located in our office. And though none of us personally believed that we could be identified with a character from some fiction writer’s semi-absurdist world, we were disturbed by how the entire novel was told in the first person plural. Are we that we? we wondered. We found it hard to resist the suspicion (though we knew it was absurd) that the novel was about us.
The book ends with everyone getting laid off. So we knew where we were headed. Still no one was expecting it when it finally came. We'd thought about it the Friday before—end of the month, payday, a way to clean us out quickly and efficiently—but when we got the email the following Monday summoning us into the conference room, we weren't ready. We were braced, we had a strong premonition—you could tell by how no one had brought a notebook to the meeting—but we weren't ready. The Vice President had a printed piece of paper to read from and her voice was a mechanical monotone. She told us we'd worked hard and accomplished a great deal. She told us we were valued members of the team. She told us our positions now had ended; we weren't on the team anymore.
Maureen wailed and snuffled loudly into a tissue. She was told she'd get two weeks severance. "I'll use it on my funeral," she cried, waving her arms around wildly. Later she would spin out like a tumbleweed onto Michigan Avenue draped in her ankle-length black faux-fur coat and careen toward the bums on the damp gray corners sobbing, "I'm one of you now!" She'd wave her finger at one unfortunate, chilly bum, her eyes wet and glassy and unfocused, the hem of her fur bedraggled where it dragged.
But Maureen really did have it bad, with her out-of-work husband and her troublemaker teen daughter who kept getting sent to the principal's office for making pornographic drawings in the corners of her homework assignments. Who would put food on the table now? Who would be the single respectable member of the family? Maureen looked like a deranged black bear in her long matted coat, and we pitied her.
"We're terribly sorry to see you go," the Vice President said, folding her arms across her chest as her assistant handed out cloth bags for us to fill with our personal items. "Take only what is yours," said the assistant, and then when she wasn't looking we threw packets of pens, staplers, highlighters, whole reams of printer paper into our bags.
Later, we'd file into our local unemployment offices to fill out forms. Many of us had been unemployed before, but few had actually been on unemployment. We would go on the dole, revise our resumes, consider other options. Some of us would seek work abroad, others would return to school. Some would string freelance jobs together; a few would be rehired by the company the following year. For many of us there would be lean months and years ahead, moments of paralyzing doubt and anxiety, bouts of insomnia and rage. We knew this already, even before we left. We knew things might be very bad for a long time before they were good again. On that day in early March 2009, we were in the company of 13,310,000 Americans without work. Walking out of the office under security escort, we felt the weight of the world upon us.
But it was also the weight of stolen office supplies. A few of us, once we’d returned to our homes and dropped our bags and thought about what to do next, found we felt surprisingly light.