I applied to join the agency in 2009. I liked the idea of making myself useful in such a way. After four years, though, I’m beginning to realize that it was probably a good thing I didn’t end up at Langley or elsewhere.
Forgetfulness hobgoblins my mind from time to time (which is an inversion of the Emerson quote, if you’re curious.) Case in point: my garbage bins are kept in a garage outside my house, and — one afternoon — my mind happened to be elsewhere. I picked up the bins — packed and full — came halfway down the driveway, trotted up the steps, opened the door, placed my foot over the entryway, and then my fog snapped clear and I realized: I was walking into my house with a lot of garbage — like I was a deeply misguided journeyman, or I was Chico trying to throw off Groucho, or maybe because I always wanted to say, “Honey, I’m home!” under what might charitably be described as pretty dubious circumstances.
That is not CIA material. Could you imagine walking in on Kim Philby with a garbage bin over your shoulder? What would you say? “I’m sorry. Is this the bachelorette party?” (And would that even work as a save?)
Above: An excerpt from the demo reel I sent the CIA.
There was a short, short period of time when I was convinced they’d sent someone along to take a look at me. I was working as a tour guide for tourists in Harvard Square, reciting a script I wasn’t allowed to add anything to or improvise around (which I did anyway — including a time when I told a crowd to come closer so — if I wanted — I could run down the line and slap all of them in the face, a request they mutely acquiesced to to my considerable amazement and embarrassment. My friend in Turkey calls me a deli manyak, and — with incidents like this — I wouldn’t necessarily disagree.) It was at the beginning of one of these tours that a fat man who looked like the kind of character a John le Carré hero would meet and gruntingly inform that the hero was late approached me and asked me a question in Russian about something he was reading. I told him in Russian that I didn’t know Russian very well, but that I did know French. He switched to a flawless French and it was at that moment I realized that he was asking me a question about a document he was reading in English and already understood. He wasn’t asking for a translation — he understood what he was reading perfectly well, but he was curious about something. Three or four people were talking to me all at once, so I answered him the best I could and sent him on his way.
What on earth was that? I asked myself. Why ask me in Russian? Why not try French or English? And then I realized — I’d put on the application that my Russian wasn’t very good, but that I knew French. Could that have been it? I mused. Did I just blow it?
I don’t want to give the impression that I was in any way close to emerging from the slush pile they no doubt get every single day. I wasn’t. I don’t even know how well I would’ve done on those detection and evasion courses they run in Baltimore. I probably wouldn’t have even been able to hide from Michael Williams, let alone Omar, or I would’ve decided on doing something extravagant and clumsy — like ducking into a barbershop to go from fully bearded to clean shaven in the blink of a 10-minute eye.
It was — in part — a reaction to the idea that good, unseen work could be done and rewarded in the middle of an economic crisis that prided itself on creating more people to ignore and leave silent. (If ‘money talks,’ then a Recession certainly ‘shuts up.’) It was also about being exposed to enormous amounts of information and saying, “Well — what does this mean?”
And it was also about trying to find a bookend to the experience I had had back when I was sixteen — when I saw a group of people wearing CIA lanyards walking through Harvard Yard, ran over, approached someone at the back of the line and said, “The CIA! What are you guys doing here?” and the man I’d picked out stopped, paused, and turned.
“Well — if I told you …”
“I’d have to …”
Open bookends are pretty okay, too, though. It means your mind is free to go wherever it likes, which is almost always a good thing.