My first real job (like, salary-and-swivel-chair real) was as an executive assistant to a man who ate salad every day for lunch. My most important responsibility was delivering the salad. Daily, before noon. It was the first thing he asked me in the interview: “You can get salad, right?” Then he told me his order, at which point he instructed me to unbutton my shirt, tap my sternum twice, open my ribcage and engrave the order in a tiny notch on my superior vena cava.
Corn. Egg whites. Apples. Grilled chicken. Smoked bacon. Red onions. Spinach. Ranch. Caesar. (That’s two dressings, both on the side. I know. Or, rather, I don’t. Maybe he flipped a coin: Caesar is Lincoln, Ranch is the Lincoln Memorial. Or maybe he mixed them together to make a remoulade.)
The second thing he said was he wanted someone “young and hungry.” Hungry for work, I assumed, which is what I was. He was the CEO of a company that opened schools for poor children in New York City — children who couldn’t afford to pay recent college grads to hand-deliver chopped organic angiosperm to them every day by noon.
I was just happy to have a job.
I was supposed to get the salads from Chop’t on 17th Street, which employed a row of boys with double-handled knives. They used the knives to chop pieces of food that were already bite-size: shrimp, cranberries, candied walnuts. When I wasn’t delivering salads, I helped the city’s poorest and hungriest in my own small way: I sorted three different sizes of paper clips (mini, regular, jumbo), taped receipts to pieces of blank paper, wiped whiteboards, and made reservations at expensive restaurants. The company was a nonprofit, and nearly 50 percent of its funding came from four Silicon Valley wives. They came to New York four times a year and ate salad with my boss at Crown on the Upper East Side. One of them had a pink raincoat she always wore, even when it wasn’t raining.
One day, the salad-eater took me into his office to explain why his job was important. Education is a “lever,” he said. Pull it, and you can get millions of kids salary-and-swivel-chair jobs. You can rehabilitate the urban poor, or at least smooth their rough edges like Brancusi sculptures. You can cut crime and grow America’s GDP. Break the American dream down into bite-size bits and hand it out to people who need it.
Easy peasy, I thought. I’ll handle the salad.
I have a memory of standing next to the copy machine collating hot PowerPoints of fifth-grade test scores when my boss asked me to come into his office again. He was pacing, and the walls were decorated with soft-focus photos of poor children in cute poses: hands clasped over a textbook or under a chin. We had a shared drive with hundreds of them — scalable, hi-res. “Students of color” or “students in poverty” is what we called them in our PR materials. Two boys and two girls. I made a lot of PowerPoints using those children as backdrops for translucent text boxes, WordArt, SmartArt. We also hung them on walls.
I don’t remember what he said. I just remember it smelled like ranch.
Next memory: Running up Avenue of the Americas in my little do-gooder slacks carrying a salad as heavy as a human head. My boss was about to leave for California, and he wanted salad before a black Lincoln Town Car picked him up to take him to Teterboro. It was a private plane — one of the wives’. I’d never been in a private plane, but I imagine you can get a pretty nice salad in one.
I thought of that job about a month ago when I was walking downtown toward a thousand protesters. They were walking up the same stretch of avenue I’d sprinted across carrying a $17 lunch. A few policemen had killed a man through such a diaphanous curtain of reason it was hard to look at without seeing straight through it.
I turned onto the street where I used to work. I hadn’t been there in four years. I thought of the salad-eater in his office, surrounded by soft-focus photos of children whose parents had brought them into a world where no staff of salaried professionals were going to hand-chop and deliver their egg whites. Thought of him sending kids to college, giving them hope and salad and schools and books and jobs where they sit on polyurethane swivel chairs and do what they’re told: corn, egg whites, grilled chicken, Caesar, ranch…
What I’m saying is it’s strangely easy to make a decent living eating the same salad every day and trying to do what humans have been trying and failing to do since Genesis: end poverty and racism and anger and bitterness and anything else that has never — as long as our planet has spun around a highly flammable pile of magnets — been fair.
I missed him. I arrived out of breath five minutes after he left for a quiet ride out West. I stayed in the office until it was dark, eating the salad I’d delivered too late.