I had been living in Brooklyn for a week and a half when Bill, the one-man temp agency I interviewed with a few days earlier, called with good news.
“I’ve got a job for you.”
“Great, great,” I said, stepping through my bed-sheet wall and into the large communal living space of my loft apartment. The year was 2005, and although the Crash was a few years away, as a mid-Westerner I was terrified of moving to New York City and being unable to find employment, only to return to Iowa to shuck corn until the day my hands turned to arthritic claws.
“What’s the job?”
“It’s great. Luxury market. Cartier.”
“What’s a Cartier,” I asked.
“Totally kidding.” I had not, in fact, been kidding. But this was clearly a case of fake it til you make it, which, for me, meant faking it until I learned where I was to be employed. Luckily, that didn’t take long. Bill the One-Man Wonder proceeded to tell me that Cartier was a high-end jewelry and watch retailer, to which I responded, “Well, I mean I knew that,” which was also untrue.
“Show up tomorrow at the shipping entrance at 8:55 AM, John. You can do this, I got faith in you.”
The shipping entrance. I was working in the mail room of store that exemplified 5th Avenue, Manhattan opulence. I was glad to have Bill’s encouragement.
At 8:40 the next morning I arrived at an inconspicuous steel door halfway down the block on 52nd street. The main entrance to the store proper was around the corner on 5th Avenue. I had another cigarette to kill time, then rang the unmarked buzzer.
The door made the universal open-me fuzz-sound and I walked in, only to be greeted by another steel door. Through a pane of what I could only assume was bullet-proof glass, I saw my new boss, a middle-aged Indian man with a bad tie and a serious scowl.
“I’m the new temp,” I screamed, assuming that was necessary for them to hear me.
“No need to yell, temp. You wearing a hoodie?”
Another open-me fuzz-sound, and I walked into my new office. The mail room was as cozy as a fallout shelter – underground and windowless, with no less than 30 security cameras in the receiving space alone. I felt like I was in the lowest level of the Titanic, shoveling coal while the fancy people upstairs planned summers in Paris.
It became clear immediately that the isolation drove my Indian boss Aalok and his Pakistani assistant Mahmood half crazy. They fought constantly, though never about their respective countries’ differences. My first day was no exception, and since I was the new guy, they fought about me. Aalok, the boss, could smell my inexperience with luxury items, and thus was reluctant to allow me to deliver even the most basic of packages to the Cartier employees upstairs.
“We can’t let him deliver the October shipping invoices to Marie! Look at him! He’s wearing a hoodie.”
Mahmood came to my defense, though more out of his desire to spar with Aalok than out of any faith in my skills as a transporter.
“Oh, please, Aalok. What kind of moron couldn’t take a stack of papers upstairs to Marie? Sure, this guy might look like a loser. He probably is a loser, but I don’t want to take the invoices up. Do you?”
They told me to take a padded Fedex envelope up to the fifth floor and deliver it to Marie.
“Got it. Back in five minutes.”
I walked out a different pair of steel doors than the ones I had entered through, and promptly got on an elevator that only serviced floors 8-12.
“Are you new?” asked a pretty French woman who was going to the ninth floor.
“Where are you going?”
“To the fifth floor.”
“This elevator doesn’t go there. You can catch the right elevator on ten.”
“Oh, great. This is for you.” I handed her the padded envelope.
“Different Marie,” she said, smiling.
When I got to the tenth floor, I couldn’t find the elevator 9th-floor Marie was talking about, so I went back to the ground floor and transferred there. Once on the fifth floor, I asked where 5th-floor Marie sat. I left the package at her empty desk and asked another pretty French woman where I could get the freight elevator to get back to the mail room. After two laps around the floor I couldn’t find it, so I went back to the ground level, exited through the 5th Avenue entrance, walked around the corner, and hit the buzzer next to the steel door.
Five minutes later, the phone rang, informing Aalok that I had left the package for the wrong Marie. It seemed there were two on the fifth floor.