Where the author gets a job offer she can't refuse, then is forced to quit.I had gotten into this sham marriage, made false declarations to a federal agency, a federal offense, believing it would get me permanent residency status and all I got was a two-year temporary green card because the law had changed after I had filed my application for residency. My green card was valid from February 13 (aha! 13!) 1987 to February 13, 1989.
I checked the help wanted ads in the New York Times and in the summer of 87 I found one for translation work at the Mc Calls Patterns company in the former Pan Am building. The job was temporary and consisted of translating the sewing instructions that came with the patterns from French into English or vice versa. Fascinating. The pay was very bad: less than $300 take-home for a full week of work. But it was translation, a nobler occupation than secretarial work, so I took the job.
There was another French woman doing the same job as me and a black French-Caribbean supervisor who treated us like slaves. It was the perfect embodiment of the saying “Be careful what you wish for.” I got translation work with a vengeance: uninteresting, badly paid, and a prison warden breathing down my neck at all time. But this time it was a black woman victimizing a white woman, for a change!
I got to meet another French woman, Florence Nash, who worked in the next office. She was a bit supercilious and let me understand that what she did was superior to what I did because she WROTE, meaning she did creative work and not me. Oh. But at every break and at lunch time she opened her office door cautiously, silently, and came to see me so even though she despised me we spent time together and I didn’t let her contempt interfere with my cheerful nature. Besides I was glad to speak French. I never quite understood what work she did. It wasn’t ad copy, it wasn’t commercial correspondence nor contracts that she composed, so what was it? I must have insisted on knowing more about her writing because one day she showed me ONE PARAGRAPH that she said she wrote and I was sorely disappointed. She felt superior to me for THAT?! I thought she was kidding.
She said her husband was a musician in a band named Spawn-something and that she found that name embarrassing. I must have been very lonely because I stayed in touch with her and the translator after the gig ended.
The translator invited me to dinner one night. She was very petite, her studio was slightly larger than a broom closet and her black boyfriend was good looking, much younger than her and very tall. I didn’t understand how the two of them could live in that place. She swore that she wouldn’t move for the world because she was in the Village. Her boyfriend studied reflexology and said that he needed to practice. He pestered me to make an appointment with him to get my feet treated but I didn’t want to lie on a massage bed and surrender my bare feet to this guy I didn’t know, and be alone with my hostess’s boyfriend although she didn’t seem to mind. Before I left she gave me a Balzac paperback that had no cover. She said that books without a cover were stolen books but offered no more explanation. I never called again.
I met Florence once in a while. She lived in the Lower East Side, oh, excuse me, the East Village, and once she took me to a landmark pastry shop. Another time we met around Lincoln Center and had a glass of wine in a chic bar (my idea). I told her how I suffered that my mother had made my teen age diaries disappear. There had been about ten 200-pages notebooks. I had written those diaries with the specific purpose that they would help me understand my life when I was grown up, because at the time I wrote them I didn’t understand what was going on. And now that I was trying to make sense of my life I didn’t have them. I had hidden them in a box under the staircase at my parents’ house. My mother said that she had hidden them from my father’s prying eyes by putting them in the washing machine, then she had put a string around them and given them to a friend of hers who had later given them to another friend. It tore me up to think that my private thoughts had been passed around and violated in this manner. Florence took my mother’s side, saying that one always writes to be read by someone else, even a private diary.
Another time I told her that the only reason my mother had married my father was because his parents were wealthy.
She called me around mid-December 88 and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. She said that she might have a job for me. I was all ears. My visa was going to expire in two months and it would be better for me to get a job before then. A French friend of hers was going back to France and was looking for someone to replace her. She worked at a rare books dealer three days a week. It was a permanent position. Sounded good. Time to practice the guitar. Rare books, nice environment, literature, beautiful objects. I gave her permission to give my name and number to her friend.
Laurence Ruehl called me soon afterwards. She gave me a few details about the job and I said I had the skills and experience except I had never worked on a MacIntosh. We agreed to meet and she asked me where. I suggested a bar on the West Side, she agreed and I gave her the directions. We set up an appointment three days hence.
On the day of the appointment she called me to say that she’d rather meet me in a coffee shop on the East Side so I said OK and she gave me the directions. She said she would be wearing a hunting jacket. I didn’t know what a hunting jacket looked like but I didn’t say anything. We had no problem finding each other. She explained to me in some details that her husband was called back to France by the company he worked for. It was a cosmetics company and her husband created dies for the store displays. I had met a man previously who said he was a die-maker and explained to me the ins and outs of die-making so I wasn’t unfamiliar with the subject. She went on to describe the tasks of the job she did at the bookseller’s, nothing I couldn’t do, and said that she would show me how to use the Mac. About the money, it was an independent contractor job paid $13 per hour with $9 billed as “research and translation” and $4 paid cash off the books. I said that I was interested, she said that she thought I was right for the job. She gave me Jim’s number so I could make an appointment to meet him, then she said that when I met him I shouldn’t speak about money at all. That was a very odd request, not to speak about money on a job interview. It reminded me of my paternal grandmother who had told me in my early twenties “You should accept a job without talking about money.” How could such a money-grubbing woman make this recommendation?
The next day I called Jim, the owner of James Cummins Bookseller and he asked me to come and meet him the next morning. I don’t know why but I deliberately dressed for the appointment in an unflattering manner: a roomy man’s wool polo shirt and a knit wool skirt. It was good quality wool, comfortable and warm but definitely not sexy, not even elegant. It was as if I felt put down by this gag order about the money, and since they took me for a fool I dressed the part to get the job. Think about it. Who in their right mind would have a job interview WITHOUT SPEAKING ABOUT MONEY? AT ALL? Yet this is exactly what happened: I met Jim, he talked about what he did, he introduced me to Timothy Jones, his assistant, he showed me the secretarial desk, he told me what my duties would be, he asked about my experience and if I thought I would like the job, I said yes, then he said I could start the day after Christmas, I said OK, then he invited me to lunch the day before Christmas to celebrate Laurence’s leaving, I said thank you, we said good bye, and the word “dollar” wasn’t pronounced a single time.
I came for the lunch at the appointed time. Jim took a few twenties out of his pocket and gave them to me, asking me to go buy a couple of bottles of French champagne at the store ten blocks away. “Uh oh,” I thought. “He’s treating me like a gofer. Not good, not good.” But after all, it was a unique occasion. His secretary was leaving. When I returned with the champoo I realized that there was going to be a little party before the lunch at Sel et Poivre next door: there were balloons floating in the office, and cards, and munchies. Jim, Tim and the black teenager who did the packing upstairs were all excited, walking to and fro with napkins and plastic cups, talking in hushed tones. “She’s due any minute now!” “I heard the door downstairs, it must be her!” And finally, finally Laurence arrived. She was hugged, kissed, smiled at, talked to while I felt shunned and out of place. To get it over with more quickly I brought the champagne but Jim stopped me in my tracks with a look. I understood he wanted it to be a big surprise and I had almost ruined it. I felt like a fool and brought it back.
At the end of the lunch I wanted a particular dessert but Jim ordered an assortment of sherbets and we all dug from the same plate. Employer, employee, newcomer, leave-taker, we were all equal before the ice.
Laurence came to the office the first two days I started work to show me the ropes. She talked to me again about her husband being a die-maker. She was nervous and never smiled. The second day we went from the store at 64th and Lex to the Bank of Ireland at 5th near Rockefeller Center. Quite a walk. It was very cold and my feet were freezing so I told her I had to buy a pair of warm socks first thing but she didn’t let me do it until we had gone all the way to the bank and half way back.
They were all very nice about calling me “Axelle”. I had been going by that name since I was fourteen when my mother, for some reason having to do with numerology, changed it overnight, without asking my opinion. (Actually, it wasn’t she, it was an aristocratic and sensuous-looking man with a beautiful head of white back-swept hair dressed in a black cassock, who my mother said was the priest who married her to my father and who, without knowing me, decreed peremptorily that from now on I should be called Axelle. But I know it was my mother’s idea.) And from then on all my siblings and my mother had called me Axelle, but not my father, nor my grandparents, nor the extended family who kept calling me Brigitte, and of course not anybody having to do with school or work. I had accepted the new name and introduced myself as Axelle to new people but deep inside it always made me feel like a liar and when I met women whose name was Brigitte it made me feel like a fake. For me there were two kinds of people: the nice people who called me Axelle and the not-nice people who called me Brigitte. And since Jim and his team called me Axelle, they were nice, as simple as that.
Around the second month after I started working I had an intense foreboding of doom. It was because of Jim. There was something about him. It wasn’t something he did, it was something he didn’t do that frightened me. He seemed to be hiding something from me. He seemed to have a hidden agenda. What could it be? What could he do to me? The only answer I could find was that he was going to fire me without telling me in advance. What could I do about it? My visa was about to expire, or had just expired and I was stuck. I couldn’t look for another job. A new immigration law had passed that required all employers to check applicants’ eligibility to work.
The only thing I could think of doing, which didn’t protect me at all, was to tell a woman who came to the bar, her name was Iris, that I thought my boss was going to fire me and to ask her if she would like to take my job. She was very cold to me. She didn’t ask why I was under that impression, or if I made mistakes at my job. She let me speak, tell her about the duties involved in the job I did without offering any feedback.
Time passed, I wasn’t fired, I relaxed and forgot about my premonition.
I brought many improvements to the job: all the files that had been processed by manual entry into a variety of paper registers, I converted to computer files. I bought a large plastic carpet protector because the carpet under the secretary’s chair was shredded on a large area and the casters got caught in the holes every time I moved the chair. I bought trays for the letterhead and other blank papers which until then had been mixed with other papers on Tim’s desk and were often marred by repeated handling. Every Monday I bought roses to make a fresh bouquet that sat on top of Jim’s desk in the public area. At that time you could get a dozen roses for five dollars so I bought roses of different colors to make unusual color combinations, different every week. That was the part of the job I enjoyed the most, but though Jim sat in front of these bouquets all week he never said anything about them.
Every week I went to the bank to deposit checks for a total in the mid to high five figures. Every month I made a detour to pick up a check of $20,000 or so from one of Jim’s customers, who was paying for some books on the installment plan. Every two weeks I wrote a bill for services rendered (“research and translation”) and made myself a check to Brigitte Lettieri for $432 for 48 hours of work, plus I got $192 in cash off the books, which made my gross hourly rate $13. (Aha! 13!) Of course I wasn’t able to afford any kind of health insurance with this, so the gross was also the net. Sometimes I had to wait until the middle of the following week to get the cash payment, but the black teenager who did the unskilled work of packing and mailing the books was paid cash every week on the dot.
When Tim, who was cataloguing the books, needed a word or a sentence translated from French, Latin, Spanish or German, why, all he had to do was turn around and ask me, and if I knew I answered him at no extra charge.
Every month I had to send the accountant a report on how many paychecks each of the two employees (Jim and Tim) had received so he could pay the withholding taxes. I didn’t understand why I had to do this. Couldn’t he just look at the calendar and see how many Fridays there were in the month? But one day several months into the job, while looking at the checkbook, I realized that Jim didn’t take a paycheck every week. That was because he did some cash transactions and sometimes he didn’t need a paycheck. Nobody had told me this. Hello, Laurence! So I called the accountant and told him of the problem, I also told Jim, who didn’t make a fuss about it, and the accountant balanced the over-payment with future under-payments. No big deal.
Jim ventured into publishing himself. I was curious about the book. Was it a novel? Was it non-fiction? Medical? Historical? Autobiographical? Exploration? Nobody would tell. The author came to the store sometimes, an old Frenchman, Dr. Coignet, and was received with the reverence befitting his eminent status. He never deigned to speak to me. And then the book came out. It was a thick red tome with gold lettering, beautiful ivory paper, nice layout, every copy numbered. It was a trade edition, a bibliography of Isaac Walton. Yes, that Isaac Walton. You know, the one who wrote that seminal book on fly-fishing? Me neither. Eight hundred pages detailing all the successive editions of Isaac Walton’s book, that was Dr. Coignet’s contribution to literature. Like aficionados of an arcane sexual perversion, all the Waltonites came out of the woodwork to buy that book. They reserved copies in the early numbers before the book came off the press. They wanted their copies autographed by the author. They bought several copies. Jim made a killing.
Jim had a long time client who was a collector of books and memorabilia by Rudyard Kipling. She wrote Jim short letters with comments, orders or requests for information and both Jim and Tim were very kind to her. Over time I gathered that she was oldish and single and I tried to understand what motivated her passion for Kipling. I talked to Tim about her, trying to know more about her character, and one day I realized that a famous quote had been penned by Kipling himself. I imagined with amusement the little old lady relishing this quote from her country house in Connecticut, feeling vindicated by the great man, and it was half in jest that I told Tim: “I know why Ms X loves Kipling so much! It’s because he wrote that ‘The female is the deadlier of the species.’”
Jim hired a young woman from the U.K. He and Tim fawned over her like she was really special. I found her a little shy. When Jim introduced us to each other it was clear that she was in a class above me, professionally speaking, because I was only doing the administrative work whereas she was learning the real deal, that is, how to appraise a book. Obviously this knowledge requires years of practice and you cannot make money in the business unless you know the resale value of any kind of book, even first editions of Mickey Spillane. You have to know that the state of the dust jacket, a flimsy folded sheet of paper intended to protect the book itself, is the single factor that makes your book a collectible or a piece of trash. If its spine is “foxed” (yellowed by sunlight) it takes away so many dollars from the value of the book. If the dust jacket is chipped, torn or, god forbid, MISSING, well, sorry, your first edition isn’t worth much. But if the dust jacket is pristine, you’re my man, we can do business. The appearance of the protective dust jacket is paramount, the condition of the hardcover secondary.
As I learned to my disappointment, the antiquarian book business is not about literature, although from all the famous writers’ names that are bandied about you might think so. In this business, an author is valued according to the resale potential of his work. As in the stock market, there are blue chips (you can’t go wrong with a first edition of Shakespeare IF you can afford it) and there are junk bonds, trends which no one can tell how long they will last, for instance first editions of 20th century grade B authors. Rich people don’t buy collectible books for the love of Letters but as INVESTMENTS. I tried several times to make Jim confirm that impression I got after a few months working with him but he never admitted it.
So a bookseller has to know the market value of an author, the market value of a book according to the many factors that determine its condition, combine the two values and know how much he can sell the book for, which tell him how much he can buy it. No wonder I got a chill in my spine when I heard Jim mention great authors’ names so casually. For him they were just merchandise! If you love literature, do yourself a favor a don’t go into that business.
So our little Brit was going to learn the ropes from the master. He even got her an apartment near Sutton Place. But it was not to help her, it was to help himself. This apartment was a thorn in his side. It was rent stabilized and the rent was dirt cheap so he’d kept it for his future children after he moved out many, many years ago, but he was worried because the landlord wanted him out. All the landlord had to do to evict him was to prove that he didn’t live there so Jim kept the apartment furnished, paid the utility bills and he went there twice a week to pick up the make-believe mail, and he even climbed the five floors to make sure that the landlord hadn’t slipped a note under the door. So by having the young Brit live there it saved him all the trouble.
But the young lady didn’t last. Why she receive mail at the store instead of at her address is a question I have only one answer for: it was so I would read her mail. And what did her mail say? “Don’t stay in that shitty country!” and variations thereof. She got postcards that said so, and after she had left she got a letter that I opened and it was saying the same thing in substance. But of course at the time I didn’t know that I was the real intended recipient.
We received a lot of promotional brochures at the store. Jim sorted them himself because only he knew whether he was interested or not. When he was he asked me to order the book, when he was not he put the brochures in the wastebasket. But there was one that didn’t get either of those treatments. It was for a book about Spofford. (“No! Not Spofford! Don’t send me to Spofford!”) Yes, him. The flyer lingered for months among the papers on the secretary’s desk. (I don’t say “my” desk because I worked there only three days per week.) So one day, tired of seeing it, I asked Jim if he wanted to do anything with it and he became angry, he said that he didn’t want to hear about it or something like that. So, now that I think of it, why hadn’t he thrown it into the round file months ago? But at the time, from his reaction I concluded that he had done time at Spofford as a juvenile. Oh, well, I got caught shoplifting when I was fourteen and I had reformed so I didn’t think much about this little peek into Jim’s adolescence.
Jim had a foolproof way of parking near Sotheby’s in the middle of the day. For that he needed a passenger, as I found when he asked me once to come with him. He parked his Volvo at an awkward angle on a sidewalk in front of a driveway that said “No Parking”, asked me to stay in the car and to tell the cop, if any one came, that he would be right back. The very fact that he was breaking all the parking rules made the claim that he would be right back believable. A cop came, I told him the driver would be right back and he left me alone. In fact Jim was gone as long as he needed to do business at the auction and I was there in the car for one or two hours, feeling used and demeaned. What is strange, now that I think of it, is that he asked me to do this only once, when he went all over town all the time to buy books at various auction houses and other places. So maybe this one occasion was his way of showing me what I meant to him, i.e. no more than a means to save himself a parking fine. And also, maybe, to show me that the cops didn’t bother a Volvo driver, even when he broke several parking rules at once.
As I recounted in The Amnesia Memoirs, Chapter 3, my sister Agnès Echene and her husband Val came to New York on June 1st, 1989. As she had requested, I waited for them at the Carey bus terminal near Grand Central. To get there I left work early so I told Jim and Tim in advance and I lost some work time and money. I think it was two hours because I usually left at 6PM, my sister said she would arrive at 5, and I took one hour to walk there because public transportation wasn’t convenient from 64th and Lex to Grand Central. As I recounted also, I waited for my sister for about an hour in the incessant traffic of buses coming and leaving every minute, breathing exhaust fumes and surrounded by deafening motor noise and the tide of pedestrians at rush hour. And then my sister mocking me, laughing and clapping her hands in delight because when she arrived at the same time as four other buses, I was looking at the people getting off the wrong bus.
The next day at work Tim asked me how the meeting had gone and I said OK. When Jim arrived an hour later he asked me the same question. I don’t know why but I had a feeling that they already knew the answer. Maybe it was because they were trying too hard to make me believe that they didn’t know. This time I answered that my sister had been an hour late.
Then two or three days later, the day I had my sister for dinner, my roommate Wynonna Spranklin, a.k.a. “Jessie”, informed me that she had given up the apartment and I had to move out by August 1st, and I didn’t say a word about it to my sister at dinner. But now I know that my sister paid Jessie the second part of the deal, which was to move back to New Jersey, the first part being to move one year earlier from New Jersey to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Think about it: why would someone who has a steady but not very well paid job as an assistant groundskeeper at Merck’s, the drug manufacturer, located in New Jersey, take an apartment in Manhattan where the rents are outrageous? And get up every weekday at 5AM to take the subway, then the PATH train, then the bus, and get back home at 7PM? Doesn’t make sens, does it? Usually people who commute between NY and NJ LIVE in NJ because the rents there are more affordable and WORK in Manhattan because that’s where the jobs are. So nobody will do the reverse like Jessie did unless that person was paid enough money to compensate for all the trouble.
So Jessie moved out in early July, I moved out on August 8 and between then and the day I found a room at 19 W 103rd on August 23rd I lived in Hell’s Kitchen at Sarah’s place. She had said I would be welcome to stay a few weeks since her roommate, a virtuoso tap dancer, was out of town, but during those two weeks she plied me with peanuts and she told me several times that her roommate was coming back (which meant I had to leave), then the next day she told me he had extended his trip (which meant I could stay). I was looking for a room in the New York Times and it was she who made me switch to the Village Voice, and it’s in that paper that I found the ad that said “artists and musicians welcome” like an uptown Chelsea Hotel, I thought, when in fact 19 West 103rd was a welfare palace just one step above a crack house.
While I was staying at Sarah’s a machine broke down at the bookseller’s. Printer or photocopier, I do not remember. But I know that all that was needed was a plastic paper tray and it turned out that the reseller’s store was in Sarah’s neighborhood. So I called and made an appointment for 9AM some morning and went there straight from Sarah’s apartment. Some time later Jim, who never bothered with the details, asked how the new tray got here and I said I had gone to the reseller’s. He asked where it was and I told him. He made a big fuss about it, saying he wasn’t paying me to spend my time in transportation. I didn’t defend myself. I hadn’t told anybody at work about my housing problems. I intended only to give my new address when I had one so neither Jim nor Tim knew -from me at least- that I was staying in Hell’s Kitchen at that time. But Jim’s outburst proves that he knew, because when I went to the bank and almost every time stayed out two ½ hours visiting the bookstores on 5th Avenue he never complained. So why did he complain this time? Because he was trying to make me believe that he didn’t know that I was staying in Hell’s Kitchen! How did he know? Why was it important for him to make me think he didn’t know where I was staying?
Around the time of my birthday in November I discovered that half my collection of photographs had been stolen. These were not birthday snapshots, they were art pictures of landscapes, architecture, street scenes and portraits that I had taken since 1984 with my newcomer’s eyes. The only culprit I could think of was my sister Agnès because during her visit the previous spring she had shown an unhealthy interest in them. And photographs are not the kind of items that a garden variety burglar would be interested in. And it was an inside job because there was no sign of forced entry. I hadn’t given my new address to my parents because Agnès had told me that my father had paid for her trip to New York, so I assumed that he agreed in advance with the hidden agenda that she seemed to have against me. So my new landlord was in cahoots with my sister and my family though I hadn’t given my new address to any family member. I also suspected Sarah because just the day before I discovered the theft I had talked to her on the phone, invited her to come and see my new digs and given her the directions. I threatened her that if she didn’t return my photographs I would put an ad in a French newspaper giving her address so that all her creditors could find her. But I didn’t have solid proof so I didn’t do it, but I never spoke to her again.
I was very traumatized by the loss of my pix. And happening so soon after I moved . First I had taken with me only the essentials, leaving the rest in storage while I ascertained the safety angle. And about a month later I had taken everything into the studio, and two months later, the theft happened. It was very, very bad news.
I told Jim and Tim about it. Jim offered me to move to his apartment near Sutton place and took me there to visit. I accepted the offer. Tim told me to bring my favorite things to Jim’s apartment so the next day I brought my guitar but never spent a night there. I found myself at home without my guitar and felt even more bereft. Supposing I moved there and Jim and I had a falling-out and I had to leave the job, then I would have to move out of his apartment too. It didn’t seem wise to move there so the next day I said I had changed my mind and got my guitar back. And then I remembered that Jim hadn’t offered me his apartment out of the goodness of his heart but because it would have saved him the trouble of climbing the five floors twice a week to check if the landlord hadn’t slipped a note under the door. Subconsciously he projected all his fear of retribution onto his dread of the landlord. He didn’t fear the Lord, but he feared the landlord.
After the theft of my pix I knew I couldn’t expect any privacy from my own landlord, and since he received the mail in bulk and distributed it into pigeonholes, I filed a change of address at the post office and received all my mail at the bookstore. That’s where I received Mother’s Christmas present, an oblong little box that could have contained a pen. I never opened it because Mom is a specialist of the presents that hurt (as I explain somewhere else,) the emotional mail bombs that maim the heart and leave no visible wounds.
Shortly before Christmas a book came out that took a new look at a famous crime wave that terrorized New Yorkers, I think it was in the seventies. The author claimed that the single perpetrator was mind-controlled by a cult and he, the author, described the cult’s origins, philosophy, techniques and rituals. The book brought back a whole lot of childhood memories of strange happenings I had never understood and I got the phone number of a former FBI investigator who was named in the book and we talked for a good half hour. Far from telling me I was imagining things or was overly sensitive, he reinforced my impressions and my suspicions by telling me that even pillars of the society, respectable, churchgoing people belonged in cults.
I spent the Christmas holiday dressed all in black. I visited a Cuban friend who talked to me about Palo, the black magic branch of Santeria. I had never heard about it before. The question I didn’t dare ask was: Is Patato, the man we both know and an avowed practitioner of Santeria, into Palo too?
As always we listened to his excellent Cuban music (Irakere, los Van Van...) and talked about Cuban customs and traditions. But there was something that bothered me a lot when he spoke. First I thought I hadn’t heard properly so I didn’t react, but after hearing him mispronounce the word four or five times I spoke up. He was saying “tradicion” without pronouncing the D, so it changed the meaning of the word from TRADITION to BETRAYAL! God knows Cuban songs are full of “traicion”, “traicionero”, “traicionera”... For instance:
que te digo lo que siento
Tu no saves
Como me desespero.
Si tu amor es mi amor
Para que tenemos estos cuerpos traicioneros?
A beautiful, beautiful song. So I asked my friend Julio why he was saying “traicion” instead of “tradicion” and he couldn’t give me a coherent answer. After that I never saw him again. Maybe he knew something, wanted to warn me and didn’t dare to be more explicit because he didn’t want to traicionar the person he knew was traicioning me.
New Zealand’s anniversary was upon us I learned, late in the year or very early, when Tim transmitted to me the invitation of his Kiwi friend, a bookseller who was working out of his apartment on the Upper East Side. Why a bookseller would invite a lowly secretary to his home party cannot be explained by any romantic angle because the man never spoke to me, though he came to the store and spoke to Tim quite often. Not looking a gift horse in the mouth I accepted and went there with Tim after work one cold evening, wearing a grey tweed suit with a velvet collar and un-party-like black flat boots.
The people there were all in the business and I made conversation with no one, observing the well-dressed, well-coiffed women in animated conversation (“The Thoreau sold for $5,000!") until my second glass of wine was nearly empty. Then a gorgeous, tall man about my age I hadn’t seen before addressed me. After the briefest of introductions he offered to “refresh” my glass. I politely declined, saying I’d had enough wine and to my surprise, for a split second he looked totally discomfited. He worked at the Gagosian gallery in the neighborhood, he told me, and owned an apartment on the top floor in a high rise right across from the gallery. Then he was silent, as if expecting me to say something. With so little to go on I resented him and deliberately said something stupid to teach him, the only thing that came to my mind. “Oh, so you can look down at the gallery from your apartment! How convenient!” He looked exasperated and left me. I went home.
Some time later I checked the address of the Gagosian and saw that it was not in the Upper East Side at all, besides there are no high rises in that part of Manhattan. The zoning law doesn’t allow it, that’s why the owner of the only medium-tall building there was ordered to remove the top floors. So what did this guy want from me with his artsy pose and his “likker is quicker” reaction?
Last Days at James Cummins'
One day Tim was cataloguing the travel diary of French explorer Dumont d'Urville. He asked for my help in reading a handwritten note so, as usual, I obliged. There was a reference to an ox-nerve as a weapon. That was the same unusual weapon my father carried under his car seat. I felt very uneasy while Tim smiled at me innocently. It was not the first time that he made a reference to my family through some books. I was dismayed one more time at the thought that he was in contact with my folks in France without my consent, and even more at the underhanded way he had of letting me know of it.
But it was not always underhanded. Sometimes when I arrived at work, he would say that my mother had called the day before. Since my mother knew which days I was working, I wondered why she called the days I was off. Maybe she wanted to talk with Tim and not me. Maybe they discussed new ways of harassing me and drive me to quit. Anyway Tim was letting me know that he talked with my mother after I had told him, following the theft of my photographs in November, that I didn't want to talk to her.
Jim was often consulted by estate lawyers to appraise private libraries and one of my tasks was to type and total the appraisals, a delicate piece of work to which I brought the utmost care. I always calculated the subtotals and grand totals twice to eliminate any chance of mistake.
One day in January 1990 I finished one such job at 6PM and decided to print it the next day, which I did. After the lawyer received the appraisal he called to say that there was a mistake and he pointed it to me. I told him that I would send him the corrected sheet by fax and by mail the same day, which I did. This exchange was courteous and there were no recriminations whatsoever. After all, to err is human, but I was positive that my totals were correct the day I finished the job and I suspected that Tim had changed one number on the computer after I had left. But I had no proof and couldn't accuse him. Since I have the pride of my work I was upset by the incident although it didn't cause any bad feelings with the lawyer. But Jim berated me continually for the mistake. I told him that everybody makes mistakes, actually he had charged twice a plane round trip to one of his clients and I was in the process of correcting that mistake of his.
Another day Jim asked me for an old ledger. I said that everything necessary to the bookkeeping was within reach from the desk and if it wasn't there, somebody must have removed it. Although I worked there only three days per week I was held entirely responsible for the disappearance of the ledger.
Another day Jim asked me in an accusatory tone to account for the petty cash disbursements. I showed him the file in the drawer and in the computer and every dollar was accounted for with receipts. He was implying that I paid myself the money he owed me out of the petty cash but I hadn't!
Another day Tim locked me in the bathroom (the key was on the outside of the door and there was a latch inside) and kept me there for a good five minutes. Then while I was typing at the computer, the new assistant, an obese effeminate man who made the parquet floor shake under my seat when he walked twenty paces away, sprayed something above my head which made me sneeze and gave me flu symptoms for one week.
Several times, between early January and the time I quit in mid-February, Jim left the bathroom door open after defecating so that the smell of his feces filled the entire office.
It also happened quite often that Tim “forgot” the key at home when I met him at the door at 10 AM and I had to wait for him in a coffee-shop while he took the round trip in a cab.
Around mid-February Jim hadn't paid me the off-the-books part since the beginning of the year and yelled each time I asked for it. It amounted to about $250. On my last day of work I went to the bank to make a deposit and cash two checks: a check for the petty cash and Jim’s paycheck. He said that he would pay me what he owed me from his paycheck. When I returned I gave him his pay in cash and waited for him to pay me, but he put the money in his pocket and said that he had to go somewhere and would pay me when he came back. Then he called around 5PM to say that he wouldn’t come back after all. The disrespect was unbearable. Work had become a torture. I became terrified that the three men would harm me physically. The fat man could kill me just by sitting on me and I couldn't bring myself to return to work.
[Chapter 2][ToC] [Home]