How to Work for the Enemy and Feel Just Fine

I felt like everyone around me had attended a seminar on success that I’d slept through and I’d never be able to catch up.

This Is The Day Before 40

“July 18th” read the email that appeared a couple of weeks ago at the top of my inbox, so bold-faced and full of promise.

Ah, the day before my 40th birthday, I thought; Josh must have something fun planned for My Big Middle-Aged Moment. Dinner at State Bird? A weekend in Big Sur? Ooo, a Billy Joel concert?

Back when 40 sounded as far, far away as 50, I had all sorts of plans, too. Oh, by 40 I was supposed to have been a New Yorker staff writer; a Kenyan-level marathoner; an unselfish mother. (I mean, if a mother at all, which was not so much on my “To Accomplish List” as it was on my “To Put Off Until the Last Possible Moment and My Husband Makes Me List.”)

I was supposed to be the mature adult I’d always avoided being, but by the time I actually turned 40 presumed I’d just naturally, you know, be.

But now here I am, a day away from the birthday every female dreads—despite Tom Junod’s recent backhanded ode to women even two whole years older—and I’m 0 for 3:

The New Yorker once paid me $1,200 for a short piece, but then it never ran. I haven’t run 26.2 miles since the year 2000. And as for the unselfish mother thing… weeeell, I just took a two-week solo trip to Bhutan, the other happiest place on earth, and left my two little kids at home.

Which brings me to my less, shall we say, lofty goals. You know, the stuff I just expected to have gotten around to by the dawn of my fourth decade. Like, learn to ride a bike. (Yup, pathetic, I know. 0 for 4.)

The Legend of Poison Jim, the Mustard King

In the Museum of Chinese in America, two blocks north of Canal Street in New York City, a small, illuminated tile informs visitors that “sometime before 1865,” a Chinese American squirrel trapper known as “Poison Jim” found the mustard plant “growing weedlike in the Salinas Valley.” By selling the seeds, he “unintentionally turn[ed] mustard into a commercial crop” in the United States. A textbook published in 2010 repeats the story, with Poison Jim making and selling mustard until it “became a major California product.”

“Poison Jim Chinaman” was first documented by the little-known writer Owen Clarke Treleaven, who published a six-page story about him in a 1919 issue of the Overland Monthly, a magazine serving middle-class readers a diet of human interest pieces and folksy caricatures of the American West long after its wildest years were behind it. Writers glibly peddled stereotypes about the multiethnic fabric of frontier societies; the issue in which Treleaven’s story appeared also included an article on “Queer Korean Superstitions” and a poem called “Loleeta—An Indian Lyric.”

According to an old stagecoach driver, Leagan, whose yarn makes up most of the narrative, Poison Jim earned his nickname for having “more luck than anyone else ’round here mixin’ poisoned grain to kill off ground squirrels.” But when wild mustard overtook the valley one spring, threatening wheat production, Jim knew what to do: He rounded up a hundred Chinese laborers who swiftly set about clearing the fields, drying the plants, and storing away the threshed seed. When the mustard crop in South Africa failed later that year, a French condiment manufacturer, having gotten wind of a large harvest of mustard seed, showed up in San Francisco to buy Jim’s stock for thirty-three thousand dollars. With his earnings, Jim purchased a small ranch but lived modestly. Several years later, a drought blighted two consecutive grain crops, intensifying already strained conditions in the local “Indian village.” When a dispute erupted there over a stolen sheep, the owner who went looking for it opened fire, killing a man and a young mother. “Then,” Leagan recalls, “we saw what ‘Poison Jim’ was made of.” He stoically gathered up the murdered woman’s baby, then returned four days later to distribute fifteen thousand dollars worth of provisions to the sick and hungry throughout the entire valley.

Ask a Fancy Person: First Parties, Working for Free, and What to Do When Your Gym Is Crawling with Children

Dear Fancy,

I recently started working out at a new gym at a new time (lunch time), and apparently this is when oblivious parents exercise with their children in tow. There’s a staffed day-care room for them to use, but often, there are just children wandering through the gym: an 11-year-old who messes with the rowing machine while his mom treadmills, kids that keep running away from dad on the way out, gaggles of children toddling in everyone’s way. Is this just my child-averse, selfish need to focus at the gym or should I talk to gym management?

Related: what’s your take on leaving a group exercise class early? I think it’s rude and want to tell other people to stop doing it until I’m that jerk who’s on a tight schedule and doesn’t have time to stretch out or savasana.

I guess what I’m trying to ask is, what are the infractions that really count at the gym? I know I just need to get over my issues with people who jump-rope in a minorly crowded gym, but, for example, is it worth saying something if the super sweaty guy ahead of you neglects to wipe down a machine?

-Sweaty & Steamed

Dear Sweaty,

The gym, along with public transportation and movie theatres, is among the most lawless spaces in the civilized world. Between all the grunting and the lack of sanitary procedures, it’s practically the Wild West, with Pitbull dance remixes instead of player pianos. Frankly, I’m surprised we’ve all survived this long going to them, which is why I recommend staying put in your air-conditioned living room in a maribou-trimmed bed jacket, eating bonbons. But, necessary evils, no? We’d all enjoy our time in that hellhole six percent more if everyone would adhere to four basic rules of order at Planet Swoll. I’m going to number them for ease of use. Print them out and wave them about in the faces of offenders if you like.

Sympathy for the Comcast Rep from Hell

Above is eight solid minutes of empathic pain. It is a recording of a calm, polite caller, Ryan Block, attempting to cancel his Comcast service. The representative, by the time the recording starts, already sounds angry: He demands, again and again and again, to know why Block is leaving Comcast for a smaller provider, to know what it is that he—that Comcast—can’t supply that this other company, this obviously objectively inferior company, this loser company, can. Just tell him what he did wrong, he says. Just explain to him. Just make him understand this stupid mistake.

The rep sounds, when he demands to be convinced of something that is both his company’s fault and none of his company’s business, like an abusive partner; that is how I interpreted this call, anyway, the first time I heard it. Judging by Twitter, where people are sharing similar experiences, many others did too. (One of the last times I dealt with a cable company, Time Warner, it was to try to reinstate an account and associated email address that had been removed for days because a young rep insisted there was “no other way” to transfer the decades-old account from my deceased father to his spouse, my mother; a few weeks later, moving apartments in New York, I realized that here, as at my family home, as at my last apartment, I had no other option but Time Warner, who I then called and have been paying ever since. That’s why people hate monopolies.)

But overnight my sympathies shifted: If you understand this call as a desperate interaction between two people, rather than a business transaction between a customer and a company, the pain is mutual.

Five Years a Comedian’s Assistant: What It’s Like Working for the Most Neurotic Bosses Around

Hi, I’m Stephie, and I’m a recovering assistant-aholic. For the past five-plus years, I’ve had the incredible fortune of working for a whole slew of professional funny people.

Many of my jobs were in film/TV production: as a personal assistant, production assistant, writer’s assistant, associate producer, and script supervisor, multiple times over in each capacity. But my absolute favorite gigs — the ones where I really cut my care-of-comedians teeth — were as road manager on three cross-country tours. If there’s one place to get to know a comedian (or anyone) in a profound way, it’s inside a compact rental car with a faulty GPS, desperately trying to find the highway out of Flint, Michigan.

First of All, I’m Mom

This was Surprise #1. I first thought I’d been hired to be almost invisible — to do simple stuff my bosses didn’t have time for, but without leaving any trace of my existence. Like Santa Claus, if Santa left organized filing systems and updated calendars under the tree instead of toys.

As time progressed and my bosses entrusted me with more personal responsibilities beyond easy errands, I unwittingly began to assume Mom Role. Mom thinks twelve steps ahead. She strives to make life easier for her kids, and is so on point with her mom-ness that she’s clearly the envy of all the other neighborhood moms. Or, put another way: I became my own mom.

This Week in Lines

12:03 PM Wednesday, July 9th — Halal Cart, 69th and Madison

Length: 11 people Weather: 81 degrees and partly cloudy Crowd: Construction workers Mood: Distracted Wait Time: Approximately seven minutes Lingering Question: How many Halal carts can one neighborhood sustain?

Rejects of the Golden Age of Advertising

The Prom King on Instagram, 10 Years After the Party

When I was a junior in high school, I decided that I wanted to become popular. Fortuitously, my scientist parents were about to make the one wanton decision that they would ever make in their lives: leaving me home alone for a weekend, along with my little brother.

Normally ones to frown upon any vacation not spent in a tent, my parents made this special exception for Maine, a place where they could remain on their rigorous work schedule. They’d planned a quintessential rise-at-dawn, sleep-by-dusk experience: stilted breakfast conversations with strangers at inns, jaunts to folksy outlet stores, and long walks along punishing rocky coasts. Lost in their excitement, neither my mother or father seemed to realize that leaving an ungrateful teenager home alone with a car, a finished basement, and over $3,000.00 in personal savings was a formula for total disaster.

The Potato Salad Kickstarter is the Science Fiction Villain We Deserve

As of writing, a Kickstarter campaign for “just making potato salad” has raised $37,115. Every few seconds that number climbs higher, and each uptick is greeted with cheers. It’s a self-perpetuating humor machine, and it is horribly efficient. There is no joke, at least not anymore; whatever joke there was has become an adaptive, joke-like arrangement of circumstances. It is a perfect device, compatible with all known theories of humor and therefore with none of them.

The Uber Bomb Detonates in New York

Have you been in a New York cab recently? Sometimes prompted but more often not, drivers will want to talk to you about Uber. If you’re in a yellow cab or a livery car, you will hear about Uber the virus, Uber the interloper, Uber the merciless invader; if you’re in an Uber cab, or an Uber-adjacent green taxi, you’ll hear about Uber the inevitable, Uber the strange, Uber the great (for now). It’s been a boom time for untethered drivers—a magical stretch during which they could take advantage of high fares, high demand, and low barriers to entry all at once. It was acknowledged, rarely explicitly, that the arrangement felt strange and temporary—the product of an imbalance, not a new status quo.

This has been imagined in the press as a battle between unregulated drivers and their super-regulated counterparts. But that’s not it at all! This was, and is, and will be until Uber’s billion dollars either runs out or multiplies itself, Uber against the world. Look what they did today: We just dropped uberX fares by 20%, making it cheaper than a New York City taxi. From Brooklyn to the Bronx, and everywhere in between, uberX is now the most affordable ride in the city.

Haha, first of all, “the most affordable ride in the city” that is in a car, driven by another human, for your individual transportation, maybe. Uber’s style is too consistent for its announcement post to be called tonedeaf; it’s a company that wears its fuck-you, get-mine philosophy on its sleeve. Its price examples have riders going from Williamsburg to the East Village, from Grand Central to the Financial District, from Nolita—Nolita!—to Lincoln Center. From your LOFT to FASHION WEEK, from the TRADING DESK to THE TRAIN TO YOUR LARGE DISTANT HOME, from your STEEL RESIDENTIAL ARCOLOGY to your TASTING MENU, Uber will save you two dollars.

Quarter Mil in Loans, But 10 Years to Forgiveness

Originally published on June 12, 2013

The day I accepted my job as an entry-level government attorney making $43,350 a year was one of the happiest days of my life.

I had finally landed a job—a dream job. And maybe most importantly, I knew there would be a light at the end of the tunnel: an end date on my student loan repayment. Because with this job, I could ask for forgiveness.

I graduated from law school with excellent references, phenomenal internships and clinical experiences, fantastic grades, and a quarter million dollars in debt.

In a better economy, I would have had an offer before graduation day. Instead, I graduated and lived in a state of stress, fear, and anxiety for a year while I looked for work. I worked odd jobs on top of other odd jobs while applying for every legal position available within 200 miles.