There are meetings in places that come disguised as something else. Sometimes they’re in quaint settings, like an apartment in the Back Bay of Boston, across from the shade trees and sculptures of the Commonwealth Avenue Mall. There’s three flights of stairs that creak and moan and at the top you’ll knock and an old woman will crack open the door and ask your name.
She’s been expecting you.
The chain unlatches and with a yellow-toothed smile, she invites you in.
Aside from the sun that comes through the skylight and splits the room in two, the apartment is dark. The old woman is delicate and long forgotten. Her hair is styled in a pixie cut and dyed black, fooling no one, her wrinkles giving her away.
You’re here to investigate her insurance claim. Find out if she’s lying. If you’re being honest, you’d admit it’s inconsequential, a colossal waste of both of your time. But it’s your job. You’re still expected to wear a shirt and tie, even if the mid-August weather forecast uses words like oppressive in describing today’s heat and humidity. The old woman doesn’t have air conditioning. Beads of sweat run from the nape of your neck and pool at the small of your back, soaking into the waistline of your neatly pressed business casual slacks.
Your boss once warned you: On days like this, when the heat’s beating everyone down, don’t be oppressive. Don’t dig in, at least not immediately. You have to take into account these extraneous factors—the weather, the holidays, whatever—and adjust the structure of your interview accordingly. Your boss knows what he’s talking about. He has over twenty-five years experience investigating insurance claims, commemorated on a plaque situated on the shelf of his corner cubicle. You won’t be digging in. Not today.
So you sit. You sit and you smile. The space is tight and cramped with artifacts, casting off a musty odor. The Museum of Her. Crammed bookshelves line the walls along with vintage pieces, like the decorative lamp on an ornate end table. They were contemporary when she bought them. She rests her bony fingers in the palm of your hand and you receive them. It’s a pleasure to meet you, she says. There’s a small coffee table with only three chairs surrounding it. She offers you the seat across from her. The other seat is occupied by a mannequin.
You’re a professional. By now, you’ve done hundreds of face to face meetings. This is the part where you reinforce your smile and initiate small talk. Talk about the weather, but avoid words like oppressive. Talk about Boston, how you’ve always loved this particular neighborhood. Maybe you remember the phone call to your mother that you were going to leave Pennsylvania to move here, but it’s probably best you leave that part out. You came here with no job and found one. You’re still here. You made it work. But there’s no sense getting in too deep. This is small talk.
When the old lady mentions that she used to have a dog to keep her company and how she loved walking it along Commonwealth Avenue, try to forget about Otis, the dog you left behind who’s now ashes in a mantle in the house where you grew up. Refrain from bringing into the picture your new puppy, Karl, the overgrown terror who’s supposed to help fill the empty spaces. You’re a professional. Smile and say, That sounds nice.
The mannequin has a Newbury Street sophistication. She’s wearing a flowing, summery dress and a wide brimmed hat decorated with ribbons and flowers and pulled down over her auburn curls. Her lipstick tastefully matches her hair, though the purple eye shadow seems a tad much. She sits with her hands rested on her thighs and stares straight ahead.
The general rule is to never do a recorded interview with a third party in the room, but as you’ve learned, there are exceptions. The mannequin gets to stay.
The trick is to scribble down one or two key words on a yellow legal pad and nod or say mmm hmm but keep a careful eye on the subject’s body language. You want to watch for certain movements during key questions. Do they rub their noses? Do they pick at imaginary lint? You want to listen for a subtle change in voice when you get to the hard part. Does it raise in pitch? Do they cough after giving an answer? That’s called an erasure, a subconscious gesture that wipes out a lie. If so, consider leading them down a different path. Ease up on the pressure. Remember what your boss told you. Twenty-five years experience. There are ways to pin them down, then circle back. Of course, these are only suggestions. Strategies to employ on a case-by-case basis.
You’ll have to decide what’s best.
What you do is keep your eyes on the legal pad and move ahead. With any luck, this interview can be done in twenty minutes. Then you can loosen your tie and crank the AC in your Company car.
The problem is, the old woman keeps talking. The questions you ask offer infinite possibilities of recollection.
How long have you lived in this apartment?
Forty-two years. Did you know the salon down the street used to be a bar? The Kennedy’s went there.
You shrug off the non-pertinent information and design your line of questioning to narrow down her answers. But she’s determined.
Do you remember the last time you saw your car?
I think I drove it on Tuesday, or maybe it was Thursday, Storrow was backed up, it’s always backed up. I went to visit an old friend in Brookline, I’ve known her since grade school, can you believe that? There’s not a lot of us left. That was on Sunday.
You’re just trying to get this down and get out of here. Write up the report so the middle managers who sit behind desks don’t take a second look and pay the old woman, clear this case off your pending. You admire the mannequin. Throughout all of this, she remains still.
If you’re under investigation, only answer what’s being asked. That’s what your lawyer would advise. This is where the old woman could take note of the mannequin’s poise. This is where you wish you hadn’t discarded your wristwatch in favor of a cell phone. A quizzical glance at the second hand is the social clue to wind down.
But you bet the old woman wouldn’t even notice. She doesn’t wear a watch either. She’s time rich with what little she has left and you wonder, does the mannequin ever wish she had her old life back? Does she miss standing in windows as the world passes by?
The North Shore Yacht Club is perfectly suited for wedding receptions and other garden variety galas. This time, it’s the Company’s anniversary party. All three regional offices congregate at round tables with complimentary commemorative mugs at each placemat.
Attendance is mandatory.
Marty leans in close. He nods in the direction of a middle manager whose gut stretches a polo shirt over the waist line of his khakis. Marty asks, Is that what you want to look like?
Marty sits in the cubicle next to you. He has a wife and three kids; he says he’s locked in. But you, he asks, what do you have, a girlfriend?
No kids? What are you still doing here? Get out while you can.
You also have a bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice from a state school and almost a minor in psychology, and while that technically doesn’t qualify you to diagnose Marty, it’s not a stretch to say he suffers from mid-forties corporate burnout.
On most days, you take long lunches and trade stories. Talk about the things you’ve seen, cases you’ve been assigned. You learn a lot from Marty. But right now, he could relax. You’re drinking beers on the Company dime—not too many, you do have to drive their car safely home—but this is a celebration, isn’t it?
In order to lighten the mood, maybe you can tell Marty about the mannequin, how fucking odd it was. But before you have a chance, the CEO steps up to a podium and meanders his way through a speech. You look around the room, tuned out pale faces waiting for permission to punch out. Marty catches you not paying attention. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, he says.
The Jeep is packed with camping gear, ready to go to upstate New York for four days, enough time for her to move her stuff out. She’s doing the last of the dishes. Her head is down and she runs a soapy sponge over blue plates.
Once, in a department store littered with still life displays, the two of you had an at-length discussion over the merits of these blue plates. You agreed, white is boring. Your color of choice, black, was vetoed. Too bold, clichéd. So you compromised. Blue is good. They’ll make a colorful dish pop.
You tell her, I have to go.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
She says, I’ll leave you with four plates.
Eight was the number of plates the two of you had decided on. When was the last time you had a dinner party for ten? You’ve learned these blue plates have since been discontinued. So what will you do? Keep your guest list to three?
Most meetings don’t take place in historic neighborhoods like the Back Bay. Most happen in places you’ve never wanted to go. Towns in the central part of the state where car dealerships blend with chain restaurants blend with shopping malls. You imagine standing in one of those shopping mall windows. What would it be like to watch yourself pass by?
When you arrive at the meeting, seated are four of your soon to be ex-colleagues. Marty isn’t at this meeting. He was at the one held last quarter. Your boss with twenty-five years experience isn’t there either. He was at the meeting the year before. You remember the way his voice cracked during the conference call. He considered all of you friends. You haven’t spoken with him since.
On the table, five separate severance packages.
No commemorative mugs.
Acceptance of said package absolves the Company of any liability. You wear a tie. You sit with your hands on your thighs and stare straight ahead.
Your ex-colleagues are bitter. There’s more than sixty years of experience among them. They all had plaques in their cubicles. They’ve been betrayed.
You are the Token. The Company cannot risk an age discrimination lawsuit, Sorry, an ex-colleague says, but you’ll be okay. You’ve got your youth.
October in New England: coffee was discovered for mornings like this. The sun entwines with a crisp wind that hints at the winter to come. The leaves turn brilliant reds and oranges. The air has a subtle tartness. Even in downtown Boston, people slow it down a half-step and soak up the last remaining warmth.
You have a meeting.
On the edge of the Financial District, you step into an automated revolving door that feeds the belly of a skyscraper. An elevator stops at the eighth floor. In Conference Room A, stiff plastic chairs await, room for ten. There’s a bookshelf nearby with titles like Resumé Magic and What Color is your Parachute? Off-white walls compliment gray carpeting and there’s a man in a dark blue blazer who’s name you’ve already forgotten. He wants to know your name. He instructs you and the other nine attendants to take an index card, fold it in half, write your name on it, then set it in front of you.
The lights dim and the projector whirs as the man in the blue blazer clicks to the opening slide. Define Your Target Market: a clinic that will help you sharpen your resumé.
You will be molded into a more desirable commodity.
This slide says that your current situation is not your fault.
He says, We’re still in a recession. He says, It’s important you do not take any of this personally.
This slide has a bar graph with a red arrow that points down. Nine people groan. A man who sits across the table would like to share his story. Twelve years at the same company, and just like that…
The man in the blue blazer extends his palm and says, mmm hmm. He clicks to the next slide. We have to get through this presentation by noon, he says.
He offers us the opportunity to practice our elevator pitches. Imagine this, he says. You step into an elevator and there he is, the CEO of Dream Job, Inc. You have exactly thirty seconds to sell yourself.
A woman whose index card reads Gloria volunteers to go first. Gloria says, Don’t you hate when your staff is sitting in a training seminar and they’re falling asleep in their chairs. Every second is a dollar, but the presentation is dull and by the time they’ve returned from lunch, they’ve retained nothing. It’s not because the material isn’t worthwhile, it’s because the presentation is lacking. And that’s where I come in…
Gloria has come prepared.
…As a business coach with over fifteen years of experience working with high end clients, I train the trainers!
She dials in.
Now, I’m not sure if my techniques would work at your company, I guess that depends on how much you’re willing to invest in your training methods and how seriously you value employee education, but I’d be happy to talk with you about it.
The man in the blue blazer consults his wristwatch. Thirty-four seconds, Gloria. Not bad.
He scans the room, reading the names on the index cards, searching for the next participant. He calls on you.
You consult your legal pad. I was a fraud investigator for an insurance company, big company, Fortune 500. With my employer’s assets in mind, I foster synergetic relationships resulting in congruous resolution. You cough. I, uh, handled an extensive case load.
You look up.
The man in the blue blazer looks at his wrist watch, then back to you.
You shrug. You’re done. You know that you can’t do this.
The man in the blue blazer has a look in his eye, a sadness, you are failing in front of him, in front of everyone. You can’t play the game.
You take the train home and take Karl for a long walk. Later that night, you’ll look out the window of your apartment, the Boston skyline glimmering across the river, and those lights, those places, they seem like distant stars.
But somewhere within them is a table with an index card on which you wrote your name.
No, these are not distant stars.
These are places you’ve already been.