When I started writing again, I promised myself I would put it all out there, consequences be damned. I did that while I was undergoing cancer treatment, but my writing was reactive to what I was going through. I literally had no idea what it would be like since everyone experiences it differently. I wrote spontaneously, and I think, effectively, about my experiences.
Now, my writing carries historical significance, at least to me, because I’ve decided I want to recount certain events in my life “B.C.” – before cancer – that have contributed to who I am on the other side of that experience.
Buckle up, grab a beverage and a snack, and settle in. This is going to be a long one.
I started my life as a working girl in 1987, with two years of community college and a broadcasting degree under my belt. I put on my skirt suits, my patterned pantyhose, socks and sneakers, got on the 2 train out of the Junction in Brooklyn, and rode into Manhattan to do my nondescript job as a billing and accounts receivable clerk. After four years, I swapped my subway tokens for a monthly Long Island Railroad ticket, and I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the commute or my job. After a short-lived stint at a local Long Island radio station, I landed a job at a small, family owned confectionery company that produced the ingredients to make one product: fudge. A dream job for someone with a sweet tooth, right? Not really.
I was once again tasked with handling accounts receivable, and also with making collection calls to customers who were late with payments. I’ve never been a numbers person, nor did I get any satisfaction out of calling people to ask for money. I was 27 years-old at that point, and I was somewhat resigned to making a living this way. I had a boyfriend, friends, and best of all, a 25-minute commute that didn’t involve a train schedule. Things could have been worse.
As the years passed and the pressure increased, I started loathing what I had to do to make a living. The company was small, with less than 50 employees, and the owner’s son was, shall we say, challenging to work for. The guy was Ivy League-educated, and intellectually constipated. Granted, I didn’t realize that at the time, but looking back, I’m being somewhat kind with that description. He was assisted by his younger brother, whom I eventually started referring to as “Fredo”. If you don’t understand that reference, you must watch “The Godfather” immediately if not sooner.
Mr. Intellectually Constipated (Mr. I.C.) was afraid of his own shadow. He constantly needed reassurance from others for just about everything. When the money wasn’t coming in as timely as he liked, he stood in the middle of a large common area in the office ranting about how he was going to have to write off hundreds of thousands of dollars in bad debt at the end of the fiscal year. He subsequently hired a credit and collections consultant to school me and my supervisor on the finer points of asking for money. It was an exercise in wasting money in an attempt to get money. At the end of every fiscal year I was in that job, the amount of bad debt written off was a mere few thousand dollars, rather than the hundreds of thousands he feared.
Mr. I.C. didn’t stop there. The focal point of his business was sales (natch), and he required a bevy of consultants to hold his hand, and impart their spurious “wisdom”. I shall refer to the king of all those consultants as “Mr. Jackass”, a moniker that comes perilously close to his actual name, but I don’t give a damn.
Mr. Jackass was such an expert at shoveling shit, I would privately refer to him as the human earth mover. Every time I heard him speak, words like “quantify”, “codify”, and “proactive” tumbled out of his mouth with such practiced ease, I felt the need to take a shower each time I got within a few feet of him. Granted, he wasn’t at all interested in who I was or what I did, because I was not a salesperson. Again, in such a small office, there wasn’t much that could be kept private because of the close quarters we worked in.
After paying Mr. Jackass a $15,000 monthly consulting fee for a prolonged period of time, Mr. I.C. decided to bring him into the company as a full-time employee. He was made an executive vice president, given an office and an administrative assistant, and free reign to reshape the sales department in his image. And now comes the fun part.
During Mr. Jackass’s ascent to “greatness”, I was going though some significant events in my own life. My father passed away in January, 1996. We sat shiva for him at my parents’ house in Brooklyn, to which a group of my co-workers came to pay their respects. Mr. I.C. came too, proceeded to sit in my mother’s kitchen and tell off-color jokes, mere feet from my mother, who sat in the living room giving an Oscar-worthy performance as the grieving widow. A co-worker of mine, who was so completely obsessive-compulsive, asked me when I would be returning to work because I had to run customer statements, and she didn’t have the time to do them herself. My father had the audacity to die around the 15th of the month, which was when the statements were usually printed and mailed.
After that, I turned 30, bought a house, and got married. In between, I decided I didn’t want to do accounts receivable and credit and collections anymore. I was emotionally exhausted by the job, and honestly, sick of feeling like a necessary evil. I had racked up years of experience speaking to people, I was intimately acquainted with the product the company sold, and I thought I would make a good…wait for it… salesperson.
Coincidentally, around the time I decided I wanted to try my hand at sales, Mr. Jackass decided to go on the all fat, no carb Atkins diet, as it was known back then. Now, it’s the trendy “keto” diet, but the basic premise is the same: You deplete your body of all its glucose, eating nothing but protein and fat, forcing your body to burn that fat for fuel.
Ever the narcissist, Mr. Jackass decided to recruit all the “pudgy” employees to join him on his quest for health. He came for me, of course, because I’ve carried around extra pudge for most of my life. Back then it wasn’t too bad, but when you’re dealing with someone for whom appearance is everything, a few extra pounds is a deal-breaker. His recruitment attempts were relentless, and I said, what the hell – I’ll try it. I was trying to get him to notice me anyway, so to me, it was worth the effort.
A little while after I agreed to join the bacon and hard boiled egg brigade, Mr. Jackass and I had a private meeting in his office about my future in the sales department. We sat there, just the two of us, having a discussion about my role as a potential salesperson. Oddly, he seemed not so interested in giving me a shot. Instead, he kept focusing on my weight, asking me to go into the company’s warehouse to weigh myself on the industrial scale. I knew damn well what the number was courtesy of my bathroom scale, but I wasn’t going to share it with him. I was five feet, eight inches tall back then (still am), so the number was likely larger than he was anticipating. After finally accepting that I wasn’t going to weigh myself at his request, he told me, “When you finally lose weight, that’s when I’ll really teach you how to sell.”
For months I thought nothing about that remark. Now, my head wants to explode from the effrontery Mr. Jackass exhibited by uttering that sentence. I ended up losing 30 pounds eating bacon, hard boiled eggs, steak, sugar-free jello and coffee with full-fat heavy cream. It was glorious, until I caved and devoured an entire loaf of bread in one sitting. During that period, I attended sales conferences, went on short trips to train customers how to make fudge with the ingredients and equipment the company sold, and worked a few trade shows. I even got to go train a customer in the Cayman Islands, and was able to take my then-husband along on the trip. Little did I know until later on that no one else wanted to go, which was why I was chosen.
The funny part about my role in the sales department was that I was never busy. After I admitted to falling off the Atkins wagon, Mr. Jackass didn’t have much use for me. His plans were to stick me in a windowless room selling custom-labeled boxes for stores to sell their fudge in. All he wanted from me was to sit on the phone all day, pushing customers to buy these boxes. Again, I was so oblivious because I finally didn’t have to worry about numbers, and calling people for money, and running statements, and doing all that accounting crap. I was getting paid, and I didn’t care.
In January, 1999, I was asked to go work the Chicago Gift Show with a co-worker. My co-worker and I had a great relationship, so I was looking forward to going. Working a trade show was a pretty exhausting experience given that the fudge had to be made on site to hand out as samples to people who stopped by our booth. They were looking for items to sell at gift shops, tourist locations, restaurants, etc. The sales pitch was very specific because the fudge had to be sold a certain way in order for the retailer to be successful.
The Chicago Gift show is one of the busiest trade shows in the country, and it was non-stop for about five days. The best part was staying in a nice hotel and getting to go to all the top restaurants for dinner. I had a friend back then who regularly traveled to Chicago on business, and he gave me a list as long as my arm of places that “couldn’t be missed”.
When I got home, I went to the office the next day, wrote up my sales leads, filled out my expense report and went about my day. It was a Friday; no different than a typical Friday I’d experienced, until I got called into a meeting with Mr. Jackass, and the sales manager, whom I shall refer to as “Donald”.
Mr. Jackass and Donald sat me down and proceeded to tell me they were given a report that my performance at the Chicago Gift Show was sub-par. When I asked for specific details, they could not provide any. There was much rambling on the part of Mr. Jackass, and I cannot recall what he was saying. I remember asking him, “Are you firing me?” His answer was yes. Donald sat there mute. I was stunned.
After Mr. Jackass admitted he was firing me, I was given a document to sign. It was a non-disclosure agreement in which I had to promise not to work for any of the company’s competitors for a period of several years. They were also giving me three months severance pay, my expenses from the trade show, and whatever funds were in my 401k account if I didn’t want to keep it in the company’s retirement plan. I had the wherewithal to tell them I would not sign a thing. Then I got up and walked out.
My memory is pretty hazy about all this, but I remember grabbing my coat and bag, getting into my car, and driving over to my husband’s office. I walked in, sat down in a chair next to his desk, and said something to the effect of, “Those fuckers just fired me.” He was as stunned as I was. I told him about the document I was asked to sign, and he agreed that I shouldn’t sign it.
I went back to the office to gather up my things. Mr. Jackass actually helped me pack up the items and carried them out to my car for me. I don’t think I uttered a word to him, and I don’t recall him saying much either. My co-workers were stunned.
As I exited the office, Mr. I.C. was standing at the fax machine with his back to me, and never bothered to turn around to bid me farewell. Twenty years later, that still bothers me. There is nothing worse than someone who cannot, or will not look you in the eye when things get unpleasant. Not only is he intellectually constipated, he’s a gutless piece of shit.
I remember being numb for most of that weekend. Then, finally, it dawned on me why I got fired. I said to my husband, “That asshole fired me because he thinks I’m too fat.” We did a few rounds of, “No… really? Ya think?” I responded, “I don’t think; I know.”
On Monday, I did two things: I filed for unemployment benefits, and started the process of finding a lawyer. Keep in mind that this was 1999, and sexual harassment, misogyny and discrimination in the workplace have not yet reached the level of outrage there is today. I spoke to several local attorneys who did not have the expertise to help me, nor did they think it would be worth it to try and sue. I refused to give up.
A few weeks later, someone my husband used to work with heard about what happened, and asked me to meet her for lunch. Over lunch, she told me that a friend of hers recently received a sizable financial settlement from a prominent Wall Street banker whom she worked for as a nanny. The guy was sexually harassing her, and she sued. She gave me the name and phone number of this supposedly well-known Manhattan attorney – a woman – who specialized in employment law.
About a week later, I met with the lawyer. I told her what Mr, Jackass said to me many months earlier about losing weight and teaching me how to sell. She was not thrilled by the fact that no one else but me heard him say it. I regaled her with anecdotes about his behavior when he was trying to get other people to diet with him, and how he could not give me a cogent reason other than, “We were told…” for why he fired me.
The lawyer was extremely sympathetic, and told me that I had to be willing to deal with a fair bit of humiliation if I wanted to sue for wrongful termination. She said that Mr. Jackass would most likely deny saying the things he said, and it was my word against his because no one else was in the room. I would also have to write a detailed statement admitting that I was “morbidly obese” and was fired because I was overweight. I agreed, and went home and wrote the statement. I also had to pay a $3.500 retainer, which amounted to ten hours of her time that would be used to serve-and-volley with the company’s legal representative.
Months passed as the wheels of justice slowly turned. As anticipated, Mr. Jackass denied saying what he said, and because of that, the attorney felt she had grounds to ask only for one year’s salary, plus reimbursement for my legal expenses, as compensation. I wasn’t looking to get rich, but I wanted to teach them a lesson – particularly Mr. I.C. – who put so much stock in the opinions of others. My life was upended by one of those people, and I wanted him to know how much it had hurt me. At that point, the realization about people like Mr. I.C. hadn’t dawned on me: People like him, brought up wealthy and privileged, don’t really care when someone in their orbit is hurt by their actions.
A few weeks after my termination (before the lawsuit was filed), a group of my former co-workers invited me to meet them at a local diner for lunch. Afterwards, I made the mistake of stopping by the office to say hello to the ones that didn’t go to lunch. Mr. I.C. and Mr. Jackass were not there.
Unfortunately, word got back to Mr. I.C. that I darkened his doorway, and a major freak-out ensued. Since I hadn’t signed the non-disclosure agreement, he was convinced I came back to steal his secret fudge recipe to sell to his competitors. Years before, Brother Fredo made the mistake of becoming too chummy with someone at a rival company, and lo and behold, that company came out with its own fudge. Never take sides against the family, Fredo.
As far as I know, Fredo is still alive and well. Mr. I.C. didn’t have him executed while fishing.
Showing up at the office after being fired was a serious misstep. I later found out that everyone was ordered to sign the same non-disclosure agreement, usually reserved for when employees left or were fired. I also found out that the co-worker I went to Chicago with was almost fired because she had contact with me after I was terminated.
After that, I spoke to only one person I used to work with, a sweet woman who worked part-time maintaining the fudge kitchen and preparing samples for prospective customers. For a while, she called me every day after she came home from work to see how I was doing, and kept me updated on the office gossip. Those phone calls turned out to be a godsend, since during all this drama, my mother was in free-fall, physically and emotionally, and it was difficult to deal with on top of everything else.
My mother passed away in July, 1999. This time, we sat shiva for her at my brother’s house in New Jersey. My mother sold the Brooklyn house five months before she died and moved to a condo overlooking the Hudson River not far from where my brother lived. During those months, she was oblivious to what I was going through, and that was fine with me. I didn’t actively look for another job during this time period since my mother’s situation was so precarious. I never knew when I would have to drop everything and run to New Jersey to bear witness to her collapsing on her fainting couch.
During my mother’s shiva, I received a phone call from the lawyer. She told me that the case was settling. I would get half a year’s salary plus legal expenses. She was sorry she couldn’t do more, but it was difficult without solid proof that Mr. Jackass said what he did. I was totally fine with it. The message had been sent. I did, however, have to sign that damn non-disclosure agreement.
I did not work again for a long time after that experience. In August, 1999, I enrolled at Hofstra University and stayed until 2007, earning a bachelors and masters degree.
I like to think that I grew the fuck up during those years, learning about life and people in ways I had not prior to going back to school. Being a full-time student from age 32 to 40 taught me lessons I’d missed when I was younger. I gained an appreciation for the value of education, not as a vehicle to make money, but as a way to navigate through life without falling victim to the circumstances I experienced earlier.
I gave a lot of thought to putting this story out into the void during the height of the Me Too movement, but it didn’t feel right. I wasn’t sexually harassed in the way that women were by Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly or Les Moonves (have I missed anyone?). I was, however, judged harshly by someone who had many of the same qualities as those men. I understand the mental anguish these women experienced, but thankfully, Mr. Jackass never made any sexual advances. Truthfully, given his obsession with looks and appearances, he was probably too repulsed by me to pursue it.
Mr. Jackass and Mr. I.C. eventually parted ways. I don’t know why, and I don’t care. The company is still alive and well, operating with many more employees, and hopefully more responsible management than it had when I was there.
The world is very different now, and so am I. My experiences over the past 20 years have shaped me into who I am today. In some ways I am grateful for them, even though I wouldn’t want to relive them ever again. I’ve shared this one because I hope it will provide something positive for anyone who experienced something similar. I am not bitter anymore, but in the unlikely event I ever cross paths with Mr. I.C. or Mr. Jackass again, I will not be kind.
I haven’t had fudge of any kind since I was fired from the company. I have seen it in many places in my travels; it is easily recognizable to me.
When I do stumble upon it, I like to utter in a voice neither loud nor soft: “Don’t eat the fudge. That stuff will kill you.”