If Lowell had known anything about corporate culture or management, he never would have hired me.
That’s because in most big companies, Human Resources professionals screen employment applications and perform résumé triage, putting each into a pile: Meets minimum qualifications; doesn’t meet them; maybe. Usually only the first pile goes to the interviewer.
I did not then have a bachelor’s degree, as the job required, so my application should have gone on the second pile, thence to the shredder.
But Lowell told HR he wanted to see all 200-plus applications. He found mine, with tear sheets of published picture stories and magazine articles, and barely glanced at my resume.
The job was associate editor of a profusely illustrated monthly employee magazine for a financial services company. Lowell was its editor.
My interview went well: We both smoked Borkum Riff in our pipes; we were both recently discharged from the Army, and both our wives were Asian. Lowell said this was “propitious.” (I didn’t mention that I was getting a divorce.)
On my first day Lowell explained that we would write four pieces each per issue, then edit each other’s stories. All copy then went to HR to check name spellings, and to Richard,a vice president and Lowell's boss.
Lowell then handed me six pages. “Peruse these,” he said. “Edit as you go.”
I wasn’t sure what “peruse” meant. Not wanting to seem stupid, I looked it up in my office dictionary, then went to work.
Carefully reading each page, I examined each word, each line, each paragraph, every comma, period and colon. I perused it.
An hour later Lowell stuck his head in my office. “Have you finished perusing my piece?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I replied.
He asked twice more, and twice I replied as before.
Just before lunch he marched into my office and snatched the pages.
“What is wrong with you!” he shrieked. “How long does it take to read a short story?”
“A few minutes,” I replied. “But you told me to ‘peruse’ it.”
“Yes, peruse it. Read it over quickly.”
“No,” I said. “Peruse does not mean to read quickly.”
“It certainly does,” he insisted, his face flushed.
“I looked it up,” I said. When I showed Lowell the dictionary, he stomped off in fury.
Lowell’s stepfather was chairman of a Fortune 500 manufacturer. Lowell attended prep schools and then a pricey private university, a campus better known for its football teams than academics. Then he was drafted into the Army; afterward, with his wife, he toured Europe trying to be a freelance writer. When his family shut the money tap, they returned.
Tally and rangy, Lowell was 25 but looked at least my age, 33. He favored tweeds and elbow-patch jackets and used $50 words, sprinkling his conversations with literary allusions and gratuitous wine commentary.
This was his first real job. A week after coming aboard as associate editor, the old editor left and Lowell took his place. Two weeks later, he hired me.
The company operated nationwide; each month one of us traveled to a different state, where we spent a week interviewing staff, doing research and shooting photos. I wasn’t making much money, but I enjoyed the travel.
I needed this job, so from the first day forward, conscious of Lowell’s pretensions, I humbled myself to him. He seemed satisfied with my work; when it began winning awards he found ways to share the glory. I didn’t mind. I was trying to put my life back together and learn enough to prepare myself for my next move up the career ladder.
Lowell was on a different journey. A few months after I started, his pretty wife gave birth to their first child. He soon moved out, took a bachelor pad and entertained a succession of girlfriends. He began locking himself into his office until lunch, taking no calls. He claimed to be working on his novel, but everyone in the office knew he was sleeping. Once a janitor found a pair of women's panties in his waste basket.
Meanwhile he gave me first one, then two, of his stories to write each month, in addition to my own four. Claiming that my expenses were excessive, he cut back my travel schedule. On the road I usually ate hamburgers and always took modest lodging, so I wondered if he was using our budget to fund dinner dates.
But I said nothing.
By then I was again single; after years in uniform and classes at eight colleges, I was anxious to finish my degree. From HR I learned that the company reimbursed tuition, books and expenses for work-related classes, so I enrolled in university editing and graphic design courses.
Reimbursement required Lowell’s signature — but he refused to give it. Why spend department funds when I could get GI Bill education benefits, he said. HR told him that education reimbursement came out of their budget, but as usual Lowell wouldn’t back down.
My graphic design class required that I turn in a camera-ready piece project. I created a fold-out brochure; it needed type, so I called Frank, the vendor whose company set our magazine’s type. When I asked the price, he said “Not much — I’ll bill you.”
Soon after that, Sherry, Frank’s saucy, irreverent, 20-something daughter and his company’s messenger, flashed our office secretarial pool to display her new breast implants.
Lowell caught a glimpse of the new Sherry and invited her to dinner. They went to a fancy restaurant; as the vichyssoise arrived, he made it plain that he expected her to spend the night with him.
Sherry laughed at him.
Lowell gauchely mentioned the price of the meal they’d just ordered.
Sherry threw her soup in his face and called a cab.
Around then our corporation bought a credit card firm, a competitor of American Express. Lowell was told to interview Ken, its president, and write a profile. That required a long, rush-hour drive back from Los Angeles in brutal heat — but Lowell had a dinner date, so he sent me instead.
While I was writing this profile, Lowell obsessed over Sherry’s humiliating rejection, which she had, of course, shared with our secretaries. To punish her and end the buzz that accompanied her messenger visits, he fired her father. We were Frank’s biggest account; trying to change Lowell’s mind, he reminded him of past favors, including several weekends that he’d allowed Lowell and various girlfriends to use his hideaway beach cabin. Frank also mentioned my school project; he’d never billed me for the type.
Lowell ignored him and hired a new typesetter.
When my profile was published, Ken was so pleased that he asked our CEO to promote me. The editor-in-chief of his company’s magazine, a rival of Travel & Leisure, was old, ailing and due to retire. Ken wanted me to come over, and after a six-month apprenticeship, take over for him. I’d get a small pay raise immediately and a big one when I became editor.
This was a terrific break: a leap from the employee communications backwater to the glamorous cosmos of a consumer travel publication.
Lowell was furious. The next day he berated me for misspelling a name, the sort of trivial error that we’d both made and that HR always caught. “If you spent less time perusing dictionaries, maybe you’d have time to check names,” he growled.
He’d never forgiven me for revealing his ignorant pretentiousness!
“That’s hardly fair, Lowell,” I replied. “I’m writing almost the whole magazine now, and —“
“You’re not a captain now,” he said, seething. “I tell you what’s fair.”
I saw then that bossing me around compensated Lowell for the indignity of having had to take orders from men like me while he was in the Army.
Then Lowell bypassed Richard, went to the CEO and demanded that Ken interview him for the position I’d been offered.
He got his interview. But Ken still wanted me.
Two days before I was scheduled to start, however, while working on a special issue commemorating the tenth anniversary of our Australian division, Richard sent for me. He shut his office door behind me.
“I’m sorry about this,” he said. “Lowell went directly to the Legal Department, so there’s nothing I can do.”
I had no idea what he was talking about.
“You accepted a vendor’s gratuity worth over $20,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s grounds for termination,” he said.
“What exactly did I do?” I asked.
“Typesetting. Some kind of fancy résumé you were having printed. So you were planning on leaving anyway?”
“That was for my graphic design class. Frank said he’d bill me.”
“It’s out of my hands,” said Richard. “Sorry.”
“What about my promotion? I was supposed to go to work for Ken.”
“Out of the question,” said Richard.
I was in shock. A security guard escorted me from the building.
At home I found a message on my answering machine: Jim, another company VP, was appalled at what happened. He’d found me a job with a competitor. The new position was considered management, offered a flexible schedule and paid much more than my former one. The only downside was a 75-mile daily commute.
I took it, of course.
A week later Lowell left a message on my machine: He, too, had been sacked. That was all — no explanation, no apology.
Then Richard left a message. I ignored it until he called twice more and begged me to meet him that night.
He got right to the point: “The special Australia issue — it’s imperative that we publish on schedule,” he said.
“I have a new job,” I said. “Staff of four, expense account, managerial title and much more money than I was making.”
“Can you work nights for us? Put out one magazine? And hire a new staff?”
“I accepted a vendor’s $20 gratuity. How could you trust me?”
“Our mistake,” he said. “But you’re the only one — and if you don’t, the Australians —”
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You break my sword over your knee, cut the buttons off my tunic, pour out my canteen and chase my camel into the desert – and now you want to say, ‘oops’?”
“What’s it going to cost?” he said.
I thought about my long daily commute and my plan to start night school full time. I’d need a new car soon.
So I worked double shifts for a month, including weekends, to put out the Australia issue, and hired two friends to replace Lowell and me.
In return, my former employers bought me a new car.
Lowell vanished from my life. But more than 20 years later, by chance, I encountered the woman who actually took the job that Ken had offered me and that Lowell so desperately wanted. She’d spent three years as an apprentice editor at a beggar’s wages before she quit.
“The editor was old and sick,” she said. “But he was never going to retire. He wanted to be carried out on his shield.”
Despite his perverse intentions, his pretensions and his inflated opinion of his own talents, it seems that Lowell’s intervention saved me from a depressing career detour; getting fired put me on the right path.
All these years later, I remain in his debt.
© 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.