Chapter 8 – Riding With the Devil Part 2
In a way, the drive back from DC was worse than the ride there and the five hours I spent boiling in his car. This wasn’t because something horrible happened on the way back. No. The ride back was worse because it gave me hope, which at SeaShel Productions, was much worse for my long-term well-being than merely being yelled at, or fearing for my life while Sean Etin recklessly bruised his way down the road. Even being stuck in the man’s car, not being allowed to use his air conditioner in near deadly heat for five hours had no long-term detrimental effects (that I know of…). No, the great carcinogen in an environment where misery is reality and all good things are will-o’-the-wisps is hope that things will improve.
Of course, when Sean Etin first came back to the car, I was still burning with rage and absorbed heat, having just minutes before learned that what I thought was an important business meeting that kept me locked in his car for five hours ended up being a dentist’s appointment. For some reason, one which I still can’t fully explain, I was willing to “take one for the team” (even though I hated the team I was on…)if it meant something positive for the company, but the fact that Sean Etin was wasting my time and putting me in bodily harm for his personal business filled me with palpable anger, which I could taste in the back of my mouth and caused my vision to blur. (The anger I felt when I was forced to perform these personal tasks comes into play in later stories to a much larger degree … so look forward to that …).
“Well, that was hell,” Sean Etin said, getting into the car and turning on the ignition. “They pumped me full of pain killers, but I think I’m good to drive.” I was happy to hear him say that, as I did not want to do anything for this man and honestly did not trust myself to hold his life in my hands by driving him home. I didn’t respond. He peeled out of his illegally parked spot and began driving out of DC. As opposed to the ride there, and all the other times I was a passenger in his car, I didn’t fear for my life. The sun had fried my brain and my anger supplanted my survival instincts. I was no longer clutching the upholstery of the passenger seat, or darting my eyes back and forth for signs of oncoming collisions. It just didn’t matter. All that mattered was rage.
I think that Sean Etin sensed my anger, because after a few minutes of driving in silence, he said to me, “the reason why I had you come with me today was so I could talk to you.”
“You fucking liar. The reason why you brought me here is so I could wait in your car of your illegally parked spot, you selfish pig,” I thought to myself. “Yeah?” I said.
“Yeah. I want to know what you think we could be doing to make this company more productive. Things just aren’t getting done and time is fast approaching when we’ll be making the move from being a startup to a real corporation. You’re my only employee with actual experience in children’s cartoons with your work at Sunbow. What do you think we need to change around here?”
I was shocked. In all the photocopying, driving his children, moving boxes around, caring for the company chameleon and all of the other piddling tasks that took up my days at SeaShel, I thought he had forgotten that I had actual experience in the field of his business, and that everyone else that worked there didn’t. I was beginning to forget myself …
“I, uhh… there are a number of things that I think can make the company more productive.” I thought back to my time at Sunbow Entertainment. Things weren’t perfect there, but things were so much less chaotic. I told him about the bi-weekly development meetings and the general accountability that people had for each project. I told him how they utilized interns and diversified their creative slate by constantly scouting for new projects.
As Sean pulled over for gas, he said to me, “You know, the things you’ve been saying are dead on. I’ve been telling Flo to get us some interns for over a year. I have no idea why she hasn’t gotten on it. But look – if you’re willing to take the bull by the horns, you can spearhead all of the initiatives you mentioned.
“Okay. That sounds good,” I said, actually meaning it. The prospect of doing real work excited me. Seeds of hope, long since buried and seemingly asphyxiated in the untillable soil that was my job, began to sprout, seeking out the surface for sunlight, water and air. I felt that the worst of my job was over – that the five hours baking in his car turned me to dust and from the ashes, I was reborn with a fresh start. I felt energized and, for the first time since I began working at SeaShel, was excited about coming in the next day.
When we returned to his house and I got into my car to go home, I found that I was no longer angry about my tortuous day (in fact, I was already finding it kind of funny). I didn’t mind the fact that we had returned over an hour after work was supposed to end (which really just meant that the rest of my co-workers got to leave on time, since if he were actually at the office at six o’clock, there was a good chance he would have us all stay late anyway) and I didn’t mind that Sean skimped out on treating me to lunch like he had promised. I didn’t even choke my usual mixture of revulsion and amusement when Sean told me about his ‘other’ idea (‘idea’ should probably be in quotes too …) for a show – an animated series of Romeo and Juliet, but with the Montagues as dogs and the Capulets as cats (or, as I believe he called them ‘Catulets’) – which ranks, now that I can think more clearly, as the worst show idea I’ve ever heard in my life. I was just excited to implement the plans we had talked about.
The next day, I found that my excitement had not abated. I came in to work and immediately wrote two emails. The first one was to Flo, stating that I wanted to meet with her regarding the possibility of getting interns through the local colleges. The second email was addressed to Joel and regarded the implementation of creative meetings. I knew there was a chance that Joel, whose draconian mind was convinced I was after his job, could interpret this email as overstepping my bounds, so I was very careful in what I wrote. I constructed it as submissively as I could, and tried to make two points crystal clear – that he would be in charge of the meetings and that the request for these meetings came directly from Sean Etin.
Finishing my emails, I next went about mapping the planned creative meetings. I thought of the different subjects we could go over during the meetings. The only actual creative property SeaShel ever seemed to work on was the atrocious Googles From Goop, but there were a lot of different projects in the works milking this horror of an idea. In the time I had worked there, I heard many, many projects mentioned in passing – a new music album, a cartoon show, a live-action show, a live show (possibly on ice), a web-only show, an interactive children’s website, video games, children’s books, novellas and, of course, the assorted merchandise and advertisement tie-ins (who wouldn’t want Googles American cheese?) Joel was in charge of overseeing all of these projects, and I knew the progressions of none of them. I wrote these projects down as a list, making room under each topic for writing notes. The idea for creative meetings would be very simple. The creative staff would get together for fifteen minutes or so, every two weeks, and we’d simply go down the list, marking the progress of each project. I also made space for new projects, hoping that someone would pitch an idea that would steer us away from the Googles and on to a project that doesn’t make me imagine toddlers burning their TVs in protest. I would even settle for astoundingly bad, but hilariously entertaining show ideas. I imagined Sean Etin pitching his Romeo-and-Juliet-as-cats-and-dogs idea and the rest of us trying, for the sake of our jobs, not to burst out laughing. I imagined, after meetings like this, having a second meeting, this time just my friends at work, on the basketball court during our lunch hour, making fun of the bad ideas of our employers. “If you liked my Romeo and Juliet idea, you’ll love this!” I imagined one of us saying, imitating Sean Etin. “It’s an episodic show about the Titanic, only – get this – with dolphins instead of people!”
A flashing icon on my computer snapped me out of my (kind of lame) daydream. I had a new email. I was half-expecting this. A letter from Joel, stating I had no authority to organize a meeting like this – that my experiences at Sunbow means nothing here and that, in between the lines, there was no way I was going to take his job or tell him how to do it. “Try to stop me, asshole,” I thought to myself as I clicked open my email program. The devil himself (Sean) was behind me, and Joel, for all his slimy, bullying, conniving ways, did not want to tangle with a more powerful, smarter and more underhanded version of himself.
The email wasn’t from Joel, though. It was from Flo. I opened the email. Like all of her emails (and, really, everything she did in the office), this letter was professional and to the point. The content, however, surprised me. It read:
“Danny – You do not ask to have a meeting with me. You request it. I am a senior level employee and certain protocols must be adhered to. Please keep this in mind for future reference. – Flo.”
In thinking about my plans on changing the company and the best way to deal with Joel, I did not give any consideration to Flo. I checked the email I sent to her and, sure enough, I didn’t request a meeting. I worded it as “I’d like to meet with you about …” Flo was the one member of the senior staff that I did not want to disappoint. As opposed to Sean and Joel, she didn’t delegate by intimidation and bluster. She was professional. I didn’t know whether or not she liked me as a person (I heard rumors that she was one of the people most put off by my student films (see Chapter 2)), but she always treated me with respect. Over half of the work that came my way was under her jurisdiction, and I would have wished her to by my sole boss if not for the fact that her tasks were always clerical, always mind-numbingly boring and not at all related to my interests or skill sets. Plus, if there was a way to be bad at photocopying or collating, I somehow managed to find it …
Flo was an interesting lady. She was a Southern Dame. A lady of the land. She rode horses and went on a vacation to small towns in Canada to take in various rodeos. She spoke in a heavy Southern twang, and had a propensity for saying colorful colloquialisms like “this is stickier than fly paper in a glue factory” (that was one I made up. Hers were better …). It shocked me when I later found out she grew up mere miles from where I did, because even though Maryland is technically below the Mason-Dixon line, I didn’t know a single person who spoke with a Southern accent or considered themselves to be a Southerner. She was petite and in shape for a lady of about fifty, with cropped brown hair and beady, squinty eyes. Though she never complained, there was an air of frantic stress about her, but because she was always so professional, she would never say what was bothering her – which I always assumed, due to the nature of her job as Office Manager, was her having to deal with Sean Etin more than everyone else. She also never talked about politics or religion, but I could tell she had strong Republican leanings and was devoutly Christian. Because she never pestered people about religion and, from what little she revealed to me, acknowledged a high-and-mighty hypocrisy in some of the more fervent followers, I was never put off by this. She once told me at lunch that her ex-husband was extremely religious and a pillar of the community. “He’d go to church and was about as anti-abortion as you c’n get, but what do you think he asked for when he found out I was pregnant?” she’d ask. “A cigar?” I responded, being a smart-ass. I sometimes wondered how she felt working for a Jew, but I later found out that before she had this job, she worked for a Jewish non-profit. She was also, at one point, a cop. Like I wrote – an interesting lady.
I hit the reply button on my computer. I wanted to patch things up with Flo as soon as possible. This was a simple misunderstanding that came out of careless writing – though, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed that her response was uncharacteristic of her and a little bit petty. It smelt of a power-trip, which wouldn’t have been so surprising if it had come from Sean (though his response would have been more explicitly cruel) or Joel (his would have been less professional and coherent). Maybe I didn’t understand Flo after all, but I still didn’t want her to be angry with me. I wrote, “Flo – Please excuse the careless writing in my last email. I did not mean to put your authority into question and I will be more careful in my choice of wording in the future.”
With that done, I tried to concentrate on the sweeping changes I was planning to make, but before I could get too far into my fantasy, Joel came out of the senior staff room and into the hallway where I worked.
“Danny,” he told me, “you need to do more stickers.”
“Oh God no,” I thought.
On the first day I worked at SeaShel, I spent most of the day ‘doing stickers.’ The employees at SeaShel, before I started working there, printed out a bunch of colorful, four-page advertisement booklets for, say, when they had a booth at a children’s industry convention and wanted to give out a short, punchy keepsake of who they are and what they do. Since their only property was the Googles From Goop, most of the pamphlet was about that. But, the back page enthusiastically promised work on many other colorful characters and creative properties – the Frizzles from Flooze, the Woozles from Wooze, the Floogles and other similar-sounding names that I never once heard anyone ever mention at work and just assumed didn’t exist. The only problem was that one of the names was already copy written by someone else and had to be taken out. Apparently, at this point, thousands of booklets were already printed and instead of throwing them away, they decided to make sheets of one-page corrections that needed to be cut to the right size and pasted onto the pamphlet in a way that made it look like the original page. So, the original back of the pamphlet, which read like this:
“The Googles™ will soon be joined by a whole stable of other, colorful characters kids will love – including the Frizzles from Flooze, the Woozles from Wooze and the Floogles – a wacky group of aliens who are truly out of this world!”
Was changed to this:
“The Googles™ will soon be joined by a whole stable of other, colorful characters kids will love – including the Frizzles from Flooze, the Wozzles from Wooze and a wacky group of aliens who are truly out of this world!”
Yes – they got rod of the potentially troublesome name and didn’t replace it with anything else. Yes – they kept the description of the characters that they removed. Yes – it’s stupid, but I didn’t bring it up with Joel because by the time I noticed the stupid, stupid sentence, I had already changed over 100 pamphlets and didn’t want to redo them. ‘Doing stickers’ was an extremely horrible task and the less I did it, the better. It involved grabbing a pile of long, glossy sheets of paper, which had eight ‘corrected’ copies of the last page printed on them and carefully cutting each out. If the cuts weren’t exact, they had to be thrown out. The next step was applying glue from an aerosol adhesive spray can. The can shot a toxic spray of aerosol chemicals and glue particles. I would turn over each cut out sheet and evenly spray the backs with the glue spray. I then carefully put the glued sheet to the offending page in a way that made it look like it was a part of the original booklet. Because the sheets of paper were so numerous and delicate, and could not risk being blown by the wind or sullied in the dirt, I had to use this glue spray indoors, by an open window of the kitchen. My fingers would be caked with glue that wouldn’t come off until I shed a week’s worth of skin, and the fumes would make me headachy and dizzy. Though I was not asked to do this often, I was still the only person who was ever told to perform this task. I hated it.
“How many do I have to do, Joel?”
“Sean said we need ten thousand.”
The process of ‘doing stickers’ is extremely slow and profoundly boring. That, exacerbated by the fact that I can’t ‘do stickers’ any time anybody else needs to use the kitchen (because it’s bad for their health …) means that, if I’m lucky (and I use that term loosely), I can do about one hundred stickers a day. That means it would take me one hundred full work days to get this done. I don’t know how much they think they saved by reprinting only one page of the pamphlet, but I’m pretty sure that it was not equal to one third of my yearly paycheck. I needed to change the subject.
“Joel, did you get my email?”
“No. I’ll read it later.” And with that, he walked away.
There was simply no way I was going to spend my time ‘doing stickers’ on the day I was charged with fixing the company. To pacify Joel – to show him that I still respect his authority (even though I didn’t), I decided to ‘do stickers’ for an hour. So, I went into the kitchen to pay my sacrifice to the god of office politics …
I was just finishing up my hour of ‘doing stickers’ when Rita, another senior staff member (and little sister to Sean Etin) came in to the kitchen.
“The chameleon looks hungry,” she said.
Another task that I, and only I, was asked to do was feed the office chameleon. I had to feed it because the thought of feeding disgusting-looking creatures alive to another disgusting-looking creature was icky to my fellow employees. It was icky for me too – but when I noticed that absolutely nobody else fed it and it would literally get as thin as my finger, not to mention turn a sickly yellow color, it became one of my regular job tasks. I was also in charge of going out and getting food for the chameleon. This usually consisted of going to the pet store and having an employee there scoop crickets from a crate to a plastic bag like they were bulk food to be weighed by the pound. Occasionally, for the sake of variation, I was asked to purchase super-worms. Super-worms were like regular worms, only more disgusting. They were shorter and fatter than regular worms and jet black. (Apparently they are not worms at all, but actually some kind of gigantic beetle larvae given a snappy new name by some marketing genius …) The reason I was given for not feeding the chameleon super-worms too often was that if the chameleon was not careful, the super-worms would try to eat his eyeballs. Not that I needed an excuse for not buying super-worms. Those things grossed me out big time.
The ‘creature’ (as I simply called the chameleon) was totally out of ‘food.’ I was actually going to go to the pet store the day before, but got side-tracked (and heat stroke) by my adventure in Sean Etin’s car.
“So go to the store and get food for the thing,” (which I guess is what Rita called it).
I didn’t know much about Rita, beyond the fact that she was Sean Etin’s sister. She looked to be in her early forties and, like Sean, was ‘big-boned.’ By that, I mean she is the kind of person who, if she lost the weight she probably wanted to, she would look grotesque and diametrically opposed to the nature of her being. Her large bone structure simply needed meat around it. She was fairly tall for a woman (perhaps five foot nine or ten), had shoulder length, blond hair and always wore heavy, dark mascara around her eyes. Her main feature, though, was her expressions, which were always dour and a little malicious (this was probably a family trait). When I first started working at SeaShel, she seemed to regard me especially coldly and was a part of the meeting in which I was accused to being a rapist (again, see Chapter 2). Since then, she never did anything to make me have any feelings for her one way or the other, but we never engaged each other in pleasantries and the great majority of our conversations began and ended with ‘hello.’ She seemed to be good friends with Joel, which put her in the category of ‘enemy,’ but on the other hand, she was the only member of the staff who would stand up to Sean. During his long-winded, meandering, I’m-keeping-everyone-that-works-for-me-here-late-because-I’m-on-a-total-power-trip speeches that he would often stage, Rita would be the one to try and break it up. “Sean, we want to go home,” she would say. Sean would usually counter with something cruel, like, “Why? What do you have to go home to, huh? When was the last time you were even on a date?” To which Rita would respond, “if we’re staying, then I get to tell everybody about summer camp in 1972. Remember, I have dirt on you.” This back-and-forth had a kind of nasty naturalness that can be found between a brother and sister, but I honestly couldn’t tell if they liked each other or not.
Rita was the head (and only member) of the HR department and had no jurisdiction over my day-to-day activities – but, she was a senior staff member and if she ordered me to do something, I had to do it. So, I left to pick up crickets from the pet store.
“This is exactly why we need interns in the first place! I can’t keep doing this shit!” I fumed to myself as I thought back on my last two job tasks. I powdered the crickets with some sort of flour-like nutrition supplement and dumped them into the creature’s cage. I then checked my email. Joel still hadn’t gotten back to me, but I had a new email from Flo. It read: “I am free to meet with you at 4:00. Be prepared to discuss interns with me in the kitchen. – Flo.”
Since nobody but Sean Etin had a private office, all private meetings were held in the office kitchen with the door closed. My job interview was held in that kitchen. That should have been my first hint that this was not a professional company …
At 4:00, I was sitting in the kitchen, waiting for Flo. I had done my research, looking up all of the area schools and the contact information for their internship departments. When Flo came in, I quickly told her about my conversation with Sean Etin the day before, and ran through some of the universities I thought would be the best to get interns from. “I figure we could have an administrative intern, and entertainment intern and maybe even an intern for legal. We could even have multiple interns for each department, since they’d only be working 10–20 hours a week.”
Flo listened to my presentation without word. After I was finished, she stayed silent for a moment and narrowed her tiny eyes as if to gather her thoughts. Finally, she spoke.
“You know, Sean asked me to get interns a long time ago.”
“Yeah, he mentioned that.”
“I never did, because …” she paused. “It just wouldn’t be fair to them. First of all, where would we put them? I mean, we already have you working out of the hallway. More importantly, the kind of work we’d be asking them to do, the office environment, the nature of a start-up, Sean’s managerial style … well, let me put it this way – if you were still in school and you interned here, how would you feel?”
I thought about it. If this were my very first job, and I thought that all work was like this, AND I didn’t get paid for it, I think I’d spend all my money on lottery tickets and if I didn’t win, jump in front of a bus.
She continued. “You and I get paid for being here, but they’d be working for free.”
“Actually,” I interjected, “they’d be paying to work here, since they have to pay their school for each credit they ‘earn’ here.”
“There you go, then.”
It was weird. I think I wanted an intern as much as Sean did. Of course, not for the same reasons – he wanted someone to take his abuse without having to pay him or her for it, and I wanted someone else to be the office bitch – but for this brief moment, he and I were on the same page. It disgusted me. Of course it wouldn’t be fair for an intern to work here …
“So, what do I tell Sean?” I asked.
“You don’t tell him anything. He shouldn’t have put this project on you to begin with. I’ll take care of it.”
Flo then looked over my shoulder. I turned around in my chair. Joel and Rita were standing in the doorway.
“You done with him yet, Flo?” Joel asked.
“I suppose so.”
Joel and Rita came in and Joel sat down next to me. He held a piece of paper in his hand, tick-marked with numerous little highlighter swatches.
“Danny, we need to have a talk.”
“Oh God,” I thought.
“This place is a team,” Joel explained to me.
Silence. He expected a response. “Okay.”
“And in order to survive here, you need to be a team player.”
“I am a team player.”
“A team player wouldn’t have written this.”
He put the damning evidence on the table. It was a printout of my email, with each time I used the word “I” highlighted.
In my efforts to be as submissive as possible, I littered the email with phrases like, “I was wondering” and “I wanted to ask you.”
“Look at how many times you used “I” in this letter,” he ordered.
I looked. It was disproportionally high, compared to some other letters, like ‘q’ and ‘z,’ but, I felt, not high enough for a sane person to bring attention to it.
“You’re … kidding, right?” I asked, knowing full well he wasn’t.
“If you want to survive here, you’re going to have to learn that this isn’t all about you,” he told me.
“This isn’t all about me! Look at the letter and ignore the ‘I’s. Look what it’s about! It’s asking for biweekly progress meetings so everybody is on the same page. It’s for strengthening the team. The very idea that I – Look,” I said, trying to cut to the heart of the topic, “I want to make this absolutely clear – this was NOT some mad power-grab by me. I’m not gunning after anyone’s job. I’m just trying to do my own. These tasks I was given came straight from Sean. He wants these things done, and he’s the boss.”
“Sometimes, Sean doesn’t know what’s best for the company.” I turned my head, shocked that those words came from Flo.
“You can say that again,” Rita said.
“You see, Danny,” Flo said, “Sean is the idea man, but when it comes to the day-to-day stuff he’s – “
“Insane,” Rita added. “And we don’t need someone reporting every little thing we do to him or we’ll go insane.”
My intern plan was already shattered, but the creative meetings – the only way I could think of to find out what this company was actually doing, and have a chance of using my experience and skills and do something that was worthwhile – this I was willing to fight for. “I’m not going to be some kind of spy for Sean. I’m not going to be his – “
“Gestapo,” Rita said.
Did she just call me a Nazi? I tried to move on. “Having creative meetings is a good idea. We did this at my old company. It works. People get together, find out what everyone is doing, and come up with new ideas. I really think that if we give it a chance, it will be really good for us.”
“We DID give it a chance,” Joel said. “Before you came here. It didn’t work.”
“Well, maybe you didn’t do it right.” The words escaped before I had a chance to stop it. “What I meant to say, is that I have experience in these kinds of things, and I really think I can make it work.”
I then played the last card I had. “But, I’m a team player. If you guys don’t want to do this, who am I to say we will?”
“Good to hear,” Joel said. “We’re not doing it.”
And with that, my hopes of changing the company into a tolerable work environment came to a puttering end. It took less than a day. The phoenix, which had risen from the ashes in Sean Etin’s car, was immediately shot, bludgeoned, eviscerated, burned with acid, chopped up into a million pieces, and scattered across the vast reaches of outer space. It would not be returning again. I knew then that no matter what I did to improve my chances at happiness, this job would make me totally miserable. I was there for not quite three months at this point. In a little more than a week, I would have medical and dental insurance. “Take advantage of them like they do to you,” I thought to myself. “Don’t do anything stupid. Get a checkup. Go to the dentist. Find a new job. Then walk away.”
Clarity washed over me. I looked at Flo, Joel and Rita. I felt like I finally understood them. They hated Sean Etin like I hated him. They hated me like I hated them (actually, I didn’t hate Flo …). We were all very much alike – trying to find comfort and stability in an uncomfortable and unstable place. The major difference between us was that they had found a measure of comfort with their jobs, and they weren’t going to give up an inch of it for me. Not if it meant more work. Not if it meant more Sean Etin. Not if it meant a change in their habits. Not if, in the case of Joel and Rita, it could possibly reveal that they did nothing to earn their paycheck. This, to them, wasn’t about making the company better. They couldn’t give a rat’s ass about the progress about the company. It was about making their lives easier and a steady income.
“It’s six o’clock,” I said. “May I go?”
I stood up and walked out of the house and to my car. After being triple-teamed by the senior staff and having my hopes for improving the company dashed, my thoughts turned to how things would resolve themselves with Sean Etin. A smile surprisingly crept across my face when I realized I didn’t care. I didn’t care about anything.