Ever since that Jet Blue flight attendant screamed at a passenger, grabbed a beer and flew out the emergency chute, I’ve been in a state of decline. I realize that — even though I’ve held a variety of jobs, ranging from the tedious to the exciting, from the enjoyable to the deeply miserable — I have never once quit a job in a dramatic or memorable way. No, not me. Over and over, I’ve calmly given two weeks’ notice, smiled cheerfully, exited quietly.
Good grief. Am I completely lacking in flair?
Once — just once — I contemplated a dramatic exit. I was working as a legal secretary in St. Petersburg, Florida, for a small law firm. The managing partner was short, combative, aggressive, over-weeningly self-assured. A trial lawyer, in other words; a sexist little prick. Let’s call him Mr. Earle, since that was his name. Mr. Earle had one trait in common with bad bosses everywhere: When he was frustrated (which was often), he always found someone to blame.
So, there I was, with my recent college degree in comparative literature, bored out of my mind, a little slipshod, borderline resentful, working at a job I could do so quickly I ended up devoting my spare time to reading the great Russian novelists. I never said I was perfect, but I was usually awake when I wasn’t engrossed in The Brothers Karamazov. And I usually showed up.
I worked directly for another lawyer in the firm, Mr. Rose. Mr. Rose was charming and disorganized, the kind of guy who left a wake of flying debris behind him. In choosing a secretary, he would have done well to select someone who made up for his imperfections — a disciplined, Teutonic, highly organized type who lived to file, follow directions and create order out of chaos. Not me, a 23-year-old, creator of her own chaos, her mind on anything but a bunch of middle-aged bozos with J.D.’s on their walls and preening self-importance.
One day, Mr. Rose had left town, throwing some case or another in Mr. Earle’s direction. Mr. Earle barreled out of his office, red-faced and screaming. A highly important letter was missing from the file! Where was it? He had to have it immediately!
I laid my novel down, careful to mark the page. (Oblomov! What a great book!) Then I followed the screeching little pygmy into Mr. Rose’s office, where he flew through stacks of papers and piles of books, gyrating from one side of the room to the other, growing more and more incoherent and furious. Where was that letter?
Hell if I knew. But I looked around, too, vaguely scratching here and there, trying to look concerned, shaking my head, getting screamed at for being responsible for the whole damned mess. I had no idea why I’d gone to college in the first place, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t to get yelled at by some out-of-control hothead who was barely five feet tall. Also, I had very little experience being screamed at; in my family, we sulked, we moped, we implied, we buried insults like land mines, but we did not yell.
Standing there, towering over Mr. Earle, I had suddenly had enough. One more insult in my direction and I was going to drop the pile of papers in my hands and walk out of the office and quit. I had made up my mind and I could hardly wait.
I paused, but Mr. Earle didn’t cooperate. He strode out of the office silently, clearly fuming, but not yelling. I stood there, with the papers in my hands, flummoxed. Now what?
I went back to my desk, listening to Mr. Earle screaming on the phone to somebody. I felt oddly deflated. I think I intuitively knew I had missed the last time in my life when I could make a dramatic workplace exit that wouldn’t cost me much. Just like that — the opportunity was gone and it was never coming back.
I look back on this story, 38 years later, and I don’t see it in the same light I did when I was 23. I wasn’t the pure, helpless victim I thought I was then; the situation was a little more complicated than that. I was lazy and entitled, I now realize. But even lazy, entitled people can learn. I had all kinds of faults — but, since that year as a secretary, I never bullied or berated a secretary, waiter or any other person who worked under me.
I like the departing flight attendant’s panache, but some of us just aren’t made for that. We return to our desks, finish our Russian novels, and quit a few months later after our usual two weeks’ notice. If we’re thinking, Sayonara, suckers!, we just keep it to ourselves.
(Copyright 2010 by Ruth Pennebaker)
Please! Read one of my favorite posts about the worst job I ever had in my life