Why Didn’t I Jump?

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

16 comments… add one
  • Sherrie Marston Link

    I seem to remember someone coming to my door at Su Casa offering to take my daughter and me to lunch because she had just quit, law review. Does that count, because I was terrible impressed!

  • Pulling up your blog always guarantees a great read, Ruth, so thank you!  It’s hard to deal with abuse in the work situation, and have the guts to leave on the spot, young or old.  You have described this so well.  And, I loved the “entitled” touch. So true!

  • I hope they don’t give that poor bloke years in jail.  (He made the main evening news in the UK too, but they tell us he faces a heavy sentence.)

  • “I never bullied or berated a secretary, waiter or any other person who worked under me.”
    I cleaned houses in college and also worked in a bookstore. I too make it a policy to be respectful and kind as much as I can (maybe to a fault?) I think this also goes for homeless people–I try to make eye contact and notice them, instead of acting like they don’t exist.
    All that said, I NEVER want the experience of jumping off a plane, thank you very much!

  • So many people wish they could have done what this flight attendant did. And they all needed a hero to worship doing something that they didn’t dare. Now it turns out his story was all a hoax. Ach. No matter. I still like to fantasize that I would have been able to scream and yell and then make a dramatic exit.

  • It’s probably better that this sort of thing remains a fantasy for most of us. Just imagine the referral check after such an exit? Although the Jet Blue person will probably get a reality show and book deal out of it….

  • What, Sheryl, the story is a hoax? Say it aint so.
    Must have missed that follow up story while floating down the river on va-ca, no beer in hand, no shute to jump down, no yelling at former customers or employers.
    Like you Ruth, I’ve done my share of mundane jobs — cleaned peoples toilets, wiped kids bums, sold clothing to gals who didn’t need any more gear and cream buns to others who should have known better.
    Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I often find the stories of the people who do so-called menial work — like the lovely Ethiopian woman who cares for the elderly man who lives behind me — more compelling than those of the corporate high flyers. Since I’ve done these jobs myself I guess I feel an affinity for people who do such work and are often overlooked.
    Also, I’m with Jennifer: You will never find me willingly jumping out of a plane.

  • Best line — Let’s call him Mr. Earle, since that was his name.
    Ha! That made me laugh.

  • Many times I would have loved to have stormed out of a crappy job. I guess I just don’t have that much drama in me either.

  • Roxanne stole my line! I said the same thing.. I laughed right out loud when I read, “Let’s call him Mr. Earle, since that was his name.”
    I always love reading your blog. Always.

  • Ruth, a great story. I enjoyed how you got back at your screaming boss after all these years. Mr. Earle, indeed.

  • Yes! Panache! So sorely lacking from most job exits (and entrances too). I guess that’s why we all ended up as writers – so we can create the fantasy quitting scenario that none of us could ever pull off in real life.

  • I’ve had some pretty dramatic, ‘take-this-job-and-shove-it’ exits, some of them for lawyers. Felt darn good.
    However, my most dramatic exit wasn’t related to a job. It was when we were dealing with my husband’s medical issues at the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor a few years back.
    Oh, I got in a few doctors’ faces, but my favorite scene occurred when I was frustrated with the whole medical profession and wandered into Ann Arbor trying to decompress. A staff person at Middle Earth — a downtown store – was being inordinately rude to me, so I walked out and tipped over a card rack on my way out the door. Yeah, it was nice.  Sauron would have been proud of me.

  • When I resigned my position at a fortune 50 company several years ago, I had all of these fantasies of going out big. I plotted and planned and joked with my friends, running scenarios by them to see if they were dramatic enough, memorable enough. However, when the time came, I realized burning bridges probably wasn’t the best course of action even though I hated them and they hated me and we all hoped we’d never ever have to work together ever again.

  • I’m with Roxanne, your line about Mr. Earle…just great. I also liked the whole reference to him as a pygmy.
    So what’s the verdict? Was it a hoax? And I agree with Alisa, he’s getting a book deal for sure. I’ve already heard there are t-shirts in the works. Where’s Joe the Plumber to give him PR advice?

  • Did you send a copy of this to Mr. Earle? Would he even recognize himself. I once had a job with a guy who had no money to pay anyone for anything but kept buying expensive furniture, taking taxis, drinking champagne when he couldn’t afford Budweiser. I quit telling him I questioned his economic moral compass. He was actually surprised, this man who got upset when we ran to the bank to cash our paychecks just to be sure we had money, who told us we had health insurance and deducted money from our paychecks for it but never bought the insurance. It’s like he had no idea what he did was wrong. Never been so happy to leave the job for a freelancing life. That was 15 years ago.

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