I went this afternoon to Johnny Carino's with pos business partner Gene. It's funny what putting a face to a voice can do. We've been talking on and off for about two years now and Gene has the most wonderful voice, deep resonant, warm...I've never felt a need to guess at his appearance, I always feel prepared to like people endowed with nice speaking voices.
But something happens sometimes when one is suddenly able to match a face with a voice. This afternoon sitting across from an attractive man of a 'certain age', we were having reasonably pleasant conversation when something happened. The light hit him a certain way, or there was a particular expression which passed over his face and suddenly he reminded me of someone else. This person who, by simply picking up the phone, always managed to impart a sense safety and calm; suddenly reminded me of someone in my past who was the very model of insecurity and irrationality.
Nils and I worked in the same office. He was a person under pressure and, subject either to the trauma of a recent divorce or life-long insecurity, was quickly becoming unstable. I was working as a temp and Nils worked just under the VP who was head of our section. It was a very small department there were five of us closeted away in the back of the building in a small area divided into even more closet-like cubicles. Nils arrived a few weeks after I did, a welcome breath of testosterone in a heavily estrogenated environment.
He was warm and funny. And had the most wonderful voice, deep, resonant, warm. I realized that some of his good humor was showmanship and some of his magnanimity was bribery, and was aware of the tint of desperation which colored them both. However, that sort of thing mattered little to me, I'm often able to "see" these things in people; the weak and the strong, the good and the evil, the beautiful and the ugly, these contrasts are what make my fellow beings all the more awesome, a stained glass mosaic. I don't need people to be all one thing in order to feel safe, but I do need to know them. So I knew Nils and was prepared to like him very much, he was the Pied Piper. Wherever he was people gathered around, he was a one-man break room. It was fun. I didn't feel a need to join in with the crowd, I very much enjoyed observing, liked the way he altered the atmosphere.
Now that I think on it, though I couldn't have been more of a fan; to person who needed everyone to engage, to go along with him on his magic carpet ride; my withdrawal, though benign, must have seemed threatening...judging. At any rate, he made me a target.
I was only a temp after all, the perfect person with whom to vent his rage. The complimentary interest Nils showed when he first arrived (what was I reading, where I had been, what I had done, what did I want from life) now paid off in fuel and ammunition. It was all very jolly and 'hah, hah, all in good fun.' However the punchlines of his jokes began to pack an actual sting. He made a thing about his having a PhD and the fact that I never finished college. At first, I barely noticed. I'd never felt particularly sensitive about not having a degree, I always felt my intellectual worth was apparent to those who had need of it, and irrelevant to everyone else.
He used to do this variation of an old joke from Night Court which went, "You may be younger, you may be faster, you may even be smarter. But you will NEVER, EVER, be crazier... than me." Except that he would say, "You may be younger, you may be smarter, you may be better looking than I am..." And then he'd sort of trail off with a mock-sheepish expression and shrug his shoulders, as if to say, "Well, that's it."
On this particular day, he altered the joke slightly just for me, instead of the 'everyone join in on the fun' self-deprecatory punchline, he finished up with, "But I'm better educated.", his forefinger stabbing the air in front of me and then he walked away.In front of everyone in our department. Things went pretty much downhill from there. Nils was not consistently crabby or scornful, just sometimes, a couple of times a week, we'd be having a perfectly pleasant conversation, and then suddenly, there it would be, a dig about my lack of education, an allusion to what he imagined to be my lack of credit-worthiness (we worked in a financial institution) or general nastiness. But always cloaked in good humor or 'helpfulness'.
Everything was so out of balance and off-kilter, at that time anyway. The Columbine shootings had just happened and I spent most of that day in tears. For the first time there was nothing going on in my life that made me feel I was doing my bit for the world. I had a ridiculous job that meant nothing to anyone outside of the building. Financial need had forced me to drop out of the full time ministry work I valued so much. Here were these children, being gunned down in a place where they should have felt safe and there was no place I could go inside myself to mitigate the pain of that. All I could do was keep listening to the news reports, there was nothing I could do to help, except know.
Anyway, Nils. When people are mean or unjust, I simply declare war and think no more about them. But when they are sometimes one thing and sometimes something else, I have a hard time. I sense a struggle and I feel sympathy, plus I want to like them. I want them to be the sort of person they are striving for when they are behaving in an approximation of their best selves. It's harder for me to protect myself with the sort of weapons I would use against a consistent jerk. So between my own pre-existing fragility and his split personality, I just couldn't seem to go to red alert. No shields went up, no photon torpedos were armed. He'd just blast away from time to time and I'd take the hit.
I did find out later that he left not too long after I did (Can't remember whether he quit or was fired). According to my former co-worker, Jill his behavior became increasingly erratic. And the bullying tendencies which had been primarily aimed at me when I was there, were scatter shot a bit farther afield, aimed at far less vulnerable targets than a lowly temp. I think he was fired, or left just ahead of being fired ...or something.
It's strange, this was nearly five years ago and yet I still get a memory sense of that shaky, scared feeling one gets when being locked in a room with an unpredictable animal or walking a tightrope without a net.
And now that I've met Gene and that moment of fleeting recognition has come and gone, as much as I want to go back to my previous memory; that sense of comfort and safety, my Nils emotions have gotten a bit tangled up with my Gene emotions. I wonder what it was like for Gene to finally put a face to my voice. I wonder what happens next.
Tags: artistic activism, nonprofit, philanthropy, zine, artists, bakery of the poets, nostalgia, bullies, workplace, bully