I ran into Jeff only a few months later, on the music floor of the downtown library. He was dressed in full make-up, and had even managed to locate a polka-dotted suit and a pair of ridiculously oversized red clown shoes, but I knew it was him. He was preparing to put on a pair of headphones and listen to a record, when I spotted him from the other side of the room.
“Hey Jeff!” I exclaimed, delighted. I ran over to him, drawing irritated stares from a couple of other library patrons. Jeff did not rise from his chair to greet me. “Oh, hello” he said coolly.
“I’m leaving for Seattle in three days!” I said excitedly. “I got the money together for a one-way plane ticket, and I’m going to go live in this neighborhood called Capitol Hill. “
Jeff stared at the floor. “How nice for you” he muttered. I continued relentlessly: “How are you doing? Are you really still working for the Education Zone?”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I had made an awful mistake. “Well, of course I am!” Jeff snapped. He wheeled around in his chair, faced the turntable, and stared at it dejectedly. “Best of luck” he hissed. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”
Clearly, Jeff was embarrassed by my presence, and upset by the fact that I had been afforded an opportunity that he was too frightened to grasp. However, it was too late for me to offer much in the way of appeasement. Instead, I wished him luck and wandered out to the street, where I was immediately swallowed up by the rush-hour traffic.
Almost 30 years passed before I saw my old boss again. It was 2011, and I had recently moved back to Chicago, without really knowing why. Jeff was right, it was a difficult city to leave entirely. One afternoon, while perusing Craigslist, I discovered the following ad:
Fun job! People needed to teach a variety of classes at the Education Zone, including psychic development, yoga, tai chi, and low-fat cooking! New classes beginning soon. Teach classes for a fun, well-established company with a good clientele! Call today!
I dialled their number from my cell, and the woman who answered assured me that the original owner of the Education Zone was still running the place. I told her that I was well qualified to teach classes in Psychic Development, having built a successful practice as a tarot reader when I lived on the west coast.
“Oh, Richard will be happy to meet with you” the receptionist said. “The person who usually teaches the class was called away unexpectedly to Texas. Can you come in on Thursday to meet with Richard?”
I felt a morbid curiosity about my old adversary, so I agreed without hesitation. The receptionist gave me an address on Ashland Avenue. Clearly, Richard had moved to cheaper digs since his halcyon days on Rush Street. Two days later, I arrived at the office, dressed to the hilt, ten minutes ahead of schedule. My old boss was running behind; I could hear that familiar nasal voice loudly discussing the intricacies of professional bartending with two other men. I tried to peek into the office, but I couldn’t see him. I sat in the tiny, dark lobby and took in my surroundings. The vinyl-covered chairs were worn at the seams, and the antique tin ceiling sported numerous holes. The receptionist was dressed shabbily, as well, in a nondescript beige sweater with baggy jeans and ancient Ugg boots.
Half an hour later, just as I was about to give up in disgust, the office door opened and my old boss came out to greet me. “Sorry I’m late” he said. “Come into the office and have a seat.”
I was stunned by the squalor that greeted me inside the confines of his office. The floors were encrusted with dirt, in such copious amounts that the dirt had formed into solid piles in several places. Every raised surface was covered with paper. Several rusted filing cabinets disgorged additional paper onto the floor. I settled myself carefully into a chair. Richard smiled, and I saw that one of his front teeth was missing. He had aged no better than his office. His neck was red and puffy, although the rest of his skin was pale. The only aspect of his appearance that had not changed was his hair—it was still expertly feathered in a classic eighties style-dyed, combed and teased to within an inch of its life, and then sprayed into place. Richard placed a catalog into my hand. It was much smaller than I remembered, with tiny, pale photos and grainy font.
“Here’s a sample of all the classes we offer” he said. “We usually charge about thirty-nine bucks a class. Do you think that’s too much? If so, we can lower it.” He looked at me imploringly. “I’m sure you know these are rough economic times.”
It occurred to me that my remark to him about karma had been prescient, but try as I might, I could find no satisfaction in this. I assured him that thirty-nine dollars was a perfectly reasonable cost for three hours of my expertise, and he looked relieved. I simply couldn’t believe that I was looking at the same person who was going to bring the financial world to its knees during the eighties, when he was still an arrogant young man. What had happened to him was terrifying because it personified the economic collapse of an entire nation of arrogant young men and women, short-sighted and rapacious, suddenly faced with lack and the consequences of greed. I told him I would think about it. Standing up, I shook his hand.
“I look forward to working with you” he said. He smiled, showing the gap between his teeth.
“Nice seeing you again” I said, without thinking. He looked puzzled, and a bit sad, as though he hadn’t expected me to leave so rapidly.
“I mean, I’ll see you again, I’m sure” I said, inching towards the door. I wandered through the hallway, where a small group of job-seekers had gathered, waiting for their chance to speak to the boss, and I debated whether to warn them, then decided not to. Instead, I stepped out of the office and into the street, which suddenly seemed spacious and full of possibility.