Chapter One. In Which Ken
” as Preordained by a Starbucks
Employee, Fails to Materialize
“Have a really
Ken Connelly never treated himself to anything from Starbucks except on those rare occasions when he worked all three of his jobs on the same day, and this was one of those days. Ken started off in the morning as Professor Connelly, since his real job, as he liked to think of it, was as an adjunct professor of English at City College where he taught composition. He taught two different sections, which was enough to require his presence at City College almost every day of the week. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to qualify him for a permanent position on the faculty or for any kind of health insurance, which was too bad given that he’d started to develop a strange headache that appeared every time the words “faculty” and “meeting” passed into each other’s orbits and wound up anywhere near each other.
Job number two was at the reference desk in Cohen Library, the main library at City College. Taking that job had raised a few eyebrows in the English Department, but a person has to eat, and Ken’s two composition sections didn’t pay diddly–squat, so he applied and became a part–time reference librarian, sans benefits, naturally. Still, it was a pretty good gig because nobody ever asked the reference librarians for anything other than change for the photocopiers.
For eleven months out of the year, the job was entirely benign, the only exception being January when Sports Illustrated
released its Swimsuit Issue, which went directly from the cataloging service to the reference desk where, along with anything else that was likely to be stolen, you had to leave ID to borrow it. On some level it was a little amusing that Ken Connelly served as the gatekeeper to the Swimsuit Issue since he had relatively little interest in sports and absolutely no interest in photos of scantily clad women. Yes, the rumors were true—Professor Connelly was gay. Stage direction: gasp
Job number three was totally off–the–wall, but, for all its flaws, it paid better than the other two combined and
it provided benefits: Ken Connelly was a night proofreader at the law firm of Leighton, Fennell & Lowe. Leighton Fennell was one of those huge New York law firms that’s so big that they have everything: their own cafeteria; their own travel agency; a battalion of wordprocessors who typed away twenty–four hours a day, seven days a week downstairs in the basement; and, tucked away in a room just off Word Processing, a team of proofreaders.
The job of the proofreaders was to take documents that Word Processing had just finished and compare the new version with the old version to be sure that the word processors, who typed at warp speed and barely had time to breathe, let alone think, didn’t make any errors. Which is impossible, and which is why the firm employed proofreaders to go through the documents line by line, page by page, to catch stray errors and correct them. Occasionally an attorney would ask the proofreaders to read an entire document all on its own just to be sure there weren’t any mistakes in it, which was tedious, but nowhere near as bad as the attorneys who came downstairs to hover
and get in the way of anything ever getting finished. Generally speaking, though, the attorneys stayed upstairs in their own world, their canopy of treetops far above the jungle floor, where they could shriek and throw tantrums and fling feces at one another to their hearts’ content.
Ken got the job when he was still a starving PhD candidate up at Columbia, thinking, incorrectly, that he’d quit the minute he finished defending his thesis and he’d walk right out of Leighton Fennell’s door and right into a plum tenure–track position in some name–brand English department at a university that had a “faculty–only hour” three times a week in their glitteringly clean, Olympic–sized swimming pool. His lackluster brown hair would turn blond from the chlorine, and he’d trade in his otherwise unremarkable chest for a set of those “pectoral muscles” that suddenly seemed to be all the rage.
So all these years later, Ken was still going downtown to Leighton Fennell five evenings a week—five-thirty to midnight—where he’d pick up a project from the wire basket at the front counter as he came in, go over to his cubicle, and start proofing. Well, he’d start proofing after he adjusted the little photo frame on his desk. It was this nifty triangular Lucite photo frame that the day proofreader, Maeve, had bought, sort of as a joke, for all three people who shared that particular cubicle: day shift, swing shift, night shift. Each of them had a photo on his or her side of the triangle, and the whole thing spun around like a lazy Susan in a high–end Chinese restaurant. Ken twirled it around so that he could gaze, time permitting, upon the picture of Brett, his beloved.
Maeve wrote poetry and performed at open–mike nights all over New York, and the photo on her side of the frame was this very artsy, very dramatic shot of her and her poet boyfriend embracing. The photo for the graveyard shift showed this handsome guy and his equally handsome boyfriend who were flashing all fifty–six of their gleamingly white teeth. Hugged between them, there was a big, bouncy yellow Labrador, the kind of dog that gets to sleep in an expensive, L.L. Bean doggie bed.
And then one afternoon Ken came to work only to find that the boyfriend’s head had been covered up with a Post–it. That lasted for about a week until Ken came in and found that the Post–it—along with the boyfriend’s head—had disappeared altogether. And that
lasted for about a month before the dog got ripped out of the picture too, meaning that somewhere in Manhattan, a graveyard shift proofreader had just lost a gay, canine custody battle.
In any event, Ken arrived at work for the third time that day—the Friday of Labor Day weekend—and he swiveled the picture frame around so he could see Brett smiling at him from out at Jones Beach where they’d taken the photo, and then he got down to brass tacks. Or tried to, rather. Unfortunately, there was an almost palpable sense of tension coming from the bunkers in Word Processing and Ken guessed, correctly, that one of the lawyers had found his way downstairs to screw everything up. He went over to the counter at the front of the office to see what the deal was, and it wasn’t pretty.
Dina, the evening supervisor for both WP and Proofreading, was standing on one side of a cubicle, and Crayton Reed, ostrich–faced partner and asshole of truly pharaonic proportions, was standing on the other side. And in the middle, poor little Bonnie Grohs was trying to make sense of Crayton Reed’s pile of gibberish. Bonnie would finish a page of corrections, and as she took it off her little easel, Crayton would snatch it out of her hands and plunk himself down at the empty cubicle next to her and stare at it with his ostrich face and swear under his breath and then start re–changing things and trying to shove the paper back onto the easel. Crayton, it would seem, was about to wet his pants.
Apparently, they were working on a prospectus for an initial public offering worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which sounds complicated, but a prospectus is really just a description of what’s being put up for sale. Only it’s a description that’s several hundred pages long and written in terms carefully designed to say absolutely nothing.
Unfortunately, Crayton Reed had turned this relatively simple exercise into a long, slow, secretarial death march. He had crossed out huge parts and then changed his mind and jammed them back in. He had riders and attachments all over the place. He had clutter. And above all, he had horrible handwriting. He had horrendous handwriting. Plus he kept trying to read over Bonnie’s shoulder as she typed each letter, and when Dina chased him away, he’d pace around the room wringing his hands and screaming into the telephone at some group of junior nobodies whom he was apparently holding hostage upstairs in a conference room. He kept telling anyone who’d listen that the client was on a plane and she wanted this thing waiting for her when the plane landed. “Do you understand that? Do you understand what a plane is? Am I the only person here who is capable of grasping
the fact that the client
is on a plane
and that she is waiting
for this fucking document the second it lands
And then he spotted Ken. “What’s he doing?” he asked Dina, so Ken grabbed the first interoffice envelope out of the wire basket and beat it back to his cubicle. Only he didn’t even have time to open the envelope because Dina was suddenly right in front of him, taking it back out of his hands. “Sweetie,” she whispered, “don’t give me a hard time about this, but he doesn’t want you working on anything else. He wants you to be ready for his document when it comes out.”
?” Ken said.
“He doesn’t want you working on anything else. He wants you ready to proof the document the second
—that’s what he said—the second it comes out of the printer.”
“You’re kidding,” Ken said.
“Do I look like I’m kidding?”
“No, I guess you don’t,” Ken said. “But if you’re okay with me sitting here doing nothing, it’s definitely okay with me.”
Dina was in the middle of saying thanks and that she hoped it would all blow over soon enough when they suddenly heard the sound of a chair scraping against the floor in Word Processing followed by a sharply drawn breath, and then the sound of five separate, utterly distinct words: “Gee! Zus! Fuh! King! Christ!
“Gotta go!” Dina said, racing off.
As Bonnie worked her way through the pile of changes, Crayton made her start printing the earlier parts of the document so Ken could proof them in real time. Crayton conscripted one of his lowly associates from the conference room upstairs to come ferry the pages back and forth, which was a relief for everyone since the associate served as a much more convenient lightning rod for Crayton. “Is that what they taught you in law school?” Ken could hear Crayton shouting. “They taught you to be stupid? They teach Stupid 101 in law school these days?”
So Bonnie typed while Dina coaxed actual responses out of Crayton as to what his scribbling might possibly mean, and the lowly associate walked the pages over to Ken, who checked them, and then walked them back to Crayton, and in the end, they got it done and everything got back to normal.
Until one of the interoffice pages showed up at around nine o’clock, and instead of dumping his interoffice envelope into the little wire basket, he whispered something to Dina who pointed out Ken to him. He came over and handed Ken an envelope. “What’s this?” Ken asked.
“I don’t know, but Mr. Reed says I’m supposed to wait here for a reply.”
Inside there was a note from Crayton scrawled on a page of yellow legal paper. It said that the client had received the draft prospectus, no thanks to certain elements in this firm who remain steadfastly devoted to not
getting things done. But in any event, the client was pleased with the legal
analysis and the legal
services provided by Leighton, Fennell & Lowe; indeed, her only criticism was a particular sentence on page eighty–seven, which begins—quite incorrectly—with the word “and.”
“So why's he’s telling me this?” Ken thought.
“As a proofreader
”—the note went on, underlining the word “proofreader” twice—“it is your
responsibility to catch these kinds of errors before
they reach our clients. I am not prepared to tolerate your
dereliction of your
duties, particularly when they compromise our
clients’ interests.”Despite himself, Ken felt his face turning red. “Please see to it that this does not happen again,” the note finished.
He looked up at the interoffice page. “Is this some sort of joke?”
“And he’s waiting for a response?”
“That’s what he said.”
“There’s nothing to respond to,” Ken said. “He chewed me out and that’s that. Tell him that I got the note. No wait, tell him thanks
for the note. And then tell him I read it and that’s that.”
“There’s no way I’m getting involved,” the page said. “I’m not telling him nothing.”
“Oh, fine,” Ken said. He took the piece of yellow paper and flipped it over and wrote: “Dear Mr. Reed, I’m sorry the client wasn’t entirely satisfied with your draft prospectus. However, even sticklers for grammar are divided over the question as to whether it is necessarily incorrect to begin a sentence with the word ‘and.’ I hope that allays your concerns.”
“That's it?” the page said. He didn’t seem to relish the idea of going back upstairs to see Mr. Reed.
No more than ten minutes later, the lowly associate walked in, this time with a typewritten memo for Ken. “First of all,” Crayton wrote, “the client was dissatisfied with our
draft prospectus, not with my
draft prospectus. The sole error in that prospectus was a grammatical error and as our proofreader—or at least as someone who is paid
to sit there and act
as if he’s proofreading—you
should have corrected it. You did not, and when I pointed this out to you, you tried to sidestep the issue with the nonsensical argument that everyone’s
making that mistake these days.”
“Now don’t tell me,” Ken said. “Let me guess. He’s waiting for a response, right?”
“Yes he is.”
“I told you not to tell me,” Ken said, looking around for Dina. Unfortunately, she was upstairs out on the sidewalk teaching Bonnie how to smoke.
“Why doesn’t this jerk just go home?” Ken asked. “I mean, the prospectus is done, and whoever this client is—and she sounds like a real piece of work—she’s got to be happy because she pointed out only one ridiculous error, if you can even call it an error. Besides, all I do is check his changes; I don’t draft any of this stuff myself.”
But the associate just shrugged, so Ken turned the memo over and wrote: “Again, I’m sorry that the client was not satisfied. However, norms of usage can and do change.”
That held Crayton for all of five minutes, after which the lowly associate came back and handed Ken a memo that had “Formal Warning” typed onto the re: line and was copied to Dina, to the day supervisor, and to the head of personnel. It said: “The firm’s client has legitimately complained about your
use of the word ‘and’ to begin a sentence. This usage is incorrect. It has always been incorrect, it will always be incorrect, and any document that includes this error is unacceptable.”
Excerpted from Design Flaws of the Human Condition by Paul Schmidtberger. Copyright © 2007 by Paul Schmidtberger. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.