Headhunters: A Fifth Avenue Story
By R. D. Flavin

     Unemployment had just started getting interesting when I got the call. Sure, some guys might find it somewhat emasculating to fight over the choicest fruits and vegetables at the market with housewives and old women, but with my broad shoulders and long arms, I was getting quiet good at grabbing the firmest tomatoes and the ripest peppers. I was beginning to appreciate the minor and mundane of domestic chores. My cooking improved, the cat-box was cleaned on a regular basis, and my girlfriend was terribly close to a nervous breakdown, as she was working extra shifts just to make the rent and pay our bills.  Actually, SHE got the call for the temp-job, and gave it to me. So, to be fair, what follows ...is HER fault.  [Note: Ouch, I'm going to pay for that wisecrack!] 
     Karen, my girlfriend, is a gal-pal with this aspiring actress she's known since 
college. Now, in Gotham, the natural habitat and breeding ground for such creatures, to be an actress means working some hack job during the day and rehearsing/performing a role in a third-rate, going-no where, off-off-off Broadway play. Well, usually, that is... This gal-pal of Karen's got cast in a Yale production and was paid six hundred a week, plus free housing, and of course, got to use the same bathroom as the renowned Yale-alumna, Jodie Foster. A sweet deal, by all accounts, but she needed someone to take over her job for six or seven weeks. I heard the phone ring, vaguely followed the conversation, and nearly had a heart-attack when I heard Karen say, "I'll talk to my boyfriend about the job... I'm SURE he'll want to do it!" 
     The realization of what was ahead was sudden and merciless. I would say 
goodbye to unemployment and a life free of fashion, trading it in for a regimen of daily shaving, starched shirts, and jamming into subway-cars like so many french fries all trying to stand straight at the same time. It would mean a paycheck -- cash, green stuff, and legal tenderness. This last point was not lost on Karen, as she led me into the bedroom and convinced me that accepting this temp-job would be for the best. That's right, I'm THE VICTIM in this story, but you knew that already... 

     Forty-second Street crosses Fifth Avenue at one of the many "hearts" of Midtown Manhattan. The main branch, or the Humanities Center, of The New York Public Library is there, with its famous pair of cement lions guarding the gates of nowledge (or ogling passers by, who can say). NAT SHERMAN, the eminent "Tobacconist To The World" and home of the five dollar cigarette, proudly occupies its corner, as well. Many parades either begin there, or like the St. Patrick's Day parade, use this corner as a staging area. Also, in a two-block radius, are more employment agencies than could be found in several Midwestern states. It's a busy intersection. 
     Gripping my briefcase (containing no "briefs," but only that day's edition of THE NEW YORK POST), I crossed Fifth Avenue with a mixed herd of Suits and office-Skirts, barely surviving the pedestrian traffic. Walking in Gotham is like a wrestling match -- the light changes and hundreds of faceless New Yorkers come right at YOU!  One must struggle for every step of the sidewalk to claim it as one's own. And if it's raining, watch out! Umbrellas in New York have been known to wound, maim, and mutilate. 
     As I stepped onto the curb, something was thrust into my hand against my wishes. It happened so fast, I didn't even feel my fingers tightening around the card. Glancing at it, I saw that I was now entitled to free admission at some nearby strip-joint. Right.  Karen often mentioned my getting out more and seeing some of the unique sights The Big Apple had to offer. I was pretty sure a strip-joint was not what my girlfriend had in mind. I dropped the card to the sidewalk, where it joined many just like it. My destination was a dozen feet away and with no thought to the litter at my feet, in I went. 
     My temp-job was a combination of receptionist, data-entry, filing, and all-around office-geek. The firm specialized in executive and white collar placements -- they were "headhunters," to use the old slang. Chemists, plant managers, even corporate vice presidents were their product, and the small staff of four spent their days on the telephone pitching candidates to companies in hopes of collecting a most-hefty placement fee. They talked, and my job would be to do everything else. The mail, faxes, letters, computer searches and daily numbers would be my world for the coming weeks. At first, for maybe an hour, I was actually bored. It was easy work. 
     With the actress out of the office, the president (and also head salesman) of the company, decided some experimental changes should be set up in hopes of making the office run more efficiently. He'd begun the company some thirty years ago (perhaps the second he stepped off the boat from France) and apparently had been successful, but also, as in most sales-oriented businesses, had seen dozens and dozens of staff changes over the years. To inspire the latest batch of salespeople, various daily reports were to be generated on brightly colored paper, and to make sense of many years of the poor penmanship and ad-libbed filing codes, a new system was begun to sort out the thousands of resumes, background checks, and job-classifications. 
     "For too long this has been a playground and not an office! Ceci ne marche pas!" he said to me, at the end of my first day, as I was getting ready to go home. 
     "Playground is BAD... Office is GOOD!" I agreed, not understanding his throwaway French and always suspecting him of saying nasty things about my mother. 
     "To be professionals, we must behave as professionals. Comprenez vous?" he 
lectured, standing a little too close and making me nervous. 
     "A sign which cannot be understood is a warning to all drivers -- slow down, you move too fast...," I answered, silently adding a prayer the conversation would end and I could go home. 
     "Exactly! C'est vrai!" he exclaimed, taking my hand in his and shaking it 
enthusiastically. "You must start earlier tomorrow and work later! Bonsoir!
     The temp-job paid thirteen bucks an hour, Karen and I needed the money, it was a favor to her friend, and ...the job would END in six or seven weeks. This was my secret mantra I chanted to myself on the subway ride home. 

     "How was your day, honey?" Karen asked that night. 
     "Horrible!" I exaggerated. "With your friend gone, they treat me like a machine and won't stop piling the work on!" 
     "Oh, poor honey!" she replied. 
     "Well, a drink, some dinner, a backrub and a little hot sex might make the day seem worth it," I suggested. 
     "You ONLY worked one day!" she answered, catching on much too fast.  "No employed boyfriend holodeck-programs until I see some cash!" 

     Remember, I'm THE VICTIM, here... 

     I soon settled into a routine, probably not too different from the thousands and thousands of other office-geeks in Gotham. My workday was punctuated with a morning cigarette break, lunchtime, and then an afternoon cigarette break. Being a smoker in the workplace has, for the last several years, required puffers to stand outside in all manners of weather. Fortunately, perhaps only for male-smokers, it was springtime and the though there were no flowers in the concrete canyons, the skirts were getting shorter in preparation for summer.  Ogling Fifth Avenue babes during my smoke-moments seemed to be a fun, harmless pastime, until I noticed the strip-joint guy again. And, he wasn't alone... 
     There, on the northeast corner of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, a group of guys had gathered and were busy stopping people.  The strip-joint guy was busy passing out his free-admission cards, but these OTHER guys ...were stopping women, and PRETTY women, at that! I finished my cigarette, stepped on it, and returned to work. In front of the computer once more, punching in numbers and entering file-codes, my thoughts returned again and again to the activities of these OTHER guys. What were they doing? Were they with the strip-joint guy?  Were they trying to recruit potential strippers? I knew The Big Apple to have some rotten spots, but stopping office-babes and suggesting they take off their clothes for a paycheck, ...amazed and annoyed me. 
     Over the next several days, I began to notice ...things. There was this roly-poly, Alfred Hitchcock lookalike, dressed in a black trenchcoat and black baseball cap. This guy carried a bag and didn't move much or talk to anybody other than the other guys on the corner. Two little guys, one youthful and always wearing a baseball jacket, and the other, a balding guy in a tie and windbreaker, were the go-getters. Up and down the sidewalk they'd go, in rain or sunshine, from just after eight in the morning until nearly five in the afternoon. Talking with women... As I watched this behavior, I was saddened to see the women bothered as they went about their personal business. It struck me as a form of public harassment, sexual and insulting. But, then I noticed that some of the women were stopping and talking... This confused me. I'd heard that straight-stripping (with no sex) could pay between three hundred a week to six and more, but the thought of office-skirts on a baby-oil runway... I couldn't understand. 

     "It's got to be MOB-RELATED," Karen said, when told of the activity I witnessed. "The MOB owns the clubs and these guys are probably, like, second-cousins and not hit-man material... So, they get the assignment of soliciting fresh meat for the markets!" 
     "But, in broad daylight?" I questioned. 
     "Silly, ...that's where the BROADS are!" 
     Sure enough, I began to recognize the same faces stopping by occasionally to 
talk with the corner-guys. Slicked back, dark hair and sunglasses, two hundred 
dollar trenchcoats and polished shoes--yup, these fellows COULD be connected.  A quick smile, the one-two of a combination handshake and pat on the back.  Power traits, to be sure. My head hurt at the thought of the arrogance involved.  What about the police? This was Fifth Avenue! 

     One day, before some parade (it had dozens of motor-homes and I never did find out what the parade's theme was), I saw two policemen putting up a barricade across 42nd Street. Hoping I could strike up a casual conversation with them and, maybe, ask about the guys on the corner and the cards for free admission to the strip-joints, I walked up and said, "Hello!" 
     "What do you want?" one of New York's Finest demanded of me. 
     Ouch. I'd forgotten that these were not television actors playing policemen, but rather the real thing -- NYPD blue, true, and rude. Recovering, I noticed that one patrolman wore a red band around his arm, while the other patrolman wore a black band "What's the significance of the red and black arm bands?" I asked. 
     "The red band means you're against AIDS," one patrolman answered me. 
     "...And the black band means you're for AIDS," the other patrolman deadpanned. 
     "Thanks," I said, backing away. "You guys should be on Letterman... Maybe you'd win a couple of canned hams..." 
     Their silence suggested the exchange was over, and as their backs were now 
toward me, I assumed it was time for me to leave. Quickly walking back to my building, I caught the eyes of the corner guys. Damn! They'd SEEN me talking to the cops...  At that moment, I had a vision of opening up my e-mail to find an attachment-jpg of a horse's head...  Panic, in most employee manuals, is allowed on breaks and during lunchtime, but is not authorized during normal work-hours. Back at my computer, I tried to breathe evenly, and mentally sort things out. Garlic only worked for vampires, it would never work with the MOB...  That night, I made up my mind, I would tell Karen of my new plans to move to Cleveland. As THE VICTIM, I thought this most appropriate, as everyone in Cleveland is a victim in some way. 

     "We're not moving," Karen stated emphatically, upon hearing my fears of winding up in the East River. 
     "Do you think my insurance covers shattered-kneecaps?" I asked. 
     "You're sure these guys are gangsters and not just fashion-challenged? I see a 
lot of the trenchcoats and sunglasses look in the city..." 
     "I'd probably have to lose the whole leg to collect anything," I reasoned out loud. "You know, most rock-concerts are now wheelchair accessible, but I'd be very afraid of the mosh-pit..." 

     As I entered my fifth week on Fifth Avenue, nearing the end of my assignment, I began to consider talking with some of the local temp agencies about future work. I'd shared elevators and smoke-moments with a few of the recruiters in my building, and thought it prudent to test the waters. I figured that my five-week record of being clean-shaven and wearing a tie every day would give me an advantage over someone walking in cold, straight from the street. Don't forget, I'm still THE VICTIM... 
     I decided this slightly overweight, middle-aged guy that I'd shared some small-talk during smoke-moments would be a safe bet.  He seemed a friendly sort and probably worked for a temp-place. "Can you recommend a good employment agency?" I asked one day. 
     "Sure, ...mine," he answered immediately. "You looking to change jobs?" 
     "Well, I'm temping as a friend-of-a-friend favor, and the friend is taking her job back in a week or so," I replied, wishing I'd rehearsed a better response. 
     "What do you do?" he asked. 
     "Hey, I bet THAT looks good on a resume! So, what? You eat paperclips and rubberbands?" 
     "Only on dress-down Fridays," I shot back, not the least amused at the tone of this conversation. "Seriously, I just do general office-work and some data-entry..." 
     "Well, then next time, say so..." 
     "Right," I answered, more than a little put off by this guy's rude demeanor.  "So, can you recommend an agency?" 
     Finishing his cigarette and flicking it into the street, he answered, "I don't handle secretaries. Try one of the other agencies.  Good luck." He walked back into the building, leaving me stunned. What was it about New York City? Does one have to pass a course in rudeness to live here? As I pondered Big-Apple-etiquette, or rather the lack thereof, I noticed the guys on the corner taking a hard look at me. I returned their stare for a moment, before heading back to work. Just because I was THE VICTIM, didn't mean I had to enjoy it... 

     "These placements must be entered into the system... J'en ai besoin aujourd-hui," my boss said as I returned to the computer, placing a four inch stack of old files in front of me. 
     "And where would we be IF I said ...no?" I asked playfully, but in a low voice. 
     Time slowed to less than 2400bps, as around the office half-smiles formed and eyebrows were raised. Though I'd meant the question to be merely a conversational jest, something in my voice betrayed me. I was angry and confused...  Not at anything at work, mind you--work, even if it pays well and is simple beyond pampering is still WORK, and must be complained about. No, ...other things were on my mind. 
     My boss walked slowly to his desk, summoned the thinnest of grins, and said, "I don't know how to answer that..." His smile grew for a second, and before fading, he added, "Do what you will... C'est tout, merci." 
     Ah, temp-work! One is paid to be loyal, hardworking, make a contribution, and then move on to the next set of commitments and photocopiers. Of course, working with the headhunters wasn't a normal temp-job -- I was substituting for a friend, and that required extra attention.  I couldn't blow up or quit, for fear of disappointing Karen and her actress-friend. I never did finish that stack of old placement-files, though I tried to. 
     As I was leaving work that day, I shared the elevator with a bright eyed, young fellow wearing a bad tie, but a cool, magenta trenchcoat. We spoke of the different employment agencies in the building and when I mentioned I'd be looking for work soon, the fellow produced his business card, gave it to me, saying, "If I'm not in, just show this to the secretary, and she'll know what to do..."  He believed he could find me work, even with my limited office-skills.  Finally, I thought, things were turning around. 

     "Now, tell me again how you stopped an armored-car hold-up today, while 
thinking of a new filing system for work," Karen asked during dinner. 
     "Right," I answered, adding, "it probably won't make the television news tonight because I was too modest and refused to give out my name or accept any reward..." 
     "And your idea for a new way of filing?" 
     "I'm thinking of discarding the old alphabetic-system and grouping the candidates and resumes by: 

1) how many letters they have in their last name, 
2) if their home-state tree is deciduous or evergreen, and 
3) whether or not their social security numbers add up to a multiple of three or seven..." 

     "Well, what if the number ISN'T a multiple of three or seven?" Karen asked, more than a little afraid of what the answer might be. 
     "I'm thinking they should be sent to other employment agencies," I responded. "I mean, just on the block of Fifth Avenue I'm at now, there are more employment agencies than there are diseases you can catch from those corner-carts that sell chopped-meat and hot dogs..." 
     "You're sure about that? I think it could be close..." She leaned across the kitchen table and kissed me. "Does this mean you won't have any problem finding a temp-agency to send YOU out?" she asked. 
     "None," I boasted. "In fact, it's just a waiting game now..." 

     During my last week of working for the headhunters, I kept an eye out for the temp-recruiter I'd met in the elevator the week before. Sure, I still had his business-card in my wallet and when my assignment was through, I'd pay him a visit. I was just a little unsure of when my assignment would end, as Karen's friend had mentioned she might need a couple of extra days to unwind after weeks of hearing audiences clap for her. Tough work, acting. If you lie well, people pay you for it and ask for your autograph. Go figure. 
     After a few nervous days of not seeing the young recruiter in the elevator or during a smoke-moment, I finally spied him talking with the corner guys. I thought nothing of it at first, as the guy was in his mid twenties and might have thought that propositioning women on the sidewalk was romantic in some sort of neo-mobster fashion. Taking long, deep pulls from my cigarette, I nonchalantly watched the Fifth Avenue skirts pass by and waited for the young recruiter to finish his business at the corner. 
     I looked up and saw him waving for me to join him. "Hey, come over here for a second," he yelled. Great, I thought -- now, I get to meet the MOB. 
     The young recruiter shook my hand and said, "I mentioned that you were looking for work and I think these guys can help you..." 
     "Ah, thanks, but ...no thanks," I answered immediately, making sure my tone was even and upbeat and that I showed lots of teeth. "I'm not interested in picking up chicks for a living..." 
     During the moment of awkward silence that followed, twelve taxis ran a red light on 42nd, a pigeon crapped on one of the cement lions in front of the library, four million salmonella bacteria found happiness hitching a ride on a hot dog which was slowly being chewed by a tourist from New Jersey, and when my life flashed before my eyes, ...I learned that sitting too close to the television as a child really can hurt you. All in all, it was a terrible moment. 
     "What are you talking about?" one of the guys asked. It was the balding one who always wore a tie. 
     "Hey, I meant no disrespect," I hedged. "You guys have a job to do, but that type of work is really not for me... My girlfriend would kill me, you know?" 
     The street-light changed again and a stream of humanity overflowed the curbs and flooded the sidewalks. I turned and saw the strip-joint guy passing out his cards and noticed the Alfred Hitchcock-guy still standing there doing nothing. I never did figure him out. 
     "What is it that you think we do?" the balding guy asked. 
     "Well, I see him...," I answered, pointing to the little guy with the baseball jacket, "stopping pretty woman all the time and I figured you guys are working with the strip-clubs and are trying to hire dancers... Right?" 
     They say laughter is good for the soul, but as the corner-guys were giggling and slapping their thighs, my soul felt no noticeable improvement whatsoever. In fact, I began to feel real bad. 
     "We all work for employment agencies," the young fellow spoke up. "With all the different placement services on this block and with the hundreds of people going in them everyday, by standing out here and talking to them... We get first crack at them!" 
     "Give me a call when your treatments begin to take effect," the balding guy said, pressing his business card into my hand. 
     It was my turn to laugh. I laughed as I waved goodbye to the recruiters, upstairs when my boss told me that my assignment was over and I wouldn't be needed back the next day, I continued laughing.

     That night at home, as I told Karen about my being unemployed and the mistake I made with the corner-guys, I was still laughing. 
     "So, the guys were headhunters, too?" she asked. 
     "Right," I agreed. "Sidewalk headhunters in the employment jungle of Fifth Avenue!" I had stopped laughing. 
     "Any idea what you're going to do for work, now?" 
     I couldn't answer. I was sure there must be other employment agencies in New York City far from Fifth Avenue. Maybe one could find work for an office-geek with a loose grip on reality.  Maybe. 
     "What do you want me to make you for dinner tomorrow night?" I asked my 
girlfriend.  Already I was looking forward to fighting with the housewives at the market. 

The End.

c. 2002 by R. D. Flavin

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