|Headhunters: A Fifth
By R. D. Flavin
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!"
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
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
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
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.
vrai!" he exclaimed, taking my hand in his and shaking it
enthusiastically. "You must start earlier
tomorrow and work later! Bonsoir!"
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.
exaggerated. "With your friend gone, they treat me like a machine and won't
stop piling the work on!"
"Oh, poor honey!"
"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!"
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.
where the BROADS are!"
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?"
"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..."
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
"Do you think
my insurance covers shattered-kneecaps?" I asked.
these guys are gangsters and not just fashion-challenged? I see a
lot of the trenchcoats and sunglasses
look in the city..."
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.
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?"
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...
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."
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?"
of discarding the old alphabetic-system and grouping the candidates and
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.
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..."
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..."
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
"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?"
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
"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.
c. 2002 by R. D. Flavin
to Flavin's Fictions