It seems like scores of years have passed since you stepped down as the Executive Director of the non-profit where I’ve been a long-entrenched employee (though in actuality, it was about six years ago). Perhaps you are wondering, why write this now? To me, today makes perfect sense; we are living in the Age of Hubris (Elon Musk, Trump, Putin) and I assume hubris felled you. I’ve always been intrigued when someone with seemingly so much to preserve–social status, professional accolades, comfort and familial support– does something inane to derail everything. Take chess champion Hans Nieman who allegedly cheated in this year’s Sinquefield Cup. Rumor had it, he inserted a vibrator in his rectum and someone made it vibrate to guide his winning chess moves. (This seems as impossible as a rat directing a young man who can barely boil an egg to whip up Michelin-grade meals by sitting inside the kid’s chef’s hat and pulling his locks. See Ratatouille). It was a year that a French soccer player was caught throwing his cat around violently to widespread condemnation and a year that a hubristic but super talented musician with a difficult psychiatric disorder made an anti-semetic rant that has seemingly damaged his career.
I like to joke with colleagues that the legal services non profit organization you started decades ago is a cult. This means you were our cult leader, complete with an ill-fated departure/resignation/erasure.You certainly had charisma, energy and good intentions, at least at the start. (You were part of a small group of attorneys who started the non-profit legal organization and under your helm, our tiny office burst out of its seams–providing free legal services to countless low income New Yorkers). You had some skills.
Your life story that I’ve stitched together from my own observations, office rumors and the machinations of my listless mind, reminds me of the documentaries on streaming sites I watch ad nauseum–the ones about vivacious, starry-eyed men(entrepreneurs or cult leaders who start a venture with a seed of good intention but eventually cross a line. (Though sometimes, as described in the Vow, a docu-series on HBOMAX, many leaders, e.g. Keith Raniere, lack pure intentions). These stories fill me with awe and revulsion. (It must be added, that I know nothing about the allegations against you or your guilt/innocence and that’s not the focus of this post).
The organization you created is no cult; we have never worn matching robes in our office(though recently, management gifted us staff admittedly high- quality black oversized sweatshirts with our organization’s logo on it). We do tend to have a certain uniformity of thought–tending to sway left–and some managers/leaders (like you) have at times been arbitrary and dictatorial. Unlike a cult though, we are free to leave and many of us have–without retaliation and coercive tactics.
But I can attest, it’s an easy place to fester unattended for decades and an easy place to feel overlooked and subordinate to those on top. As a former coworker once said, our office is “the place where ambition goes to die.” Similar to a cult where members sometimes work for pittance, our staff is not well paid for a NYC lifestyle and our organizational structure makes true advancement difficult; the incremental raises for most promotions and common burnout working with low-income, sometimes difficult clients, means many staff do not stay for more than a few years. Though today, as you probably know, we have a union, (This probably irks you. You liked absolute power and denying us regular raises even though we’d heard your salary was considered to be particularly high for a non profit ED).
The day when we learned that the Attorney General’s office was investigating you for alleged financial hijinx and that you were resigning, was a momentous one. (It must be noted that in the end, you were not indicted but reached a settlement with the AG’s office). Initially, I felt pangs of glee; how could I not with a rush of coworkers gathering in the sunny, large office I shared with my longtime friend to gossip and titter? But I am not a simpleton (on a good day), so there were other emotions at play.
Of course, Anxiety. We speculated that our jobs could be on the line, the organization condemned. (Fortunately, this never happened). Next: Embarrassment. I felt, as a Korean adoptee who was raised Jewish, anxious that you were being investigated in the same year as other unrelated Jewish public figures/politicians, which could enforce awful anti-Semitic stereotypes. See Walt Disney’s vintage cartoon The Three Little Pigs that features a villainous wolf portrayed as a Jewish salesman or take for example how in the 1990’s, two non-Jewish jocks at my nyc private high school dressed as Orthodox Jews for Halloween and found it riotous to stamp on pennies on the floor. (Some more recent examples other than violent attacks at synagogues, non Jewish parents calling Jewish people Jappy and not having similarly negative words for other materialistic women or a UES parent complaining to my husband out loud about his “fucking Jewish lawyer).
Some were angry at you for bungling a good thing a la Bill Clinton (minus of course the sex scandal). How dare you squander your power and humiliate us? Other people who weren’t even your employees, were inexplicably pissed off at you. Around the time we learned of the AG’s investigation, I recall sitting in a sweeping law firm conference room with an unusually unpleasant attorney with whom I was co-counseling a case. This wounded buffoon had the habit of asking any young attorney in the vicinity where they went to law school and when they weren’t Top Tier or hadn’t clerked for a federal judge, he’d promptly ignore them. Bozo. As a proud graduate of a second Tier law school who had not clerked, I was mincemeat. But apparently, he had spoken to you at some event, and all mooney-eyed, made some donations to our organization. Oddly piqued that afternoon, he grilled me as to what I knew about the investigation. ( I knew nothing). He felt hoodwinked. What impressed me was he was oddly angry like a jilted lover. (Maybe I also envy you for having the type of raw charisma that could make an attorney so hardened by status overlook the fact that you went to my Second Tier alma mater, and revere you nonetheless).
I have some fond nostalgia for your reign. Who could forget your welcome moments of generosity, e.g. how pre- 9/11, you’d invited our small team of employees on a magically cheap 10-day trip to Israel that included airfare, meals, camel riding and an elegant hotel stay for $1,000 a head and how you once closed the office spontaneously so we could go enjoy the Jewish History Museum for the day. Or the time you stuffed us onto a dilapidated party ferry in Albany; we floated down a polluted river of mud and rollicked for hours with an Elvis impersonator. An abundance of alcohol and a dearth of dinner food left the most abstinent/withholding in our group cross eyed and sloppy. We had some affection for you. Our Captain.
Rumors always followed you. You had spent your youth dancing half-naked in cages at NYC’s storied Limelight club and pricked yourself so you bled. You were maybe Mexican. You were not raised Orthodox but converted. You put seemingly well-intentioned mezuzahs outside each of our office doors, which puzzled and annoyed many staff members who would take them down as inappropriate in a modern workplace. You subjected us to, egads, Kosher wine (before Kosher wine was any good if I can say that) at all work parties/events. You once threw us an office holiday party at a vegan Kosher vegetarian restaurant in Chinatown before veganism was a widely embraced practice (and we may have balked). Once, at a dinner with my husband’s childhood friend from Winnipeg, Canada and his wife—both Orthodox Jews—I learned you were a big deal. People in your community knew your stats.
We assumed you had ADHD. It was apparent the way you would unannounced, twirl into our offices– jittery with energy and offer non sequiturs, e.g. the time you walked up to me and said “hey now that you’re married, you don’t have to worry about having a job!” But I admit (though not in that example), sometimes I found you amusing/on point. You may have recognized my own attention issues long before I was diagnosed. Once preparing for some office party, I stood at the office sink dumping strawberries from the carton into a large bowl. You ran down the hall towards me, yelling “Did you not wash those? You’ll kill us all with pesticides!” (Admittedly, I’d spaced out and hadn’t washed them. I’ve gotten better about fruit washing since having kids. I swear.)
You had mastered the art of the well-timed, vague compliment. At one office party long ago, you saddled over to my mother whom I had oddly brought along, glanced at me at her side and said, a few choice words.”She’ll go far here. We think the world of her.” Music to my mother’s ears and okay, who am I kidding, my own too. (I’m a glutton for a compliment).
But I also sometimes disliked you immensely so I felt some joy at your departure. Schadenfreude. For when it mattered the most, you failed me. Shortly before we learned of the investigation and your departure, you called me into your office, a brilliant suite flanked by tall windows that overlooked the Hudson river. You had a white, sleek leather couch and I sat on it–stiff backed and uncomfortable. You chose not to sit behind your Head of State desk and sit directly opposite me in a small white chair. A man-of-the-people move. Though your office was indeed serene, your presence was not. Your limbs were as usual in flux–your arms waiving around and your legs shifting. Your eyes blinked rapidly even though you were not directly facing the sunlight. (I was).
“Look at that suit,” you said, pointing to a dark mens’ suit jacket hanging off the hook on the back of your office door. “It’s a good, very high-end suit. Expensive. That’s what happens when you marry a [add illustrious NY family with generational surplus].”
I had nodded, a shade amused. Apparently for you, the second time (for marriage) was the charm!
You played the clown well to be disarming. I get that. But that day, I knew your intent, despite the show, was to deny me the promotion to supervisor that I had requested. I’d years before created the employment law practice (with help from other more fleeting, ambitious attorneys) and, unasked, had organized creative, unique fundraisers for my project; so kill me, I felt entitled.
Do you recall your stated reason for denying me, something I felt I deserved? You said I did not litigate in court, something blatantly untrue. As you were not my supervisor, you knew little about the work I did. I routinely litigated my employment cases in federal court and did plentiful agency filings and mediations which lead to settlements. My regrettable reaction: bowing my head so you couldn’t see my face distracted by a familiar dirge–the hum that scolds me for not finding a good mentor in the law, for lacking self-confidence, for possibly choosing the wrong career and for not making myself visible enough at work. I barely managed to sputter that you were wrong about me. I thankfully shed no tears. But you looked at me unmoved and oddly satiated. Your erratic movements gone. I wanted to twist your wiry beard and yank it so hard, your eyes would recede. I imagined clawing your small, pale face. What restitution!
But I only left your office, an angry simp. Days later, in my supervisor’s office after officially being denied promotion, I dramatically quit my job. I barreled through the office like a deranged quarterback-no ball in hand-and hooted with joy. (If you have ever quit a job that you have alternatively loved and loathed over the years, let me tell you, it is a euphoric moment). Caveat: 24 hours later when rational thought resurfaced and I was gripped by fear of unemployment, my supervisor gave me back the job I quit because he’s a patient, even-tempered guy.
So when I learned of your departure so soon after our delightful meeting, I felt oddly responsible. Was your plight, a manifestation of my ill-will? Though I am intrigued by the idea of the voodoo doll rife with pins, I never utilized one of those. My rage has (before this post) been more introspective.
Looking back so many years later, though less angry, I still nurse a revenge fantasy. As you could probably predict, my revenge fantasy is unabashedly nerdy. I will not prance around in a cool canary yellow jumpsuit slashing everything like Uma Thurman’s character in Kill Bill. (I don’t want further harm to come to you after all). I’ll be seated at my desk at home, in my coziest, nubbiest ware and I’ll be drinking tea and adjusting my reading glasses so they don’t fall down my flat nose. I will keep tapping at my keyboard and listen to the erratic, sometimes dim voice that assures me I’m worthy. I’ll publish a novel I’m proud of in this next decade and complete a unique, immersive art exhibit about my journey as an adopted Korean-American Jew. I’ll use words and images to make you and other naysayers eat your words. And don’t be surprised if your initials somewhat sarcastically make it onto the dedication page of the book I will someday complete. En garde!
Will my revenge be fully satisfying as classic American revenge films like Carrie, Kill Bill, Promising Young Woman and others suggest? Probably not. I’ll be less resplendent than Uma and perhaps more like the protagonist of the brilliant, dark Korean film Oldboy. Du Su is a Seoul businessman who avenges the man who kidnapped and locked him in a private prison for 15 years for mysterious reasons. In the end, we see the protagonist in agony for revenge leaves him ravaged and wanting. After writing this post, which has felt like cathartic release and yes, slightly vengeful, I understand an important truth: you were not my greatest foe/villain. That was me. Instead of working hard to fight ADHD and shoddy self-esteem, I spent years villifying others. It’s easier. This revelation is not easy to process. I gulp. (But today I am working to change myself through therapy and ADHD drugs because it’s never too late).
I feel a strange gratitude to you. By not promoting me to supervisor years ago, you squashed my interest in becoming management, and in the end, did me a favor. I still get to help low-wage workers get money from their employers who have wronged them and enjoy hearing my clients’ stories. But I don’t have to sit through torturous management meetings. I can join spirited, union-lead sidewalk protests alongside that inflatable rat and my mostly younger cohorts (and get the free cute union-logo tote bag). I’ve had time to unearth my passion for writing and making art that I’d ignored for years of my life. Without widespread accolades or monetary compensation, I have made significant time for creativity in recent years, which has left me more confident. If it weren’t dark outside as I write this and the terrain pretty flat in Manhattan, I’d climb to a mountain top and yell: I’m a damn good writer, I have stuff to say and I’m an eager artist who has potential to improve! And yes, I recognize my strengths as a lawyer. (A shout out to my newish supervisor who has contributed much to my sense of well-being. May she be cloned in spades!). In the words of a TikTok life coach, we must learn to welcome rejection as redirection. So thank you, Sir, for the redirection.
Sometimes I even miss you (or maybe I just miss the days of yore). Our office is vastly different today; we have three floors of prime office space downtown, a well designed lobby and conference rooms named after celebrities. (Did I mention, we have unlimited office supplies no longer kept under lock and key and doled out by a grumpy Russian man in grimaces?) But part-timers no longer get offices. We scrounge around for a few hours of a conference room to avoid dreaded cubicle time. My seat is warm from someone else’s butt. I can’t decorate my office with cute postcards and photos that reflect my experiences and tastes. Gone is the quirky fun that a small office fosters. How impromptu, we’d on our own throw an all office swap-a-thon where people would dump old clothes and household wares into an empty cubicle and all day, staff could be heard oohing and ahing over items. How someone could be heard laughing maniacally (often me) without admonishment. How long ago, our wildly inappropriately dressed, gabby receptionist used to take naps on the only couch and haggle with a jewelry salesperson who would peddle wares out of a leather briefcase. How that small, intimate workspace lead to some of the best friendships of my life.
I wager that you have found a new audience. I hope so. We all deserve a renaissance. I see you differently these days. You’re no longer the Grand master with the cold, black eyes seated across from me in your office–unmoved. You are uncharacteristically quiet. You are walking slowly and contemplatively into the horizon–a small but determined figure who held our attention for so long.