by: Hareya Getachew
My friend, the divine Ms. M. shall we call her, is not known for her tact or carefully minced words. Once, when we found ourselves at a chic NY soiree being hit on by a particularly greasy creature who also happened to be a primo Manhattan mover and shaker, she stared him down with those gargantuan Ethiopian eyes of hers, blew smoke in his face and, with icicles dripping from her voice, said, "I think you better stick to taking secretaries and stewardesses to Hawaii, sweetheart."
So, years later, when she came to visit me at my new office, I was not expecting any mercy. Relishing the way I squirmed under her scrutiny, she carefully, sl-l-owly took in all the details of my office before settling down on the couch in front of me. "Oushak?" she asked royally, gesturing towards the rug on my floor. I nodded like a guilty two-year-old who had just been caught stealing cookies. "Nice," she drawled, the words piercing what remained of my bravado. "If you're going to sell out, you might as well sell out in style."
I did sell out. Big time. Except I would have preferred having no one point it out, least of all Ms. M.
There is no visible evidence of the perpetual Bohemian Chick I used to be. All the pictures in my office are of family or of me at office functions. The artwork is real artwork (corporate write-off) and it is someone's full-time job to take care of the plants.
A far cry from only a few years ago when I was a very happy denizen of "Real Life Boulevard". It used to be that I had no fixed address, no fixed income, all my belongings fit into a scraggly duffel bag and I would travel to some place on a whim with no more than a few dollars in my pocket. "I'll figure it out when I get there," was my standard response to the horrified inquiries I would get from my more reasonable friends.
And, always, I did manage to "figure it out". I'd settle down for a while, acclimate myself to whatever nuance my new environment handed me, and then pack my duffel bag and move on. And the cycle would start all over again. Three months here; four months there...I took up odd jobs along the way to sustain my anemic income, never having crossed paths with anyone who could spell fiduciary let alone use it in a sentence. In my world, "The Market" was the local gebeya where you squeezed fruit to ascertain its freshness; "mutual fund" was the communal piggy bank where we all put our extra change; "accrued interest" meant that you really liked a person; "bullish" was a kid mispronouncing an insult, "bear" was an animal, and "convertible securities" were... hmmm, that one still stumps me.
M. and I remained friend throughout all this. She was in graduate school, on a fast track to being a very corporate, "striped-suit-from-St. John", "an apartment with the right view" kinda chick, and I would lecture her on the trappings and moral bankruptcy of Wall Street. She'd indulge me a little and then roll her eyes when I went spinning off into the "freeing your soul" part of my fire and brimstone repertoire. "My soul is fine, thanks," she once snapped at me. "Yours, however, could use a nice lavender scented bath."
Into my early twenties, when some of my friends were buying express tickets to Corporate Express, I spent my time traveling and reading and meddling in things that I had no business meddling in; and counting change to determine what I should eat. But I made my own rules, and I was in complete control my time, which, for me, was one of the sacred tenets of life. I would not know it then, but as chaotic as those times seemed, they were the most in-control of my life I have been.
Through a series of events that are best summarized as... freaky, I ended up smack in the middle of Corporate America... flanked by expense accounts on my left and meetings about setting up meetings on my other left; and silky sheer Berkshire pantyhose on my right and gray suits on my other right.
Was it age? Did I suddenly decide it was time to play adult? Did I finally want in on "My Portfolio This and That" talk? Were my values so flexible, thereby making me a horrid little creature? Was I a faux counter-culturalist just waiting to be outed by NASDAQ? Who knows? And frankly, I've stopped trying to analyze, and tried to adjust with some modicum of grace.
There is something eerie about my timing. When people were buttoning up their suits and eyeing their first Beemers, I was hiking through Montana (the non-militia part). And now, when they're unbuttoning their Oxfords and kicking back, I 'm entrenched deep in the world they are saying adios to.
This is, after all, the time when most of my friends are going back to Ethiopia to open up businesses and explore new markets. This is the time we, this generation, are changing the world with the New Economy, venturing out into dot com worlds and venture capital, loading up on Coca Cola and writing software programs that Microsoft would pay a gazillion dollars for. This is the time to wear jeans to the office, compare tattoos and body piercings with colleagues who have titles like "Chief Honcho" and "Numero Uno Dude". I should be out there! There, in Mecca. Not stuffed in an office (not even in a nice one!) trying to figure out who to cc on a memo!
There are things about being in Corporate America that are beguiling... seemingly limitless expense accounts, comfort in spending other peoples money for a project, prestige... the stuff a recruiter sells you. But there are some forbidding factors no one talks about. The stench of power drives you a little mad around here. But not mad enough that you leave, because, you will find out, you get high from the madness. Secretly you begin to thrive on ruthless competition and workaholicism. The anarchist in you is tempered and seduced by the comfort of the land. Suddenly, getting real good seats at events ranks up there with oxygen; people returning your calls right away with food; and getting a corner office with shelter.
On my fourth 70-hour week, I called Ms. M. to commiserate. And for once we were in the same boat. "What the hell is happening to us?" she sighed, her words accompanied by the rat-a-tat fire of her keyboard. We hardly ever talk without doing twenty other things at the same time. "When did we become addicted to this?" I had no answer. At least she was groomed for this. I had plopped myself right in the middle of the fire and was clawing to hang on.
"And why aren't we working this hard for ourselves?"
I have rationalized staying in Corporate America several ways. If all "out of the box" thinking people left, who would we have as an insider? And, dammit, I have helped a few friends and countrymen/women gain access to this world. I use my powers for good, I really do. I'm still good people, no? No? NO?
But down in the crevices of my bones, I ache to start something of my own. I ache to control my time. MY time. Inherently, that still makes me a Bohemian Chick, right?
Eventually, I know I will go back to Bohemia, my brief yet torrid affair with Corporate America all but a faint memory. I have not yet sold my soul to Corporate America because deep inside I am still an immigrant at heart with a strong affinity for the great American Dream: to do what you really want to do in life. And I am no different from the thousands who come to this country hoping to own their own businesses.
I, too, want to eventually put my grandchildren on my knees and tell them stories of what it was like to open "my first shop" the way early 20th century New York immigrants regale their grandchildren today. I, too, want to display the mid 21st century equivalent of a crusty, black and white picture of a store front, with proud owners sitting in front of a "Grand Opening" sign.
Until then, I am extremely grateful for my good fortune. And in the words of the Divine Ms. M: "You gotta know the rules to know how to break them."
I'm hoping it is not too late to get out.