[Readings] Petty Cash, By Leslie Jamison | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[Readings]

Petty Cash

Adjust

From “The Assistant’s Loft,” an essay from a revised edition of the anthology Goodbye to All That, which was published last month by Seal Press.

She had a name, but in this essay she will just be she. When I started working for her, she gave me a nondisclosure agreement to sign, but she didn’t handle any of her own paperwork, so she never knew I didn’t sign it. She had a brownstone on the Upper West Side and a geriatric dog who peed frequently on the beautiful parquet floor. This was better than when he peed on the expensive oriental rugs. She was a writer who’d built a menopause empire. Which is to say: She had written many books about the sexual and emotional lives of postmenopausal women, and she’d made a lot of money doing it. Not enough. Shortly after I began working for her, I realized that part of the reason she kept multiple phone lines was to keep throwing creditors off her scent. I hadn’t known that someone so wealthy could owe so much money. I hadn’t known that anyone could earn tens of thousands of dollars for writing a single magazine article, or that this same person could also care so much about getting refunded for an unused Jitney ticket to the Hamptons that she would pay someone $25 an hour to keep calling the bus company until she got it. That someone was me. I’d been told the job would involve “substantial archival research at the New York Public Library.” That happened twice.

But it seemed impossibly exciting to work for an Actual Writer, a woman who was famous—to my mother and her friends, at least, all of whom had read this woman’s seminal account of postmenopausal puberty. Most days I worked as her personal assistant in a loft above her palatial living room, which was full of upholstered couches and heavy brocade curtains. The room seemed to be asking you to call it a parlor. The loft hadn’t been built for this purpose. But it had been occupied by an assistant for so long—decades—that she had begun to think of the Assistant, whatever her name was, as yet another piece of parlor furniture. Later, I would learn that there was a small group of former personal assistants who still met sometimes for cocktails—like an informal support group—to discuss the harrowing emotional experience of working for this woman. She was powerful but felt powerless. She cared quite a bit about her floral arrangements. She needed her coffee to be Very, Very Hot. She yelled frequently at the people she employed. Sometimes it seemed as though she employed people so she could yell at them. I often locked myself in her beautiful black-and-white-tiled bathroom so I could cry without being heard. At the time, I believed this said a lot about my boss. Looking back, I can also see it says a lot about me. My boss had an ill husband who was in a nursing home even farther uptown. He’d founded one of the most famous magazines in the country. In my mind, they were so powerful—by virtue of their careers, and their money—that it was hard to imagine the ways they might be suffering. I was twenty-three years old, and it was hard to understand that the people who had the things I wanted most—bylines, long marriages, stature in the literary world—might be lacking other things I took for granted.

I told myself I liked working for a writer, but eventually I had to admit that the appeal was just as much about the job’s proximity to money. Wealth cast a velvety, soporific spell over my days in the loft, like the lotus flower seducing its isle of shipwrecked sailors. There was a tin lunch box in my desk drawer full of “petty cash”—hundreds of dollars that I was allowed to spend, even supposed to spend, each week—on lunch, wine, and “supplies,” defined with a delicious, capacious vagueness. Could this include the beautiful camel-colored fur-lined coat hanging in the window of a nearby boutique that probably cost more than the rest of my wardrobe put together?

There can be a sudden, clarifying vertigo to realizing that the seduction that doesn’t seem to be about money is actually all about money. Showing up at her brownstone each day made me hear the charm and jingle of Manhattan wealth, its supple siren call. It wasn’t that I admired it, exactly. It was more like lust, that sense of being close to power, being at the epicenter of Where Things Happen. This was even better than being a writer, perhaps. Perhaps.

At the end of each workday, I was responsible for submitting something called an EOD, an end-of-day report. It was basically a typed list of all the things I’d done. After a few weeks I realized that the primary objective of the EOD was to make it as long as possible. More than my boss actually wanted things to get done, she wanted to feel like things were getting done. She wanted to look at a set of stapled pages listing my completed tasks, or even my “in-progress” tasks, which I included for thickness, and know that things were happening in the Assistant’s Loft. These daily ledgers helped her understand herself as the leader of a tiny but prosperous empire.

I didn’t particularly admire my employer’s work, but there was something I admired about the way she refused—or leaped across—the gap between vision and execution that was often invoked as a kind of holy, impossible threshold in bars I’d frequented as a writing student back in Iowa. Of course, leaping across the gap was easier when you had a brownstone, a lot of disposable income, and a stable of paid employees to whom you could outsource the elements of your existence that most vexed you. But you couldn’t, not really. I was starting to suspect that that was what so much of my crying was about, on some primal level: an off-loading of her pain onto someone else; that it was part of my job to absorb her frustration and her anger, the same way it was my job to chase down her opera-ticket refunds.

It often felt as though I hoarded up horrible moments from my day, ready to share them with whomever I was meeting that night; and then I felt the same hollow comedown after I’d delivered my short parade of anecdotes—what had they been good for? They hadn’t changed my life, or excavated any meaning from it, or even brought me closer to the person I was talking to. They felt rehearsed and perfunctory, but underneath them was a desperate yearning—more like a scream, and far less possible to express—for another life entirely.

One Friday morning in November, my boss was scheduled to give a talk at a conference happening at Columbus Circle. This was less than ten blocks from her house, but she wanted me to book her a town car for a half hour before the talk. Gently, I suggested that if we were going to book a car, we should probably book it for a bit earlier. “There might be traffic,” I said quietly, and what was my “might” about? There would definitely be traffic, obscene traffic, in Midtown at rush hour on a Friday morning. Maybe my “might” was a strangled, deceptive attempt at generosity—as if to suggest that it wasn’t completely misguided to book a town car, simultaneously indulgent and inefficient, because who could truly foresee the whims of the New York City traffic gods?

In any case, my boss didn’t want the car booked for earlier. She didn’t even want to go downstairs once the car arrived! Or rather, she wasn’t ready. She was indignant, even, at the number of things she had left to do before she could leave—at the audacity of the driver for arriving before she had time to do them.

Sometimes you can foresee the gods’ every whim, and the seemingly endless car ride to Columbus Circle played out as I expected: My boss was livid that we were running late. Why were we stuck in such traffic? She was yelling at the driver from the back seat, leaning forward and yelling while I tried to catch his eye in the rearview mirror to tell him with my gaze: I know this isn’t your fault. I know this woman is insane. It was almost a relief when she started yelling at both of us: This was an important speech and how had we failed to fully grasp that? It was clearly my fault because I’d booked the car, but it was also clearly his fault because he was driving. We were running later and later by the minute.

Every time I caught the driver’s eye in the rearview, he looked away, and I realized that to him I wasn’t an ally at all. How could I be? I was simply part of the machinery of this woman and her various shades of monstrosity—another well-paid mercenary serving the cottage industry of her Upper West Side empire. Something shifted in my molecules that day as new knowledge took root: Whatever pays you, you can’t get it out of you. You have to own that it sustains you.

Before my boss went onstage to give her lecture, she screamed at me in the lobby about how much I’d gotten wrong that morning, how I’d almost ruined everything. Getting yelled at wasn’t terrible because it felt personal but precisely because it didn’t—it felt utterly impersonal. It was like I wasn’t even human, but just a hologram upon which her frustrations could be unleashed—a projection of everything in the world that had ever failed to understand her needs or honor them. What happened between us in that lobby felt less like an interaction between two sentient beings and more like the ritual flogging of a corpse. There was frustration and it needed to hurl itself at something, like water finding its level. It felt deeply embarrassing to be yelled at in front of strangers—as if some primal vulnerability had been exposed, like I’d peed my pants and then walked around with the dark stain showing.

My boss flew to a speaking gig across the country that afternoon, and I went back to her brownstone and posted an ad for my own job. I had about two hundred résumés within an hour. After printing ten of the strongest résumés and leaving them on my boss’s desk, along with my keys and a note telling her that I was done, I took the rest of the petty cash (severance pay) and walked out the door. On my way to the subway, I used the petty cash to buy the beautiful fur-lined coat.

Nearly fifteen years later, I still have it. I still love it. But whenever I wear it, I feel the smallest twinge of shame. The fact that I walked out so suddenly seems to point to some internal deficit. Was I such a fragile flower? So convinced I deserved something better? It was a luxury to quit and believe that everything would turn out okay.

But I also feel a certain tenderness for that younger self who quit so impulsively. She sensed a great darkness, and she wanted to remove herself from its grip—from its payroll. She was a quitter, and a survivor. She had a coat that all her friends admired.


More from