MARK G. BRENNAN remembers a strange but deeply significant job interview
My lacklustre grades, inflated ego, and halfhearted work ethic combined to make me unemployable when I graduated from college in 1986. But Price Waterhouse’s dire labour shortage during the economic rebound after the early ‘80s recession forced them to consider undesirables like me. Jack McKinnon, a stolid partner from Price Waterhouse’s Boston office, came to my school to rustle up prospective employees in the fall of 1985. For some baffling reason, Price Waterhouse had selected my mediocre resume from a pool of more qualified applicants for an on-campus interview. As I sat down in the cramped room to redress my (dis)qualifications, and beg for a job, McKinnon crumpled up my resume and exclaimed how excited he was to finally meet me. I sat there perplexed. Me?
McKinnon skipped the perfunctory quiz on accounting arcana and Price Waterhouse trivia. Instead, he grilled me on that weekend’s upcoming football game between my school, Holy Cross – where my athletic prowess on the field rivaled my academic incompetence in the classroom – and his, our archrival Boston College. A purebred BC Eagle despite his lack of feathers or a hooked beak, McKinnon proudly told me had attended almost every Boston College home game since his mid-1950s graduation. Desperate for a job, I kept trying to sell my paltry financial skills while deflecting his gaze from my Scarlet Letter grade point average and blank resume. Waving off my subterfuge, McKinnon kept bringing the conversation back to Holy Cross’s game plan for Saturday.
Catastrophic visions of financial distress had loomed in my mind as graduation approached. I feared lifelong unemployment were I to blow this opportunity, my sole on-campus interview. I respectfully pled, “Jack, I’m happy to discuss the game. But I need a job and this is my only chance. Can we please discuss the possibility of me working at Price Waterhouse?” Our dwindling 30-minute time limit started to count against both our agendas. Every minute I subjected him to my meek supplications was a minute less for him to get the inside scoop on the upcoming clash of rivals. He impatiently snapped, “I will call the New York office right now to recommend they hire you. Now, back to Saturday’s game”. What was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me – employment at the most prestigious accounting firm despite my lack of qualifications – was an even rarer opportunity for him – discussing that weekend’s upcoming match with one of its participants, an aspiring accountant no less.
McKinnon eventually called Price Waterhouse’s New York office. I got the job. My first year there I earned $22,500, decent money for a recent college graduate in Bonfire of the Vanities New York. $22,500 went a lot farther in 1986, and not just because of inflation. With Communism’s collapse still a few years in the future, Russian plutocrats had yet to bid up Manhattan real estate and coarsen its already brusque culture. My post-collegiate expenses fell into two buckets, rent and “weekends”, the practical and the otiose. My weekend expense line contained several subcategories: draft beer, tequila shots, and pizza, as well as greasy food, Gatorade, and aspirin for hangovers. My fixed lease determined my rent payments. So I had to scrimp on my “weekends” to finance my escape hatch from Price Waterhouse, graduate school.
Skip ahead to 2020’s pandemic lockdown. I deleted the “weekends” category from my personal income statement about 20 years ago. When I turned 35 I had a welcome epiphany. Two hours of drunken bliss didn’t compensate for two days of hungover misery. Goodbye booze, hello books. Since March I have rarely left the house. But my expenses again fall into just two categories, the practical and the otiose: real estate taxes and books. I’m lucky. I don’t have a mortgage even though I still don’t own my house. If that last remark makes no sense to you then try this experiment: Stop paying your real estate taxes and then tell me who owns your house. So aside from forking over protection money to the village tax collector, my only other pandemic outlay has been for my avocation, reading.
When I’m not imitating a college professor as I teach online from my dining room table or writing articles that you mistakenly stumble upon like this one, I serve as Books Editor for the monthly magazine Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. My responsibilities include selecting books for review, identifying reviewers whose expertise will provide unique insight, and hounding those same experts when they miss their deadlines. Aside from that last task, no job could better sate my incurable bibliophilia. Unfortunately, my dream of daily book deliveries from publishers eager to market their latest imprints will never come true due to the financial exigencies of 21st century publishing.
Nevertheless, publishers eagerly ship me single copies upon request and my personal finances provide for shopping sprees on Amazon. My wife sees my spending priorities differently. Nary a day goes by without her remarking,
You’ve worn the same pair of pants for three months straight and your wallet has now worn a hole through the back pocket. Why don’t you spend money on a new pair of khakis instead of another shipment of books?
True, during the pandemic I have dressed like a Depression Era hobo. Zoom’s limited viewing frame has empowered this disturbing habit. Perhaps my wife should just be thankful I don’t ask her for spare change when we pass in the hallway. Nonetheless, her sartorial pleas have had as much effect on my insatiable book buying as my snide comments about her overstuffed closets have had on her ceaseless clothing purchases. Luckily for our marriage, she only buys electronic books now. She rules the closet. I rule the bookshelves. And we agreed to our separate realms without plagiarizing the 9th century’s Treaty of Alfred and Guthrum or consulting a matrimonial lawyer.
Book shopping sucks when you do it from your sofa. I only spend two days per week in New York City – and both those days locked in my apartment thanks to my immuno-compromised status. I no longer visit The Strand, the United States’ best bookstore. Hyperbole you say? Then I guess you didn’t know The Penn Book Center in Philadelphia closed. Besides: my essay, my opinion. Go whine in the comments section below.
Anyway, I have not had the pleasure of browsing The Strand’s dusty shelves for nine heartbreaking months. Late stage withdrawal has set in. I no longer serendipitously happen upon books lying among the store’s legendary “18 miles of books”. Instead, I now suffer with Amazon’s inane “You Might Also Like” function, the way a recovering heroin addict suffers with a lollipop in place of methadone.
Aside from giving me bad book selections, Amazon’s artificially intelligent (read: moronic) algorithm fosters bad scholarship and promotes historical fallacies. Test it yourself. Click on my doctoral advisor Jonathan Steinberg’s biography of Bismarck. Lo and behold, the Amazon computer program tells Bismarck fans “You Might Also Like” to learn about the discredited, ahistorical nonsense that links the Iron Chancellor inextricably to Hitler. No historian has drawn a straighter line from Imperial Germany to the Nazi horrors, in all its Sonderwegisch glory, than the STEM brain trust typing away like monkeys in Amazon’s IT department.
And if you like your incorrect history raw, right off the Amazon website, then “Add to Your Cart” Telford Taylor’s The Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials: A Personal Memoir. If not, then diehard Bismarck fans can toggle over one book to the right where Amazon has “In Stock” Flip the Script: Lessons Learned on the Road to the Championship by Louisiana State University’s head football coach Ed Orgeron. The great men of history: Bismarck and Orgeron, with a spicing of Telford. And if you still can’t make up your mind which book to buy, Amazon’s “FREE Shipping” might coax you to purchase all three.
Maybe I should send Orgeron’s tales of football success to Jack McKinnon as a 35 year-late thank you gift. Perhaps I should include Steinberg’s Bismarck since Alexa, Amazon’s ghoulish spokesputer, tells me these books are “Frequently bought together”. I never thought I would miss The Strand’s tattooed, condescending staff. I shuddered every time I asked an information desk worker to direct me to a book. He/she/zie would adjust his/her/hir nose rings and ear gauges before deigning to type my politically incorrect query into the store’s computer. So thank you Amazon. You have taught me that there are in fact punishments worse than a 26-year-old gender studies graduate student’s caustic sneer when I ask which shelf holds Charles Murray’s latest work.
While I can wait to reunite with The Strand’s woke staff, I fear the pandemic can’t. My accounting career never took off for various boring reasons. But I can read a balance sheet and an economic environment. And neither of them look good in The Strand’s case. New York City has lost its pre-pandemic zest. “To Let” signs paper the windows of every other retail space. Each day brings more restaurant closings. Cabs have become impossible to find. Drivers now figure they lose less money sitting at home than burning a tank of gas in pursuit of nonexistent fares. Depression swallows me as I imagine my book buying future. My laptop will take the place of New York’s best bookstore. Instead of The Strand’s in-house Antifa brigade hissing at me, Amazon’s saccharine-voiced Alexa will politely ask, “I’m sorry. Do you really want to read Charles Murray?” And my wife will remind me my pants have a huge hole in the rear that would otherwise embarrass a normal person.
What to do? Maybe I should look up Jack McKinnon, who must now be in his mid-80s. As an alumnus of Holy Cross, I’m pretty sure Boston College graduates don’t qualify for entry through the Pearly Gates. But Saint Peter should make an exception for Jack and admit him to that eternal accounting firm in the sky. If I could reach Jack I imagine he might tell me he noticed my unhealthy obsession with the practical during our brief encounter in that stuffy room late in 1985. He might remind me that the best part of my life, the otiose part, was passing me by, just as I fixated on the practical.
I can picture Jack telling me over Zoom,
The last football game of your life, the last athletic event you would ever be part of, was just a few days away. And all you cared about was getting a job so you could sit in a fluorescently-lit office, 60 hours a week, and watch your muscles atrophy as you added up numbers no one would ever look at. I kept pushing you to enjoy the last fleeting moments of your youth. I bragged about reliving my college days through my near perfect attendance over three decades at BC games. But you kept pushing back. Well, I hope it all worked out for you. If nothing else, I pray you understand the otiose determines how well one lives his life, not the practical. You certainly didn’t understand that when I met you. Read great books. Worry less about where you buy them. And one last thing. You have a huge hole in your pants.
MARK G. BRENNAN is Books Editor of Chronicles