In January of 1997, when I was
training to be a car salesman, another man and I used to spend the
afternoon coffee break together. “When you want to become a car
salesman, does that mean you’ve hit the bottom of the barrel?” he
said, finally, without meeting my eye.
“No,” I said, “it depends on what kind of
salesman you turn out to be.” I still believe that. There was quality
at the auto store, at CompUSA and even at Nobody
Beats the Wiz.
There were stinkers, too, of course, but they were
also interesting to me. I was a stranger, a foreigner in the service
economy. I’ve lived most of my life in Westchester County and on
Manhattan Island, which is where I took the jobs for this book, and yet
I feel that in researching this book, I have traveled a great distance.
I’d always stood on the other side of the counter. I’d always been
the one with the money. I’d always been the mark.
I was raised to disdain sales. When I went to work
after college in 1970 as a reporter at The
Rockland Journal-News in Nyack, N.Y., I looked
down on the advertising salesmen, even though they worked upstairs. I
started at $100 a week. I believe they started at $115,
and earned more if they actually sold advertising.
So why did I finally step through the looking glass?
How did I make the transition from Senior Editor at The Reader’s
Digest and a corner office in the Pan Am Building (now Met Life) to
the all-polyester suit of a Burns Security Officer?
Research? Yes, and no.
I wanted to write. In 1988, I
left my job at The Reader’s Digest, set out on my own,
published a book of my father’s letters.
I then wrote a novel, and for those of you who think
nobody will turn down a book with Cheever at the top of the page, I’m
here to tell you they’re out there. By the dozens. Ultimately, I
cleared that hurdle, had one novel published, then a second. Three’s
the charm. The third would be my “break-out book.”
My publisher’s imprint, Atheneum, was closed down.
He was not offered another one. I was sorry, because Lee Goerner had
become a friend. I was not that sorry. I was free now to go to
any publisher I chose. The first two books had gotten a good deal of
positive critical attention. And as long as I had a publisher, other
publishers were very friendly, practically lascivious. “If you
are ever unhappy,” they said, “give us a call.” Wink, wink.
Lucky them, I thought. Lucky me. I finished my third
novel. It was sent out. There would certainly be a bidding war.
No bidding war ensued. Not a shot was fired. Not an
offer made. Not one.
So maybe the book wasn’t perfect. Some editor would
roll up his sleeves, her sleeves. Working together we’d make a
masterpiece. That’s what I thought. No sleeves were rolled. It’s not
as if they hadn’t read my other books, either. They had. And it’s
not as if they didn’t know what I could do. They did know what I could
do. Some editors liked my first two novels and thought the third wasn’t
as good. Some editors didn’t like any of my novels at all.
I’d strutted my stuff and left the world strangely
unimpressed. I was reminded of the middle-aged flasher I’d seen in
court when I was a reporter. He’d gone to the playground, flipped
opened his raincoat. The teacher was alerted by the sound of children
Being a Digest editor had seemed foolish
sometimes, but never this foolish. At least I hadn’t been alone. There
were dozens of Digest editors. You could see us in the cafeteria
or in the parking lot at night. Failed novelists don’t have a
cafeteria. If you are a novelist who can’t get published, are you
really a novelist at all?
As a writer with a rejected novel, I was very much
alone. As a man who’d spent decades preparing himself to do something
unwanted, I was not. This was in 1995.
Forty-three-million jobs had been eliminated between 1979
and 1995, according to THE
DOWNSIZING OF AMERICA, the book based on the 1996
New York Times series.
It was happening all over. Mike, the proprietor of
Pleasantville’s You Can’t Believe It’s Yogurt, told me that he had
been at Avon, then the Post Office. Now the yogurt store was failing as
well. A man who had been a Vice President when I was a junior editor at
the Digest turned up to paint a mutual friend’s condominium in
Somers, New York.
So I put together a proposal. I’d write a book about
downsizing. I’d play out everybody’s worst nightmare, take
entry-level jobs. While writing the proposal, I was a sidewalk Santa,
trained to be a tax preparer for H & R Block,
worked for Burns Security and sold computers. “They’re going to love
this,” I thought. “I’m actually doing something now!”
Nobody liked the proposal.
“You’re a writer,” they said. “You’re not
out of work. Your distress isn’t genuine.” They were wrong. My
distress was genuine.
Some editors checked on the success of my two novels
and found that, despite good reviews, the books hadn’t sold very well.
So apparently I was a failure as a writer, but I still wasn’t out of
work. Figure that one out and you win the Catch 22
John Yossarian Prize with gold-leaf cluster.
Finally, Adam Bellow – then at the Free Press –
bought the proposal. (Yes, we knew each other. Two sons of famous
writers. And yes, we were friends.)
Still, I was haunted by the comments of editors who
hadn’t liked the proposal. Was I qualified to write this thing? I’m
not an authority. Nowadays we have respect for two sorts of authorities:
those who are experts, and those who are authentic.
I’m certainly not an expert. When I think of
experts, though, I remember Dr. Stuart M. Berger. I met him only once
and that was at a dinner party. He was hunched over an enormous bottle
of champagne, the type you see in the windows of liquor stores during
the high holidays. The bottle came almost to my waist: it came to the
doctor’s knees. Berger was a tall man, over six and a half feet. He
was trying to get the cork out, but he was having difficulties because
the smoke from the cigarette in his mouth was drifting up and into his
When I offered to help, Berger explained that he’d
recently thrown out his back. The doctor, in case you’ve forgotten,
was a famous health writer. He wrote a health column for the New York
Post. His books included THE SOUTHAMPTON DIET
and DR. BERGER’S IMMUNE POWER DIET. When the man
who claimed to know how to live to be 100, died at
the age of 40, he weighed 365
Don’t get me wrong: I liked Dr. Berger. He gave me a
couple of his cigarettes. Nor was he as anomalous as we might suppose.
J.I. Rodale published health magazines and said he expected to live to
be 100 “unless I’m run down by a sugar-crazed
taxi driver.” Rodale said this on the Dick Cavett show and died right
then and there of a heart attack. It’s not just the diet gurus,
either. When I was at The Reader’s Digest, we employed a man
who wrote compelling articles about how you could fall in love endlessly
with the exact same woman: your wife. My then-wife and I were
exquisitely unhappy, so I took his teachings very much to heart. There
were tricks and maxims, stirring tales from personal experience. I was
shocked, therefore, when I met the writer and learned that he was on his
Certainly some experts do know what they’re talking
about, although few of them write best-selling books. In any case, I’m
not an expert.
Am I authentic? It depends upon what you mean by
authentic. Movie stars become authentic through struggles with drugs or
alcohol. Writers often become authentic by recalling some harrowing or
splendid “true life incident.”
THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE is the story of a
boy brought up by Cherokee grandparents. First published in the 1970s,
it was later reissued as an overlooked masterpiece. Schools interested
in a window on Native American Culture made it required reading. “A
true story by Forrest Carter” reads the 1985
paperback, which I own. But it wasn’t written by Forrest Carter. It
was written by Asa Carter, an ex-Ku Klux Klansman. Probably he wasn’t
brought up by any Indians. Certainly not the Indians in that book. Why?
Because those Indians are too good to be true.
Well, this particular Indian is not too good to be
true. If I have a problem, it’s that I’m not good enough to be true,
or at least not good enough to be a writer. Not when you compare my work
to my father’s work – which, of course, everybody does.
Since I began this project, my third novel has been
published, but I still have bragging rights as a failure. I’m a
Perfect strangers praise me for the courage to allow
my prose to be compared with that of my father. What, exactly, was my
I wanted to write. Do want to write. You have to run
the race, don’t you? Even if you’re sure to lose.
My wife, a New York Times critic, is also
markedly successful. As is my sister, Susan. I’m haunted by the image
of a knot of bored and restless people standing near a berm of freshly
turned earth and beside an open grave. Head bowed, one mourner turns to
another and whispers, “Ben’s life does seem to have been designed to
excite unflattering comparisons.”
No, I’m not out of money: but I do know shame.
Besides which, work is about identity almost as much
as it’s about cash. People without jobs are people without status. The
unemployment rate is universally accepted as a misery quotient.
When I began to hold jobs, I felt real again, a
creature with weight and legitimate needs. When I was working, I was
Were my experiences on the job real? I think so. Plus,
my financial security gave me the freedom to write about them. Had I
actually roasted in economic hell, I might not have been willing to
report on it. Shame is a central component of failure, and with shame
comes silence. Nobody sends a letter to the alumni magazine to announce
that he has failed to make partner. I have a number of acquaintances who
lost jobs while I was writing this book. “Tell me everything,” I
always asked them. With few exceptions there would be radio silence,
unbroken until the new position was landed. The dead waters, the
interviews that didn’t pan out, the sobriety jobs, went unreported.
There certainly were fill-in jobs to be had in 1995.
I saw them posted in the windows of the stores at which I shopped. I
started walking into those stores and asking for job applications. This
didn’t feel good, like the first time you go to the hospital, and you’re
not bringing chocolates or flowers, you’re bringing a suitcase with
your very own pajamas in it.
Yes, yes, I told them who I am. Benjamin Cheever,
former Reader’s Digest editor, former novelist. Nobody ever
said, “You’re too good for us.” Mostly they asked if I would work
nights and weekends. And for a urine sample.
There seemed to be a lot of people starting again at
square one, not because they were researching a book, but in an attempt
to make a living and also to have some place to go in the morning.
When published as a book, THE
DOWNSIZING OF AMERICA wasn’t a success. “It tanked,” a
friend in publishing told me. Is this because we don’t want to deal
with failure? I think not. I think the book flopped because it only
played down at the low end of the keyboard. Magnificently written,
scrupulously researched, it was nevertheless a litany of complaint.
Feeling sorry for oneself can make good copy, but very
few people feel sorry for themselves all the time. They get out of bed
in the morning, they make coffee, and they go to work. They make love.
They laugh about their troubles. One of my colleagues in car sales was a
former IBMer. When he was explaining why he lived
so far north, he said, “I moved there to get near my job. Then they
fired me.” Then he laughed. We all laughed. It was funny.
I never held a job, for a month, for a day, that didn’t
alter my personality.
This is not to make myself out as a hero. It’s
difficult for a writer to be a hero, because he’s always thinking: “Wait
till the world hears how badly I was treated.” Punch a reporter in the
face and he’ll think, “That’s a Marine Corps ring he’s hitting
me with. The globe and anchor. Nice detail.” The heroes of this book
are the ones who didn’t expect to be written up.
The men and women who were kind to me on these jobs,
they didn’t do it for attention, they did it because they were kind.
The ones who were cruel, might not have been so cruel, if they’d known
I would write about it.
Was my approach underhanded? Yes and no.
I could have gone in and identified myself as a writer
reporting a book. Probably I wouldn’t have been hired. Even if I had
been hired, it would have been an entirely different story.
Or I could have simply interviewed people. But that
would have been a different story also. I would have had to ask
permission. The people who want to be interviewed are a self-selected
group and by no means representative.
When I was working at The Rockland Journal News
in the early 1970s, it was widely believed that
economic conditions were so dire that senior citizens were eating dog
food. Legislators, both local and national, would refer regularly to
these old people and their irregular diet.
I had contacts in welfare rights and Legal Aid, and so
finding the local angle on the dog food story didn’t seem impossible.
I got some tips, but the closest I came to a starving elder was a woman
of about my own age who’d had her electricity shut off. She was living
in subsidized housing, an apartment at least as comfortable as the one I
was then in. She was good-looking, a single mom, taking college courses.
There was an air conditioner in every window. She was allergic, it
turned out, and her electric bill exceeded the utility allowance set by
the Rockland County Department of Social Services.
I’m not an allergist, and it could well have been
that her distress was completely genuine. Still this wasn’t a story
they would run on the wires. It wasn’t a story at all. I wanted some
old gent with his grizzled chin three inches away from a bowl of Alpo.
Maybe there weren’t any senior citizens eating dog
food in the county. My guess is that if there were any, they didn’t
want their picture in the newspaper.
The lens of public attention attracts a certain brand
of person; and in America, at least, those people seem unusually good at
finding their own lunch.
Sometimes a subject will distort his story; sometimes
the media does it for him. Often it’s a collaboration. We had a
photographer who carried a woman’s high-heeled shoe in the trunk of
his car. Fortunate enough to chance upon a ghastly auto crash, he’d
put that shoe in the foreground before he took the picture.
He and I worked together once on an article about the
local emergency food cupboard.
The photographer went out to take a picture of the
cupboard. When he got there and opened the cupboard, it was crammed with
food. So our photog, he turned to the woman who administered the program
and said, “Now, this is a story about an empty cupboard. I’m going
out to the car to get fresh film. When I come back, if the cupboard is
empty, we’ll have a picture and a story. If it’s not empty, you got
no picture and no story.”
Now there are some enormously talented interviewers,
but these are rare. To complete a good interview is just about as easy
as it is to take an oyster out of its shell, and still have a live
I’m not that talented. Besides which, the
interviewer has to be tougher than I like to be. He must seem always to
go along with his subject’s vision of himself (usually heroic, always
sympathetic) and yet be willing to present a more accurate picture.
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full
of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally
indefensible.” So wrote Janet Malcolm in her starkly honest book, THE
JOURNALIST AND THE MURDERER.
There is another sort of information out there –
and, no, it’s not objective. Nor is it scientific. It’s the kind of
commonsense information we all get from simply living a life. When you’re
buying electronics, for example, watch for the spiff; and if you’re
leasing a car, then multiply the monthly payments over the length of the
contract. Always check the math yourself. And above all remember what a
friend told me on the floor at CompUSA: “It’s
a small world: so don’t make enemies.”
So instead of interviewing people about their
troubles, I thought I’d share their troubles and see what they’d say
to a colleague.
This book’s greatest failing is that it’s turned
into such a personal story. I’m the character I talk most about. So it
seems as if I’m the only character who matters. Please know that this
is not what I think. It wouldn’t have been fair, though would it –
or legally advisable – to reveal everybody else’s life as if it were
my own? Instead I’ve had to reveal my own life as if it were everybody
The stories I found, like my own story, seem sad to me
and funny. And yet the most shocking revelation is a cheering one, or at
least I found it cheering. We like to pretend that failure and
extinction are synonymous. People fired by The Reader’s Digest,
or even by The Rockland Journal-News were referred to ever after
as if dead. We didn’t just lose contact with our colleagues, we lost
sympathy. We lost interest.
“The opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of
love is indifference,” according to Rollo May. We didn’t damn our
former colleagues to hell; we damned them into a state of un-being.
Meanwhile those who succeeded became the subject of
feverish curiosity. Cruelty, alcoholism, adultery and the wildest
eccentricities are beloved in the man or woman who rises through the
ranks. Aberrations aren’t just forgiven; they are cherished and
sometimes even imitated.
Guess what? The failures haven’t vanished in a puff
of smoke. They’re out there. Not always sad, either. Rarely repentant.
Failure is supposed to keep its chin clean. Failure is
expected to know the forks. Failure should be solemn and upright – and
silent. “Really, if the lower orders can’t set us a good example,
what on earth is the use of them?” says Algernon of his servant Lane
in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST.
Oscar Wilde lived in England, you say. The English
have a class system. And we don’t? “Class in America is a joke,”
the poet Donald Hall once wrote,” but it is not funny.”
So what I’ve been doing for the last five years is
eating dog food in discreet little bites.
Almost three million people are laid off every year,
according to Richard Nelson Bolles, whose book WHAT COLOR
IS YOUR PARACHUTE? boasts over six million copies in print.
Eloquent testimony not just to the excellence of the text, but also to
the seriousness of the problem.
Sundays, during 1995 and 1996,
I often took my two sons to the McDonald’s in Thornwood, New York, for
breakfast. When I began work on this project, I brought The Tarrytown
Daily News along and read the classifieds. One day, having been back
to the counter to complain about how my elder boy’s Breakfast Burrito
smelled, I returned to find a stranger collecting my newspaper. He was a
small man with a moustache, in a short-sleeved wash-and-wear shirt,
necktie, jacket and hat. I told him that it was my newspaper, but that
he could have it. “All but this,” I said, and waved a hand at the
The man looked at me; then he laughed. It was a long
laugh, dry and almost entirely without mirth. There I was in my
expensive sweatshirt, with my blond boys, and I suppose he thought: “Maybe
some day I will be his boss.” That’s the American dream, then: half
nightmare. The song: “America the Beautiful.” The game: musical
chairs. The tempo has never been so frantic.
Job security is a fixture of the past. The combination
of a fluid global economy and of the stock market’s need for
consistently high profitability will see nicely to that.
This book is written to honor those men and women who
have been fired, and who dusted themselves off and got back into the
ring, often with a dramatic reduction in status, frequently at a
fraction of their previous wages.
It’s also written in recognition of those people who
have always worked hard for very little money. Twenty eight and a half
million workers nationwide earn less than $8 an
hour. Only 37.6 million earn $15
or over, according to figures provided by the Economic Policy Institute,
and printed in The New York Times in November of 1999.
America is an economic juggernaut, and I don’t
suppose an economic juggernaut can ever be entirely fair or just. You
have to break eggs to make a revolution. Do you also need to break eggs
to make a profit? Sometimes. Fine, but we’ve got to remember that no
major faith I’ve ever heard of associates blessedness with gross
The poor are poor, but they are not damned until we
damn them. Which happens a lot. We live in an age in which some
physicists think the photon may be a sentient being, and yet many of us
assume that the clerks at Nobody Beats the Wiz are not sentient beings.
The woman behind the counter at customer service has
trouble working the register – but remember, she probably took that
job a week ago. Odds are good that she works nights somewhere else and
is helping to support her mother. The American Express Platinum Card may
guarantee easy credit, but it doesn’t necessarily make you a quick
study. I bet you’d have trouble with that register too.
The heroism of the hourly worker (and no I don’t
think heroism is too strong a word) is most dramatically illustrated in
I once saw a former IBMer –
not the one in car sales – work Easter Sunday to repair a customer’s
broken computer, a good deed which, under the pay-plan of his employer,
actually cost him money. But even those who simply survive with grace
are demonstrating a quiet and entirely admirable species of heroism.
They are toeing the line in a race they have already lost.
They’re all around you, these workers on the
comeback trail. The new old faces behind the counter often have moving
stories. This book is an acknowledgement of their numbers and a
celebration of their resilience, their energy, and their humor. I have
no doubt that without these silent divisions, the whole glorious front
Luke Chapter 13, Verse 30:
And, behold, there are last who shall be first, and there are first who
shall be last.
©Benjamin H. Cheever, 2001. From SELLING
BEN CHEEVER, published with permission of