(Note: This is a draft, with some mispunctuations and typos, as well as too many clotted clauses. The “final” version is somewhere else.)
As nearly everyone knows by now, Atticus Finch, that steadfast attorney from Maycomb, Alabama, led the local Citizens’ Council in the 1950s. When agitators from the NAACP and Communist Party came south to stir up trouble after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision, he fought the good fight for segregation. Atticus had even joined the KKK once upon a time, but that was in, like, 1919. You know, back when the Klan was a respectable organization, like the Masons. Something professionals and gentlemen could belong to.
Or so goes the Atticus we are given in the newly published, long-suppressed novel Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, author of that phenomenal early-60s bestseller To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the publishing succès de scandale of the season. Because while Watchman is not a very good book (let’s get that out of the way right now), it depicts Atticus as a crusading segregationist. The Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird is quite another thing entirely.
Remember the Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, the novel or (better yet) the 1962 Academy Award-winning film? That Atticus is a god-like hero to the local Negro community, a 1960s-styles civil-rights liberal living in 1935. Well, Go Set a Watchman‘s Atticus, written slightly earlier and based more immediately on Harper Lee’s elderly attorney father, A.C. Lee, is a hero of a different sort. He keeps anti-mongrelization pamphlets about the house, and argues that the Negro has not sufficiently “evolved” to be given social equality.
It is not likely that a professional Hollywood liberal like Gregory Peck (Atticus in the Oscar-sweeping movie version of TKAM) would ever care to play or meet this Atticus. The great climactic scene in the story is a conversational showdown with his daughter (and stand-in for the author), in which he lectures her, patiently and at length, about the Negro problem.
“Jean Louise,” he said. “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia?” . . . “Let’s look at it this way. . . You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? You realize the full implications of the word ‘backward,’ don’t you? . . . You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to share fully in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?”
A couple of pages later, Atticus prophesies what doom and corruption would ensue if we had a Black-Run Government:
“Now think about this. What would happen if all the Negroes in the South were suddenly given full civil rights? I’ll tell you. There’d be another Reconstruction. Would you want your state governments run by people who won’t know how to run ’em? Do you want this town run by—now wait a minute—Willoughby’s a crook, we know that, but do you know of any Negro who knows as much as Willoughby? Zeebo’d probably be Mayor of Maycomb. Would you want someone of Zeebo’s capability to handle the town’s money? We’re outnumbered, you know. . .
“[T]he Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people. . . The NAACP doesn’t care whether a Negro . . . tries to learn a trade and stand on his own two feet—oh no, all the NAACP cares about is that man’s vote.”
Finally his daughter, Jean Louise Finch (the “Scout” from TKAM) gets in a spluttering rebuttal, and it’s a doozy.
“I know it’s [civil-rights progress] got to be slow, Atticus, I know that full well. But I know it’s got to be. I wonder what would happen if the South had a ‘Be Kind to the Niggers Week’? If just for one week the South would show them some simple, impartial courtesy. I wonder what would happen. . .”
Then her temper suddenly flares, she calls her father names, and drives off in his car, swearing she’ll never speak to a family member again. 
By now you will have some notion of why this “lost” novel was kept buried deep in the Harper Lee archives for over a half-century. It is incredibly un-PC and a little too spot-on in its predictions. Moreover it’s a terribly talky book, one in which little occurs except petty disputations about politics and family relations. The characters spend most of their time talking about obscuranta such as church hymns and Lord Melbourne. Yes, Lord Melbourne—you know, the feather-blowing early-Victorian Prime Minister. But why oh why? He is repeatedly invoked here, and also made a guest appearance in TKAM, for some reason known but to God and Harper Lee.
* * *
Watchman has a number of odd stylistic curlicues. The lead character is given to a lot of interior monologue, some of it stream-of-consciousness-y and difficult to disentangle from the outside conversations. She likes to quote Gilbert & Sullivan lyrics to herself. I first spotted something from Trial by Jury, then The Mikado . . . finally, when I came across a Mad Margaret song from Ruddigore, I realized that the narrative routine of Go Set a Watchman is in fact very much like bad W. S. Gilbert. An eccentric character comes on stage, tells why he is eccentric, sings a song—and departs! That’s pretty much how it goes with Watchman. We get a gallery of static characters, many of them mildly eccentric, but none of them eccentric enough to be interesting. Harper Lee no doubt saw this problem, and that’s why she filled TKAM with a whole menagerie of Southern Gothic crazies.
Additionally, and unlike TKAM, Watchman lacks excitement. There are no murders, no rapes. There is no sex or even romance to speak of. Jean Louise Finch has a sad-sack boyfriend, Hank, a young attorney of white-trash origins who works for her father; but Hank is not marriage material for a Finch; so like most of the subplots, this one’s a dud.
There is however one shining episode of a gynecological nature. This is a long flashback to childhood and the schoolyard. The setting makes it a kind of foreshadowing of TKAM even though it occurs a couple of years later than its time-scheme. Jean Louise, still the tomboy known as Scout, is now eleven or twelve years old. One day she gets her period, and high comedy ensues.
Now, Scout’s mother is long dead, so of course Scout doesn’t know about menarche and such like . . . because although Scout’s been reading since she was a baby, supposedly (we learn this in TKAM), somehow she hasn’t learned anything of a practical nature. Finally Scout gets clued in by the Finches’ black housekeeper, Calpurnia. She goes back to school next day, very unhappy, since she’s become a woman and all that. She’s all harnessed up under her school dress with a Kotex pad the size of a brick and a sanitary napkin belt. (The modern reader is probably unfamiliar with the aforementioned contraption, and I expect this passage will puzzle many readers. In brief, sanitary-napkin belts were standard-issue female gear till about mid-century, though they continued to be listed at least through the 1960s on what-to-pack checklists for boarding schools, summer camps, and insane asylums.)
Anyhow, here is Scout, and she’s walking funny. The white-trash girls from up-county know the score and laugh at her. They make jokes about the Curse, and fill her full of schoolyard misinformation.
A boy French-kisses Scout; she’s learned from her white-trash friends that once you start ministratin‘, a tongue-kiss will make you pregnant! Scout thinks she’s in a fambly way and there’s only one way out of her shame. She must go to the edge of town and jump off the water tower. Of course the whole town gathers ’round . . . and young Scout finally learns the Facts of Life.
Here at last is the author in full flower. This episode shows the kind of book she should have written. A black comedy full of menstruation and French-kissing gags would make a fine addition to any publisher’s Young Adult backlist.
* * *
Some peculiar and wrongheaded notions have attended the publication of this novel, errors we are going to hear repeated for years to come. One is that it is somehow a rough draft or “prequel” for TKAM.  It is neither, although the setting and characters are similar. Nor, of course, is it a sequel, though it is set twenty years later.
Nor was its existence much of a surprise. Anyone who knew much about Harper Lee understood that TKAM had gone through many revisions before publication, and that she had even written a complete novel with some of the same characters a few years earlier. According to biographer Charles Shields it was Go Set a Watchman that first brought Lee to the attention of her publishers (Lippincott) in 1957 . But the editors wanted a lot of changes. They hated the title. They wanted to rename it Atticus. They wanted a tighter, leaner narrative line, instead of a meandering string of barely connected episodes. Eventually Lee gave up and cobbled together a new novel out of short stories she’d written about her hometown of Monroeville (Maycomb), Alabama, bits of which stories had been also been repurposed in Watchman. As the new novel was set in the 1930s, out went references to the Second World War, the Brown decision, Emmett Till, the Citizens’ Councils. No longer set in the contemporary 1950s, the new novel would be instead hearken back to the misty watercolored memories of old Alabammy. (As I noted last year, this second novel had similar continuity/plot problems in its early form, which Lee and her editors solved by gluing on a lurid subplot about interracial rape.)
There was a cultural shift between 1957 and the early 1960s that made Watchman a much less attractive property than it had been originally. For much of the Fifties you could still joke, if nervously, about race relations and the Ku Klux Klan. Top model Suzy Parker, statuesque redhead on the cover of LIFE in 1957 and eye-candy in three big feature movies that year, could joke that “I come from an average Ku Klux Klan family,” without causing too much fuss (although her highly respectable kinfolk were slightly embarrassed). And of course there were still plenty of old Klansmen serving in Congress or the Supreme Court. Why, even Harry S Truman had nearly signed up with his local Kleagle, back in the 1920s. The KKK was just a reality of political history. As for Citizens’ Councils and the John Birch Society , they had not yet been tarred with the brush of “extremism” and bigotry as they would be in the 60s.
By the time To Kill a Mockingbird had spent two years on the bestseller list and been made into a landmark film, racial segregation was no longer a tenable argument for mainstream news outlets, or for politicians outside the Deep South states that went for Barry Goldwater 1964. So there were very good reasons for Harper Lee to bury Go Set a Watchman under a mound of personal papers, and never mention it again.
1. Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, published 2015. The section quoted and described is in the hardbound edition’s pages 246-257.
2. See for example, Alexandra Petri’s recent column on it in the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost/wp/2015/07/21/go-set-a-watchman-is-not-worth-reading-i-learned-this-the-hard-way/
3. Charles J. Shields, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee. 2006.
4. This has given rise to the misconception among some book reviewers that Atticus aka Watchman was in fact an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.
5. Bérénice de la Salle, Beautiful Riddle: The Strange Case of Suzy Parker. 2011.
6. The JBS is wispily alluded to in Watchman, even though it would not come into existence for another year. Atticus suggests that the hot-headed speaker at the Citizens’ Council meeting is secretly being subvented (as Revilo Oliver would say) by an outfit in Massachusetts, which would seem to point to Belmont’s own Robert Welch, who was getting some ink in 1957.
How many chillun you got?
That’s the important thing. That’s what all primitive people really want to know about you.
That’s the important thing. That’s what all primitive people really want to know about you.
They get to the point where they’ve figured out that you’re either male or female (even though they can’t see either a penis gourd or pendulous dugs), and they know your approximate age (somewhere between adolescence and total decrepitude). Now they’re happily puffing away on your Philip Morris Commanders (king-size, unfiltered, good for jungle bugs) and they’re ready to move into the small-talk stage of your acquaintanceship.
And here it is. “Hey you! You got chillun? How many chillun?”
Go ahead and tell them. Anything you like. One kid, six kids, sixteen kids. It’s not like the little savages are going to write down your children’s birthdays so they can send them something nice (just imagine!). No, they’re just being innocently nosy. It’s something they ask of all strangers, and no one’s ever smacked them down for this rudeness so they keep on asking.
Sometimes the questions get detailed—”You have a boy? How old? Is he warrior? You have girl—how much you sell her for?” It is always best to be prepared for this. Along with the Philip Morris Commanders in the left side pocket of your photo-vest, bring a fact sheet about your kids. Maybe even some fuzzy snapshots.
My own prepared script goes basically like this. “Oh yes I have four children. Two girls, two boys. Between five and fifteen. Evenly spaced. Their names are Mary, Joan, John, and Robert. They live with their other parent, as I am usually away on business. The boys play baseball [a game formerly very popular in America] and the girls do ballet [this is a kind of theater-dance some people do in my country]. Who is oldest? Oh, that would be John. Then Mary. Then…”
Even a savage has limited attention for this sort of thing, and by this point my new friend is probably waving and nodding and inviting me into his hut to look at the shrunken heads.
Here is a good whingey tourist page: http://theotherparis.net/hotspots/sacre.htm
The second or third time I went to Sacre-Coeur was in May 2002. I was with a couple of friends from Oxfordshire, Alma and Julia. Alma was baffled by the place. She knew it was a stop on the tourist itinerary, but didn’t understand its purpose.
I started to explain the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, and the popular belief that France had degraded itself since 1789 and needed to atone for its sins and reconsecrate itself, and Léon Bloy, and Therese Martin of Lisieux, the Little Flower of Jesus… But I held my tongue, more or less.
I held my tongue and listened for the nugget of Alma’s confusion.
“I mean, why do they have this?” she asked. Why do they need this, in addition to Notre Dame?”
Alma was born in Manchester, but her parents were refugees from Poland (Catholic) and the Ukraine (Orthodox) and she had no significant religious upbringing. She also has lactase deficiency. I decided she probably couldn’t digest my Bellocian explanations of this or that.
So I just said, very smoothly, “Oh well you see, this one is a basilica.” And left it at that.
A Chilly Little Department. For eighteen months this area had been empty, for eighteen months we had been assured that the move was imminent. Next month, in the new year, at the end of summer, six weeks from now. When it finally happened, all the tidiness, space and sunlight were off-putting to our self-image. We were no longer a ragtag band of ruffians shipwrecked on a far-off isle, but merely one of several departments in a humdrum office space. The self-congratulating camaraderie that had bound us together now melted away. We withdrew into our own little preoccupied isolations.
We had often gone out in groups for lunch: sometimes the whole mob of us, over to Shake Shack, or Szechuan Gourmet, or something Turkish or Japanese, or maybe Maoz, the strange vegan falafel place (Russ was a vegetarian). All this stopped when we moved to 16. We became a chilly little department.
Our new neighbors were not delighted with us. Many of them were old-fashioned corporate “lifers” who had been in place ten, fifteen, twenty years; the sort of people who bring meticulously prepared lunches from home, arranged in Tupperware containers and soft-fabric lunch-caddies that fill up all the shelf space in the tiny office fridge. The coffee pantry was a cramped little space to begin with, and now here we were doubling the local population. For some reason the pantry housed a fax machine, a laser printer, and a bin for the document shredder, in addition to vending machines for snacks and soft drinks and Fresh Direct “gourmet” lunches ($$$, as Tim Zagat would say); besides the little refrigerator, sink, coffee contraption, cabinets, and a single, tiny microwave oven. No more than three people could fit into the remaining space at the same time.
Your Friendly Facilities Manager. One day in the pantry I met a large blowsy woman called Tracy. Tracy was the VP in charge of facilities, and quite possibly the very person responsible for the novel multipurposing of the pantry area. I chatted her up with friendly banter about how I was with Online Dev, and how we had been looking forward to this move for a year and a half. Yessiree Bob—every month they’d kept telling us, Next month we’re moving to Sixteen! And finally we’re here, at long last love. We made it!
“Ooh noo!” said Tracy. “Unnh-unh. There was no plan. Nothing definite. They may have told you you were moving, but nothing was finalized, nothing was signed. I know. I’m Facilities Manager.”
“Is that right? Well anyway,” I said, “it’s good to be up here finally. That 11th floor was really awful. They never cleaned it. And those ridiculous melamine carrels or workstations, or whatever they were supposed to be! It sure doesn’t say much for the company’s regard for us, giving us the worst work-space in the whole building, ha ha ha!”
“Well that is not what happened!” quoth Tracy, again. “Those desks were your department’s choice! You people demanded them. They were custom-built. We said, They’re not gonna work. And they said, It’s what we want! We had regular cubicles there and we had to rip ’em out! So then finally the new workstations arrive and get set up, and the desks got set up, and the people down there go, These are too small! Take them back! And we said nooo, we warned you! This is what you ordered, now you have to live with it! Anyway we can’t take them back, the lumber’s already been cut and paid for.”
I had to assume that Tracy knew what she was talking about. For she was Facilities Manager. And a bitch on wheels.
Things fall apart. One week after we moved to the 16th floor, my young boss Russ Harper pulled up stakes and moved to San Francisco with his wife Nina and their baby Helen. Nina had a post-doctoral fellowship in genetics, and Russ got a comfy programming job at Bibulous Labs.
They took turns with Helen, who was now two. Sometimes Russ took her to work. Bibulous had a very nice creche, and only two other toddlers on hand, so she was more than welcome. Sometimes Nina took Helen to the genetics lab, where they experimented on her. That’s a joke, son. Lots of young ‘uns at the genetics lab, you bet, and loads of toys. Scientists always have the best toys, don’t they? Never mind the price, ma, it’s Science! The baby sometimes got left with a babysitter, but not too often, because half the time Russ or Nina or both of them worked from home.
Very cozy for Russ and family, for sure. But hell for the rest of us. We hadn’t fully realized it before, but Russ was our glue at Midtown Magazines. Once he was gone, things fell apart, and I mean almost immediately.
The Spook Who Sat by the Door. The first people to complain were the magazine editors. Their initial peeve was that Devland wasn’t giving them adequate support and hand-holding. Translated, this meant was that Russ was no longer around as their friendly, low-key, go-to contact. During those long months when Online Development didn’t have a director, Russ had functioned as de facto head, despite the fact that he was a mere programmer who had been there for only a year. To make the situation seem less incongruous, the higher-ups bumped Russ up to a “manager” level, bypassing a couple of devs who’d been there five years or more. After Narwhal finally moved in as director, and the editors pretty much ignored him for the first year. By the time they finally got to know Narwhal, we were headed into a slow-motion train-wreck.
One of Narwhal’s recruits from the video-game-boy world insisted we change our database for Wine & Dine, so we did so, right around the same time that we were migrating our servers and revising the basic design of the online magazine. This completely broke the “versioning” in Wine & Dine‘s CMS (content management system). So if editors rewrote an article, saved it, and then decided to revert to the earlier version, they suddenly found they couldn’t. The earlier versions still lived somewhere out in space, but there was no way to bring them back and reedit them them. Which defeats the whole purpose of having a CMS.
The “community” portal, where Wine & Dine fans posted recipes and pictures and bloggy little commentary, also broke. Personal data and images just disappeared—whoosh!—and we never got them back. A little later, something similar happened with the online edition of Fly + Buy. That travel site also lost its cute, popular photo contest. People would post their outdoor travel snapshots (some were quite professional, actually), our editors would pick their ten favorites, and then the fans would vote on these finalists. The monthly winner got some cheap prize–an underwater camera, e.g.–and competed for the annual grand prize of a trip to some oddball place like Korea, or British Honduras.
Our Fly + Buy photo contest really drove traffic to the site. The trouble was, it was housed at an outside vendor. This made it slow and wonky, and tricky for editors and developers to update. Narwhal and his merry site-breakers conceived great, grandiose plans to bring it all in-house. They’d rebuild the whole community site and photo contest from scratch, using the new, trendy technologies they’d heard about at the South By Southwest conference in March. This sounded like a sensible idea. But a few months later, Narwhal’s team announced that they had neither the time nor the resource for the project, because they were busy with other work. An outside vendor would have to brought in—much as we brought in an outside vendor to redesign the Wine & Dine in mobile-friendly fashion (an endeavor in which they did not really succeed, although we paid them $900,000 anyway).
That sounded like way too much money for too little result. Editors and content managers were incensed. You’re the developers, you’re the ones who came up with this plan. Now you can’t do it? And so died the photo contest. At first Fly + Buy announced it would be returning in 2014, but it hasn’t. In fact, Fly + Buy doesn’t even have a “community” portal anymore.
The Turn of the Screw. As soon as Russ was out of the picture, Narwhal and Jeremy began to pester me with petty abuse, provocations, insults, hazing, and strange “gaslighting” routines. One day they would tell me not to talk to people in Editorial, and a few days later they’d say I needed to communicate better with the people in Editorial. Jeremy had a recurrent routine wherein he’d darkly imply that Somebody in Editorial was saying Bad Things about me. No names, but he would always add something like, “Those people you think are your friends, they’re not really your friends.” He was trying to get a rise out out of me. For whatever diabolical, mischievous reason, Jeremy wanted to build a case that I was a Behavior Problem. Explosive. Difficult. But first he had to bait me sufficiently.This was my best guess.
Anyway I tried not to rise to the bait. Jeremy called my impassivity being “passive-aggressive.” I vaguely rationalized, in the abused-person sort of way, that this ill-treatment might actually be a Good Thing because… because it would motivate me to get the hell out of Dodge! A whipped cur is a wiser cur. And I suspected I wasn’t the only one having a bad time.
One, two, three developers quit; rats off the foundering vessel. Jeremy and Narwhal scoured the four corners of the Third World for second-rate replacements. As neither Jeremy nor Narwhal had managerial experience (or much corporate background of any kind) they didn’t know how to hire people. Instead of looking for capable team members with the right personalities, they targeted narrow, granular, specific “skills.” We ended up with newcomers who couldn’t communicate very well, although each one was ostensibly the master of some bright and shiny new techno-fad. “Bugalu knows Backbone.js!” Jeremy trilled about one of them. Maybe Bugalu did. Alas, we had no particular need for Backbone.js at that moment, and anyway, as things turned out Bugalu didn’t know much else. These new hires were treated much like the old East Indians from Cognizant: each was put on some specific narrow-gauge project, and then left to work and rework and re-rework it for months on end; while meantime a dwindling number of regular employees tried to hold the hold the magazine sites together.
No joy in Devland. In August 2012 I ran into one of the editors offsite and mentioned that I was constantly stressed out. Morale was very low in Devland, I said. The editor nodded sympathetically. “Narwhal giving you a hard time? We all hate him, we’re trying to get rid of him.”
This was an eye-opener. It had never occurred to me that the editors hated Narwhal. I thought they just preferred to ignore him. But like a magnet dragged through iron filings, this little nugget of information pulled together all the vague suspicions and baffling mysteries that had been nipping at me. I’d noticed that Narwhal had been sniping at me and giving me dirty looks ever since Russ left. Somebody was poisoning the well, telling stories about me, and it wasn’t our friends in Editorial. No, it was my new boss, Jeremy. For some time he had been telling doggie tales. He persuaded Narwhal that when Wine & Dine editors complained about lack of support, this was not targeted at Narwhal, but rather at someone else in the Dev group. Specifically young Margot.
As this campaign gathered steam, my co-worker Glynda, the only other female developer, gave her two weeks’ notice. She had had quite enough of Jeremy, Narwhal and company. When Jeremy first took over, he told us that we should pick a developer’s conference to go to, and the department would pay for it. However, when Jeremy and Narwhal and their video-game-boy friends went to South By Southwest in Austin, that expense ate up more than the entire conference budget for the year. So no conferences for the girls.
Glynda was fed up with other, more substantial things as well, mainly involving exclusion from departmental planning meetings, and lack of regard for her talents. She hadn’t whined about any of this; that was not her style. And as a practical matter it is very difficult to bring up sensitive, fuzzy problems like this until you get to that final HR exit interview (when Glynda did mention them). If she or I were to complain of exclusion from something, we’d get some lame defense on the order of, “Well, Bugalu wasn’t invited either. We don’t invite Bugalu to strategy meetings. So there.” Blah blah. Oh I see. Now I’m being put on the same level with Bugalu, whom you brought in—when? a week ago Tuesday?
I inherited all of Glynda’s work, and was pretty much back to where I’d been the previous year, doing the work of two people. Time for me to move on, too. I kept checking the internal job postings but couldn’t find anything.
Smackdown at Gregory’s. Jeremy went off to Europe for the very first time in his life in July 2012, using the $5000 travel voucher he’d won by cheating on the video contest. When he got back, Narwhal told him to put the screws on me ever harder, to make me quit or explode and be fired. One morning in mid-July they came by my cubicle and demanded I accompany them to a nearby coffeeshop.
While we walked around the corner to Gregory’s Coffee, I recalled a Wall Street Journal article from years ago, explaining how pharmaceutical firms had a set routine for firing their sales reps. They took them out to a “public place,” a restaurant or diner, because the poor sots would be less likely to cry and scream and generally cause a scene. Was this what they had in mind for me at Gregory’s?
It probably was. Hindsight tells me that my intuitions were usually correct. Jeremy laid into me aggressively with his prepared script, while Narwhal stayed silent. I had not kept my skills up with those of the other front-end developers, he began.
I giggled. For most of the past 18 months I had been the only front-end developer. “What other front-end developers, Jeremy?” I asked.
“Bugalu!” said Jeremy. “Bugalu knows Backbone.js! You don’t know Backbone.js!”
“Bugalu?” I guffawed. “Bugalu from Timbuktu? He know Backbone, why not you? That Bugalu? Stop me if I’m wrong, but Bugalu just started. He’s just a temp or something, isn’t he.”
“No! Bugalu is Full-Time Employee!” said Jeremy, banging his fist on the phonograph-record-sized table at Gregory’s Coffee. “There you go again, being very passive-aggressive!”
Presumably the plan was to provoke and prod me, make me incensed, get me to up-and-quit. Or just yell at them, throw hot coffee, beat them within an inch of their lives, or give them some other pretext to fire me. I again refused to rise to the bait. I was theatrically humble. Eyes downcast, I told them sadly I realized they didn’t like me for some reason, and that was okay, because maybe they should move me back to where I came from, down in Editorial…
“But you can’t do that! You’re a Developer!” said. Jeremy briefly went off-script. He was truly astonished. I had a flash of insight into his worldview, which put web developers at the top of the status hierarchy.
“I’ve done lots of other things,” I said. “You don’t like me, that’s okay, we can work this out amicably. Give me a few months and I’ll find another job in the company.”
Bad to worse, worse to worser. There was a seething verbal fight between Narwhal and Jeremy later in the week. They’d been out at a meeting, and when they got back after 6 pm they thought they were alone. I was in a room nearby. Embarrassed, I tried not to listen (why? I ought to have listened better) but I caught enough.
Narwhal was cross with Jeremy for having screwed up the Gregory’s meeting. Apparently I was supposed to have been fired then and there, but Jeremy got derailed by my suggestion that we find an amicable separation. Narwhal didn’t like the idea of me hanging around another few months. Narwhal told Jeremy he was being ungrateful for not working harder to fire me right away. After all, Narwhal said, he had done Jeremy the immense favor of booting him up to this managerial job and paying his admission to South By Southwest.
The company paid it, actually, said Jeremy, a bit snippy. We can’t get rid of Margot now because she’s doing all of Glynda’s work. So what do we do? HR departments have ways of getting rid of employees. You make out they’re a behavior problem or you say their skills are not up to par, and you put them on 90 days’ probation, and if they’re still there you fire them It’s standard HR procedure! I read it on the internet.
“Heh-heh,” thought I, “you just try some funny business like that and I’ll be banging on HR’s door.” I started drawing up a list of the various harassments I’d been subjected to since March.
A few weeks later Jeremy and Narwhal called me into the 16th floor conference room and presented me with a lengthy dossier of my supposed failings. Couched in evasive, vague phrases, Jeremy wrote, in sum: Nobody likes her. Everybody hates her. She can’t do anything. She is a problem child. We’ve tried to put up with her but she is hopeless.
The cover of the document said PIP: Performance Improvement Program. This is was the company’s version of what is known in the human-resources game as “progressive discipline.” Over two pages, Jeremy enumerated my vague failings and demanded that would complete a series of online video tutorials and quizzes during the next three weeks. This looked infantile and ridiculous, so with shaking hand I signed acknowledgment. If I had known then what I know now, I would not have done this. (Furthermore, a “progressive discipline” program was completely inappropriate in my case, since I had just had received a favorable review six months before, and in fact all my previous reviews with the company had been good.)
But I didn’t know what I was getting into. Many of the exercises were nearly impossible, and the websites were buggy and could not register correct results. One of the tutorial modules had 440 coding problems, many of which might take an hour or more to answer. The other modules each needed, realistically speaking, a couple of days to complete. All told, these exercises would take somewhere between 120 and 150 hours to complete: not really feasible within a timeframe of 21 days, even if I sometimes worked on them during office hours, along with nights and weekends. Nevertheless I got them done in three weeks or a little over. Smugly I e-mailed Jeremy my links. I half-expected congratulations for having passed with flying colors.
But this was not the end. Jeremy redoubled his persecution. He assigned me a new three-week task, that of creating the a new prototype for the Fly + Buy photo contest. As you may recall, this project had been shot down because it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars of development time, and take three to six months to complete and test. Nevertheless, here I was, assigned to do it all in three weeks. I came up with a couple of partial prototypes, quite remarkable given the limited time. I could not believe that Jeremy would keep up his little game after this. But he did, of course he did. I tried to complain to HR. There really wasn’t anyone HR to complain to. I’d known a couple of chubby blond girls there, but now they were gone and my own department’s needs were being addressed by a couple of chuckleheaded black women. They both had weird, forgettable names, so I thought of them as Mammy and Prissy. Mammy was the senior-most, and quite hefty; her main job was shuffling the forms for the Manpower temp payroll. Prissy was young and shiny-faced, and had her hair done up in the shape of a broccoli floret. She was very friendly and sweet-tempered. However she was of absolutely no help. I told her about the abuse and provocation I’d been putting up with from Jeremy and Narwhal, but she didn’t care. “You signed the P-I-P,” she said. “That means you agree with it. We can’t do anything.”
I had a plan in reserve, one I never used. If things got really impossible, I would pull a sick day. Then another sick day. Then I’d go on sick leave, and extended sick leave, while I shopped for a new job. Why I never pulled this stunt is still unclear to me. Part of it was 1) It’s too complicated, and 2) I’m in the Right. Neither one is much of a logical argument. Had I finished law school, I would advise any legal client to avoid such self-indulgent crap. Such arguments are based on short-term pridefulness, and pridefulness butters no parsnips.
Really, I should have done the sick-leave thing.
But once I got used to the filth I found Devland immensely relaxing, like an old hammock. You could come to work wearing a hoodie and your pajamas, and no one would complain. It’s Liberty Hall, folks! You can do what you like! You can sleep at your workstation, and no one will complain. Got a meeting that’s interfering with your nap schedule? Don’t worry, one of your colleagues will wake you up or even cover for you!
There was only one hard-and-fast rule in Devland, and even that wasn’t terribly hard or fast. You had to make it to Scrum. Scrum, or more properly SCRUM, was the morning ritual wherein you’d stand up with your coworkers in a circle, and tell about what you’re working on. Are there any impediments? Do you need help? Confess it all to your Scrummies, so they can vouch for you when you screw things up. If you didn’t make it to Scrum, you had to pay a dollar. The dollars went into a biscuit tin. Once or twice a year we’d open the biscuit tin (there’d be a couple hundred dollars there) and have a nice big Chinese dinner, or we’d take it to a basement dive in the Village called Fat Cat’s, and blow it all on beer and skittles.
All those carping, mean-spirited things we used to say about the devs when I was down in Editorial—how they were lazy, intransigent, didn’t give a Holy Fuck? Dammit if that wasn’t all true! Indeed! Oh ye of little faith, why did you doubt?
I had made it to the Promised Land. Praise de Lawd!
It Wasn’t All Velvet. I was the only front-end developer in the department; that is, the only person who actually coded webpages for Wine & Dine. (Fly + Buy, our sister publication, had a front-end person, but she got to stay in Editorial. Fly + Buy‘s online editors wouldn’t dream of exiling her to Dev Hell!) There were a couple of other “heads” allotted to front-end development, but they never got filled, so I was constantly doing the work of two or three people.
Narwhal traded in our two empty “front-end” heads for a couple of back-end programmers. I do not remember them clearly, but I believe they were mutants from the planet Zod, and that Narwhal had met them through the online-video-game community, or some such. These luminaries lasted six months or a year, par for the course; during which time they coded a little, ate a lot, and played loads of online games and video tutorials. Back at the ranch, I was still doing all the front-end coding. Sometimes I had to work weekends. (No overtime.) Frequently I was the only one in the office, even on weekdays. If it snowed a little, or rained a lot, the other devs stayed home; most stayed home anyway on Wednesdays, and on Fridays during the summer. Our clients from Marketing and Editorial would pay the department personal visits, and find that I was the only one there (other than perhaps some East Indians way in the back, and nobody quite knew what they did). I’d try to solve emergencies if I could, made some phone calls if I couldn’t. If the problem didn’t get solved, I got the blame. It didn’t pay to be the only person in the office.
Meet the Kids. My three closest friends in the Dev group were all in their twenties. There was my boss (let’s call him “Russ”), a wraithlike Ruby on Rails programmer from Texas. All Russ ever wanted to do was code, code, code, and hang out with his baby daughter and geneticist wife. They lived up in Yorkville, which was not too bad for Mrs. Russ, who worked at Rockefeller Institute, but it was a helluva hike for Mr. Russ who had to come down to Bryant Park every day. He rode his bike when weather permitted; this was the quickest option. (Ride over to Engineers’ Gate at 90th and Fifth, enter the Park, go down to the Seventh Avenue exit, ride to 44th, go left one block, put the bike in the Hippodrome bike rack. Twenty-two minutes!)
Russ was immensely likable and laid-back, so the higher-ups were continually promoting him and tossing him new responsibilities he didn’t want. Eventually he’d had too much; overwork and a wonky GI tract were killing him; so his wife took a post-doctoral fellowship in San Francisco and they got the hell out of Dodge. (They’ve been very happy ever since.)
Russ was immensely likable and laid-back, so the higher-ups were continually promoting him and tossing him new responsibilities he didn’t want. Eventually he’d had too much; overwork and a wonky GI tract were killing him; so his wife took a post-doctoral fellowship in San Francisco and they got the hell out of Dodge. (They’ve been very happy ever since.)
“Glynda,” a Ruby girl, was one or two years out of a small college in Boston, having grown up in Pittsburgh PA and Hopkinton MA. Glynda helped migrate Wine & Dine from its old ColdFusion home to its new Ruby on Rails scaffolding. She was also the expert on our new Rails-based job-tracking system, Redmine. Beyond that she didn’t have much to do, other than some junky work that got tossed her way. She resented it, gritted her teeth over the fact that Devland was always going to be a boys’ club, and moved on out, exactly two years after she arrived. Glynda lived in or near Park Slope, had a corgi dog and a young husband, and a blog. She spent much of her time at work writing her blog. It was called something like, “The Life and Times of a Female Software Engineer.” Had it not been for Glynda, I might never have known that there was anything odd or exceptional about a self-described “female software engineer.” I always assumed that most women avoided devland simply because it’s yucky.
And then there was “Jeremy Preen”… a most curious soul.
Jeremy Preen was in his late 20s, half-Jewish, half-Italian, with recent roots in both Boston and in Brooklyn. Other people might describe Jeremy as a highly narcissistic gay guy, but I wouldn’t. He was just a little over-the-top, like someone who was trying out the role of a narcissistic gay guy. Lots of people try out different acts in their twenties, and when they realize they look silly they can move on and try something else. It’s not like getting a tattoo. Anyway, Jeremy’s act involved spending a lot of care on his high, pointy quiff of hair, which cantilevered out and and curled over his forehead like an awning. He managed somehow always to have exactly three days’ beard-stubble on his face. He dressed year-round in long, pointy-toed shoes, tight black jeans, and (except during summer) a short “bum-freezer” pea-coat. He bore a passing resemblance to the young Laurence Harvey. True to form, he had no idea who Laurence Harvey was.
Jeremy was one of the most deceitful and devious people I ever met, although I would not recognize that for many months, deviousness being what it is. He was the sort of person who would sabotage your work to make you look bad, or remove you from some event’s e-mail invitation list, and cluck his tongue in sympathy when you wondered why you were left off. Whether he did these things out of spite or mischief or secret vindictiveness, I never knew. With his purring, sinuous, catlike demeanor, he generally kept himself above suspicion. Once he entered an online video contest, for which the prize was a $5000 travel certificate. A couple of days before the contest closed, he figured out how he could cheat and win by entering thousands of extra “votes.” He told Glynda and me about it, and encouraged us to help him in his dirty quest. Jeremy “won” the prize, and I congratulated him on his cleverness.
In sex, age, appearance and moral sense, Jeremy and I were as unlike as could be. Yet we had some things in common. We called ourselves web developers, but we weren’t programmers; and in a department where nearly everyone else was a programmer, that made us stand out. We’d ended up in the Dev department for similar reasons. We’d both been something like “floating temps”; until one day when the company org chart had a great big convulsion and we got blown over to Dev. Dev always had extra money and extra chairs. In a roundabout way, Jeremy was the cause of my coming Midtown Magazines in the first place. He had sold himself as a superstar-guru but was actually quite inept. He had mastered of art of appearing knowledgeable, picking up all the latest tech buzzwords and expounding loftily about the latest fads. “I can design, develop, strategize and execute!,” says his online bio. “I founded two companies!” This self-promotion got him hired as a contractor to work on some specialized marketing sites for Wine & Dine. But the work was beyond his capacity, so he showered the marketing folks with oozy charm and lofty double-talk, and found some other “work” to do, work befitting his talents. That is, he went to meetings and talked grandly to managers outside vendors. After a while Midtown Magazines realized they still needed an in-house person to work on those marketing thingies. That’s where I came in.
Jeremy’s single example of web development, the thing that got him hired, was a kind of blog site where one can register and post recipes. Or at least you could, presumably; it appears to have been broken for a couple of years. Even when functioning it was outrageously bare-bones; so minimalist that I sometimes speculate that the marketing people must’ve read it as edgy, disruptive, brilliant; Dada in Blogland. (But no, they wouldn’t have been smart enough to make that mistake.)
As I noted before, Jeremy’s real métier was office-socializing. It gave him the opportunity to charm people who might be useful to him. (Diametrically different from me; I hate meetings, and the idea of manipulating people or buttering them up makes my skin crawl.) Likewise Jeremy was adept at getting “face time” with anyone who happened to be above him on the totem pole. Jeremy was so good at this, and so persuasive, that he eventually got Narwhal to create a brand-new managerial-level job, just for him. No longer a mere contractor or Marketing coder, Jeremy would now be the UI/UX (User Interface, User Experience) “Channel Manager.” His heavy responsibilities would include holding meetings with the people in Marketing and Editorial, and talking to the outside UI/UX consulting firm that had been engaged to redesign our online magazines.
This was a masterstroke on Jeremy’s part. Like me, he had perceived that Narwhal didn’t like developers who weren’t back-end programmers and online-video-game players. The solution was to define himself as something else, something important-sounding but vague (who really knows what “User Experience” means?), a role that would let Jeremy to spend his time doing what he did best (go to meetings and manipulate people), while getting other people to do the coding and heavy lifting. The fact that Jeremy had little experience with UI/UX (he was as lame a designer as he was a coder) cannot have been a fatal deficiency when talking to Narwhal, who knew even less, and was as easily impressed by shiny new buzzwords as any wide-eyed, pink-cheeked marketing bunny.
How Jeremy Sealed the Deal. What finally did the trick was when Jeremy told Narwhal that making him a manager would be a positive step for “diversity.” The hidden corollary to this was of course, If you don’t give me this job, then you are not in favor of “diversity.”
And so Narwhal was persuaded. He couldn’t stand up to this “diversity” cant. He was himself some kind of nonwhite: negro, red Indian, a touch of something else. Narwhal had been recruited, circus-style, from across the country precisely to fulfill somebody’s wish to have a Person of Color at the department-director level; particularly a P.o.C. like Narwhal, who had a B.S. from Stanford (to which he had no trouble gaining admission, being an in-state, affirmative-action applicant).
Narwhal liked to say he was a libertarian, and I don’t think he approved of special pleading for trendy minorities; but of course he wasn’t coming from a position of strength. Moreover, Narwhal had the clear impression that the people in Editorial and Marketing all loved and admired Jeremy. He had this impression because, well, Jeremy gave him that impression. It was a very salient point that they liked Jeremy, because they didn’t much like Narwhal. And so it was announced, shortly after the New Year, that my lazy, dishonest colleague Jeremy would now be Manager, UI/UX. Whatever that was. A couple of months later, Russ and his family moved to San Francisco, and Jeremy became my boss.
Cathy Charlton, my old boss from Editorial, shook her head in wonderment and dismay. “He’s so . . . young. You watch out.”
She was sensing trouble ahead, but I thought she just disliked Jeremy.”Oh, we’re good friends,” I said. “It’ll work out fine.”
She shook her head again. No, no, no. Disaster loomed.