back to the Black Table

I think I could probably handle this whole professional working 8-to-6 business, the long groggy ride to work in the morning, the flaccidly cheery receptionists with their flat hair and brown teeth and lost dreams, the bland office tie that stops at the navel, the empty elevator patter, the balding stench of atrophy, the creeping dread that this really might be all there is and it will be like this for a very, very long time … I could handle all of it, I really could, if it weren’t for the interns.

Those goddamn interns. With their eager eyes, their quiet vigor, the bounce in their step. They swagger into an otherwise perfectly pleasant den of corporate mediocrity and taunt us with their futures, their hope. They come in ostensibly to learn, to get a feel for the working world, but they have an advantage: They


know they will eventually leave. They will leave to go back to their blissfully listless campuses, with their keggers and their drunken hookups and their road trips, and we will be left behind. They are all that we once were, all that we lie to ourselves by claiming we wouldn’t want to be again. And they don’t even grasp any of it. We are just minor pit stops, supporting characters in the infinite story of them. The stresses of bills and deadlines and pointless complications with the expense report, none of it touches them. They just breeze in, they breeze out, and when they’re gone, all we’re left with is the stain of knowing right now, at this second, they’re having more fun that we are.

Why must they torment us so?

Admit it: You hate the interns. They’re constant reminders that we’re stuck, that we signed up for a game before we really understood the rules. That they will eventually go through the same thing is little consolation. They still have time left. Our clock is up.

Our intern just finished his summer tour of duty. His name was Nigel, and he was a smooth, hip student at Northwestern. I didn’t work much with Nigel, but he seemed diligent enough, and like an extremely nice guy. My interactions with him were primarily through our weekly basketball games just down the street, where he routinely destroyed us. He had more skills, definitely, but mostly he had about a hundredth of our body fat. If we were playing full court, forget it; by the time he jogged back down the court after a breakaway layup, I was on my second cigarette.

One time Nigel came by my desk and asked about an internet column he’d heard I wrote, primarily to see if it led to any freelance work. I told him occasionally, not really, mainly just luck of the draw, if something strikes the right person at the right time in the right way, maybe there’s a chance. He said he understood, yeah, got it, thanks, man. He was awfully nice about it, but I couldn’t help myself. I asked him if he took any philosophy classes in college. He said he didn’t. "Good," I said. "Those things are completely stupid and useless, and are mainly for people who don’t have to work for a living. You’ll learn that." He nodded awkwardly, uh, sure, and slipped away. Yeah! Don’t you forget it! Now get off my lawn!

We took Nigel out for lunch for his last day on Monday, to a fancy steak restaurant just by the office. (Among the grand list of Poor Decisions, by the way, eating half a porterhouse for lunch on a Monday has to be pretty high up there. I’ve been finding iron ore deposits in my stool for three days.) Like any functioning office, everyone strained to steer any conversation away from work. I joked about my girlfriend’s friends not liking me, the art director told a depressing story about an old girlfriend seeing him and saying, "Hey, you’ve gotten old and fat too!" and my boss fretted about the possibility of the corporate card being rejected. During a lull in the conversation, I turned to Nigel and said something I desperately wish I hadn’t.

"So Nigel, this is your last week, and you don’t have to be up for work or anything in the morning. You fitting in some last-minute partying?"

Nigel chuckled. Interns chuckle when they recognize your pathetic attempts to live vicariously through their youth. Just one of their things.

"Well, yeah, ha, actually, me and some of my boys went down to this club by the river and, check this, there was a wet T-shirt concert going on. It was crazy, man. We were there til like 3."

You know how, when a celebrity is on trial, how the throngs of cameramen and talking heads follow them down the steps, shoving microphones in their face, shouting questions at them? Our table was a lot like that. Oh, boy, was Nigel popular. You were where? Are you kidding? What were the girls like? Did you hook up with any of them? How much did you drink? How late were you out? How long did it last? Do they have those all the time? Are you going again tomorrow? Nigel, who, I repeat, would actually be kind of a cool, friendly guy if he weren’t an intern, just looked down and chuckled to himself. The art director looked at me, who, before Nigel came around, was the youngest guy in the office. "Man … don’t you wish you could have gone to a wet T-shirt concert when you had the chance?"

Before I could even stop myself, I bellowed.

"Hey, I could still go to a wet T-shirt contest!" It was an exclamation, at a volume entirely inappropriate for the setting, though, to be fair, there probably isn’t an appropriate setting to suddenly scream about wet T-shirt contests. At a rodeo, maybe.

The restaurant went silent. Forks dropped. Glasses shuffled. Old white men in white shirts and black pants cleared their throats. The world spun lazily on its axis, mocking. And Nigel chuckled.

I love my job. I really do. It’s steady, I work with like-minded and talented folk and, at times, it can even be inspiring and challenging. But it is what it is: A pallid line of cubicles housing old men who would rather be outside. Interns are a glistening reminder of that, like the sun shining through the bars to the man in the cell, and frankly, I’m glad I don’t have to squint anymore. You’ll get yours someday, Nigel! Damn kids!


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