Working for someone whose sense of humor is caustic, if it exists, eventually wears. Even the most cheerful good morning gets met by a humph, and a cloud of smoke from the Camel cigarettes he smokes. Ultimately, you wish to coil a rope around his neck and kick him off a high building – “it was a self-defense officer. I was sure to die either from smoke poisoning or malice.”
That’s what it was like to work for the “gentleman” I call Joltin’ Joe. Meeting his wife and son in the parking lot one day, I tried to make polite conversation. But, unfortunately, Joe came up in the discussion, and they asked that I not try to be polite – they hated him too.
Joe was the sort who liked to put obstacles out for you to stumble over. Then, he’d determine that you were incompetent, a slacker, or both. If you failed to meet his expectations, the obstacles got made harder; how dare you foil him? Be persistent in your obstinant obstructionism, and he’d start fuming. OK, now you need to understand that I am literal about the fuming bit. He’d chain-smoke the Camels so that he became enclosed in a foul cloud of smoke. The angrier he became, the fouler the cloud.
The small city we worked in was famous for its several universities and colleges. So it was not unusual that if the library decided to have a local authors series, they’d get truly prominent authors. Margery, the assistant director, loved to host these series, and she ran at least on a year – no repeats on authors either. One year she landed a prominent author who had just published a fictional work on coastal Maine. Rather than another dull presentation by the author, he suggested an informal colloquium of people to discuss the book. Margery thought this would be interesting and started planning it.
In Massachusetts, you find any number of people who spend summers in Maine, have a cottage and regularly descend on the locals for a week or two. Margery’s problem was that the author requested that she find someone to add to the mix with an academic background in writing or studying the coast. But, of course, this needed to be done without fulminating academics. After all, this was a “patty cake” presentation, not an academic brawl.
Margery recalled that I had done fieldwork in coastal Maine, had written on the subject but was not an academic. Perfect.
The event went smoothly and was very enjoyable. The author “summered” just two towns away from where I had been and kept his boat at Spinney’s yard. As a result, we formed a sort of insiders bond. As things were wrapping up, someone in the audience posed the question, “Where do you find the source material for your characters?” The author smiled and thought about the answer. “Well, bad actors are easy. Remember, if you’re nasty and rude to a writer, they have the means to immortalize your idiot behavior for a much larger audience than you ever imagined. So be careful what you say or do.”
Through this presentation, Joe had been using his eyes to toss daggers at me. He was unhappy that I had gotten included in the program and angrier still that the author had acknowledged me. Smoking was not allowed in the meeting room, but you could still smell the stench of stale tobacco smoke about him.
I decided to take the advice seriously that had been casually offered. So, scrambling for a pen and paper, I began a character sketch of Joltin’ Joe in all his smoke-wreathed glory. It was going to be stupendous!