Thursday, February 28, 2013

Office Hours

If your persona contained the linguistic skills and sardonic visions of Ambrose Bierce (1842-probably-but-not-necessarily 1913), you might define the word office as "a place where one goes to think about necessary work that cannot in fact be performed there."

This observation is true in some measure when applied to many of your publishing-related jobs; it extends to a lesser extent to your work area here at 409 E. Sola Street, Santa Barbara, CA 93101 which, in terms of dimension, is about the same size as one of your largest offices.  This particular large office, at 1640 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA, 90035, was in many ways your most lavish and well-equipped, marked in your memory with the irony of being a place from which you fled from time to time to get away from writers.

You were, for a time at 1640, an editor, learning his craft on the job.  Then you became a senior editor, which meant you could begin spending more time away from the office in the pursuit of doing your job.  Soon after, you became editor in chief, whereupon, one afternoon, the publisher visited you in your office, looked about with clucks of amazement.  "Don't see how you can get any work done here.  How about I have the wall--"thumping the wall dividing your office from its neighbor--"removed and some shelves build."

This involved your frequent association with a carpenter named Buster for a greater period than you'd imagine necessary for removing a non-weight-bearing wall and the construction of shelves.  Buster was, as he enjoyed reminding you, a craftsman, one for whom every unnecessary nail was an affront.  "Things should fit,"  Buster said.  "They should not have to be nailed.  Most things these days, they have to be nailed and glued."

During this time, you sought and found some refuge in the storage and shipping area where, because of the demographics and cultural backgrounds of the shipping department (largely from Lake Charles, Louisiana) you were introduced to boudain sausages, hot links, and barbecued short ribs.  When your enjoyment of these became apparent, you were further instructed in a remarkable snack named Cush-Cush, which was crumbled day-old (or older) cornbread topped with cold buttermilk,  You did so well at this that you were invited to participate in the noon hour and break time domino games.

A contemporary photo of you from Publisher's Weekly reflected the current men's fashion of sideburns dropping precariously close to the chin line and an equal tendency for the rest of your hair to look as though you'd slept on a washboard.  Lunches were often in Beverly Hills or the Sunset Strip, but when you were lunching or breakfasting alone or with friends, Brownie's Deli, a few doors south on La Cienega, suited your palate and your time away from office-like behavior.

The notion to leave Los Angeles was born of grief and awareness of smog and congested traffic.  In many ways, 1640 So. La Cienega, even though you could not work there, had a hold on you it is difficult to forget, but you'd caught the eye of a New York publisher that wanted representation in Los Angeles.  The publisher made an offer, which resulted in an exponential increase in irony, including an intensification of your inability to get beyond making lists in your office of necessary things to be done and the further necessities of finding places out of the office to accomplish them.

"You're a natural," the publisher told you, "because you know the territory and the people."  You also discovered in a subsequent sales meeting that she had an intractable antipathy for the image of a snake to appear on the cover of any title published by any division of the parent company.  This was not at first unsettling to you because at the most minimal level you have no slight interest in herpetology.  As your tenure progressed, you were reminded by any number of peers and superiors, including the senior editor to whom you directly reported, "Mrs. Meyer does not wish to consider snakes on book covers."

A number of your early acquisitions provoked memorandum informing you that your acquisitions carried too much of a California flavor, observations that came to a head when you'd got your hands on a preproduction copy of the screenplay for Robert Towne's original, Chinatown, which you'd thought to get him to novelize.

Your office at the time was a building not far from where you'd lived as a five- and six-year-old.  It was not erected then, an attractive nuisance of a large lot facing Wilshire Boulevard, where you in fact played.  Whether from nostalgia or a budgetary matter, you refused the parking garage and parked on Orange Street, one block from where you'd lived before.

You will say this for New York, they appreciated the merits of Chinatown and believed it would novelize well, thus authorizing you to go as high as $50,000 for a preemptive bid.  Not so much as a smarty-pants but rather because of the screenwriters and assistant directors you were avoiding in your new office, you expressed the belief that $50,000 would be chump change, more an insult than an inducement.

You'd got hold of the screenplay in the first place as a favor from the author's agent who, when you told her about the top offer, said, "Shelly.  Dear.  Bob Towne doesn't do anything for fifty thousand dollars."

When you reported back to your superior, he raised what at the time you considered the quintessential existential question a New Yorker would ask of a Californian:  "Who the fuck does he think he is?"

The rest of the conversation went:

"He knows who he is."

"That is so California."

"Which is why he is here and, I might add, why you have me here."

"Well, we'll have to see about that, won't we?"

They did.  They saw about it.  And you saw about and perhaps through it, which has some bearing on your next office, which was at 2040 Alameda Padre Serra, Santa Barbara, CA 93103, in a building that was called a part of the Riviera Campus because it was located in a section of Santa Barbara called The Riviera, and because it was formerly the campus of what had been called California State Teacher's College and later became, for a brief time, University of California, Santa Barbara.

After about two months at 2040, you were moved from a desk in an unenclosed vestibule to an office with a window through which, most days, you could catch easy sight of two of the Channel Islands, resting on the comfortable blue of the Pacific as though they were mounds of pastry.  This office was far and away the most attractive and agreeable offices you've ever had.  In keeping with past experiences withstood in offices, you'd come to a rapid understanding of what a delightful place this was in which not to be able to get any work done.  As an added bonus, on Mondays and Thursdays, you could leave your office, walk down a narrow hallway which led to the balcony of what was once the auditorium of California State Teacher's College and which had by then become The Riviera Theater, Santa Barbara's equivalent of an art house movie theater.  You could watch the projectionist, screening the forthcoming week's features, if you wished to do so.

Because the function you were hired to perform in this airy and comfortable office was tied directly to the publisher's vision of scholarly book publishing, you were somewhat suspect, a suspicion inflated by the fact of your arranging for the sale of subsidiary rights on a project published before your arrival to a friend at a massmarket publisher for an advance of $30,000.  While Bob Towne had sneered at $50,000, your new employer in some analogous way bristled at the garish extravagance of $30,00 for mere subsidiary rights (when there were so many works of true scholarship, waiting in the store rooms to be taken up by some curious scholar).

Neither the general publisher, the massmarket publisher, nor, as you were yet to learn,the literary publisher, are without quirks and ironies.  Within a matter of months, New York was back, knocking, as it were. The offer was your office to be a corner office in midtown Manhattan, the title on the door to read, per your choice, editor in chief or editorial director.

By then, you'd had opportunities to taste California irony and New York irony in ample enough measure to remind you that you are at heart Californian.  You may not dress California, but you breathe it in and exhale it with a sense of relief, especially during the times you are in New York.

You remained at 2040 Alameda Padre Serra, with its view of the Islands and the occasional movie for another five years, at which point, it was time to leave the Riviera and move downtown to lower State Street and the ironies of The Fithian Building, where your office was cramped, ramshackle, and as whimsical as the dysfunctional family that ran it.

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