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–29– Proust at Rush Hour ] My job is a drag —like most nine-­ to-­ five gigs, I imagine. But, oh, the commute! The commute is a golden border at the beginning and end of each workday that sheds some of its shimmer onto the leaden expanse in between. I’m a New Yorker, so taking the subway to work is a given. The subway provides, in miniature, all the charms of long-­ distance train travel, minus the view. There is the unencumbered time, a commodity beyond price for those who sell their waking hours in order to afford a place to sleep. There is the heady state of in-­ betweenness, a brief release from all worldly entanglement. There is the fact that subway travel is, for now at least, incompatible with email and cell phones, and that it will always be incompatible with vacuuming, dishes, and laundry. There are about half a dozen things, tops, that you can do on the subway: doze, observe the people around you, listen to music, read, think—things we should all do more often. I was not always a commuter. I used to be self-­ employed. I worked from home, and when I traveled, my conveyance of choice was the jet plane. State banquets at the Kremlin, mafia trials, forgotten literary masterpieces, KGB files declassified under Yeltsin (later to be reclassified under Putin)—I translated them all. It was a halcyon time. The border between working and not working was porous: when work was slow, I took a walk or a yoga class; –30– when a deadline loomed, I worked weekends or evenings. As to why people dreaded Monday and thanked God it was Friday, I lacked all understanding. When people spoke of their commutes, I listened as to an account of some quaint foreign ritual. But in my mid-­ thirties, panic bore down. My health insurance coverage was patchy, my retirement savings meager. My income blossomed and shriveled with the seasons. I began planning for the transition from free spirit to commuter , boning up on my French so as to get that job I’d set my sights on. Apart from the expense, there was nothing onerous in this: who would object to spending some months in Paris immersed in the language of Molière and Serge Gainsbourg? This was a dream I had nurtured and then set aside almost twenty years before, and I was glad of any pretext to make it come true at last. French mastered, I prepared to take up my new job as an interpreter of Russian and French into English, working in a tall building of green glass at midtown Manhattan’s watery eastern edge. And now unforeseen things began to happen. During the trial period before the job was to become permanent, my newly failing lungs made it difficult, then impossible, for me to perform that demanding work. A seemingly firm job offer went limp. Through a series of short contracts within the Organization, I tumbled down and down in status and job satisfaction (though not salary) until I landed in a permanent position editing English-­ language documents, with duties that called for no more than a passing knowledge of French or any other foreign language. Movement up the hierarchy, I would come to understand, was the reward for a different sort of fluency altogether, directly proportionate to the climber’s ability to say nothing and offend no one, in the most elegant way possible, all at great length. Shortly after I started the permanent job, I was copied on an email from one higher-­ up to another (its contents presumably affecting my future in some way) that embodied this style so utterly that I would be –31– remiss if I did not reproduce it here. “While I do not think that your concern is misplaced,” ran this missive, I would say that it may be premature to suggest that the guidelines would apply uniformly, as they stand, to all staff. I hope I am not being overly sanguine about this, but I tend to think that just as our specificities are being taken into account to a large extent in the interim, they would readily be accommodated in the long term. In other words, the guidelines only state the policy, which will no doubt allow for some special dispensation. However, I do not dispute for a second that yours is a legitimate concern. But, I reminded myself as I printed out the email and taped...


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