We’re fast-forwarding now, past high school, past college, past the years in Chicago and Italy and Taiwan, which is when I had this exchange with my older cousin:
COUSIN: You know, when you were a kid, you were so freaking smart. We all thought you were a genius.
ME: Really? I’m flattered.
COUSIN: So what happened?
Past all that, and the years spent flailing away at one doomed scheme or another, the twenty-five countries I bounced through, the senator I worked for, and the time my father asked me what a writer does for health insurance:
ME: I’m living off my savings. See, here’s the plan. I’ve spent the past two years saving up money so I’ll have time to write. It’s my dream.
FATHER: What if you get sick?
ME: I’m hoping I don’t. It’s a calculated risk.
FATHER: Risk for who?
FATHER: If something happens to you, you will sink our family.
ME: I guess you’re saying I should find a job with health insurance.
FATHER: I think that’s more than a guess.
It took me a while to find my footing. But I did find it. And by the time of this story, I had ended up in what I thought was a soft landing. A happy marriage, a child on the way, and a decent job with good people and a product I believed in. Health insurance! Oh, and I shared an office with Jerry Seinfeld.
No, not that Jerry Seinfeld. A different Jerry Seinfeld. This Jerry Seinfeld was working in customer service, talking people through the installation of educational software for toddlers, which is not part of the story, other than to say that parents of toddlers can be very impatient. All day long I overheard conversations like this one:
JERRY SEINFELD: Okay, what do you see on your screen now?…I understand you’re in a hurry…If you could just tell me…Crashed? What do you mean exactly… Yes, there are different kinds of crashed. What button were you pressing when…My supervisor? He’s not available at the moment. I can have someone call you back…Sure. It’s Jerry Seinfeld…Yes, that’s really my name….Yes, that’s right, easy to remember, I hear that a lot…No, I don’t watch the show, but I’m glad it’s your favorite…My parents? Well, it was 1975. How could they have known?…Well, I’m sorry you feel that way, ma’am, and I wish I was funny too…You know, that’s one way to look at it, but on the other hand I bet he doesn’t play the clarinet as well as I do…
He took a lot of pride in using his preferred name and not “Jerome” or “J” or his middle name “Oren.” He was Jerry Seinfeld. And who could blame him? Your name is your name, after all. One might think that customer service would be a career you’d avoid, but that was his business.
I asked him about this once:
ME: Ever think about using a pseudonym on those calls? You could be Tom Smith.
JERRY SEINFELD: Why would I do that?
ME: So you don’t get mixed up with the real Jerry Seinfeld.
JERRY SEINFELD: The real Jerry Seinfeld? You mean the one you’ve seen on television?
ME: Good point. I guess you’re real too.
JERRY SEINFELD: I think that’s more than a guess.
So there it was. On the bathroom wall of our office someone had written, “Jerry Seinfeld is NOT FUNNY,” and we all knew that they meant the humorless Jerry Seinfeld I shared an office with, not the Jerry Seinfeld who ruled Must-See TV on Thursday nights.
Our Jerry Seinfeld struggled with his personal life. Once a woman in our office had seen a cute guy near the bike rack. She wrote her phone number and a note on a piece of paper and attached it to his handlebars…except she accidentally attached it to Jerry Seinfeld’s bike. Later that day he approached her at her cubicle:
JERRY SEINFELD: Hey, Baby.
FEMALE CO-WORKER: Get the f*** away from me, Jerry Seinfeld.
[JERRY SEINFELD hands her the note. She reads it.]
FEMALE CO-WORKER: Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Why do I do these things?
JERRY SEINFELD: Hey, Baby.
FEMALE CO-WORKER: Stop saying that!
JERRY SEINFELD: I was starting over!
The story went around our office, which meant I had to work with the guy knowing that “Hey Baby” was his idea of a pickup line. Maybe the real Jerry Seinfeld could pull that off. Not this Jerry Seinfeld. This Jerry Seinfeld ate Ding Dongs for lunch and recited Gilbert & Sullivan lyrics to impress people. And he always, always did the “Makin’ Copies!” routine when he passed through the mail room.
Sometimes people identify someone weaker than them and use that to feel better about themselves. It’s a terrible character flaw. For months I resisted the urge to feel superior to the fake Jerry Seinfeld because of what it would say about me. Then I realized that he felt that way about me, which at first made me question myself, as if I were the weak one. But then I realized that he was exhibiting a flaw that I myself recognized and tried to resist, which made me superior to him. But that only meant I was exhibiting the very character flaw I was trying to avoid, which put me back to where I had started.
Jerry Seinfeld and I were locked in a battle that neither of us knew how to win. Or end. But that was about to change.
At ten o’clock one day our boss stopped by the office to tell us that today was Sebastian’s birthday. Sebastian was a college intern who had so impressed everyone he now ran our IT department, even though he was still weeks away from graduating.
“We’re having cake for him in the Laguna Room,” our boss said. “To celebrate. Two o’clock.”
Jerry Seinfeld nearly jumped out of his chair. “Really? His birthday? How old is he? I love that kid.”
“Yeah, he’s great. He’s twenty-two. See you there.”
As soon as she left I went back to work. Behind me, Jerry couldn’t stop talking about Sebastian.
“Wow, twenty-two. That kid is impressive. I mean, he’s not all burned out like you are. He’s going places. Don’t you think? I mean, you must look at a kid like that and just feel terrible about yourself.”
I said I hadn’t ever really thought that.
“Are you kidding? You should! I mean, look at you. Thirty years old, a complete wreck.”
“What’s the difference. A copyeditor. Could there be a more dead-end job?”
I was starting to get irritated. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe customer service?”
“That’s a strategic choice,” he said without explaining. “But look at Sebastian. That guy, he’s basically running this place, and he’s still just a kid. While you’re just here, filling space and using up oxygen, planning to shrivel up and wither away and die, he’s going to be the CEO of some amazing company. You’ll be telling your grandkids that you worked with Sebastian, and they won’t believe you. No, they’ll believe you. They’ll just hate you because you’re not him.”
I went back to my work. But the conversation nagged at me. Maybe this job was not such a soft landing after all. It was true I had not done as well as I’d hoped. I had once had bigger plans. Dreams! And now, here I was, underachieving day after day, hour after hour, minute by painful minute.
I had let myself down, but that was easy enough to push to the side. I was from the Midwest, after all, so letting yourself down is normal, even expected. You can fall as far as you want as long as you don’t take anyone else down with you. But that was the problem: I had let everyone else down too. My cousin had shocked me with the statement, but others had said something similar:
HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL: Jacke Wilson! Nice to see you! Huh. Jacke Wilson…You know, we really thought you were going to do something great. Well, I guess you never know…
ME: I guess you never do.
HIGH SCHOOL PRINCIPAL: But tell me…what happened?
I had spent months feeling superior to Jerry Seinfeld. But it was true, there was really no difference between the two of us. We may have had different starting points, and different skill sets, and different journeys. None of that mattered now: the endpoint was the same. I had my dream. He had his strategy. But we were just a couple of anonymous humans, as miserable and pathetic as anyone.
Jerry was routing calls to voicemail and had nothing to do but sit in his chair, staring at me. Finally I turned to face him directly.
“You really are a piece of work,” he began. “You know what your problem is?”
“Well, that’s obvious. But do you know why you failed?”
“I tried to do too much?”
“You never wanted anything.”
“I feel like I did.”
“You didn’t go get it. You just avoided. You just knew not-this. That’s your whole strategy for life. Not-this, not-this, not-this.”
“Interesting.” I turned back around and stared at my screen. I wasn’t going to take advice from the fake Jerry Seinfeld.
“Not like Sebastian,” Jerry said. “Sebastian knows what he wants. And he gets it. That’s how you succeed in life. You identify what you want, and you reach for it, and you grab it with gusto. You don’t just wander around, drifting from one thing to another, like you.”
“Maybe so,” I said over my shoulder. I was about to block him out with headphones when I noticed that our boss was in the doorway again.
“Hi guys,” she said. “I wanted to let you know about Sebastian.”
“You already told us!” Jerry said. “Birthday cake at fourteen hundred hours!”
Our boss smiled faintly. She shifted her weight from one leg to another. “Well, actually…Sebastian’s been fired. He was caught stealing from the company.”
“What!?” I cried. “Oh my god!”
“We don’t have all the facts yet, the investigation’s still pending,” our boss said carefully, “but it appears he falsified some invoices. Anyway…about this afternoon…”
“Cancelled,” I said. “Understood.”
“Well, that’s the thing,” she said with a nervous laugh. “We already bought the cake…and the bakery won’t take it back…” She smiled uncertainly. “So we’re just going to…go forward.”
“With the celebration?” I asked.
“Well, it won’t really be a party. Just a meeting. A meeting with cake.”
It was not until she had left that I noticed how distraught Jerry was. I couldn’t help feeling a touch of schadenfreude. The mighty Sebastian! Figures out what he wants! Takes it with gusto! Oh, how the greedy will fall!
Only the look on Jerry’s face—somewhere between devastated and violent—stopped me from making a joke. It was a surprising reminder that Jerry Seinfeld was a person, with feelings. He was real.
“No way I’m going to that party,” he said.
“Oh, right. You’ll go. That’s so you. You don’t know how to draw lines.”
“You have no discipline,” he said. He shook his head. “I can’t believe they’re doing this.”
He looked at me with disgust. “That’s blood cake.”
Then Jerry Seinfeld started to cry, and I did not know what to do.
When I worked at that office I always followed the same routine for lunch. Every day at noon I told myself that today would be the day I was going to branch out and try something new. And every day at one o’clock I got in my car, drove to the supermarket, and bought the same thing. Avocado BLT on a Dutch crunch hoagie roll. I ate those sandwiches five days a week and sometimes grabbed one for dinner on my way home. Why branch out when you’ve found perfection?
When I returned that day it was a few minutes after two. I was not a cake person, but I couldn’t help swinging by the conference room to see whatever had replaced Sebastian’s party. I had never in my life heard of anything more bizarre than eating the birthday cake of someone who had just been fired in disgrace. On the other hand, what else was our boss supposed to do? Throw the cake in the trash can?
The conference room was crowded and lively, filled with the sort of giddiness one feels after the somber part of the funeral is over and people are enjoying being alive. My colleagues were standing around the long oval table, talking and laughing and stabbing their plastic forks into chocolate velvet.
The cake itself was sitting on the table, and I couldn’t help but stare at it. This was during that fad when people were topping their cakes with computer-generated frosting made from a photo you supplied to the bakery. The fad didn’t last long: the frosting tasted terrible and sometimes it was a little too weird to cut up a true-to-life image. And sometimes, as in this case, it was a lot too weird. They had used the picture from Sebastian’s security ID, of all things. His smiling eyes stared at the ceiling. He had no face below the nose. That part had been sliced up and passed around.
They were eating Sebastian. Blood cake indeed.
The second thing I noticed was Jerry Seinfeld. He was standing in the corner, regaling our coworkers with all the witty things he’d said at my expense.
“So I told him…you don’t want anything! You never have! And you know what he said? He just looked at me with those dumb cow eyes of his, and…”
I tapped him on the shoulder.
When he saw me his mouth fell open and all the blood drained from his face. On his plate was a piece of Sebastian’s ear.
“Hey, Baby,” I said.
He stared at me.
The moment was so exciting I had to pause. My heart was pounding. What was this? Just another day at the office? And the Fall of Sebastian was just another quotidian event? Another man down, another person to crawl over, another greedy person crashing and burning? And we all moved on?
No. It was more than that. I felt it and so did Jerry Seinfeld. He smiled for a half-second and licked his lips. His eyes locked into mine. This wasn’t about Sebastian. It was about the two of us. Jerry Seinfeld and me.
And I had him. I could have said so many things. I could have thrown that cow eyes comment back in his face. I could have asserted some dominance over him, exacted revenge for his calling me a failure, again and again and again. I could have paid him back for all those months we’d spent together, every insult he’d flung at me.
But I said nothing. It was a moment to relish, a time to cherish the feeling of superiority, and—looking ahead—my chance to use this as a springboard for better things. I could declare victory and leave, and develop a new plan for my future. I was not too old to do that. It was not too late for me to turn things around. I did not need to be stuck in a pit with the fake Jerry Seinfeld all my life. I could use the fake Jerry Seinfeld as a reminder of the time I hit bottom. He could be the first rung on the ladder I would use to climb to better things.
I could have announced it right there. I could have told all those office drones that I was leaving and not coming back, health insurance be damned. That party could have been a celebration for me.
But I didn’t. I was far too fascinated by the moment. Two hours ago Jerry Seinfeld had been in tears thinking about the self-destruction of a young man whose bright future had gone down in flames. Jerry Seinfeld had spent an hour insisting that he himself would never, could never join this party and demanding I agree. And now here he was, chuckling away, pounding apple cider, hey-babying on Sebastian’s grave.
Jerry Seinfeld had nowhere to hide. Others were watching us, as fascinated as I was. Jerry Seinfeld had chocolate on the corner of his mouth. Sebastian’s ear slid onto his plate.
I didn’t say a word. I didn’t even shake my head. How could you, I said with my eyes.
The others didn’t matter. This was just me and Jerry Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld and me, two nobodies, but our failure didn’t matter. What mattered now was that we were human. Just that, and nothing more.
How could you, I said with my eyes.
Jerry Seinfeld was trapped and could not lie. His confused, desperate eyes grew wide. His lips trembled.
How could you, I said with my eyes. Finally he opened his mouth.
“I was hungry,” he said.
Wow. I think I need a drink after that one. Or maybe an avocado BLT on Dutch crunch. (Highly recommended.) You can read other tales of objects (e.g., the padlock that stymied a high school football coach and scandalized a nation, or at least a small town; and the perfect spy drop here on the Jacke Blog. If you’re looking for something longer, and need to round out your Amazon purchases to get free shipping, you can always toss one of my five-dollar novellas (actually four-and-change) in the cart. Also available as e-books for under three bucks. And someone is selling a used copy for $20. Not sure what they have in mind. A collector’s item? Stick to the new versions, readers, they’re not going out of print any time soon.
A History of Jacke in 100 Objects has proved to be one of the most popular features on the website. Enjoy!
- #14 – The Bass Guitar – a Suzuki dad goes electric
- #13 – The Monster – a big surprise on a tour of Loch Ness
- Special Interlude – The Artist and the Music Teacher – old friend provides a coda to Object #7
- #12 – The Tickets to the Premiere – taking my talents from Bologna to Broadway
- #11 – The Bench – a day in the furnace provides an object lesson
- #10 – The Spitwad – a science teacher with zero personality confronts a bully, with a little help from the heavens
- #9 – The Intersection – Hamlet Dad goes to the movies
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits meets a child with dreams
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season