What could I offer to Spode?
To get it in every abode?
Should it fit in the sink
Or be painted in pink?..................
For that awful year, every morning on my way to KalKan Foods, on E. 45th Street, I drove past Farmer John’s slaughterhouse, known as the Sistine chapel of Vernon because of the murals painted on the walls and fences. It was the worst job I ever had. I took it for money, for a thirty percent increase, and found out later why the company paid higher wages than the rest of the industry.
The weird cavorting pigs painted on the F. J.mural reminded me daily I was about to enter the crazy twilight zone of my job. The working environment stunk. It was noisy beyond belief and often dangerous. I worked with three oddball PhD’s: an obsessive-compulsive who expected me to memorize every danged formula; an introverted female researcher, and a wild, drunken English playboy. The three disliked each other, lied to each other and rarely spoke, except to complain. They convinced management to create my position to foist off all the tasks they hated and improve communication in the lab. My job description included the pet food testing program, answering the midnight phone calls to approve ingredient substitutions for the plant, delivering talks to kennel clubs, keeping the nutrition analyses current, conducting tours for lab visitors, translating for the trio and keeping projects on track.
While most of my business associates and friends at the time, worked in pleasant surroundings and lingered over lunch in fine restaurants, I spent my days in Vernon in a hard hat and lab coat and ate lunch at Frank’s Cafe, the favorite dining spot for packing district workers. Frank’s had the worst ambiance of any eating establishment I’ve ever seen. No kidding—prison cafeterias were more inviting.
After you pushed the door open at Franks, you entered a cavernous hall furnished with ugly Formica tables lined up in rows. The air would be thick with cigarette smoke and cigar fumes and testosterone. At noon the place would fill up with workers, 98% of them men, dressed in white coats streaked with blood and gut scraps, wearing hairnets under hard hats and beard nets if they had facial hair. Everyone clomped around in boots with steel toes.
A typical daily special was a one-pound Salisbury steak, so large it hung over the sides of the plate, served with a minor mountain of mashed potatoes, the whole ugly thing slathered with country gravy. If you uttered the word “salad”, they’d have called the police. Every man felt compelled to get attention from the few women eating there with catcalls, whistles, remarks or propositions. My options for lunch were to run that gauntlet at Franks or endure the stripper-style restaurants (it was the 70’s) where the ingredient salesmen took the lab guys for hamburgers, beer and a skin-show. I went along with them once and brought my lunch from home afterward.
One evening, after spending a half-day testing dog food in a kennel, suffering through a Frank’s lunch and enduring a hard ride home on the freeway, I got a call from a recruiter who asked, “What would you think about working for Spode?” “Spode?” I repeated, sure I’d misheard him. “Are they in the food business now?” I asked. “Not exactly,” he said. “They’ve decided they want a food person on their creative team. Your name came up.”
|Spode Place Settings|
Baffled, I thought perhaps the unlikely connection was because Spode was bone china? As I began to tell him it seemed too much of a stretch, he said, ”You’d be working in their offices in Century City.” That did it for me. Century City?? My eyes lit up. I didn’t care what I’d be doing. “Yes!” I said, with excitement.
During the time leading up to the interview, like a teenaged girl writing the name of her boyfriend over and over, I dreamed and doodled about my possible future. I envisioned my new business cards. “Creative Food Person, Spode.” I read everything available about the company but I failed to see how I’d fit in.
Regardless, my mind raced forward to my imaginary new life. I would toss out my cleated boots, my hard hat, and hair nets. I’d wear snazzy suits and even high heels to work. Everyday lunch would be at Spago or one of those great Century City restaurants. I’d dab on perfume. I’d enjoy being a girl again.
The day of my life-changing interview arrived. I was ushered into the VP’s office on the thirtieth floor and seated in a wheeled chair in front of his desk. To my right, ten feet away, was a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows with a view west to the ocean and down to the street below. I’d never had a fear of heights—but I froze in a kind of panic attack. A combination of pre-interview jitters and my lack of confidence that I had anything to offer the company overwhelmed me. I tried to concentrate on the interview but my brain fixated on the sharp drop to the ground and the wheels on my chair. Sweat ran down my forehead like it did on Albert Brooks’s in Broadcast News. I don't remember what was asked nor what I answered. All I wanted was to escape—as fast as possible!
It was no surprise when the headhunter called to inform me I wasn’t getting an offer. My excessive sweat hadn’t been interpreted as enthusiasm. I’d acted like a caged mouse with a cat peering through the bars. Later, I learned they never filled the position; I felt strangely vindicated.
After that interview disaster, I decided to put maximum effort into the KalKan job for the rest of the year I had to stay without ruining my resume. While it was the worst job of my life, it was a great learning experience about what made people, including me, tick. I learned about humility, experienced prejudice and figured out what work really meant. My ego was bashed and battered. And I learned the most valuable lesson of all: I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was.