The Comitans, huddled together like penguins in the Arctic cold, waved posters at passing cars, cheering heartily when one honked in approval. “Guns not Butter,” one sign read. Another, “When Liberals Lead, Freedom Bleeds.” And, predict- ably, “I’m John Galt.” I nearly ran headlong into them.
Goddammit, I thought. Why now?
The Comitans were a menacing omen. Others existed, of course, like the rain. New York was in the midst of a record, nonstop deluge. Some claimed it was global warming, but most climate models predicted the East Coast would see less rainfall, not more. It had something to do with shifting currents in the Atlantic. Convection, I believe.
Then there was the economic crisis. Nobody could have seen it coming, right? A speculative bubble, evident only after the fact. That’s finance. Good years, bad years—the price of prosperity, supposedly. Not really. It was perfectly predictable. The signs were clear.
However, the Comitans were altogether different. After all, you could adjust to the lousy weather, but did it even matter if you went to work? Sunny weather only drove home the cruelty of cubicle captivity. As for the Wall Street-induced economic crisis, sure, it was ruinous, but mostly for those at a comfortable remove. For the wealthy, it was just momentary turbulence in the first-class cabin, a mere hiccup. The rich never paid for their misdeeds; the poor always did, even if blameless.
The Comitans were genuinely frightening and completely impossible to ignore. No sooner had you forgotten about the noisy irritants than a new crop arrived, spewing hate like crazed soccer hooligans and accosting you as you left the grocery store.
At first, I doubted they would ever converge on the city. It was a reasonable expectation given that, initially, they mostly stuck to their southern strongholds, holding rallies in places like Biloxi, Mississippi, and Decatur, Georgia. But then they began to spread, like a toxic contagion.
Although they kept getting closer, it still seemed unlikely they would actually breach the city limits. New York—cosmopolitan, progressive, diverse—personified the evil they detested. Why come at all?
But they did. It was a modern-day sacking of Rome. Thousands converged on Manhattan on chartered buses that discharged them into Midtown, from where they strategically fanned out across the city, heckling and jeering and picking fights like rabid dogs along the way.
I first spotted them in my neighborhood a few weeks ago. After that, my encounters were mostly from a distance, though each time less so. I should have expected the inevitable. After nearly colliding with a dozen or so of the rabble-rousers after turning the corner of Fifty-Second Street, I did what any New Yorker would do when crossing paths with the deranged and possibly dangerous: I stared ahead blankly. Streetwise. That’s what Gotham’s concrete canyons required.
In my peripheral vision, I caught sight of a seemingly dis- embodied hand from the huddled mass, finger pointing at me accusingly, and a swarm of sneering faces. Over the music playing on my earbuds, a “fuck you” registered, along with some other choice insults. I did not linger. The rain was getting heavy, and I was late for work.
“Looks like you’ve seen better days, Liv,” Jay said as I staggered into the office, soaked to the bone. On a positive note, I was relieved to have survived my first direct contact with the Comitans unscathed.
“Every day is better than Monday,” I sulked.
Jay was the earnest receptionist. Just out of college, he was full of enthusiasm, ambition, and drive. I resisted expressing my cynicism about the corporate grind. Why let on the oasis was a mirage? He would catch on eventually.
“Have a good weekend?” he asked.
“Yeah, you know, the usual.” I mimicked injecting myself with a hypodermic needle. Sometimes I couldn’t help myself.
I leaned my wet umbrella against the far corner wall of the reception area and walked through two glass doors. Passing a bank of small cubicles, I slowly made my way to my own space situated at the end of the office. After hanging up my wet jacket, I booted my computer. Its groan and flicker immediately began sapping life from me—the price, it seemed, of earning one’s keep.
I had just completed culling my in-box and checking the newswire when an automatic reminder popped up on my screen. I’d forgotten about the staff meeting. It normally began at ten but had been pushed up on account of Marcy. My memory lapse was probably my subconscious’s doing—I knew what was in store.
I took a deep breath, straightened my tie, and walked to the conference room. My colleagues were already sitting around the rectangular table, requiring me to situate myself in a chair along the far wall. Jay shot me a look of feigned outrage, peering down at his watch. I discreetly gestured another injection.
Mortimer, who headed Marshland Cooper’s New York office, kicked off the meeting with a few words of welcome. “You’re in for a treat this morning. Without further delay, let me turn this over to Marcy, who has a few announcements about an exciting new initiative. I’m sure that, as ever, her guidance will prove in- formative. Marcy?”
“Thank you, Morty,” Marcy replied with an effortless flip of her hair. “Good morning, everyone. I hope you’ve had a wonderful weekend. I know I did. I want to talk briefly about what we’re calling the Eco-Excellence campaign.”
A Valley Girl straight out of central casting, Marcy stood nearly 6 feet, was skinny as a stork, and had long blond hair worn swept back from her face. Her flat nose, sloped forehead, and small, snakelike lips gave her a slightly elfin look. Many of my colleagues found her attractive; I did not. She personified the corporate handmaiden, taking on characteristics approved by others for her assimilation. She was a hodgepodge of personas created for the satisfaction of those in a position to judge her. I clearly held a minority opinion. Most everyone else bought her shtick.
“You’ll recall that our goal by year end is to implement a priority list of office energy-efficiency enhancements. ‘The triple Es,’ as I call it. But before going further, I want to underscore how proud I am to be working at a company with a genuine commitment to being green.”
I could tell her pep talk was falling flat. Everyone sat lifelessly, staring ahead like corporate automatons downloading the day’s marching orders. Perhaps Marcy’s excessive toadying inspired the milquetoast response. Or maybe her audience was too pre- occupied with its job security, given the lousy economic climate. Mortimer, for his part, smiled broadly at Marcy.
“As I was saying,” Marcy went on, her voice reaching a crescendo, “this week we are going to formally launch the Eco- Excellence campaign. It’s spring, everyone, so let’s spring our consciousness forward.”
I suppressed a groan.
“To support the rollout, we have had a steering committee compile a list of office-greening best practices. I have personally overseen its development, along with Shirley Wasserman from HR and Colin McElroy from Econ.
“Of course, this couldn’t have been done without Mortimer’s leadership.” Her outstretched hand swept dramatically in Mortimer’s direction, like Adam reaching out to God in the Sistine Chapel. “Everyone will receive an email outlining the action items that all of you, I hope, will take. During our Monday morning meetings, we’ll discuss roses and thorns.” She beamed at her witty reference, hoping everyone had understood. “Any questions?”
The room was silent.
“Okay,” she proceeded undeterred, “you will all soon receive the first set of tasks, but let me take a moment to reveal a few of them here.” Though difficult to believe possible, her saccharine enthusiasm reached new heights as she prepared to speak. Then, in a flash, her expression became quite serious.
“Deforestation. Each of you will be asked to purchase and keep by your workstation a potted plant to combat deforestation. Any type will do, provided it’s not too large.” She was starting to smile again. She just couldn’t help herself. “We must not forget the importance of plant life, one of our most important carbon sinks. As you all certainly learned in school, plants consume car- bon dioxide and release oxygen. Let’s symbolically offset some of our own greenhouse gas emissions right here in the office. Studies have shown such exercises change behavior. Paper usage in offices that have deployed these types of programs has gone down by as much as 40 percent. That’s real progress, people!”
Marcy was something of a shape shifter. She did not earnestly live in any of her emotions. Each merely was deployed for opportunistic proposes. The transitions from one to another could be instantaneous, telegraphing her insincerity for all to see, though somehow few did. Her persona had fueled her professional ascent. Not that she lacked smarts—she wasn’t dumb. Hardly. But it was cunning, above all, that had put her on the fast track. Such were the corporate game’s twisted rules. The shameless thrived.
“Next, we’re going to place bins in each corner of the office where used clothes can be deposited. I hope you will all contribute so that your hand-me-downs can be a hand up for someone in need.
“This isn’t just about charity. Clothes production, from the irrigation and farming of cotton to the manufacturing and distribution of finished textiles, is carbon intense. Saving a Tee effectively saves a tree!”
I slumped in my chair. Marcy was so pleased with herself. It was nauseating.
“Finally,” she said, taking a deep breath and composing her- self, “we are initiating what I call ‘Tofu Tuesdays.’”
I scanned my colleagues’ faces for signs of disbelief. The hypnotic Monday morning haze in the room made their thoughts unreadable. Perhaps the absurd had become the norm. The whole program smelled of yet another vapid, feel-good corporate man- date designed to grab some low-hanging publicity. As usual, the message of substance and positive change was a sham.
“You got it—no meat on those days. It’s 100 percent voluntary, of course, but I hope everyone will participate. This exercise also is aimed at raising consciousness, as raising poultry and livestock is far more environmentally taxing than harvesting vegetables.
“More information about all this will be distributed in the days ahead. Let me repeat, this is completely voluntary, but I hope the carnivores in the room will strongly consider taking part. It is, after all, just one meal a week. Abstain so we can sustain!”
Marcy once again thanked Mortimer for his support. He instantly returned the gratitude, complimenting her hard work and dedication. “Marcy, one question, if I may: What would you like us to do with the plants besides water them?”
Marcy replied with the zeal of the true believer, uttering some blather about conscious building that I tuned out. Apathy was the healthy reaction. Yet, I couldn’t help but care—not because Marcy had said anything meaningful, but because I spent the majority of my waking hours in her vicinity. She was a reminder of my professional subjugation, of my dependence on the whimsy of my managers.
The deference paid to Marcy by my colleagues galled me.
They actually bought her shit—even Mortimer, who had briefly headed the company’s London headquarters. He should have known better. Tall and wiry, Mortimer, a Brit, was in his 50s. He had a narrow, sharp nose on the end of which precariously sat a pair of rectangular bifocals that he habitually peered over, even when reading. His salt-and-pepper hair was kept in place with strict discipline by a small comb he kept in his breast pocket. He never took off his jacket. His dark, pin-striped Italian suits were worn with starched shirts clamped shut at the sleeves with cuff links that clattered loudly on tabletops when he gesticulated.
As a young man, Mortimer had joined the British Foreign Office out of Cambridge, ascended quickly, and after 20 years of distinguished service, cashed in and gone corporate. Falsely modest most of the time, he once announced—to the bafflement of his American subordinates—that he was “middle-lower-upper-class.”
The murkiness of class distinctions on this side of the Atlantic irritated Mortimer. Lost without such signposts, he would frequently interject academic, background or pedigree inquiries into his conversations. Like a Rosetta Stone, they helped him decipher the otherwise inscrutable hieroglyphics of class divisions in a country that professed not to have them, but of course did.
Once he surmised the rank of his target, he or she would be put into a neat category. Aristocrats, or close approximations thereof, were embraced as fellow travelers in the land of the unwashed. The rest were treated with complete and utter indifference.
“Marcy,” said Angela, a secretary sitting to my left. “I’m allergic to pollen. Every spring, just after the flowers have bloomed, I get feverish and headachy. I can limit my symptoms, if stay away from the park. Dozens of flowing plants in the office might be difficult for me.”
“Thank you for the question or, uh, comment, Angela,” Marcy replied. “The steering committee has this under control. We consulted an allergist, who said that pollen counts are most concentrated in flowering plants. This is why we’d urge you to get nonflowering varieties. I should have made this clear, though it’s all laid out in the guidance you’ll be receiving.”
“Very thorough,” Mortimer added. “Perhaps, Angela, you can speak to Marcy directly after the meeting about any lingering concerns. We are fully committed to the Eco-Excellence campaign, but naturally it cannot come at the expense of anyone’s health.
“My own experience as an amateur gardener is that one can mitigate exposure to pollen with common sense. That can mean staying indoors when pollen counts are high and choosing plants, as Marcy said, that do not flower. Still, let’s approach this with caution. If Angela and others have adverse reactions, we’ll have to rethink things.”
He looked across the room for Angela’s approval, receiving it in the form of a nod. It was one of the few times he had actually recognized her as a sentient human being rather than a commoner whom he avoided. Mortimer’s estimation of me did not differ greatly. His initial interest and doting—I suspect because my name potentially implied a distinguished Anglo-Saxon pedigree—waned when he eventually learned by happenstance of my parents’ relatively humble station in life.
My organizational descent coincided with Marcy’s ascent. She had joined Marshland Cooper a few months after me. Initially, Mortimer treated her with cordial detachment until she mentioned that her father, a prominent real estate developer in Los Angeles, was an acquaintance of California’s governor. Curiosity piqued, Mortimer probed and Marcy happily obliged. He perked up when she shared that her father knew many elected officials. “How interesting, Marcy.” Sensing an opportunity, she dished out a full half hour of details about her illustrious father and his many notable friends.
Within several months, she was promoted. Shortly thereafter, a second promotion. As she ascended, Marcy’s confidence grew, along with guile that belied her airhead veneer. While she had deployed her charm with equanimity when first joining the firm, success led to a more discriminating stance. She parceled out her attention like a precious resource. Soon, only those above her in the pecking order received attention—a classic manage up, not down, strategy.
While the Marcy spectacle was demoralizing, my morale was already in a death spiral. I had joined Marshland Cooper after a stint in Washington at the Treasury Department, where economic analysis on energy policy was my specialization following graduate school. While I’d enjoyed the job for a while, I eventually grew tired of it, along with Washington, a one-industry town full of one-dimensional people. New York beckoned. The time was right. I made for greener pastures. Fortune favors the bold. Well, not always.
Marshland Cooper served a niche. Founded by a hotshot policy wonk who’d made a name for himself in the British government, the firm provided political risk analyses about market conditions in politically unstable places. Headquartered in London, it had offices in Hong Kong, Pretoria, and New York. The firm had grown quickly, nearly doubling in size during my three-year tenure. It also had a growing media profile. Senior executives of- ten appeared as talking heads on television, analyzing the market impact of natural disasters, political upheavals, and acts of terror. “Grim is Good, Good is Grim” was the firm’s unofficial motto. On several occasions, after returning home from an especially long day, I’d turn on the television only to hear Mortimer droning on about some looming catastrophe.
Following a number of additional mind-numbing announcements, the morning meeting mercifully came to close an hour after it began. As everyone began to disperse, Mortimer hailed me and two other colleagues and asked us to stay behind.
“Sorry for the bother, but I wanted to briefly discuss the MalayNG account. It won’t take long. Brad, if I may,” he said when the room cleared, “how are the tables coming?”
Brilliant Brad, as he was known around the office, nervously leafed through a stack of papers and fidgeted with his round spectacles. A dry-witted savant and the office’s dazzlingly bright number cruncher, Brad had thin lips and nose and two piercing brown eyes that suggested keen powers of observation. With remarkable ease, he turned out truly artful tables and graphs highlighting complex data. If Brilliant Brad presented a graph, it told an elegant story every bit as accessible as he was not.
“Yes, Mortimer.” Brad nervously pulled out several multicolored tables and charts from his stack. “I put these together on energy consumption in Chhattisgarh and Orissa,” referring to two politically unstable states in India. He pushed the papers across the table to Mortimer, who peered over his bifocals to examine them. His cuff links tapped out an irregular beat as they clinked on the table while he leafed through the document.
“I see,” Mortimer murmured, pausing. “Well done, Brad. But perhaps this one should have a different color scheme. And the pie wedges in this chart showing potential megawatt output don’t stand out. They’re a bit of a jumble. Please rectify. Also, can we do some bar graphs as well? Perhaps a basic one on per-capita energy consumption or the number of attacks in the states. Yes, that would do the trick. Nothing too elaborate.
“We also need to lay out what MalayNG’s competitors are doing in the region. It would be very useful if we could represent it schematically by monetary investment. Another on total FDI also would be valuable.”
Brilliant Brad nodded and Mortimer motioned to me. “Liv, how is the backgrounder? Have you managed to get current intelligence that we can feed into the piece ahead of our meeting?”
I replied that I had spoken with a journalist from India and a few academics, and that I had a meeting with the Indian consul- ate later in the week and another with an energy expert early the following week. “I’ll have a draft for you soon,” I said, “perhaps by the close of business next Friday.”
Mortimer nodded approvingly. “Excellent. But don’t get stuck in the weeds. We’re not trying to write a long-winded dissertation on the insurgency. No value-add there. We want to focus on the prospects going forward: Does the insurgency have legs? What are the national and state governments doing to combat it? Are other investors shunning the region? Those sorts of questions—about two-thousand words total.”
Mortimer then turned to Michael, an energy guru who’d joined Marshland Cooper after twenty years of government service. A frumpy man in his fifties with a double chin, potbelly, and unruly wisps of hair that lawlessly protruded in every direction from his balding crown, Michael looked like a weathered bureaucrat. His mind, though, was everything his appearance was not.
We called him “the Rainmaker” around the office—his expertise often cited in the firm’s marketing.
“Michael, have you spoken with Dr. Ibrahim recently?” Mortimer inquired, referring to the head of the American subsidiary MalayNG, the Malaysian energy concern that had contracted Marshland Cooper to perform an analysis of India’s restive states.
Michael replied he would be having a conference call to- morrow with several contacts from the firm before the face-to- face meeting with MalayNG’s senior management the following month in San Francisco.
“Brilliant,” Mortimer said. “Which brings me to that meet- ing. I know you’re the lead on this, Michael. But we’re trying to keep overhead costs down right now in light of the tough economic climate. We might need to pare down the team heading out west. It’s not finalized yet, of course, but it might just be Marcy and me on this occasion.”
Michael’s eyes widened. “But Mortimer,” he protested, “I’ve been in close contact with Dr. Ibrahim for over a year now. I’m our primary contact for MalayNG. It would look, quite frankly, unprofessional not to have the account lead at the meeting. We’d seem out of our depth. Our message would be diluted. Besides, nobody knows more about India’s energy sector than me.”
Mortimer tried to calm Michael. “I argued your case to Oliver,” he explained, referring to Marshland Cooper’s managing director. “The problem is, revenues are down three percent this quarter and five for the year. The recession is cutting deep. We just can’t afford to take a full complement.”
I suspected there was more to it. Marcy, seeking to monopolize Mortimer’s attention, may have persuaded him to take her and no one else by tapping into her family network. Perhaps she had even arranged through her father an introduction to the governor in Sacramento. The inducement would be impossible for Mortimer to resist; he was as enthralled by proximity to power as he was to pedigree. He’d leap at the opportunity.
“We may be short of cash,” Michael retorted, “but we don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot by undermining one of our best revenue streams. MalayNG is a cash cow.”
“Agreed,” Mortimer nodded. “We’re being penny wise, pound foolish. It’s not my call, though. Oliver is firm on this. He also wants us to start flying coach. Of course, I objected vigorously... but it was no use. I’m afraid we’re in for a period of austerity.”
Michael continued pleading his case, all the while recognizing its futility. “Very well, then,” Mortimer said, breaking the awkward silence that followed. “I suggest you reach out to Dr. Ibrahim in the days ahead so that he can ask any technical questions he has ahead of our meeting. Also, you and I should get together to discuss the account, so I’ll be fully prepared. Maybe you could also draw up a brief I can use.
“And since Marcy will be there, on account of her being the lead on the call on Ambertson & Phillips in Oakland, maybe we can try to exploit her talents by carving out a role for her. For example, she could update MalayNG on the competitive marketplace. Sound good? Okay, then, that’s it. Fingers crossed, the meeting won’t go pear shaped.”
Michael briskly retrieved his papers and marched out of the conference room with Brilliant Brad close behind. On my way back to my office, I crossed paths in the hallway with Cory, a recently hired twenty-something with a tart sense of humor.
“So what plant are you going to get?” I asked him. “Me, I’m leaning toward a cactus. Or maybe a Venus flytrap—that would be an apt metaphor for this place.”
“You’re such a schemer,” Cory replied dryly, giving me a slap on the shoulder. “I’ll bet you have a whole assortment of tricks up your sleeve.”
I retreated to my workspace and checked my in-box again. A message from Alex proposed dinner the following day. A close friend, Alex worked for a prominent financial institution that nearly brought down the global economy. I arranged to meet Alex at a trendy French restaurant on the Upper East Side.
The rest of my workday unfolded uneventfully, though Michael did visit my cubicle to complain bitterly. I tread carefully. Michael had a reputation for loose lips. “This place is insane,” he huffed. I identified. The place was nuts. His getting shut out of a business trip probably had something to do with Marcy. But I did not want to risk my sentiments about her or any aspect of the firm becoming public on account of Michael’s gossiping, so I merely nodded modestly. He trotted off in search of a more sympathetic audience.
As soon as work was over, I made for the elevator and practically ran through marble lobby out into the torrential down- pour. In such weather, the rare cabs became prized commodities, prompting a frenzy when an unoccupied one appeared. The veneer of civilization was violently exposed on these sorts of days. Waterlogged New Yorkers were not to be crossed as they jockeyed for positions in greedy anticipation.
Seeing the long line and without any viable ride-hailing options, I pulled my raincoat up over my head and walked to- ward the subway. At the end of the block, I crossed at the light and walked several more blocks through the crush of soaked pedestrians. I turned the corner at Madison and came face-to-face with a group of Comitans.
Even in this miserable weather, they were out, defiant and snide. Their clothes were wet, their placards soggy. The markers used to write livid phrases had run, leaving inky lines of residue, as if oil-soaked snails had slithered down them. Undeterred, they seethed and shouted.
I waded through the thicket and ducked into the subway, my sanctuary for the moment.