I PACE THROUGH THE marble-and-concrete caverns of Grand Central Station. Like some seafaring speculator of old, I come in search of spices, seeking the rumored Penzey's shop new to the terminal. My expedition proves fruitless; although the Website declared the spice counter to be open, signs throughout the station list it as an future addition to its retail offerings.
Disappointed, I turn instead to lunch. Grand Central boasts a wide range of dining options, and my nose is lured to a fragrant lower-level arcade of food counters and sit-down restaurants. When I find myself reading the menu — and greedily inhaling the fragrance — of a barbecue joint for the third time, I surrender to my urges and step up to order. Many BBQ joints will offer a dish or sandwich of the dark, chewy bits of trimmed brisket that the cook sent back to the pit for a second smoke. True to form, this place sported such a sandwich or platter under the popular name for the delicacy: burnt ends.
I order a burnt-ends sandwich along with cornbread and a Diet Coke. After a few minutes, in which I wonder what sort of licensing and regulatory hoops they might have had to jump through to get a smoker approved in this landmark building, the package is ready. I take a place at a stand-up counter nearby and unwrap my prize.
On a dense but soft roll, a generous mound of deep-brown brisket lies amid a dollop of intoxicating sauce. Visually these morsels live up to their name; they had absorbed much more of the slow heat and delicious smoke than the brisket from which they had been trimmed. More sauce, thinner and intended as a dip or a topping, was provided in a small plastic cup. The cornbread comes in the form of two small muffins, whose scent and texture indicates they were not baked from meager commercial cornbread mix.
I lack the true national exposure to BBQ that might allow me to compare this spicy treasure accurately against 'cue hailing from Kansas City, the Carolinas, or Texas. This sample, however, muscles past the pallid offerings of the BBQ tourist traps in Midtown, and compares favorably to the brisket offered at the long-lost Fink's Funky Chicken & Ribs, and its descendant, Stickey's, once of Teaneck, now buried somewhere in Rockland County. The chewy cubes of brisket are fully impregnated with smoky flavor. The side sauce has a bright, hot tang of spice and vinegar, and I make a small mess swamping the sandwich with it. The cornbread is indeed of the more coarse, homestyle variety.
I stand in the corner of this legendary transit nexus, focus on the savory bouquet in my hands, but dimly aware of the network of tracks and trains radiating out from around me, stretching to dozens of destinations and carrying a thousand destinies through this hub each hour. I let the world swirl as it will, my own cosmos drawn down to the sadly disappearing portion of burnt ends before me, the secret treasure of many BBQ fans and the beneficiary of a pitmaster's conspiratorial care, burnt ends ending with each greedy bite.
MY BOSS WORKS THREE jobs in a single cubicle. She, like me, will be dismissed at the end of March, but she wishes that day were at hand. Though our active typesetting work has all but entirely passed to an Indian outsourcing agency, emergent duties have her in a constantly overtaxed state. Far from exercising her prodigious design talent, she is trapped in the roles of trafficker, ensuring that the outsourcing folks prepare and send the press-ready PDFs to our printer; trainer, as she schools a reluctant manager in a remote office in her purchase-order and traffic duties; and supervisor, now of a diminished staff of me, but also of spot requests from others in the company who want to get every barely relevant request in before we both depart.
Each of these duties comes in the form of a massive flood of email. In the space of a 15-minute break, she will get another 30 messages, of which perhaps a tenth will not require her to cope with the aftermath of our bosses' idiotic decisions. The customer "service" rep at our new printer, an in-house press chosen for budgetary reasons over the swift and unerringly competent shop we had been using for the better part of a decade, is a hostile and defensive shrew who carbons a dozen staffers and my boss's managers with each disputatious point. The outsourcing contact has to be led, like a squirming child, through each correction and detail, the hurdles of the time-zone distance and inexpert English making each additional email a drawn-out telegraphic affair of waiting and further explanation. And the managers of our editorial departments have reacted to recent changes with technophobia, finger-pointing, and yet more cc'ing of my boss's managers, who refuse to get involved with decisions they may secretly regret and with staff who will be gone in 8 weeks anyway. Each email falls into my supervisor's inbox like another lash across her dispirited back.
When she warns our bosses of possible complications as we switch the method by which the outsourcers will produce newsletters, she is told not to interfere or that her warnings mark her as opposing change. Yet when she tells our director that she cannot call up our database program to track the progress of our publications through the production cycle, she is asked, in all seriousness, why she would need this access. Our editors recoil in horror at the mistakes made by the outsourced typesetters and the needless delays they have inflicted on our fast-turnaround titles. One biweekly title required a full week and change to have a first pass of proofs made. Other manuscripts sit untouched on the FTP site, requiring my supervisor to prompt them repeatedly to do this work. This is how our firm saves money: Our typesetting is done late and amateurishly, and printed at a shop on the cheap where they never informed our scrimping bosses that they can't handle pubs over 32 pages or with covers printed on different paper stock. My boss has had the pleasure of discovering and resolving — often solo — each of these problems over the past couple of months, in addition to the light personal diversions of taking graduate courses in design and finding a new job.
I watch her smolder under this unending tide of absurdity. I envy her future coworkers who will see her true range of talents, those that our current managers miss, instead burdening her with additional labors as the days tick down. Our managers never saw it fit to educate me in her duties, so I have few ways to fight the myriad fires that spring up at her desk. All I can do is watch her fray under this pressure, each week of these redundant duties charring to insensibility, her Fridays mere burnt ends of stress.
I RETURN FROM GRAND CENTRAL, lunch the high point of my day. My daily typesetting work has been gone for a couple of weeks. I would like to say I concentrate on polishing my resume or locating the next job. But this office drains my optimism. I should be experimenting with Photoshop, researching the requirements of the next phase of my career and the rigors of freelance life, enacting my tentative plan in any way. Getting paid to stare at an empty inbox is more demoralizing than you might imagine. Watching my conscientious and diligent supervisor get ignored when she warns our higher-ups of possible pitfalls is incredibly discouraging. It makes me forget how lucky I was not to be dismissed on the spot during the layoff, sent onto the street with a box and the phone number of the unemployment office. I morbidly call into question my prior loyalty to this company and wonder how sheltered, how afraid of change I must have been to compromise to the point where staying there had any advantage over departure into the unknown.
I fear making the wrong move and getting stuck for another six or seven years in a job I will come to regret. I fear choosing another profession vulnerable to outsourcing and being interrupted by the needs of some board of directors drawing lines through boxes on an organization chart. I fear not having a supervisor who has been an inspiring, congenial guide, and the adaptations I would need to make to become responsibly self-employed. I fear the depression that might follow if such an experiment in freelancing ended in failure, and the negative parental input that would provoke. This saps my will to experiment, and makes me conscious of how far others at my age have gone, including some at my office, merely because they talk a good line of shit and don't care if their witless plans ruin the careers of others.
So I sit at my cube, listening to my boss pull her hair out, while I creep through the job-hunt process, halfway through my final sentence in this jail with a paycheck. Even after consigning much of the clutter at my desk to a Dumpster, a few back issues remain, reminding me of what I enjoyed doing for so long here, and haunting me with the injunction not to be so lost in such pleasure that I lose sight of my future. I know a world awaits me after I leave this place. Any world outside this office ought to be more attractive than sitting amid the burnt ends of a career, stirring the embers for some lingering warmth.