Thursday, September 16, 2010

“Old Dogs” by Diana Bloom

“Call me back when you’ve got a moment, honey. I need your advice.”

Replacing the phone in my pocket and boarding the crosstown bus, which the driver has lowered for a man with a walker, I slip my card into the machine. I’m still not used to the yellow Metrocard with my photo on one side. The sound it makes is different, too. Settling into a single seat, I look again at the pearlized business card.

I’m on my way uptown from a Soho townhouse where I was called by a “Sylvia” the day before, asking me to come for an interview at nine today for a position teaching English to an employee. She calls back several times after talking with the boss to work out a good time for him. I’m told nothing more till I’m ushered in by a fellow in his twenties, then escorted upstairs by another young guy, who speaks without an accent. On my way, I pass a glassed-in office with three young women talking together. All of these kids are Asian. I hear what sounds like Japanese, but I’m not sure.

At the top of the stairs, I’m presented to a thirtyish Asian guy, kind of cute, who makes a slight but distinct bow and offers his hand but no name. I sit down opposite him, unasked, and learn that the posters all over the walls feature my potential students, a number of slender, very young, leggy girls in acrobatic poses, their mouths open in front of a huge crowd.

“You’ve heard of the Trixies?”

“Of course,” I fake, “but I don’t know much about them.” I assume that, like other singing groups today, they’re matching kids who don’t smile and whose music sounds more or less the same.

“You probably have a grandchild who knows the Trixies. They’re very famous all over the Asia, and we’re starting a campaign in U.S. They’ll be touring North America with Gian Bobi this fall, and we’re gonna publicize them all over U.S.”

I look at the gigantic speakers on either side of the huge keyboard behind his desk. The stuff is all cutting edge, and almost fills the small office, which is white like the rest of the townhouse, inside and out. On the right wall is a diploma from the Berklee College of Music, along with a photo of the man facing me standing with a ghoulish Michael Jackson. I learn that this man has trained the Trixies since they were 8, and that singers make more money from touring than from CD sales.

He really likes my credentials, which Sylvia found on the Web. He wants me to work daily one on one with each of the seven Trixies, whose English levels are different.

“Wanna cookie?” Standing up, he offers across the desk a large box of Pepperidge Farm.
On the card he now hands me, which I receive with both hands and peruse care-fully, I see that Mr. Kung is Korean —my bad (Azad taught me that one)-- and is some kind of VP at this PR firm. On learning I live in Manhattan, he asks if I can return today after two o’clock to meet the girls. They’re in English class now.

When I say I can’t make it later on, he asks if I can make it tomorrow, Saturday. He sees my doubtful look: “Then how about Sunday? You see, I’m lining up possibilities. I wanna start with you.”

I don’t want to seem reluctant once I’ve implied by my presence that I want the job.
Though my doubts are growing as he speaks.

Saturdays are my yoga and French classes, but I feel forced to say I’ll be out of town for the weekend, finally agreeing to come in Monday. Fact is, even that’s inconvenient. I have two regular Monday students.

He repeats that he does have other candidates, but wants the girls to see if they like me first. So Monday’s the latest he can do. He’ll be seeing the others after me.

They need enough English at their fingertips for interviews, so they don’t have to pause and translate every time they’re asked a question. “For example, when interviewer ask, ‘Who’s your favorite singer?’ right now they have to think before they can answer just one word, ‘Beyonce’.”

What he wants is a kind of workplace English. Done that before. Enable them to talk about pop culture. That’ll require some prep on my part. “Favorite boy band?” (cue): “Backstreet Boys.” “Favorite ice cream flavor?” (cue): “Raspberry swirl.” The Rs’ll be hard.

The handsome--and not badly built, either--Mr. Kung smiles, adding that they’re “real girls, they ride subway to their English class, even they have limo, and they all live upstairs, here,” he points upward, “in apartment with maid service, but they insist at doing own laundry themselves. You’ll like them.”

I know I would. And they’d like me. I’d be fine with the girls.

I decide to email him later. Now I just smile and nod, figuring we won’t speak again.

We never get to money talk. I’m not sure how he does that, since I seem to have been sort-of-hired, and he hasn’t asked if I have any questions. Normally, students ask what I charge, and companies make an offer.

I figure, since he manages to get it in that he’s bought the building, that he’ll make it worth my while to revise my life as I now know it. Or, despite the high-tech gear and hotshot stars, he’ll say his hands are tied, or he can get someone who’ll take less for the privilege of working with the Trixies.

But all this, I never learn.

On the bus home, I get a call. Since I’ve been using the cell on vibrate, I can’t always tell if it’s the phone or my innards rumbling. I hate it when people take calls on buses, but I pick up. It’s Donald, the second assistant, the one with the American accent, who ran after me as I was leaving to give me the CD. He’s wondering, in case I’m hired on Monday, can I start this week and work from 2 to 5 Tuesdays through Fridays?

“For how long?” I ask.

“As long as they need you.”

Pulling out my calendar—Estefan, Mei Ling, Sharon, Azad—I agree to come in from 2 to 5 each day, next Tuesday through Friday. I do this only knowing that when I get home I’ll email a polite rejection. (I can’t refuse on the bus.) Should I say I’m not the person they want for this job (which has saved face before for both parties), or the truth, that I have commitments, too, and can’t just desert my other students to dance to his tune?

That’s why I called Sol this morning, to see how to word things.

When I hang up (funny expression), I take out the booklet that comes with the CD and has lots of photos. The seven Trixies really are adorable, the oldest, he said, just 21, wearing the same pixie cuts, and thick eyelashes that make them look all alike. Petite, shapely, cleavage-free innocents.

I read, about the oldest, just turned 21: Onstage, Hyun is the hottest and funkiest member, but offstage she’s the big sister that all the members love and come to with their problems. … her maturity helps keep everyone in check.

I get home, and Sol has left a message. Though he has three faculty observations to write and a tenure decision to work on, he’s agreed to check my email before I send it.

“Your response sounds fine,” says Jung Ja, my friend and one of my earliest private students. I called her to avoid any cultural faux pas. “But if his English is that good, why don’t you just call him and speak directly? By the way,” she adds, clearly smiling on the phone, “get me their autograph!”

We laugh.

But I don’t feel comfortable calling. Before email, I was still mailed notes to people,

Then I take Marxy for her walk. She’s our baby. She’s getting old, fifteen human years. We’ve had her since the year after we moved in together.

At dinner, Sol serves a Pad Thai. “Why don’t you just tell him it’s not for you?”

“I feel as if I’d already accepted, though he did say he was seeing other candidates. ‘Lining up the possibilities. Time is money,’ he actually said.”

We laugh.

“Those four appointments next week sound like he’s made up his mind. I felt backed into saying we were going away for the weekend—we who never even stay out late because Marxy can’t be left alone. I couldn’t say no then. It was awkward, so I accepted, with the plan of contacting him later.

I was supposed to drop everything when he called. He had no idea I might have other work. I know it’s my fault that I didn’t say no then, but I just couldn’t. I barely got in a word, in fact.”

Sol laughs and puts his hand on mine, along with a bit of egg yolk. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to work with these Pixie Girls if you don’t want to. Let’s see what you wrote.”

“Looks good to me,” says Sol, pouring the espresso.

That night, I dream about the Trixies dancing to a slow waltz tune with Donald, Mr. Kung, and Sol. Why this job so concerns me, I don’t know. It feels wrong to refuse it once I’ve made a show of wanting it, even though Kung couldn’t care less. In my position, he’d have no scruples about “quitting” before he was hired.

Then I mentally review my email and I’m pleased. I’ve said it politely yet firmly, been appreciative yet assertive.

Dear Mr. Kung,
…good meeting you this morning...
…honored that you have considered me …. looking at my schedule, however, I see I was hasty in accepting the commitment next week when I spoke with Donald after seeing you, since this commitment would require that I make major changes in my previous obligations to other people.
I’m sorry, but for this reason I will have to regretfully cancel next week’s appointments and decline your offer.
Again, I very much appreciate….

The next morning, after Marxy’s walk, I log on, eagerly looking for his reply. And there it is, on top of my original message:

It's okay. Please reschedule with Donald. Thank you.

I have a good laugh. I never do learn who is Sylvia.

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