Prejudice in the Workplace

By Claire Rudy Foster 03/08/17

"Drug addicts are scum," the first line said. The tingle I’d felt fizzled, then plummeted like a scorched firework into my belly.

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A woman looking at a computer screen, holding hands to her head, shocked or surprised.

He looked like a rock star, walked like a rock star, talked like a rock star. He smelled like one, too—an expensive cologne I couldn’t place, and the lingering scent of weed, which I identified immediately. Mick [name changed] was a rock star, from the toes of his well-worn black leather boots to the tips of his fingers, calloused from guitar strings. His recording studio took up most of the top floor of the building where I worked—yet another receptionist gigand while I was updating the company’s innumerable Excel spreadsheets and answering the phone, I could hear his bass line throbbing through the ceiling above my head.

He was in his 60s, skinny in the way cancer survivors are, and had wickedly sweet blue eyes. He flirted with me exactly the right amount when he checked his messages or delegated some organizational task to me.

“You’re smart,” he told me.

I blushed. “Thank you.”

He’d booked Madison Square Garden that week. He was almost done with his latest studio album, a New Age-y record that was heavy with protest lyrics about America’s oil dependence, feeding the earth with your tears, and love as an all-powerful medicine. I had a sense that he was the kind of man who thinks that being a musician magically made him “brothers” with everyone. He was secure in his privilege, and it showed in the way he was comfortable treating others. Including me.

“Hey,” he said, “are you any good at Google Docs? Drive?”

“Yes.”

“I need a couple of documents printed out. They’ll all have the same date, okay? You think you can figure that out?”

I have a Master’s degree and I’m Gen Y. Google Drive’s app icon could be my face, I thought. But I just smiled and said, “Absolutely! I’ll have it for you by the end of the day.”

It was an easy job, one of a long line of easy jobs, and I took it because I needed work. After nine years sober, I was still having trouble putting together a career. I had a calling, sure, but how many writers did I know with corner offices? I’d interviewed at Nike, Wieden+Kennedy, and other agencies, but nothing felt right. So I kept writing and I answered other people’s phones. I never mentioned my recovery, or why I met so many “friends” for coffee before work or during my lunch break. I didn’t mention my service commitments or the 5:30 meeting I relied on to stay sane. I just showed up and answered the phone. Mick was, in my mind, just another boss. If he wanted to be groovy at me, well, that was his choice.

I logged into his Drive and started clicking around. At first, it looked like just another digital filing cabinet. There were a few spreadsheets, half-finished lyrics, and logos from his previous tours. Then, a document title caught my eye. The Solution to Drug Addiction. I felt a familiar tingle in my belly, the same sparkly sensation I picked up whenever I got close to someone in recovery. I’d seen Mick’s glass hash pipe upstairs on top of his favorite speaker, and smelled fragrant weed smoke wafting out of the studiobut that could be medicinal, couldn’t it? As I double-clicked on the document, I rapidly revised my opinion of Mick. If he was in recovery, that would explain so much. Most of all, it meant that I might not have to be closeted at work, hiding my program and my principles. These are the thoughts that flashed through my mind as I opened the file, hoping to find some inspired words.

Drug addicts are scum, the first line said. The tingle I’d felt fizzled, then plummeted like a scorched firework into my belly. I read faster, stomach churning. This couldn’t be real. Dope users come out of the prison system, and the prison system is jammed with addicts. HIV and AIDS are nature’s way of trying to kill these animals before they can breed outside their cages. He said that heroin addicts should be treated like the criminals they are, locked up long enough to contract full-blown AIDS, and then left to die. I pushed myself back from the computer, stood up, and walked to the bathroom as fast as my shaky legs would go.

The hatred turned my stomach. I leaned over the toilet and tried to breathe evenly while my throat spasmed. I was a heroin addict. My friends were heroin addicts. My community, the people I loved. Mick’s words sizzled in my mind. Rats in a cage. Addiction wasn’t a disease to him. It was a divine punishment, karmic retribution. We were all criminals to him. If he knew what I was, he would think I was a criminal too.

My first impulse was to march into his office, slap down a copy of the horrible garbage he’d written, and set him straight, right then. I rinsed my face with cold water and frowned in the mirror. Not rats. I’d tell him that it was possible to be an addict and a good person. I’d ask him what the fuck his problem was. I’d tell him that I was nearly 10 years sober and was clean as a whistle, not on paper, no legal convictions. I imagined him leaning back in his chair, probably stoned, flooded with remorse.

And then I thought: why bother? People like this don’t change. A bigot is a bigot, even when their lyrics preach world peace, love, and brotherhood. I closed the Drive window and opened a blank document. Yet another office job, another phone to answer, another list of names to memorize. Not for the first time, I was grateful that I was replaceable. My job was an anonymous job: I was a receptionist, a universally compatible office assistant. I regret that I won’t be able to stay, I typed. It was about 5% true.

When I pushed the “send” button on my resignation letter and walked out at 5pm with my tiny bouquet of pens and papers, I felt no regret at all. If anything, I felt lighter with every block I put between myself and the office. Mick was leaving for Manhattan that night, ready to open at the Garden. I thought of him, stepping into the spotlight while a million fans chanted his lyrics in a wave of sound. His craggy smile as he fingered his guitar strings. For all his glitter, I’d seen something ugly underneath it, and his music was sour on my ears. 

Discrimination against people with addiction sometimes wore a handsome face. It sang. I put my hands over my ears and walked in the opposite direction, letting my feet smack their own rhythm into the pavement.

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