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  • I once worked at a gear factory. No grease or sweat on this boy's collar, though. I was their advertising manager for 18 excruciating months. Gears are not things that easily lend themselves to clever headlines: "Who Makes the Best Gears? It's a Matter of a Pinion." It was not fun. I was hated.

    In retrospect I suppose it was a decent enough place to work, a stable ship in some very choppy economic seas (the so-called Nixon Recession). But to me, then in my mid-20s, the factory was where joy went to die and hope got mugged at least once a day. My first six months there weren't too bad. My immediate supervisor took a liking to me, and his popularity acted as a shield. But one day I returned from lunch to see every middle manager eyeing me as if I were a succulent young zebra who had wandered into Lion Country Safari. I knew before I reached my desk that I would find a copy of my boss' letter of resignation there, and indeed I did.

    From then on it was open season on your humble narrator. It was the first time in my life that I had ever been intensely disliked by more than one person simultaneously and, to be fair, the enmity wasn't entirely unearned. I could be arrogant. I thought I was far cooler than I was. I refused to wear white shirts or Sans-A-Belt slacks. And, worst sin of all, despite these flaws -- or perhaps because of them -- their women liked me.

    I sought refuge in my glassed-in office. Directly across from me was the Vice-President of Engineering, a gloomy soul who preferred internal bleeding to laughter. Every time I guffawed or howled he would fix me with a narrow-eyed grimace of distaste. I eventually fashioned something I called The Glare-O-Meter, a cardboard in the shape of an eyeball with the numbers 1-10 across the top and a moveable red pointer affixed to the center. I would hold it up whenever the vexed VP glowered and grade him on his performance.

    I sought refuge among the engineers. I'm trying to picture their individual faces now as I write, but I can't. Everything blurs into a gray film. They were OK guys, but were given to huddling around every new company directive, regardless of content, and declaring with a mournful shake of their heads, "This is not good news." From 1975-76 they were the Greek chorus of my life. "This is not good news."

    I sought refuge on the shop floor. I liked the vast milling machines and the people who ran them. They put up with me but suspected I was a narc for management and seemed relieved when I stopped coming around.

    And then one fine spring morning in the Bicentennial Year I picked up the phone and said: "I'm calling in well. The whole time I've been working for you I've been sick, and now it's time to get better. I quit." From that day on I've been a free-lance writer, for better or worse (and there's been plenty of both). I still have dreams in which I find myself back at the gear factory, with my tormentors running their tongues over blood-red teeth and whispering with glee, "This time we're really going to get you!" But then I wake up and I'm not here, not there.

    And that is good news.
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