Oct 31, 2022

“Cameron, aging painting instructor and chairman, was debonair and chatty, adept at drawing you unwittingly into his little conspiracies against whomever he happened to be annoyed with.

“Miriam, art historian, was diminutive, brittle, and emphatic. She went around with the air of controlled ill-temper of someone whose shoes pinch. She had a snug cap of fair hair and a hooked nose—and Seely found her intimidating, except during faculty meetings, when she had a lot of sandwich between her teeth. Seely supposed she’d resented having had to play second fiddle in the Art History Department for years, so now that the first fiddle was on sabbatical, she was stridently determined to be heard.

“Marcus, at 40, was the enfant terrible of the department—shy, foulmouthed, antic, volatile. He wore purple sneakers, played in a rock band, and was Cameron’s unruly protégé. He ducked his head and his eyes darted in all directions but yours in a conversation, and he was a terrific art snob now that his photographs were exhibited the best museums.

“George was the invisible sculptor. An indifferent artist and teacher, people said, he blinked naively behind lenses that doubled the size of his eyes, looking forever like some innocuous alien. No one seemed able to muster much feeling about him one way or the other, except occasional outrage that he had tenure.”

This Art Department provided my initiation into the world of office politics. The first time I realized what I was up against was when a distinguished Italian sculptor came to the college to give a series of lectures. Because he’d been invited by George, without the approval of the rest of the faculty, they treated this aging dignitary with studied coldness. (Before he left, he graciously gave me an original etching for my help.) I don’t know that I would have chosen to stay on if I hadn’t managed to convince myself that as a lowly secretary, I could fly beneath the radar, clear of faculty’s squabbles and intrigues. What I didn’t know until the end of my first semester there was that I’d been on an administration higher-up’s radar screen the whole time.

No less than the Vice President of the college had set out to get me fired. This was a political move, I eventually figured out. The clericals’ union had set down some guidelines—not requirements, though the VP pretended they were—for level-three secretaries, including that they be able to type 65 words a minute. Now that the shop steward had resigned, the Vice President hoped to create turmoil wherever he could, spuriously blaming the union, so they would be voted out. When I finally understood what was going on, I appealed to Local 29, which intervened on my behalf, sending a representative to meet with the Vice President. I don’t know what they said to him, but they saved my job—and a couple of years later I learned, to my secret satisfaction, that the Vice President himself was fired.

As much as I’d like to believe in karma as a mechanism for justice from one incarnation the next, I can’t quite firm up the conviction, but what I can believe—what I’ve witnessed time and time again—is karma at work in this life.