Summer Reading 2017: Pursuing a Penchant for Helping People

Ousted from the corporate world, Jessie DeSalvo knows what she wants to do, but figuring out how to get it is a bit trickier

2017 summer carolmagno
While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book — from nonfiction to novels to poetry – with a New Jersey connection.

This breezy novel tells the story of a young New Jersey woman who is suddenly fired from her Manhattan job as a book publicist and now must find herself a new career. An amusing read, it’s packed with Jersey references (the heroine hails from Hoboken and Scotch Plains) and perfect for a beach read during the last days of summer.

Before I could ponder my new role as a wedding planner, I had to return the errant bathroom keys to MFB. My intention was to slip them back into their slot without Diane noticing. Keys returned to their vertical metal home, I would then attend to my new life’s purpose, Emily’s wedding. But like most of my life as of late, I couldn’t bank on things going as expected. My new MFB support team had a different plan for the morning. They had an order to things; accustomed to the emotionally fragile state of ex-employees, they were used to people wandering off the reservation, which is why they had put stringent controls in place.

The second round of counseling was scheduled for that morning, designed, no doubt, to mimic the meeting-heavy schedule of the corporate world. We were being re-trained to live on the outside once again, like prisoners receiving group therapy or drug addicts being scared straight. The counselors were preparing us for our precarious return to the world of employment and would not be stayed from that mission. Diane greeted me once again with a smile. And I tried to make it look like I just arrived back from the ladies’ room. If she knew that I was the key thief, she thankfully did not let on. “Jessica, here’s your name tag, and the conference room is down the hall to the left. Follow your group down the hall past conference room A to conference room B.”

Like a mindless sheep, I followed the person in front of me to conference room B, another glass-enclosed room, barely distinguishable from its next-door neighbor, conference room A.

Our next instruction was to pick up one oversized piece of paper.

“Be sure to write your name on both sides, so that everyone at the table can see your name,” Christine, the moderator, explained. Then her tone turned cautionary. “Bring these nametags to every meeting. You will only get one.”

Some of us did that little breathless gasp where you start to laugh and then realize that no one else is laughing, so you stifle yourself and make it look like you are coughing or suppressing a sneeze. She wasn’t kidding. Christine was one of those quintessential human resources people who uses the “icebreaker” to ease the awkward tension when people who do not want to be in a meeting together are placed in a meeting together. Icebreakers are supposed to make people more at ease, but usually the opposite is true.

Regardless of the awkward nametag transition, we realized quickly that anonymity and a sense of humor, for that matter, were no longer an option. Once reserved for people who have real troubles, like alcoholism or gambling, we could not keep our names to ourselves and soon all would be revealed. Names on the table, we awaited our next instruction, which Christine was parceling out in an effort not to overwhelm us. “First, I want you to tell us what you did in corporate. And then tell us what you want to do, outside of corporate.” The latter part of her two-pronged question caused puzzling looks on some faces, while others were busy jotting down notes. Perhaps coming up with better descriptions or ways to lend more importance to their former positions.

Chad Braddock, a handsome, lean, graying at the temples type, got the ball rolling. His former position as the CEO of Sierra Nevada Salsa, the nation’s largest salsa manufacturer, met with approval from the group. Despite the obvious show of support for salsa, Sierra Nevada sales had been slipping lately due to a host of competitors, and were no longer considered the number one salsa. Chad, like the condiment he produced, felt similarly demoted. Caught up in the wave of sympathy from the group, he neglected the critical part two of the question. “And…what would you like to do…” Christine prompted, speaking in a melodic way so as to encourage Chad to finish her sentence.

“It’s pretty unlikely that I’ll stay in the premier condiment business,” Chad admitted. “I still like food, but I’m not sure that I want to work in it….”

“Thank you for sharing, Chad,” Christine said, then circled the room with her eyes.

“Who do we have next?”

All eyes shifted to the nametag of Linda Swanson, a bespectacled, matronly looking woman in a navy blue polyester pantsuit. A small New Jersey perfume plant had recently ousted Linda when Estee Lauder purchased the company. Although she preferred not to name the company, she explained where the plant was located and the fact that they made Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds, providing clues to a mystery that otherwise only perfume trade insiders could have been able to solve.

“I would like to launch a glamorous perfume under my name,” Linda blurted.

“Terrific, Linda…just terrific.”

Kate Maddson spoke next. She had revolutionized the umbrella. Sam Frankel had a miracle vitamin that would increase energy and sex drive. One latecomer, who rebelliously
did not put out a nametag, was interested in importing housekeeping staff from China. Apparently, lots of people in Asia will do windows, he joked. The members now moved their gaze down the assembly line of confessions to me.

“Hi, I’m Jessie Desalvo and I was a book publicist for Smith & Drake. And, well, the only thing I can tell you is that after this week the only thing I know is that my boss and I have finally have something in common. Neither of us wants me to be a book publicist again.”

Chad Braddock started laughing and was soon followed by most members of the group, and while I had not intended my admission to be comical, it was hard not to laugh out loud at the sheer impossibility of it all. I let out a relieved guffaw, the first release of laughter I had had in days. It felt good. Christine directed her attention to the next person, and Chad gave me a wink.

All of the examples showed people trying to find a life beyond corporate, a life with a new direction; whether those paths would lead to anything remained to be seen. These were purpose-filled people asserting themselves.

After our introductions, Christine encouraged “open networking.” Networking with the unemployed seemed a little counterintuitive to me, but there we were. All of us now leveled by our dismissal, equal in our rejection, but each with varying degrees of anger, depression, and confusion to deal with. Some of the more experienced MFB members jotted down names of entrepreneurial bloggers, and networking groups like Le Tip that met at Starbucks in Battery Park on alternating Thursdays. We compared notes about where to find even more conversation, and, in turn, even more confidence building.

This world of seminars and lectures was not foreign to me. Most of my career had been spent booking authors, from Warren Buffet to Marianne Williamson, in places like the Learning Annex and the General Assembly. When looking on the websites of these establishments, it seemed that more and more professionals were teaching seminars with catchy names like “Start Your Own Start-up” to “Living Supersized in a Downsized World.” Ex-corporates could choose their flavor of empowerment, whether it was the law of attraction or an office with the proper feng shui. What plagued me was not the lack of help out there, but just exactly what kind of help I needed. I was also struck by lack of anything to talk about, so while comparing notes with Linda Swanson, the soon-to-be perfume mogul, with no real career news, I panicked and mentioned my newly landed position as a wedding planner. It seemed that in my absence of having any specific career goal, keeping busy doing something, anything, would help me with this career transition.

“I really like helping people,” I told Linda with all the confidence of someone who has no idea how to help herself, much less someone else.

“If you’re in the business of helping people out, I have a project for you,” said a woman decked to the hilt in a Chanel brocade jacket and designer denims. “You should see my closet.” Enter today’s featured speaker, Caroline Hendricks, a recent alum of the program, who was here to share her story about building a custom art business online. Eager to keep the conversation going, I added, “I love going through my closets. When I realize I hate everything inside, it gives me license to buy new stuff.” Nearby, Chad Braddock was shaking his head. No doubt his wife was able to fill a closet or two on that Salsa salary he had brought in through the years.

“Mars and Venus. Mars and Venus,” he quipped as he exited
the conference room.

Following Caroline’s compelling story about selling emerging avant-garde art to her formal stable of Wall Streeters, the group began to file out. Linda Swanson was first to hit the lobby and grabbed for the ladies room key. In full cattle mode, I followed her, letting her shoulder the responsibility for taking and returning the key to the ladies room. Back in conference room B, Jerome Shiffman had settled himself in front of the wipe board, where he now drew in green (erasable) marker a large oval structure on top of a pyramid. His nameplate in place on the podium, he was ready to tell us all about his new company, Forbidden Fruit. He held up a large spiky piece of fruit, which he explained held magical properties that would make you live longer and better and provide you with the energy of a teenager. When pouring samples of the juice for the group, he made sure first that no one was planning on driving or using heavy machinery following this meeting. Another icebreaker, or a legal disclaimer; I’m still not sure.

After the initial nausea and gag reflex had worn off, it was, as Chad put it, “not that bad.” Jerome asked the group to become sales representatives—cue the pyramid diagram and an instant job opportunity was born! Network marketing is the new catchphrase for what Amway did in the 1950s; get other people to sell things for you. As the group grows the people on top take a cut of the profits from the people they recruit. In a perfect world, everyone gets richer and richer. The goal is to avoid being the person on the bottom.

Today, Jerome wanted to fill spots 1 through 12 on his personal food pyramid. Passionate about this juice, Jerome was so personally vested in the company that he had stocked up on several cases that were now being warehoused in his living room. His take-charge attitude was as refreshing as his strange little juice samples. All in all, the group was enjoying his corporate comeback story, which had begun five years ago when he was let go from Lehman Brothers, where he was selling sub-prime mortgages.

His “never going back” moment happened when he sat on his couch and proceeded to build a business there. Most interested in his story was a fellow financial services refugee, Lillian Gorman, who had chosen the route of spiritual empowerment to heal her corporate wounds. Upon being ousted from her cubicle, she chartered the first flight out of JFK to Arizona. While visiting a spiritual retreat in Sedona, she was romanced into sinking her 401(k) into a condo near the red rocks. Lillian had cornered Jerome and was already signing on as a salesperson.

“There are no coincidences. I am salesperson number one,” she boldly declared.

She was no doubt buoyed by the cosmic energy and recent real estate purchase in Arizona. This job was perfect for her and she, too, could work from her new Southwestern-patterned couch in Sedona.

As the final war stories were relayed, network meetings jotted down and articles circulated, Christine excused the group, reminding us once again to take our nametags, for next time! Before I could leave, Christine met me at the door and handed me her business card and home address. “Can you be at my place on Sunday?”

And of course, I could be.


Best Friend for Hire: A Novel © 2017 by Mary Carlomagno, All Rights Reserved

ISBN: 978-1-68261-260-6

ISBN (eBook): 978-1-68261-261-3

This book can be purchased on Amazon.

Read more excerpts in the 2017 Summer Reading series.