The Virtue of Arrogance

When I was thirty I opened my own interior design business.  From the concept to completion – with a lot of friends chipping in on the grunt work – I went from employee of one firm to the host of an open house for my own in just about eight months.  The night was a blur.  All I can remember is misplacing the cream for the coffee and later finding it in an armoire in my office.

Black coffee notwithstanding, I was proud of myself in my own low key kind of way. Being a nose-to-the-grindstone person, I don’t take a lot of time to jump in the air and high five passersby. Looking back on it, I should have been pleased with myself.  Whenever I wasn’t working at my primary job – or the part time one I kept at my sister’s bookstore to help her with her own new enterprise – I was meeting with prospective landlords and researching market statistics at various government agencies; crafting my business plan; emailing my lawyer friend who was helping me set up the paperwork.  Some days I was meeting with vendor reps at a coffee shop near my workplace, careful to sit facing the door so that I could drop a notebook over the stacks of catalogs should a co-worker stop in for a macchiato before their shift .  I remember one tenacious rep – always eager to sign up a new account – who met me during a snow storm.  I flipped through pages of accessories giddily as the parking lot turned white.

When I eventually signed a lease, I spent hours revising layouts for the shop buildout. (I negotiated that enough to my advantage that I imagine my peddler grandfather would have been proud.)  With every free moment, I went back over my order list to cut corners as needed, determined to stay within the capital I had to invest.  I guarded that start up money jealously because I wanted to have enough to pay my expenses and my salary for at least three months after opening.  Since that same money came from the lengthy process of refinancing our house, I would care for it like a gardener with only so many seeds – and no promises from the heavens.

I was seeing new clients independently, starting projects that I developed from stacks of crisp, never-before-used fabric books that littered my guest room during the build out stage of the shop.  I was discovering that the energy accompanying big change and bold thinking is fairly magnetic.  From the moment I quietly began to let clients know I was going out on my own, they were not only excited for me, but they started to add more to their projects and clamor for business cards to share with friends.  It’s heart-warming now to look back on how supportive these individuals were to me in that fledgling stage.

I marvel now that I was so bold, so organized, so driven – and so sure that it would not only be worth it but would also be a success.  It would take self-confidence verging on arrogance to act in the way that thirty year old did then.  Arrogance.  It is a severe and dubious virtue, alienating as much to self as to others, yet highly constructive at times.  In the way that the word implies, I was driven to serve self the most.  I don’t make the observation as self criticism.  I think my dream had worth and luckily was protected by that buffer zone of ego.  It helped me.

Later that pride would take a hit when the economy down-turned and – after much agonizing – I was compelled to draft emails to a few likely clients asking if they wanted to get a jump start on their future projects.  I was painfully honest about it: if I didn’t find some work soon, I wasn’t sure how long I could keep my doors open.  The change to my sense of self-worth was huge but also hard to fathom at the time.

I had lived large when everyone else was living large.

While the bubble that caused the crash had my clients buying or building new homes and furnishing every nook and cranny in varying odes to Tuscany, I was buying hand-made shirts and letting myself be pampered by the staff at Bergdorf’s.  I was sitting in the third row at Broadway shows and spending far too much on lunches.  When I wrote those emails to my clients, making my dire straights plain, it really didn’t matter how brightly my cuff links glittered.  The stack of bills on my desk had been growing for weeks. Everything was urgent and dull and dreadfully taut.  I was white-knuckling my way through this change in fortune.

The ego took another carving when I was forced to let my employee of four years know she ought to be looking for work.  I just couldn’t see how to keep paying her.  We had spent so many seasons sharing perspectives on the growing business, that she was as much advisor as shopkeep or assistant.  How often had I sought her perspective on a tricky  email exchange I was having with a client or colleague?  How many times had we celebrated a project win with an icy cocktail at the swanky martini lounge down the block?

When her last day with my company arrived, I went on one of my few house calls and then headed home instead of coming into work.  The other thing that can come from arrogance is a kind of moral cowardice: I simply couldn’t make myself confront the failure that watching her let herself out the door for the last time would make plain.  When I found her sadly cheerful hand-made thank you card on my desk the next day, I heaved a sigh and stared at my email inbox darkly until it became merely backlit lines without meaning.

Ingenuity wasn’t dead and neither was my appetite to survive.  But I was learning that to stay afloat in a new economy was going to take more than reserves of confidence or talent; I was going to have to reinvent my firm from a place of artful humility.  It would be a humble perspective that would help me determine just how much I could cut back, revising the shape and context of my business.  That editing taught me a lot about myself as a designer and a manager; I learned how to get back to the heart of intention and how to cut the fat.

When I met my landlord and asked her to accept half rent until I got back on my feet, I was without any of the pride that made me sick with worry before I emailed those clients.  In fact, my only imperative was to make my case as simply and sincerely as possible, so that she would understand my determination to make it was at the heart of the ask.  She agreed readily because, as I was learning, business people got it.  This change was big and we would need to band together.

Later when I hosted a party at my shop to celebrate its switch from active retail space to appointment only design studio, it was not only the beginning of a long journey of rebranding, but a chance to reset with as much dignity as the situation could offer. Looking back on it, I suppose the facade was fragile, a glass mask.  My clients knew this was the other side of the coin.  On one face, the old version of the business had failed, while on the other it was reborn as a new thing.  What they could only imagine was how jarring and saddening this change was for me – still it was needed repositioning and they gamely helped me keep face.  We stood elbow to elbow munching from cheese plates and sipping white wine.  When it was all over, I wanted nothing more than to have my preferred drink at home – a wintery gin martini – and to crawl into bed with a corny and easily digested episode of Perry Mason.  There is comfort in tightly constructed mayhem that resolves itself in less than an hour.

Nowadays my business has not only survived, but grown, with more employees than it had before, tight systems for daily operation, and consistent self-checks for growth.  Offering not only interior design for homes and commercial spaces, but reimagined again as a vital retail boutique, we have earned a reputation as a stalwart shop around the corner in our bustling little city.

In the wake of the recession, priorities were shifted and I was made a better steward of my dream, but like the coin with two faces, I see that my business has been served by two polarities of confidence: arrogance and humility.

Our Lady of Perpetual Snark

As she walked home, she thought first about a woman she wanted to punch, a woman with one front tooth that stuck out more than its mate, whose face went soft as pizza dough when she looked up at you with her mouth hanging slack.  Those thin lips were always gaping open, their owner saying something like, “That was mean, Hawkins.”

Then her mind drifted and she was trying to remember what she had in the pantry because it seemed like a soup kind of night.  Though there were still some leaves on the trees, the October twilight was cold.  The chill had chased people off the sidewalks, so she was alone for the twelve blessed minutes until she got home.

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Everyone at work called her Hawkins, which was her own rule.  She hated her first name.  It was a soft name that never fit her personality.  Even her mother once said, “If I’d known what a mean bitch you’d turn out to be, I’d have named you something like Myrtle.”

“Nice, Ma,” she’d said, laughing.

The two of them could always joke in that way.  A friend of hers once asked if it hurt her feelings and that was the first time she ever stopped to consider that it could.  She shook her head at the time, said, “No, that’s just how we are.  Honest.”

She had to explain that to Denise from human resources all the time.  It came up again today when she was called in to talk about the latest report Leslie had filed.  Leslie was the dough faced idiot who sat across from her, dusting her resin lighthouse collection with her dirty lunch napkin while she talked to customers on the phone, the wire of her headset vanishing into her neck fat.

As soon as she sat down, Denise adjusted her glasses and opened with a textbook question, “How do we find a way to coexist, since both of you have the right to expect a comfortable work environment?”

Denise was a pretty girl, always wore nice clothes from places like J. Crew or the Gap, tossed her hair-do around the lunch room like a Kennedy at a fundraiser.  Hawkins considered herself lucky not to be on Denise’s friend list.  If you were, she’d make you look at pictures of her latest bride’s maid gig. All those girls with thin arms and drunken eyeliner, captured forever trying to Dougy with some sass.  No, thanks.

Hawkins knew the drill.  She knew how to talk to people like Denise.  Clearing her throat gently, she put on her smooth customer service voice.  “Well, Denise, I think it’s common for there to be friction between folks in close quarters. I also think Leslie’s a bit hypersensitive.”

“She said you muttered…” Her eyes dropped as she glanced at the report.  “She said you muttered ‘ugly bitch’ under your breath when she looked at you.”

Hawkins laughed out loud – mostly because it was true and a little embarrassing, but also because she liked to see proper, swing-bob Denise using words like that.  She composed herself, decided the game was up.  “Look.  What you mutter is private.”

“Then why mutter it at all?”

“Because sometimes something is so true and so annoying, you have to say it out loud, but you know it’ll cause problems, so you mutter it.  Out of courtesy.”

Denise looked at her for a long while.  Her office was small, so the silence was condensed like soup out of a can.  Considering her options, Hawkins decided to throw in a little water.

“Well, she does have super good hearing.  I’ll give her that.  How about I go to the printer room the next time I need to mutter something?  Because I promise you, it isn’t in me to suppress it when I get that irritated.”

Whether or not she liked the suggestion, Denise seemed to accept it.  Looking a little flattened, she turned back to her computer and said, “Just try to remember why you’re here.”

The walk home took her along the expressway and she paused as always at Mt. Carmel Triangle to light a cigarette.  She leaned against the fence while she smoked, looking at the statue of the holy mother and child.  The Madonna had been painted badly so that her eyebrows looked like woolly caterpillars.  Still, her face wore the calm wisdom that comforted people.

Hawkins shook her head, said out loud, “Right, bitch. Motherhood’s a piece of cake.”

At home, her kids were staring at screens, hunting down gangsters and popping off hookers at a hundred and twenty miles an hour.  If she was lucky, the oldest remembered to empty the drainer and maybe, just maybe, wash the coffee pot for tomorrow morning.  It wasn’t likely.

“Wonder if Baby J ever got sent home for stabbing a girl in the hand with a pencil?” she asked the evening air.  “Maybe he had it coming.”

If her Grammy could have seen her talking to the two of them like that, she’d have made her cut a switch from the forsythia in the back yard and she’d have welted up her ass cheeks something good.  Hawkins glanced up into the glowering sky, but her sense of guilt was short-lived as something like a defiant smile played at her lips.  Still, she fished into her hip pocket and found some change, dropped it softly on the broken tiles at the feet of the Madonna.

She finished off her cigarette before moving on, glancing back once and catching the last of the twilight making a sort of magic on the statue.  They didn’t seem to mind her grilling them.  Maybe they knew how much her feet hurt by this time of day.  Or how annoying Leslie was in the morning, when her energy was peaking after a breakfast of sugary, whip cream covered coffee from McDonald’s.  The thing about people like Leslie that pissed her off was how they pretended that each day was a fresh slate.  She always parked it with a bright smile, saying good morning like today they were finally going to hit it off.

She dug her hands into her pockets, leaning into a cold breeze that cut over the island.  On the air she could smell garbage and spicy food.  It quickened her hunger and she walked faster.  Before long she reached their little house with the metal awning over the door, rusted and bent but still some comfort on rainy days.  The door was unlocked, like always, so she pushed into the warm hall without breaking pace.

Two of them were playing video games, little boxes of cereal open on the table in front of them.  The oldest was sitting in her recliner, Indian style, painting his nails carefully.  He glanced up at her when she entered.

“It’s not one you like,” he said. “You said this one chipped bad.”

She rolled her eyes. “Yeah, princess, well that’s good to know.  I got a fancy dress ball this Saturday.  You mind picking up my diamond tiara from the dry cleaners?”

He laughed. “You have a good day?”

“You clean up in the kitchen at all?” she asked, sinking onto the sofa between the younger ones.  They peered at her quickly, then back at the screen.  She snatched up a cereal box and gave it a shake.  “You little fuckers hungry or did you already eat?”

“They’re good,” Shawn said.  “And I did clean up the kitchen.”

“Oh really?”

“Yep.  And Ru-Ru came by and dropped off a pizza, so I put it in the oven.”

Hawkins sat up, “You didn’t turn it up to high, did you?”

“No, Mom,” he said. “I know about the oven. It’s on three hundred.”

She shrugged, eased back into the flattened cushions.  As an afterthought she glanced at him, saying, “Well, thanks.”

When she was fifteen, she got pregnant with Shawn.  His stupid dad hung around just long enough to stick him with that name.  The other two came a good long while later.  Hawkins always said she was too smart to want another kid after Shawn, but now and again she forgot herself.  In a lot of ways, she and the boy had raised each other.   When the others came along, he helped a lot, always seeming to know how tired she was and that her fuse was short.  Sometimes he said something smart and it made her see herself.  One day she had to get around to thanking him for real, but not until he was old enough to get it.

Just in the last year, since he turned fifteen, he’d changed on her.  Most times he wasn’t willing to help anymore with anything.  She had to harass him to pick up the messes and get something on the stove.  And it took everything in her to make the little fucker go to school.  He said they were all calling him faggot and he didn’t need that shit anyway.

“Yes, you do, dummy,” she’d told him.  “You need to finish school and then you need to go to college.”

“I forgot about my trust fund.”

She heard him, but she pretended she didn’t.  It was true that she had no idea how she’d get him into college.  His grades were good, despite his absences, but that wasn’t enough.  Instead of arguing about that, she’d taken up the other issue.

“If you don’t want people calling you faggot, stop wearing girl’s jeans and makeup.”

That had made him cry and even though Hawkins liked to pretend nothing ever hurt, seeing his mascara running down his young face was like looking in the mirror when she was that age. It just about broke her into a million pieces.  She set her jaw.

“Anyway, why do we care what trash thinks about us?” she said. “When you’re my age, you won’t remember half the cunts you went to school with and whether or not you’re queer won’t matter anymore because by then you’ll have friends who like queers.  Get it?”

He’d given her one of his looks.  His eyes were exactly like her own, small and brown and really sharp.  Her Grammy always said she had a way about her that was worth more than gold.  It amused the old woman.  “You got that peppery stare that makes bitches sneeze.”  Hawkins never got the joke until Shawn got old enough to give her the look.  It always made her glance away.

Tonight, while they sat eating pizza in the little dining room off the kitchen, she found herself looking at Shawn now and again.  Under his eyeliner and his shaggy hair, he was as good-looking as his father.  He was tall and slender and had full lips that were quick to smile, but pretty even when he was sad or thinking hard.  Her boy was self-possessed like herself.  With him, you only ever knew what he wanted you to know.

In the silence between them, her thoughts drifted to the Mt. Carmel statue.  She wondered why she stopped there every night and looked at the mother and son.  It had seemed for a long time like it was the perfect place to light her cigarette, the mid-point on her walk home.  But since Shawn had started to change, she’d been studying the figures closer.  Some nights she had dreams about when he was as little as the Baby Jesus.  It was the kind of dream that was so mundane and so real, it felt more like a memory.  Maybe it was.

She was sitting on her mother’s sofa late at night.  All the lights in the apartment were out, except that the Christmas tree was lit.  In the rainbow glow of the lights, she could make out her baby in the bassinet near her knee.  She was drowsy and he was sleeping peacefully.  The two of them were all alone and outside you could hear the traffic on the expressway and you could hear the wind.  Howl.