Saturday, April 4, 2020
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All in a Day’s Work

The week before school let out in June, after an obscene amount of time spent sifting through Zotlink postings, I finally landed an interview for a summer job. A local publishing company was hiring a part-time office assistant — the perfect summer gig, I thought, raking in minimum wage while sitting idly behind a desk and writing for a few hours a week.

Determined to nail the interview, I put on nice pants (a true feat during finals week), rehearsed the answers to standard interview questions in my head (“My greatest weakness, sir? Well, getting myself dressed during finals week”), and arrived at the office twenty minutes early, eager to earn the Holy Grail of effortless office jobs.

All of my meticulous professionalism died in the middle of the most confusing job interview of my life. My soon-to-be boss and founder of the decades-old company turned out to be a squat, 82-year-old Indian immigrant who just couldn’t be bothered with formalities. He asked me only three questions during my job interview: “Do you know what the Internet Explorer is?” “Do you think Robert Downey Jr. has ever been to China?” and “What time can you start on Monday?”

Evidently, “Of course Robert Downey Jr. has been to China; I would go to China if I were Robert Downey Jr.” was an acceptable response, and I landed the job. I showed up the very next Monday, expecting to say a quick hello to my eccentric boss, take a nap on my desk, file some invoices, and go home at five.

My dreams of a lazy summer were crushed as soon I walked into my office, and my boss called me over to his desk next door. No formalities, as usual.

“In October, I am going to India to visit my family,” he told me. “Over the summer, you and I will write my entire autobiography so that when I bring it to India, my family will understand what my life has been like in America over the past fifty years.”

He handed me a massive spreadsheet he’d made of each year of his life – from his birth in 1933 to his life today – containing everything he’s ever done. From fighting off rattlesnakes and playing poker in his family’s house in colonial India, to moving to Illinois in the 50s and pursuing a PhD in engineering, to opening up his own textbook company in Orange County, he has had some extraordinary experiences in this world.

“Your job this summer is to ship out textbooks, keep the office files neat, and write my life history,” he explained, poker-faced.

I took the papers, went back to my desk, and wondered what Zotlink had gotten me into. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to learn enough about my boss in three months to help write his autobiography, but a job is a job, so I was going to figure it out.

To start, we had a lot in common. Turns out, we have the same birthday (albeit 63 years apart), and that’s just the beginning. He’s an absurdly wealthy octogenarian; I’m a teenager whose wallet currently contains two dimes  and a small handful of Cheeto crumbs. He wears a suit to work every day; I forget to put on matching shoes sometimes. He’s a lauded professor of engineering; I am a struggling college writer and radio DJ. He’s been to nearly every country in the world; I went to Kentucky once.

Naturally, he appreciated my worldliness and sophistication, and we became fast friends.

As the weeks dragged on, after getting my office work done for the day, my boss would ask if I wanted to run errands with him – going to Office Depot, getting coffee, touring multimillion dollar Newport model homes he hoped to buy – so he could regale me with his life stories, under the pretense that it was all “research” for his autobiography. Basically, I was hired to go on weird summer adventures around the OC with an elderly business owner, and I loved every minute of it.

Over months of coffee and model homes, I really did learn enough about my strange boss to write a book about him. He told me stories of growing up in a wealthy family in India and how old money feuds destroyed their familial bonds, and how he rarely speaks to his brothers back home out of resentment. He also considers himself so American now that he hasn’t spoken his native language in decades.

He asked me about God and Elon Musk and human history. He told me how In N’ Out grilled cheese sandwiches make life worth living. Last week, while watching “How To Train Your Dragon” inside of a pristine model home living room, he expressed his genuine anger that dragons are not real animals. I listened, I nodded and I agreed, taking mental notes for the grand autobiography along the way.

Speaking of which, it’s coming along, and as the summer fades to black and I finish piecing together this man’s life into a story, I can’t help but feel that my unexpected job as his administrative assistant/unofficial biographer has been the greatest, most surreal story of my own past few months, as well. I went in for a secretary job, and I came out writing an autobiography for an elderly, rich publishing mogul who I now count among my unlikeliest friends.

I never did get that cushy desk job or any idle free time in a cubicle that I could spend writing – instead, I watched my simple summer job turn into one of the craziest stories of my life so far. I’d consider that a summer well-spent.