On days I feel especially sorry for myself, I think of Karan.
A few Fridays ago, I worked late. I finished a PowerPoint around 9PM and sent it off. The office had been quiet for a long time, the kind of quiet that only a Friday evening can bring to a New York ad agency. Those still “working” were either in the basement cutting Cheerio commercials or out on the town wining and dining with coworkers and clients turned friends or dating or getting drunk or all of the above. Even the company’s less-social midnight oil burners had gone for the weekend. I sat at my desk, quietly putting things back into my drawer as though trying not to wake the computers, when I heard footsteps.
I wondered if it was the Russian cleaning lady whose cheeks were always rosy. On another night like this, I had seen her applying blush in front of the elevators, standing next to her supplies cart. She patted her silver hair, combed neatly into an Edith Head bob and checked both sides of her face before slipping the compact back into her navy blue uniform. Then she pulled on purple rubber gloves that were a bit too big and started to empty out the trash cans. I reminded myself to take more pride in my appearance.
The footsteps continued down my way.
Moments later a slight Indian man emerged. He stopped before my desk.
He was short and wiry, his frame barely enhanced by the silver puffer jacket he wore. His head was the shape of an inverted teardrop, the top of which very much visible through tufts of thinning hair. His face was young and unlined. Wide, curious though tired eyes peered at me behind frameless glasses – the ones that frail, overworked Asian young men seemed to favor, as though the weight of eyeglass frames could be the straw that breaks their already hunched backs.
I had noticed him earlier that week, sitting alone in the middle conference room, surrounded by reams of paper and binders, staring at a laptop that seemed to glare back with the thousand blank eyes of massive Excel spreadsheets.
“Hello,” he said in a thick Indian accent.
“Hi,” I said.
“Yes, but I’m done now. You too?”
“Yes, yes,” he looked at his watch, a bit loose on his fine wrist, “Though it’s not too late for me yet.”
“It’s almost 9…what are you doing here?”
He was the auditor, flown in from India by our Parent Company. One slender man meant to do the work of three or perhaps four, in the span of a week, at a quarter of the cost of his American equivalent. It was his first time in New York City.
“So I’ve just finished the work but have started to run the report, which will not finish until at least 11, so I am now just coming out to walk around and stretch my legs.”
“How long will that take? Not long, right?”
“It can take an hour, maybe more. And after that, I will need to prepare it to send out.”
“You need to send out a report at 11? On a Friday? Who’s going to care? Who’s going to read it?”
I didn’t know much about an auditor’s work, but this seemed unreasonable and I temporarily forgot that I’d just stayed late to do more or less the same thing.
He put his arms behind his back, looked down and shrugged. I wondered if I was looking at an aged young boy or a youthful middle-aged man. He seemed somewhere in between.
“Probably no one will read it tonight,” he said, his “t’s” light, like a flutter, “But it doesn’t matter. The report must go out before midnight otherwise it will be a KPI miss.”
Though he’d been here for a week, he hadn’t seen very much of New York. He and three auditors from his same company were dispatched from India, each responsible for auditing two agencies within our parent company. All of them worked terrible hours, from 8AM until between 9 and midnight, thought sometimes, until 2 or 3 in the morning. Sometimes though, they had dinner together. The weekend before, he and two of his colleagues had finally gotten the chance to stretch their legs.
“We saw the Brooklyn Bridge,” he said, his R’s equally light on the tongue, “That was very nice.”
And the people here at the company? Had he met anyone he got on with? The answer was likely no, but apparently he had. Our CFO, also Indian, had taken him out to lunch and given him his personal cell number in case Karan needed anything.
“What else have you done?” I asked, “Have you gone to see a show? Have you had a lot of good food?”
He thought for a moment, and I realized he probably mostly ate lunch and dinner at his desk.
“I went to ABC Kitchen a few nights ago, that was very good.”
I smiled, that was a good restaurant, or so I’ve been told.
“And I also went to a good Italian restaurant. I like Italian cuisine very much.”
“Quality Italian? Palma? L’Artusi?” I quickly rattled off some of the popular ones I knew.
He shook his head, “No, the concierge at my hotel recommended it. It was a very big restaurant, very popular. Maybe you know it… Olive Garden?”
“Are you kidding me?” my face contorted in disgusted incredulity, “Olive Garden?”
He nodded, “Yes, that’s it. What is the matter?”
“That’s like the worst Italian restaurant you could go to here. Or anywhere in America. It’s a big chain, there are thousands of them! It’s not…it’s not…- I was sputtering, having taken personal offense that a person who lived and worked in New York could recommend that as “good” Italian, “It’s not special at all!”
“Oh, well,” he looked thoughtful, then smiled, “Well, I still have a few meals left so I should use them wisely.”
I offered to write him a list of restaurants that any New Yorker would be proud to recommend – or so I’d hope.
“That would be very nice,” he said.
He handed me a thin, bland business card:
“Karan XXXXX,” it said, in small print, and below it in much larger print, “Experienced Consultant.”
Indeed, and about to be very well traveled.
He was off to another New York agency next Wednesday, and then to the UK, where our headquarters were, then Russia, and then his last stop before heading home, Australia. He would be gone from India for almost two months. Had I been younger and more green, or had simply not seen him nearly buried under reams of paper and then again talking to me at the office at 9PM on a Friday night, I would have been envious. I had always wanted a job that came with travel opportunities, but as I got older I realized, for me at least, the two were best kept separate.
He was very much looking forward to it all, he said, though that evening he simply looked exhausted. Or was I simply projecting my own fatigue?
“Do you have to work this late at each place you visit?”
“Yes, that is usually the way,” he said, “But I don’t mind. It is a good job.”
Before this he’d been at an even larger firm with worse hours, lesser pay. He had grown up just outside New Delhi and after studying for his MBA and getting the job here, he was able to move his parents and himself to the city.
“It is a good job for now,” he said, “But maybe in a few years, I will have a family.”
I stood up and gathered my things. My friends were waiting.
“I’ll send it to you the restaurant list tomorrow,” I said.
“I would appreciate it,” he said, “Thank you very much.”
We shook hands and I left for dinner, wondering what he would end up eating that night.
At 1AM that night, he requested to connect with me on LinkedIn.
The following Monday, I walked by his conference room. The table was cleared with just a massive binder and his open laptop. Things were wrapping up. Before he could look up, I walked quickly past and reminded myself to send him the restaurant list. I did so that afternoon before packing up to go home.
On Tuesday he came by to thank me.
“I appreciate very much your taking the time to write all of that. My only regret now is that I wish I had more time to try them all.”
“You’re very welcome,” I said, “And you’ve got a few days left.”
He nodded shyly, and stood around for a bit. I don’t remember what I was working on that day, only that my boss had glanced over, perhaps wondering what our connection was.
“Well,” he said finally, “I am leaving for the other agency tomorrow, but I will be sure to let you know which restaurants I end up visiting.”
“Please do,” I said.
He reached over the short plastic divider at the edge of my desk. We shook hands.
After he’d gone, my boss leaned over. “Who was that?”
“The auditor,” I said, “From India. This is his first time in New York.”
“Well, that must be super exciting for him!”
I was about to tell her that some dickhead concierge had sent the poor guy to Olive Garden, but something pressing came up and we turned back to our screens.