Wait in the car
Saying no makes me insubordinate; so be it
Anthony is taking the week off, so we’re rerunning this column from 2009.
In middle age I became aware of a serious condition I’d been suffering all my all my life and about which I knew nothing. I don’t mean to be this way; I just am. It’s probably a hormone.
I was first diagnosed when I was a hack writer at a children’s-book publisher. My boss said she wanted me to write a biography of Magic Johnson, then a very big deal. He was apparently a helluva basketball player, since even I had heard of him, and I had absolutely no interest in his life story, an awkward situation.
So I did some research. There were several biographies of Magic Johnson in print, not a good sign. The other biography I’d written at that point was the first published of its subject, and I liked that exclusivity. My boss simply wanted to fill a hole in the department’s list. That it would take months to write a well-researched, readable book didn’t matter. No editor in company history had ever been told “No” by a hack. Staff writers needn’t be good, but they must be obedient.
My boss was surprised and angry—I don’t think anybody had ever told her “No” about anything. I enlisted the assistance of the employee advocate, but my boss and I weren’t budging and the advocate was unprepared for total recalcitrance.
I explained my position to the editorial director:
1. There were already more biographies of Magic Johnson than absolutely necessary, including a couple for children; 2. My complete lack of interest in Magic Johnson didn’t make a good book likely; 3. My name would be on the book forever no matter how dull it was.
I concluded by saying that I wished all of us well, even my boss, but I wasn’t gonna be writing a biography of Magic Johnson. Appalled, the editorial director said, “That’s insubordinate.”
I’d never thought of myself as disobedient to authority. Hard to believe, isn’t it? I can’t imagine how I missed that. She suggested that I propose an alternative biography, which frankly had never occurred to me. I blame that on my being an only child. I don’t know jack about compromise. I’m teachable, though, so I picked a hot tennis player acceptable to the parties of the first, second, and third parts.
Years later a friend of mine said to me, “You’re one of those guys who never waits in the car.”
“You know what I’m talking about. When I was young, riding around with my buddies, and the driver would make a stop and say to the rest of us, ‘Wait in the car,’ there was always somebody who didn’t want to wait in the car. You’re that guy.”
He was right. I do not wait in the car.