Derailment From The Fast Track

Derailment From The Fast Track

tale of toil by madame curie

Fear and Loathing in the Pharmaceutical Industry

I should have known something was wrong the first day I started working at The Firm, a large pharmaceutical conglomerate headquartered in Chicago. Several peppy executive types marched up to me, shook my hand, and boomed "Welcome aboard!" Aboard what? I wondered. The Orient Express? A slow boat to China? A freight trail to Hell?

In time, the answer became painfully obvious. I was on board the yuppie fast track, in the belly of the beast...

This is the story of how the combined cosmic forces of a midlife crisis and Processed World set one woman free. It's a fairly typical pattern: sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll in the 60s, a prolonged hangover throughout much of the 70s, and an upwardly mobile career track in the 80s.

I graduated from college in 1967 and immediately left the dusty Midwest for San Francisco with flowers in my hair. Then the Haight got kind of sad and the flowers wilted, so I took my act back home to become a writer. Twenty stupefying years later, I woke up to find myself the in-house writer for The Firm, a multi-national concern specializing in cardiovascular drugs and large-scale larceny. Half of The Firm's profits went into developing bigger and better drugs. The other half, it was rumored, went up the president's nose.

The Firm was run by crazed, power-mad martinets from the 50s and the equally crazed and driven yuppies who did their bidding, asskissing all the way to Senior Product Management (The Firm's ideal of Nirvana). Where were all the 60s people? Was I alone in the Void???

At The Firm, I was in charge of stroking the house organ, a monumentally dreary little sales magazine called "HeartBeat." "HeartBeat" was supposed to get the sales force all hot and bothered so they'd run around the country hawking our drugs and demolishing the competition by any means short of industrial sabotage. The Firm dangled glorious carrots in front of these willing donkeys, like mucho bonus bucks for the high achievers and trips to Las Vegas for the high rollers. Once a year, all heart patients who had been taking one of our products for ten consecutive years--and were still alive and ticking--were invited, courtesy of The Firm, to participate in a relay race held in Palm Springs. I could not help but wonder that the minds capable of creating a relay race for coronary victims were capable of anything. Nevertheless, I put my scruples aside and duly reported all this shit in "HeartBeat."

To add insult to injury, "HeartBeat" was presided over by a 250-lb., middle-aged monolith named Myrna. Myrna was a stone asskisser from way back and, as luck would have it, the office snitch. If I wrote anything remotely inventive or off-beat, Myrna would red-pencil it all the way to Hell and back. She was the stalwart guardian of the mundane and the mediocre, and she defended her territories ferociously. Myrna was prim and prissy and a total pain the ass. Her favorite expression was "That isn't company policy."

Ironically, despite all her drooling devotion to company policy, Myrna was one of the biggest goof-offs at The Firm. Her quirk was chronic absenteeism, and she displayed a singular talent for inventing some pretty bizarre reasons for missing work. Some of her favorite excuses revolved around her cat, Babs, such as "Babs threw up and I had to rush her to the Vet," or "Babs went into cardiac arrest and I had to call an ambulance to resuscitate her," or (her finest hour) "Babs buried my house keys in her kitty litter box and I couldn't leave home until I found them."

When she ran out of Babs the Cat excuses, gargantuan disasters would befall the gargantuan wacko. The notorious Chicago winds would shatter her apartment windows...a band of marauding gypsies would mug her on the way to work...salmonella poisoning would seize her at lunch...the tenants in her next-door apartment would be murdered and Myrna would have to wait for the police...a mysterious breed of killer cockroaches, never before seen above the Mason-Dixon line, would invade her apartment necessitating a three-day extermination period which Myrna would have to supervise.

Yes indeed, Myrna was one sick lady. She had a little pig face and a tight, compressed, little mouth and (no doubt about it) a tight, compressed little asshole. She probably hadn't had a good shit or a good lay in years. So the venom festered within, ballooning her into a bilious blob lashing out at life.

I couldn't stand to be in the same room with her, much less engage in conversation, so soon I stopped writing anything that would summon the dreaded red pencil and subsequent "editorial conference" with Myrna. After five angst-filled years, I got to the point where I could churn out articles unconscious at my desk (which I frequently was).

Lest you seriously question my sanity for remaining in this hellhole for five years, let me assure you it was not all sturm und drang. Consider the finer point of life at The Firm: I made a righteous amount of money; I did not have to work very hard (a hippie ideal); and I had some real nice perks like traveling around the country to sales meetings. I thought I had made my peace with The Firm. I figured, "Okay, this is it. I'll roll with it."

But then I turned 40 and it wasn't it--not by a long shot. I began to do some serious soul-searching. The first sign I had of impending insurrection was that I abandoned my fast-track colleagues and began hanging out with the office temps. I, who had formerly thought the The Firm was peopled exclusively with yuppies, suddenly found where my fellow 60s compatriots were. They were the office temps and they looked like they were having a real good time. One particularly insidious temp named Wolfman Jack introduced me to Processed World. And that, my friends, was the start of my undoing and eventual salvation.

Things got curiouser and curiouser: I was like a creature possessed. I discarded my business suits for increasingly inappropriate office attire. I threw away my attache case. I put up a Jimi Hendrix poster in my office. I defiantly clamped on headphones and blasted the Grateful Dead whenever Myrna waddled into my office waving her dreaded red pencil.

Pretty soon I attracted a secret coven of hippies. Strange and wondrous beings, whom I had previously dismissed as straight, suddenly metamorphosized in my office and confessed they were at Woodstock, including three staff members of "HeartBeat" to my eternal delight. One of The Firm's doctors admitted to working at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. There were now 12 of us at The Firm (like the Apostles, I suppose), and we careened gleefully into the corporate structure.

Strange graffiti, such as "Fuck The Firm" and "Make Love Not Drugs," began to appear on the hallowed halls of The Firm. It puzzled everyone since no one had ever dared deface company property before. (The graffiti was ultimately blamed on the outside messenger force.) In a rare gesture of Yuletide good will, The Firm erected a Christmas tree in the lobby, decorated with bright red birds instead of ornaments. One by one, the birds mysteriously disappeared and turned up in the most astonishing places--belly-up in urinals in the executive washroom...perched on the statue of The Firm's founder...peeking out ominously from behind the curtains at sales conferences. Every week, The Firm's xerox machines inexplicably went into overload because they were churning out hundreds of particularly flagrant Processed World cartoons for corporate distribution.

Production at "HeartBeat" ground to a halt as we were all way too busy on an underground publication called "HeartBurn." I was especially pleased with the logo I had created--"HeartBurn ...pharmaceuticals are not just our business, they're our way of life." Never before in the history of that wretched little rag had so much work been done so cheerfully and so quickly by so few. There was joy in the air!

In no time at all I was getting called into the VP's office and questioned about my "attitude problem." But I didn't have an "attitude problem" any longer. For the first time in years, I was amazingly clear about what I wanted in life and where I was going--and it sure as shit wasn't along the fucking yuppie fast track with a bunch of pharmaceutical industry fascists. No, a totally different set of pharmaceuticals had helped to shape me in my formative years and they didn't fail me now. I knew what I had to do. I marched in the VP's office and quit.

The first thing I did to celebrate my freedom was buy a plane ticket to San Francisco. When I came here this past June, I discovered that it was the 20th anniversary celebration of the Summer of Love. Kismet! It took 20 years for me to come full circle--in classically perfect symmetry. In 1967, I came to San Francisco with no job and in 1987 I returned--again with no job. The circle had closed and I was free.

I now plan to become a freelance writer. It's 20 years later, but I'm going to do it right this time, no more getting side-tracked by the fast track. I've even got my commemorative 1967/1987 Haight-Ashbury tie-dyed T-shirt as a lucky talisman.

Thank you Processed World, derailment is heavenly.

by Madame Curie