When I was in my twenties, and still striving for normalcy, I got a job at the world’s biggest insurance company.
One day, our departmental director called me into his office.
“I have to speak to you about a very serious issue,” he said.
I scoured my brain and tried to remember all my infractions. Had I been late? Was I in violation of the dress code? Had I missed a deadline?”
“You were overheard laughing in the office.”
“A number of people heard you laughing.”
“Was I laughing too loud?”
“You were laughing in the office.”
“I’m sorry,” I said in shock. “Is laughter not allowed?”
“Laughter is inappropriate.”
I should have realized then that this wasn’t the place for me.
I worked with very nice people, mind you. Many of them truly believed they were on a mission from God, ordained on the Rock of Gibraltar to make sure every widow kept her home and every orphan was flush enough to pay tuition at Yale.
Each of them had achieved success by making breadwinners visualize the consequences of dying immediately. They sat with their poor clients at the dining room table, and with macabre earnestness, ran the numbers: “this is what your spouse will need to bury you… to pay taxes… to pay the mortgage…to buy food… to educate your children… to pay for your daughters’ weddings…”
They’d come up with figures that Bill Gates would have difficulty paying.
Before long, the overwhelmed client would say, “I can’t deal with this. It’s too much. It isn’t going to happen to me anyway.”
My colleagues would then play their best card.
“I can appreciate how you feel, and I could walk away from you and your family tonight, but let me tell you what happened the last time I did that. I walked away from my best friend/cousin/brother’s table, leaving the family’s future unsecured. That night, he went out to buy some milk for the baby, and he was hit by a truck/struck by lightning/abducted by aliens/taken by the Rapture. I had to return to that home the next day and let the widow and the children know I’d failed, and left them destitute.”
Oh, yeah. They could repeat this story night after night, in home after home, and get misty-eyed every single time. Every time they told their tale they’d believe it… and they thought their calling was sacred.
I kind of found it a little ghoulish.
Was there no way to put a little fun into funereal?
My colleagues didn’t laugh.
They drank… our vice president and my manager were alcoholics. They took a lot of Valium… I could go up and down the hallway, and tell you what dosage you could find in each manager’s desk. They had heart attacks with alarming frequency. One had a nervous breakdown. No, two.
In the nine years I worked there, I never learned how to “pull up the hearse” convincingly, but I did learn one thing: you can make a living without laughing, but you can’t have much of a life.
Even if you carry a lot of insurance.