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Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Fart - Happened in the Summer of 1994

One of the things about us – those of us on the spectrum is that we often violate social norms or commit social faux pas. It’s not because we are not aware of what those social norms are, it’s just that we don’t care. Now, I don’t mean that in an inconsiderate or callous way, but more along the lines that we just can’t really understand why neurotypicals get so upset or uncomfortable over things that we think are no big deal, while being completely OK and even encouraging behaviors that we think are really bad. This story is about one of the big ones: the public fart. Comedians make fun of it and if you ask most people they will agree that farting is hilarious – when it’s their own fart.  But somehow whenever someone else farts, there is a reaction of disgust and “oooohhhhhh!” like they’ve just smelled the worst thing in their life. Let me tell you, there are much worse smells, like the poultry and fish sections of an open air market in Hong Kong. You don’t know what funk is until you have smelled wet, decomposing chicken carcasses and feathers in the hot, sweltering sun, or fish scales in the same conditions.

Anyway the story takes place in Kelowna BC, not when I lived there as a youngster, but back in 1994 when I was fresh out of university and looking for a job. I had managed after what seemed like a million rejection letters to the 150 resumes I sent to all the accounting firms in BC, to secure an interview with KPMG in Kelowna.  I had to take a Greyhound bus out to Kelowna from Vancouver because I was completely broke and get a budget hotel room in downtown Kelowna. Our power had been cut off only a month earlier and Lea and I had to scrape together to get it back on. So I really, really needed this job. Needless to say I was very nervous because I did not feel at all comfortable in interview situations.

I remember arriving at about 5 pm at the hotel. I unpacked my things and got my business suit ready and laid everything out for the next morning. Despite being almost broke, I did budget enough for a nice meal out and some drinks to calm my nerves. I went out and had a decent but unremarkable meal at a restaurant that faced the waterfront and Dow Reid’s Sails sculpture that lies at the waterfront on Okanagan Lake. This was a very tall white porcelain sculpture of two large sails. It was quite beautiful and is one of the defining landmarks of the city even to this day.  My nerves were still raging after dinner, so I decided for some insane reason that going out and getting drunk would be a good idea instead of just calling it an early night and going back to my hotel room. These were the days of expensive long distance calls and before mobile phones became mainstream. So calling my fiancee Lea to discuss my concerns was really not an option. I wound up getting HAMMERED at this club called Rocco Morocco on one of the side streets near my hotel. I don’t remember much about the place, except that I had a lot to drink. I somehow managed to stumble back to the hotel and up to my room at about 2:00 am and crashed in bed. 

HOLY SHIT I’M LATE!! Was the first thought that went through my mind as I looked over at the clock radio that said 8:48 on it. My interview was at 9:00 am, and I knew that being late for a job interview was an absolute kiss of death, especially in an employer’s market like entry-level accounting was in 1994. This was before the Enron scandal, and before the various financial crises in North America had elevated the demand for professional accountants and auditors. It was a time that law students were paying their employers for articling positions.  Accounting wasn’t as bad as this, but the entry level positions paid very little compared to what we university grads thought we should and would be earning. There was absolutely no way I was going to make it on time. I called down to the front desk and asked them to have a cab at the hotel ASAP . Then I called the KPMG office and advised them that I missed my wakeup call and was running a few minutes late. I knew this wouldn’t get me off the hook, but I figured it was better than nothing. I could only hope they would cut me some slack since I was an out of towner.

I arrived at the KPMG office at 9:18, and was seated in the waiting room. I waited for 15 minutes as the partner interviewing me, Mr. E. was not ready to see me. Immediately I began to feel relief, which brings me to another aspect of us aspies: we take almost everything at face value and have to learn to read into things. In this case, I felt relief that Mr. E. was not ready to see me because in my mind I thought this meant that my being late was not a dealbreaker since he wasn’t ready to see me anyway. It never occurred to me that the reason he might not be ready to see me at 9:18 is that he was ready at 9:00am and rather than waste 18 minutes with his thumb up his ass, waiting for me, he rearranged his schedule and started doing something else and was now in the middle of it. 

Eventually Mr. E. came out and graciously received my profuse apologies with aplomb that only someone in his position would have.  He told me that as he was busy, he wanted me to chat with his partner first, a man by the name of Corbett. Anyway he was a very straight laced man and the interview seemed to go well – at least in my mind, which likely meant not well at all. Then after about half an hour or so, I was taken back to Mr. E.'s office for the main interview. I cannot remember many of the interview questions, but I do remember becoming very confident and comfortable in the interview to the point where I began to reveal details about my personal life that I now know would have been best kept to myself. Things like I was l engaged to a Chinese woman who was 20 years older than me (it was actually 25 years, as I would later discover, when she passed away in 2010). That came up in response to his question about how I would feel about moving to Kelowna and “what does your fiancee do?” Naturally, I can only imagine what Mr. E. must have thought of me at this point. But I’m sure he wasn’t thinking: “we’ve got to hire this guy!”. But at the time, I thought the interview was going swimmingly. Of course what I didn’t understand back then was that Mr. E., like most professionals in his position, was a master at making people feel at ease and he had his best game face on the entire time.  So confident was I that the rest of my judgement took a long running jump out the office window.

He invited me to lunch and then introduced me to our lunch companion, Jenna. Jenna was a quiet pale skinned woman with long, straight ginger red hair that came down past her waist. I shook her hand and we went off to a local restaurant for lunch. I can’t remember exactly where, but I remember that it was very brightly lit. I broke the first unwritten rule when I ordered a black Russian at Mr. E.'s encouragement. This is a common interview trick: your host will have the waiter ask you what you want to drink and when you hesitate to order an alcoholic drink, they will say something along the lines of “have whatever you want.” You then order said alcoholic drink only to find that when the waiter gets to your host he orders a club soda or some such drink along with a remark like “I can’t. I have to go back to work after this.”.

We had a wonderful lunch with good stimulating conversation and had just finished dessert and were having our coffee when the urge hit. It was that urge that we all get sooner or later in these situations: to fart. I will never know exactly why I didn’t just excuse myself and go to the bathroom. I think it was just the build-up of confidence that I had after the past 2 hours and no indications or cues that I could see from either of my interviewers that things were not going well. You’d think that I would continue to be extra cautious and proper since I was late that morning. But no. I thought I could just quietly sift this one out slowly and this way I wouldn’t have to get up. It wasn’t a large fart anyway –I could tell that much. So with a great deal of self-control, I opened my sphincter and let it out slowly and quietly. It was dead silent, you could have heard a pin drop. So far so good. Now it was time for the Moment of Truth.

The Moment of Truth is that few seconds between the time you let one rip and the time it hits your nostrils. For some strange reason, maybe it’s just me, but I suspect that many people actually think they can judge whether a fart will smell before they pass it. In some cases, I do agree that is true. For instance, if it is very warm and heavy, you know it’s going to be a stinker. But in other circumstances, I don’t think you can tell. This was one of those instances. After about 3 seconds it hit me: the worst. most putrid beefy smell I think I’ve ever managed to produce. I mean it smelled like something had died inside me and had been rotting away for the last six weeks. I knew at this moment that I was toast. Do you ever get that feeling where you just wish you could disappear by teleporting out of somewhere? That was how I felt at that moment. I hoped that the smell would dissipate and that neither Jenna or Mr. E. would smell it, but I knew this was very unlikely. Neither of them flinched and I think they must have had their best poker faces on.

After lunch they thanked me for coming and dropped me off at the hotel. A week later, I got the letter that they had decided to go with someone else. Realistically though, after all these years I know it was not the fart that did in my chances, nor was it being late, though both were very bad. Rather it was the fact that Jenna knew me from my days at Shell House at Simon Fraser University. Jenna was always a quiet, responsible student and lived across the hall from me. She was never present at the drunken floor parties, but she would have witnessed my drunk antics on an almost weekly basis while I lived there. It is possible that she would not have recognized my name on my resume, but she would have recognized my picture, as my resume had a small picture of my face. So for sure Mr. E. would have asked her about me either before the interview ever took place, or if not then, definitely after lunch when she would have told him who I was, and how I behaved only a few years earlier. That, probably more than anything would have sunk my chances of getting that job. But these were the days before social media and Facebook – the days before people knew as widely as they do now about how your past, or your life outside work can come back to haunt you. 

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