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Bitter is the New Black

Jen Lancaster

  Bitter Is the New Black

  Bitter Is the New Black

  Confessions of a condescending, egomaniacal, self-centered Smart-ass, or why you should never carry a Prada Bag to the unemployment office


  Jen Lancaster


  New American Library

  Published by New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New

  York 10014, USA

  Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada

  (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

  Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

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  (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.)

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  (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.)

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  Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices:

  80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published by New American Library,

  a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  Copyright © Jen Lancaster, 2006

  All rights reserved



  Lancaster, Jen, 1967–

  Bitter is the new black / Jen Lancaster.

  p. cm.

  ISBN: 1-4295-2152-x

  1. Unemployed women workers—Nonfiction. 2. Job hunting—Nonfiction. I. Title.

  PS3612.A54748B58 2006

  813'.6—dc22 2005018193

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


  While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

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  for my mom despite and because (but mostly because)

  for kate who makes the impossible anything but

  for auntie virginia and cousin stephen,

  my style icon and the man who invented fun

  and for fletch–thanks for doing all the

  heavy lifting (with love and squalor)


  Author’s Note


  Part One: Icarus

  1. Flying Too Close to the Sun

  2. The What Street Journal?

  3. Crash and Burn

  4. Shaken, Not Stirred

  5. The Lobby for a Hobby

  6. Who Says Romance Is Dead?

  Part Two: Pandora

  7. Opening the Box

  8. Temporary Insanity

  9. Cannibal Birds

  10. Randolph Street Starbucks

  11. Evict This, Motherf*cker

  12. Jennsylvania




  This boutique-to-barrio tale is a modern Greek tragedy, as defined by Roger Dunkle in The Classical Origins of Western Culture: a story in which “the central character, called a tragic protagonist or hero, suffers some serious misfortune which is not accidental, and therefore meaningless, but is significant in that the misfortune is logically connected.”

  In other words? The bitch had it coming.

  And I am that bitch.

  Bitter Is the New Black is my story.

  Although this memoir is based on real events in my life, I’ve taken a few liberties for the purpose of moving the story forward. In some cases names and places have been altered, characters combined, time compressed, and events taken out of sequence.

  Regardless of these changes, I assure you, yes, I really was that bad.

  First she was a seed,

  and then she was trouble.


  I do much better as a goddess,

  she said, since my secretarial skills

  have always been limited.



  * * *


  April 7, 1977

  Dear Mrs. Lancaster:

  Jennifer is one of the brightest and most articulate students in the fourth grade and a pleasure to have in my class. However, an incident today concerns me. During recess, I heard her remark to another student, “I can make Stacey Coopersmith do anything I want.”

  I wanted to tell you, as I am sure you want to keep that kind of behavior in check.


  Mrs. C---

  * * *

  * * *


  Student Newspaper



  Pls. see me re. Page One’s budget for next week’s issue. Although your proposed layout looks great, I’m not sure the headline for the Spring Break story should be Jeni to Vacation in Europe. As well, the story may be more interesting if you actually include a broad range of other students’ plans, and not just your own.


  C. H---

  * * *

  * * *




  Broadcasting on the school radio is an awesome responsibility. If I did not think you were up to the challenge, I would not have awarded you your own show. However, I want to make it clear that you will lose this slot if we have a repeat of last night’s incident.

  I spent my morning fielding calls from parents angry about your commentary. Regardless of your opinion, it is never “OK” to report that the Pep Step Dance Squad members “look fat in their new outfits” nor are you allowed to call them “boyfriend-stealing skanks.”

  There are plenty of other students anxious to claim your spot if the editorializing continues. Do not let this happen again.

  Mr. W---

  * * *

  * * *

  University English Department


  Miss Lancaster,

  Congratulations on the commendable job on your essay exam. However, I regret to inform you that I must award you a B+, and not the A-you’d earned. Quite simply, I cannot tolerate your shouting at your neighbor to “stop chewing your gum like a damn cow” during the test.

  The reverberation of giggles after your profane outburst was disruptive and inappropriate, and I had no choice but to dock your grade.

  Prof. D---

  “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

William Shakespeare (1564–1616),

  “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,”

  Act 2, Scene 2

  * * *

  * * *

  pi beta phi•pi beta phi•pi beta phi•pi beta phi

  january 21, 1991


  congrats on the most faboo party!! it was our best ever, thanks to you! you rule as rush chairwoman…major snaps!!

  however, the exec board has overturned the $100 fines you slapped on sisters not wearing green at the emerald city event. we think your attention to detail is totally awesome, but those fines were way harsh.

  pi love and mine,

  pres. r---

  p.s. we’ve also turned down your request to fine anyone who called you “hitler” during the party—we were totally joking!!

  pi beta phi•pi beta phi•pi beta phi•pi beta phi

  * * *

  * * *

  The Village Idiot




  Thanks for volunteering to be in charge when I took Chris to the emergency room. His burn is healing well, and he will be back in the kitchen on Tuesday. You did an excellent job running things with a couple of small exceptions.

  First, Brian will NOT be required to provide you with a detailed essay on the virtues of a properly cooked steak.

  Second, I know you think the hostess wasn’t seating people in an orderly manner, but I DID NOT give you the authority to fire her. She will also be back on Tuesday and expects an apology.

  In the future, leave personnel decisions to me.



  * * *

  * * *

  From the desk of Miss Jennifer A. Lancaster

  March 1, 1999

  Dear Human Resources,

  It is with regret that I’m tendering my resignation as a contract negotiator for Great Plaines HMO, effective two weeks from the date of this letter.

  I appreciate the learning experience and I wish your organization tremendous success in the future.


  Jennifer A. Lancaster

  P.S. Perhaps the next time an angry physician locks a contract negotiator in a storage room as a bargaining ploy, you’ll actually admonish the doctor in question. What you consider “a blip in the negotiation process with a crucial member of our provider network,” I consider felony kidnapping.

  P.P.S. I lied. It is with NO regret that I tender my resignation. I’m off to the dot-com sector to get rich. And the next time I’m locked in a closet? I’m pressing charges.

  * * *



  Flying Too Close to the Sun

  Camille said you stole a bag from a homeless guy.”

  “Well, I guess that depends on your definition of ‘steal.’ I didn’t swipe the briefcase, but I didn’t pay for it either,” I reply to my rapt audience with a shrug. They gape at me with open mouths. Apparently this is not a satisfactory explanation.

  “OK, I’ll tell you the story, but I’m going to need a little lubrication first.” I whistle for the waitress’ attention and when she looks my way, I shake my highball glass and flash my freshly veneered multiple-thousand-dollar smile. She approaches with trepidation.

  “You, bring me one of these every twenty minutes until we dock or I fall overboard,” I instruct her while swirling the ice in my jewel-colored cocktail.

  Hearing this, my cohorts break into the kind of congratulatory laughter exclusive to drunken salespeople. The waitress emits a fake chuckle, too, although I sense she’s almost had it with me. Whatever. Have I NOT stuffed her apron full of twenties all afternoon? How about a little gratitude? When I was a waitress, I would have KILLED to work on a boat like this. Instead, I slaved away in a shitty campus bar serving college athletes who considered a good tip a quarter and a grope worthy of a sexual harassment suit.1 And I was thankful for the opportunity. This girl is lucky to have caught me at the beginning of a story, or I would totally give her the news…even if it meant my next cocktail came with a spit chaser.

  “So, all my assistants are in some meeting and I’m forced to pick up my own lunch, if you can imagine. I’m walking along Wacker Drive with my wasabi peas and cup of corn chowder—”

  “What are wasabi peas?” interrupts some philistine from the Tucson office.2

  “For those of you who live under a rock and have never heard of wasabi peas”—I shoot the Tucson rep a withering glance before continuing—“they are dried green peas coated with a hardened horseradish paste, and they’re totally low fat and fabulous. AS I WAS SAYING, I’m cruising down Wacker and I pass this filthy street Arab—”

  “Jen, please!” Camille interjects. “The politically correct term is member of the transient community.”

  “Camille, go hug a dolphin or something, OK?” I snap. God, I’m so sick of Camille’s PC bullshit. What a pathetic little do-gooder she is. She’s always picking my Diet Dr Pepper cans out of the trash to recycle. And she rides her bike to our office when she has a perfectly good car and a parking pass. Once she tried to turn me on to her meat-free lifestyle and I told her to let me know when tofu started to taste like prime rib, because until then, I was all about the food chain.3

  “ANYWAY, normally when I see the, um, residentially challenged”—I cock a perfectly arched eyebrow at Camille, daring her to chime in again—“I hold my breath so I don’t have to smell them. Also, I traipse past quick as possible, because, really, their begging embarrasses us both. And I was about to do that again when I noticed that this guy was holding a gorgeous new briefcase. Correction, a gorgeous new COACH briefcase.”

  Pausing for effect, I squeeze a lime wedge into my fresh drink before continuing.

  “I thought to myself, if he doesn’t have a home, chances are he doesn’t have an office, so why does he need a briefcase, especially one that perfectly matches my Coach Station bag? Besides, I was sure it was hot. And I knew if I my bag were stolen and I had no chance of getting it back, I’d want its new owner to cherish it, NOT use it as a pillow. I needed to rescue that buttery leather piece of magnificence and give it a loving home.”

  I take a delicate sip, noticing that everyone on the boat is listening to me. God, I am so meant to be in front of an audience.

  “I marched up to the guy and honestly? I could actually see the stink coming off him. He radiated like a tar road on a hot day. And, oh sweet Jesus, he was completely whacked out of his mind on malt liquor and meth! So I was easily able to convince him that my lunch was an even trade for his briefcase. And we all lived happily ever after, the end. See? It’s really not the big deal that Camille says it was.”

  “You forgot one significant detail,” Camille admonishes with a shake of her head.

  Sighing, I turn to her. “Are you my Greek chorus or something?” Rolling my eyes heavenward, I come clean. “OK, maybe the trade wasn’t quite so fair. Because I…uh…uh…I told him the wasabi peas were crack rocks.”4

  Everyone on the boat—except Camille and the waitress—explodes into laughter. While they compose themselves, I sip my Stoli Cape Cod and survey the scene. After a frigid Midwestern winter, a day in the Florida sun is pure bliss. Golden rays dapple the Atlantic and a light wind gently buffers our boat. Although the charter seems a bit plush for a day of deep-sea fishing, I’m not complaining. Besides, with all the business I brought in this quarter, I deserve this luxury.

  Twenty-five people from various regional branches of Corporate Communications Conglomerate (Corp. Com.) are on this trip…and I can’t be bothered with most of them. Just look at how some chose to present themselves today. Technically, this is a company function. I don’t care if we are fishing; tatty jean shorts, stained and wrinkled logo Ts, and—excuse me while I throw up in my mouth a bit—belly-baring shirts are wholly inappropriate.5 Fashion Police, report to the scene of the crime, please.

  Let’s look at me now—I’m casual but fabulous. My linen Ralph Lauren Capri pan
ts are pressed to perfection, and my simple Egyptian cotton V-neck is from Saks. My resplendent gold-and-silver twisted cable David Yurman bracelets are stacked up each of my arms, and their tourmaline, citrine, and amethyst stones glint in the sunlight, thus blinding those not clever enough to wear Oliver Peoples sunglasses. You know, being on the water should not preclude one from wearing expensive accessories.6 Of course, my matching Kate Spade bag nicely ties the ensemble together. Yes, it’s called STYLE, people. You might want to acquaint yourselves with the concept.

  Anyway, what a lousy bunch of suck-ups most of the folks here are. All those losers were hanging on my every word! Now I’m trying to head to the ladies’ room and even that’s a task. Feels like I can’t take a step without being accosted by enthusiastic crowds of parasitic second-tier sales weasels. And all the kudos? Getting a wee bit old.