The purgees were identified, a former regional manager explained, every week at corporate headquarters in New Albany, Ohio, during a conference call held specifically to critique photographs taken that week by the chain’s hundred or so district managers of all the “brand representatives” they had encountered in visits to their stores. The photos were uploaded onto some sort of company intranet, but my source told me his boss preferred printing them out on paper, so he could circle flaws, draw mustaches, scrawl racist epithets, etc. The source said braces, minor breakouts, the faintest possibility of weight gain, showing up to work in a prior season’s ensemble, wearing shoes that had not appeared on the list of authorized footwear for that season, and/or belonging to an ethnic minority could all be grounds for immediate dismissal from the ranks of Abercrombie & Fitch’s minimum-wage cadre of demand creators.
I went to great lengths to corroborate the facts, which is where I fucked up; I e-mailed a draft of the piece (a decision inspired by a respected journalist I’d read about who said he did this all the time) to a trusted source, and he e-mailed it to someone else, and eventually it made its way to Abercrombie’s corporate offices and in turn to the company’s fearsome New York “crisis PR” firm. And because Wall Street Journal investigations are the sort of thing that affects the stock prices of companies, this was a fire-able offense. In retrospect, as much as I felt like a failure and a fuckup, I didn’t actually mind being liberated from the constant, insane pressure not to fuck up. All year I’d been variously accused of being “in the pocket” of one company or its rival by analysts, money managers, publicists, lawyers, etc., and I’d found it preposterous. What did I care who prevailed in the sneaker wars or the doll wars or the Japanese-hipster-credibility-halo-effect wars?
What I couldn’t understand, though, was why they killed the story. Sure, it wasn’t Blackwater, but this was a store that at least half our readers’ kids would have killed to work for, and it was being run by some racist, frat-boy cult, and the suburban teenagers it hired and fired so mercurially were going to grow into adults who thought this was . . . normal? That in the modern American workplace, this sort of Lord-of-the-Flies management strategy was just par for the fucking course?
I ended up handing over my notes to a civil-rights lawyer who was leading a class-action race-discrimination suit against Abercrombie. A few years later, more than ten thousand former brand representatives got checks in the mail as part of the $40 million settlement.
In 2004, I was again living in Philadelphia. A guy for whom I had transcribed some interviews at Philadelphia magazine back in college had been named editor-in-chief, and he offered me a chance at journalistic salvation. He had room in his budget for a young staff writer, but I had to freelance something first. I snagged a job at a downtown phone-sex call center, and six weeks later I had my piece—and another insight about journalism. “Phone sex,” I wrote,
is not so unlike being a reporter. A central challenge of success at both is keeping random strangers—horny guys, hostile hedge-fund managers—on the phone, talking to you, confessing to you, growing fond of you, resolving to talk to you again. And at all times, phone-sex operators, like reporters, are expected to remain detached, wise to “The Game,” objective—but in a way, that’s crap. It’s not easy to become beloved by strangers if not a single part of you truly yearns for that love.
The stranger thing about phone sex, though, was that the training program was more rigorous and extensive than any I’d encountered in journalism. There was a day and a half in a classroom learning such phone-sex fundamentals as the “hot statement” and the “ego stroke,” daily feedback sessions with supervisors who listened in on calls, a mandatory creative-writing contest for the best Halloween-themed fantasy scenario, refresher courses to hone fluency in more exotic proclivities, individual binders in which we recorded our progress in this stuff and collected, as per instruction, magazine clippings—Penthouse letters, perfume advertisements, etc.—whatever we found erotically inspiring. When my supervisor’s boss learned I was writing a story, he unfurled all the usual legal threats, but when it was published, the company ordered hundreds of reprints to dispense to new hires at orientation. They did not expect you to be some innate phone-sex genius, but they had full faith that you could get immeasurably better, especially if you wanted to, and they genuinely seemed to take it as a given that people wanted to become better at things they did.