UNITED STATES—One can be deceptively in awe of other nationalities when one belongs to the ink trade. They seem to have established more reliable means for distinguished writers to be distinguished. In Latin America one can become a diplomat (Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda). In England, for instance, quite a few have gotten into intelligence, such as Ian Fleming, Roald Dahl and Graham Greene.
Recently revisiting the pages of Graham Greene, an early influence of mine, I experienced a kind of wistful envy for his espionage and its literary fruits. Greene, was recruited by M16 during World War II. Thanks to his stint in British intelligence, Greene got to travel to the Congo, and came out with “The Heart of the Matter,” his first bestseller, and later in “Our Man in Havana” he even imbued his agent, Wormold, with his real ID number. The vacuum cleaner salesman turned secret agent profits nicely by foisting off vacuum cleaner diagrams as plans for military bases in Batista’s Cuba.
It has often seemed to me that the United States of America lost out on something by not taking advantage of me in this arena, and make use my ability to remember and dissemble. But then something extraordinary dawned on me: it struck me with a shiver of delight that indeed I already had under my belt a brush with espionage as agent 770408. That was my number in a sprawling bureaucracy in the city which for purposes of confidentiality I will refer to as Chicago. I was a kind of a social worker, and there were massive layoffs during the Great Recession. Honestly, it was no skin off my nose, as the social work took a great deal out of me. Being pink-slipped gave me time to dedicate to my writing career and coincided with my publishing really taking off.
Somehow I got on the mailing list for other social workers who had been similarly dismissed. They had been going around to lawyer after lawyer to take on the case for unlawful termination, and finally a gentleman at a reputable firm decided to take them on without charge, and they were looking for others with similar characteristic to join a lawsuit.
The short of it is, I went to an initial meeting out of mild curiosity, and not without misgivings. Finally 11 of us, out of the scores who had been dismissed and not called back, came aboard. The grounds of the case were ageism. If indeed younger, less qualified employees, lower on the pay scale were called back, there would be a demonstrable patter of younger and less experienced employees hired reluctant spies approached by M16 because of their knowledge and access to exotic parts of the world.
So I went back to the bureaucracy to fill in for people who were sick and was looking for the names and fresh faces of those lesser qualified. This being a relief employee was just a front. It made this job suddenly palatable; the risk and adventure made what had been tedious fun. I’d knock on an office door with some lame query so I might be a link to a new name to the list of the young, who had been recalled. I went from one end of Chicago to the other, sometimes stopping at another location on the way back from another job.
My crowning moment was to see this sullen younger-looking person pass by the mail slots and stick his finger in one. I couldn’t ask his name, but after he picked up his mail, I looked at the label on the slot. It was a moment of triumphal glee.
The case ultimately did not pan out, statistically, and the kind lawyer gave up on the case. Assembling index cards with names and estimated ages of the current employees made me privy to the face that a great number of elder workers had been called back. I made my set of cards and it was fun. I wouldn’t trade my time as a spy for anything in the world.
Graydon Miller is the author of the acclaimed story collection, “The Havana Brotherhood” https://amzn.to/29ak9Nr.