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It was a sparkling summer day in 1996, and I was stuck in the windowlessbasement of a prominent Manhattan law firm, basking under the fluorescentglare. Surrounding me were several hundred boxes filled with documents thatI and others were being paid to review for their legal significance. Therewere a dozen of us on this job-all attorneys hired through temporaryemployment agencies. But on a typical afternoon, only about five of the 12would actually be present. Perhaps three would be off at a matinee. Anothermight be attending her dance class. Others would be out shopping. As forthose in attendance, their presence was merely physical. One woman spenthours a day on the phone planning her wedding. Another guy was trying to gethis script made into a film. People took turns reading gossip items from theday’s newspapers to provoke conversation and pass the time. So much talkmade it hard for me to concentrate on my work: I was editing a short storythat I hoped to send off to a few literary magazines by the end of themonth.

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