July 17, 2006 12:00 PM



When Mike Packard first joined the rat race—as a 2001 summer intern for a high-profile Washington, D.C., lobbyist—he didn’t expect to face off with an actual rodent. But when his boss discovered a rat swimming in his backyard hot tub, he summoned Packard to play exterminator. “The guy made me grab a hockey stick, put on lacrosse gloves and go to battle with the thing,” he says. Final score: intern 1, rat 0. “I was victorious,” he says.

It was the only time all summer he felt like a winner. Packard, now 26, attended several political hearings but also spent time scrubbing bird droppings off his boss’s SUV. When a horrified Packard accidentally scratched the hood, “he had me pay $700 to get it repainted,” he says. “That’s a lot more than I earned in a week.” (The boss verifies all of Packard’s claims, except for the repair cost: “I’d say $250, maybe.”)

The whole experience left Packard’s ego bruised, but not as badly as the rest of his body. After his boss successfully bid on the chance to throw out the first pitch at a major league baseball game, Packard was recruited to play catcher during practice. “He pelted me with fastballs,” says Packard, “chuckling every time he hit my knees, shins, chest or head.” Yet Packard, who now teaches at a Pennsylvania boarding school and is headed to Boston College Law School this fall, could have the last laugh. “After law school,” he says in jest, “I plan on seeing my day in court.”



When Cathy Alter began work as an assistant to a New York City advertising executive, dignity became a distant memory. Acting on her boss’s every whim—often communicated in frantic 2 a.m. phone calls—Alter was sent on such ill-fated missions as buying a specific single earring at Tiffany (no way) and returning items to Ralph Lauren’s flagship store that her boss had purchased from the designer’s outlet (“They knew immediately”). “I developed no shame,” says Alter, now 40. “It was always worse to say no.”

Worst of all, though, were the thankless tasks revolving around the boss’s young daughter. When her boss wanted to get the girl into one of Manhattan’s top private kindergartens, Alter doggedly filled out applications and wrote essays (the youngster was rejected from her top choices, and the boss was livid). Then there was the clown incident: Charged with hiring a clown for the daughter’s fourth-birthday party, Alter, whose boss yelled at her virtually every time she left her desk, interviewed candidates by phone. Then the entertainer turned up on crutches with a broken leg, unable to juggle or make balloon animals. Alter, who now works at the Bureau of National Affairs in Washington, D.C., recalls that the boss went ballistic: “She was mad at me for not asking that question in my interview, like, ‘By the way, are you fully upright?'” Her former boss confirms Alter’s accounts, adding, “My daughter swears her boss is the boss from The Devil Wears Prada, so what goes around comes around.”



The nightmare was almost over for Fred Nachbaur. He had spent a year and a half as the assistant to a New York City marketing director who scolded him in public (“Fred, the air’s too cold in here!” she barked during a sales conference with 400 attendees) and left “gross” half-eaten candy bars on his desk. When the company finally granted his transfer request in 1990, he needed only to find his replacement.

Enter Lis Pearson. Nachbaur, now 41, felt “an instant rapport,” but was undeterred from escaping at any cost. “He lied to me and said she was great,” says Pearson, now 43. She got the job and realized she’d been duped when she was greeted each morning with a 15-page to-do list. The woman asked Pearson to rub her aching feet and, after Pearson received a small promotion, told her she didn’t deserve it. When Pearson switched jobs in 1994 (lying to her replacement), her boss cried. “She kept saying she loved me like a daughter,” says Pearson. “I was like, ‘Who are you, Mommie Dearest?'”

At least Pearson, who now works for the New York Public Library, gained a best friend from the ordeal: Nachbaur, after she forgave him for tricking her. The pair spent a decade as roommates, entertaining guests with their tales of woe (which the boss declined to comment about). “I always said I’d never treat people the way she did,” says Nachbaur, now a marketing and sales manager for NYU Press. “And I never have.”

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