Friday, October 14, 2005

Temporary Insanity

Once again, the employment god has cast a critical eye in my direction. Without dwelling on the details, let’s just say that my most recent situation came to an acrimonious end. It wasn’t my fault — really. I didn’t mean to tell the boss his way of doing things was moronic; it just slipped out. In any event, my meager wages from that job left me little time with which to contemplate my next move. I had to act fast or I’d be spending the winter under a viaduct.
One of my previous swims in the treacherous waters of pre-employment dealt me an entanglement with a dangerous sea creature known as a temporary agency. The temporary agency is a creature with long, powerful tentacles with which it draws its prey into a deep, dark world of cubicles and 15-minute breaks and fast food lunches and unwanted friendships. The temp agency feeds primarily on desperation and aspiration, but will settle for a steady diet of petty recriminations. Its victims struggle eternally in a web of cute, inspirational banners and office birthday parties.
A favorite method of capture for the temp agency is to attach a tentacle to the victim and then just sort of forget about it. The would-be victim goes about its business unaware that it has a tentacle attached. In rare cases, the victim grows big and strong and the tentacle is unable to reel it in. The temp agency doesn’t care; it has many tentacles. But, more commonly, the victim goes about its business until some trouble arises and a struggle ensues. The struggle is an instantaneous signal to the temp agency, which quickly attaches more tentacles to both combatants. The scorned employer is suddenly in the market for fresh meat. The temp agency’s tentacles tighten. The unappreciated employee self-righteously but desperately seeks another source of income. The tentacles tighten.
Such was the case for me when I found myself — again — in the boiling and infested sea of hunger and overdue bills. The tentacle rescued me. It scooped me up and placed me gently on the warm beach of secure employment. It placed a refreshing drink in my hand, and, just as my lips were about to meet the straw, the tentacle jerked me violently into a deep miasma of pointless, demeaning servitude.

Some days are just unBEARable.
As I dressed myself for my first day of training, I noticed that my gut was even more difficult to tuck into my “good” pants than it had been at my previous job. Either I had been drinking more beer — and that can hardly be possible — or my metabolism is slowing with age and all that beer is growing more difficult to burn off. The previous night’s session was no consolation: I had to drink at least five beers just to find the courage to accept this dead-end position.
I arrived at my assignment at 8:30, but Kathleen Watson’s digital clock radio read 8:39. Kathleen Watson was the head of the company’s human resources department, which meant that she was the overseer of all the wage slaves. She didn’t look afraid to use the whip.
“May I help you?” she asked icily.
I quickly and timidly stated my business.
“Oh. Finally,” she said. Her short hair was red on the outside and black on the inside. Her tight dress revealed what was probably once a great body, but now it looked as though it had seen many miles of rough road, as they say. Her creased face and baritone voice betrayed years of smoking. I tried to imagine what brand of cigarettes she smoked. After a moment’s consideration, I concluded that she must smoke More’s — those long, dark brown, cigar-like coffin nails. She wore bright red rouge on her cheeks and crimson lip-gloss. Suddenly I pitied her.
“I’m sorry. Am I late?” I asked apologetically.
“You were supposed to be here at eight.”
“Oh. I was told 8:30,” I explained.
“Well, it’s eight thirty-nine,” she said sharply. Then she spirited away. I wasn’t sure if I should leave or stay. Had I missed the opportunity, such as it was? Suddenly, she returned with two pieces of paper.
“Sign here and here,” she commanded. I obeyed. “You can wait over there,” she said, gesturing crudely at a couple of chairs. I sat down and picked up a Newsweek that was resting on the end table. I flipped serendipitously to a story — a story, mind you, not an advertisement — about a $1.2 million special edition Mercedes Benz that will soon be available — sort of. The one pictured next to the article looked like something Johnny Quest would drive. It had a silverish aura around it. Mercedes, according to the article, plans to manufacture only 25 of the cars. It has a V-12 engine, gull wing doors, some kind of ceramic polymer body and an unfathomable top speed. In order to change a flat tire, the article said, owners must wait for a specially trained German mechanic to fly in from Mercedes headquarters in Bonn. Mercedes has already received 200 orders for the machine, which gets eight miles to the gallon.
Someone called my name. I looked up to find that a fat, blonde woman was, by all outward indications, extremely happy to see me.
“Hi!” she exclaimed. For a moment, I thought she recognized me from somewhere. I tried briefly to place her face in my resinated memory, but I quickly realized that I have met at least a million women just like her. Her manner of speaking turned everything into a one-word question.
“Firstthingwe’regonnado?” she began. “IstakeyerpitcherforyerIDbadge?”
“Okay,” I replied hesitantly.
“Okay!” she cheered. She shuffled hastily away, cradling a clipboard like a child on her ample hip. I inferred that I was supposed to follow her.
In a small room down a dark hall, someone had erected an enormous camera and tripod assembly. She nudged me into a chair and shoved my head against the wall. She then jerked my head to the side so that it lined up with a piece of tape on the wall.
“Okay!” she cheered again. She leapt behind the enormous howitzer of a camera and aimed a menacing flashbulb right at my face. A blast of pure white blinded me for several seconds.
“Okay! One more!” she exclaimed. The second shot, I figured, was meant to insure total blindness.
As I sightlessly groped my way, she led me through a maze of cubicles until, at last, we reached one occupied by another obese woman. This woman, who I could barely see, was going to be training me for the next few days. She, too, spoke in one-word questions.
“Himyname’sjenniferhowyadoin’?” she chirped. As my eyes recovered, I noticed a poster hanging on the wall of her cubicle. It was a photograph of a yawning grizzly bear. Along the bottom, in cheerful lettering, the caption read: “Some days are just unBEARable!”
“I’ll drink to that,” I thought.
After a while, with Jennifer yammering endlessly and me nodding in endless agreement, I became aware of several other posters decorating her cubicle. They had obviously been manufactured for fourth grade classrooms. One showed Charlie Brown and Peppermint Patty and the gang painting a big sign that read, “Everything goes better when we work together!” Another one had a photo of a gorilla that appeared to be smiling — wildlife is popular among cubicle dwellers — the caption read: “Smile! It’s the first thing people like about you!” Yet another poster showed a bald eagle in two views superimposed on one another. Its caption read: “Let your dreams take flight!”
Obviously, exclamation points are the only punctuation employed by inspirational poster manufacturers.
The company to which I had been assigned on this go-around ran some sort of money order scam. It involved risky, short-term investments and probably resided somewhere right on the edge of legality. The place was loaded with surveillance cameras and signs that read “Access Restricted.” Everyone — even temps — had to wear an identification badge and security card. The card and the badge were attached to a retractable spool that could be clipped to a strap or belt.
On the second morning of my assignment, I was accosted near the front door by a security-conscious prick. (They’re everywhere these days.)
“Have you got your badge?” he demanded in a passive-aggressive sort of way. Now at this particular point in the day, a beige cubicle festooned with childish regalia was just about the last place on Earth I wanted to be. I should have said, “Nope. I’m an interloper. Kick me out.” But, instead, as you already know, I said, simply, “Yep,” as I obediently extended my ID badge. The frustrated Gestapo asshole reluctantly let me pass.
The training for my pathetic assignment consisted of two phases. The first was to learn how to load and operate the electronic money order dispensers used by the company in its scam. Since the rest of the operation relied on economic mumbo-jumbo and loopholes, mastery of the dispensers — the only tangible ingredient in this recipe for deceit — was required by everyone. The dispensers came in four models, from old and crappy to new and crappy. I had to learn the rudiments of their operation so that, when convenience store workers called me with questions about their machine, I would be able to walk them through the solution, step by step.
The second phase of training entailed learning how to read a variety of computer screens between which I would eventually be flipping. The screens provided the viewer with essential information about the money order machine in question. The convenience store worker would call to report — often in broken English — a malfunction of some sort with his or her money order machine, and the operator — me — would use the information on the screens to identify the problem, work on a solution and record the events of the call.
Due to lack of interest, I was the only person who showed up for training. This, said Jennifer, meant that training would go “way faster.” As we concluded each step of what I considered a mind-numbingly slow process, Jennifer would squeal with delight: “My! Ican’tbelievehowfastwe’regoing!”
Midway through the pea soup fog of my first morning, the first obese woman returned with my access card and identification badge. The badge was still warm from having been run through an electric laminating machine. The picture on my badge betrayed the feeling of dread that had been — and was still — coursing through every fiber of my being. No mention was made of the second picture. No doubt it has found its way into my Permanent Record.
Break time. At last. The only positive aspect of this particular work environment is the religious devotion its inhabitants have toward breaks. This is undoubtedly the result of countless migraines, acts of vandalism, unearned sicknesses and other forms of productivity-reducing defiance from the wage slaves. I walked to the lunchroom as quickly as I could without attracting attention. I poured myself a large cup of bad office coffee in a futile effort to fortify myself against the insanity that surrounded me. Coffee was the only mind-altering chemical permissible in this land of NFL memorabilia and United Way fundraisers, so I partook heavily. I sat down and completed a crossword that someone else had tried to fill in using a yellow felt-tip. The lead story in that day’s paper told of a local doctor who had punched a woman in the face. The woman, according to the story, had cut in front of the doctor in traffic. Naturally, the public’s sympathy was with the woman; naturally, mine was with the doctor.
Upon my return from break, I detected a commotion of some sort wending its way slowly through the cubicles. If it continued on its present course, the commotion would eventually arrive at my desk. I would be forced to interact. It wouldn’t be so bad if they would just let you work in silent hatred, but there is always some “Rah! Rah! Sisboombah!” bullshit taking place that is obviously designed to convert the nonbelievers. It’s like a Christian summer camp five days a week.
As the commotion in question made its way relentlessly toward me, it became clear to my non-believing eyes that it consisted of four grown men dressed as old ladies.
“What the fuck is that?” I demanded. In panic, I pursed my lips. Did I say that or just think it?
“Oh. It’stheMoneyGrams,” explained Jennifer gleefully. MoneyGram, she said, was one of the product services offered by the company. The company, she said, invented a character called a “MoneyGram,” which was really just a money-dispensing old lady, to promote this product service. Every month, in an effort to raise money for United Way, some of the employees would take part in a goofy stunt of some sort. On this particular occasion, some of the employees offered to pay an unspecified amount of money to United Way if these clowns would dress up as “MoneyGrams.” The poor slobs had to choose between paying the unspecified sum or dressing up as old ladies, in which case the challenger would be compelled to make the payment. I was doubly horrified. For starters, I had no desire to stand there and take part in this foolishness, and, secondly, I feared that the longer I worked there, the greater the chances that I would be forced to participate. But, by that time of course, I will have been thoroughly converted. It was all I could do to keep from running away.
After four days of this nonsense, I concluded that sleeping under a viaduct wasn’t that bad after all. When I went to the temp office to turn in my time sheets, I told my supervisor that I could no longer tolerate this position and that I wanted another assignment. She looked at me with that look that people give you when you tell them that you hate something that they love — blueberry pie or For Whom the Bell Tolls, for instance.
It was unfathomable to her that, in this economy, someone would choose not to leap at the chance to become part of the Great American Workforce. To her, I was one of “them;” I was one of the people who “chose” to eat out of dumpsters and guzzle cheap wine. Nothing I could say would illuminate the vast regions of voluntary ignorance that occupied her soul.All I could do is take a deep breath and wonder silently if I had enough money for a beer.

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