Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Day 2

There’s a poster up in my supervisor’s cubicle that reads “what am I doing here?” For a second I thought maybe it was some kind of office humor, but then read the smaller print – it’s about church, and god - the bigger “here” in “what am I doing here?” 

I started this temp job yesterday. Before I was allowed to walk past the reception desk I had to read ten pages regarding nondisclosure of information, appropriate working behavior, and signed three different papers saying I wouldn’t give away company secrets.
The office looks brand new, it’s on the 17th floor of a high-rise downtown, and it takes two elevators to get there from the ground floor.  The furniture is mod 60’s style, and reminds me a little of Mad Men after they move into their new offices. There is a huge flat screen TV installed at reception, and three more on the walls of a circular break room area that looks like Diane Keaton’s house in Sleeper. All of the TVs are muted, not even with subtitles to read, just silent home and garden shows and CNN stories, all day long.  The kitchen area has an enormous silver double door refrigerator, and there’s free coffee – some in big containers, some in those little pod things that make you one cup at a time in different flavors. 

It is a remarkably quiet office. The only sounds I hear from my cubicle are of people typing, filling their cups with water and coffee in the corner behind me, and talking on the phone. It’s like being on a spaceship, a really quiet spaceship, like the one in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

There was nothing in my cubicle when I arrived except for a brand new ergonomically designed chair and a computer. I asked the receptionist for a stapler, and some staples to go with it.  She unlocked a clean, brightly lit, organized supply closet, handed me a stapler, reached into a box of staples, and removed one thin row. When I asked for thumbtacks the next day she opened the same supply closet, pointed to an open container of thumbtacks and said “be very, very careful,” in a voice generally reserved for three year-olds. 

This is an end-of-the-line job for me. I’ve interviewed for so many jobs I’ve stopped counting. At one point this spring I was up for six different positions at once; none of them were offered to me. This is the third temp agency I’ve signed up with, and the first that has found me work, so I accepted the assignment when it was offered to me. 

At home, the letters Y E S are strung across the kitchen wall. They are old movie house marquee letters. Each one is dark red, 12 inches high, weather-beaten, with a groove on the side that hangs onto the marquee. With so much rejection, it’s nice to see YES sometimes. 

My husband asked me how my first day on the assignment went.  “Okay,” I replied, “I almost cried a couple times.” I can’t help it - I know I’m not the only one going through this right now, and I know it could be worse, but sometimes it’s hard to get excited about it could be worse. It feels ridiculous that I can’t pay my half of the mortgage, or that I haven’t paid one cent of our credit card for months. This stage of my life was supposed to be over decades ago, and as humiliating as it is to be doing temp work, it makes me feel better to have an income – a tiny income, but at least something to defray the cost of my existence. “The office is really, really quiet,” I continued, “it’s circular like a spaceship so it’s hard to find my cube, but I guess that’s better than rows and rows of cubicles. The person I’m replacing has the same last name as me so everyone thinks we’re related. I met her. There was a cake thing for her in the afternoon - she got promoted. She said she’s worked there for 8 years, and to consider this a way to get a full time position because they’re looking to replace her, and that it’s a good place to work, so… that’s nice.”  

Today was my second day, it was better than the first. I can find my cubicle, and I have an ID badge so I don’t have to sign in at the security desk every time I walk in and out of the building. When I came home the red marquee letters were strewn across the kitchen floor, one of the screws holding up the wire they were resting on had come loose from the wall.  They lay scattered around a pile of cat puke that I had discovered that morning and covered with a paper towel because I didn’t have time to clean it up before leaving the house. Later, one of the cats took a crap on the bathmat. My husband cleaned up the crap, and I cleaned the puke and put the letters back on the kitchen wall, hanging them on thumbtacks instead of wire. They’re off center and misaligned, but it’s nice to see YES sometimes, even if it’s a little off-kilter.

Friday, July 6, 2012


So it’s come to this: I’m preparing to interview for a temp job; when I used to do temp work, not that long ago, I met with someone from a temp agency, and was placed at assignments sight unseen.  Now, more than three years after getting laid off and looking for work, I’m submitting to the possibility of being rejected for temporary work. My contact at the agency sends me a humiliating email telling me what to do: Please wear a suit, it says, as if I’m new to this, as if I’m a high school senior going on her first interview, as if I’ve never seen the inside of an office before. 

The definition of insanity, in a quote attributed to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I’ve been doing the same thing since June of 2009; I look at job postings, send a cover letter and resume to ones that look promising, go on interviews, sometimes get called back for a second interview, sometimes make it to the final two candidates, and never get offered the job.

I sleep poorly the night before; I wake up tired, bleary, and depressed.  I go through the morning ablutions of any regular working woman, and make my way to the brown line at 7:30am. As the train makes its way toward the loop, it gets crowded. It’s been so long since I’ve had a regular commute that it’s strange to see all the working stiffs on the train engaged in behavior that has become alien to me: people from around the city have gotten up early, showered, fixed their hair, put on a suit – maybe a tie, and gotten on the train where they sit or stand in a mute, deadened state, interacting only with their iPhones, iPads, and the odd newspaper. They get off downtown, walk into air-conditioned buildings and spend the day pretending that they don’t know any curse words.  I get off at Adams and Wabash and join the streams of people walking down the stairs moving urgently towards their destination. It looks like a carefully choreographed piece of performance art, or a salmon spawn. 

I find the building, and make my way to the security desk, where I get a temporary ID and pass through the corral that separates the public from a bank of elevators, and make my way to the 14th floor.  Halfway through the second interview (there will be three in total) I’ve heard enough to I know I won’t get this job. As it turns out, I’ve been interviewing for a personal assistant position, but the description was for a development assistant position, and in retrospect it’s clear that I’ve answered some key questions incorrectly. I make my descent to the first floor and call the agency, as per my emailed instructions.  “Do you think you’d accept if they offered you the job?” they ask.  “Yes, I would,” I say, even though I know this won’t happen.

I go to Einstein’s Bagels to get coffee and something to eat, and as I walk in the door the theme to “Sanford and Son” plays on the audio system, like some kind of cosmic commentary on my life. I order a bagel and a small coffee, and the woman at the register recommends that I get the bagel and medium coffee combo because it’s cheaper.  It saves me about a dollar and a half, and it makes me feel protected somehow that this woman I’ve never met is looking after my financial well-being.  I sit at a table and pull out my Hallmark thank you notes from my purse, the cheapest kind available, $4 for a pack of 10, and my book of stamps.  I’ve been on roughly 30 in-person interviews and 10 phone interviews since I was laid off in 2009, and I like to think that my contribution to the greeting card industry and the US Postal Service has made a dent in the economic viability of both entities. I used to pore over every word in a thank you note and keep a copy of the text for future reference; now it comes out like so many prepackaged Hallmark messages: “Dear [name], thank you for taking the time to meet with me today regarding the open [job] position.  I enjoyed our conversation, and hope to have the opportunity to discuss this opportunity further. Sincerely…”

I’m downtown so rarely these days, and it’s usually for some humiliating interview, so I make sure to build in other, more practical reasons to be there so it doesn’t feel like a total waste of train fare and effort when I ultimately get rejected, and I’d noticed a couple days earlier that one of the rhinestones in my eyeglasses had fallen out.  They’re LaFont frames; an extravagant purchase, they are by far the most expensive thing that I wear, excluding my engagement ring.  It took me a year to convince myself to buy them. They sit perfectly on the bridge of my nose, making my face appear neither too large nor too small, they are feather light, and I’ve owned them for about four years. My last trip downtown was for a farewell lunch for a former coworker who’s relocating to San Francisco, and I sat silent as my former colleagues caught up on their work lives. Dan talked about his upcoming job change, and spoke in disparaging terms about his current supervisor, who didn’t make a counteroffer when he told her that he’d been offered a job elsewhere, securing his opinion of her and of his current workplace.  It was like listening to aliens talk about alien things dressed in alien clothes; I had nothing to add to the conversation. My built-in practical reason for being downtown that day was to visit the optician who’d filled the prescription for me.  He couldn’t help with my missing rhinestone, but gave me the business card of someone who works in the Jewelers Building at 5 South Wabash, and recommended that I try there. 

Thank you notes written, coffee and bagel consumed, I got up and made my way to South Wabash.  I rode the ancient, creaking elevator in the Jewelers Building to the eleventh floor and walked into the wrong studio – an expensive looking, brightly lit establishment that specialized in watches.  They weren’t sure they could help me, and I’d have to leave the eyeglasses with them if I wanted their expertise.  I thanked them and left with my eyeglasses in hand.  As I approached the elevator again I saw the place listed on the business card – Danny & Debbie Jewelers, it was tucked behind the elevator bank in a moldering two room studio with a view of an alley.  In the back room, a man in his late 50s or early 60s who must have been Danny worked on a piece of jewelry, in the front room dusty display cases that were mostly empty housed a few pairs of silver earrings, and a plate with the Aztec sun calendar hung on one wall.  I explained to a dark-haired woman who must have been Debbie what I needed, and she went to a shelf stacked with boxes of rhinestones.  She pulled one down and Danny joined her in poring over them.  They spoke to each other in Spanish, and I tried to understand them. Debbie referred to Danny as “Papa,” and I heard him use the word “chiquita,” which I’ve only heard in reference to bananas.  I made a mental note to look it up.  “Esta, papa,” she said, holding a tiny purple rhinestone in a pair of tweezers. Danny affixed the rhinestone into my eyeglass frames, told me not to wear them for a few hours, and retreated into the back room.  I packed the eyeglasses into my bag, and pulled my wallet out, but Debbie made no move to write up an invoice or ask for payment.  “What do I owe you?” I asked.  “Oh, like, a dollar,” she said.  

On the train ride home I reflected on the events of the morning: for less than half of what it cost for me to ride the train downtown for my useless interview, two people worked earnestly to replace a tiny rhinestone that only I knew was missing. A few days later I would get a phone call from the temp agency, which I would let go to voicemail.  I played it back, and missed the first few seconds because I was fumbling for the speakerphone button.  “…great news” the voice on the message said, but the intonation was flat.  I rewound to the beginning and heard the phrase in its entirety: “Unfortunately I’m not calling with great news…”  

I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to find a job for three years, but it only took a minute for Danny and Debbie to find a rhinestone for me.  The color isn’t an exact match, but only I know which rhinestone it is.  I like the fact that it doesn’t match perfectly; it reminds me of the small dignities that still exist in the world.