“This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.”
~ Jack Kerouac, On the Road: From the Original Scroll
Notes From A Temp Worker’s Journal: Week Three – The Final Two Days
Moses sat across from me, his desk perpendicular to mine. He is an Alaskan Inuit with a mohawk, but not a crazy mohawk. It’s attractive, short, not shaved on the sides, longer on top and down the back of his head, like the tail of a coonskin cap. He also has a Fu Manchu mustache, a bushy beard, and, below his lower lip are two skinny green tusk-like piercings. In each ear he has two hoop earrings; one silver, one black. He is married and the father of two boys; one three, the other six months.
We discussed books while we collated and stapled. He recommended A Working Stiff’s Manifesto. I told him about Nickel and Dimed. I also mentioned it was The Grapes of Wrath and its powerful ending that made me want to be a writer. He told me he read Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley to his wife when she was pregnant.
By the third week, I felt I knew Moses well enough to ask about the tusks. He told me about his grandfather, the last Inuit on a remote Aleutian island to have the tusk piercings. The island was where Moses spent his childhood. The tusks are a symbol of the walrus. Moses is named after his grandfather so he got the piercings to honor him.
One day during a fire drill we stood together on a hill – what was referred to in the temp manual as one of the grassy knolls where employees are instructed to gather when the alarm goes off. As we walked out of the building a supervisor called out, “Make sure the temps know where they’re going.” There are so many of us I guess she was afraid we might get left behind. There was always the possibility of an ammonia leak and we needed to pay attention to the direction the wind socks were blowing. Supervisors were in charge of leading us through the parking lot to the safest grassy knoll that wasn’t downwind of a potential leak.
The early morning sunshine was warm and it was nice to be outside. Moses told me he was planning to start his own IT consulting business. He also shared his philosophy regarding this mundane temp job we were both currently trapped in.
“I know this is not my fate. It is for a finite amount of time. It serves a purpose,” he said.
I agreed and tried to remind myself of that when we returned to our desks.
Werner Herzog believed all original art “must have experience of life at its foundation.” Well yes, yet still. I kept asking myself how did I get here? I’ve had a lot of experience with working in places from a junk yard in Epping, NH to a vape shop in Pompano Beach, Florida. I’ve been subjected to unfair work policies, mundane tasks, and unequal pay for equal work. I’ve written about it, I’ve blogged about it, I’ve lived it. I’ve got enough material for several more books.
I recently read an article about writing workshops in beautiful, expensive places. Mountain retreats. Caribbean islands. Mediterranean hillside towns. The author of the article wondered what kind of meaningful real life writing could come out of these workshops. And who were the writers who could afford them? In moments of despair, while stapling, filing, and copying, I told myself this was my writing workshop. I was here to share the stories of the people who rarely show up as characters in the books that make the New York Times Book Review. The stories that don’t often attract literary agents who respond with rejections like this:
“This has less to do with your strengths as a writer and more to do with my goals as an agent and the trends of the current literary marketplace.”
Do tell. What are these trends? More self-help? More addiction memoirs? Stories of wealthy New York millennials filled with angst after losing Wall Street jobs during the Great Recession, or even worse, their inheritance?
I thought about the places I have landed, the people I have met, the places I have traveled. If I weren’t here what would I write about while attending workshops in Aspen and Positano?
That worked for awhile but when I looked at the clock only twelve minutes had ticked by. We were three hours into the Monday workday, and that included the unexpected recess for the fire drill. I already missed Pink.
She was not the only entertainment missing during my final days at the temp job. A funny, sarcastic young guy who had a cubicle near the copy machines was sent to Providence for the week to train his replacement.
He had a handwritten sign tacked to his cubicle. “Crazy Guy’s Cube”. He fed us work, all those invoices we copied and collated and stapled and filed. He would stop by our office several times a day and offer up ironic commentary on the difficult situation he and the other permanent employees faced during the “transition phase”.
Crazy Guy had been offered a chance to transfer but he has a serious girlfriend who has a child and she shares custody with her ex. Crazy Guy also likes where he lives. He grew up around here and doesn’t want to move. “I’m a local boy,” he told me.
One afternoon last week Crazy Guy was training Moses on the preparation of MPDs or CMDs or some acronym I didn’t know. Whatever they were, they were making Crazy Guy evener crazier.
“I’m sick to death of talking to everyone about CMDs. Explaining CMDs. Training people to produce CMDs. Thinking about CMDS… CMDs…. CMDs.” He was clearly emotional that day. Getting choked up he told us, “This is the longest job I’ve ever worked at.”
Despite the CMD crisis, Crazy Guy was kind and patient with Moses and always used a dash of humor when he entered something wrong on the Excel spreadsheet they were working on. At one point he swirled his chair around, leaned over, picked up a large paper clip from the floor, and handed it to me as if it where a rose. “For you,” he said.
One afternoon a handsome black man from Providence who was wearing neatly pressed trousers and a dress shirt joined us in our crowded little office so he could train with Alpha. I sensed her anger and frustration. I had nothing but sympathy for her situation. A recent divorce, twelve year old twins – a boy and a girl – and a handicapped brother who also lived with her. She and her husband sold their house during the divorce and she’s trying to find a three bedroom apartment she can afford. The rental market is difficult. One afternoon she had to leave early to move her brother into a nursing home. The search for a four bedroom apartment would have been impossible. And she’s about to lose her job.
Throughout the day we followed Crazy Guy’s progress in Providence. He checked in to Alpha’s cell phone via text message.
“Did he buy new clothes for the business trip?” Talks to Herself asked.
“He can’t afford new clothes on his salary,” Alpha replied.
As if by osmosis he sent a response. “”I look like an auto mechanic compared to everyone else here.”
Around the office, Providence has a reputation for big city sophistication.
There are so many people I met that I haven’t mentioned. A woman I was filing next to one day told me she met her husband when she was five years old.
“When I tell people that they don’t believe me,” she said.
She raised her children in a nearby town. They still live in the area and so do her grandkids. She and her husband have already downsized to a smaller house in preparation for retirement. They both planned to work until they qualified for Medicare.
“But we’ll manage somehow. Hopefully I can get on my husband’s insurance until I find something,” she said. “Not this kind of job, although it is an honest wage.”
She told me she had been distracted and worried that morning. Her husband must have sensed her anxiety. He followed her to work and when she got out of her car, she asked, “What are doing here? Is something wrong?”
“I wanted to make sure you were okay,” he told her. “You seemed upset when you left the house.”
There are more stories. I’m using pseudonyms but these are real people I spent a brief moment in time with. They have hopes and dreams, worries and concerns. I get angry when I think of the problems we aren’t solving while wasting time on a President who got himself involved with Russian interference in our election, can’t stand up to Nazis, and clearly doesn’t give a shit for anyone but himself and his own ego. We continue to fight old battles while the problems that effect people’s lives fester and grow larger.
But words are adding up here. Blogs are supposed to be short for the short American attention span. A lot of people don’t want to hear stories like this. People once fought and died for unions to protect worker’s rights, ensure safety on the job, negotiate for fair wages and a retirement with dignity. Now we’re told “You’re lucky you have any job at all.”
Workers are hired as temps so the employer doesn’t have to provide health insurance, workman’s comp, and paid holidays. Many voters are misinformed. They vote against their own interests. They tell you not to cause trouble. You might get fired. Unions are a thing of the past. They’re never coming back.
Why? If people fought and won this battle before why can’t we do the same? How did we ever let ourselves lose our rights to begin with? Did we as a nation learn nothing from the Great Recession? How fragile the middle class is. How important workers’ rights and collective bargaining are. Instead of working together to improve our plight, we judge others by claiming people in these work situations courted their own demise by making poor choices or not working hard enough or not acquiring the right skills and education. But isn’t this just making excuses for The Man?
I’ll stop rambling but please America, pay attention.
Anyway, this is how it went down. On Tuesday evening of Week Three, I checked my phone at a red light in Brattleboro. There was a message from the temp agency.
“They don’t need you to return to work tomorrow. Please call us in the morning.”
For the rest of the drive home I wondered what I’d done wrong. Was it that day I stapled the invoices incorrectly?
Maybe it was the occasional walk I took around the cubicle block to relieve my back pain? Or the stretches I did while waiting at the copy machine? I never talked politics and although I daydreamed about being a union agitator I kept my mouth shut. I offered encouragement and told Alpha how I too had lost jobs and maybe something better was coming her way.
The next morning I called the temp agency. The recruiter told me they gave no specific reason. They just said it wasn’t a good fit.
Well, I already knew that. I knew it on my first day of work. The rows of cubicles, the anxiety in the pit of my stomach. I was back at the cubicle job that led to my near nervous breakdown that only writing my first novel saved me from. I also knew it wasn’t the right fit when they photographed me twice. What’s coming next I wondered. Fingerprints? And even before I started the job I knew this wasn’t the right fit when the temp agency told me I had to return to their office to be subjected to a drug test. Let’s just say I fretted about it and drank copious amounts of water for two days only to find out I didn’t have to pee in a cup. Instead I sucked on a spongy lollipop and passed the test. I’d also like to point out marijuana is legal in both Vermont and New Hampshire.
One day during our fifteen minute morning break, Pink told me, “I was always the good employee. There was one time when I hurt my knee really bad but I came to work anyway. It was year-end and you know how crazy that is in the accounting department. I couldn’t call in sick and leave my co-workers with a heavier work load. So I didn’t go to see the doctor until three weeks after I hurt myself. By that time the metatarsal tear was worse. It required surgery and now, years later, my arthritis is really bad in that knee. And you know what? In the end, I didn’t get anything for my good behavior. Instead, I got laid off at sixty-four with one year to go to Medicare.”
And here I was bending over file cabinets and sitting in a shitty seat with no leg room under my desk. There was another woman I met at the file cabinets one day. She’d worked 34 years for a company that went paperless and laid off a lot of people when they needed fewer clerical workers. So now here she was, temping alongside me. One day at her old job, her back went into spasms. She couldn’t stand up or walk. She felt nauseous. Her boss wanted to call an ambulance. Instead someone brought her to the hospital where she spent seven weeks while they tried to manage her pain.
I had a few back spasms over the weekend. Maybe this was the silver lining. If I had finished out the remaining six weeks I too could have spent weeks in the hospital. In which case, my health insurance deductibles and co-pays would have negated my earnings.
If you live long enough just about anything that can happen will happen. I have been laid off due to mergers and lack of work and Ronald Reagan cutting the National Endowment for the Arts but I’ve never been fired. Or told I wasn’t a good fit.
I’m trying to avoid thoughts of the life not lived. Asking questions like, What if I had started writing sooner? Where would I be now? Jackson Hole? The Greek Isles?
But would I have been able to write the book I just finished and is about to be published?
I don’t think so. I think Simone de Beauvoir was right.
“Chance … has a distinct meaning for me. I do not know where I might have been led by the paths that, as I look back, I think I might have taken but that in fact I did not take. What is certain is that I am satisfied with my fate and that I should not want it changed in any way at all. So I look upon these factors that helped me to fulfill it as so many fortunate strokes of chance.”
***My new book, Under the Same Sun will on sale at Amazon on September 6th.***