“A writer is someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.” ~ Susan Sontag
Notes From A Temp Worker’s Journal
Pink and I spend our days matching invoices to backup paperwork and clip them together. Then we collate by remit number and once that is finished we take the paper clips off.
We bring the large stack of paper to the copy machine. My back appreciates this little bit of exercise because I have the worst seat in the room and my desk has a small refrigerator beneath it so I can’t slide my shitty chair beneath the desk. There is something about doing nothing really physical at all that is hurting and straining my back. By late afternoon on Thursday the pain is real. I begin to wonder if I have undetected bone cancer or Lyme disease. Or maybe it’s fibromyalgia.
For reasons unknown to me, over at the copy machine we make a second copy of the paperwork and also scan it to the person who generated the batch, as we call it here in this office which is like no other place I have ever worked. The reams of paper they go through is astounding. I feel my up to now, decent carbon footprint is being downgraded. I am contributing to the slaughter of thousands of trees.
When the copying and scanning is finished we return to our office to staple only one of the piles, then wrap both files, the stapled and the unstapled, with a rubber band.
Are you still with me on this or are you dozing off? Because I certainly am.
Pink is not my co-worker’s real name. I call her Pink because she is a woman of a certain age like myself and has white hair streaked with pink highlights. At sixty-four, one year away from Medicare eligibility, she was laid off from her bookkeeping job.
When applying for Affordable Healthcare in New Hampshire, the state looks at your last year’s income, which was when Pink was still working full-time so she earned a lot more money last year. Her insurance coverage was calculated to be $1200 a month, which she couldn’t afford, so she applied for early social security. In Vermont we use the estimated current year’s income but this is the way America chose to do healthcare, state by state, that is before it was then decided America wanted to repeal the whole thing. Currently the nation is in limbo and doesn’t know what it wants. When I was young my mother told me limbo was a place un-baptized babies went. I used to worry about these babies all alone in limbo but now I worry about the babies born with preexisting conditions. And it is I who often feel alone in America.
Pink’s husband was in the hospital when I met her on my first day at work. He has diverticulitis and is older than Pink so he is covered by Medicare.
I was hired to replace Pink because she has to leave in two weeks.
“If I work past the income limit, which I reach two weeks from now, they take a dollar in tax for every two dollars I make,” she told me. “That’s what happens when you start collecting social security before the full retirement age of sixty-six and six months. But I needed the money and in hindsight I wish I’d known they were going to lay me off. I would have retired at sixty-two.”
I don’t see how it could possibly take me two weeks to learn this mind-numbing job but I don’t begrudge her the additional two paychecks she’ll earn while she trains me. We all have our goals. Mine is to earn money for advertising my upcoming fourth novel and to take the book on the road for readings and book club visits.
Almost everyone is a temp here. This is the way the company hires the majority of their employees. Pink is temping so she can take a vacation to Ireland. Her husband doesn’t want to go but that’s not holding her back.
“I’d rather go alone,” she told us. “I’ll have more fun without him. He doesn’t like to leave the house.”
Pink doesn’t have a cell phone. During our fifteen minute morning break, she uses the office phone to check on him in the hospital. On Tuesday he told her they were keeping him for another day.
“Oh good, I don’t have to make dinner. My vacation continues.”
The following day he told her they were releasing him. He had been given dietary restrictions; two weeks of no fiber, then two weeks of a high fiber diet.
“I guess we’ll have to stop at the grocery store on the way home,” Pink sighs. “And there’s probably a prescription to pick up. I don’t know what I’ll be making for dinner now.”
She shook her head and got back to flipping through a tall stack of invoices I had collated, making sure they were in numerical order. She wears a plastic thimble on her middle finger and it made a repetitive shushing noise.
Pink has been working here since January. She brought her own mousepad which has a picture of her two grandchildren printed on it. She also brought a small fan because sometimes management keeps the air-conditioning set on low. Her bottom desk drawer is filled with snacks. She arrives at work an hour before she punches in so she can read “in peace and quiet.” Otherwise her husband wants to talk and she likes quiet in the morning.
“When I clean the house on weekends I tell him if he wants to talk he needs to follow me around and keep up. I don’t have time for sitting around chatting.”
It is Hump Day. Pink and I are pulled off the stapling and collating brigade to file. All the permanent employees in the Accounts Payable and Receivable departments along with Deductions are facing layoffs in October. Their jobs are being moved to the Providence office. Some of them have been offered the chance to relocate but the moving allowance is insufficient and most people have lived in this part of New Hampshire all their lives and don’t want to move to the city.
The filing area is a beehive of activity. Some people pull bills to be paid from the files. Other people, myself included, file bills to be paid at a later date. They are placed at the back of the folders. Today’s bills are an ironic joke. Stapled to the top page is a note to the vendor urging the payee to Go Paperless. It blocks the cover page with the Vendor Number which is how the filing system is organized. I had to lift the top page to find the vendor number on every invoice before I could find its file.
How many times in one blog can I repeat the words mundane and tedious without sounding repetitive and monotonous?
In the corner of one file tab, next to the vender’s name, someone had drawn a smiley face. It was a message from a former filer encouraging me to hang on.
“You can do this. Remember your goals,” I reminded myself as I contemplated walking out the door.
The folks over in the filing area brought food to share. One of the most popular items was the hamburger cupcakes, which were made from yellow cake mix and cut in half with a small slice of brownie placed in the middle. Those were the plain burgers. The loaded burgers had squiggles of green, yellow, and red icing for relish, mustard, and ketchup. The young girl who made them found the recipe on Pinterest.
These are nice, honest, friendly people. Taxpayers who don’t hide their money overseas in the Cayman Islands or Russia. They help their neighbors and bring cupcakes, pizza, and Mexican seven layer dip to share with their co-workers. They ask how your Mom is doing if they know she is sick. All they expect in return is a fare wage, good schools for their kids, and affordable healthcare.
No supervisors were around. Almost all of them went to Providence to train the newbies who will be replacing my co-workers who behave like a small family sharing days of difficulty and uncertainty.
The girl who made the cupcakes told us she also works at a bowling alley a few nights a week which led to a debate on Candlepin versus Ten Pin.
“At my bowling alley, it’s only a dollar a string plus the shoe rental. If you have your own shoes, which I do, it’s a cheap night out,” the Cupcake Baker told us.
“Do you belong to a league?” someone asked.
“No, I’m not that dedicated. If I hung out there all the time I’d get fat like the other bowlers.’” .
“Nah, you can bowl it off, right?”
“i don’t think so. Bowling is not that aerobic.”
Cupcake Baker’s Mom recently read in the local paper that the owners of the bowling alley just sold the place and will probably close it and sell the land.
“They got me everywhere,” she said. “It looks like I’m losing both my jobs. My Mom’s so worried about me starving to death she’s bringing food and stocking the pantry. My boyfriend said we’re running out of room.”
I think I was meant to be here. But why? I’ve written this story before, and not just once. In my third novel, Life Is All This, the underemployed Sam Ryder was a successful salesman who has been laid off one too many times and now finds himself writing novels at a reservation desk at a Fairfield Inn during the night shift.
Five years before the 2016 election I was compelled to write my first novel, The Reverse Commute, during my four year tenure in a cubicle working for health insurance. It was my roman à clef. One of the characters, a young girl, works a cubicle job and hears of an older woman who got fired. The novel includes passages like this:
“She thought to herself, “Wow. No cause at all. An employee at will.” She became concerned about sixty year old Joan. Where would she find a job now? And what would she do for health insurance? She was sixty, she would definitely need it. She thought she’d heard COBRA was expensive. She knew from hearing her parents’ talk that Medicare wouldn’t cover them until they were sixty seven or something like that. How can a sixty year old woman who just got fired find a job in this economy? She wished it had been her instead of Joan. At least she was young and could bounce back.”
Sound familiar? There is a distinct possibility it may be my calling to bear witness to working life in America and share these stories with others.
My second week on the job was Employee Appreciation Week. Temps are included because we make up more than half the work force. On Monday we all stopped by HR to fill out a raffle ticket and receive a free beach towel. The towel had the company name on it and was rather thin so I passed on that. Tuesday was Burt’s Bees Day. We could chose one free product. I picked a pink-tinged lip balm. Wednesday we get a free lunch box, bright green and once again emblazoned with the company logo. Thursday the raffle winners were announced. Some of the prizes were a dinner at the restaurant of your choice, a Linen and Things gift certificate, or a day off from work. I thought the day off was the most valuable as the gift certificates are only worth fifty dollars but the company employees told me they won’t be allowed to take it off during the transition to Providence and after that they’ll be unemployed, so really it’s worthless. Temps were not eligible for this prize. Most people chose the scratch ticket packet. Friday a snow cone truck pulled into the parking lot and everyone got a free treat. They had ice cream too and I ordered a frozen Snickers bar.
It was also Pink’s last day, so people brought in more food. Indian cuisine for lunch was provided by Siranya, a woman who works in a cubicle just outside our door. She made chicken and rice with cardamom, basil, and ginger. There were also Dunkin’ Donuts munchkins and homemade chocolate cupcakes with vanilla frosting.
The smell of the Indian food reminded Pink of the Brattleboro Food Co-op which led us to a discussion of Brattleboro during the 60’s and 70’s when the hippies arrived to live in communes.
“Did you know one of the supervisors caught wind of that discussion we had over in filing the other day?” she asked. “The one about music. They said I was talking too loud about my rock ’n roll boyfriends.” Her laugh was loud and sardonic. “What rock ’n roll boyfriends, I asked?”
“That was actually me I think. I told everyone about the time Dave Matthews kissed me, remember?” I said.
I wondered what makes upper management begrudge employees camaraderie and a sense of team spirit. The work got done that day. The filing bins were empty. If this were the good old days people might march out on strike during times like these. And why they’re not is beyond me. How did we get here? People once fought and died for workers’ rights and then they gave them up so easily.
The overdose of ice cream, cupcakes, and munchkins made us punchy. Pink lost her pen then located it on my desk.
“You stole my pen,” she laughed.
“No, it was mine. Yesterday you stole it from me,” I replied.
“Well now I’ve been using a pen from home.”
“Before I stole this pen from someone in payables, I was using a pen I swiped from a Days Inn in Nevada a few months ago.”
“Another stolen pen!” Pink shouted.
The saving grace in our little office is that we have a closed door between us and management. Another woman we work with in this small office space, the permanent employee Pink and I call Alpha, opened her pocketbook and fished around for her bottle of Motrin. Pink looked up and said, “I might need one of those.”
Talks to Herself, who works on customer complaints and often does talk to herself about the irate emails she receives from customers offered Aleve. “If you prefer,” she said.
“Oh my goodness,” Pink said. “It’s true! New Hampshire is a drug infested den.”
I swirled my chair around, laughing hysterically. “Yes, we’re all drug addicts and pen thieves.”
Life has always handed me an incredible cast of characters and an unsought after opportunity to practice empathy in uneventful, commonplace, neglected corners of our world. There are no starving children here. No war torn villages or natural disasters. Just lives of quiet desperation and small moments of human dignity, humor, and kindness. Maybe that explains my current circumstance. Maybe that’s why I’m here.
>>> To Be Continued>>>
***And Dear Pink, if you’re out there and you’ve looked me up and read this blog, I’m writing this on Saturday and although I’m not back at work yet, I miss you already***
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