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First Blood

I am led down the hall, around the corner, and finally, into a cubicle where a desk sits, waiting for me. On the desk are a computer, some folders, a coffee mug that has the words You donít have to be crazy to work hereÖ but it helps!!! printed on the side, and a blue vase containing flowers look like they died when I was still a young boy. There is a small clipping of paper taped to the computer monitor, just below the screen, that says For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also Ė Matthew, 6:21. The screen itself is displaying a message of wisdom too, in the standard marquee style, sideways-scrolling text: Take each day as a new challenge, never stop trying, believe in- thatís all I can take before I have to yank my eyes away, to instead gaze upon the several yellowing Cathy comic strips, clipped from the Sunday papers and tacked to the cubicle wall, each exactly identical in regards to the last panel, which leaves Cathy frazzled, her hair in disarray and her tongue sticking out.  Ack.  

I look to the other side of the desk, where there are some binders, a stapler, and an Anne Geddes greeting card that shows a picture of a nude infant on a bed of roses, its face crinkled in either extreme joy or magnificent pain. The file cabinet is covered with magnetic poetry, magnetic fruit, and a magnetic statue of David wearing one of several magnetic outfits. Looking down, I see that the wastepaper basket is labeled Suggestions. The computerís mouse has a little cover that looks like a real mouse. There is a beach ball in one corner. The cubicle has a shower curtain. There is a large poster of Daniel Day Lewis. Approximately four hundred and sixteen photographs of the same two cats. 

"Well, this is your desk," says the woman who brought me here.

I look at her, then down at the desk again, my eyes finally coming to rest on the well-worn paperback copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

This is not my desk. 

It all began with a visit to the Pseudonym Temp Agency, which I picked out of the phone book the way a man picks out perfume for his wife: at random. When I got to their office, I was put through a battery of tests. I had to do simple math problems, word problems, typing, numeric keypad entry, push oddly shaped pegs through their corresponding holes, identify various smells, and wrestle a surprisingly frisky chimpanzee.

Once finished, I had to wait. I was worried because I hadnít done very well on the typing or any of the keyboard stuff, and the chimp had gotten off a few elbow drops and given me an embarrassing wedgie. After I waited, a woman came out and took me to her desk, and I had to tell her how great I was. I didnít want to, particularly, but she really insisted. She said things like, "Tell me how great you are." 

After I told her how great I was, she typed it into the computer. Then this other guy she worked with came over and said there was a position open at Port of Portland right away. I said I would like to take it, so we rushed through the rest of the paperwork. The woman asked me if I knew how I did on the tests, because the receptionist hadnít given her the keyboarding results. I told her I did great. She didnít ask about the chimp.

Once I reached Port of Portland, I headed to the 13th floor, and told the receptionist who I was.  She punched a few buttons and picked up the phone.

"Your temp is here," she says into the receiver.

Iím a temp, just like that.

Kind of weird, really.  I only called the agency yesterday afternoon, and today I have a job.  Just a few tests, a quick look-over to make sure I'm okay, and they send me to work. Where I'll get paid.  People who don't know me, sending me to work for other people who don't know me, for money.   I thought it would be harder than this.

Cathy, the woman who brought me to the desk, shows me the computer I will be using and how to work the phones. Iím instructed to rub alcohol on a headset and jam an uncomfortable hunk of plastic into my ear. I will be primarily be answering phones. Secondary duties will include staring out the window, staring at the wall, and trying to remember what to say when the phone rings. 

Thereís a computer system that lists all the employees, their titles, and telephone extensions. Port of Portland manages the airports and docks, so I start getting calls from people who want to ship freights overseas and from people who left an umbrella in the airport. I transfer their calls to the places where people can tell them how much shipping costs and where to find their umbrella. Most people call in asking for a specific name, and I try to type it in to the computer to get their extension. It is times like this (and maybe only times like this) that you begin to realize how hard it is to spell peopleís names. Plus the phone connection is really scratchy, making everyone who calls sound like they have a small field mouse stuffed in their esophagus. Even when they spell the names, I have trouble figuring out who they want to talk to. An average call goes something like this:

"Good morning, Port of, um, Portland."

"Yezz, Mrzz Gezzozzldzz."

"Iím sorry?"

"Mrzz Gezzozzldzz."

"The last name again?"

"Gezzozzldzz."

"Ah, could you spell it for me?"

"Gzz, ezz, zzz, zzz, ozzÖ"

"Perhaps a bit slower?"

"Gzz. Ezz. Zzz. Z-"

"Oh, yes, here it is. Gezzozzldzz. One moment."

I then transfer them to Human Resources, or Airport Terminal Services, the docks, a local bakery, Cairo, etc., and hope they never call back. They usually donít.

I work at Port of Portland for a few hours on Monday and 8-5 on Tuesday. No one ever comes into the office except for the wacky mailroom guy, who comes in several times per hour and jokes and kids and laughs and who I eventually want to punch in the throat. Other than that, its a pretty uneventful job. It pays $8.25 an hour, and the woman I work with, Cathy, says I did very well, and she would request me in the future. She even checks the little box on my timecard that says, "Excellent." My first temp job is over, and I have survived.

Wednesday morning, 8:35 am. I get a call from the temp service guy, Todd. He asks if I want to work and I say, "Sure", which is a lie, because I want to go back to sleep.  I wonder if this is how its always going to be. No real notice of when or where I am going to work. I had kind of hoped they would have my next assignment the night before, rather than the morning of, but perhaps this is because I am new.  Still, he says it pays nine-fifty an hour, a considerable increase from yesterday, and I want to get some experience. I am told to be at U.S. West, a long distance company, "as soon as possible."  I yawn and tell him I'm on my way.

About four hours later, I walk in the office building in southwest Portland. I see an empty reception desk and, on it, the same Anne Geddes card as I did in the Port of Portland office. Naked kid, roses.  I meet a woman who tells me I am filling in for the receptionist, who is out sick. Filling in for sick people, I realize, will soon be my forte. I also begin to wonder how sick they were when they left their desks the day before I show up, and what sort of contaminated keyboards I am running my hands over. 

I am given extensive phone training ("Thereís the phone") and plopped at the front desk. I have a sheet listing everyoneís extension & voice mail, so I figure it shouldnít be too difficult. There is also a dry-erase board that has all the employees names on it, and a little checked box to indicate if they are "in" or "out" of the office. Every single name is listed as "out", which I suspect is not true since I can see several people in the office. I decide to make my own list of who is at the office today, which is difficult because people keep walking in or out without introducing themselves. 

The phone begins to ring. The first caller asks for someone named J.D., who, of course, does not have a listing on the sheet for any extension or number. I think for a moment that J.D. may not even be an employee, but then I spot him or her on the dry-erase board listed, of course, as "out," so I stutter into the phone a bit, then hit a series of numbers and buttons that, remarkably, connects the caller to his own dishwasher. My job done, I sit back and proceed to copy the games from the receptionistís computer onto disk, to take home. I decide I will continue this practice in the future, and soon I will have a vast array of games on my own computer. This will be my "thing."

A few calls later I am a nervous wreck. The phone system here has recently changed, so no one has the extension that the callers ask for and everything is a mess. I seem to constantly bumble the transferring, and when I eventually get the call through, I can hear the employee, to whom I have just transferred the call, begin the conversation with: "Hello? Hi. Oh, Heatherís out sick today. Yeah, sorry, weíve got a temp. Uh-huh. Sorry. Well, he just started. No. Sorry about that. I know, I know. Well, it was a last minute replacement. Yes, I know. Sorry. Yes, it is annoying. I hate that too. They just sent him over. Yes, I want to kill him as well. Yep. With a big knife. Uh-huh. I understand. We hate to lose your business. Iíll tell the boss youíre pulling your multi-million dollar account. Yes. Because of the temp. Right."

Nothing seems to be very simple. I get a call for the director of the office, a big muscular guy I know for certain is in the office, because I just saw him seconds ago. I transfer the call to his desk and the readout on my phone tells me that he has "gone home." I walk back to his office and see him picking up his phone and dialing. I tell him he has a call. He stares at me a moment, then slams down his receiver with enough force to shatter the phone into 1 million pieces. Grabbing a new phone from his desk drawer, he quickly plugs it in and picks up the line. I get the feeling I have done something wrong.

People keep going into meetings without telling me what to do with their calls, and most calls are "urgent" and "important" and people need to speak directly with other people who are always on another line, so I wind up with several lines on hold, which the phone does not like at all, and subtly indicates this by shrieking at me.

I go on my lunch break. Thereís deli next door, and looking over the list of sandwiches and salads, I select a pack of cigarettes.   It has been almost two months since I've smoked, and my third day of temping already has me clawing open the pack and fumbling with the matches.

I spend most of the rest of my break wandering around looking for someplace to sit. Itís very warm out and I eventually sit in my car with the AC on.  I start thinking about all the other jobs Iíve had. I remember how I didnít like any of them at first. The first day was always the worst, because I never knew anyone, and no one would talk to me, and I didnít know what I was doing. I think thatís what temping is. A whole string of first days. A career of first days. 

Iím not sure this is a good thing.

After lunch I return to the office. Kathie, the woman who has been covering the phones while I was gone informs me that everyone is at lunch, and she herself will be leaving shortly. It would be a great relief to be here alone, with no one to make me nervous.  The first thought that enters my mind is, "Why are they leaving me alone here?  They don't even know me.  I could steal all the computers, or set the place on fire, or..."

It occurs to me if everyone left, I could take off my clothes and be naked in the office. I figure this would be a bad idea, but it would be fun. To be in some weird office Iíve never been in before and probably will never be in again, completely naked. More fun than copying games. It could be my new "thing," getting naked at each temp job. Of course, it could cause problems.

Todd: "Hi, this is Todd at Pseudonym Staffing. Can I help you?"

Office manager: "Hello, yes. Regarding the temp you sent overÖ"

Todd: "Oh, yes. Christopher. One of our best! That boy knows how to wrestle a chimp!"

Office manager: "Yes, wellÖ"

Todd: "Howís he working out? Good on the phones, strong typist?"

Office manager: "Yes, his phone skills are fine. Well, not really, butÖ"

Todd: "Yes?"

Office manager: "WellÖ heís naked."

Todd: "Naked."

Office manager: "Yes. See, we all got back from lunch, andó"

The day continues to suck. The main boss, the muscular fellow, who could easily beat me up, just came and stood behind me for several minutes. People do this all day. They just stand there because the fax machine is right there, but of course it feels like they're standing there so they can stare at the back of my head.  I know it's what they want to do. Just stare at my head to make me nervous.  

Anyway, then I screwed up a call, and told the big huge man that he had a call, but he picked up the wrong line, apparently someone Iíd left on hold for a very long time, because I heard him apologizing about me.  I wonder if I should start apologizing to the callers in advance.  Just pick up the phone and say "Sorry, this is Chris, to whom may I misdirect your call?"

Something good happens! I help some women figure out something on their computer. It was very easy and I did it in about two seconds so it looks like I know a lot about computers. This happens just after I disconnect the huge giant powerful violent man from his call for the eighteenth time. Iím having bad luck with this fellow! Due to my ineptitude on the phone, heís missed several calls, lost thousands in the stock market, his wife has left him, heís been accused of fraudulent practices in Haiti, and heís contracted three social diseases. Golly! If only I could figure out the phones!

Well, this day is all but over. Everyone has left, save two nice people, so I am relaxing. If I can figure out how to fax my time card in, I might even get paid for my day of hell. The big boss signed my timecard and thanked me, then went out to his car and shot himself through the head. He neglected to check a box on my timecard, the one that says "Excellent." Well. I think attention to detail is an important trait when it comes to managing an office, but I guess thatís just me. What do I know? Iím just a temp.

As I walk to my car, relief washes over me, not just because the day is over, but because it is over.  I never have to come back here again.  Ever.  Maybe this temping thing is okay.  A lot of first days, but not that many second days.  Or second weeksOr years.    

Two and a half days of temping. It seems much longer. I have a lot to think about while I drive home. I park my car and start walking towards the apartment, and I wonder if I will again be awakened by the phone ringing, be directed into some foreign office with strange people and unfamiliar phone rituals. As I dig my apartment key from my pocket, the chimp from the interview leaps from his hiding place above the door, screeching, and latches onto my neck. 

After I thrash him soundly, we share a cigarette.