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
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
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
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."
"The last name
"Ah, could you spell
it for me?"
"Gzz, ezz, zzz, zzz,
"Perhaps a bit
"Gzz. Ezz. Zzz.
"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
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
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
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
Todd: "Hi, this is
Todd at Pseudonym Staffing. Can I help you?"
"Hello, yes. Regarding the temp you sent overÖ"
Todd: "Oh, yes.
Christopher. One of our best! That boy knows how to wrestle a
Office manager: "Yes,
Todd: "Howís he
working out? Good on the phones, strong typist?"
Office manager: "Yes,
his phone skills are fine. Well, not really, butÖ"
"WellÖ heís 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
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
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 weeks. Or 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.