return to screencuisine


In Security

Suicide is Painless

"Hi, could I speak with Christopher, please?"

"This is Chris."

"Christopher, are you available to work Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday?"


"Okay!  Great.  It's just answering phones at a front desk, pretty easy.  I do need to mention, though, that the office may be a little.. well, they recently lost a co-worker to suicide.  Do you think you'd be able to deal with that?"

"Yeah... I mean, I'm sure I can handle it."

"Of course you can!  We know you can, in fact, that's why we called you for this job!"

I'm speaking to a temp agent I've never met (the agent who interviewed me was laid off a while ago) at an agency that has given me a total of two assignments since I signed up about six months ago, and I'm being told that they called me specifically because they believe in my ability to competently perform in an office where the atmosphere might be a bit, well, morbid.  I guess I'm supposed to feel flattered (although "We heard the word 'suicide' and thought of you!" ain't exactly making me blush with pride), but it sounds to me like they've been having trouble filling the position, it being Thanksgiving week and all.  I've got nothing else on the calendar, though, so I accept the assignment, and I do have to say, it's nice of them to let me know ahead of time what I'll be dealing with.  I've said it a million times before:  temp agencies always leave out some important detail when they call me in for assignment, but this time, they're actually preparing me.  It's a Thanksgiving miracle!

It also sounds like it will be somewhat of a downer of a Thanksgiving week.  Ah, well.  Temps can't be choosers.  At least I'm just filling in for someone on vacation, and not for the person who killed himself.  That would be a little too weird, even for a temp with a renowned knack for dealing with grief-stricken strangers, as I suddenly appear to be.  Time to update the resume!

As I do before all my temp jobs, I take a moment to make a mental checklist of everything I'll be needing.  Not what I'll be needing to bring, since I always bring a timecard, a book, and my surly attitude, but what I'll be needing to steal.  At home, I'm low on toilet paper, sugar packets, Sharpie markers, AA batteries, and 1.2GHz Pentium III Sony VAIO Notebooks.  I should be able to scarf up at least some of those over the next few days.  What I really need, though, is a new mouse, since my left-click button isn't real keen on clicking anymore.  If there's a supply closet or a vacant office (which it seems there will be), I'll see if I can nab myself a mouse.

This job is on the outskirts of town, by the railroad, a small office with maybe fifty people in it.  The front door is locked and I need to be buzzed in by a very nice woman named Katherine, who shows me around a bit and introduces me to a few people.

"This is Chris," she says.  "He'll be answering the phones at the front desk, and just... pretty much just being a presence up front for us."

A presence, eh?  I've never heard myself described that way.  As I straighten my shoulders and rise to my full, towering five feet, seven inches, I'm sure I'm quite the presence.  Ominous, imposing, a veritable Cerberus of the cubicles, the very cubicles I'm covertly scanning for items on my shopping list.

I'm shown my post in the lobby.  "You will probably have to buzz a lot of people into the building," she says.  "We just had this security system installed, and people may be forgetting their access cards or not have them yet.  You can let delivery people in, UPS, FedEx, and the mailman, but everyone else will need to show you their ID badge.  If someone doesn't have a badge, or if you're unsure about anyone, come find me immediately."

Ech.  I hate overly security-conscious places.  This office makes furniture for their company's main office facilities.  It's a friggin' cabinet shop.  Why do they need to screen everyone who comes to the front door?  Are they afraid of some knobs and hinges being stolen?  Is the Columbian Cartel making a play for control of the particle board market?  Here I was hoping I could devote the day to doing crossword puzzles and stuffing stolen goods in my backpack, but now it seems I shall have to look up from time to time.  How tiring.  At least I know what they don't:  the real thief is already in their midst.

Luckily, traffic in and out of the office is sparse, the phone doesn't ring often, and no one asks me to do anything but sit there.  When someone does call, they generally know the name of the person they're looking for or the extension they need, so it just becomes a matter of pressing buttons.  No one here asks me to do anything or gives me any work, so I play games online, read e-mail, and download the usual gang of chat programs.  The few people who actually talk to me just say hello and maybe introduce themselves, but that's about it.  Everyone seems very withdrawn, quiet, thoughtful and, well, depressed.  They are constantly asking each other, "Are you okay?" and "How are you holding up?"  I guess this co-worker must have been close to them.

One of the women who works nearby my desk tells me that she will be back in a few hours.  "I'm going to therapy," she says.

Well, therapy is definitely nothing to be ashamed of, but I'm not used to people announcing it as if it were a smoke break or trip to the bank.  I don't know what to say other than "Bye," as "Have fun!" and "Yeah, I gotta get me some o' dat!" don't seem particularly appropriate.

I walk into Katherine's office to ask her when I should take lunch, and she's sitting completely still, her eyes staring blankly at her computer screen.  I knock on her open door, and it still takes her a moment to notice me.  She tells me I can go to lunch whenever I'd like.

"Okay.  Is there anything I can do in the meantime?  Any copying or faxing or anything?"  I ask, breaking my cardinal rule of never asking for work.  Thing is, I'm pretty damn bored and the day is just dragging.

"No," she says.  "I think we're okay, and anyway, it really just helps us to have you up there."

In the afternoon, I buzz in a printer repair guy.  I always feel bad for printer repair guys, because as standard practice, no one ever knows which printer he is supposed to be repairing, least of all him.  Someone goes off to determine which printer is broken while the guy stands by my desk.

"Hey," he says loudly in broken English.  "Dis where hass-a-jess were?"


"Hass-a-jess?" he says.  "Dis where dat guy took hass-a-jess lass week?"

"Uhh..."  What the hell is he talking about?  "I'm... I just started here today, I have no idea what you mean."

He is called away then, as the faulty printer has been located, and I sit there, wondering what he was talking about.  What the hell is hass-a-jess?  Haagen-Dazs?  Someone took some ice cream?

Lozenges, maybe?  Someone took some cough drops?


Someone took... hostages?

My tiny brain finally starts to make some faint whirring noises.

pretty much just being a presence up front

we just had this security system installed

if you're unsure about anyone, come find me immediately

really just helps us to have you up there

I'm going to therapy

Oh, balls.  I get online, and start looking through the local news from last week.  And then I find it.

What my temp agency told me:  they recently lost a co-worker to suicide.  Yeah.  Close.  Real close, guys.  Bang up job.

First of all, this was not a co-worker, this was a former co-worker.  And "suicide" is perhaps the understatement of the year, because, according to the article, this former co-worker, upset and angry over losing his job, burst into the building with a gun.  Burst through these very doors I'm sitting in front of, the ones that are now locked except when I decide to open them for somebody.  He then threatened two dozen or so of these people at gunpoint, these people I'm working with now.  He eventually released them, and as they were fleeing the building they heard the gun go off as he shot himself in the head.  Police swarmed into the area around the building, blocking off the streets, while a handful of employees hid in a conference room for hours, not knowing where the guy with the gun was, fearing for their lives.  A SWAT team finally got them out.

I really need to turn on the local news once in a while.

And my temp agency really needs to be severely beaten about the collective head and neck with a burning porcupine.  Surely, they knew the details.  And surely, they don't know me.  These poor people wanted a presence at the front desk while the regular person was away.  Only five days ago they'd had a gun shoved in their faces.  And my agency sends me?  These people wanted the Incredible Hulk doing reception duty.  Bruce Lee.  Conan the Barbarian.  What they got was a sleepy pipsqueak who, quite frankly, has let everyone into the building who asked to be let in, without doing much in the way of screening them.  When this job is over, I've got half a mind to head straight over to my temp agency, walk right in their front door, and turn in my time card without wishing them a happy Thanksgiving.  That's how upset I am.

With my new information, I take my security job a bit more seriously, even drawing angry remarks from an employee's husband, whom I keep outside for almost five minutes, doing everything but a rectal exam on him before someone else finally buzzes him in.   I can now also clearly see that the people I am working with are not just depressed or saddened, they're shell-shocked and traumatized, and I assume the therapy that was mentioned was arranged for all of them by their human resources department.  They stared down the barrel of a gun held by a enraged man.  They felt shock and terror.  Their lives flashed before their eyes, or, infinitely more likely, their deaths did.  Seeing someone run into the building with a gun, I would have figured I was dead, too.  Homicide is the second leading cause of death on the job (automobile accidents being number one), and for women, it is the first.  The leading cause of death for women on the job is being murdered.  Christ.  And you read about these things all the time.  Disgruntled current or ex-employees, storming a building with a gun or guns, picking specific targets or random ones, killing one or two or four or five or more, and then killing themselves. It happens everywhere and we all know how it goes.  Bloodbath followed by suicide.  And worst of all, most horrifying of all, is the fact that I can't steal anything from these people now.  It's just plain wrong to swipe a roll of TP or a handful of Sharpies.  They've lost enough, and even I have a conscience.  Plus, well, I don't see a mouse that wouldn't be missed anywhere.

At the beginning of my second and last day (I'm told they're closing the office on Friday and I won't need to be there), they inform me they'll be closing at noon but will pay me for the whole day.  Nice of them.  One of them women even gives me a goodie bag, containing a mini tool kit, a flashlight, a few pens, a compact umbrella, and not one, not two, but three small teddy bears, wearing tiny t-shirts with the company logo on them.  Sure, none of these are on my list, but sometimes, you have to take what you can get.  They've been pretty giving, and I'm pretty thankful, so I guess the theme of the holiday is upheld.  And I'll be even more thankful if I can remember to stop on the way home and buy toilet paper.