For two years I had the awful song “Convoy” stuck in my head. I hummed it as a I went into work, sometimes sang the chorus out loud on the drive home, and had even been known to mumble it under my breath while walking down hallways.
[On a side note, did you know the creator of that song is Chip Davis? For those that don’t recognize that name, he went on after that success to create Mannheim Steamroller, which was formed on the bad notion that 80’s synthesizers would sound great with classic old instruments like a harpsichord… and then put it to the test with Christmas music. It’s astonishing the amount of musical torture that man has to answer for once he makes it to the pearly gates.]
My wife was in graduate school, and it fell on my shoulders to pay the bills and the rent. We had just moved back to Michigan from Los Angeles. On the day we arrived back in my home state there was a major power outage throughout the region. I made a joke to the movers that our return must have caused it. The movers actually believed me (thinking I did something with a plug, I guess) until I explained it was a joke. That failed joke moment, as well as the power outage, were both foreboding signs for the two years ahead that my wife and I should have taken.
While I thought having an MFA in writing from one of the best writing schools in the country was pretty awesome, most businesses didn’t agree with me. Actually, I could see the expression of confusion cross over employer’s faces each time it came up and I had to on numerous occasions answer the question, “Why are you here?”
A very good question, Mr. Employer! Of course, a better question I have tried to answer since then is where does such a person with such a degree belong at all?
After one or two employment pratfalls, I went finally with a temporary agency. They first got me a gig doing data entry for a medical office. I made the mistake of finishing a day early on the data thinking that would impress them to hire me. It didn’t. I just saved them a day’s wages. (A lesson right there for future temp workers who are reading this.)
The next temp gig was with the corporate offices of a trucking company. They did business all across North America, and the data, bills, paperwork, etc., all came through that office complex.
On my first day arriving at the offices, I did not feel at home. If anything it felt like the opposite of home, like I had walked into a secret society in disguise and didn’t know the secret handshake.
A semi-truck was in the lobby, an actual real semi-truck. I’m sure some visitors probably thought that to be cool, for me it seemed just wrong. My mind screamed at me that it didn’t belong there. I didn’t belong there either.
A plump and cheerful woman met me at the door and gave me a tour of the building. She was definitely more excited by my arrival than I was, overwhelmed by the level of gray around me (gray walls, gray carpet, gray cubicles, etc.) and the lack of creativity in their building design. Everything was so square with nothing but the illusion of cubicle walls for privacy. You think a national firm around trucking could have had some fun with the carpet and walls, but no. It made me think that this was the future version of a workhouse from a Charles Dickens novel. That was the first of many times I would think of Dickens while I worked there.
The “tour guide” took me to her desk finally (after showing me the kitchen), and explained that they get data about shipments from the truck depots around the country. I would be one of the many just entering data that came across the machines. Pretty straightforward, she explained, but for the first week they want me to still sit with someone for training and learn about trucking, shipping, etc. I would be sitting with Marian.
It was then that tour guide leaned forward and whispered in almost a menacing tone. “Don’t ask about the baby.”
There were pictures of the baby on the walls of the cubicles, on her computer desktop, in frames by her desk. Even her mouse pad was a picture of the child.
Marian was very friendly and had me pull up a chair. As she explained the computer system I would be working in, I couldn’t stop looking around at all of the pictures. See, all of the pictures were of the same three images.
- The first image was a baby asleep, the hand near the mouth.
- The second was of Marian and her husband holding the baby.
- The third was of the baby lying on its back with eyes closed.
Over and over… baby… baby… baby…
The images didn’t bother Marian, of course, and she happily knitted as she took phone calls after phone calls. Truckers seemed to flirt quite a bit on the phone and I heard a lot of “Oh, you!” in response to things. (Did those truckers have any idea what her cubicle looked like?)
But the baby… The baby haunted that first day for me, and my mind ran through scenario after scenario about what I was just thrown into the middle of. Stephen King stories have begun with less than this! This was not normal, something was off. Because of one to too many bad dreams that night I sought out my tour guide before work the next day.
Yes, the baby was Marian’s, it was born premature and it died a few hours after birth. The tour guide said all this very casually to me between bites of a breakfast bagel.
“So it just happened?” I asked.
“No, at least five years ago. Definitely before I started here.”
With this dark understanding, my second day in training was even harder!
Yes, the truth made it harder than the fiction I was coming up around it. This was a maternal version of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. While Miss Havisham stayed in her wedding gown and kept her home decaying around the remains of her wedding day that didn’t happen, Marian was surrounded by the memory of the brief time she was a mother.
It was then that I horribly began to realize what I was seeing in the pictures. The first two pictures were during the short lifetimes of the child… the third image was afterwards.
I asked twice during the day for a break, on both occasions I went outside for a breath of fresh air and a walk around the building. Marian happily complied, oblivious to my discomfort of her lingering sorrow.
During the second breath of fresh air I was hit by another fact that bothered me around this. See, in only two days it was obvious for me that Marian was someone who needed help, some kind of counseling; and yet everyone around her just took it for granted. Like a quirk. Some people have too many baseball things around their desk, she has images of her lost child.
Over the next three days of training I began to watch the other people around the office. I began to feel like a zookeeper inside the cage with the animals studying them.
Everyone seemed to have their “thing.” Some talked about pop music, others had sports or TV shows. In a way, everyone seemed to be carrying their own Marian babies; dreams of something that they won’t experience themselves, but enjoy through others that do. No, they won’t coach a pro baseball team, but they know how it could be done better!
The big guy in charge’s thing was politics, being a diehard Republican.
If someone was to draw a caricature of the classic Republican, they would have designed this man; from his balding head down to his wide tie and Santa Claus-like belly. I had to sit with him for an hour, because he liked to meet all new employees. Looking back it felt like one of those interrogations you would see the Nazis give a captured solder in a prison camp. Nazis were collecting secret Allied plans, he was weeding out liberals. He had nothing on me though, I was pure Steve McQueen.
When he finally did ask about me and my degree came up, his face did that thing I was expecting. “Why are you here?” He asked.
Every day a handful of documents to enter into a spreadsheet came my way and it never took me with my mad typing skills more than an hour… Then what?
My cubicle was off to the side, far from everyone else, and I decided to give myself a challenge. I would write an entire novel. I had just finished a novel that I had sent off to my agent, but I did have an idea I knew could become something on its own, all it would take was the time. And I seemed to have it by the barrel full there!
“You always look so busy,” my tour guide once said to me. And I was, working on that book. And while in that setting it felt like a revolution. I was revolting against the man, taking his money and writing what I think is a pretty damn good character study named Megan (which you can learn about here).
The problem is that once the novel was done (and the third draft was sent to my agent at the time for their review), I had nothing left to do. Nothing. Nada. Zip. And, for some strange reason, they seemed to like having me there, extending my contract with the temporary agency… once… twice… three times.
I couldn’t escape purgatory no matter how hard I tried.
Another thing I began to notice about my fellow inmates was the amount of eating going on. Everyone was heavy and getting heavier. They even had a full-on working cafeteria and would serve giant meals to the employees.
Exercising became my next bit of revolution, and I would sneak out at lunches to go to a local gym I had a membership at. I never had time for more than 30 minutes on a treadmill before taking a shower and heading back, but that 30 minutes meant something to me, something important.
See, looking back over this time, that job, that cubicle represented a nightmare to me, and it was why I sought out little ways to fight back. I had a degree in writing! I was supposed to be the next great American novelist! What was I doing there? Employers asked that question, I was asking it now too!
My agent was still pushing my books, so there was always hope. I told myself that each day. There was always hope… Hope was all I had and I cradled it like my own baby.
Of course, it is in those moments in movies that something comes in to squash the hope. For me that moment of dread arrived bright and early on a Monday morning. It was a call from the temporary agency. “Good news!”
I bit my tongue from saying something sarcastic and simply replied with a “Yes?”
“They want to hire you.”
I almost laughed loudly at that. But instead said just a moment, and left my cubicle to stand in the empty cafeteria.
“Now here is the thing, it won’t be for the same job.”
“I won’t be doing data entry?”
“Oh, you will… but it will be in third shift.”
“From 4 to 1 AM every night.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. My response was almost childlike, the horror of working that time period every day was almost too much for my brain to consider. “I don’t want to.” I whined like an annoyed four-year old.
The rep took a breath and then said in response. “What else are you going to do? Where else are you going to go?”
If you liked reading this post, why not check out one of my books? I’ve had four novels published in the last few years, A Jane Austen Daydream, Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare, My Problem With Doors and Megan. You can find them via my amazon.com author page here, or as an eBook on Google eBooks here. Thanks for reading!
Need an editor? Dream of finishing that book but need some help? Learn about my editing services by visiting this page on my site. Or you can contact Rebecca T. Dickson and request to work with me by clicking the image below.
This is a wonderful story because it captures the dilemma of so many writers. What the hell do we do to make money? And so often we find ourselves in jobs where we feel we don’t belong. I enjoyed the bizarre car company story you shared, but because I did a fair amount of temping during college and graduate school, I especially enjoyed this one. Offices are strange places . . . Looking forward to part 2. You have inspired me to try telling some stories about the odd jobs I have had over the years.
Thanks Kelly! For some reason I am really drawn to writing biographical pieces right now. And usually what works best for me is following my inspiration where it takes me. I would love to someday collect all of the biographical pieces I have written on the site and put them into a book (I have some fun titles already in my mind), but I would need to find a publisher interested in that. The eternal writing trick, right there.
Part 2 will probably be later this week. I have an NPR book review later on and a second part to an interview I gave on a writer’s site before it comes up.
I enjoyed part 1, looking for part 2 later. Thanks and keep up the good work. Cheers!
Thanks! Part 2 should be up later today.
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