Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Tempest

Dawn, the receptionist in the British version of "The Office," during an on-camera interview: "I always wanted to be a children's illustrator and when people said, 'What do you do?' I would say, 'Well, I'm an illustrator, but I do some reception work for a little bit of extra cash.' So, for years, I was an illustrator who did some reception work. Then Lee thought it would be a good idea for us both to get full-time jobs and then you're knackered after work and it's hard to do illustrating. So now, when people ask me what I do, I say I'm a receptionist."

I started temping in February to make some quick, easy coin. I'm no good at being unemployed, even when I could arguably afford to take a "hiatus" for a few weeks or months. Ever since I started working in my field, at a community newspaper, within a year of graduating from college, I've worked. I had a seamless seven-year streak of only leaving for better jobs and higher pay until the big layoffs at the global software company I was working for in July 2008. Even then, I was only out of work for roughly a month and a half -- I arrived in San Diego (a city I'd spontaneously decided to move to after I got laid off, planning to live modestly off my severance pay for a few weeks) with a job interview scheduled for a couple of days after I got to town. I found a job; it dwindled down to just coming in a few hours a day and then finally being "on call" at home in case they needed me, i.e. I no longer really had a job.

I came home on Thanksgiving Day of 2008; I was freelancing by December, and working at the Georgetown Barnes & Noble by February. After I quit my last full-time job in August of last year, I started writing analysis reports for my boyfriend's former employer right away. When that contract ended at the end of November, I picked up some substantial freelance work in December. And then I signed on with my first temp agency in February. In other words, I have never gone more than about a month before getting antsy to work again.

A lot of it is guilt. I'm incredibly lucky to have a safety net that goes several layers deep. I had my parents to lean on when the job in San Diego went bust and I had to come back home, with no job, apartment, or even any furniture (I'd gotten rid of it all before the move out West). I had my boyfriend's support, financial and (perhaps more important) emotional, when I came home shaken and crying and unable to take the way the president at my last full-time job treated her employees, the way she screamed (yep, literally screamed) deeply insulting things to them (she once told our then-newly hired and highly competent magazine editor that he was "not worth the money I am paying you!"), the way she publicly berated us in front of our co-workers. I have had to land in their safety nets, and it makes me feel bad and want to bounce out of it and land on my own feet. (Or on my hands and knees or whatever, just so long as I'm not weighing down anyone's net.) I guess that impulse is a lot of what passes for a "work ethic" for me.

But sometimes scrambling like that means you don't take the proper time to step back and plan things out, figure out ways to get at the awesome jobs (or, ways of making money -- e.g. freelancing or doing something creative for pay) that you know are out there -- and get them. So you find me doing things like running to a temp agency, purely on the recommendation of a wonderful and trusted friend, with the simple goal of making enough money to pay my (measly, discounted by my nice boyfriend) share of the rent. Admin jobs? I'll take 'em. Data entry? Sure, sign me right on up. I agree to these things because my focus is on "earning my keep," with the notion that I can "pursue my dreams" later, when things aren't quite so dire.

If you meet me at a party or a dinner, and you ask me what I do, I will unswervingly give you the same answer: I'm a writer. I give my spiel about how I used to be a newspaper journalist, worked some editing gigs, have done some marketing stuff and written for the web lately. I might mention my freelancing, which has totaled a solid 40 working hours some busy weeks. And yet, these days, the whole time I'm saying all of this... part of me feels like a fraud. Part of me feels like I'm lying. And that's because ever since February, on most weekday mornings I have gotten up, put on some office-casual outfit, gotten into my car, stood in line at Starbucks with all the other office commuters, listened to the morning news on NPR, parked in some cavernous garage or outside some office building, gone inside, and spent nine hours of my day working as a temp.

So it's a little like: "I was always a writer before and when people said, 'What do you do?' I would say, 'Well, I'm a writer, but I do some temp work for a little bit of extra cash.' So, for years, I was a writer who did some temp work. Then I kept temping full-time and then you're knackered after work and it's hard to do writing. So now, when people ask me what I do, I say I'm a temp."

Fortunately that's not entirely true -- I'm not too knackered after or during work to write. I post stuff all the time on my creative-writing site as well as in little Facebook notes, and write tons of stuff that I don't post, that either isn't ready for prime time yet or that I just don't get around to properly promoting. I've been a regular contributor to my friend Oliver's Moustache Club of America site for irreverent fiction, which has been housed on the larger and more popular website of The Good Men Project for a while now.

I find ways to do it even when I arguably shouldn't (I'm writing this during a slow time at a temp gig right now). I write after work or on the weekends, whether I "have the energy" or not. For me energy doesn't even really factor into it -- if I have a writing idea, it has to come out. (I think of the Marquis de Sade in the movie "Quills," writing in his own blood after his pens were all taken from him.) It's not something I schedule, not a thing that doesn't happen if I'm not taking the right vitamins or something. Also, again, I don't go around identifying myself as a temp -- "What do you do?" "I'm a writer." And when I do say that I temp (because it's hardly a secret), it never sounds right. Working these gigs has always felt a little as if I'm an actress studying for a role -- waiting tables for a few months so I can understand my waitress-character on a bone-deep level, say.

I'm pasting below a short, irreverent piece that I wrote for the Moustache Club of America (I made a few light edits to it just now). It pretty baldly reveals how I've felt during most of my temp gigs (I'm on No. 5 so far), especially this part about the temp stigma: "People are already going to walk right by you without saying hello because you have the temp stamp branded upon your chest, hovering in a dim halo over your pate. They are already going to wonder whether it is worth the emotional investment to so much as learn your name, for you seem to them a creature as ephemeral as a cherry blossom. They are already going to wonder what your 'deal' is, what shaky set of circumstances led to your accepting this job as a corporate babysitter."

But the bright side: I have two specific new ideas for taking the raw clay of all this temp experience and shaping it into two written pieces to submit for publication. Because I'm a writer. Dammit.

How to Dress for a Temp Job (for Women)

Wear a blazer on the first day. (You're thinking, "Wow, she just jumps right into the nuts-and-bolts, huh? No clever intro, no scene-setting 'color' -- just: boom, blazer. Wear a blazer.") I'm serious. If at least the top half of you is wearing a suit, you will get respect.

If your temp gigs are like mine, ones in which you're babysitting the front desk because the receptionist rear-ended someone at a red light and has to be in court that day, and your day sometimes involves mindless tasks other people don't want to do such as cutting out zillions of tiny name tags by hand or Scotch-taping Cheesecake Factory receipts to pieces of scrap paper to go into expense-report files, or putting everyone's coffee mugs into the dishwasher or refilling the rolls of toilet paper in the employee bathroom -- respect is crucial.

People are already going to walk right by you without saying hello because you have the temp stamp branded upon your chest, hovering in a dim halo over your pate. They are already going to wonder whether it is worth the emotional investment to so much as learn your name, for you seem to them a creature as ephemeral as a cherry blossom. They are already going to wonder what your "deal" is, what shaky set of circumstances led to your accepting this job as a corporate babysitter. They will do all of this regardless of whether you heed my advice and wear a blazer.

But at least you will feel better about yourself if you wear a blazer. Trust me on this.

After the first day, you have already worn a blazer, so you have proven yourself to be someone capable of projecting a professional image. However, the second day will set a pattern. Don't wear a blazer again, or you will seem at best clueless and at worst insane. People will pity you: "Aww, I bet this is the only office she has ever worked in! She's got her big-girl clothes on!" No, it is not the only time you have worked in an office, and you don't want to let them get away with thinking that.

So don't wear a blazer the second day. But still look nice. I suggest a button-down shirt with a skirt or pants that are not khakis. (In some fancier offices, khakis are for casual Fridays only. In those offices, people actually make small talk about their golf scores, and they actually use cars as status symbols and not merely metal boxes on wheels to ferry them from Point A to Point B. Believe me, I know; I have temped in those offices. They exist, and that is rather unfortunate.) A button-down shirt, a skirt or non-khaki pants -- and nice shoes. I have known people who judge a person's character by his or her shoes. This is undeniably lame but a fact of life, and I am here to impart unto you facts of life, not tell you fairy tales. So wear your nice shoes. And not too much jewelry, especially not earrings if you're answering the phone all the goddamn time like I am.

A few days into the gig, if it's a longer-term one lasting weeks or even a months, you will very likely want to dress a little flirty, a little sexy. No, not to win over some sleazy VIP -- just to feel good about yourself. To remember that you are a woman and not a sexless office-bot. There are probably appealing dudes (and chicks, if you prefer or also like those) who work in this office, and they are probably at least remotely in your age range. Or maybe there's a hunky UPS guy whose arrival is the bright spot of your day, whose brown-shorts-clad backside you dreamily watch as he strolls toward the elevator and on to the next delivery, a sort of cowboy of the corporate world.

Perhaps you, like me, are in a satisfying and committed relationship. Well, good for you. Still, it's only human to want members of the gender to which you are attracted to find you attractive right back; only human for you to want them to wonder during idle moments what you're like outside of the office, to imagine how charming you could be after a glass of wine or a cocktail, to envision you dancing at a club or having a relaxed non-work conversation at a low-key party. In short, to be able to conceive a version of you who is not glued to the reception desk and surreptitiously minimizing the browser screen with Facebook on it every time someone walks past.

So go for it. You have my permission. Wear a clingy dress that is still long enough to pass for office-appropriate, so that if the schoolmarmish HR lady raises her eyebrows you can shrug innocently because the hem is in fact the required-by-some-stupid-written-policy number of inches above the knee. Wear a little extra make-up that day, perhaps a "smoky eye." You already wore a blazer; you've earned it. Live it up.

If you feel like trying something a little more advanced, especially if you've landed a longer-term gig, and especially if you fancy being offered something full-time (i.e. non-temp) and away from the reception desk -- dress down. No, I'm serious. While wearing a blazer on Day 1 shows you know how to at least "walk the walk" of a serious professional if need be, dressing down connotes confidence. Think of Steve Jobs in his jeans. Think of laid-back Facebook employees in their newfangled California-fun office without walls, bouncing a beach ball around all day and blithely ruling the world in their faded denim pants.

Dressing down (after the first two days only) means you are not some chump sweating in an interview suit in the lobby, incessantly clearing your throat and clutching your résumé and straightening your tie. It means you are not so hungry for professional approval that you'll mince about all day with your feet pinched in stilettos only to slip moaning into fuzzy-bunny slippers once you get home. Wear something comfy -- jeans on a day that isn't Friday, even. Wear shoes that are flat, and just look around at all the high-heeled women shooting you jealous poison darts with their eyes. They only wish they felt that secure. What's your secret?

Your secret is that you don't care as much as they do. You're aloof to it all. Your job does not define you. You're a chameleon, capable of playing their little game but not married to it. You are not a delicate candle quivering in the economic winds -- you're not a candle at all. You have night vision, and will see what's what long after they have run out of flashlights.

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