Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Zen Art of Temping

We were halfway through the workday yesterday when my (temporary) supervisor popped his head into my (temporary) office to say that the project I was working on appeared to be almost done, nice job, and the company would not need any more assistance until maybe after the New Year. It was a good-bye, maybe forever, maybe not. He smiled at me in that distant, non-committal way that permanent employees so often tend to do at admin and data-entry temps. After all, even though we seem like people from a different caste, we're still human, and so the real employees smile at us to be nice. But it doesn't really count the way it would with one of their real co-workers. It doesn't really matter that much.

I looked out the second-story window, down at the parking lot. It was the same parking lot I'd looked down at for the past three or so weeks, at first thinking that my used metallic-teal 2000 Honda Accord looked so dreary and conformist out there among all the other dreary, similarly bubble-shaped 2000s cars -- until I slapped an obnoxiously neon-bright South of the Border bumper sticker on it last week and decided mine was now the coolest one out there.

It was the same window I was looking out when I decided, two Mondays ago, that I had to do something or my soul was going to rot away in its zombie-shuffling bone cage, so I started this blog.

I thought about all the little routines I've had at all my temp gigs this year (this last one was No. 5). This time, I found a nearby deli on my first day, and by my second week the employees there knew my "usual" (roast beef and cheddar with tomato on a croissant). I had walked and explored the immediate environs enough during my lunch breaks to have found both a cupcake shop (the bakery through which my sister purchased her wedding cake) and a decent mini walking path through an apartment community. I had walked on this path just long enough to know where the muddy, mossy, slippery patches were, and to avoid them, especially after it rained.

I had finally figured out which door led to the stairs -- the wooden one, not the sturdier white metal one that would trigger the building's fire alarm -- and had started taking the stairs instead of the elevator going up to the office and down away from it, tiny bonus exercise worked into my otherwise-sedentary day. I had just learned not to park under that one tree that sheds small mud clumps from its branches. I had stopped using my GPS device to get me to the office and back, going on auto-pilot out onto the main road, making a U-turn at the first traffic light, then cruising on to the Beltway and my home exit without having to think about it that much.

I no longer need to know these things. I guess. Unless these folks call me in to help them with a few follow-up things in early January, if I'm still available and haven't gotten an assignment from the new agency for "creative talent" that I just signed up with (no word from them yet, but it's only been two days since my in-person interview).

After my temporary supervisor went on down the hall to notify the other temp, also brought on for the database-update project, that today was our last day (maybe, for now at least), I looked out the window and thought about how temping heightens one's perception of life as an ephemeral thing, a thing that doesn't last, a thing to not take for granted. It's like getting handed a little yellow Cliffs Notes about the transience of life.

Also, today it struck me how rapidly one's self-image can change -- I mean, literally overnight in my case at times like this, between temp gigs. Yesterday morning my alarm went off at 7:01 a.m. (the extra minute is a psychological trick to make me feel as if I'm not getting up that early) and I grumbled and rolled out of bed, feeling somehow as if I were doing the world a favor. After all, I was up and out and scraping ice off my car windows when I could still be in bed with my boyfriend's warm body, all so that I could plug correct info into a database that helps companies get in touch with local elected representatives. I was standing in the nearly out-the-door line at Starbucks with all the other 8-to-5 chumps, ordering pricey and holiday-flavored caffeine so I could stay awake to do it. "You're welcome, world!" is my attitude on some weekday mornings when I'm working.

And then this morning my alarm didn't go off at 7:01 a.m., and I slept until my boyfriend's clock radio started bleating NPR's morning news a little bit later. I put on jeans, sneakers, and an "edgy" leopard-print sweater because I won't be seeing any boss who might or might not evaluate my potential worth to his or her company based on the professionalism or unprofessionalism of the image I project. I mean, I could have put on my Dolly Parton T-shirt, a miniskirt, and sparkle tights. This morning I arrived at Starbucks later than usual -- well after 9 a.m., when there was no line and some of the comfy seats were even available. (Except for one that's always filled, every time I go there, by an elderly Chinese man with a white goatee, a vaguely mystical-seeming fellow who slowly reads a Chinese newspaper with a magnifying glass all day, a pack of Marlboros beside him on the table. I think he must be related to one of the Chinese baristas. He's pretty much my favorite thing about that particular Starbucks.)

I walked out with my mocha-gingerbread frappuccino and realized that there was noplace I had to be, so I headed for the mall because I had to buy a few more 1920s bits for my New Year's Eve costume (I'm going to the Prohibition-era party at Empire, née Jaxx, just two miles from where I live in Springfield). Plus I had my iPod with me and could get in an hour of mall-walking -- exercise indoors during the winter, sans cold or sun damage to my pale, tissue-paper-thin, wrinkle- and cancer-prone skin. So I drove to the goddamn mall, and the parking lot was nearly empty, and I wasn't sure the place was even open. I sat in my car and read for a bit. I went inside when I saw other people -- stay-at-home moms, grandparents and retirees -- start to trickle in.

Inside I stood by the railing on the second level, looking down at the shopping-mall Santa holding a tiny, squirming baby girl in a fancy dress. I walked by the bridal store and, for maybe the first time ever while shopping alone, went inside. I don't know why. I've always been nearly allergic to weddings, put off by the bridal-industrial complex that gobbles up months and months of people's salaries and spits out magazines full of arbitrary etiquette and ideas for themed hors d'oeuvres, and attaches sentimental notions to formal clothing you only wear once, and pretends that your life is incomplete without it.

But today, who knows why, I let myself check out some of the long white dresses, casting mental votes on which ones were the prettiest, which ones I wouldn't mind wearing in some alternative universe. I found myself drawn down a claustrophobia-inducing, narrow aisle of white dresses hanging in plastic wrap, and had the inexplicable sensation of being in a sort of meat locker. OK, that moment was pretty nightmarish. But I left the store thinking that, for maybe the first time ever, I could imagine myself wearing one of those suckers. I could imagine myself doing one of those "bridal boot camp" workouts with dumbbells that chicks do before a bunch of people are going to see them in a strapless dress.

See, that's the problem with having no job to go to and time to wander and think about stuff. If I'd been sitting at a desk doing data entry, I wouldn't have been there sandwiched between rows of airy white organza garments weighed down with symbolism and culturally conditioned fantasies and the hammering thud of finality. (OK, so maybe the white dresses still freak me out a little bit or I wouldn't write about them like that.)

I also had time to take the long way to the mall, the non-Beltway way, and this gave my mind the space to roam beyond the immediate concerns of traffic reports and not missing my exit. The oldies station played "Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd, and I caught it almost at the beginning, and by the final, climactic guitar solo I was driving along with tears of self-pity rolling down my face. "I have become comfortably numb!" I thought. I later noted with alarm that both my sweater (the aforementioned leopard-print top) and my sunglasses (cheap plastic fake-tortoiseshell ones) just so happened to have an animal print on them, and that by wearing them I was maybe unwittingly promoting slaughter, and I thought for just a sec about how cruel and bloody life can be.

And so what I'm saying is that not having to be at work this morning freed me up for the kind of dopey, emo morning that finds me crying at Pink Floyd on the radio and musing among the wedding dresses and wistfully watching Santa hold babies at the mall, standing there with the grandparents whose babies are a generation removed from them now, glimpsed rarely as if from a second-floor railing.

I told you -- I'm no good at being unemployed.

On a pragmatic note, I did find some cheap costumey bits for my 1920s ensemble (a dress, cloche, and accessories from Forever 21 and Icing, where the teenyboppers go to spend their allowances; hey, it's what I can afford right now). I did do some mall-walking -- and immediately cancelled it out with lunch at Panda Express (orange chicken, beef 'n' broccoli, and fried rice with wrinkly peas and alien-ish cubes of carrot in it) and even lunch-dessert from Cinnabon. I'm not gonna lie; when buying both lunch and the "cinnabon," the devil on my leopard-print shoulder was chanting the old mantra, "It's OK! You can be good starting tomorrow!" Which is exactly the opposite of what this blog is all about.

So I'm going to go walk in the woods now, and then I'm going to come in and write up or at least start to write up this one idea I had for an article to submit for publication (I have a specific online publication in mind). Life is ephemeral, as my time in Templand has taught me. I'm not promised or guaranteed a thing tomorrow, not one thing.

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