An account of casual work, sabotage and getting sacked in the service industry, by Zoe Noe.
All jobs are temporary. That's a lesson that I've been fortunate to learn early in life; there's no such thing as a 'permanent' job. I never could understand the need to make distinctions between "permanent" and "temporary" job situations.
I lost my first job at age 16 due to an attitude clash with new management. I wasn't willing to give them all the respect they deserved, and didn't help things one day when the brand-new manager had just finished covering a wall with tacky "wood" paneling, and came walking through and asked, "What's that?" He said, "What do you think it looks like?", and I said, ''I think it looks like shit."
My worst job experiences were in food handling, and I've never escaped any of them on my own prompting. When the manager at McDonald's fired me, he said, "You're a good worker, but you just don't fit the McDonald's image." I lasted 4 days bussing tables at a suburban Chinese restaurant before the owner handed me $50 in cash and told me to beat it.
During a disastrous week-long stint at the SF State dorm cafeteria, I arrived at 11:00 instead of 10:00 one morning, and sneaked into the basement to avoid my boss, slip into my uniform and pretend I'd been there working the whole time. Who did I run into downstairs but my asshole boss, who shocked me by asking, "What are you doing here? You're not supposed to be here until 3:00! " I never ran out of any place so fast as I did at that moment. It was the kindly manager of a 24-hour breakfast place called Waffle House (which we affectionately dubbed the ''Awful Waffle'') who did me a favor when he fired me by strongly suggesting that I try something other than restaurant work for a living.
A few weeks after my high school graduation, I was enticed by a classified ad promising "Travel! Adventure! Excitement!" That same day I found myself on a Greyhound to Chicago, with two suitcases packed, anticipating a whole summer's worth of travel, adventure and excitement. I didn't find out until I got there that I had been seduced by one of those door-to-door magazine subscription seams. I was booked for a 2-week training/probationary period, during which wouldn't make anything except maybe a bonus for reaching quota. My hotel expenses were covered, and I got ten dollars a day for meals.
We were all trained, or should I say brainwashed, in the art of sales; in rebuffing the questions of even the most skeptical residents. If they say, "Oh, I tried this sort of thing before and got ripped off," we would tell them that of course that was some other company, blah, blah, blah.
It was like a Moonie brainwashing retreat. We slept four to a hotel room, trainer and trainee in the same room. Basically we were all together 24 hours a day, except, of course, for the 15 hours in the "field." I was expected to spend all my free time with the veteran salesmen selling me on what a great life it was; the money, the freedom, the wild parties, getting laid, etc. Fortunately I made a friend there, a young woman from Indianapolis who was also a rookie. We would sneak out of the hotel between "structured activities," smoke joints, and plot our escapes. She managed it a few days before I did, and took the Greyhound back to Indianapolis. I was very blue after she left, and any traces of enthusiasm I'd had vanished fast, baring my disillusionment.
Out in the "field" I began to identify with the skeptics I was supposedly trying to win over, and it dawned on me that, yes, it probably was this company that had ripped them off; no wonder the owner-boss, Sibiski, was able to retire at 33! But what really did my attitude in was a morning in which I made one of the day's first sales. The customer invited me in for some coffee, and later we smoked a joint so strong that I wandered around high the rest of the day. I had stayed listening to records with her for an hour and a half, and couldn't possibly sell another subscription.
The next morning I woke up earlier than usual and surprised Steve, my trainer, by slipping into my old blue jeans and a t-shirt. He asked me what I was doing, and I said I was getting out of here. He said I had to call Sibiski and tell him, which I did. But I hung up on Sibiski after he started cussing a blue streak at me about owing him for hotel and meal expenses, and daring to leave before my 2-week training/probationary period was over. Nonchalant, I finished packing my bags, walked down the hallway with Steve, and waited by the exit while he went inside Sibiski's room to calm him down. I listened to the room roar and shake for about 5 minutes, and then Steve emerged, visibly shaken, and said, "Just split, man!"
In the parking lot I ran into Jim, one of the veteran salespeople, who just couldn't believe I was leaving, and threw his best sales pitch to change my mind. "Forget about college, man. You'll have more fun doing this. Man, when I was a rookie here I hated it and packed my bags every day for a solid month. But now I'm glad I stayed because I love it!" And I thought, "Yeah, stupid, you stayed just long enough to get completely brainwashed!", and kept walking, and found the spaghetti mess of freeway connections back eventually to Indianapolis. That day I also learned an important lesson for the first and last time: never hitchhike with two suitcases. I almost didn't think my arms were going to make it!
During a long hand-to-mouth period in San Francisco, during which I procured food stamps, tried to get G.A., and was too desperately broke to really relax with being unemployed (this was when an unemployment benefit seam would have been nice), but I did use the time well. It was around this same time that I got involved with Processed World, and the extra time certainly came in handy to help with production. The state Employment Development Department's job counselors, who are supposed to give us more access to information on all the shit jobs out there, arranged for me to interview at the Leland Hotel on Polk Street, where I was hired as a graveyard-shift desk clerk for a paltry $3.50/hour. Roughly a third of the residents were older folks who had been there, paying rent faithfully, for years. Another third were transients. And a third were young adults, attracted to the Polk Street nightlife, many of them worked as prostitutes (both male and female), and it was these late-night people I got to know the best. Often they would invite me to their rooms to party in the morning after my shift was over. It was an interesting window on the world.
I'm a late-night person. I get my best work and best thinking done after midnight. I do love mornings but only if I can spend them at the kitchen table, with more than one cup of coffee and an interesting conversation. I don't function well when my morning belongs to an employer.
It took me weeks, however, to adjust to my new schedule, but as soon as I had I was fired for showing that I was more sympathetic to the tenants than desk clerks were supposed to be. We were only expected to take their rent money, dispense clean linen, and make wake-up calls. Still I was surprised that I hadn't been fired sooner.
A week earlier I had had a major run-in with my supervisor, who came in to relieve me at 7 AM. He started bitching at me for an insignificant transgression I can't even remember now. He only needed to mention it once but wouldn't let up about it. It didn't help that I was sick. I went straight home and slept until about 10:30 PM, when I had to get up, order a take-out sandwich and salad and ride the bus to work. When I showed up for my shift at 11:00, the same supervisor was there, drunk, and he started raving about the same stupid shit he'd already given me hell for that morning. I warned him that I was in no mood to endure it, but he ignored me. I got mad, and as I grabbed my salad I was thinking, I don't even care that there are other people in the lobby or if I get fired, and I yelled "Shut the fuck up!" and heaved the salad at him. Perfectly, I might add, so that the dressing ran all over his splendidly manicured beard and expensive perm, all over his open shirt, gold chains, and hairy chest. The funniest thing, aside from seeing him covered with dressing, was that he didn't fire me right then and there. He looked dazed for a few moments, and then apologized for being such an asshole. After that, until I was fired, he was always real nice to me.
After losing the hotel job, I decided to enter the temp world. The next several months were a kaleidoscope of numbing, unbearable days, and sabotage at every opportunity. I was sort of unique among the Processed World collective, because I started doing office work after becoming involved with the magazine. And I sometimes got into trouble for mixing the contents of PW with life (?) on the job.
I was always being let go without a specific reason. It was frustrating that the hiring and firing hierarchy could have the power to dispose of me and not tell me the truth about why they were doing it; and I would always be left wondering, "Did they really mean it when they said they had too many people, or was it because they saw the sticker I put up in the bathroom and suspected me?" I could never tell. Most supervisors are chickenshit when it comes to letting people go; they do whatever they can to avoid controversy and open resentment. I hate those kinds of bloodless purges. I always preferred the situations when I was at least given a reason for being fired. Especially if the supervisor or boss was noticeably upset about something that I did; I would feel a sense of accomplishment. The next job was like that.
I'm the only person I know to actually be fired from a temporary agency. I got away with a lot, however, before it caught up with me.
At Macy's executive personnel office I stuffed gray pinstripe folders titled "The Macy's Management Career Training Program" with various brochures. They were then packaged up and shipped off to college seniors majoring in business. A few hours into the job I noticed that the folders were simply packed without further inspection and got a great idea. I raced home at lunchtime and grabbed a big stack of Processed World brochures, which I secretly stuffed into the rest of the folders. I delighted in watching them be packed up for their destinations.
With the same agency's help, I got to sabotage Wells Fargo Bank. Although I had stormed through countless modern, partitioned offices in my bike messenger days, I'd never actually been stuck in one. I seriously thought I was losing my mind until I discovered the xerox machine. It wasn't clear whose flunky I was, so many supervisors brought me their extra work, and I would take advantage of the confusion by selecting only the most palatable assignments. One of these was a lengthy prospectus that had to be copied and collated hundreds of times, which made the xerox machine pretty much my domain that week. I did my best to drag the project out in order to recreate hundreds of rare issues of PW. How my heart would pound when the machine had jammed up inside with PW copy, and I'd hurriedly pull it out, with the Wells Fargo prospectus concealing more bootleg material on top of the machine! Fortunately no-one ever caught me with the machine jammed up on PW.
I never felt bad about using Wells Fargo's paper and time to benefit PW. Once, in this same office, I had been on an assembly line of temps stuffing 9,000 large envelopes. We were finally finishing up when a supervisor appeared and announced that we had to unstuff all 9,000 envelopes because the signature on the cover letter wasn't bold enough! Otherwise the replacement was exactly the same! I remember staring in amazement as a custodian carted off a 4-foot stack of the old letter to the dump. I figured I must be doing Wells Fargo a favor by actually putting some of their paper to good use.
Two weeks later I was back at the same office helping assemble a prospectus for Wells Fargo employees on leave. Having been asked to xerox about 300 copies of the cover letter, on the way to the familiar copy machine, I stopped at my desk to find something I could copy on the other side of the letter. I chose the "Office Workers Olympics" from PW #2, and we temps spent the rest of the afternoon stuffing the "improved" cover letter into envelopes.
I was much less secretive than usual on this occasion, and my co-workers responded coolly, which concerned me. It's possible that one of them finked on me, but I didn't hear a thing about it until I phoned the agency to see about getting more work. My "counselor" seemed upset and said, "We have reports from Wells Fargo that last Friday you were photocopying your own material and including it with the mailing. Did you do that?" Realizing my cover was blown, I said, "Yes, that's true." When she asked why, I replied, "it was fun!" "Well, your 'fun' cost both our companies a lot of money because we had to hire three temps the next day to undo your work." ("Wow, three temps!" I thought, feeling proud.) "I'm afraid we can't trust you on any more jobs, so I have to fire you!"
Another, smaller agency I'd registered with invited me to the company Xmas party even though they hadn't assigned me to any jobs yet. I showed up at the party, got pleasantly drunk, and found not only many of the temps interesting but even some of the agency managers. And of course I brought along a bunch of Processed Worlds and gave out several to the temps. Some of the managers bought them because they looked interesting, including my "counselor" who was sympathetic to me despite my dismal typing test score. Several weeks later I ran into her on Market Street at lunchtime while hawking PW in costume. She was wearing a gray coat and looked cold, turning a shade grayer when she saw me. I walked up to her and asked happily if she liked the magazine. She looked terrified and said, "It's horrible!", and moved quickly past me.
--by Zoe Noe