Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Job Journal: Assistant, Hodges Library, UT

The United States workforce is represented by two separate, yet equally important groups: those who plan on keeping their job for the long haul, and those who are biding their time before becoming the Next Big Thing. These are stories from the second group.

Job: Student Assistant, Hodges Library, University of Tennessee

Duration: 11 months

Year: 2001

My boss at the library was Al. I have no idea what his last name was. He didn't need one. Not like he was one of the most gregarious characters in East Tennessee and everyone from Chattanooga to Johnson City knew who you meant when you said Al. More like he was incredibly peculiar and I had my doubts he was borne of woman, so why would he have a last name?

Al was in his 60s. I'm pretty sure he had only ever worked in libraries. For all I know, he had only ever worked on the fourth floor of Hodges Library at the University of Tennessee. He was a skinny turtle. Slight hump in his shoulders, head pushed forward, bald head and sloping nose. He had a soft, deliberate voice with a Tennessee accent. He was from a small town. I know this because he regaled us with a story from his childhood of a gang of youths who went around town throwing axes. He said they had no problem with him, but one time threw an axe into a door by his head. In any city, this sort of behavior would land the youths in jail and on the front page. In a small Tennessee town, it was only met with the sort of boys-will-be-axe-throwing-boys chuckle Al had in his voice when he told the story as my fellow assistants and I looked at each other, horrified.

Al was perfectly suited for the job, which, as I described, could be mind-numbingly tedious. He never waivered, physically or mentally. He always moved at the same steady, deliberate pace (though I doubt he won any races), and he never seemed upset. Never seemed very happy either. His version of small talk was pacing past me and simply naming the day of the week. "Tuesday," he'd say in his soft Tennessee drawl. Indeed, Al, it is in fact Tuesday. How do you feel about that? I have no idea. Once, he got a drink from the water fountain. He stood up and walked away, saying to no one in particular "That water was terrible," with the exact same tone he'd use to state the day of the week. I would occasionally get lost in the study carrolls by the windows and take a quick nap. My spidey-sense was too slow one day, and I heard his shambling zombie step too late. He caught me with my head down, and simply said "if you want to take a break, you should go to the break room." For all I know, he was barely containing a murderous rage at my transgression. Or he wished he could take a nap too.

The break room could be a bleak affair. On the top floor of the library, it was actually beautiful. Roof access, plenty of comfy seats, a fantastic view south of the stadium, the river, and the Smokies. But also, Al. Sometimes we would take lunch at the same time, and have exactly nothing to say to each other. Much like large bodies create a well of gravity around themselves, Al created a well of absolute ambivalence. I couldn't muster the willpower to say anything.

When my mind would wander in the stacks, I'd daydream about breaking bad news to him. "Al, I just ran over your dog." "Al, I just drop-kicked your sister off the roof." "Al, I'm raping you at this very moment." I didn't think these things out of any ill-will for the man. I just wondered how he'd respond. I could imagine no reaction but "Hmm, that's too bad. Thursday."

When I was "promoted" to keep the sixth floor in order by myself, I didn't see Al any more. I did start to understand how he came to be that way. The library was his own hermitage, just as the sixth floor had become mine. My walk slowed. My thoughts slowed. Had I not gone home for Christmas break and left the job, I could have taken his place eventually. I like to think he's still there, pacing slowly, naming days of the week and fondly remembering the sociopathic axe-throwing denizens of his youth.

Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he's an actor and writer.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Job Journal: Doorman at fancy women's clothing store

The United States workforce is represented by two separate, yet equally important groups: those who plan on keeping their job for the long haul, and those who are biding their time before becoming the Next Big Thing. These are stories from the second group.

Job: Doorman at upscale women's clothing boutique in the Meatpacking District, NYC

Duration: 3 months

Year: 2006

My manager was just the sort of uptight social climber you would expect to manage a chic women's clothing boutique. She treated me nicely enough, but had very little patience if I ever questioned the way things were done around the store. I had exactly two opportunities to do so.

I always worked Sunday, when the store opened at 11. However, we needed to report to work at 10:15. Every other day, I needed to arrive about ten minutes early, to sweep the sidewalk and make sure everything looked orderly. I had no added responsibility on Sunday, but I obligingly showed up on time anyway. For a while. I was told we were there early because sometimes the designer liked to swing by the store after she brunched across the street at SoHo House (I wish I could explain how much that sentence hurt me to type). Realizing that she was never going to do that, I decided one Sunday to show up at 10:50, as if it were any other workday.

"Train problems?" asked my manager.

"No." Here's a tip for having a productive conversation with me: I'm intelligent, and often two steps ahead of people who don't get to the point. If you don't get to the point, I will be certain to act like I don't know what you mean and force you to say it. Hence, my blank stare after I said "No."

"We're supposed to be here at 10:15 on Sunday."

"Yes, why is that again?"

"In case Catherine decides to come by."

"Is she aware of what time her own store opens?"

And that was the end of that conversation.

Here's another case of me wildly bucking trends at the store. I was often compared to the previous doorman, Jason. "Jason did it this way." "Jason wouldn't do that." Well, Jason wasn't working there. As doorman/security/the only male in the store, I had to do some light maintenance. Literally, maintenance of lights. The interior of the store was actually remarkable, with a lot of specially-built lighting fixtures that I had to keep clean. I was also once asked to replace a boring old floodlight in the ceiling fixtures. I got the aluminum ladder out, climbed up and took a look at what I was dealing with. These weren't normal screw-in bulbs; rather, there were two forks that slid over screws, which were then tightened to keep the bulb in place. Everything I could see was metal--no shielding of any kind. I wasn't wearing gloves. You may remember what they taught you in second grade about metal and electricity.

"Can we turn off the breaker for this fixture?" I asked the manager.


"There's live electricity running through this and I can't work on it until you've turned it off."

"Jason never turned it off."

"I'd just feel a lot safer [ON THIS ALUMINUM LADDER] if we could do that."

"OK," grumble grumble disappear in the back.

She flipped some switches until it seemed like we found the right one. I took out the old bulb with no trouble. As soon as I touched the new bulb to the contacts, I saw a spark.

"That's still live. We need to turn that off or I can't do this."

"I don't know which one it is. Jason never needed to do this, he just changed the bulbs."

"Jason was an idiot."

And that was the end of that conversation. They called an electrician.

Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he's an actor and writer.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Job Journal: Toys R Us

The United States workforce is represented by two separate, yet equally important groups: those who plan on keeping their job for the long haul, and those who are biding their time before becoming the Next Big Thing. These are stories from the second group.

Job: Cashier/Wheel World associate at Toys R Us, Clarksville TN

Duration: 3 months, both times

Year: 1999, 2000

I left my cashier position at Toys R Us at the end of the summer of 1999 to return to school at UT Knoxville. That's something both parties knew would happen from the get-go; something I can't imagine happening today, even at the most menial of jobs. Hiring someone you knew would be leaving in three months? What can I say, we were riding the gravy train that was the end of the Clinton administration. But they knew I'd be back, and back I was in 2000. With a promotion!

I was no longer a cashier (that is, unless the dedicated cashiers needed backup). I was to work on the floor, in the Wheel World. That's self-explanatory, but it meant I was also responsible for the big-ticket items in the back. If you wanted to buy a bike or one of those Little Tykes forts (which were awesome, by the way), or god forbid a swingset, you pulled a ticket from a pouch in front of the display, payed with said ticket at the register and drove around back where I'd be waiting with a giant box. You'd then realize there was no way you could get that box home in your 1983 Datsun, I'd tell you it wasn't my problem, and then close the door and chuckle maliciously.

Just kidding. That only happened a few times, and the customer tied the item to the roof of their tiny car and possibly killed dozens of people on their way home to rural Kentucky. Which is why we weren't allowed to help them tie it down.

This job was one step on the road to manhood. I had a scanner on my hip that beeped when someone bought a big ticket item. I kept a socket wrench in the other pocket, because in my free time I was to assemble any bikes that didn't have a display model. I went from using tools exactly .5 times in my life to regularly assembling bikes and adjusting brakes, gears, & seats. I was always dirty from lugging around boxes in the warehouse. My very kind manager Libby very kindly recommended I wash my shirt. Things weren't so bad.

Eventually, boredom set in pretty hard. In the summer, most people hit Toys R Us on the weekend. I worked at least three weekdays, which usually meant I stood around no less than five hours and tried looking busy. Then my mind would start working, and that's never been a good thing for me at a day job. The result is always a deeply existential undermining of everything the company stands for.

I was a Toys R Us kid. I know what it felt like to score that action figure you'd been looking at for weeks. I know what it was like to take the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sewer playset home and put on all the decals and stage the most epic battle you could imagine. But as an employee and adult, I knew how absolutely worthless all this plastic was. The kids fiended for the toys like junkies. We bought the toys from overseas, marked them up astronomically, and sold them. The kids pestered their parents until they finally caved. The kids played with the toys until the next new one came along. The toys ended up in a landfill.

For what? Six months to a year of joy? Kicking off a lifelong cycle of wanting, getting, and discarding? Material proof that the parents did not in fact wish to undo the existence of their children?

You can see how this sort of thinking can be problematic at 2 PM on a sunny Wednesday. And honestly I think it all came from trying to find an excuse not to re-shelve the toys I found laying around the store. There's the Carl Sagan quote, "if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." I suppose the opposite could be, "if you don't want to do a menial task, you must find a reason that it's a hindrance to all of humanity." I am a pro at this.

Colin Fisher is a lot of things to a lot of people, but mostly he's just an actor and writer.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Job Journal: Sales associate at Dillard's department store

The United States workforce is represented by two separate, yet equally important groups: those who plan on keeping their job for the long haul, and those who are biding their time before becoming the Next Big Thing. These are stories from the second group.

Job: Sales associate in the home department of Dillard's

Duration: 11 months

Year: 2003-4

I've put off writing about this one for a long time. I suppose of all my jobs, this was my 'Nam—in that I never really knew why I was there, I couldn't figure out how to leave, and somehow I ended up with an ear necklace.

I'd been at UT's Alumni Association for quite some time, and while the job wasn't bad and the people were great, I felt like I needed to move on and grow up. That "growing up" at the time meant getting a job at a department store fills me with such a sweet nostalgia for my simple youth that it hurts.

Anyway, my friend Mark had been shopping in the home department of Dillard's for someone's registry, and the sales associate tried to get him to apply for a job on the spot. He knew I was looking for something else, and friend that he is, he mentioned it to me. I still appreciate him looking out for me and absolve him of any guilt for the following 11 months. Come to think of it, we both started working at that horrible call center at the same time. Maybe he's not such a great friend...

I went in a few days later to fill out an application, and the department manager, Chris, interviewed me. To say it was fast is an understatement. This was one of a few jobs where the manager saw I was a mentally competent human with four working limbs and decided immediately to hire me. What can I say? It was a boom economy. In truth, the department was filled with women, all of whom were either old or pregnant. The home department was one of the few areas of the store that actually needed someone who could carry a little weight, because they received shipments of pots & pans and appliances that needed to be hauled around the department, and that's not something at which pregnant or old women are known to excel.

In addition to cargo duty, I was expected to sell. Like, for real, talk people into buying things. This was new to me. Dillard's is known for being one of the highest-paying mall retailers around, and here's their secret: you're hired at a rate of pay that's pretty tough to maintain. It's not commission exactly, more like a quota. To maintain your introductory hourly pay, you're expected to sell a certain amount of goods every month. If you don't, you take a pay cut. If you sell more, you get a raise. There were women making more there ten years ago than my wife makes right now, working in the corporate Manhattan offices of a major clothing company. Those women would cut you to make a sale.

Like any job in a place you previously only frequented as a consumer, there was a very slight initial thrill of peeling back the curtain and seeing the guts of the machine. But soon you realize the lighting's awful, the floors are dirty and everything you're selling is garbage.

Why was this job so bad? It's too much to detail in one post, but I'll bullet-point it:

  • I knew absolutely nothing about the stuff I was required to talk people into buying. Coffee makers? Toasters? Skillets? Why are any of these better than the others? Could the manufacturer even answer that?

  • The job was by-the-numbers in the worst way. Clock-in was computerized. Ten seconds late was the same as fifteen minutes late, and after nine tardies you were fired, no questions asked. Many was the morning I sprinted to the clock to swipe my card, while the store manager stood by and watched. Luckily I only lived five minutes away.

  • The break room. It was conveniently located right by our department, upstairs. For someone at the makeup counters downstairs, half your break would be consumed by walking to the break room. Unfortunately, it was the saddest room I've ever been in in my life, and I've been to a few funerals. The fluorescent lighting was at its vibrating yellowest in here. There was a dirty coffee maker that was never on. There was a 13" TV with rabbit ears at the front of the room, tuned in to poorly received daytime television. No snack machines, no magazines, no joy. How many people made the decision to end their own lives in that yellow room with bad TV? I almost immediately started taking my lunch breaks in the food court of the mall.

  • The store manager was the worst kind of used-car salesman glad-handing lizard you could imagine. He looked down on all of us with poorly hidden contempt. It was widely known he was cheating on his wife. He was paid far too well, yet still wore ill-fitting suits. He had yellow teeth and a voice that made you want to break them. He did the morning announcements.

Some of the people I worked with weren't bad. Chris, my manager for most of the time there, was an absolutely great guy. I'll give him his own post. Some of the people were awful. They'll probably get a post too. I'll also tell you about some of the worst things we had to sell (balsa wood parrots, anyone?), how I learned to wrap a present like a boss, my ever-expanding lunch break, and what it's like to sell discounted Christmas ornaments for four straight hours.

Colin Fisher is many things to many people, but mostly he's an actor and writer.