Dateless & desperate, or the tragicomedy of how I almost escaped unemployment

Shortly after the start of 2013 I ran out of time, patience and stuff to sell.  It had been five months since I finished graduate school and while I spent the better part of my time blanketing the Greater Boston area with my resume, my efforts thus far went unrewarded.  Neither the sobering reality of my future if I remained unemployed, nor the irony of finishing grad school only to flounder in a wave of historic unemployment had escaped me.  For some the bleakness of my reality meant that food stamps and tampon theft was the only logical outcome for my situation, and it would have been if not for my my supernatural ability to make money stretch farther than I thought humanely possible, and squeak by on fumes and odd jobs.

Much to my chagrin, in March of 2013 my bank account finally bottomed out.  It was the first time my bank balance had reached absolute zero in years, probably a decade, and it made me more than a little anxious to see it all gone.  Even though my situation was dire I was reluctant to take just any job I found.  In the past it was that type of knee jerk approach to unemployment that had kept me floundering in bad jobs and underemployed for years, but holding out for my ideal job was no longer an option.  But since I was fresh out of funds, with pressure coming in from all sides and my loans looming ominously overhead like a Deathstar ready to obliterate my existence, my reservations about temping seemed trite and I did the unthinkable, and waded back into the temp pool.   For a few minutes I hoped it wouldn’t work out, but no such luck.  A placement officer called me back almost immediately after she received my resume to set up an interview early the following week, and I immediately said “Yes.”

It’s one of unemployments most irritating ironies that in order to get a job you need to “dress for success.” Without a job or any money left to buy an outfit just for interviews, what the hell was I supposed to do?  It had been a while since I left my last office job and anything more than business casual was going to be a push considering my choices were limited to the remnants of a two year old office wardrobe.  Although everything was well care for, it was hard to see myself being taken seriously walking into an interview as a collage of “fashion dont’s” and wearing pants that were now so big on me they could probably double as a circus tent.  I did my best, and kept it neat and simple.  Minimal makeup, hair tied back, everything was very clean, tidy and pressed.  I paired my last Banana Republic button down with my only surviving pair of “nice work pants,” and threw on a subtle but colorful scarf as well as some black Steve Madden low heeled boots.

I arrived ten minutes early for the interview which was a 40 minute drive.  It was a cold Monday morning but the traffic was light and the ride was smooth.  I had a heavy parka on over my clothes, and I switched out of my winter boots before I got out of the car and slid carefully across the ice crusted parking lot to the front door of the generic business suites.

My meeting went well up to the point where the woman I met with pulled out a resume I didn’t recognize.

“Lots of education, I see,” she said, skipping down the resume,” …and no certifications”

“Microsoft Office and Access,” she read out loud, peering at me over the top of her glasses.

“Photography and digital media,” she said punctuating with air quotes.

I nodded and smiled in confirmation

“Can you type?” she asked, tilting her head

“Yes,” I replied, “At least 60 words per minute”

“Can you drive?” she followed up.

“Yes.” I said probably looking slightly confused.

“… and what exactly are you looking for?” She asked, as she leaned forward and her eyes narrowed to almost pin pricks.

“I’m looking for either a full time or part time position,” I said, “… but I’m open to anything you have available“

Her questions were nothing out of the ordinary for a temp interview but her tone felt oddly antagonistic.  I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, but it kind of felt like she had an axe to grind, or I had some how unknowingly offended her with my very presence.  On top of which, even though I had sent her an updated resume prior to our interview the resume she was referencing was clearly a decade old. I wondered where she got it and realized it was probably a relic from the last time I spoke to this company, on a previous job search several years earlier.  I offered her the updated version I had brought with me specifically for our interview but she blocked it with a face palm and told me to brush up on my “Office” skills,  maybe take a few online tutorials and simplify my resume so that it down played my education and any achievements that potential employers might find intimidating.

“If you think it will help me get a placement I could streamline it…” I heard myself saying, and I cringed as the words came out of my mouth.  “Do that,” she said abruptly, “otherwise I don’t think we’ll be able to find a placement for someone with your skill set.

My poker face was strong, but I could feel myself starting to flush.

After that interview I headed out to my car.  I was simultaneously glad it was over and disappointed by the fact that I knew it didn’t go well.  It kind of felt like I was setup on a blind date and the person I met introduced them self by saying, “well you’re really not that good looking, or the kind of girl I’d ever date… .”

The extra resume I had printed out special for the occasion was still in my bag and folded neatly in its envelop.  I slowly slid back to the car and felt like my only major accomplishment that afternoon was wasting a tank of gas.  So, it was a big surprise when the temp agency reached out to me a day later and told me that they had a lead on a potential placement for me.  They were very light on the details, but hard on the sell and they made it amply clear that aside for this position they didn’t have anything else for me at this time.  With no other prospects on the horizon, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it a shot.

The next day I arrived at the far end of an expansive overgrown backlot just off the back of an industrial complex around 10:45 am for the “potential job” interview.  I parked in the shadow of a dark grey cement Brutalist honey comb hive.  It was short and stout, but still somehow loomed overhead and looked like the kind of place where souls go to die.  A dozen or so ash faced workers guarded the doorway and glared at me as I made my way to the entrance through their thick cloud of cigarette smoke.

This interview took about an hour.  I met with an apathetic blonde who was about my age.  She had a soft spoken monotone and never smiled, but thanked me for coming in.   Over the loud clamor of industrial shredders and trash compactors that we shared a room with I was told that the placement was for 3-4 months and they were looking for someone to start ASAP.  It was a data entry job that paid 12.50 an hour, and it came with a cubicle of its very own as well as a security pass to the trash and shredding room.

The temp agency called the instant I stepped back out over the threshold of the building and into the parking lot.  The two voices on the other end of the conference call spoke in chorus and explained that as far as I was concerned it was this or nothing and I should take the job and be grateful for it.   They shrieked in unison that there was nothing for me to think about since they would not be offering me anything else.  Part of me was surprised by what they said, and part of me knew it was true.  There was not a lot to think about.  If I said “No,” they would never take another one of my calls and I would be back to square one living well below the poverty line, and wondering if I would have to steal tampons.  If I said, “Yes,” I was committing to another job that would probably crush my spirit but keep my body alive while only making enough to exist at the poverty line, but never above it.  It was my very own Matrix moment.  I thought about it for a second, as I walked across the parking lot, balancing my bag as I simultaneously tried to fish out my keys and hold onto the lingering hope that one of the resumes I had sent out over the past few weeks would lead to something better, but I wasn’t holding my breath.

I was amazed to learn that for a job that seemed to be based out of a trash room there were still a half a dozen or so hoops I had to jump through before I could actually start working.   That was fine by me since it was pretty standard for a temp agency placement to need a little time to run complete background checks etc… .  It also gave me a couple of days to contact the people who had offered me odd jobs knowing I was looking for work and explain the change in situation.  In the meantime I was told that the credit and background checks needed to be run would take 24 hours, and pushed my start date back until Wednesday.  Then there was also the standard drug test which had to be completed before I could start work.  Taking a drug test was not a problem, but the fact that it moved my start date to Friday at the earliest, seemed to push my placement officer over the edge.  She seemed to believe the delays were all my fault and she harassed me with zeal of a stalker leaving hourly angry voice messages asking, what exactly my problem was, why I was being so difficult, and demanding to know when exactly I was going to do the drug test despite the fact that she scheduled the appointment.

I started work at 8am on a Friday.  When I arrived at the hive I was ushered quickly through the main office and towards the back of the building where I was let into a space behind some industrial trash compactors that appeared to do triple duty as an office, backroom storage and a hallway.  If I was in a movie that would have been a secret back room where they hide all the unwanted children.  Ohhhh, sweet fucking jeezus, I thought as I entered.  The small space was stuffed with corrugated cardboard boxes that towered up to the ceiling and which bowed to the left or right.  They swayed angrily every time someone opened and closed one of the four connecting doors and I eyed them as I followed my guide through the maze, I couldn’t help worry about whether or not I should have been issued a crash helmet.

It was obvious that no one had been told a new employee was going to start.  I was eventually told to shadow a woman, younger than myself who was not too happy about it.  She snapped “watch what I do,” and slid into the only chair at the desk which forced me to hover behind her and watch her work.  I spent about 45 minutes watching her ring encrusted fingers angrily hammer away at the buttons on her cold war era keyboard with characters that were worn away after decades of abuse.  She swore a lot and barked short hand instructions at me in impatient perfunctory gibberish that might as well have been Klingon.   She only stopped long enough to take a deep exasperated breaths, and engage in an ongoing debate about the nutritional value of a Mac Donald’s extra value meal.  At one point she got up and left the room.  I thought she went for a smoke break and a few minutes passed.  Even though no one could see me standing amidst the box forest it was awkward to be left just standing there so I settled into her seat and waited for her to return, but 15 minutes passed and she still wasn’t back.

I honestly thought she was coming back at first.  I though maybe she went for a smoke break or to stretch her legs as you do when you work in an office.  So I just sat quietly for a few minutes, thinking about stuff and listening to the low hum of the machines punctuated by arrhythmic keystrokes and the continuous off color commentary from the disembodied voices of the other workers hidden somewhere in the box forest.   When I realized she wasn’t coming back I panicked for a second because I wasn’t sure what I should be doing.  I stood up to see if I could see over the boxes to find the office manager, or the person who had shown me in but I couldn’t see anyone.  I called out, “excuse me” to try and solicit some help from one of the abutting workers, but no body answered.  What the fuck!? I did a 360 and sat my ass down.  It was confusing, and odd to be a new “team member” and be totally ignored.  It was abnormal office behavior and it was the kind of thing that makes you question all the decisions you’ve made in life for a second until you realize that all the other workers in your office collectively decided to be assholes and pretend you don’t exist, possibly in the hope that if they ignore you, you will just disappear, and that was just uncalled for.

I did what I thought should be doing, which was not much, but despite my best efforts the morning dragged on.  Nobody came over to say hello, to check on me, to cover my desk for a bathroom break (of which I was only allowed two without it being documented by management), no one would even tell me when my lunch break was or to offer me a cupcake when they were brought in.   To add insult to injury at one point someone even started a new stack of boxes right next to the chair I was sitting in, effectively boxing me into my cubicle.  I kicked it over at lunchtime and burst through the box wall muttering “motherfucker!” like an angry office working Coolaid woman because as far as I was concerned it was time for me to either get out or freak out.

It is at times like this that you try to make the best of your situation.  Try as I did to find things to do to pass the time, the day advanced at a glacial pace and it got more and more difficult to stay positive.  I tried not to be a clockwatcher, but the only thing I could think about was staring directly at the wall clock and trying to make its hands move faster with the power of my mind. My thoughts wandered as I sat in that cubicle staring at the stained partition wall and I couldn’t help but wonder what fresh fucking hell is this!?

That day I spent 3 hours opening letters, 2 hours typing random words on a computer (and then deleting them),  45 minutes driving around at lunch swearing to myself in my car, 15 minutes completely freaking out on a call home, 15 minutes on a Non-Smoker “Smoke Break,” 5 minutes in the bathroom, and every other moment in between staring at the green blinking cursor on my black computer screen wondering if I should just get up and leave.

I was unconvinced I could make it to the end of the day without running and screaming from the room first.  I started to understand why some people say they just can’t do data entry jobs, or maybe you just need to be made of sterner stuff that I am.  It was the repetition, the lack of human interaction, they hyper managed timetable, the lack of sunlight and fresh air and the low constant hum of the machines that eventually make it feel like your soul is slowly slipping out of your body because there were other places in the world it would rather be.  Hell, I’d only been there for six and a half hours and I was already starting to completely loose my shit.  There was even a moment where I seriously contemplated trying to jump through one of the second floor safety glass windows.  I figured I might be injured and a little bloody when I hit the ground, but it probably wouldn’t kill me.  I don’t know why I thought I could make it through a week at that job when one day was proving hard enough.  I guess I thought I could stick it out long enough to pay my phone bill and feel like a little bit less of a loser, but I was wrong.

At about 4:00 I was called out into the hallway in front of the office by the department manager to “check in” and see how the day went.  As I left I caught a glimpse of the woman who ghosted me earlier and was immediately furious when I realized that the entire day she had only been a few feet away from where I was seated, and she had just made it a point to ignore my questions.

The department manager met me out front.  Pale and tired she looked like her day had been just as soul sucking as mine.  I smiled and I started to fill her in on my day when she cut me off and said that an employee who had recently retired (a week earlier) decided that she didn’t like retirement so they rehired her back for my position.

“WHAT”  I said looking directly into her eyes. “But don’t worry… “ she said chuckling softly “we’ll still pay you for the rest of the week.”

I just kept staring at her in silence for a second. Dumbfounded.  I shook my head slowly, put my hands on my hips and I smiled a little.  I probably looked like I was going to pop.  She looked at me nervously and then looked down at the floor like a dog who had pooped on the couch.  Still staring straight at her I blinked slowly, and I took a deep breath.

“GREAT…” I said raising my eyebrows, “… SO… I spent an entire week driving around being interviewed, harassed, drug tested, and having my background and credit checked all to keep a seat warm for someone who you were probably planning on hiring back in the first place… On top of which what I earned, barely covers all of that gas.”

I was immediately glad I had thought to bring all my stuff with me for our “chat.”  It made it a lot easier for me to to turn on my heel, sling my bag over my shoulder and head towards the front exit.

I know you shouldn’t drive angry, but I just had to get the hell out of there and I was angry the entire 30 minute drive home, not because I had been beaten to the punch and  let go before I could quit, but because the agency that I had put my trust in, and who had placed me in that position in the first place, and had harassed me for the entire week leading up to my first shift, probably knew that was going to happen earlier that day and they didn’t even bother to call and give me a heads up.  Now they were dodging my phone calls, which was the real cherry on the top of that big steaming pile-of-shit cake.

At dinner that evening I wore the lingering stink of my frustration like a fart in a windowless room.  Conversations happened around me and it felt like time was standing still, much the way it does when you’re in a car accident and the world spins around you before you hit something.   I focused all my attention on staying cool as I sat quietly seething and angrily stuffed fresh buttery scallops into my mouth that were as delicious as my day was bad.  I wondered what would become of me having failed to secure even the most basic of jobs and I thought what have I done to deserve this? I momentarily flashed back to a conversation I had with two former friends earlier that fall who had made it a point to say that being unemployed was the punishment I get for deciding to continue my education.  Like I was Icarus flying to close to the sun.  It was a stupid thing to say but I still thought for one hot second, Shit. What if they were right?

Even though I never had any intention of staying at that job in the long term, I had promised myself I would fulfill the contract I had initially agreed to because even a low paying job for a few months would have made all the difference in my small world.  With nothing to show for my effort I was left to close out the week contemplating all the bullshit, all my failings and ruminating over the fact that I was still going to have to get up and start looking for work all over again in the morning.