#49 I Get a Check on Friday, But It's Already Spent
I gave myself another one-inch picture frame assignment: my 90s “temp” job.
Before I landed in advertising, I worked at a number of low-paying administrative jobs, struggling to pay rent and student loan debt. I finally ended up at a pharmaceutical company in midtown. I originally went in for a temp job, but the guy I would work for had gotten in trouble for only hiring pretty temps so they offered me a full-time gig instead.
My main issue with the job was the ungodly start time of 8:30 am. I was an unrepentant night owl and 8:30 might as well have been pre-dawn. I proposed a compromise to my new boss: I’d try my best to make it in by 9 am, but stay as late as they needed me and he wouldn’t fire me immediately upon discovering my inevitable tardiness. To my surprise, he agreed. Turned out the other admins left promptly at 4:30 pm, leaving him and the other executives wandering aimlessly around the office asking, “Does anyone know where the fax machine is? And also how do I fax?” I’d discovered job security.
There were 2 kinds of admins: Lifers and Temps.
Lifers were full-time employees who checked the company stock prices and saved for retirement. They were reliable, content, and lived in Far Rockaway or on "the Island." The hours were good and the pay was decent especially if you weren’t paying Manhattan rents and had a double-income family. Lifers knew everyone and everything. They were hardwired into the company culture and had eyes in the backs of their heads.
Temps were transient, less reliable, and usually broke. They lived in Manhattan or Brooklyn with way too many roommates and did comedy at night in the East Village or took catering jobs to make ends meet. Temps stood out because their work attire was thrift shop chic meets my Dad's hand-me-downs. While “temp” indicates sub-contractors from a “Temp Agency,” there were some full-timers who fell into the Temp category.
I was one of those full-time “Temps."
I worked in the marketing group and my duties were pretty simple: answering phones, making copies, faxing, filing, doing expense reports. I could do most of my work before lunch and then just screw around the rest of the day waiting for the phone to ring.
A big part of the job was ordering food for meetings. Back then we’d order breakfast, lunch, a tray of fruit or cookies at every possible opportunity. All the admins, even the Lifers, were in the habit of ordering extra food for meetings so that, afterward, there would be an underground alert that there was FOOD OUTSIDE THE CONFERENCE ROOM. If you were lucky you’d get called first to get the jump on the other grubbing Temps. Even the Lifers took food home with them. These were the perks, along with a gym and a company store where you could buy a tube of toothpaste for 68 cents, of having a deadly dull job.
For a while i had to manage my boss’s wife and mistress which mainly entailed making sure I knew which one was which so I wouldn’t confuse one for the other when they called. But at least I didn’t have to book rooms at the Helmsley for my boss’s “lunch meetings.” His previous Temp did that, but they had an understanding, I guess. Upside: that boss bought me breakfast every day for a year.
I was a kind of weirdo, out of place in that uber corporate, MBA-laden environment. I’d seen the movie Reality Bites, so I knew my role. I’d often come to work wearing some crazy outfit, like a baby blue dress with high heeled jelly shoes, or come in on a Monday with purple hair. I once wore fake glasses for a month — like Lisa Loeb’s in the Stay video. I should mention that I could have just worn my actual glasses but of course wouldn’t be caught dead in them.
Painfully accurate depiction.
Once I changed my boss’s screensaver to an animated video where little pieces of pasta danced and sang “Heeeyyyyyy, Macaroni!” to the tune of Hey, Macarena.
Thank you, Internet.
There was usually a small gang hanging around my cubicle, mostly other Temps. We’d bullshit about movies and tv shows, shattering the tomb-like silence with our laughter and prompting eyeballs from the Lifers.
I briefly had a nemesis, a Lifer, who tried to get me in trouble for (allegedly*) covering for the lateness of another Temp by turning on his computer so it would look like he was just off running an errand. In retaliation, I conveniently “forgot” to put in the order for her birthday cake the next week, so we had to scavenge cookies leftover from the executives' meetings.
We came to a truce after that. Birthday cakes were a very big deal for the Lifers.
(*I actually don’t remember doing this. Although, it sounds like something I’d agree to, so I’ll cop to it. As for my retaliatory behavior? I regret nothing. Snitches get stitches, not birthday cake.)
Even though I was comfortable there, I was always job hunting. This one time I applied for a job at Comedy Central as “video tape librarian” a job that I can safely assume has gone the way of the dodo. I aced the interview but didn’t get the job because they promoted someone from their admin pool. Instead I was offered the now-vacant admin job that paid 30% less then my current barely-making-the-rent admin job.
What would life have been like if I’d taken that job?