With my unruly long hair, Carnaby Street tie and red beard, I'm never mistaken for Susie Secretary. They looked at me kind of funny when I walked in. As a struggling Washington musician, I had recently turned to the temporary service field as a second career. I had been temping for awhile and playing music on weekends. This assignment had me word-processing for a group of retirement and insurance experts with a large government contractor in Maryland.
After their initial reaction, they were pleased enough when I whipped out a few letters using their WordPerfect software. When my four-week assignment ended, they laid out some cake, pastries and coffee for a going-away party. That's when I thought, "This temp business ain't too bad." I'd done a good job, learned about word processing, made some money and a few friends in the bargain.
It hadn't always been like that.
When I started, I had to learn the ropes and see what kind of assignments I liked. This took three or four months. I signed up with several big agencies, filled out forms, took tests and called my coordinators every day.
My early assignments were what I call "dog work" -- typing lists of names or, even worse, numbers, into a computer. At least with names, you've got something for your imagination to play with.
One list I punched in was for the George Bush Inaugural Gala. Imagine the scene in a huge, aging building: thousands of pristine white invitations laid out on rows of fold-out tables, and groups of middle-aged Republican women wearing gloves so as not to smudge those little icons of political glory. They had pictures of the president in his Navy flight jacket plastered on the walls.
And there I was: a Kelly Boy for the Bush Bash. But it was a little piece of history and I did manage to send one invitation to a friend of mine in the suburbs. She never figured out how she was invited to the gala.
Another dog assignment was taking surveys for a military PX. I'm not one to hassle people, so standing outside of the store asking officers and enlisted men whether they noticed that leg warmers were on sale was not my kind of fun.
After months of this type of work, I signed up with a few other agencies (There are dozens in the Yellow Pages.) Most of them were happy to train me on WordPerfect or Wang, or whatever word-processing programs their customers used. Why pay a computer school when the agency will train you, then provide you with a job?
The more jobs I took involving word processing, the more confidence I gained that I could handle any software. That's when this business became fun and satisfying.
One piece-of-cake assignment came along shortly after I'd sharpened my computer skills. It was supposed to last for three weeks but it ended up going seven months. I was a secretary at an architectural firm near my house. I worked for the interior-design department where I met this young, attractive group of, yes, mainly women. I knew I'd found a home.
The work was routine -- letters, proposals, lists -- but the perks were outstanding. They had a happy hour every other Friday and I made a great bunch of new friends. The company even let me attend training sessions on their Macintosh computers. Meanwhile, my agency was holding a raffle and the ticket I sent in with my timecard won a gift certificate that bought me a new color television.
I was sad to leave this assignment, especially since I ended up on the dog list once more -- spending two days taking out extra spaces between words in the text of a manual the size of several telephone books. Changing assignments, I discovered the classic government agency where nothing worked, no one could find anything and no one knew what I was supposed to do. Naturally, they were unhappy with me and let me go.
There are some assignments where you can survey the office and work before making a commitment. My agency put me in touch with a company in Rockville, but the job description was so esoteric that all I could tell was that it involved computer maps.
I committed for a couple of days, received some training and stayed two months. Tracing highway routes and building maps of the nation, state by state, on the computer screen improved my United States geography tremendously. But it still is strange to be lost in New York City on a computer.
Recently, I found an ad for a permanent job through one of my assignments. It looked pretty good, so I've put in my application. But I don't feel any great pressure to get the job. I know that if it falls through there's always the beat of rock 'n' roll at night, and something new and rewarding on the temp beat by day.
When not temping, Jimmy Johnson sings and plays guitar with Crazy Fingers.