HER VOICE was friendly and familiar as she coaxed me awake. Michelle was her name but she also went by Sue, Jackie, Debra and Lori Ann. "Hi, Kirk! How was your weekend?!" Early on, I fancied that she took a flattering interest in how I spent my days off. But in truth, she cared only that I was alive and ready to work: "Are you available for an assignment?"
She was my dispatcher, and I . . . well, I was a temp. Like hundreds of others in the Washington area, I was "between jobs" and was working for a company that rented out people. A day, three days, two weeks, a month -- whatever and wherever the task -- I did the job that had to be done. I was hardly the classic American worker who is honored this Labor Day weekend -- sleeves rolled up and determined brow. I was just another body with WordPerfect skills. A utility man, you might say, in a bleached blue-collar job, lightly starched. Just a temp.
My destination each morning mattered little, only that I reached it on time. The routine seldom varied. The office manager would show me the coffee and candy machines, then lead me to a desk where a pile of paper and a PC sat, along with someone else's name. "Thank you," I would tell her, "May I use the phone?" Then would come my second rendezvous of the day with Michelle: "Hi, Kirk! Are you there? Did you find it okay? Let me know if you have any problems! Goodbyyyyye!"
Now the day could begin. And for the next seven or eight hours I would punch a keyboard. It was not quite what I expected when I graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1989 with a degree in government, but it was one sure and easy way of surviving in an uncertain Washington job market. My initial justification was that temping would give me an inside view of a variety of businesses. But coming into three, four or sometimes five different jobs a week and copying thousands of letters, numbers, words and tortured sentences into a computer barely gave me a clue to what line of business each company was in. I asked my dispatcher, but she couldn't tell me. I asked neighboring employees, but they wouldn't tell me. To them, I was just something occupying the vacant corner cubicle. I was just a temp. So I would slip into myself and continue my day quietly.
A sociologist, I suspect, would have found my experience a gross case study of on-the-job stereotyping and discrimination. I found it an eye-opener to the realities of white-collar work in Washington.
As a male, I invariably got a second look when I walked through the door. The upper-level managers -- men -- were astounded that I could type 60 words per minute; women, who occupied various mid-management positions and comprised entire support staffs, were skeptical that I could type at all, much less answer a phone. Although I acquired a much greater respect for secretaries through doing their work (and that is usually what I did), most of them thought the clerical life was beneath me as a man. Unknowingly, they were reinforcing the very sexual stereotypes they deplored. It seemed that the job required a dress and heels.
I was similarly stereotyped by my status as a temp. When I applied for the position, I assumed that the vocabulary and spelling tests -- sixth-grade level, maybe -- were simple formalities; it never occurred to me that anyone could fail them. But apparently I was wrong. In each office I entered, I seemed to inherit a moronic image left behind by previous temps. My college education meant nothing to office managers. They spoon-fed me a little at a time, making sure that I was not overwhelmed by too many instructions or too much Xeroxing. It was like postgraduate kindergarten, or as if I had suddenly regressed to a point where the F3 function key (Help, Reveal Codes) held all the answers of life. In this world of sexist remedialism, I began my career with a flourish. I worked faster than the pace set for me, and the work I did never had to be done twice. I even sought out more work.
Michelle grew still more enthusiastic, but she offered me nothing else -- no sick leave, no vacation pay, no insurance, no incentive. (Well, she did organize weekly wine-and-cheese parties so the temps could meet each other, and she did offer me company benefits once I had logged 5,000 hours of labor.) I was working to make ends meet, but she was in no way working to meet my ends.
Comfortably numb, however, I remained just a temp -- temporarily. Eventually I realized that she got five bucks for every 10 I made. Once again, I had naively mistaken her keen interest in me as a compliment. I felt misled, used. Somehow my performance established her self-worth; when I worked hard, she looked good. And when I didn't . . . .
It finally struck me that I had overlooked the most important, the most obvious fact of all: I WAS JUST A TEMP! I didn't have to work hard. I had the perfect excuse.
Being accountable to no one on the job meant that I could work like the droning idiot I was assumed to be. And if I messed something up, it didn't matter -- no one would ever see me again. As long as I maintained the standard snail's pace set for all temps, and didn't get caught making personal phone calls, I got paid by the hour. And ultimately, time and money were all that mattered.
I had been foolish to question the intelligence of other temps. They weren't stupid at all; they had realized their temping potential before I had. Temping held possibilities beyond my imagination. It opened the door to a working life completely free of stress, unhindered by the bothers of office politics, competition and ambition. Temping was a viable alternative to success.
But on the other hand, what about my ideals -- that inner voice goading me to find an upward-moving, intellectually rewarding form of labor? Gradually I concluded that I was in limbo, I was going nowhere. Temping also was too much like communist labor; I was the equivalent of a drunken Soviet worker mindlesssly toiling for the state, and when my apathy became so great that I didn't meet my meager quota, it was time for Big Sister to coerce me into shape.
"Hi Kirk." (She was curt.) "I'm sorry but I don't have any work for you today. Why don't you call back tomorrow morning?"
No warning, no explanations, no mercy -- I had done her wrong. Someone must have complained at last about my work performance (or possibly my tardiness, long lunches or theft of office supplies). In any case, I was cracking up and she was cracking down. For two months she had given me work every day, and then suddenly I was cut off cold. It appeared that my options were either to defect or to butter her up. But I had already lost four days' work, and since I hadn't found a permanent job yet and rent was due in a week, I couldn't afford more.
As much as I hated to admit it, I needed her -- and she didn't really need me. A hundred other guys were knocking on her door, and any one of them could pass her tests and win her tempting favors.
So I apologized -- not for anything specific, just some sweetened assurances that I would try to be better. I called her more often, too: "Hi Michelle! How are you? Good! Hey, do you have any work for me today? I'd reeeeally like another assignment!
It was like Chutes and Ladders, a game even I could learn. I didn't play it as well or as often as she did, but it proved to get me work, and it was kind of entertaining. I would play the game for one more month -- about 20 rounds in all. The rules never changed and the players remained the same. But one thing got me through it . . . .
It was just temporary.
Kirk Eggleston is a free-lance writer and will begin teaching full-time this week at a private school in suburban Washington.