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Bitter is the new black, p.21
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       Bitter is the New Black, p.21

           Jen Lancaster

  Shayla opens her backpack and takes out a business card. “Here’s my temp agency’s owner’s number. His name is Chuck and he’s a nice guy. Tell him I sent you, and you’ll probably get a placement right away.” Shayla tries to hand me the card, but I’m hesitant to touch it. “Take it. It won’t bite you. Call him.” She looks me up and down before adding, “Now.”

  With much reluctance, I accept the card. “I remember a time when I used to like you.”

  “Self-pity and elastic waist pants do not suit you. Call them. You’ll thank me when you cash your first check.”

  Fletch and I discussed it and determined I should give temping a whirl.129 What it boils down to is I temp or we’ll have no choice but to move to a cheaper neighborhood. Yes, we’ve talked about moving, but we should move because we want to, not because we have to. Our rent is taking a huge bite out of Fletch’s severance package and our strict budget doesn’t allow for extras like Christmas presents or wine in bottles.

  I sucked it up and called Shayla’s temp agency. And here I am, going through the intake process, ready to take my timed typing test. For the first time, I feel fortunate to have attended a shitty high school that taught typing on IBM Selectrics and not computers. I just watched the last two people blow their tests because they didn’t know where to place the paper or how to operate the return carriage. Plus, they showed up for their intake assessment wearing JEANS, while I’m clad in a striking pin-striped pantsuit with a starchy white collar and my hair’s in a fabulous French twist. HA! I’m about to blow these kids out of the water.

  I position myself in front of the typewriter, hands poised over the keys. Jill, the office’s receptionist, stands behind me with a stopwatch. “OK, you’re going to type for the next sixty seconds. If you make a mistake, just keep going. And…three, two, one—go!” she says.

  I’m off! My fingers fly across the familiar old keys, and I bang out entire paragraphs in record time. Smoke practically rises from the machine and the motor hums while the printwheel strikes perfectly againandagainandagainandagain in rapid succession. The whole desk vibrates with intensity, each stroke bringing me closer to the title of Miss Typewriter 2002. By the time Jill calls stop, I’m spent with the exertion of having transposed the entire Gutenberg Bible. Victoriously, I rip the sheet out and hand it to her, waiting for my accolades. She examines my work.

  “Well?” I ask expectantly. My dad’s old secretary could type 120 words per minute. He’d beg her to type more slowly because she’d burn through a typewriter per month.130 As fast as I just went, I’m sure I’ve tied her record.

  “Looks like you can do about thirty words per minute,” Jill says.

  LIES! Tremendous lies! Acknowledge my prowess! “That’s impossible. I flew through those paragraphs.”

  “Yes, and they’re riddled with errors. You’d have been better off going a little slower. Subtracting typos, you’re at about thirty words per minute, and honestly, I’m being generous. I’m sorry to tell you that you won’t be eligible for a lot of our open jobs—most require at least forty-five words per minute. But you’re welcome to come to our office anytime so you can practice and improve.”

  Pfft—I should get extra credit for even knowing what an IBM Selectric is. Whatever. “What’s next?” I ask.

  “We’re on to the computer-skills assessment now. If you want to grab your briefcase and follow me, we can get started.”

  Maybe I didn’t rock the typing test. Big deal. I will OWN the computer part. I am the reigning Queen of Spreadsheets. Sorting? I can ascend or descend by make, model, and serial number. Summation? Child’s play. You want a formula to add a 37 percent margin to base pricing, but only on select column items? Bring. It. On. And, shoot, I can do things with an Access Database that would make the baby Jesus cry. Or how about a Web page? I’ve got the mad HTML skillz, yo. I taught myself how to program back in the Midwest IR days when I designed the portfolio management interface. Feel free to call me Jennifer Lancaster Gates from now on.

  Jill boots up the computer and opens Microsoft Word. Once we’re in the program, she hands me a heavily formatted document and tells me to replicate it. Ugh, why? I’d rather die than allow a hideous note like this go out under my letterhead. There are inserted tables and graphs and columns and about fifteen different type styles and sizes, along with breaks and footnotes and page numbers.

  “Okeydokey, I’ll be back in five minutes.” Jill returns to the reception desk. I proceed cautiously, relying heavily on the happy animated Microsoft paperclip. The assignment’s not hard—it’s just tedious. If my boss ever handed me something like this, I’d sit him down to discuss aesthetics and the concept of less is more, rather than allow him to endorse such a schizophrenic mess.

  A nanosecond later, Jill is standing over my shoulder. She prints out my work and examines it. “This is terrible! I can’t believe how bad this is! And you’re so slow. Your Word skills are negligible. Have you even worked in an office before?”

  “Yes, I have,” I reply with a clenched jaw. I just tried my hardest and now a receptionist is dogging to me? I don’t think so. “Of course, I was a vice president, and I used to have girls like you who did this for me.”

  Luckily Shayla placed a call to Chuck, and her recommendation is the only reason I get a placement. For the next week, I’ll be supporting the advertising sales manager of a huge home decor magazine. OK, how lucky is this? I would love to do advertising sales. My friend Kim is VP of advertising at Midwest IR, and she’s always flying somewhere fun to entertain potential clients at high-end bars and restaurants. I’m witty and charming, and clients find me delightful—I could easily sell ads. Not only am I superpersuasive, but I love this magazine. I would be a perfect fit here, and I’m going to work my hardest to make sure the sales manager takes notice.

  I arrive promptly at the reception desk at eight forty-five a.m. and am greeted by a cranky old smoker named Pat. She looks and sounds exactly like Marge Simpson’s sisters, and I notice she keeps her cigarettes in their own needlepoint carrier attached with a plastic chain around her neck. “I’ll take you back to where you’re working, but first, you can put your coat in here.” She gestures to a walk-in closet that smells like a stale ashtray, so I assume this is where Pat stows her coat, too.131

  I follow Pat to the end of a long hallway and she shows me my work space. “You’ll be filling in for Kathy while she recovers.”

  “So she’s sick, not on vacation?” I ask, in an effort to make friendly conversation.

  “I’m sure that’s none of your business,” Pat replies. OK, so much for conversation. “You’ll support Jerry, the advertising sales manager. Mainly you’ll answer the phone. Here, let me show you how to work it.”

  “This is a Lucent PBX with Audix voice mail, right? I used this kind at all of my old jobs, so I’m pretty familiar with them.”

  Completely ignoring me, Pat continues to demonstrate every single one of the phone’s features, half of which she describes incorrectly. I don’t bother taking notes because I’ve used this system a thousand times. I have no need to transcribe an erroneous refresher course. “Hey, you should be writing this down.”

  “Like I said, I’ve used this system extensively and—”

  “WRITE IT DOWN,” Pat growls. “If you screw up the phone, Jerry’s gonna be on my ass.”

  “No problem.” I’m slowly learning to choose my battles and figure this isn’t the hill I want to die on. I pull a portfolio out of my briefcase and begin to take notes.

  “When the phone rings and Jerry isn’t there to answer, you pick it up and hold it to your mouth like this. You say, ‘Hello, Jerry Jenkins’ office.’”

  I write: When phone rings, place receiver next to your word hole and not your hoo-hoo or other bodily aperture, and say, “Shalom.”

  “Then you say, ‘I’m sorry. Jerry isn’t available. Would you like to leave a message?’ If they do, you have to ask them who they are, what they want, and find out their phon
e number.”

  I write: Tell them Jerry went for a massage, and here’s my phone number.

  “Then you have to make sure to give Jerry the message.”

  I write: Tell Jerry someone called about something important, and they sounded mad, so I hung up on them.

  “That’s about it on the phone. Now Jerry might need you to make copies. If so, the machine is right there.” She points to a copier located directly outside Jerry’s door.

  “It’s a standard Xerox, right? Copies go here, the prints come out here, lift the glass to create an enlargement, refill paper here, press this button if you want to collate and this one for staples?” I point to each feature as I describe it.

  “This is the copy machine. If you want to make a copy…”

  Warily, I open my portfolio while Pat drones on, repeating each of the copier’s aspects I’d just described. Tell Jerry when Xeroxing his butt, cheek definition will be most crisp if he wipes the glass with Windex first.

  Pat details a litany of other absurdly easy tasks I may be called upon to perform, and I’m a bit incredulous that I’m going to earn $12/hour for doing what amounts to a trained monkey’s job. Having successfully unloaded her dearth of knowledge, Pat says we’re finished and she starts to head back to her desk.132

  “Wait. Is that it? There’s nothing else? What should I be doing when I’m not answering the phone or making copies?”

  “I dunno. I guess try to look busy. Oh, one more thing. The bathroom is down the hall. To get there, you take a right, then a left, and then a right.”

  “Yeah, thanks. I saw it when I came in.”

  “Better write that down. Most of our temps get lost trying to find it.”

  Does she think I’m completely stupid? I may have arrived here in a yellow vehicle today, but it was a cab, not the short bus. Is she afraid if I can’t find the bathroom, I’ll whiz in the coat closet? I want to slap the nicotine out of her while shouting, “I used to be a vice president!” but I don’t. Instead, I write: If nature calls, tell them Jerry went for a massage, and here’s my number.

  I sit at my desk employing perfect posture so that I’ll make the best possible impression when Jerry gets to the office. Head up, shoulders squared, stomach sucked in, I look poised and professional. I wait.

  And wait. And wait.

  Oh, my God, is this ever boring and uncomfortable.

  The clock on my PC is crawling along, and I’m desperate for something to do. I can’t bear to hold the pose anymore, so I ask a couple of the other assistants if they need help with anything. Unfortunately, they seem to be managing their personal phone calls and nail filing just fine, thanks. Excuse me, ladies? This is why you are and will always be secretaries.

  I need a project, and if no one will give me one, I’ll just have to create something to do. Yes! Capital idea! That way, when Jerry comes in, he’ll see what an industrious self-starter I am and will find room for me on his team. But what can I do?

  I peer around the room. The coffeemaker is full, the copier area is tidy, and the community work space is neat. The only section in need of attention is Kathy’s desk, and it’s a filthy mess.

  I begin Operation Clean Sweep by sanitizing. Her keyboard is full of crud, and I don’t want to use it, lest I catch her cooties. She must have eaten sandwiches over this thing every day for the past ten years. I blow it with a can of compressed air and crusty tumbleweeds explode out of it. I try to suppress my gag reflex.

  I scrub the desk’s surface, drawers, and cabinets with the unopened bottle of Fantastik I found buried under a pile of month-old newspapers in the corner of her work space. The paper towels turn black with my very first pass. I bet she’s out sick because she caught Ebola from her desk.

  I neaten the heaps of magazines strewn all over and pluck all the dead leaves from her spider plant before moving on to sort her top drawer. I divide and stack each of the seventy-two packets of salt and soy sauce.133 I realphabetize her files and line her pile of Payless’ finest in neat little rows under the far side of her desk. I step back to admire my work and commend myself on my organizational prowess.134

  Finished, I go to the bathroom to wash my hands and blot the sweat from my brow. Pat stops me on my way back, and I assure her that, no, I don’t need help finding my desk again, silently adding, “Considering I USED TO BE A VICE PRESIDENT.” However, I so transformed Kathy’s work space that I actually do walk past it once. Satisfied at a job well-done, I glance at my watch to see how much time I’ve killed. Surely a few hours have passed by now.

  Nine twenty-seven a.m.

  It’s going to be a long week.

  “Have the temp file those.”

  “Ask the temp to make your copies.”

  “The temp will messenger them over.”

  “See if the temp will make us a lunch reservation.”

  “The temp isn’t busy—let her do it.”

  My name is Jen, goddammit, not the temp. Jen. J-E-N. It’s three freaking letters long and phonetically correct—how hard can it be to remember? And why do they need to speak to me so slowly and deliberately, like I’m a ’tard or a terrorist? Would a terrorist strap dynamite to her cashmere twinset? I think not. I am fighting the urge to go all Shannen Doherty on these people.

  I finally talk to Jerry my third day on the job. He walks out of his office and over to my desk.

  “Hi. You’re the temp, right?” He hands me a sheet of paper.

  Yay! This is my chance to make a good impression. I’d heard Jerry was looking for another salesperson, and I know I’d be phenomenal. For the past two days, I’ve been studying old contracts and piecing together the way they conduct their sales process. I’ve reviewed a bunch of their PowerPoint presentations, and I’ve already begun to tweak the pitch to best suit my personality. I’ve heard him on the phone interviewing other candidates, and I’ve formulated well thought-out answers. Given half a chance, I would rock this job. “Yes, Jerry, my name is Jen Lancaster and I’m—”

  “That’s great. I need a copy of this please.”


  I walk over to Xerox machine, make a copy, and beat Jerry back to his desk. I realize that I’m here to support him, but wouldn’t it have been more efficient if he’d done this himself? He walked right past the damn copier when he left his office. I hand him the papers before he sits down, trying to catch his attention so I can engage him in a conversation about my skills and experience. I’ve got to be subtle, though, because the temp agency has strict rules about temps trying to land full-time positions at their assigned company.135

  “Here you go,” I say, smiling my largest cheese-eating grin.

  “Uh-huh.” He picks up the phone and turns away from me.

  Hmph. If I’m going to get this job, I’ll have to prove I’m not invisible.

  “Hi, um…err…um…” Jerry stammers. He stands in front of me holding a box of mini candy canes and a giant stack of folded papers.

  “It’s Jen,” I tell him helpfully. Yes, you know, Jen? The well-dressed, impeccably groomed girl you’ve walked by for the past five days?? But I smile brightly, confident he’ll ask me for a résumé as soon as he realizes how competent I am. “What can I do for you?”

  “Kathy started this project before she left, and I need you to finish it. We’re sending Christmas gifts to our advertisers. Tape one candy cane to each card and place each set in an individual FedEx box.”

  “But don’t seal the boxes, right?” I ask. Aha! My opening! Obviously I am clever, because I know these boxes shouldn’t be sealed. Otherwise, I’d have to reopen them to include their gifts. If he were only sending cards, I’d use envelopes because it costs less. Look at the way I think strategically! Hire me this instant!

  “Why wouldn’t you seal them?” Jerry gives me a puzzled look.

  “So we can include gifts later, of course.”

  He shakes his head. “There is no other gift. The candy cane and the card is their gift.”

I don’t understand. Why would anyone spend $20 per box to ship a penny’s worth of candy canes? That doesn’t make any sense. Surely this isn’t the only thing you’re sending your clients by way of holiday greeting. This is some kind of test, right? There’s got to be more, because…because…”

  Jerry’s face turns bright red. And, although I used to be a vice president, I realize I’m not going to be selling magazine advertising anytime soon.


  “So, Chuck, you’re saying when you have another open temp position that matches my skill set, you’ll call me and I don’t have to keep calling you? All right…OK…Um, when do you think that will be? Hmm…Well, it’s bound to snow in hell at some point, right? Talk to you then.”


  “Yes, I know my student loan payment is late…. No, I don’t intend to be one of those deadbeats who gets an education and then dances off scot-free. Are you even allowed to say stuff like that to me? You have no idea what kind of rent burden I’m under…. Oh, I see…. Yes…And what will happen to my credit rating? Yikes…OK, when? I guess I can auction off a couple of my purses and make a payment when they sell…Yes, thank you, getting a job is an excellent suggestion—I’m not sure why I didn’t think of it myself. Good-bye!”


  “That’s fantastic news! I’m so glad to hear it! When do you want me to start? Great…Outstanding…I’m really looking forward to getting back to work. Oh, I almost forgot. We never even talked about base salary…. Really…OK…You know, at some point during our three interviews, you might have mentioned there was an initial investment.…Um, no…Mr. Jackson, if I did have $5000 right now, I would shove it directly up your pyramid-scheming ass.”

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