It happens twice a day now. The alarm goes off at 7:30, and I roll out of bed, tripping over my imposing pair of steel-toed Grizzly Bear work boots on the way to the closet.
Through the misty gaze of sleep-gummed eyes, I extract a prim skirt and blouse that would make you look at me and remark, "Now, there"s a girl who"s ready to get some filing done!" I apply lipstick at red lights on my way to my job as a temporary office worker, and by the time I arrive in the parking lot, you"d think I"d been up since dawn making a list of goals to accomplish.
Eight hours later, I come home and collapse into a deep sleep. A dozen thieves could break into my apartment, pack up the furniture, cook themselves a gourmet dinner and I"d still be sleeping on the couch, oblivious. The alarm goes off at 7:30, I put on those Grizzly Bear boots, tie my hair into a bandanna and go off to work again, this time loading hundreds of heavy cardboard boxes into the back of a truck.
Working in an office and a shipping company at the same time feels like having two days packed into one. I have an alter ego just like Dr. Jekyl, except that instead of transforming into the murderous Mr. Hyde, I become Rosie the Riveter. Although I"m fortunate to have such a harmless alter ego, she"s still a far cry from my daytime persona. With a penchant for beef jerky and a tendency to wear the same sweat-encrusted pair of socks for a week at a time, she"s a world away from the reserved, freshly showered office temp who listens to NPR"s Morning Edition while sipping an iced latte from Starbucks.
I"ve always been a stoop-shouldered, pasty-skinned, spectacled kind of person, never prone to physical activity of any kind, let alone a job that my supervisor describes as "hard work, hard work and hard work again in case you forgot." However, when I walked to work in the morning I would look at the people filling in potholes in the road and think how silly it was to pay money to go to the gym. If I had their job, I"d be out in the fresh air all day. Plus, I"d get a good strength training session and perhaps some cardiovascular action if I worked really fast. So I filled out an application at the shipping company, and within two weeks I joined the ranks of the Belt B loaders.
Contrary to my naÔve expectations, working at the shipping company has not yielded the rippling bronze muscles I envied on the road crew. My muscles still jiggle more than they ripple, and working indoors long after the sun has set has not proven to be the best way to get a tan. On a positive note, my skin is no longer pasty white. Rather, it has become more like a Jackson Pollack painting, covered with expressive black and blue smears of bruises I earn every time a collected jam of boxes finally gathers enough weight to break itself free, hurtle down the chute and slam me against the back of a truck.
Besides bruises, though, I"ve picked up some insights into the similarities and differences between the lowliest jobs in white and blue collar settings. Here"s a breakdown.
The first day for an office temp usually begins with a tour. You meet a lot of people you may never see again, then you sit down at somebody else"s desk, a fill-in until Margaret or Elise gets off maternity leave. People may stop and say, "Why, you must be new here! C"mon! I"ll show you the break room!" Your boss shakes your hand and tells you it"s good to have you joining the team.
At the shipping company, the first person who spoke to me was a burly, bearded man pushing an immense trolley loaded with Pampers. "Welcome to hell!" he said.
Instead of shaking my hand, my supervisor at the shipping company pinched my bicep between thumb and forefinger like the witch checking Hansel and Gretel to see if they were plump enough to eat. Instead of telling me he was glad I joined his team, he said, "We"ll get some meat on those bones yet, girl, yes we will!"
At my current office assignment, I have two lists of numbers. My job is to look at one list and make sure the numbers match the other list. I do the same thing at the shipping company - I check the numbers on the boxes to make sure they match the numbers on a list of what belongs in the truck. At the office, I just put a purple X next to the numbers after I check them, but at the shipping company, I use the box to build what we loaders call a "wall."
Building the wall, too, parodies one aspect of my office work. When I"m not busy in the office, I play Tetris on my computer. Building a wall is very much the same concept. In the office, I yawn and click the mouse, but in dock 81, I lug an endless onslaught of 40-pound packages into their proper positions, fighting them off with all the desperate energy of a person drowning. Tetris is a game. Wall building is a survival skill.
At the office, I work in a cubicle roughly the size of an airplane lavatory. The 5-foot padded walls effectively isolate me from my co-workers, and sometimes days go by in which the only words we exchange are in response to the telephone ringing. I say, "Are you going to get that?" and my neighbor says, "Sure. I"ll get it."
The back of a truck is similar to a cubicle, but nobody lets the walls interfere with conversation. You can lean from the back of your truck bellowing, "You send another box down this chute, I"m going to slap your head, Earl!" and nobody thinks anything of it.
I haven"t tried to do anything like that in the office, but I"m pretty sure it wouldn"t go over very well.
In orientation, our instructor said we wouldn"t have a problem if we followed our training, but if we did things our own way we could end up like Patty, who lost a toe, or Bob, whose arm had been torn off by one of the belts. Then he held up a cardboard box with an orange label on it that read EXPLOSIVES. "If you see one of these," he said, "don"t touch it. We have an emergency response team that is trained to deal with that sort of thing."
That sounded important, so I made a note in my training manual: Don"t pick up EXPLOSIVES.
I thought of what happens if I make a mistake in the office. It gets filed away into an anonymous cabinet, and three months later someone finds it. Whoever this is writes an e-mail addressed to everyone in the office entitled "Review of procedures." Then we have a meeting in the break room, and people gossip for weeks trying to figure out who failed to repaginate the monthly reports or whatever. No matter how careless I am in the office, I never have to worry about anything more life threatening than carpal tunnel syndrome.
On bad days, I find myself wondering what impact it would have on human evolution if everybody in the world had my office job for several million years. I picture another species closely related to Homo sapiens, except that it would have a feeble, tadpole-like body, a shrunken cerebrum, squinting eyes resistant to the glare of a computer monitor and extraordinarily long, agile fingers good for typing. As for its temperament, it would be an incredibly petty, paranoid, self-interested, anti-social type unable to verbalize anything more emotionally significant than a comment about the weather. The more I work on my numbers, the more I fear I am beginning to resemble that creature.
I thought loading a truck would be dehumanizing since I would be working around a lot of machinery. Never too far from my mind is the thought that if they could invent a machine to do what I do at the shipping company, my job would vanish in a heartbeat.
It"s strange, but I never feel so human as I do when I"m loading a truck. The work is so Ö primal. When the heavy boxes tumble down the chute one after another, I can think only of creating order in the flat bottom truck that is my universe. I"m like a hobbit whacking goblins, the old man in the sea, paddling his boat. I suggest we add another dimension to the rubric of conflict (man against nature, man against man, man against himself) to include man against a shipment of televisions headed for South Central Indiana.
In my office job, I sometimes come to the realization that I"ve spent nearly an hour staring at a paperclip on my desk, thinking about being a spy. It"s a little fantasy I have. I like to pretend that even though I appear to be an ordinary office temp, the truth is that I speak a dozen languages, know how to disarm bombs and work as part of a sophisticated underground political network. For example, when I collate, I pretend that I"m replacing the number sheets on my desk with doctored number sheets my expert team created on high-tech computers in our subterranean headquarters.
I don"t have time to invent such stories when I work at the shipping company, but I don"t need to. The story is right there in front of me - I"m participating in it. Loading cardboard boxes into the back of a truck might not make for the most exciting drama in the world, but it is a struggle. And where there"s struggle, there"s a story.