IN THE EARLY SPRING of 2012, with my first book slated for publication a year out and a near empty balance in my Wells Fargo college checking account (at the very post-undergraduate age of 30), I found myself pursuing what most aspiring authors on the verge of poverty in an expensive city end up pursuing: a day job.
As a rule, I wouldn’t say I’m against work in principle; writing itself is a laborious procedure, requiring time, energy, concentration, deliberation—a slew of overwrought tropes referring to the ancient craft of essentially drawing shit (sometimes with actual shit) on whatever surface appears convenient.
But I am against whatever the hell I signed myself up for in March of last year.
Without a penny to my name, I was hired on at a call center in the SOMA district of San Francisco, working for a non-profit of gloriously dysfunctional proportions. The name I’ll keep to myself out of respect for the infirmed. For our purposes, let’s call it…Computer Barn.
After being referred by a friend of mine when voicing my desperation for cash, I ended up landing a two-part interview.
“My pet peeve is tardiness,” said my future boss (who we’ll call Thad), a fit, balding gay male in his forties with a failed dancing career, perpetually upturned collar, and lonely stare that reminded me of my third grade science teacher, a mirthless man with a beanie baby collection named Mr. Schmaltz. “Can you manage to be on time? On time to the second? I can’t stand waste. It makes me itch.”
“I am the most prompt person you will ever meet,” I lied, knowing that tardiness was a quality I embraced with near holy commitment. “I have never been late for a meeting in my life.”
I then told him that my house is covered in clocks.
On the hairline stroke of 12:30 pm I was interviewed by another Computer Barn representative, a thirty-five-year old gentleman dressed like a 19th century dandy with a homburg hat, mutton chops, and an antique pocket watch, who asked me about whether or not I could “handle the heat,” when “the going gets tough?” I responded, naturally, that if one can’t handle the heat he or she should “get out of the kitchen.” He seemed impressed by this, and snapped the lid on his pocket watch to consider the matter closed.
“Seems like we’ll be seeing more of you, Mr. Sattin,” he grinned, mutton chops in full bristle.
Passing the initial screening, I was led down a flight of stairs to the place where, if I became a full time employee, the magic would happen. This enchanted locale was in reality a drab, gray-carpeted hallway referred to, in the height of irony, as Hurricane Alley. In the very last row of this all-too-tumultuous storm front I was situated at a computer by future boss Thad and told that I’d have to perform a test.
“To see if you know the ingredients to what we’re cooking,” he said, ratcheting up the volume to what would become a frequent blasting of cooking analogies around Computer Barn, a place where, strangely enough, you could never bring food, for fear that, upon leaving to use the bathroom, you’d come back to find it stolen.
The test administered to probe whether I was savvy enough to maneuver the arcane world of computer technology was to sit at a PC and, in 20 minutes, manage to eke out a screen shot. Looking around for the punch line but finding none, I was able to accomplish the mission in 15 seconds. Thad was fucking floored.
“You are quite the jellybean,” he said.
Before I knew it I had landed myself a position as a full-time employee. Apparently other candidates were taken on as well, but since these troglodytic subjects were unable to master the Herculean task of copy/paste before time ran up, they were taken on as non-exempt. Thad had placed me at the top of the heap. I had won. I was an asskicker. A new job at Computer Barn as a costumer service representative was bestowed upon me for the whopping sum of $132 a day, an amount that might seem doable for a childless man in some parts of the country, but, in the Bay Area, still left you scrounging.
I truly understood the circle of hell I had stepped into on the first day I showed up for training. The office building was a re-upholstered car dealership with kitschy furniture and orange walls, a poetic vision of myopia in a neighborhood teeming with high-powered start-ups. In orientation, a kind but curiously overeager woman began our introduction to Computer Barn by sharing her steadfast belief that customer service was the cornerstone of the human experience. According to her, and her lead trainer (a middle aged man named Fred who’d ultimately be let go for reasons I’d likely be incriminated in court for sharing here), we, as customer service representatives, were shown glimpses of our future as the last great battalion in defense of civilization.
“You are the Night’s Watch, the Rebel Alliance, the Justice League,” Fred said with immutable confidence. “You are the first voice the customer hears when they call, and the last voice they’ll remember when they go to sleep at night.
Fred was a goateed bowler-looking type with slip-on shoes and a penchant for Big Macs. He had beat out 135 candidates to become proud leader of this band of overweight chair warriors. On the first day of training he shuffled about with the pigeon-toed gait of a general at a paintball arena, his arms pinned behind his back, his chest puffed out two inches too far, speaking with gusto about his days at AAA, when, as a young man, he once reached out on his own time to a woman he’d unintentionally misled on the cost of her policy.
“I live to please he who buys,” he said with a nostalgic twinkle of an old man looking back upon his wedding day. “And soon enough, you too will, too. Customer service is like helping the sick. We are phone doctors. We save lives.”
The training process, it turned out, to sculpt us into sparkling molds of customer friendly intelligence would take no less then six weeks, eight hours per day, for a grand total of 240 hours. Not until we were literally saturated with nearly two month’s worth of encyclopedic procedurals (6% of which I’d go on to actually practice in the job itself) would we be ready to face the voices on the other end of the line, a worthy number of whom would exclaim, quite exuberantly, how happy they were that we weren’t “fucking Indians.”
“You know I could be Indian, ma’am,” I ended up saying to one angry soul, attempting to defend the unrepresented party. “What you said sounds disrespectful.”
The woman, in a shaky Southern accent, replied, “Yea, but even if you were Indian, you wouldn’t be Indian Indian.”
Jobs like this, which deal with technology but, miraculously, require no technical expertise, attract a demographic like no other. I found out that the man dressed like the 19th century aristocrat who’d interviewed me, for instance, was one of the many Dickens’ Fair period fetishists (some of whom, endearingly, dressed up in a full Victorian garb every day for work, even if the typical attire at Computer Barn consisted of sweatpants and a Milwaukee’s Best sweatshirt) that worked alongside me. They were a merry bunch that appeared, by shear default of their dress, miserable in this utterly inelegant environment. Their company was far preferable to the opposite office polarity: borderline personality disorders with the social skills of Martian body snatchers.
One man, a shaved-headed near schizophrenic named Earl, who consistently wore black shirts tucked in over his silverback gorilla gut and spoke naught a word of known English to anyone on the floor, responding to questions like, “How are you?” with, “A mortar is fashioned from the teapot of the camera, if you know what I inquire,” sat in the cubicle next to mine. He also inexplicably led the department in terms of productivity along with a snarling blond haired woman who I saw screaming at herself on the street on the way to work two times a week.
“Are you looking to move up in this organization?” I once asked her, when partnered together on a team-building exercise concerned with upward momentum.
“Move up how?” she said, ripping open a bag of licorice, taking six, and stuffing them all into her mouth. “This is a free country. I’m a resident.”
Other workers ranged from the clinically resigned to the oddly ebullient, people (some who even held college degrees) that felt the mission of the organization itself—which was philanthropic—could be considered important enough to subject themselves to frequent abuse. Then, of course, there were a couple like myself who were simply flabbergasted at the sheer horror of our current state. How had we landed in this den of sadness? What would happen to us if we stayed? These were questions that came naturally as the months passed.
The department itself was run by two people, a woman who was never around whom we’ll call Charlene, and her number two, my collar-popping manager with a flare for screen shots, Thad. For a man with such a complex understanding of computers, however, Thad perceived some things with incomprehensible mystery. Facebook, for example, vexed him to tears. Being logged into the social application at work, in his eyes, rivaled physical assault.
“While you are here, you will work. You will do nothing but work,” he’d say to our entire department during the Monday meeting, to a group that consisted of costumed pompadours, psychotics, and a couple of ‘professional ghost hunters’ who snickered in the back row. “One infraction, we will go to my office. Two infractions, we’ll go to HR. Three infractions, you’ll pack your bags and go home.”
Thus was the mantra of Thad.
As if he were the Sherriff of fucking Nottingham he enlisted the aid of a lowly scheduler named Stew, an unpleasant, lanky man with a hateful sneer, chiseled abs, a chinstrap, and a complete lack of human compassion to carry out his whims. Stew, slinking through the aisles, led the prime efforts against socialization, crawling on all fours army-style to sneak up on unsuspecting employees.
“Open your browser,” he’d hiss into your ear, causing you to near bash him in the face with a coffee mug. “Let’s see what’s inside.”
“And if I refuse?” you’d ask.
“There is no refusing at Computer Barn.”
Movement was discouraged in general at work—the very ability to step away from your desk was treated with demerits and reprimands, making for a traumatized and trapped work force of fat-bellied blobs whose legs fell asleep and hair fell out. Our schedule was fashioned to adhere to the second. Even laughter itself was considered a waste of time.
“Quiet,” hissed Stew if we ever rose our voices an octave above despondent. Our efforts to communicate were snuffed with the same callousness in which an orphan master snaps the wrist in search of extra of gruel. “Quiet, now.”
My psyche, as might be guessed, became affected, unable to survive the adverse conditions of its daily habitat. I returned home every night after 11 hours of work and commute to another book I’d be too tired to continue writing and a wife I’d be too spent to support. All to contribute a scant bit of money to a savings that never grew. We’d end up shaking money out of the piggybank at the end of every month to reconcile the rent no matter how many hours I spent at the telephone. Shaking out our money while, at work, the shaved-head silverback would come up to me and say, “I want to make a movie; it stars you. We don’t need cameras. Our brains are organic prisms.” Eventually, I’d look back at him and, groaning, say: “That sounds like a great idea.”
After about a year and a quarter of Computer Barn my book neared, and then accomplished, publication. Opportunities began to arise. I realized that soon enough, with grace and luck, I’d be able to depart. I looked at Thad, wearing his constipated Facebook hunting look of conspiracy as he traipsed the hall, hands folded in a triangle before his abdomen.
“If I don’t leave soon,” I said to myself, as if possessed by some otherworldly coven, “He’ll make me one of them.”
I truly knew it was time for me to quit, however, when a woman on the phone told me she was frustrated with installing our equipment.
“I don’ t like your download procedure,” she said, a little shrilly, but within her rights as a customer. “It doesn’t work. It’s difficult.”
“Difficult?” I said, settling into a hoarse whisper, sounding little different from monstrous Stew. The word itself struck a flame in me. I felt myself sprouting horns and a tail, my fingernails curling into claws. “Thousands of people do it every day, ma’am,” I said. “So maybe what you’re finding difficult is your ability to read.”
“I mean reading, ma’am. Making sounds with words you read on pages.”
“I want to speak with your supervisor.”
“I am the supervisor.”
“There can be only one.”
I hung up the phone and found my cube-mates staring at me as if I’d just thrown a grandma at a baby.
“Tough call,” I said, smiling awkwardly. Earl popped his head up above the cubicle to stare. “I’ve got to get some fresh air.”
The next day I put in my two weeks.
When the news got out, I celebrated with the co-workers I’d forged, in the previous months, a sad, burned-out camaraderie. They congratulated me on making my bail, told me I was flying the coop. My supervisor, an elderly mother figure who’d especially been suffering under the constraints of Thad’s regime turned to me and said, “You make sure you get what these fuckers owe you. They’re a bunch of savage thieves so make sure you get every penny”
What had I been doing for the past year? I’d been sitting in a chair and getting paid little to suffer the complaints of others. As I put in my two weeks and cackled internally, I did remember for a moment that other people everywhere had it worse every day. To sit inside, to have a warm environment and a cup of bitter coffee, was all some could hope for. I, an ungrateful artist, an aesthetic consumed with the importance of his own reality, the promise of a book, of a life of creative pursuits, had grown to realize that his expectations were tinged by callousness towards the ordinary. Behind my griping lurked an honest disdain towards the way in which humans feel they must operate in order to survive.
One of my co-workers, an unshakable optimist who dressed like a twelve-year-old in navel -high sweatpants, an endless supply of white socks and pool shoes told me, during one of his anti Computer Barn outbursts, that, “Not everyone gets to look forward to a book being released, you know. For some people, this job isn’t evil. It’s refuge”
But still, I couldn’t stay. Not for Thad. Not to get sucked into the vortex of Earl, with his manic meanderings and gum toothed smile. No, this Friday I will emerge from the madness. I will be renewed, or perhaps slightly broken. Either way, I will be equipped with new nightmares. I have learned what it is to hate your job.