Developers had constructed a new shopping center in Queens called Prometheus Park Mall, and when it required a chain bookstore, Brimmer’s Books & Music boldly stepped forward to claim the mantle. Though they were contractually obligated to open a fully-functioning store within three weeks, all they had at present was a large, empty building layered with flourescent lights and veal-colored carpet. They began by hiring two-dozen high school dropouts at minimum wage, but after a week of unpacking found themselves desperately behind schedule. A squad of “temp” ringers were called in to save the day, and when I received word from my agency, I was more than happy to sign on.
* * *
At the time, I was living with my sister in a roach-infested Brooklyn slum that happened to charge extortionate rent. Daily life resembled the classic scene from the cartoons where two buddies are furiously bailing water out of their lifeboat at a rate just slower than the rising swell of the ocean. We were young, but we didn’t feel it.
One day, as we were perusing the want-ads in the Village Voice, my sister remarked that in spite of four college degrees between us, neither was qualified to work a New York City car wash. (They required two years New York City car wash experience.)
Eventually, we were lucky enough to fall in with a temporary employment agency, and though we shared a single cell phone (even more of a logistical nightmare than it sounds), we stayed afloat for one month. Then two. And so began the Great Temp Era: earning ten to twelve dollars an hour, I found myself engaged in a variety of alternatingly mundane and bizarre scenarios, often involving a component of manual labor (I felt doomed to an eternity of heavy lifting in dress clothes).
* * *
It took two trains and a bus to deposit me at Prometheus Park, the Glendale ghost town where I’d agreed to spend twelve hours a day for the next two weeks. It looked like an abandoned retirement community: four generic white buildings surrounding a cul-de-sac and filled in with a few freshly-planted trees that hadn’t quite taken yet. The empty façades were covered in sheets of plain brown paper and cheerful placards promising stores to come. The only location already open for business was a Jimmy Firecracker’s, a chain burger joint that attempted to recreate the 1950s aesthetic. I figured I might eat lunch there one of these days if I had any extra cash.
Ninety percent of the time, I packed my lunch for work: peanut butter and jelly. I never woke up early enough in the morning to make the sandwiches, so I’d prepare them the night before. This meant, without exception, that the bread was soggy with jelly perspiration by lunchtime. I suppose I could have awoken about five minutes earlier each day and made the sandwich then, but dammit, I needed those five minutes. You have no idea how much I needed those five minutes. More than likely, I’d been up late the night before drinking forties with my sister and watching bad Italian horror movies. And I wouldn’t––couldn’t give that sort of behavior up; it was the only freedom that remained for a man living below the poverty level.
The two-dozen high school dropouts and the two-dozen temps lined up for work. With all of us dejected and clad in polo shirts, it felt like a school assembly––not the most pleasant flashback to be experiencing at seven o’clock in the morning (or at any other time). There were four handlers for a crew of forty-eight; they would be the managers of this place once it was up and running, but for now they were plainly nervous. Biting their nails and pacing around, they knew their necks would be on the chopping block if the store didn’t open on schedule. Still, they wasted everyone’s time with an icebreaker. “What’s the last book you read?” The other temps’ answers came on down the line––Didion, Franzen, Murakami, Chabon––and I struggled to think of what to say. It had been at least a month or two. I tried to concoct something clever or impressive, but time ran out and I answered truthfully: “I’ve been stressed and working so much, I don’t really have time to read anymore.”
The work was simple, and if the hours hadn’t been so long, it might have even been fun. I had the weekend off, too (which the dropouts didn’t, because they had to report for Team Orientation on those days). We unloaded boxes and shelving units from a series of trucks and put them wherever the strawbosses told us to. A de facto order began to manifest itself within the smaller work-teams, the temps naturally taking charge because they were anywhere from five to fifteen years older than their colleagues. Whenever a temp would show initiative, one of the strawbosses would ask whether they were a temp or a full-timer. Invariably, the answer was “temp.” There was something amusing in the crestfallen expressions that were soon to follow, but in a way I did feel bad for them.
After the shelves were built (most of them snapped together with tiny wooden pegs, like the cheapest fittings from IKEA), we were assigned to separate sections for shelving and alphabetization. I ended up in Romance, working alongside two temps I grew to like.
There was Tim, a scraggly thirty-something with tattoo sleeves and a kind of dry, joke-book wisdom that offset his broadly disagreeable demeanor. The man truly didn’t give a shit. He reminded me of my middle school stoner friends who wore black hoodies and slouched in the back of the classroom, making disparaging comments––the type of student who is the biology teacher’s worst nightmare on cat-dissection day. Tim had been temping for almost a decade, and the lack of effort he put into even simple alphabetization was nearly inspiring.
My other companion was Alphonse, a bitchy, gangly, model-slash-actor who interrupted the work every fifteen minutes to drink a cup of ice-cold water from the cooler. He said it was necessary for his metabolism: supposedly ice-water every fifteen minutes shocked the body into staying thin. He was extremely likable, and his constant narration and grave concerns about paper cuts and tearing cuticle beds continued to crack us up without fail.
I felt somewhat timid in the face of these large personalities, so I would only pipe in when I found a particularly hilarious-looking Harlequin romance, or could read aloud an exceptionally silly passage. There was The Bride’s Baby, In Heat: Mating Call, Handcuffed to the Sheikh, The Lumberjack’s Lady, The Sheikh’s Unsuitable Bride, Cinderella and the Sheikh, Millionaire’s Jet Set Babies, The Baby Swap Miracle, Baby Bonanza, Accidental Baby (Expecting!), Expectant Bride, The Midwife, Her Pregnancy Surprise, Expecting Royal Twins!, and Make Room for Baby (from the “Accidental Dads” series), among others. It was sort of shocking how many of the books centered on Sheikhs or child-rearing, though I never once found one that combined the two subjects. Was there an entire fetishistic, strip mall-frequenting subculture hiding beneath our noses? Hordes of women dying to be impregnated with the bastards of fly-by-night millionaires? I shelved and shivered slightly, contemplating the target audience. But all the joking around kept the time flowing freely.
Tim continued to shelve without regard to the alphabet, and Alphonse continued to spend most of his time away from his post, but I lived in deathly fear of being caught by the strawbosses while reading one of the books or sharing a particularly evocative title. I kept telling myself that I had to retrain my mind––I was a temp now, for God’s sake. Alphonse and Tim don’t care, so why do I still live in fear of my handlers, overwhelmed and miserable as they might be?
I wondered if perhaps some behaviors are impossible to unlearn. Mine were “external passivity” and “a deference to authority.” Only inside would the ocean rage. But the ocean was calm for now; the job was simple and the company lighthearted.
* * *
The shifts came and went, and when our (thirty minute) lunch “hour” came around, Tim and Alphonse would invite me to dine with them at Jimmy Firecracker’s.”I’ll go with you one of these days,” I said, but I always packed and wandered the empty parking lot, wondering how a temp could afford to eat out every day. I’d pick at my mushy sandwich, sit on a yellow concrete bollard and stare up at a sky of deep autumn blue. The days were slipping away.
* * *
Though they lacked confidence and maturity, I came to be impressed by the attitudes of the dropouts. It’s unfortunate that the drive and enthusiasm of youth is so often wasted on menial labor. It never lasts long, that bushy-tailed gusto: a few years, a few jobs, a few shifts––then it crumbles away, like sandstone battered into dust by a harsh wind. One has the idea that it’s the sort of resource that could be harnessed early and put to a better purpose.
A similar line of thinking could be applied to the temps: most of them were well-educated but hopelessly apathetic, serving a few hours of their sentence here and there in order maintain the illusion of freedom and the subsidy of their dreams, those one-in-a-million shots that begin to curdle after a decade unachieved. Like a coworker of mine once said, the longer you temp, the harder it is to break out…and some temps never make it.
* * *
It was the final day of my assignment at Brimmer’s, and we’d managed to do a fine job.The store was ready to open, and there was tangible relief among the strawbosses. Of course, Brimmer’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy five years later and liquidated all of its outlets, including the one I’d helped build, but none of us knew that at the time. All I knew was that I’d had two full weeks of steady work at long hours and had earned myself a splurge lunch with Tim and Alphonse at Johnny Firecracker’s. As we crossed the cul-de-sac and entered the restaurant, I checked and saw that I had precisely twenty dollars in my pocket.
I ordered a burger and a glass of tap water. With tax and tip it would come to about ten dollars, and that was all I was comfortable spending. Tim and Alphonse didn’t order extravagantly by any means, but they asked for shakes and fries and all the deliciously sleazy extras I couldn’t afford but dearly wanted.
Our waiter was skinny and eager, and he was very, very young, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. Tim and Alphonse were relieved that this was the final day of the assignment. They complained heavily about the workload, and I expressed the idea that it wasn’t so bad. They said that there were far easier temp jobs out there, one simply had to be patient. I said I couldn’t afford to be patient––I was getting called into jobs at such a sluggish rate that it was very difficult for me to stay afloat.
“Well, how many agencies you belong to?” asked Alphonse.
“Just one,” I said.
His eyes widened in disbelief. “Girl…that’s disgraceful!”
“How many do you belong to?” I asked.
“Seven…no, eight,” said Alphonse.
“I think six. I got fired from a couple; used to be like, ten,” said Tim.
“I guess I have some catching up to do.”
“Now’s a bad time. Always slows down in late fall and winter. Probably won’t heat up really for four, five months. All the good jobs’ll go to the senior temps.”
Senior temps. What a concept! Things were not going well for my sister, either, and we’d actually set aside the next day, Saturday, for a fresh and furious survey of craigslist and the newspapers. Looking for work, in my opinion, is even worse than the most degrading of jobs. Most importantly, it’s unpaid.
“I got a great thing lined up next week at Javits Center,” announced Tim, proudly.
“Oooh, what is it?” asked Alphonse, with a hint of jealousy.
“I get to sit at a booth for a place called Bangkok Imports and do nothing.”
“I did it before for ’em. Just listened to my iPod all day. Paid twelve an hour.”
I was impressed. I decided that if I survived until next spring, I would apply to as many temp agencies as I could. Perhaps Easy Street was in sight, after all.
We finished eating, and as our waiter printed out the check, Tim and Alphonse laid some money down and left to smoke a cigarette. Not being a smoker, I remained in the booth, twiddling my thumbs. The check arrived and it came to, including tax, thirty-four dollars. With tip, we owed around forty-one. Since Tim and Alphonse weren’t back yet, I decided to see what they’d left and start sorting out the cash. As I counted, an awful sensation began to extract itself from the pit: they’d left eleven dollars when in fact they owed thirty-two, and all of a sudden it struck me with certainty that they weren’t coming back. Even if I left my twenty, we were still short on the bill itself, tip notwithstanding. Looking around at the glossy corporate trappings, I could tell this was the sort of establishment that would absolutely force our adolescent waiter to pay the difference on a “dine n’ dash.” I had to decide what to do, and quickly.
I laid down the twenty and made for the exit, striding as swiftly as I could. Our waiter intercepted me. I froze––this criminal didn’t want to run anymore.
“Thank you for choosing Johnny Firecracker’s.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. He looked confused. Poor kid. He’d be a little sadder and wiser in a few minutes.
Back at Brimmer’s, I met up with Tim and Alphonse.
“You make it out of there alright?” asked Tim.
“We thought you were right behind us,” said Alphonse.
“Didn’t you see me wink?” asked Tim. “Like take a ‘smoke break?’“
“No,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Wait, did he bust you?”
“No,” I said.
“You’ll get the hang of it. It’s a temp thing. One of the best things about temping, actually. Never pay for a full-price meal on the last day. I mean, you leave something on the table so they don’t bust you before you leave, but that’s the way you play the game.”
“Oh,” I said.
I was withdrawn for the rest of my shift. I didn’t look anybody in the eye. Before lunch, I’d been planning on exchanging numbers and staying in touch with Tim and Alphonse, but as it turned out, we didn’t even say goodbye at the end of the day. On the subway ride home, I realized it was Halloween. A guy dressed as the Burger King “king” slouched next to me and drank out of a flask, quietly. I respect that. Halloween used to be my favorite holiday.
I went home to my own horrorshow. The roaches were in full bloom.