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July 31, 2006

  • Kamikaze Temp
  • In the fall of 1996, I moved to Britain and began working in a series of temp jobs. As secretaries go, it turned out I was pretty good at typing up dictated letters (British offices in the 1990s were still harbouring the illusion that middle management should never operate a computer) and I was good at all the other requisite tasks as well. I had a couple of great long-term assignments where I was highly regarded.

    But then the great drought happened—there was no secretarial work in the offing, anywhere. Desperate to somehow keep paying my rent and a flurry of other bills (it was the first time I truly lived on my own) I told Alison and Liz, the unbelievably good looking consultants at my temp agency that I’d take anything.

    And so eventually something came in the ‘anything’ category. It was a job at the head office well-known chain of high street shops. Their offices were on Marylebone Road in London, just a couple of blocks from the Baker Street tube. I would be working in logistics with the fashion buyers for kids’ clothes.

    I think my job was in data entry, putting in tracking information on various garment items as they were shipped around the country from the warehouse to stores and back. I think. the truth is, I don’t know what the hell I was actually doing. I was never given any great detail or indeed given any details whatsoever. It mostly involved entering different alpha numeric codes into a program that was written in the days of Fortran and required the 1978 equivalent of the Rosetta Stone to decipher—a translation key long gone.

    Now I’ve been in a few ‘Chauncey Gardner’ jobs—jobs where, like Peter Sellers’ character in Being There, everyone thinks you know what is going on when in fact you haven’t a clue (indeed, I once temped in the Ontario Provincial Government for a whole year in an area on that basis). But this took it to a whole new level. My job was to take printouts of information and then take codes from it printed in tiny type and punch them into the system not knowing what they meant or indeed understanding how the program itself worked. (Or why they would spend the money on someone to take information derived from one computer system and entering into another instead of spending the money on making both systems compatible with each other—but then Oracle and SAP were only in their infancy then.) To this day, for all I know I was actually involved in an MI5 scheme to enter the code for a thermonuclear device. I’ve never been in a job where I knew so little. And training was non-existent, partially because (I’ve come to realize) anyone else was probably just as much in the dark as I was.

    And that might have been all right if the people I shared an office with weren’t so insufferable. The logistics department was an entry-level position and people were hired out of college, so we’re talking about a job where 19 year-olds are in real positions of responsibility. And that’s great and enabling for them, but they still acted as though they were in sixth form: they were intensely cliquish, annoyingly immature and, in that way that immature high school cliques do, they pretty much sized me up and decided to either wind me up or deliberately snub me. The result was that I was 26 and I was back in high school again.

    The co-worker who sat next to me, the one who was nominally the one supervising me, was a kid who was barely no longer in need of using acne remedies. His way of winding me up was to give me a hard time about being Canadian. Now, practically every workplace I toiled in Britain did that—never quite getting that they all sounded appallingly ignorant—but this guy took the cake.

    “Have you met any Red Indians?” He once asked me.
    “They’re called Native Canadians or Aboriginals,” I explained patiently, “‘Red Indian’ is considered to be pejorative.”
    He continued undeterred—or simply didn’t understand what the term ‘pejorative’ meant—“Do Red Indians still wear headdresses?”.

    Obviously, he was trying to get a rise, but he was also a grade-A ingnoramus. But then, by that point I thought the whole lot of them were wankers. And, faced with that, being treated like I was in high school, I responded with the maturity of a teenager myself and didn’t exactly behave in an exemplary fashion. I was sullen and just a touch belligerent. I spent way to much time on the phone making personal calls (this was in the days before offices had the Internet). My overall attitude was somewhere inbetween “I don’t give a damn” and “just four more hours to go”.

    Years later, I watched the British version of The Office and I was transported to this particular job—doing time in a job for £6.50 an hour (a considerable reduction from past assignments, another source of contention) on meaningless labour with people I despised.

    Well, I didn’t despise all of them.

    The manager of the logistics department was a woman named Sue. She was tall, blonde and had beautiful eyes. She was around my age and was really friendly and spoke to me (in a Lancashire accent that I found lovely) as though I were a peer. She was easily the prettiest woman in the room, though I hardly had any interaction with her at all.

    Now, like all British offices, there were many opportunities for extra-curricular socializing, usually on Thursday nights at a bar not far from work. It was, to use a wonderfully British phrase, a giant piss-up. I didn’t participate very often, but for some reason one early November evening I went to one such function that had an unusually high turnout of employees. Even Sue was there.

    Now, the passage of time, and the amount of alcohol consumed that evening has blurred a lot of the incidental details, but I looked over at Sue and thought, “Why not?” and somehow over an hour and a half I managed to not only ingratiate my way into the group of people she was talking with, I managed to get into a position where it was just the two of us talking. We were seated at one of the galley like tables that lined the room. Just the two of us. Talking. For a very long time.

    And it was a great conversation, one of those conversations that starts with all the neutral topics and then grew ever more personal and friendly. I talked about Canada, she talked about where she grew up. We talked about our career aspirations and personal goals and politics. It was one of those wonderful moments where you know the conversation you’re having is actually going somewhere—whether to a proper date or a one-night stand is the only real question.

    Around half an hour in, I bought her a vodka and orange juice and myself a lager. The barman didn’t want to use my Switch card on a bill under £10. I told him, “Buddy, I think I’ve got a chance with a woman here.” He let me use my card.

    Around the hour or so mark (time admittedly is something of an elastic concept here) of ever-deepening conversation, I excused myself to go to the loo. I remember splashing some water on my face in the mirror and saying to myself, “Oh my god, she’s actually interested in me. For the love of God, don’t blow it.”

    I came back to the table and we resumed our conversation. Everything indicated it was all going well—her body language, her manner—I was trying to figure out in my head whether to ask her if she wanted to go somewhere for coffee. And just as it was going better than any conversation I had with a woman up until this point in my life, she suddenly stiffened and smiled awkwardly and said “I’m going to talk to those people over there.” She shook my hand and she was gone. End of conversation.

    To this day, I’ve tried to figure out what happened. As best I can tell, she probably became very suddenly aware that she was being noticed by other co-workers (I certainly saw a few looking over at us). Perhaps she realized “Ohmigod I’m letting myself be chatted up by the temp.” and what that actually meant in terms of status. (I doubt it was a question of appropriateness; offices in Britain simply weren’t that evolved a decade ago). Or maybe there was something else. All I do know is that I was left at the table more confused than I’d ever been.

    One thing’s for sure, the next day at work it was clear everyone knew about it. You could tell that people were talking about me in hushed tones—the Canadian temp who tried to pull the manager was the hot item of gossip.

    But once the gossip subsided, I found my banished to the logistics department version of Siberia. No one, and I mean no one talked to me. Even the winding up stopped. I was persona non grata. I had clearly crossed a line. And Sue avoided me like I had ganglia growing off my face. I took the hit to my self-esteem with graciousness—I started buying bags of toffee at the Thornton’s at the Baker Street tube and consuming them in one go. And I talked even more on the phone.

    Eventually, the lovely Alison at my temp agency called to tell me the assignment was over. It wasn’t a surprising development—the work was seeming to dry up as well—indeed, I was a little bit relieved to hear I would be released from H.M. Logistics Gaol.

    My last day, the kid who was, nominally, my supervisor looked as though he felt a little bit guilty, particularly about the mass-shunning. He said, awkwardly, “Look, you know, this sort of stuff just happens, you know. It is just what it is.” I suppose when it comes down it it, he was right. Sometimes you get a great job where everything clicks. And sometimes you find yourself stuck in a meaningless job you’re not any good at and you feel like you’re repeating high school. It is just what it is.

    If I had the maturity or the benefit of hindsight, I suspect I might have behaved better. Or at least lightened up a bit about it. And yet, at the same time, I have to say that if you want to crash and burn in a dead-end temp assignment, flirting with the boss ain’t a bad way to go. Trust me on this.

    Posted by graeme | (0) Comments | Permalink

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