back to the Black Table
     
  LIFE AS A LOSER #83: "TEMPORARY INSANITY."  
   
   
 

 You can plan a pretty picnic, but you canít predict the weather - OutKast

A woman named Hillary meets me at the reception desk. She is probably about 30 but looks older, harried, helplessly distracted. She asks me what time it is, and before I have a chance to answer, she asks me what day it is. Itís Thursday. That, for sure, I know.

She takes me through an inexplicably locked metal door to a backroom that is clearly in the midst of a chaotic move. There are half-opened boxes, computers that arenít hooked up to their monitors and a cubicle strewn with seven stacks of paper covering any open space.

Hillary sighs, pats me on the back and says, ďOK, this is yours.Ē

I was to take a sheet from each of the seven stacks, place them together and stuff them into a pre-addressed envelope. I would then place the envelopes in yet another stack, and then repeat the process about, oh, 700 times. Sheet, sheet, sheet, sheet, sheet, sheet, sheet, shuffle, straighten, open flap, slip sheets in, close flap, stack. Seven hundred times. When I finished, I was to cart the envelopes to a postage machine, where I would run them through and place them in another box.

I am almost 26 years old, college-educated, with work experience at two of the oldest, most respected publications in the United States. I have helped start and sustain a moderately successful, reasonably well-regarded Web magazine, where I write a weekly column that has a smattering of loyal readers. I have a book agent and a publishing company interested in my manuscript, lest it ever be completed. I once made more than $50,000 a year. I was writing for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch my senior year of college. I have interviewed Ewan McGregor, Sen. Dick Durbin, Hunter S. Thompson, Whitey Herzog, Reese Witherspoon, Bob Knight and former presidential candidate Paul Simon. Um ... Iím taller than the average person, am considered by some to be a good kisser and typically beat my friends in computer Jeopardy! I got a goddamn 34 on my ACTs. And I am stuffing envelopes for six hours, all to earn $54 (before taxes), sitting in a nondescript office with people I donít know who will not say a word to me all afternoon. And I am loving it.

I am temping. I am not doing this as a lark, or as some sort of self-indulgent journalistic exercise. I am doing it because I am broke and I need the money. Thatís the simple fact of the matter. Thing is ... six hours of dreary, lonely busy work provided me the most satisfying weekday Iíve had in months. I was one mean envelope-packing motherfucker, I tell you. I flew through those things, didnít mislabel or mispostage a single package and even received a compliment from Hillary (ďYouíre much faster than the last temp,Ē she said, watching me beam with pride.) It was a most fulfilling six hours; I just worked. Iíd missed it. I worked so hard, in fact, that the job, which was supposed to take two days, was done in just those six hours. Thatís good because it speaks well for a generations-tested Midwestern work ethic; itís bad because it meant they didnít need me to come in on Friday, which meant I wouldnít get paid that day. But it was work, and it made me feel needed for the first time in a while.

The real question: How, exactly, did I get here? Which is worse: being forced to temp because of severe financial constraints and an apparent inability to find a job even remotely related to my field of expertise ... or finding that a day of temping is the highlight of my week?

I have no problem with temping, or people who temp, please donít get me wrong. Itís honest work, and in wintry economic climates, itís a way to make quick money, which, of course, is why Iím doing it. But itís hard not to get hung up on the fact that temping is something youíre supposed to do when youíre just starting out, when youíre trying to meet people and get your foot in the door. Iím a bit old for it now.

In August 1999, I had given up on moving to New York. I had assumed that The New York Times, where Iíd interviewed three weeks earlier, had filled their position and would not come calling. After more than a year of fidgeting and imagining a life in a place bigger than St. Louis, I sighed and accepted that was where I would be. I began to enjoy it there. I had a great job, a beautiful girlfriend and many close friends. This place wasnít so bad. Hell, I could go to Cardinals games anytime I wanted. I reached that level of equilibrium, where my social and professional life were both converging pleasantly. I had found, as they say, kwan.

And then The New York Times called out of nowhere, and they offered me the job, and darn it, it was The New York Times and I just couldnít turn them down. So I took the job and bolted, leaving the friends, the girl and the Cardinals behind. It seemed like a smart move. Secure job, new opportunities, creative environment. Even my family, typically disgusted by all things New York, was supportive; for Christmas, my grandmother gave me a copy of the Times dated October 10, 1975, the day I was born. And I was qualified here; I deserved to be here. It was the logical conclusion of all that had come before.

OK, fine. Iíve made some mistakes here, and Iíve been wasteful and irresponsible, and Iíve done a few things that probably didnít score positive karma points, if you believe in that crap. But ... jeez. Uncle. Mercy. I give. What has happened in the last nine months - the shriveled job market, the constant layoffs, the demoralizing indifference to the fact that I live and walk and breathe - is enough to break a manís spirit. And how long am I willing to take it?

While Iíve spent a year-and-a-half idling here in New York, just trying to keep my head above water, everyone out there is still going, moving on with their lives. Thereís so much living going on. Two of my closest friends from St. Louis, since Iíve left, have met people they might very well end up spending the rest of their lives with. Iíve met each of these significant others once, and to be honest, Iím not sure I could pick either out of a lineup. I feel like Iíve missed so much out here, chasing something, I donít even know what anymore.

What am I bashing my head against the wall for, anyway? Currently, Iím basing my immediate future on the possibility of a two-month job doing lousy work for a magazine I would have never even thought of working for a year ago. If I end up catching a break and getting that, whoís to say I wonít be going through this exact same thing in two months? And for what? The right to pay too much for rent? The constant harmony of car alarms? One of my best friends when I moved to New York now no longer speaks to me. Is it because of me? Him? Did the city do something to one or both of us when we moved here? Has it changed me irrevocably? Does it matter?

Maybe it just didnít work. It was worth a shot; everyone always says you should live in New York at some point in your life, and then you should leave. When will the point hit that I just give it up? I never could have predicted this would be where I was a year-and-a-half into this journey. Will it get worse or better a year-and-a-half from now? And where the hell else would I go anyway? What would I do? Could I swallow my pride and go work in PR or advertising? And why would they hire someone with such obvious contempt for their industries anyway? Maybe I could teach. I donít even think you need a certificate to do that anymore.

I just donít know what the next step is. Perhaps thatís what temping really is for. For people who have no idea, not a goddamned clue, what theyíre doing with their lives. People for whom a weeklong job is a huge commitment. People in limbo, between two phases in their life, neither all that appealing, treading water, waiting for life to tell them what to do next. Never thought I was one of those people, but, well, hey, I also never thought Iíd be so damned good at stuffing envelopes, either.

 

*BT*

Life as a Loser runs every week. Join the Life as a Loser discussion group at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/onecrappycolumnist.