Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Broken Men

TAGS: None

Working overtime at the annex – one of the slowly atrophying appendages of the gangly octopus strewn across Midtown – as part of the ongoing musical chairs project for one department or another, I was under the tutelage this time of a portly jigsaw-toothed Barbadian who goes by the name Lefty Communist (or Gay Communist, as the case may be; political and social liberalism seemingly inextricable in the two-party system of US politics) whose niche was, effectively, liaison between this satellite and the main office.

It became readily apparent why: It kept him away from direct supervisors, and it kept direct supervisors away from him. He had steadfastly determined to lower management’s expectations of his productivity so as to keep in line with his income, which has stagnated these past few years – but then, for whom has it not? Nevertheless, this personal work slowdown, this one-man strike, is tolerated due to a confluence of reasons largely predicated on bureaucratic malaise and confrontational disengagement. Discontent can become contagious, after all; best not to poke the beast.

In the annex, however, he’s transformed from this mumbling, work-averse lump to the Pied Piper. Almost immediately the initial assigned task is put on the back burner and instead he collects maintenance men, local contractors and day laborers for a multiple-floor odyssey for the mana of the working stiff: Free food. He knows what he wants, and seeks it out with a single-minded focus for which he has attained a reputation and followers. Call it one of the perks of the position: Like sharks, we bottom-feed; snapping up the slow and that which is not long for this world, with little or no regard for its original provenance.

The salaried workers get a host of noshables so as to keep them in the office, some catered and some dry and keepable, like Dilbert’s food pellets or Futurama’s Bachelor Chow, most of which gets tossed out around four in the afternoon. Show up right before then and it’s a smorgasbord of bagels, wraps, coffee, soda, trail mix, cereal, fruit – if it’s prepackaged it’s just stolen wholesale. Indeed, for a corporation with no loyalty to its staff, why show deference to established convention? Hell, nobody espouses this position more than the salaried workers themselves, who actively exploit any boon today knowing full well there may not be any tomorrow.

The same is true for the day laborers. The motley crew he has assembled for this task come from several different contractors and employment agencies and, while they all more or less know each other, they jump from one or the next like rats trying to figure out which ship has the fewest leaks. This week Weehawken. Next week Trenton. The following week White Plains. An existence that sees a lot of reverse commutes, odd hours and, you know it, free food. Such and so got a good gig as a locksmith for X company, $80k and union; such and so got laid off last week. Sad thing, too – he was saving up for a vacation. It’s okay, though; he’s living with his girlfriend so can survive long enough to land another gig or three.

It’s certainly a common enough feeling: One of my work boots, after this annoying and near-endless winter, has sprung a leak, and I can’t get it fixed until I’ve dug out of the hole I’m in thanks to the string of bad deals with moonlighting gigs two months ago. The toll the jobs are taking on my wardrobe is real enough, and the appearance of professionalism is more important than actual professionalism, so as such free food is now part of the budgetary process.

Lefty Communist is cancer, though. A man mentally checked out, stuck in his own bitterness, poison by association. A blood cell stuck in the calcified arteries of an unhealthy industry. It’s easy to see how one gets like him. It’s easy to see how enough of him will eventually bring the system down, and it’s clear to see how if that happens it will be due to the policies of the system, not men like him. But to accept and adopt his means is to be brought down with him. Just as one can see generations of children abandoned by the school system like so much chaff, so too can one see men burned to nothingness by the work system, for a lot of heat but little progress.

Unworlds

TAGS: None

It took a bit of looking to find it, alone along empty streets of no-man’s-land bound by train yards and highway cloverleafs. Highly rated on Yelp – a dubious pedigree, considering the crossed purposes of for-profit standard-bearers – this supposed venue boasted a critically acclaimed mixologist (strike one) and otherwise acceptable if ill-defined atmosphere. She was curious as to its provenance, so off we braved the lack of 7 train service past Queensboro Plaza, owing to the East River being under construction or some such; those station loudspeakers are still rather garbled.

The only marker amidst the darkened empty warehouses of its existence was a spartan neon sign flashing BAR, BAR, BAR in that manner evocative of cheap faux-wainscoting, shot & beer combos and ubiquitous AC/DC on the jukebox. Perhaps at one point it was exactly that, but at this day the inside could not be more different. We were immediately confronted with a line ending at a surly black bouncer, beyond which lay the skinniest possible false-nostalgic impression of a steampunk gin joint under which the brightest light could not have been more than 40 watts. Perhaps this was to hide the prices on the primarily vodka-based fruit juices on offer, or the fact that the bar could not be more than six feet from the opposite wall. It was hard to estimate how packed it was because all of two people together would have made it difficult to pass by.

The uniformly white, upper middle class transients that comprised the venue’s clientele hammered the point home well enough: It was the best bar in the neighborhood because it was the only bar in the neighborhood, which is just as well, because it wasn’t a neighborhood. Stuck near the bathroom with the choice of getting on a separate waiting list for the tiny seating area or pushing to the bar, we took the third option and left. The bouncer took notice of the expression on her face, a fellow traveler shocked by this Brave New World, and with a shrug commiserated: “I know.” We made our leave to a night lit up by harsh blue lights dangling off of cranes hooked to half-finished 40-story condominiums, a surreal world in Long Island City made possible through Bloombergian downzoning of just about everywhere else and the fact that empty warehouses don’t vote. It was the kind of place you could spend well over a million on a shoebox and not have a supermarket within a mile of home. Buy stock in FreshDirect and Seamless while you still have the chance.

She talked of a mutual friend who had sought to buy into this new edifice of artifice, which required necessarily doubling up to afford the egregious costs but came with a surprisingly long laundry-list of restrictions: Leases which stipulated approved pets, approved usage of the advertised amenities, approved guests. One would think of meddling petty-bourgeois landlords as described by Kafka, haranguing the hapless protagonist for returning home at odd hours, or perhaps of the board members of West Coast suburban subdivisions that enforce fence height and house paint. The property manager’s ideal tenant must presumably be a cypher of the everyman, with no friends or hobbies or interests except paying on time, and indeed preferably absent altogether.

Actually, that describes 432 Park Avenue perfectly.

We reverted to a night on the town in Jackson Heights, the perennial opposite: The land of casual racism between social equals – equally disenfranchised – the bubbling burps of the American melting pot, the drone control of the corporate underclass. Sitting in a Midtown elevator listening to a white-haired Puerto Rican elevator man tell a black porter that Obama had just hosted Puerto Rican leaders at the White House so he could announce his extermination pogrom, to which the porter replied that that’s not what he heard: He heard Obama was a closet Puerto Rican and the black thing was an act. Then off to drink in Queens listening to a Filipina complain about how offensively super-macho Colombian men were.

It’s all very Avenue Q “we’re all a little racist,” at least if you ask white people – well, more than a little if you mention the Hasidim – but such mutual enmity disappeared earlier when we were eating at a Polish restaurant in Greenpoint, witnessing the theatrical haranguing the waitstaff were administering to one over-loud large group of neighborhood neophytes. Then, there were only two races: Yuppie white, and everybody else.

It also describes how Brian Williams got such a large ego that he could bend reality to his will. After all: Look at where NBC’s offices are – the Rockefeller Center complex accessible through a warren of corporate tunnels, lobbies of major firms stitched together to the point where one need not take a single step on a public sidewalk with the uncontrolled. Even in this, the ungovernable city, sections can be walled off to their own unreality, provided one has enough money – an indictment of the current Gilded Age if ever there was one – Long Island City becomes the complement to such a bastion: The non-neighborhood for the shadow district. The blank slate that can more simply and easily be cleansed.

Parallels

TAGS: None

I was sent to shadow the field boss as a form of limbo until the corporation could more properly matriculate me into their system. We ended up on an analysts’ floor to install a machine for a new hire; something that happens quite often, consequently – if it’s not a revolving door of comings and goings, it’s reconfiguring the existing human stock in different patterns on the floors; a grand 6,000-large game of Musical Chairs. Well, Russian Roulette, according to the security guards: Sometimes you don’t learn of your imminent departure until you’re not part of the new restructuring. Indeed, half the floor was empty, despite the corporation owning this plot of real estate for years.

Our immediate charge was opposite a Hong Konger woman; or, rather, a British-educated Chinese lady, which would immediately invoke assumptions of Hong Kong, but while she demurred at the insinuation, she was coy about whence she originally came. So, a non-Hong Konger woman. This non-Hong Konger was introduced to me by the field boss, lacking as he is any governor, as somebody for whom I do not hesitate to help if she has any issue at all: Drop everything, he said, and if there happen to be old ladies in the way, knock their asses flat to the ground – nothing should get between you and helping this analyst out.

This evoked titters from her coworkers and not an insignificant amount of curiosity. The story goes, the field boss volunteers, that this individual is the reason a certain Jim is no longer working at the corporation. The non-Hong Konger encountered a technical problem that rendered her unable to work at 11am, and Jim, working his ticket queue in the order given (and like all such support queues, all tickets are marked high priority, which means no tickets are high priority), managed to address her problem at 3pm, which was enough time for her to get frustrated and contact her superior, who contacted a VP, who did what VPs are wont to do in such a situation. Shit flows downhill, as it were.

The non-Hong Konger, along with most of her section, was regaled by this story two or three more times, each re-telling with little embellishments and flourishes added, though the story was ostensibly for my benefit. In truth it was for both our benefits: For me, it was a parable about how tenuous my employment situation was – somebody says a word and I can be axed without further thought, as if the position wasn’t already marked by daily reminders of such. But for her, it was two-pronged: One, her words had consequences, as they adversely affected a man’s livelihood for her temporary inconvenience, and two, despite this analyst being four levels above us besotted IT support technicians, the real power was in the VP – a living god astride the earth – and her position was just as tenuous as ours.

Indeed, on the same floor, the field boss spent a few moments gabbing with another Chinese woman, this time Americanized, about how tired she was. She had gotten off work late, she said. When? Five o’clock. That’s not so bad. Five o’clock in the morning. Oh. What time did she get in today? Eleven o’clock. Us wage earners could commiserate, but as a salaried person, this wasn’t extra to her: It was simply a requirement for continued employment. Sure, she makes as much as two of us, but what does that matter if you might as well forego paying rent and sleep under your desk?

There is hardly a person in the joint with any weight on. I’m surrounded by Abercrombie models, the lot of them. Perhaps I’m simply on the wrong floors, and the literal fat cats are further up, but I can hardly blame the living Ken and Barbie dolls their due – where is there in Midtown to eat? It’s hard to imagine the heart of New York City of being a food desert, but the grey modernist monoliths rather much dictate available retail rents, rendering the whole practice one of picking between $18 wraps seemingly portioned for the average Japanese monk or forty minute queues as the last surviving greasy hole-in-the-walls attempt to cater to over a million hungry workers plus the occasional intrepid (read: suicidal) tourist at the same time.

I joked with a coworker that, with the logistical problems of the neighborhood, it would make sense to run the trading floors like dim sum parlors – hire loud Cantonese ladies to roll carts down the rows and aisles with nosh-able tidbits, tapas, fuel to keep going. He replied that’s exactly what they did (except perhaps the ladies were Colombian) especially on days the market was down – as incentive for them to work harder, which means never leave their desks.

It’s Marxism 101 that the tipping point of revolutionary change is when the middle class starts comparing its plight with the working classes rather than assuming concordance with those above them. Or, perhaps George Carlin, who observed that the working classes are really just there to scare the shit outta the middle class. Most of the mid-level flunkies which us technicians support maintain a conceit of middle-classness that they assume everybody keeps: That we may make the same assumptions, that there are parallels within each of our lives. Parallels there are, they are right – though not necessarily how they think – and they appear to be becoming more obvious with each passing day.

The Grind

TAGS: None

I’m the type of guy to stand half a block upstream from someone hailing a cab to hail that same cab. I’d call in sick and telecommute one job just to do work at another job and get paid twice for the same day. I’m the type of guy in Battlefield 3 to put claymores behind doorways to catch out the unassuming and make the cautious overly so. If it’s a fair fight it’s only because I did something wrong.

This is all, of course, a lie.

When I was told to go get fingerprinted for my permanent ID badge, my fellow temps Church Clothes and Rip Van Winkle were being told their last day was Friday. I suppose what I’m feeling now is remorse: There’s plenty of reason why I survived this harrowing compared to them, but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have in my absence. They don’t know my fate, but I know theirs, and there is a not inconsiderable amount in guilt in that knowledge. They go back to the great pool of unemployed and I remain in a far more stable form of mere underemployment.

Rip Van is taking it with enough good humor: Like the In Living Color sketch Hey Mon, if he doesn’t have six jobs simultaneously, he’s not working hard enough; losing one is a minor consideration – a slot to be filled by any other demeaning patter that pays. Church Clothes has effectively mentally checked out: He started out a little listless, but now he’s full-fledged flighty, incurring the ire of the senior techs. He thinks there’s no further point in putting in any effort, but they know that his attitude will harm potential temp gigs on down the line.

The ex-teacher asks me why I’m bothering with this sort of work at all: Surely if I have family and friends in education, with my abilities and intelligence I should be able to plumb connections for something far cushier, satisfying and useful to society – not to mention with better pay. He posits that I can’t help but try to stand on my own two feet without any help, out of a misguided sense of fairness under the assumption of meritocracy, which he says was his mistake. I concur: That must be it.

This is also a lie.

I’ve been helped by friends and family all through my life, from nudges to the right administrators to timely money transfers saving my bacon when I’ve been in troubling debt. Those connections kept me indoors, in the right schools, in the right neighborhoods, along the right trajectories, and provided safety nets against all the pitfalls. Close friends, ivy leaguers who are willing to work drudgery hours at anything – telemarketing to nannying to bartending to charity mugging – have failed where I’ve persevered, solely because I had support where they didn’t.

There’s something of a survivor’s complex involved in this cut-throat job market – even this non-union permanent contract pays a quarter of the market rate for the job title, so it can hardly be called a nice “catch” – the pervasive sense that each position offered is one of a zero sum game: For me to win, somebody else must lose. Of course, Keynesian economics point out that the size of the market is malleable and that policies can be put into place to expand it, but as right now there are still three applicants for every available position in the country (not counting those who have left the workforce entirely or, like my compatriots, freelance and contract out indefinitely). Lo and behold, two were rejected.

And what of the job? There’s a hustler of an Italian man – the type who seems to have sprung into the world fully-formed off a street corner in Bensonhurst – in the office who splits his day between four separate departments and devises schemes on his off-time – selling advertising via GPS-directed quadcopters is his latest plan – and his take on the position is that it’s a serviceable stepping stone to something decently better. “Not a ladder?” I ask, though truth be told his term is better: This time five years ago I was unionized and making a third more than I am now, and that’s after taking a vow of poverty by working for the public school system. Such is not an upward trajectory: It truly is more like hopping from stone to stone to cross a pond, to survive long enough to find another gig to keep going.

Five years ago I would not have thought to find myself in Corporate America. Ten years ago I would not have thought to find myself in this field at all. Fifteen years ago my plans for life were almost entirely different, such that this position I find myself in is strange to the point that I feel like I’m not so much the actor but the witness to an actor on an odyssey, a ship adrift stormy seas, each new landfall an island filled with sights and sounds almost uniformally unsavory but yet, at the very least, momentarily novel in just how each became unsavory.

The Midtown Bustle

TAGS: None

It’s five o’clock. Hot off a full shift, I wait for the opportunity of another full shift. There are twenty five of us, all told, in this dusty basement conference room. They asked for twenty five yesterday, they got twenty five today. There’s a project, the boss says, and it requires computer technicians. It did not take much to get us into the room. A phone call. Somewhere in the city there is another four hundred like us, if not four thousand, if not forty. Yet here we are, all of us in slacks, pointy shoes, ties.

College educated, technically trained and certified, day laborers. Preacher Krugman might have given a sermon on this.

There’s a giant inflatable rat sitting outside the building lobby, brought to bear by painters, ironworkers, something like that. A fairly pathetic rent-a-protest for skilled manual labor lucky enough to still be unionized. Even so, that’s far above us independent contractors, each with a paper identification badge with stamped plastic clip. It occurs to me: We’re not the coal-stokers I imagined for the great engine of commerce. We’re the coal.

This isn’t exactly a revelation. In fact, of my coworkers, I’m the outlier: The lifer, the one who came from New York and wants to stay in New York. The soft-spoken Haitian, who finally received the nickname of Rip Van Winkle, dismisses my observations that he’s burning the candle at both ends. He speaks of returning to his country in ten years for his wife and daughter. He sends them pictures of his morning commute so they know how hard he works. This is effectively indentured servitude for him, spoken of like a prison sentence. Nobody sees New York as anything but a paycheck.

Over the days, I keep gaining nicknames. Ichabod. Hair-oin. Plays on being lanky in the extreme with long hair. Everybody has nicknames. The ex-marine senior technician is good at doling them out. He’s effectively the field boss: Rising as far as he will career-wise, he has taken it upon himself to invest effort daily to make work bearable for everybody. So when Schroeder complains to Donkey about Twinkle Overbite on the fifteenth floor, the drudgery of the day is made just that much lighter.

The day laborers don’t get nicknames, however. There’s a level of fodder that defies even caricature.

The farce is necessary. In the last month, just about every permanent technician has blown up at least once. Leftie Communist growls about not getting a raise in five years, and whiles his time watching Hulu documentaries about Fidel Castro – there will be no guesses as to how he got his name. Schroeder cannot stand being directly supervised and grouses how there’s more bureaucratic protocol surrounding the work than actual work. The field boss is still practically six seconds away at any given moment from being called into the office of Human Resources. Every perceived slight is made hyper-sensitive because of everybody’s incredibly low status. Violence is prone to occur when one’s self-image is frustrated by one’s real status.

Rip Van Winkle and Church Clothes talk about moonlighting gigs; freelance IT support out in the world during brief moments of downtime from structured temporary gigs such as the one we’re on. Rip Van crows about the power he has to remotely shut down the servers of any client who gives him guff when it comes time to pay him. He’s been burned before about such things, though his means of retribution is the sort of action that’s liable to get him stabbed one day by people with even fewer scruples than he has.

All in all, there’s surprisingly little political discussion down in the bowels of this corporate office. Back in the public sector, politics were pretty much on everyone’s lips all day every day, mainly because everybody was either outspokenly socialist or outspokenly (and hypocritically) anti-socialist. Here, politics are supplanted by feelings. One does not speak of injustices. One feels slighted.

The Jamaican ex-teacher starts up one odd moment, as he is often wont to lecture, by admitting straight out that he’s homophobic. I joke that he’s not exactly the sort that’s liable to be hit on, but he relates this resentment to the idea not so much that they’re throwing their genitals in everybody’s face physically, but that they’re throwing their genitals in everybody’s face socially. That they succeeded where immigrants, Black men, and immigrant Black men in particular have struggled for far longer and with deeper consequence. That they dictate the shit on the news without having had to try nearly as hard.

He’s right, but he’s wrong. He’s wrong, but he’s right. It’s a politically perilous point, but it’s a sincere feeling, and not entirely without cause. The field boss and Donkey tend to rock back and forth between complaining about how much less stressful their jobs would be if pay was, say, 25% higher – with open supposition on how that would solve the structural problem concerning the revolving door of unmotivated new trainees – and complaining about how this horde of faceless temps half-ass everything and why the importance of a job well done is independent of the size of the paycheck. Yes, but no, but yes.

Such low level discussion is partly because everybody’s nose is so close to the grindstone. Such low level discussion is also partly because everybody’s afraid of looking too deeply into the situation – either in making connections with compatriots who might not be there tomorrow or in simply burning up from the anger. It’s a tenuous position, and most of the day is spent riding that line.

It’s hard to predict the future of this grist for the eternal mill. The City forced restauranteurs to pay tipped workers more – from obscenely below minimum wage to merely offensively below minimum wage – and Walmart staved off strikes and a potential federal investigation by raising wages from starvation level to semi-starvation level. Both are compromises that would end up costing their respective industries less than the actual cost of livable wages, just as investment banks have long since realized that paying penalties for grossly illegal activities costs less than the money earned from their grossly illegal activities. But where is the breaking point, if one still exists?

The Midtown Hustle

TAGS: None

It took nine business days to find a single black employee working above the first floor. Rather, it took me that long to find a single black male working above the first floor: Most people of color coming in, flashing their IDs and taking the elevators are young and female. There is plenty of melanin among the elevator operators, security guards, mailroom clerks, janitors and porters, natch; Some things never change.

The background check took ten days. It involved five years’ tax records, interviews with the last ten years’ worth of employers, calls to all listed higher educational institutions, records in federal and state law enforcement, a credit check and a urinalysis test. It was far more comprehensive and intrusive than that required for government work, but then this is far more important than one’s responsibility to the American public: We’re talking one’s responsibility to rich people’s money.

Practically as illustration, at this financial institution, there is a ban on the stock and commodities trading floors of all cellphones. This isn’t due to distraction or interference with the confluence of sensitive equipment on hand, but to keep the traders honest. The bank knew it had hired thieves – indeed, it’s counting on that; those lawyers aren’t just for show – but it took precautions that they steal for the bank, not from the bank.

Working for a contractor to a contractor to a contractor to said institution – itself a necessary precaution, this time against unionism; 50 hour workweeks are the bare minimum – placed me down in the bowels of the building, among men for whom no love was lost on the folks above, but whose distance from the top was so vast that they might as well be in different countries. Then again, maybe they are; who knows? It is also a respite for all the color: Upstairs gets folks from England, Brazil, Japan; downstairs gets Barbados, Jamaica, Haiti.

A senior tech, ex-marine, big black dude, incongruous loudmouth that defies corporate convention: Coworkers say he’s warming up to me because the first word out of his mouth when he sees me is no longer “douchebag.” He gave nicknames to the temps; mine is “ponytail.” A fellow temp, this poor black kid pegged as somebody who doesn’t know where he should be in life, is known as “church clothes,” because he came in for most of his first week in a manner of dress that was sorely unprofessional, making it up on Friday with the best clothes he owned.

Another temp, a skinny, snappy-dressed Haitian dude, hasn’t got one, however. That’s largely because he works 17 hours a day for two full-time jobs and commutes for a further three. Most of the time he’s quiet and the rest he’s napping in the corner. When he’s regarded at all, there’s a small sense of pity. Not much, though: Nobody in the office has less than two sources of income. Nobody can afford to. Overtime work is jealously hoarded, and rationed out lest the whole department simply work 24/7.

The Jamaican supervisor intimates to me that they’re looking for someone permanent. The ex-marine immediately chimes up that the only reason he likes me is because I’m half-black. The Barbadian tech asks who called me black, to which the ex-marine retorts, “his white half.” Another Jamaican tech points out that, with my knowledge, my accent and my skin color, I could be making a great deal more money creating and plying connections in his home country than working here. I reply that the Chinese have already formalized the process; he grins.

He’s colorstruck and aware of such. I’m colorstruck in reverse. We’re both in it for the money; under the prying eyes of ubiquitous security cameras but away from the prying eyes of true movers and shakers, stoking coal into the great engine that this economy is supposedly based upon. One day it may fail, in which case the ground floor may yet prove to be the best vantage.

© 2009 Big Smoke. All Rights Reserved.

This blog is powered by Wordpress and Magatheme by Bryan Helmig.