Big Smoke

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

The Grind

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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.

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