It’s Work

17 Nov

Since moving to San Francisco I have done anything anyone has offered in terms of work: editing travel guides, scanning files, entering data in computer databases, escorting individuals to medical appointments, making and serving coffee drinks, selling and serving food, pulling weeds, de-installing convention site vendor booths, laying grout, cleaning empty apartments, assisting individuals moving, working on-call at a bookstore, listing a seller’s online items, installing exhibitions, serving wine at receptions, preparing mailings, jack hammering concrete, and editing a dying man’s manuscript (never finished).  I have taken my own initiative to raise money by selling old books and posters online and my art to people I know.  It never adds up to enough, embarrassing for a person over fifty.

Where did this all begin?  How did I come to this?  One’s history of employment is a sorry affair when it does not lead to home ownership and a retirement package.  Besides Dad retiring from a job with Los Angeles Police Department, and other family members making it to retirement, Uncle Jess (Robbins) was the only person to make it big.  Twice in his life he was wealthy and twice in his life he lost it all.  His first success came as a camera man and then director for silent films.  His second success came as a munitions manufacturer during World War II.  Late in life he spent his days alone in a small warehouse on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles tinkering with inventions.

My first job was during a high school summer break assisting post-retirement Dad on his gardening route.  That was cool.  One of the best jobs I can remember.  It went downhill from there.  I next assembled newspaper advertisement inserts in a warehouse after school.  The work was piecemeal: we were paid 10¢ for every 100 inserts.  If I really focused I was able to make minimum wage, which was much lower than it is today.  Thank goodness that only lasted a semester.  We stood on rubber mats on a concrete floor during an eight-hour shift.  Just think of the varicose veins I would have developed before age 21.  I began a “real” job at Avery Label Systems in Azusa.  This was repetitive like stuffing newspaper inserts, but at least I could take my time with a guaranteed hourly wage.  I conducted tensile strength tests for chemists using a small variety of testing machines.  They all involved pulling apart label material using precision recording equipment.  My mistake was thinking I had an interest in chemistry.  I was bored after one month but stayed on for two years.  I promised myself never to stay with a job again that bored me.

I learned I could avoid boredom by letting fellow employees entertain me.  At a Der Wienerschnitzel franchise next to Los Angeles City College, I dressed hot dogs while George, the owner (also a seasonal coach for the Dodgers), screamed at his employees.  The complaint was always, Faster!  George especially liked yelling at Larry because he could call Larry names.  Larry had been with the business since George had bought the franchise.  Though likable, Larry was a total loser.  At age 30, he stilled lived with his parents and still wore his hair long.  When George wasn’t within earshot, Larry would curse his own existence, usually with an invective aimed at George.  Once Larry was out emptying the garbage cans at the perimeter of the parking lot.  Suddenly he cursed George and hurled a garbage can ten feet in front of himself, full.  When he realized he had spread the garbage over the parking lot, he cursed himself.  As part of the closing crew, emptying the deep fryer was one of our nightly chores.  A memorable night came when Larry opened the drainage valve while his feet were in direct line of the flow of hot grease; he had forgotten to place the bucket under the valve.  Did he scream!  He made a beeline to the hose outside and drenched his tennis shoes in water.  His moans were comic relief.

But, I suppose Cooper, the most pathetic employee to be picked upon by nearly everyone around her, could be amusing as well.  At MBW Advertising Network in New York, Michael, the owner, used his office loudspeaker only when he wanted Cooper to come to his office; he seemed to receive pleasure publicly humiliating her.  At an age close to forty, she was mousy, disheveled, and wore glasses held together with tape.  She came in and left every day carrying full paper bags.  There was a closet next to her desk.  When an employee tasked with moving details attempted to open the closet, Cooper panicked, pleading that the door be left closed.  Lo and behold, the closet was stacked to the ceiling with several piles of newspaper that Cooper tucked away: the mysterious contents of the bags.

While typing job recruitment ads in a typing pool at MBW, I befriended my three co-workers, Linda, Maggie and Kathleen.  Kathleen, a tall Irish woman with a keen sense of everything, gradually convinced Linda and I to demand changes to the structure of our pool so that we could barter for higher wages.  But Kathleen would do the talking for the pool.  I was too naive to believe there was something rotten in store for us in Kathleenland.  Maggie’s abstention should have been warning enough.  But, perhaps I could have guessed otherwise.  After all, Kathleen told me with vicious glee about the lawsuit she brought against her lindy hop partner because he had fractured her jaw while they competed in a dance event.  Accidents do happen, but not with Kathleen.  By the end of Kathleen’s private conversation with the owner, her typing pool comrades were informed that she was promoted to pool supervisor and that any other changes would wait.  We never saw her after that since she now had an office of her own.  When I bumped into her months later, she was coming out of her private office in a robe and slippers headed for the bathroom.

Not every job was entertaining.  Some jobs were downright disturbing.  While working for the Group Reservations office of the Education Division at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was troubled by the harassment that two fellow employees received from management personnel.  Frank had been passed over several times in terms of promotion.  He fought back by taking his case to a state-level agency that investigated racial bias at the workplace.  While his suit was in progress, the Museum’s Education Division managers decided the best way to fight the suit was to make the job so inhospitable to Frank and his colleague Shirley, who was his closest source of support, that they would both choose to leave before a successful outcome to the civil suit.  One morning I witnessed our direct manager, Bill, and a fellow non-management employee, DeWayne, heavily berate Shirley for not being where she supposedly was expected to be five minutes earlier.  It did not matter that she was working around the corner from the office at the time.  Their accusations became  a streaming tirade, with Bill and DeWayne alternately lobbing shouts, after Shirley quietly stated where she had been.  Standing there stunned, I finally interjected to ask what was going on.  As if snapped out of a trance, Bill abruptly stopped speaking and rushed out of the office.  DeWayne returned to his desk.  The next day I complained directly to the division manager about Shirley’s treatment.  I was fired the next business day.  When I had my day in court two months later, a mock hearing where I had been promised I would have one hour to defend my employment, Bill used my time to present a sixty-page document to the Museum’s counsel.  Co-workers who had vanished from the state of New York were recorded as having complained about my behavior on the job.  It was the first time I heard of these complaints.  Kafka-esque, indeed.

As an HIV+ person, I realized in hindsight that the stress the job created could only be harmful to my health.  I worked for several years at various offices through temporary placement agencies.  This was a boon to my peace of mind and enabled me to take control of on-the-job anxiety-producing situations.  I dispensed with loyalty by never taking sides; I stayed entirely out of disputes.  I remained free of jealousies.  I did the best job I could do, and if that was not appreciated, I never concerned myself as to why.  None of the issues I had learned to feel deeply about mattered once I became a temporary employee.

One cannot remain unimpassioned, though, without the loss of purpose and fulfillment.  By the time I was working in earnest for Teachers College I was happy to be contributing to a team once again.  It probably also helped that as I concurrently worked on a thesis for Hunter College, I had complete access to the materials at the Columbia University and Barnard College libraries because of my work status.  By this time I found amusement in situations where I only saw divisive issues before.  At the Development & External Affairs department, I came to love Surekha, my immediate supervisor.  A devout Hindu, Surekha was the only religious person I knew who absolutely lived by her beliefs.  There were no boundaries to her kindness and compassion.  One of my fellow workers, Marshall, a devout Christian fundamentalist originally from South America, objected to my suggestion during a weekly staff meeting that we honor information about same gender partners.  He said he would never enter this information into our alumni database.  Surekha was firm: we would collect and record this information without argument.  One Monday morning Surekha received the news that Marshall needed help re-entering the United States from Canada.  Apparently he did not have a proper visa to do so.  College personnel went to his rescue.  Much later, we came to find out that Marshall had been moonlighting at a second job on campus, but he had not told either of the two departments that he was holding two jobs at the same time.  He was fired.  Another devout Christian showed up at our door.  A new department director from a very prestigious Pennsylvania foundation, he would surely lead us successfully in our important capital campaign.  One day he called me to his office to ask how he should begin composing a letter to a wealthy donor.  I advised him that my skills in composition were not very good.  To my astonishment, he picked up the telephone and asked the campus president how he should begin the letter.  He did not last another month.  For a time, Surekha’s supervisor was a Jewish fellow named Irving who was liked by all.  Irving knew how to bring passion to the job.  He frequently talked about his collecting mania: Kung Fu (the television series) memorabilia and copies of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road  in as many languages as he could find.  He bought everything at eBay.  He seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time behind a locked office door.  I began to notice that he frequently stopped at Sheb’s desk with special instructions, gradually realizing he was directing her in bidding on items he wanted at eBay.  There were other improprieties on Irving’s part.  He was the next to leave.

My time with Siemens Transportation Systems in New York as a document control manager was ideal.  I can say it was the best office job I ever had.  And I was assured of a career there, that was, until I decided to relocate to San Francisco.  It looked as if I would see another career possibility here in the city.  After applying as a transit operator with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority, I received clearance two years later to begin training.  The six-week training program is stringent, with a six-points-your-out policy.  Points can be accrued for tardiness, absence (excused absence is not available), not learning driving methods once shown, and driving accidents.  I made it through three weeks before reaching Point 6.  Was this a blessing in disguise?  After all, we were drilled about the horrors on the job, especially from a city public with bizarre and sometimes nasty behavior patterns.  I can remember an F Line streetcar operator telling me he had been assaulted several times because he was firm about potential passengers paying their fare.  Somehow I believed I could handle a diverse city population.  One of my fellow trainees did graduate.  A former SamTrans bus operator, she looked and acted like graduate material: confident, assured, determined.  I later learned she walked off the job, leaving passengers on a bus.  Another training graduate explained to me one day he was smoking cigarettes again, after a ten-year hiatus.  My next career?  Horticulture.

Untitled, 2010, pen and ink on Bristol paper, 9 x 12 in.

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2 Responses to “It’s Work”

  1. fsrosa December 2, 2011 at 7:45 am #

    Horticulture?!

  2. fsrosa December 2, 2011 at 7:47 am #

    These line drawings ! Spawn of James Thurber and Karl Marx….

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