COLUMN FORTY-THREE, MARCH 1, 1999
(Copyright © 1999 Al Aronowitz)
(Copyright © 1996 by Gwendolyn Albert)
[Gwendolyn Albert is self-proclaimed "editrix" of Jejune: America eats its young (P.O.Box 4565, Berkeley, CA 94704). She currently lives in Prague, Czechoslovakia and can be contacted by email at Gwendolyn.Albert@cerge.cuni.cz. Her story, GETTING PAID, first appeared in GRIST On-Line of March 1996 (http://www.thing.net/~grist) and is reprinted here with her permission. Because it is THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST''s style to honor contributing authors by superimposing their bylines over their photographs, we requested a photo of Gwen. But he replied that she wanted people to love not her but her writing, and that she wishes to remain private. Consequently, instead of a photo of herself, she asked that we use the above graphic by Honza Volf, a Czech graphic artist who appears in Jejune No. 6.]
In the afternoons at that job people would sit and talk about the war. There was a TV in the break room, to keep us "posted", which was important since outside the office everything seemed exactly the same. Some people would get in at 6 and drink the wretched coffee the receptionist had made and turn on the coverage, maybe read the Chronicle or the Wall Street Journal at ten o'clock break. By the time everyone was back from lunch they were primed to discuss it.
It was a rhythm: before lunch, war on TV, but not up for discussion; after lunch, war up for discussion, and the TV switched to a soap opera while several people guiltily pretended not to watch. The war had brought them this TV, and if they were too upfront about enjoying it, it would be taken away. Whenever a manager entered the break room there was a great upsurge of activity---papers rustling, dishes being rinsed, people in each other's way---as whoever was nearest the set tried surreptitiously to change the channels to something more decorous. The TV had been brought in by the Human Resources lady. It was an extra of hers, old and black and white. She made a point of not watching it at all. Instead, radiating humanity and resourcefulness, she watched us.
I sat on the other side of a carpeted partition from the rest of the floor staff. I could not turn my swivel chair 360 degrees in my cubicle while seated. There was a floor-to-ceiling window to my left, through which I saw another, taller building across the alley. This building was on the earthquake renovation list and was devoid of tenants. I was constantly on display to a series of empty rooms, through which some figures would move from time to time. The sound of jackhammers from the street below was continuous and would be for the next three years.
It was tempting to consider just what you could get away with there in your cubicle before someone saw you. The prospect of shocking a stranger fifty feet away across the alley by doing something absurd or obscene or irreverent in the window was inherently more satisfying than interacting with my coworkers, whom I was trying desperately not to get to know.
I was a temp.
* * *
Once all the war conversations started everyday I was even more grateful for the fuzzy partition between me and the rest of the staff. I am sure the expression on my face as I overheard their expert opinions would have belied the air of cheerful neutrality for which a temp is hired. The crotchety old computer nerd, without whom the company would have folded long ago, always kicked off the afternoon debate by asking a rhetorical question of his assistant, an aristocratic, pudgy nerd-in-training who had gone to Yale. The assistant turned the discussion toward technology. They then strayed from weaponry to strategy and from strategy to history, ending up with the old nerd saying everything was Israel's fault and the assistant hotly insisting otherwise.
They seemed to genuinely care about it as they batted statistics from Jane's Defense Weekly back and forth over their terminals. It was a conversation that could have taken place about sports or a gubernatorial race, and after an hour of adding comments now and then everyone else on the floor would go to watch soap operas, but I was stuck there, chained to my desk by my telephone headset, digital clicks and gasoline engines in one ear and the other ear full of bad jokes, reverential critiques of the cunning little cameras on the Patriot missile and, worst of all, the bets.
On the first day it technically was War, the Human Resources lady came around to inform us of her sacrificed TV set. It was still dark outside and I had just come from my apartment at 4:30 am, no cars on the street, the moon still up, the last of the stars in there somewhere, cats on fences, flowers thinking about opening and birds, lots of loud, invisible birds singing in the trees. I had rounded the corner at the Standard Brands paint store with its nightlights still on, Church's Fried Chicken menus glowing across the street, broken bottles and boarded windows of a nightclub awaiting graffiti, the spires of the church above the web of power and phone lines, construction workers at the BART station sitting in vans with their sweatshirt hoods on and Styrofoam coffees, a few taxis asleep, the buzz of ticket machines, Watchtower salesmen and sleepy students, I had just come past the weird modern tile sculpture amid the newspaper kiosks to the escalator, I had filed into the train, every traveler equipped with a screen of newspaper, some with their heads tilted back and mouths open, embarrassing, a neon coffeepot glowing from the side of a West Oakland warehouse, I had tunneled to the other side of the Bay, a great lulling swaying ride, disembarked to three flights of stairs, a strange man in a Hitler mustache passing out coupons, a guitar player, the streets wet from the flower stands and the tall glass sides of buildings, the clock on the tower by the freeway wrong as usual, I had just walked past the stores I never entered, golf stores and suit stores, past strange side by side Asian restaurants I never ate in, cooks in white tshirts squatting out under scaffolding, customers smoking over breakfast, the fat barber opening up, his unhappy wife in the doorway and across the street a colorful patchwork of scraps wrapped around a shopping cart and the mansized bundle in a sleeping bag, still there. I had crossed the last crosswalk, gone past the gun dealer into the building, the job, my job, waving hello to Art of Art's Gourmet, worst coffee in five blocks not counting gas stations, and then the code to the door alarm and my cubicle and the dark and waiting screen.
"I am here to see how you are doing, " said Human Resources in a matronly way. I could see she was sweating, maybe from carrying her TV set up from the car. "Are you ok?"
I was still all soft inside from the dark and the glittering flickers of mica in the sidewalks.
"No, I'm not ok," I answered. "I'm terribly shocked and I wonder how it is that everybody can just go on."
"Carry on," she nodded vigorously, her eyes scanning the rest of the floor for absentees. "That's what we gotta do!"
The sun rose and with it the noise of earthquake renovation began below me. I was supposed to put the headset on and start calling people but I couldn't do it. I had gotten to the point where I could read one set of numbers aloud while writing or dialing a completely different set but today the prospect of this little game wasn't enough.
I was still staring out the window when the sounds of sirens and people chanting and yelling floated up from the street below. It being the first official day of the war I guess everyone felt entitled to a little excitement and pretty soon the whole floor was over by the windows---receptionist, mail room, accounts payable, everyone. People materialized from inside the earthquake building to watch the commotion. Someone opened a window and we began applauding the protesters in the street, waving and hooting. Then the doors to the front office opened and the CEO came out.
The CEO had been there less time than I had. He was a hired gun up from Orange County. He looked like Santa Claus. He had all but purged the company of its openly gay employees the first month he had been there ("I have been brought aboard to change the culture of the company" were the words of his introductory email) and he reached out a meaty arm and slammed the window shut, narrowly missing the delicate fingers of a Filipina data entry clerk.
He smiled at us, a dangerous smile. The middle managers who had been yelling along with us started saying things like "Back to school, kids!" and making shooing arm movements.
A garrulous and overweight customer service rep whom no one liked very much stood her ground. She said that she was from Nebraska where things like this don't happen very often, if at all, and so she was being deprived of a little bit of history, or something. The CEO told her over his shoulder that she could watch it on the news later. At this the last remaining gay employee snorted, rolled his eyes, lit a cigarette, exhaled at the CEO's departing back with real movie star flair, and flounced out of the office.
The rest of us turned away from the window. Lose my job lose my job lose my job echoed through our heads, even if our momentary act of rebellion was still in the air. The aristocratic computer assistant caught my eye. I kept moving till I hit the break room.
The Nebraska woman was taking up most of the ratty couch, explaining to the tiny data entry clerk the superiority of Poison perfume to Opium. The head accountant was trying to sell insurance to a clerk from Tibet who kept saying "I am Buddhist, I don't believe." The Mexican guy from the mail room was talking about enlisting. The data entry clerk asked him what about his kids and he said he guessed that was a good point. I left the break room without sitting down.
I was about to press the DOWN button when I felt the computer assistant, the nerd-in-training, pat my back. As I held the door he reached over and pressed UP.
* * *
The roof was that silvery color roofs are, silver like electrical tape. The surface was spongy and there were many hollows and depressions, as if it were a blanket or a stretch of dune. The noise of the crowd had dissolved back into the customary downtown racket and there was nothing to see but the sky and the other buildings all around with how many rows of windows, how many people inadvertently glancing down at the sight of a woman in a white dress with her arms folded across her chest emerging from the trap door that led to the roof, followed by a man who pushed open the door on a small shacklike structure. They stepped inside.
The structure housed the elevator gears, which were seven feet high, greasy and clattering. There was a chair. The assistant sat down, wordlessly took out a condom and put it on, then reached up under my dress and gently pulled my underwear down. I saw it to my left, white cotton on the grey concrete floor, and to my right I saw an empty Coke bottle. After the initial waves of adrenaline I found myself thinking how relatively clean it was up there, and whose the chair and the Coke bottle were and then, during this ostensibly wild act of fucking someone I didn't even know on the roof of an office building in downtown San Francisco, I realized what was happening to me, the same old thing that happened on every temporary assignment: I was bored. I had that fear that it would never end and I would never be free and I started doing everything I could think of to get him to finish, I wanted to go home, I wanted to leap up and say I QUIT.
As soon as it was safe I stepped back into my underwear and the people in the windows saw the woman running out onto the roof again, right to the very edge and then stopping to stare at the city sliding past in all of its color and motion like an exquisite film, the Bay Bridge close enough to touch, the blue-grey water.
It wasn't even nine in the morning. He came out after a while, sweaty, dazed, disheveled and temporarily in love. He wanted to fondle me like something was starting but I kept to the roof's edge, sort of dancing along it and laughing in hiccups. It began to dawn on him that we were nowhere near to being in the same state of mind. My giggles disturbed him. He started to make the same arm movements the managers had made, the movements you make when you are trying to corral an animal. While waving his arms he attempted verbal contact.
I love that we were getting paid for that, he said.
If I hadn't been so busy shaking I would have told him about getting paid, about what it does, but instead I darted around his reach and ran for the trap door, for the sun off the silvery roof in my eyes, for the unlit stairwell, for the billions of people alive in the world and the people who were right then dying, I ran through the building to try and come in again, try and start over or something, I ran like people run when they've stolen something easy. ##
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