Friday, February 16, 2007

dream job


Lots of people have them. Some people – ambitious immigrants or Walmart greeters with rent to pay – even have two or three.

“My job, well, one of my jobs.” It doesn’t have quite the same ring as “my home, well, one of my homes.” Or even the exotic cachet of “my husband, well, one of my husbands.”

Unless your job is quite odd indeed, it'll fall into the realm of the invisible. If someone asks you what you do, you might evade the question by telling them exactly what’s on the line below your name on your business card.

“Oh, me? I’m a program manager. It's a small company. You won't have heard of it. We make B-to-B tools.”

You’d never think to tell them what you actually do:

“Well, take yesterday for example. First I dumped my briefcase in my office. Then, after a quick detour by my manager’s office so he could see that I was at work, I canvassed the break room for food left over from early morning teleconferences. Every once in awhile, there are bagels or donuts or something. Sometimes there’s even fresh fruit, pineapple triangles, cantaloupe, grapes, and the like. Once I even found a mango slice. But yesterday: nothing. I poured a packet of instant hot chocolate and a small hill of CoffeeMate into my coffee instead; I was famished and there was nothing edible around. I read my email until almost 10; two people’d sent me links to the same YouTube video. It was a hoot. Then I went to a meeting and IM’d with the person sitting directly across the table from me. We bitched about Jim, who was droning through a long Powerpoint deck. I don’t remember what the meeting was about. I guess I could look if you care; he sent out the stupid bloated Powerpoint file right afterward. I thought about lunch from 11:15 until noon; 11:15 is too early to go to lunch, but it’s not too early to think about lunch. I wasted about 20 minutes googling for BLTs to see if I could find a decent picture of one. There weren’t very many good ones.”

If you embarked on such a monologue, word would get around; no-one would ever ever ask you what you did again. You’d be absolutely protected from that vile question.

What do you do, indeed.

What does anybody do? How do the wheels of capitalism continue to turn? It’s a house of cards, isn’t it? Don't you look around you sometimes and wonder how anything gets done?

Sometimes I travel. That’ll eat up a significant portion of a day. Sure, some kinds of work can be relegated to the flight, but you can’t work while you’re going through security. Unless you work for TSA.

Thud. My suitcase careers down the exit ramp from the security screening scanner. Crash. My coat and scarf and shoes follow it in their own gray tray. Smush. And that’s my much-abused laptop. Finally my stained, bloated briefcase joins the untidy heap at the bottom of the ramp. A surly Jheri-curled woman in a TSA uniform snatches one of the trays away the instant I tuck my laptop back into my briefcase.

The other TSA guy isn’t watching my luggage disembark from its journey through the scanner. Instead he’s gazing at the window washer.

The window washer? He’s gazing longingly at the window washer?

“That looks like fun,” he tells me as I hop around trying to put my right shoe back on. I hate trying to put my shoes on standing up, but I also hate walking around the airport security area in my socks, looking for a place to sit down. The carpet’s gotta be full of exotic foot funguses, just waiting for fresh foot-meat.

Stay away from my toes! I mean it! I send off waves of xenophobic hostility to ward off the foreign foot fungi.

“That looks like fun,” the TSA guy repeats.

What looks like fun? Paranoid evasion of foot fungus?

“Window washing, I mean,” he clarifies, watching me fumble with my stuff, my boarding pass clenched between my teeth. I’m trying hard not to drool. Holding my boarding pass in my mouth like that is really sub-optimal, but I can’t put it down for fear of it drifting away from me. All it takes is a small HVAC anomaly, and all of the sudden you’re in the airport without a boarding pass. You’ll be in Gitmo before you can say cheese.

“I bet those guys get paid all right too. Better than I do, anyway.” He continues to talk. I grunt in agreement, shoes on, but laces still untied. I’m trying to decide whether to maneuver over to the row of gray chairs so I can tie my shoes sitting down.

The thing is, these low-rise jeans tend to be almost indecent when you’re bending over to tie your shoes. You get a real case of plumber’s crack. I won’t do it.

The window washer is moving his squeegee around the window in graceful noiseless arcs. You can see the window getting cleaner, even at this distance.

The TSA screener is already agreeing with himself. “Yeah. That’d be a good job. D’ja ever think of being a window washer?” he asks me.

I always agree with those TSA guys, unless they say something like, “Is that a grenade I see in your briefcase?” So I take my boarding pass out of my mouth and tell him that yes, I’ve often thought about being a window washer. And here’s where my extensive knowledge of trade publications comes in handy. I think to tell him that they even have their own magazine, American Window Cleaner.

He’s impressed that I know this; I can tell. He’s still studying the window washer, who is cleaning a window inside the airport. Which means that he’s cleaning sticky fingerprints and sneeze droplets off the window, not nice clean dirt and acid rain residue.

I can see the appeal of steady progress. You clean a window. The glass all but disappears, ready for an unwary goldfinch, an unsteady pigeon, or an iPodded adolescent boy to bump into it. Or for a toddler to lick it.

Ewww. I can also see the lack of appeal of cleaning glass in a public place.

The uniformed TSA employees seem to be less content about their jobs than the families of Filipinos they’ve replaced. They gather around a monitor to stare at the x-rayed contents of a handbag the size of Winona Ryder herself.

Excuse me, Ma’am. Is that a bottle of water I see in your purse?


Of course the most they can do is confiscate the water-like liquid – some innovative chemical compound that explodes when mixed with miniature pretzels, no doubt – and scold the perp. And odds are that the culprit wasn’t even trying to get away with smuggling water into the airport; rather, she was more likely to have forgotten that she’d made a resolution to stay hydrated.

Must stay hydrated. Must stay hydrated.

I’m never sure what these people do that causes them to feel at risk of dehydration. Maybe it’s holding a boarding pass in your mouth for great long segments of your trek to your boarding gate. That does give you a minor case of cotton mouth.

A TSA worker at SEATAC once suggested to me that perhaps the airlines should put flavoring on the boarding passes. He said he always sees people carrying boarding passes in their mouths as they walk through the security screening. Makes you realize why no-one ever asks to see the damned things anymore.

Although flavoring them might not be a bad idea. Would they be fruit-flavored? Would they be coded for your destination? A papaya boarding pass for Hawaii. Or maybe they’d be a celebration of the local cuisine; at SEATAC, the flavoring would be salmon, no doubt.


Maybe they’d be better off with those neutral flavors that everyone seems to tolerate. Nah. Yoram doesn’t like mint. And one man’s neutral is another man’s durian. Durian-scented boarding passes; the mind boggles.

No. But it seemed like a good idea at the time; I told the TSA screener that he’d best patent that idea right away.

That just shows you how your work creeps into your overall perspective on things in insidious ways. A TSA screener watches hundreds of passengers carrying their boarding passes in their mouths. He gets jealous of the guy washing windows. He knows what cosmetic preparations people feel obliged to carry with them – even for a short trip – and how many people have abnormally strong foot odor.

See what I mean?

As for me, I know about all the frequent traveler programs and what’s commonplace and what’s extraordinary for corporate salad bars. I get jealous of people who are out and about all day, who aren’t locked in rigor mortis at the end of a day from staring at a screen for 16 hours. People who make things, build things, use power tools. People like Nephew Dave who can construct a flume out of the materials at hand.

They just know different things than I do.

That female astronaut who wore a diaper on her cross-country trek to exterminate her rival? Every news commentator in the country felt obligated to crack wise about that one. But I’m sure she got the idea about wearing a diaper because she’s an astronaut.

Look – there just aren’t any service stations in space. Not a one.

No service stations, no rest rooms, let alone clean, functioning restrooms. You know how miserable it is to have to slink around the back of a Chevron station toting the unstealable key on the five pound hunk of muffler, only to discover the toilet no longer flushes? And you’ve already bought the five gallons of really expensive gas to justify using it. If I were driving across the south stalking my rival with great intensity, I’d end up spending half again as much time driving around, stopping here and there, buying a Happy Meal, .375 gallons of biodiesel, or a pack of playing cards just so I could ask for the key to the restroom.

So I’d have never, ever thought of that diaper solution. I was toilet trained in utero practically. But this is something you think about if you’re an astronaut; you’ve been through the rigorous courses at the Johnson Space Center. And you’re not afraid to wear a diaper.

I made an unusual midday pilgrimage to Safeway on Wednesday. You know why: it was Saint Valentine’s Day, a secular holiday of some significance, judging by the tacky discount jewelers’ commercial lead-up to it (“Every kiss begins with Kay”). While I’m not so sucked in that I feel I must buy my sweetie a tennis bracelet – and I’m not maudlin enough to buy a sappy greeting card – I still feel it necessary to proffer a heart-shaped box of cheap chocolates by early evening. If you buy hand-made truffles, you’re a tool of the same system that finds you in front of your email at the ungodly hour of 8:30am. But if you come up with a gaudy red heart with chocolate-covered cherry goop, you’re doing pretty well. You’ve got someone you like well enough to brave Safeway at midday, yet you’re not so emotionally blackmailed that you’ve got to jump through Hallmarkian hoops.

Back to Safeway, where – like donuts – a dozen is 14 stems!

I sidled up to the automatic door, which obligingly swung open. There, on the Starbuck’s counter immediately inside the door, was chocolate in a beribboned box, tarted up as a rose with several smaller hearts. Probably all hollow. I stopped to check it out.

A guy was leaning against the Starbuck’s counter, probably waiting for his latte.

But instead of ignoring me as I rifled through the gift boxes, he goes:

“Welcome to Safeway.”

Welcome to Safeway. Just like that. As if he worked there. As if Safeway’d taken a page out of the Walmart book and hired greeters. And he waved a Princess Di wave with a little fillip at the end of the wrist-twist.

“Oh, well, thank you.” I’m temporarily flummoxed, but pleased at his charade. I smile at him.

“Welcome to Safeway.” He tries the line on the next person in the door. She looks to be a mid-30ish housefrau, running errands. And she ignores him, as only a practiced urbanite can. He might as well have been asking for spare change. Or working as a TSA security screener. He’s invisible and about as pleasing as foot fungus.

“It’s a harder job than it looks, isn’t it?” I say in instant commiseration.

“Yeah,” he goes.

He seems pretty bummed out by the whole experiment, and when the barista hands him his latte, he takes it and heads off into the store.

When you think about it, there are a variety of unappealing jobs, most of which don’t take well to you striding off like that when the going gets tough. The other day Marcia reminded me that I didn’t know just how good I had it at Tough Shit Corp, where I could bring friends in with me if I was bored, was never chastised for not wearing shoes, and could perform cheap feats of magic by finding bugs in other peoples’ Fortran code.

But you never think about your own abandoned jobs when you daydream about alternate employment.

Unlike my pal at the TSA security screening checkpoint who longs to be a window washer, my favorite job to contemplate is Sports Team Mascot. As a mascot, you’re instantly beloved by millions. In the long run, doesn’t everyone just want to be loved?

And what is it that you have to do? Jump around the astroturf like there were fire ants crawling up your legs. Maybe perform a few acrobatic stunts, cartwheels, handstands, backflips, and the like. Perhaps shout some unintelligible words of encouragement using some rudimentary type of amplification. On non-game days, you make public appearances at pizza parlors, malls, bowling alleys, elementary schools, and other places you might otherwise try to avoid if you don’t like ‘tards.

When you boil it down to its essence, it’s just like many other jobs: you get paid for being mildly humiliated.

You’re Bucky Beaver. S.J Sharkie. Rowdy the Roadrunner, Razorback Jack. Big Red. Or Steagle Colbeagle the Eagle.

And like other jobs, your own identity is subsumed by your organization’s. You are assimilated by the borg. I looked and looked and couldn’t find who wears the Steagle Colbeagle outfit (unless there’s something very odd in the groundwater in that part of the world, and that isn’t a costume).

Someday will that be a line item on someone’s resume:

2006 – 2008 Eaglesque Mascot for Junior League Hockey Team

There are other jobs which require outfits that limit air circulation to the head. For example, one may be required to dress up like chewing gum to promote – and this is no surprise – gum chewing, or in more obscure cases, underwear.

I’m relieved to discover that wearer comfort has received some attention.

The head is generally carved from a lightweight durable foam. An adjustable helmet is installed for balance and stability. A small battery operated fan circulates 35 cubic feet of air per minute. The eyes and mouth of the mascot are made of porous foam and screening to allow vision and air flow.
Of course, this is not a new kind of humiliation. It seems that most writers who are forced into temping have some contact with these jobs. In Everyone into the Pool, Beth Lisick gives a hilarious account of a temp job which consisted of dressing up like a banana right here in San Francisco and handing out real bananas for on-the-spot consumption.

Heroic to say the least.

Sports team mascots seem slightly more dignified than product mascots, and slightly less careerist than Disney characters, who are also forced wear unwieldy costumes and have their teeth judged as if they were livestock. Do you really want to have a resume item like this:

2006 – 2008 Sunsweet Prune. Appeared at Stop-and-Shop openings across the upper Midwest. Interacted with the public and promoted brand awareness. Waved enthusiastically and distributed product samples.

or this:

2006 – 2008 Second Shift Mickey Mouse. Assumed responsibility for important character role at Disney World. Interacted with the public and promoted brand awareness. Maintained superior personal hygiene and a Paxil smile even while wearing hot stuffy costume. Displayed positive Disney attitude at all times.

See where I’m going with this? You’ve got to visualize what this job is going to look like in a Palatino Linotype 9 point font, mingling with your other past employment.

I tell you what: It’s more dignified to have been an Eagle than a Prune. And it’s easier to account for what you did with your time when you’re a window washer than when you’re a systems analyst. (For that matter, it’s a better explanation for why you were peeking into windows than almost anything else.) Rest stops are less of a problem for program managers than for astronauts. Security screeners don’t have bugs in their code, but developers don’t have to sort through someone else’s dirty underwear looking for explosives.

And they wouldn’t call it work if it were fun.

A dream job? Dream on.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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12:01 AM  

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