<%@ Language=VBScript %> Keepgoing.org - 1st Anniversary Issue: WORK - Is Temping Hell?
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Is Temping Hell?

By Carter O'Brien

Is Tempting Hell?

Temping is hell

Temping is a ride on the El

Temping is lunch at Taco Bell

Temping is hell

Mickey "Old Money" Cruz, former temp

Temping is being a cog in corporate America's administerial sump pump. If there's a no-brainer, dead-boring, shit job to do, the temp is the go-to.

Henry Kastler, former temp

Well, on the one hand, being a temp is somewhat akin to being a corporate mercenary. You show up, you do the job, you leave the office politics to somebody who gives a shit, then you go home and cash your check. Kinda like Han Solo in Dockers pants and a magnetic security badge: "I ain't in this for your mission statement, and I'm not in it for you, sweetheart. I expect to be well-paid…I'm in it for the money!"

On the other hand, being a temp is essentially a series of dull, predictable, yet serviceable blind dates. Kinda like being asked to take out a friend's retarded cousin. "Why yes, I love to file. It's a fascinating, fulfilling way to pass the time and an eminently worthy use of my talents as an individual. Would you like another bagel?"

On the other hand, though—continued exposure to fluorescent lighting, file dust, and old yellowing "Cathy" comics clipped from long-since-forgotten newspapers for long-since-forgotten reasons tending, of course, to bring on some awfully funky-ass mutations after awhile (third hands, a sixth sense for approaching supervisors, the ability to digest bargain-basement sheet cake at will)—with the economy in the proverbial johnny-flusher as it is today, being a temp is also an awful lot like being a doofy, bepimpled oaf who's sitting at home waiting for his current objet d'wank to return the 87 phone messages he's left her in the past six hours ("NoI'mNOTstalkingher!!!")

"Is she gonna call? Is she gonna call? WHEN's she gonna call? Maybe her machine's broken and she doesn't know I tried to call her? I gotta take a leak, but I don't wanna leave the room and miss...uh??? Was that the phone starting to ring? Maybe I ought to call the operator and have her test my line in case it's MY phone that's broken and she can't get through! Why isn't she calling?? Come on!! RING ALREADY!!! ComeoncomeoncomeoncomeONNN!!! Awwww!!!! Dammit, I KNEW I shouldn't have used my Gilbert Gottfried voice when I left those last six messages for her! Stupid FUCKER!! Man, I knew...wait! I got it! Next time I'll use my Boba Fett voice!!! Of COURSE! The books all say that women respect strength and all secretly want to bone a bad guy...why didn't I think if it before?? Buddy, you are some kinda genius! (paaaauuuusssse) Why isn't she calling?"

Being a temp is kinda like that.

Patrick Russell, former temp

I'm personally not sure temping is hell, but I'm open to the idea that it may be a way-station on the path there (or back). Or perhaps temping is more closely akin to one of the outer, less-intense circles of hell in Dante's Inferno. It is also possible it represents some sort of limbo similar to purgatory, or perhaps a place that has your favorite beer but no bottle opener. Temping is certainly not as horrible for a twenty-something Chicagoan as it is for a Mexican migrant worker who has to cross a border just for the opportunity to slave for a day. But these comparisons never really help. They just remind you that life can get plenty worse if you aren't careful. As I like to say, there's no such thing as "rock bottom"—you can always dig yourself a deeper hole.

While temping drives many to madness and a sense of existential dread, believe it or not there are some people who actually revel, or at least escape with personality intact, in the temp lifestyle. There are the survivors: artists, musicians, actors/actresses, writers, escaped felons—people who are just looking for a way to stay alive so they can continue pursuing a larger dream of becoming the next Michelangelo, Mozart, Meryl Streep, or Mike Royko, or just staying out of the clink. There are also the people who need some sort of wages while they look for another job. These suckers, too proud for welfare/unemployment, still believe in the archaic notion of a work ethic.

I was both a survivor and a sucker. My temping experience back in 1995 and 1996 can be visually summarized best by the drawing shown here. Armed with merely a blue ballpoint pen (and sometimes a red one), I scribbled this on the back of a notepad over about 4 months while I toiled for the Bank of America at a branch that was soon to become part of the Bank of New York. Yes, in Chicago. OK, I guess it's not supposed to make sense.

Anyway, the entire floor I worked on had the cheerful ambience of death row. People came in, turned on their computers (or in the temps' case, computer terminals), and then promptly went to get breakfast, play solitaire, or chat. Everyone was getting the axe in a few months. The people that had been working there for years would get generous severance packages. Those of us brought in to make sure a few Bank of America functions continued until the bitter end had no such light at the end of our tunnel. To be sure, there were lots of very nice folks there, and I was lucky enough to work near them. But it was hard to share their optimism at soon having freedom along with a decent chunk of change.

My day would start at 8:00 by pushing a cart, if I could find one, to a large room full of endless piles of dot-matrix paper reports. (Oh, be still my beating heart.) I would then load up the cart with all report stacks that had a particular distinguishing series of unintelligible numbers and letters on the top, and I would bring those back to my desk. There, I would separate the reports by yet another strange series of distinguishing codes. This took a good hour.

Then, about 9:30 or so, folks would start dropping off sheets of paper that were transaction tickets or some such thing, and these all had to be entered via my computer terminal to finalize the sale of anywhere from a few hundred to a few million bonds of varying odd acronyms. I realized what factory workers must have felt like when the bell rang and it was time to go from one mind-numbing, carpal-tunnel-causing task to another mind-numbing, carpal-tunnel-causing task.

In fact, this is a very poorly known fact about our nation's school system: the entire concept of class periods and bells were not created with any regard for students. It is in fact the opposite. This system was devised by wily industrialists back in the early 20th-century as an attempt to mold young immigrant children into perfect, non-thinking, factory drones. If people at an early age got accustomed to going somewhere simply by the sound of a loud bell or buzzer, these people, when old enough to be drafted into toil at the local meat-packing plant or other such place, could be efficiently moved to another part of the assembly line or its equivalent. Sorry to burst any bubbles, but nobody back then ever intended to provide young immigrant children with a free education to help them become future doctors or lawyers—good god, why would Americans (meaning the WASPs that were already here) want to do that? Somebody had to work these awful jobs, better they be done by the heathen pouring into the country from those uncivilized places like Italy, Poland, Ireland, etc.

Getting back to the temp job, there I would be, about 9:30, already resigned to another day of mindless labor. Yes, nothing gets the spirit going like, "Boy, howdy! Time to punch up an order of 321,540 shares of GMNY!" I never realized how incredibly simple it was to use the numerical keys on the right side of my keyboard. In a week I didn't have to look at it anymore, and I knew I had made the rare mistake even before the errant number stuck it to me by popping up on the screen. The concept that the temp agency had tested me for this skill of "data entry" seemed very odd.

All of the orders had to be placed by 2:00, when a larger faceless banking entity shut down our operation and moved on to another one. From 2:00 until 4:30 there was nothing to do—zero, nada, zip-point-shit. Why the hell they made us stick around was a mental exercise similar to pondering, "If there is a God, why do bad things happen to good people?" To make it worse, we were warned that it "looked bad" to read a book during this time. What the fuck they expected us to do that "looked good" I have no idea. As a lowly temp I did not even have the luxury of a real computer with a lousy solitaire game—this was before the internet and browsers were widespread, you youngsters out there, yes, this was the Olden Days. Do not confuse the Olden Days with Back in the Day. Two totally, separate days.

Now speaking of solitaire, there is little in life that is more pathetic than looking at a giant window, easily a real city quarter-block long in this case, and seeing in the reflection that 30 out of the 40 people in the office are all playing solitaire on their computers. The horrible green background stuck out like one of those VW bugs with advertising all over it that says, "Look at me! I've sold my soul!" God forbid some of these people might talk to each other, although I guess that "looked bad." It's too horrible to try and decipher—the Twilight Zone can't touch the general mind-state of your average Fortune 500 company—but I guess the guiding theme might be summed up as, "Don't rock the boat."

So there I was, every day around 2:00, my work done, no computer. I couldn't read a book, and I'm pretty sure drumming on my desk would have been frowned upon. In the anti-logic of the temp world, not only is there no work to do beyond what (if anything) you're assigned, but you are actually prohibited from doing it.

The first week was just pure, unadulterated, terminal boredom. My chief pastime was calling home every five minutes to check the answering machine. To entertain myself I began putting extensively long music recordings and monologues from the Simpsons on the machine so I could listen to them, much to the consternation of callers who would then have to sit through two minutes of Pink Floyd or the Clash playing, or Homer Simpson expressing his frustration at his fingers being too fat to dial without a special dialing wand. However, this did have an unexpected side benefit as the only callers during the day were either calling to sell something or to complain about overdue bills.

Shockingly, this got old. So I idly began to doodle away on the back of the one notepad I had been given (use it wisely, my temp Jedi apprentice). After a few days I was really starting to scare myself because I was taking a perverse pride in the mazelike squiggles that made no particular sense, but the overall effect of which was a horrifying glimpse into a mind driven mad.

Even more frightening, my coworkers started to compliment me on it, as if I were a poor struggling artist trying to bare his soul, to let his gift shine even with the awesome limitations a "Bic Round Stic Fine USA" instrument offers. That worried me. I knew I had nary a shred of drawing talent, so if there was anything artistic coming out of my caffeine-riddled and sleep-deprived self in that regard it must have been sheer insanity. Of course, people might have just been pitying me.

It was a mixed blessing that the floor I was working on closed down shortly after I finished my masterpiece, as I'm certain I wouldn't have got another pad. For my next assignment, I was locked down—literally—in the sub-basement of the building, going through pile after pile of old bonds, cross-checking a list of the bonds the bank's records said they had against the actual, crusty, moldy old bonds themselves. These bonds were not sequentially numbered, of course, because then they wouldn't have needed me to do even this. No, these bonds would be wrapped in bundles numbered something like 1023, 1024, 1025, 1027, 1030, 1031, 1033, 1040, 1041—you probably get my point. A month of this, eight hours a day, and I was starting to look back at the previous temp assignment with an unusual nostalgia. "Ah, the good old days when at least I had a phone and could scribble mindlessly for hours upon end."

I'm sure there's a moral, or some sort of wisdom I acquired at this point in my life, but I'll be damned if I can find it. Temping is an OK way to pay the bills, but without that beacon of hope of a better job or artistic opportunity down the road, it is an awfully depressing way to go through life. It may not be hell, but it sure ain't paradise.

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Copyright©2001 by Carter O'Brien.

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