I’m not sure why I avoided the inevitable for so long, but finally I became an office temp. The tests the temp agency put me through took four hours. I was given Word, Excel, safety, and receptionist exams. The safety exam determined if I understood gravity and the perils of heavy lifting. The receptionist exam tested my communication skills, weeding out any home-schooled applicants. They gave me headphones and had me watch simulated reception scenarios. At critical junctures the tape paused and asked me what the receptionist should do. I scored surprisingly well, considering I had to keep running out of the office to put more money in the meter. I was down eleven bucks by the end of the day, but the agency made it up to me with paid work the next day.
The first thing I noticed about the office hierarchy is that temps bring their lunch, jealously eyeing everyone else’s Baja Fresh. The brown bag, or in my case, a plastic Food 4 Less bag, is our shameful badge we wear in the lunchroom, if we are finally given a lunch break. My first temp job was as an assistant receptionist, and someone has to answer the phone at all times, so the receptionist is usually the last to go on break. Therefore, her assistant doesn’t eat until around 3, when you might as well hold out for the end of the day. Starving, I wondered if I could eat my spaghetti lunch without anyone noticing.
I’m a loud eater, probably because it’s one of my favorite things to do. I’ve had several friends who’ve taken issue with the noise. “It’s just a pet peeve, but I don’t like you any less.” I’m trying to correct this noise. It’s awkward on first dates, when I eat everything on my plate in record time and noise, and my date gingerly nibbles at his vegan sandwich. I decide not to try eating secretly. My boss would notice, and I have no idea what the food policy is at this office. The first day at a job is always intimidating and overwhelming, as you struggle to identify, learn, and follow the rules. Being a temp is like that every day.
My temp pimp, who gets me temp jobs, is supposed to help me transition, telling me what my duties are, who I should report to, and what I should wear. However, “business casual” really doesn’t mean anything, so it’s impossible to figure out what to wear. I showed up wearing a full pantsuit (I frantically bought it at Salvation Army the night before after realizing I had nothing “professional”) and found everyone in jeans. That was also the day I was receptionist and a beautiful bike messenger came to pick up a delivery. Eyeing his multiple tattoos, I tried to figure out a cool way to say, “This is not me.” If I had been dressed differently, it wouldn’t have mattered. I was sitting at a desk covered in crystal angels and plaques that said things like, “Angels Are Among Us.”
Usually the temp employer relationship is extremely apathetic. Why get attached? I don’t really function like this. I can’t do one-night stands and I can’t do one-day jobs. I want people to like me, recognize that I’m capable. Maybe this stems from my strange affinity for office work. While other kids pretended to be princesses or firefighters, I was hard at work in the office, filing, filling out forms, and signing checks. My cousin and I invented our own bank and office names. I was Molly Foster and she was Jessica Hoffman. Molly was impeccably organized, a clever negotiator, and excellent on the phone. We didn’t know what bankers actually did (I still don’t), but we knew they were powerful and part of that power involved using adding machines.
As a kid I hungered for the office because it represented middle class normalcy. Neither my parents had office jobs (my mom is an artist, oh the horror). Parents in movies lived in the steady, nine to five world. The office represented a world of wealth and stability that I aspired to. So I planned on joining the mundane, dreaming of become a bank teller or real estate agent. My eight-year-old self is so disappointed that I went the way of my mother. Maybe I’m trying to make it up to her by working as a temp, rather than aspiring to be a waitress and working as a hostess. Really, I’m just a snob and can’t face the possibility of not finding restaurant work as well as becoming the ultimate cliché, an actress/waitress.
Molly Foster would not be impressed with my performance as a receptionist. I live in fear of the phone. It nags at my consciousness, never allowing me to relax. When it rings my heart stops beating and I forget to breathe (each ring is like a mini-death), and when it doesn’t ring, I can’t relax because of the dreadful anticipation. For some reason the abstract nature of communicating through the phone makes human interaction terrifying. If everyone I talked to on the phone was standing in front of me, I would have no problem helping them, even though I usually have no idea how to help them. But hide someone behind a phone and they become a monster of my imagination.
The first time I worked as a temporary receptionist, the company name was unpronounceable, so when the phone rang, I would first practice my greeting before picking up the phone. I feared no one would understand my version of the company’s name. When pronounced incorrectly it sounded like I was saying “bitch,” which off put some of my first callers. I was also never sure if the caller was identifying himself or asking to be transferred to that person. Once someone said a name and I just said, “Hi.” There was an awkward pause before the caller said, “please,” and I realized what was going on. This probably wouldn’t have happened if I knew the names of the people who worked in the office. They always give you a list, but seeing a name and then hearing it pronounced is very different.
I worked at a government office where they were really taking affirmative action seriously, and the employee list read like a United Nation’s assembly. Callers would ask to be transferred, and I would scan the list frantically attempting to spell what sounded like “Tikarbunkib.” Usually I would have to ask the caller to spell the name, and this confused them. They would start spelling their own name, and I would confidently inform them that no one with that name worked here. This is when they would grow frustrated and ask when Susan, the regular receptionist, would be back. I would tell them I didn’t know, and we would both silently wonder what I did know. To fill the void I’d say, “I’m just temporary.”