Tuesday, October 31, 2017

From the Archives - Seeking Office Work, or “I Played Myself”


Back in college, I wrenched at bike shops to support myself. When I transferred from UCSB to Berkeley, I was feeling all fancy and thought maybe I could trade in my shop apron for a nice button-down shirt and make lots more money working in nice clean offices, doing word processing and database stuff (which required skills that, back then, were somewhat rare). This essay, from my archives, describes my job hunt, with copious asides about language skills and my hapless efforts to pick up chicks.

(Postscript: when I failed to find office work, I went right back to working at a bike shop. It was my destiny.)

Language Arts Field Study - August 1, 1990

It’s weird: I’m getting a degree in English, but I’m not learning very much about how language actually works. So I’ve been trying to learn how to communicate out “in the field”—i.e., in the real world. If I manage to edify myself, maybe I’ll try to figure out how to get some college credit for my efforts.

At the Manpower Temporary Service where I sought work, they spoke in special “temp” clichés. One such cliché is “temp” itself, which means “a person employed by a temporary service” who earns money by “temping.” Manpower employs entire sentences that are themselves clichés. “What is your biggest interpersonal strength?” was a rote question, read right off the intake form by the Manpower woman. Though I recognized this as a stock question, I felt like putting them on the spot for a change, so I said, “I’m not sure I understand.”

The woman rattled off a list of stock responses that were also clichés which I didn’t understand, so I was forced to reply in simple English: “I work well with people who are stressed out. At least, I don’t tend to make them angrier.” She searched her mental cliché bank and said, “Oh, ‘communication.’” Just like that, she listed “communication” as my greatest strength. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate. I sometimes don’t communicate very well at all. The problem is mechanical. When I’m under stress, sometimes my vocal chords seem to dry up completely and are replaced by a flute reed, so my voice comes out pathetic and whistling and ineffectual. So, that bit I said earlier about working well with stressed-out people? That doesn’t include myself. So it’s probably a completely false claim, come to think of it.

Things went a bit better at the second agency I went to, Kelly Services. Yes, it’s Kelly as in “Kelly girl.” I’m aware that Kelly tends to prefer girls, but at least I have a girl’s name. Plus, I run, throw, and type like a girl. My brother says I even shoot baskets like a girl, with one leg swinging back from the knee, girlishly. I don’t really care who compares me to a girl as long as I start making the big bucks.

Kelly interviewed me more casually, without obviously using a preprinted list of questions. The dialogue felt more social and didn’t involve as many clichés—or did I just not notice them because I had hit my stride and was slinging them expertly myself? No matter … I was much less flummoxed than at Manpower. Who knows, maybe I was just less intimidated, because I didn’t have big, bold notions like “Man” and “Power” hovering around me. Just “Kelly,” which come to think of it can be a boy’s name, too.

The only problem is, Kelly Services requires its employees to work for 40 hours before getting free training. Which is, of course, a catch-22. After all, how can they place me in an office when I haven’t been trained? I guess I could start with something really menial, like filing. But that didn’t work out so well with Manpower. The first would-be gig Manpower offered me was “collating data.” I didn’t know what this meant, but it sounded high-tech and complicated. I tried to stall for time, on the phone with the Manpower recruiter, while I looked up “collate” in the dictionary. I couldn’t find it in time (I thought its spelling began C-O-A-L) so I had to turn down the gig. I only figured out that it meant basic filing after it was too late to accept the assignment.

Fortunately, when I interviewed at Kelly I came equipped with plenty of word processing experience, having used WordStar 3.3 for years. This software wasn’t listed on the application form, though, so I had to check the box next to WordStar 5.5. I was thinking, like, how different could they be? The answer is: very. I had to take a test on 5.5, complete with decimal tabulations, funky temporary margins, and other jumps through the proverbial hoop. I was forced to completely wing it, and hoped that the time I wasted scratching my head would be offset by my blazing typing speed.

I got the results back and only qualified for a Category IV ranking, which seemed like a disaster. After all, my only context for “Category IV” was Bikespeak. In bike racing circles, a Category IV is the scum, the newcomer, the very bottom of the barrel. But it turns out that in Tempspeak, the ranking is the other way around: Category IV is the highest ranking. The woman who interviewed me seemed impressed and waived the 40‑hour work requirement for free training, so today I went in for my first free training session, so I could learn a word processing program that offices actually use.

In my personal definition, “knowing a word processing program” means having so much experience with it that even the most complex operation is as automatic as the beating of my heart. With this in mind, I figured training in industry-leading WordPerfect would take a really long time, as in a week or two. I figured that winging it with WordStar 5.5 was only a temporary expedient, a computer one‑night‑stand, useful only for convincing the Kelly folks that I’d processed words before. But I was wrong: the standards that Kelly Services uses (and hence, their customers as well) are much more liberal. Apparently no office ever expects a temp to know anything, and trumped-up résumés are expected. And Kelly was all about trumping up my résumé.

What the hell am I talking about? Am I communicating this to you effectively? What is “this”? Okay, here’s what I’m getting at: in about an hour I completed the entire battery of WordPerfect training, and tested at Category IV with what Theresa, my supervisor, said was quite possibly the highest score she’d ever seen. She said only one other person she’s ever tested made Category IV. I left the office totally pumped. Do you know this word “pumped”? I never heard it used in Colorado, so I will assume it’s Californiaspeak. It means about the same thing as “stoked.” I figured with that rare Cat IV rating I would be pulling in big bucks in no time, just by waiting near the phone for assignment after plush, indoor, air-conditioned assignment.

I strode out to my parked bicycle, kind of floating above the sidewalk, soaring on a thermal of pure optimism, thinking divine thoughts like, “Dana Albert. Category IV. Yeah. That kind of temp.” In fact, I even did a fist-pump. O, what a rarified form of communication this is. It doesn’t even require a mouth: it’s non-verbal. I learned it only recently. Here’s what you do. Simply extend your forearm, palm up and parallel to the ground, with your bicep roughly 45 degrees to the forearm. Then make a fist and draw it straight back (keeping the forearm parallel to the ground) until it slides in right next to your belly (within a plane perpendicular to that of your chest, of course). The fist‑pump, I’ve learned, used to be accompanied by either silence or the somewhat stupid‑sounding exclamation “Boom, baby!” But now I sometimes do it with a quiet “Eeeyyyyeeessss!” This is kind of an elongated “yes.” It’s stretched out in the way that holy rollers can drag three syllables out of “Jesus” (i.e., “Juh-HEEE-zuss!”).

I rode home, parked my bike, plopped down in a chair, and waited for the phone to ring. This is the natural next step in the temporary service employment process. But the phone didn’t ring. It didn’t ring all afternoon, and it still didn’t ring the whole next day, or the day after that. This temp thing was supposed to be more lucrative than fixing bikes, but of course that’s only when on-the-clock, which I had yet to be. I sat around my apartment losing money for about a week before starting to worry that “Cat IV” doesn’t actually mean anything. It began to dawn on me that perhaps the recruiter had been exaggerating about my performance on the word processing test. I realized, with a pang, that she’d been lying through her teeth about the uniqueness of my WordPerfect abilities. And why would she do this? To boost my confidence, of course, so that in my first ten minutes at my first assignment I wouldn’t disgrace myself, and my temp agency, with the flute-reed-voice.

Finally I got a gig, but it wasn’t based on my WordPerfect abilities. It was a half-day stint as a receptionist in the University of California Office of the President in downtown Oakland. I was coached quickly in Receptionistspeak, which involves smoothly and glibly lying through your teeth. “I’m sorry, Mr. Smith, but Bill has just stepped out of his office for a moment. Can I take a message and have him get back to you?” (Bill has told you in advance, even making a throat-cutting gesture for emphasis, not to put Mr. Smith through, and will under no circumstances get back to Mr. Smith, ever.)

I’m still somewhat weak with this language, because the incredibly long silent spells inherent in the job turned my vocal chords to mush and warped my sense of time. Perhaps the lack of phone interactions made me a bit crazy, all that dead silence, so I was trying to wring as much out of the rare call as I could. I haven’t fully grasped my own motives, but suffice to say my speech during these calls dribbled quietly and lackadaisically out of my mouth. With a bit of the right twang I reckon I could have even passed for a Southerner. This slow speech had a profoundly unsettling effect on the frenzied caller, who invariably had a deadline which he’d never make if enough people like me lacked his swift pace.

Fortunately, of the five floors of the Kaiser Building that the University of California occupies, my floor was the quietest so I spent most of my short receptionist career just sitting at the hugest desk you’ve ever seen, staring blankly down the hallway into which the elevators spill, listening to the only noise perceptible to me, which was a fan or humidifier or something. My responses became so dulled that whenever somebody called or asked me something, I played myself.

The expression “I played myself” is another one I never heard in Colorado, so I’ll chalk it up as more Californiaspeak. It means, near as I can figure, “I acted in such a manner as to fail in achieving my goal, and in such dramatic fashion as to rob myself of most of my self‑esteem, which of course will increase my chances of repeating this failure.” The term is most frequently used to describe errors made with a member of the opposite sex, generally resulting in being ignored or even told off (that is, being “shut down”) by said member of the opposite sex.

Notably, the emphasis with the term “I played myself” is on the fact that the person who played himself is totally at fault. In contrast, if a girl shut you down for no good reason while you were behaving perfectly, of course you didn’t play yourself. To describe this latter situation, you would use the Spanish idiomatic expression, “Dio me calabazas.” I pronounce this, for better or for worse, “Da meh caleh-BASS-us” because that’s how it’s pronounced by my gringo friends, who turned me on to the phrase. Its literal translation into English is “she gave me pumpkins” but its meaning is that which I have described above. Perhaps this is because pumpkins are almost worthless, making the statement roughly equivalent to “She gave me nothing in return for all the goodness I showed to her.”

The beauty of this expression is that its all‑too‑frequent use has resulted in its literal English translation being completely acceptable. For example, a friend will ask, “What happened to Connie?” and I’ll answer, “Aw, she gave me pumpkins.” (In fact, there is no woman named Connie. In the extremely specific and localized dialect of my apartment, “Connie” means “any girl on whom you once had designs.” This comes from a friend of ours who became infatuated with a girl over the course of a night out with a group of friends, and—unable to remember her name but thinking it might be Connie—called her this, but rolling the “C” into a kind of gravel-y “H” in the hopes that if he’d guessed wrong she’d simply think he was calling her “honey” and not be offended. Her name was, like, Monica, and she was plenty offended. But I digress.)

This “pumpkins” expression has proved extremely concise. My roommate was all pumped for a big date with the fly betty of his dreams, but it didn’t go well. When I got home, ready to ask all kinds of prying questions that would elicit painful answers, he stopped me short by greeting me with, “Dude, welcome to the 62nd Street pumpkin patch!” (Maybe I’ll ask somebody out in late October, so when she shines me I can tell Brett, “Dude, I met the great pumpkin!”)

Brevity is especially helpful—a lifesaver in fact—in the realm of dating because it helps the jilted would-be boyfriend abbreviate the long, boring story, larded with incessant whining, that would normally alienate his otherwise steadfast guy friends. If he truly believes he had a shot but blew it by being arrogant, or timid, or unexpectedly deploying flute-reed-voice, he can assign the blame to himself with a brief phrase—“I played myself”—in lieu of endless self-abnegating blather.

As potent as these crafty new phrases can be, sometimes utter silence is altogether better. Girls should consider this the next time they utter that most base and cruel lie, “I’ll call you.” This underhanded rebuke is absolutely never true, for the simple reason that even in this enlightened age, girls aren’t supposed to call guys. The guy is supposed to call, and call again, and never lose hope. If the girl calls, she insults herself. Why, I’d bet that the chances of a girl actually calling you are even lower than the chances of a temp agency calling you. The actual meaning of “I’ll call you,” when uttered by a female of the opposite sex, is “I will not call you.” The subtext is, “Don’t bother calling me. You have insulted and disgraced me with your [lack of confidence] [lack of good looks] [lack of cool clothes] [flute-reed-voice].”

So, yeah, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my field study of how language is actually used, it’s this: if a temp agency says “I’ll call you,” it’s best to head straight to a bike shop and ask, “Are you hiring?” And if a fly girl ever says, “I’ll call you,” it’s best to go straight home and tell your roommate, “Dio me calabazas.”

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