Monday, June 25, 2007

Work History

I was listening to a friend this morning tell a story about her first job. It was a crazy job in a corrupt office but when it’s a first job, there are things that one doesn’t realize are not the work place norm. It got me thinking about the oddity of my first job. Out of college, that is.

During high school I’d worked as a stock girl for a friend of the family’s clothing company. There, I got to watch as the VP of the company pined away for the President following him around the halls with mooney eyes and marketing budgets. Later they had an ill-fated affair. I was to learn that this sort of thing is normal, however.

My first job out of college was truly a freak show. I would name names but I just googled the company and it still exists…much to my surprise.

The position in question was a receptionist gig for a small start-up. It was my first temp job. And you know how those are. The first time they call you, you have to say yes even if it’s cleaning up after circus elephants.

To be fair, I was fairly directionless after graduating. I’d gotten a BA in English from UCI and like most English Majors floundered around wondering why no one wanted to pay me to offer my witty insights to their business, art or life. My artist boyfriend at the time was experiencing a paralyzing case of won’t-work-for-the-man-itis and had moved back in with his parents. I’d moved in with mine too but was determined to get out ASAP whether that meant working for the man, the woman or, as it turned out, the total freak.

When I walked in to the house-turned-office in a small, Northern California town, I was seized with a competitive case of possessiveness. That formica desk in a room that used to be someone’s living room would be mine. Oh yes. Mine.

The office manager and company accountant, Lori, was a large and somewhat malodorous woman but aside from poor taste in parfum, she was a decent person. When, at the end of my first temp week I broached the subject of a permanent position she’d raised an eyebrow. I would later learn that meant “sucker.”

I worked with a sales associate named Kristi who was a pretty, spunky girl with an odd, pre-hunchback condition, a sales manger who insisted on being referred to by his initials and regularly regaled us with tales of his weekend conquests, and a vice president who thought of himself as a thinking woman’s Tim Allen. These were the normal ones.

The company made a specialized software application that had been dreamed up by a code geek with programming brilliance and not much business sense. Common enough in the 90s. The uncommon part was that he was a devotee of a small cult. I don’t mean he worshipped at the temple of HTML. I mean a real cult with gurus and followers and potlucks and gods and stuff. I’m not kidding. All the programmers were part of it.

The nice part about the cult was that they didn’t try to force their views on us or convert us or anything. But it made for a sort of unspoken dividing line in the office: the culties and the normals.

Even if they had tried to sell us on their value system, I doubt they would have had much luck. The cult didn’t believe in owning anything so they rented homes and pieced together furnishings and cars. They claimed this was a reaction against capitalism but really us normals felt it was in case the townsfolk rose up against them with pitchforks and torches they’d have an easy escape.

They also believed women had little or no value aside from as domestic workers and child bearers. I tried to obliquely broach this subject with the founder’s wife but she seemed quite content in her chattle existence. We spoke from time to time when she’d drift like a ghost into the lobby. She seemed to have had a fairly normal childhood and I could never put my finger on when she’d decided she was worth so little.

The communism and misogyny aside, the actual worst part of the cult was their bare feet. Somewhere in their belief system, there was some bylaw about comfort so they rarely wore shoes. If we were lucky, they’d shuffle through our offices in sheepskin slippers. That would not have been a very big deal. I mean this was hippie NorCal we’re talking about. The thing was they pretty much didn’t believe in bathing or cleaning themselves in any way. They never could provide an adequate reason for this tenant. But we all had to smell its nefarious results daily.

It is an understatement to say this contributed in a small way to the divide between the culties and the normals. We would never cross the line into the programmer room. It was akin to walking into a pig pen. And worse yet was the founder’s office. It was like a pig pen in a New York subway in August.

One of my duties was to water all the plants in the building. The founder had many, many plants in his office. Perhaps he felt his accumulating bodily dirt brought him closer to being like the soil for his treasured plants. I never asked. I would try to schedule my plant watering around his lunch hour so he’d be out of the office but he often didn’t take a lunch hour. Lucky me. I’d walk in and hold my breath as the stench of his BO hit me like a wave of manure. The worst were the days he’d be in a chatty mood. He’d open his mouth and the odor of his rotting, stranger-to-any-dentist teeth would roll through the air toward me. I’d struggle to think of ways I could cover my mouth and nose without being too obvious. God forbid he be offended by me!

As odd and difficult to tolerate as all this was, I was yet too green to know it was not normal in the workplace. In later jobs, I would come to know that inter-office affairs, backstabbing, nepotism and the old boys club were par for the course but hygienically-challenged cult members were not.

For reasons I still fully cannot grasp, I stayed at that job for a whole year before I realized I was on an Andean goat bus to nowhere and got the heck out for a job in an Ad agency. Finally I was surrounded by normals. And now I was an executive assistant. They already had a receptionist; a six foot five, caked-on-makeup wearing, post-op Trannie. Ah the professional world.



Blogger Julie Goes To Hollywood said...

I worked in a New Orleans nightclub in college and not until many years later did I realize I had been working for the mob. They were all very nice to me.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Heidi said...

Oh that's just family for me. I can get a guy whacked if you need.

5:48 PM  

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