This being a continuation of self-involved thoughts on old jobs I done did. In this chapter, the soul-mangling job that put me off office work for years – the Bloody Savings Bank:
The beginning was an omen. The job began in January, an 8am start on the other side of the city. As it began right after the Christmas holidays, I never went to see the place before I started work, but I knew what bus to get. So the first morning I jumps on a bus and head over. I had been told that the building was huge. “You can’t miss it”. Being 7.30am in January, it was pitch black outside. You could miss it. I sit on the bus pondering the vision problem, when three-quarters of the passengers shot up simultaneously, like a flash mob, and started heading for the door. “A ha!” I thought, “they must all work in that bloody savings bank”. I join them and follow. In the blackness, the kind of dark that invites maggots on toast, I make my way through gates that I shouldn’t have gotten through without a pass, courtesy of drafting the pack. And that’s when i see it, this massive, imposing, bleak, awful looking building. Oh god, I’ve arrived. Automatic doors open and I see a light inside. The doors being the mouth of the beast that will swallow me for the next few months. I am consumed.
So 140 temps walk into a building. We were all there to mark up bank books with the previous year’s interest. Old school, ink style. You stick a reference number into a computer, it would clock up the interest. You write it up, stamp it, stick it in an envelope and punt it. Job done.
Management’s estimate of how many bank books they’d receive, at least that early in the year, was off. We were all supposed to be there for a few months, but a fortnight in, the work started to run low, and heads would soon roll.
The method by which to fire a temp was less than subtle. The boss would clock up the previous day’s stats and eliminate the worst workers. They would get up and roam around the rows of desks, trying to remember who was who. When they spotted the victim, they got a quick tap on the shoulder, “Can I have a word?”, and they were gone. Well, except for the awkward moment when they’d have to come back for their jacket. The tension was heightened by the fact that the boss had numerous other reasons to be wandering the office as well. No one knew if she was up to check paperwork, fix a printer, or go to the canteen. So whenever she made a move, a bunch of eyes would follow, preparing for execution.
A defining characteristic of many temps is stupidity. A group of them decided that they would have an informal daily competition to see who could mark the most books. And they’d take it very seriously, trying to outdo each other by finishing a hundred more books than the rest of us. They didn’t seem to realise that all they were doing was shortening their stay here. With a finite amount of work, they’d just managed to short-change themselves (and us, and particularly me) out of a few weeks wages.
The bank had a few permanent staff too. One man, without fail, would spend large parts of every Monday morning staring wistfully out of the windows. The hatred for his job was painted all over his face. This was a man that had a life crisis at the beginning of every week. There was also the Queen of Exaggeration. She trained some of us up and prepared us for the dramatic situation we were getting ourselves into. One of bank books and envelopes. The first time someone encountered something they didn’t understand (like, say, a bank book with an unreadable address) and they asked her about it, she’d exclaim “Baptism of fire!”. This phrase was applied to any query that a temp had. Letter didn’t print off properly? “Baptism of fire!”. Printer jammed? “Baptism of fire!”. I could only imagine what she applied that to in her personal life.
This job was guff and quickly got boring. But the next one, a few floors below [insert netherworld analogy here] was worse. When I became a casualty of the tap on the shoulder, I was given a financial lifeline. I could embrace my freedom, but there was an opening downstairs if I wanted it. Did I want to go home, or did I want to go to jail? I don’t believe in psychic powers, but every part of my matter screamed for me to leave. Yet, regular cash was staring me in the face. I took the money, handing over my heart and soul. Gah.
I joined some grey, dead-looking people. I got my training. It didn’t take long. The job entailed the following:
- Open envelope and remove papers
- Group papers by colour
- Place in box
At first I laughed, assuming there was more to it. There wasn’t. Every morning I’d go grab a box full of envelopes and head to my desk. I’d pile the envelopes on my desk, open them, then refill the box. Essentially I was taking stuff out of a box to put it back in again. And people had been doing this job for years.
Surprisingly enough, time quickly started to drag. Soon I was given an additional job. Hooray, a break from the grind. Instead of being given piles of differently-coloured paper to sort, I got a bundle that were all blue. They had a number at the top and one in the middle. I was entering a different, more complex world. I had to put the forms in piles by the top number*. Only then could I order the sub-piles by the other number. Fantastic. So I could break the day up: three hours on the big paper, one hour on the little, three on the big. The days flew by.
*In a recent episode of Rubicon, the character Tanya was demoted to filing, which reminded me of this job. I could feel myself tensing up and my mood going stormy. These memories may never die.
And then I got another job. Whew. For the first 90 minutes of each day I was in another department. This time – opening envelopes again. But with a machine! These were special, magic envelopes, too thick to be opened by any human hand. I’d operate the machine that would open them, and there would sometimes be six to eight different things in there. Amazing. And I’d put them on little shelves. Those were the days where I refused to believe that my watch/the clock was right on a regular basis. I was often sure that I’d been in for at least an hour, when I’d see the people that start work 15 minutes after me wander in. So I’d sort paper into bundles, then move to the other department and sort some more bundles. Then I’d go onto my third job, putting paper into bundles. The joys of youth.