A paycheck is the worst drug there is – there’s nothing worse. Never put yourself in the position where someone you wouldn’t urinate on is telling you what to do at 11 in the morning- that’s just too grim. You just have to say no. It’s better to eat garbage…” — Greg Palast, investigative journalist
by pete lewis
When I moved to this country with about $500, I decided to give myself a month or so to settle into the culture before looking for work. After paying my first month’s rent, half my money was gone and since Alison, who I moved out here to be with, was a waitress earning $7.00 an hour, the time came to enter the world of work sooner than I anticipated.
You say I need a job. I’ve got my own business. You want to know what I do? None of your fucking business. –Repeater by Fugazi
At 24 years of age I had done a remarkable job of delaying this inevitability, as back in Wales I was a member of Tony Blair’s Surf and Skate team. That’s right, the British government paid for me to wake up at noon and spend the day surfing or skateboarding with my team mates, i.e. fellow doleys. It was a pretty decent lifestyle for three years. I learnt to surf pretty well. I wrote a shitty novel when it was raining, or if the waves were flat and I had no money for beer. I wrote a pretentious poem and submitted it to a poetry contest, won the damn thing, and got paid to read the fucker out loud on television.
I did do some work though. I volunteered to help teach a group of sixteen- to nineteen-year-old youth. These youth had basically been shat out through the system. Kicked out of school, barely able to read or write. They were made to go on a work placement program to learn how to become brick layers or carpenters or painter/decorators. But how can you lay bricks or saw wood when you lack basic arithmetic skills, or you can’t read? So they came to us, my supervisor Debbie and I, to learn to read, write, and do basic arithmetic at Swansea College’s Basic Skills program. If they did not put any effort in with us they would get in trouble with their work placement supervisors; if they pissed off their work placement supervisors, the dole would hear about it and they wouldn’t get their checks. So in a sense I had some influence over whether these kids would get their dole or not. Meanwhile I still had to go begging for my own dole every two weeks.
Working with these youths mostly consisted of an hour of crude banter before we could even attempt to get any tutoring done. Why the color of Debbie’s underwear was so important I don’t know. Nor do I know why we had to have endless debates over whether, because I surfed, I also smoked spliffs and listened to Jimi Hendrix.
“So Pete, when youah out there in the sea like, surfin’ and everthin’, does you listen to jimi fuckin’ hendrix like and smoke a spliff?”
“Ah, how could I listen to music and smoke while I’m in the sea?”
“Well thas wha you surfy cunts do innit? Or do you prefer Bob Marley? Hang about, why don’t you ‘ave long blond ‘air like?”
“All right lads, let’s get back to work now, shall we?”
“Yeah, but first of all, do you know wha colour Debbie’s knickers are?”
“No I don’t, and I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about it right now.”
“Ah c’mon mun. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t give‘er one, if she was bent over this table right now.”
So that was one job I had. Then I had several paying jobs that lasted anywhere from three days to three months that interrupted my surfing and skateboarding training.
I did a stint working in Toys R Us, assembling very shitty bikes. I worked as a library assistant, dishwasher, and examination invigilator at the University of Wales. I also worked in a surf shop that was owned by some people who thought there was money to be made from selling surfboards and skateboards. How wrong they were.
Then in the summers I would do a bit of cash-in-hand gardening and laboring to supplement my dole. Highly illegal of course, but everyone does it. Some sponging bastards even turn up to sign on for their dole checks with tool belts around their waists. But I could still work whenever the hell I wanted and if the waves were good my employers usually took pity and let me hit the beach.
Leading up to my departure from Wales, I tried to squeeze a last few months out of the dole. However, my employment advisor Melvyn had other ideas.
“Peter, my boy, it has been too long now and since you are still unemployed we have to start making a plan.”
If I didn’t satisfy Melvyn, then Melvyn could take my 40 quid (about $60) a week away from me and kick me off the Tony Blair Surf and Skate team once and for all.
down the corridor – to the right –
second door on the left
up the stairs –
red door on your right
follow the signs- down the hall –
turn to the left – fifth counter
second corridor – office on the left
elevator to the third floor –
second office on the right
knock before you go in
knock before you go in
“So what was your degree in, Pete?”
“American studies,” I mumbled.
“Oh really, so was mine and I eventually got a job.” Smug bastard!
Yes, Melvyn really did get his degree in American studies and we had a bit of a chin wag about U.S. labor history but there was no chance in hell that I was going to become another Melvyn, sitting their making life difficult for those of us who just wanted our 40 quid a week so we could surf, skate, spin records, write crappy poems, watch Australian soap operas, drink beer, get stoned, shoot smack, or anything else one does when claiming dole, in peace.
So Melvyn told me that I had three choices: 1) Get a job. 2) Go on a work placement 3) Get more educated. Number 1 sounded like shit and number 2 was number 1 without getting paid properly, so I had no choice but to opt for number 3. To make matters worse, my volunteer work teaching hooligan youth basic literacy skills ‘did not qualify’ and it wasn’t good enough for Kelvyn—probably because I had organized it through my own initiative, I enjoyed it, and it was worthwhile. Instead, he promised me he would get me on a ‘Teaching English as a Foreign Language’ (TEFL) course. He said it would take a month or so to organize, which was great because that meant I could continue as normal but without the hassle of proving I was looking for work.
In the meantime, I still had to meet with Melvyn every two weeks, where he told me how much trouble he was having getting me on the course. Finally, after two months he told me it was not going to happen and we would have to work out something else, which meant option 2. Melvyn wanted me to go build a brick wall somewhere, just so I could knock it down a few weeks later. Yes, I’d heard all about the digging-a-ditch-one-day-only-to-fill-the-thing-ln-again-the-next-day job placement. No, it was time to move to America once and for all.
“So what are you going to do in America then?” Asked Melvyn frowning.
“Well, I’m hopefully going to do what I do now voluntarily, but get paid for it.” I said this because I knew he had no respect for my volunteer work.
“You know you can’t just come back to Wales and claim dole again, don’t you?”
“Whatever you say, Melvyn.”
“I doubt it will be as easy as you think.”
“I’m sure it will work out fine. Fuck you very much. Now, about my last dole check?”
I’d won. I never let Melvyn force me into some mindless job and he was pissed off. No doubt he’s still rotting away behind his desk in the Job Center, that endless maze of bureaucracy.
Before I could apply for a job here in the U.S., I had to get myself a Social Security number. I phoned up the appropriate people and a friendly man read out the nine-digit number, following it with a far too enthusiastic “Now go work work WORK!!!” I would have treated it as an order if he had not said it with such joy. Scarily enough, it almost made me get excited about going out and looking for a job.
I saw an employment ad in The Oregonian. “Bindery. No experience necessary. Attention to detail a must.” Wow, I could learn to bind books and earn money at the same time. I called the number only to find it was a temp agency called Employment Trends. They set me up with an aptitude test and an interview. In the interview they reviewed my test score and asked me what my career aspirations were. Publishing, I said. I want to learn the nuts and bolts behind publishing a book.
“Well, we don’t really have any openings like that.”
“What about the bindery?
“Oh, you’re interested in that position?”
I was until she explained that the “bindery” churned out little plastic cards that were to become little rectangular symbols of people’s debt. Yes, they made credit cards, and my job would be to cut the things out—during the graveyard shift no less. No thank you.
A week or so later, I got a call from Employment Trends (or E.T.), they had a job that I was perfect for, or so they said. A company called Reliable Power needed an admin assistant for $10/hour. $10/ an hour! I had never earned that much; nearly five years later it is still the most I have ever earned. It was late 1999 and Reliable Power were under huge pressure to install, repair, and check up on all the back-up generators that would be keeping the power flowing when Y2K was supposed to come crashing in to destroy everyone’s power supply. I had always secretly wanted to be around for the apocalypse and now I was getting $10 an hour to help people prepare for it. Well that lasted a month. We entered the new century in one piece. They offered me a permanent position but the thought of it scared me more than the end of the world and so I ran to the hills. Well, back to E.T.
The result was a grim winter spent in dirty warehouses. One job I had was packing Hewlett Packard instruction manuals. I’d be on the end of a production line picking open envelopes and packing them into boxes for eight hours straight while being barked at by an obnoxious wanker that was my supervisor. Each hour I would use up another digit due to paper cuts on my fingers and under my nails. By the end of the day I would have used up all eight fingers and be sitting on the bus wondering if they would heal enough for me to work the next day. I fucked that one off within a week and lodged a complaint with the temp agency. What a crybaby I was.
Then came a job with a warehouse that supplied logging companies with tools, chainsaws, and various nuts and bolts required to ravage through what’s left of the forests with a company called Scottsco, or something “co.” When I pulled my first order for some replacement chains for a chainsaw, my heart sank. What the fuck was I doing? There were about a dozen or so of us temps but they only wanted three or four of us to stay on long-term. We soon realized that they were weeding us out one by one. Each afternoon at 4 p.m. we would all wonder if we would be asked to come back the next day. I was in two minds. I didn’t want anything to do with the scum that supplied even scummier people to deforest the beautiful hills of the Pacific Northwest, but I also had rent to pay. I decided that I would not go out of my way to prove my worth, but if chosen I would find a way to make things a little less efficient, so to speak.
As I waited for the day when I was asked not to come back I became addicted to these little sweets (candies for you American readers) called Jolly Ranchers. There was an abundant supply of them, as with each order we would throw a handful of them in the box. It was a nice little touch to show that Scottsco was an ever-so-caring business. “The customers have grown to expect them,” said the supervisor with a big grin. “Just one of the little things that make this such a great place to work. Not to mention the Sacramento Kings vs. Portland Trailblazers game we are going to send you to.”
Anyway, some workers had strategically placed Jolly Ranchers amongst the hundreds of shelves to eat when they were pretending to pull an order but really slacking off in some dark dusty corner of the warehouse. Well, I started to eat them when I was hiding somewhere in the dusty depths of the warehouse and had grown particularly fond of the green ones. At break time I was telling one of my co-slaves about the Jolly Ranchers and he asked me what ones I was eating.
“The green ones.”
“Well, remember me telling you why all you temps had been brought in?”
“Yeah, because all the stoner kids who worked here got fired.”
“Right. And those stoner kids had some fun with those Jolly Ranchers, particularly the green ones.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well have you ever dropped acid?”
“Ahh, yeah a couple of times…”
“… you are shitting me, aren’t you?”
For the next hour I convinced myself that I was coming up on an acid trip. For the next three hours I was not entirely sure what the fuck was going on. I’ll never know whether that bloke was having me on or not, but it was my most memorable afternoon of work there. Hopefully, I filled a few wrong orders that cost some logging companies lots of time and money. I was not chosen to become a permanent employee and that’s all that matters in the end.
Next came Liberty Northwest Insurance, where I took the position of “temporary file clerk”. Now, at least in a warehouse there is some fun banter, even if it revolves around cars, pornography, and insulting people’s mothers, but office work is just plain dull. You have to dress appropriately, talk appropriately, and do tedious work. However, the opportunity for slacking is great, especially when your job is searching for lost files up and down seventeen floors and a huge underground basement. Being the polite British gentleman that I am, I was given access to a room that only I and a few others (who never used it) had access to. This meant ample time for little naps throughout the day.
What didn’t surprise me was that I was really bad at this job. Even if I wanted to be a happy little efficient file clerk, I was useless at it. I was unorganized, unmotivated, and lazy, and I simply did not give a fuck about insurance. Yet, they still wanted to give me a permanent position. I tell you, temp work is such a delicate balancing act. How to strike the line between doing enough to keep the job for as long as you want it but not going so far as to get offered full-time work. You, the temp, have to remain in control, otherwise you’ve lost the game that is temping. Use the bastards because they sure as shit have no problems with using you. Use them for free stationary, midday nap time, free coffee, free computer equipment, being ‘on the clock’ even though you are halfway home, getting paid to read books and write crappy poems, and having as much fun as you can while wearing a tie. But never forget how privileged you are to be able to do this, because some poor buggers are stuck doing these mindless jobs for ten, twenty years, or until they retire.
I remember this middle-aged lady who was so excited to be a file clerk, telling me I should accept the full-time permanent position (yes, as crap as I was, they offered me a full-time job). She genuinely believed it was a great job that would offer me a bright future. I stood there looking into her bright hopeful eyes and the bags that sagged below them. I didn’t know what to say, so I just nodded and smiled. She wanted the best for me and I pitied her for the shit she had to do, day in day out, until she could retire. Unlike myself, my middle-aged co-worker was far from slack. She worked hard, heaving around cartloads of files, running all over the building, meeting every request in an effort to please her bosses, whom she adored. Also, unlike me, she had a family to support.
I knew my time at Liberty Northwest was coming to an end when, on one “Casual Friday,” I was called into my supervisor’s cubicle. Apparently I was too casual. Weird, I had changed my socks and underwear, I was wearing my shoes that had no holes in them, my t-shirt and jeans were cleanish. What was the problem? Apparently, my jeans were too baggy. Too much sag. I’ve spent years working out the correct amount of sag but, alas, it was too much for the American office dress code. Apparently, when I was bending down to place some files on a bottom shelf I had exposed a little bit of underwear. Oh the horror! My supervisor told me that I had to go home, change, and come back. I said OK, as long as I’m on the clock. What a beautiful journey that was. I took the long way home from Northeast Portland, I took the MAX (Portland’s tram type system) across the river to downtown, taking in the sights, watching everyone go about their business. Then I caught the bus back across the river to my house. I sat down for a leisurely shit, taking in a few chapters from a book I was reading, while wearing a nice warm groove into the toilet seat. Then I made a good strong cup of coffee and went to find a clean pair of trousers that were not too baggy. I had one pair of Ben Davis’ that did not smell too rank and plopped them right on before heading out the door back downtown, across the river twice and back on the MAX to arrive at work just in time for lunch. If only I had caught an Australian Soap Opera on the telly, it would have been just like a day on the dole back in Wales.
Even so, Liberty Northwest offered me a permanent job twice and so I stepped up my efforts to slow down but they still kept asking me to come back each Monday. I eventually left after “training” a replacement temp to do my job.
After a few weeks of fun in the Oregon sun, the time had come to go groveling back to E.T. and beg for another temp position. Unfortunately for me, I was on the E.T. files as being appropriate for “light industrial” work and not clerical work, even though I had just spent three months at Liberty Northwest as a file clerk. As a result, I had to turn down warehouse job after warehouse job because I knew the slack potential (and stationary supplies) were far greater in an office than in a warehouse. Then a blessing in disguise was offered to me. Just as I was getting desperate for a paycheck, E.T. offered me a position with the Good Catalog Company. It was a warehouse job but I took it.
Good Catalog was a family business that had just been taken over by the mighty Reader’s Digest, and I came aboard just as the old crew was jumping ship. Basically, we would receive all manner of crazy product samples, from tacky Christmas decorations to bad art to wildly overpriced furniture. My job was to unpack product samples, photograph them, and find a place where they could be stored until the studio needed them so they could set them up to be photographed for the catalog. Only two of us worked in the warehouse, me and my supervisor, Cindy.
I think Cindy had been through a handful of temps during the few weeks prior to my arrival, so she was pretty sick of the sight of us. I arrived at work as Cindy was sitting down to her coffee and checking her e-mail. She didn’t say a word to me for over an hour. Anyway, the work was more physical than being a file clerk, and I actually enjoyed it as I’ve always found physical work to be very therapeutic. I must have done OK as Cindy asked me to come back the next day and the next and the next until we became good friends and she offered me a permanent position as administrative assistant warehouse manager. Cool title, I know. It felt very peculiar, but I accepted after a while. I was no longer a temp.
Cindy was a pure rock and roll boss. As long as we go the work done, I could clock off early and go skate. That’s right, if it was sunny, she would actually say, “Hey it’s a nice day, why don’t you go check out that skatepark in Newberg you’ve been talking about. I’ll put you down for leaving at 4:30.” This might be at 2.30 in the afternoon.
Cindy was also the first boss I had that did not kiss up to management. She ran things her way and took no shit. She knew that as a gay woman she wasn’t going to go far or get any special favors from the Reader’s Digest Company anyway. So we got the job down on our terms and took the bastards for a ride at the same time. The chair I’m sitting on right now? Courtesy of Good Catalog Company. The globe I spin when I dream of sailing to Fiji? Courtesy of good Catalog Company. The mouse that corrects some of my typos? Courtesy of Good Catalog Company. The paper that my zines have been printed on? Courtesy of Good Catalog Company. The credit on my Powell’s Books card? Courtesy of all the Reader’s Digest books I sold to them.
Cindy remains one of the toughest individuals I have ever met, both emotionally and physically. Once we were carrying this huge desk along a narrow corridor. She was going backwards, myself forwards. We were going too fast and I rammed her hand into the wall. The corner of the desk smashed her hand up so badly it turned black. She only went to hospital after her boss saw the state of it a few hours later. Another time she went to fight wildfires in Eastern Oregon and round up all the horses to safety and was back at work the next day. Unfortunately, Cindy had numerous friends and family members suffer and die from cancer. They were all from Pendleton in eastern Oregon, which leads me to wonder what the hell they are doing out there. Is there a radioactive waste dump there or something? She left the Good Catalog warehouse in my incapable hands when she went to care for her best friend’s kid, whose mother was dying of cancer.
I had no desire to step up to her job but they were slow to replace Cindy. So I managed the warehouse for awhile with a batch of temps. I knew what it was like to be a temp so I treated them well. I had to step in a few times and demand that management tell the temp workers how long they could expect to be needed. Management were so wishy washy about the whole thing. “Oh yeah, maybe there will be some work for them tomorrow.”
Eventually GCC hired a new warehouse manger by the name of Garrison. Garrison was, and I’m sure still is, a complete wanker. Someone, I can truly say I dislike but I’m thankful that we had such a personality clash that he gave me the bollocks to leave that particular job. Garrison was a huge bastard, physically and in ego. He was also a right-wing scum (Reagan worked wonders for his family apparently) who was quick to have a joke about me being some leaf-munching hippy, but could never take a joke aimed in his direction. One day he was making fun of me for riding a skateboard and talked proudly about his son who was into rollerblading and football. I told him it was unfortunate that his son was into such crap activities as rollerblading and football. He didn’t find that very funny at all.
The breaking point was when I had to unexpectedly return to Wales for a few weeks due to a family tragedy and return to find him feigning sympathy. “Is everyone dealing with it OK? Best to just get back to work now, Pete.” So my last few weeks at GCC, I smashed loads of expensive mirrors and ornaments that I ‘happened’ to drop as Garrison handed them to me while we loaded up the van. “Look what you’ve done, Pete. See what you did?” Yes Garrison, I saw what I did. Clean it up yourself, bitch!
After GCC, I went on the internet and typed in “Ethical jobs in Portland.” No more fucking about for me. I wanted a job that I felt good about doing. And so I ended up where I am now and have been for the last five years, working with Portland’s homeless and at-risk youth. Now, as I think about it, in some respects this job has turned me into Melvyn, my dear friend from Swansea Job Center. What a truly frightening thought. One day I will write about this saga in itself but for now I leave you with my festering resume as it stands.
(illustrations: frank cubillos)
Pete Lewis is a Welsh writer living in Portland Oregon. When he is not working with Portland’s homeless youth or surfing he is working on a publishing project called ‘Foulweather.’ He is currently editing a novel entitled “Surrendering To The Undertow” and just put out issue one of the Foulweather zine.