Temporary Life 1: The Lying Debutante
During the recession of the late ’80s and early ’90s, big businesses were suffocating in their own fat, bloated from non-performance-related capital the Reagan Administration had pipelined from public coffers in the form of deregulation, tax cuts and corporate welfare. As these companies were actually failing and realized that they would have to practice economy all on their own or cease to exist, they downsized and reorganized (laid off workers, cut salaries and benefits, and reallocated the work). This is the fascinating story of how that historic trend was instrumental to my becoming a stellar white-collar asshole.
Again (as we seem to forget), Reagan gutted the public infrastructure to channel tax money into the military, corporations and interest on the biggest debt in human history. The first Bush Administration blithely and unimaginatively (hereditary) proponed and prolonged Reagan’s dysfunctional fiscal policy, or lack thereof, and big-government deficit spending became the actual practice of the anti–big-government party, despite its fiscal-discipline propaganda. Public money flew to industry cronies, redundant nuclear (noo•klee•er) annihilation, splendid little wars, coups and insurgencies against popularly elected governments, galactic ray guns that didn’t work, supermax penitentiaries, the War on What’s Immoral and, of course, interest on the ballooning national debt. It was public money the public never saw again. Otherwise, then as now, wealth stratified to those who didn’t need it and wouldn’t spend it (except in the form of campaign contributions).
The effect on everyday life was manifest. Unemployment went through the roof. Urban centers mired in crime. Empirica, in all its martial might, became one of the least-educated and most dangerous countries in the world. On the city streets AIDS and the crack wars raged. Violence, both other- and self-inflicted, was a way of life. Insane asylums and old folks homes vomited their patients into the streets. Drug- and alcohol-addled vagrancy was part of the view. And the Rodney King riots punctuated a good run for the GOP. In the midst of all this, lots of people were living in genteel poverty—specifically, graduate-educated twenty-somethings with no white-collar job experience, who’d been working in small businesses since they’d left school and surviving on $5 to $8 an hour by virtue of the fact that in those hip but crime-ridden neighborhoods life was cheap.
Then came the ’92 presidential election and the thinking was, please, God, not another republican. Because, then as now, republican fiscal policy was privatization (cronyism), republican foreign policy was militarism (global profiteering), and republican domestic policy was PR (propaganda). So a democrat was elected and the economy began to recover. Crime and unemployment decreased, rents increased and genteelly impoverished twenty-somethings had to make more than $10 an hour to survive. Under this imperative many of us joined the white-collar industrial revolution that transformed desks into workstations and offices into places where people sat at computers all day. We recognized that to make money we’d have to learn those machines and the lever-headed jargon that management took for a manifestation of genius.
The problem was that we needed experience to get experience. We overcame this by signing up for temp agencies, which tacitly understood that a “self-starter” with a “can-do” attitude (i.e., one who can convincingly say yes regardless of the truth), who had finished college and could type at least 40 words a minute, could probably figure out how to survive an office job. After all, these agencies had everything to gain by a temp who could fake it and learn quickly, and nothing to lose by a temp who couldn’t. So, pretending to the experience we lacked, we got our experience, experience be damned.
When as a temp I made my entree into the offices of corporate Empirica, I didn’t think it would be all that different from a non-corporate workplace. By that time I’d had at least fifteen jobs in various small businesses, where people were people—that is, where they could be eccentric, hip, asinine or powerlessly malicious, so long as they didn’t raid the till. As I had no experience with white-collar culture when growing up—Mommy was a schoolteacher and Daddy a graphic artist—office life was utterly new to me, and from day one I struggled with its strangeness and irrationality, while others appeared to take it for granted.
One of the first indications that I was entering an alien culture was my agency’s advice to remove all traces of graduate studies from my resume. At first this didn’t make sense. Why would the ability to exercise esthetic and ethical judgment relative to a body of knowledge be an impediment? I was given to know that not only did post-baccalaureate learning make coworkers and supervisors insecure, but learning in the arts and humanities was an especially compromising asset, something that rendered one superfluously cultured and professionally obtuse. Wonder of wonders, a place that required an education also scorned learning as something that solely gratified one’s ego and made others look stupid. So I pretended to be a nice guy with nothing on his mind but his boring job—naturally I wanted to master the conditions that would secure my living and save me from having to pull espressos, frame posters, sell books, water plants or stack books for $7 an hour.
At first it puzzled me, this preposterous assumption that white-collar work was not for the cultivated. As most office work would be easy for a child of ten, the assumption was clearly not based on the fear that the work would be too difficult for an educated adult. Nor could it have been predicated on the possibility that the work might be too easy. After all, technology, engineering and business graduates were hailed as eminently eligible for this work, for which they were just as superfluously educated as a Literature graduate. No, this antipathy to the arts and letters boiled down to a cultural prejudice. This is not to say that there aren’t white-collar jobs that require years of experience, education and training; it’s to point out that office culture was not governed by practical concerns as much as by the prejudicial morality of the white-collar American Philistine. It is a culture driven by stereotypes of professionalism as manifest in attitude, interest, appearance, diction and deed.
Fortunately, having accessed this culture via temporary employment, I could attribute some of my adjustment difficulties to a lack of familiarity with the particular workplace. Still, I felt like an immigrant or a spy. I’m sure there were others who felt the same, as there appeared to be little difference between acting and being. For me, however, adapting to this culture essentially became the job; meanwhile, I acquired all my technical skills heuristically on company time. I came to understand that certain people actually preferred falsehood to truth—they’d take false optimism over true pessimism any day. Thus, in omitting what no one wanted to hear, I was able to rationalize away ethical qualms about being dishonest. In fact, office culture made the lie of omission not only preferable but necessary. And the office people really appreciated being kept in the dark; in that culture, the truth was an unnecessary inconvenience. Was it so odd, then, that where I pretended to a morality, attitude and competence I didn’t have, I received rave reviews?
My agency especially appreciated this dissimulation. I needed experience to get experience, and, one way or another, I had gotten my experience. They were most thankful to have in me a veritable “human resource”—that is, a walking, talking, breathing, commodity with a can-do attitude. I’d get agency calls—”Do you know PhotoShop?” I’d say yes, which meant that, yes, I could learn it before anybody knew that I didn’t know it. I’d go out on an assignment that required mastery of PhotoShop and, under the stress of having to perform, I’d learn it and add it to the growing list of applications on my resume. Over time, my learning and acting skills sharpened, as did my actual expertise. I lied to learn and learned to lie until the lie became the truth and I achieved my objective: I was making at least $13 an hour (the agency was charging $30) and eating meat again.
© Copyright 2005, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.