Temporary Life 5: Survival of the Absent
When I started temping, the personal-computing revolution hadn’t yet rescued the American economy. The Internet as we know it did not exist—it was something called “The Well,” which had to be accessed by a 96-kb modem and navigated with code. Nor had the metrosexual with horn-rimmed glasses, pudendal goatee and reverse-wind-tunnel hair ascended the fashion throne. Few guessed that clicking keyboards and spluttering hard-drives presaged the splendors of infotainment, info-consumption, info-erotica, info-identity and the morphing of the egghead from social reject to revered guru.
Although the average cubical jockey couldn’t yet pretend to assiduous application while shoe shopping, his survival still largely depended on the ability to appear busy. For temps, workloads could range from negligible (if replacing a do-nothing) to overwhelming (if supporting a do-nothing). As temps in the latter category were subsumed by document production work, there was no need to pretend; they were formatting and learning software to save their asses. It was replacing a do-nothing that required the cultivation of a busy facade and the counterfeit currency of affirmation and dedication. And it was outside the cubicle that presented the greatest risk of appearing idle.
Thus many temps employed what a temp friend of mine dubbed “the office charge.” This was a quick, professionally precise gait toward a nonexistent goal—a B-line without a B. Whether on your way to the can, the kitchen to scavenge meeting leftovers or the alleyway to smoke a cigarette, the office charge made it look like urgent business. And the addition of a prop, such as a folder or document, augmented the credibility of your show of hurried officiousness.
Temps weren’t the only ones employing the office charge. An office thief who worked in my building used it to great effect for over four months. When the police finally caught him, he gave a full account of his method. He’d wear a suit, swing a briefcase, carry an ostensibly important document and rush through the hallways. As he appeared professionally preoccupied and pressed for time, no one paid him any attention. Then, when the coast was clear, he’d duck into a cubicle, rifle through the drawers, throw whatever he could into the briefcase and leave the building. He’d hock his spoils in the Tenderloin, buy a bag of dope and hole up in a residence hotel. When further questioned, he said that he considered it not just a job but a way of life—that he really liked his work and the people he worked with: “They’re polite and mostly intelligent.”
The problem with the office charge was that it relied on appearance. If misused or overused, it could damage your credibility and make you look like a jackass (in either order). Thus it was important to confine it to high-visibility exits. In the meantime, nonappearance was the most reliable and consistently applied technique of appearing busy. Nonappearance not only decreased the amount of information on which others could form judgments but allowed them to assume the best, which was that people were actually working. As absorption in work was usually the reason for not being anywhere but at work, it was also assumed to be the reason for not being anywhere at all.
Nonappearance, which in the temp’s case was a matter of hiding in one’s cubicle for most of the day, mimicked the highest ranks of the company hierarchy. After all, the privileged, like the famous, are exclusive. Seldom in body, they’re omnipresent in mind. And, generally, the higher the rank the more exclusive the executive and the less obvious and more attributed his power and efficacy.
On entering white-collardom, I immediately noticed how executives tended to remove themselves from their decisions. Like the Wizard of Oz, they manipulated the controls from behind a curtain (or mahogany doors) and let the rabble fill in the blanks and mythologize their powers. They granted live interviews with a parsimony relative to rank, exercised control with a minimum of physical presence, and let the Oompa Loompas inflate their importance. Whether temps consciously took an example from these absconded corporate deities or not, they certainly benefited from acting like them.
But temps, being the lowest of the low, couldn’t always be absent. There were situations that demanded personal presence and called for another survival technique: impersonality. Impersonality is an attitude grown out of the condition of being hopelessly subordinate and dispensable. Like the inscrutably impassive butler, the cucumber-cool house slave or the Victorian servant behind the walls, the impersonal temp assumed the role of an intellectual and emotional eunuch. He was there, yes, but as revealing as a customs agent and expressive as wood-grain laminate.
However boorish this impersonality, it did well for those who assumed it. I had occasion to see several very blasé temps take permanent positions, probably because they gave the impression that they didn’t exist for anything but the job. They didn’t take sides, they didn’t take risks, they didn’t compete, they didn’t gossip and they didn’t self-indulge, despite their David Schwimmer hair. And, like their absence, their platitudinousness was attributed to their work—that is, it was taken as a function of their profession. I have to admit that these strong-boorish types had a certain dramatic tension about them; they kept you in suspense for a ray of light, a crack in the door of their walking solitary confinement.
Reflecting on these three survival techniques—the office charge, non-presence and impersonality—I notice that they’re all a kind of absence. Nor can I help but notice how pervasive they have become. For instance, every time I see one of those “power walkers”—you know, those Dacron-dipped, iPod-nano-charged, pedometer-monitored cellulite burners with horizontally gyrating forearms—I see myself with an arbitrary memo in hand, tie flapping, charging through the fluorescent-lighted tunnels of a downtown building to some remote latrine.
As for nonpresence, its pedestrian form can be found in portable escape-and-communication technology (PECT). Ears full of news or music, eyes fixed on a screen, hands busy with buttons, mind communicating something to someone somewhere else, the motives may vary but the effect is the same: “Excuse me, I’m elsewhere.” And once armed with an excuse for being ostensibly non-present, it’s only a short step to being defensively absent—to taking cover in your PECT and, for example, wearing those “ear buds” or clamping that gadget to your noggin just to avoid the importunities of direct human contact.
This ostentatious preoccupation or cowardly exclusivity has actually become a status symbol. Not only is it expensive (iPhone MSRP, $299; unlimited service, $130 per month) but it advertises one’s importance to someone or something somewhere else. Now people wear their PECTs and PECT conversations like jewelry. And while this was inevitable with devices you could take anywhere, who suspected that people would use them to be conspicuously unavailable? That they’d take their PECTs to bars and clubs and talk, text, email and Tweet in order to appear to be elsewhere?
As for impersonality, I’m not sure exactly when it became the new personality. All I know is that, like being cool, a survival tactic of those who didn’t matter somehow became the virtue of those who did. As far back as 1995 a friend said to me, “Now it’s cool to be a normal guy.” That’s when I realized that average was not only common but special. I saw the unassuming, unintending, unoriginal, uncultivated, unidimensional and monotonic schlub-next-door appearing more often in television commercials and on the streets, looking like a third-grade baseball-card collector in all but the babe on his arm. As impersonality became the paragon of character, so advanced the Age of Ubiquity. And so rebounded our economy in a wash of Windows PCs, Dockers, Polo shirts, SUVs and baseball caps.
© Copyright 2009, Jan DiVincenzo. All rights reserved.