Molly Swenson
A DOLLAR SHORT

So uncool

By - Jun 29th, 2009 07:46 am
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I have had a panic about what to wear for my first night of training at the cube farm job I started tonight. This is an issue that always makes me tweaky. What to wear, how to look, how to manage my hair, whether or not to accessorize. In the end, it never matters; my fashion is horribly out of date and I am nothing if not fundamentally frumpy. At my interview, the recruiter made it clear that we could wear whatever we wanted – this was not helpful. I’m not comfortable showing up for work in flip flops and cut-offs. However, the tan twill pants, Target clearance top and cardigan I finally decided on placed me fully in the category of overdressed. I was a step above the company’s HR-Generalist in terms of professional attire. Once again, I was a pret-a-porter disaster.

Despite the fact that I was 15 minutes early, the only seats left in the tiny meeting room were in the front row. I grabbed the one on the corner, closest to the door and instantly regretted my decision. I am a people person – inherently so. And I could not see a single person. I couldn’t get a vibe on the room. And worst of all, I couldn’t tell if the people behind me were laughing at my outfit.

Even from my limited vantage point, I coud see that I was completely surrounded by young hipsters. I must have been at least 10 years older than anyone else in the room, and at least 19 years older than the HR-Generalist. They had me on all sides (except the tiny little part of my shoulder still hopefully pointed toward the door) and I was intimidated. The last young woman to enter the room was stunningly beautiful in her skinny jeans and Punky Brewster-style T-shirt, socks and Converse lace-ups. Huge eyes and perfect skin, with perfect tattoos and even more perfect piercings. I touched my own earlobes and felt naked beside her. She plopped her huge orange messenger bag down in the last open seat in the room and started ransacking it, while all eyes fell on her expectantly. When she found her lip balm, she sat back up straight and smiled broadly as if to say, “That’s it folks, show’s over.” Our attention returned to the front of the room.

The meeting was brought to a start by the HR-Generalist, a young man dressed in some sort of poet’s blouse, faded jeans and leather thong sandals. His voice was flat and monotone, and he was clearly uninterested in his new group of trainees. In essence, this meeting was for the sole purpose of reading the entire employee handbook to us – one flat, monotone paragraph at a time.

Believe it or not, there were some really interesting things buried in the handbook. But apparently I was the only one who found humor in them.

“Alcohol and illegal drugs are not allowed on the premises. Employees are not allowed to come to work under the influence of alcohol and/or illegal drugs to the extent that your ability to work is impacted. This will result in a verbal warning.”

No shit? So I can be a little high, but not very high? I instantly wondered how much X would impact a young hipster’s ability to work. Sadly, I have lived a very clean life and right now, when I’m raising my kids and working a new part-time job seems like a bad time to take up the chronic, the speed or even the drink.

At one point, I raised my hand to ask a question. I think this doesn’t happen very often at these meetings because the HR guy wasn’t sure what to do. “Um, yeah?”

“I know that we’re not supposed to have our cell phones on the floor with us. I have children at home. How do they reach me if there’s an emergency?” I asked.

“Well, you can’t have your cell phone with you on the floor.”

“Yes, I understand that,” I nodded to show that I not only understood it, but I wasn’t questioning the rule or its validity.

“Okay.”

And it seemed the meeting was going to continue. But we were at the place in the handbook that talked about what numbers to call if you needed to reach someone in the office, so I tried again.

“I’m sorry. I guess my question wasn’t very clear. If my kids are at home this summer, and they have an emergency, which number do they call to reach me?”

“There are to be no cell phones on the floor. You’ll be getting a locker and you need to lock your phone in it every day when you get to work.”

“Mmm-hmm,” I was still nodding, trying to wait for the real answer without either losing my patience or bursting into tears of embarassment, because despite the fact that this guy was asking for questions after every paragraph, he clearly didn’t want to answer any questions and no one except me wanted to ask any questions anyway. Phew.

“Well, if your child or your child’s school needs to reach you … Wait – does anyone else here have kids?” This last part he addressed to the whole room. Resounding silence.

“No, I didn’t think so.” I was certain this was said to illustrate that I was taking up valuable time asking a question that was only relevant to me, but maybe I was just being sensitive. “If your kid or their school needs to call you, they call the second number on that page. We cannot confirm or deny that you’re here or even that you’re an employee here. Whoever calls needs to tell whoever answers the phone that it’s an emergency and leave a number. We’ll get you the message as soon as we can.”

He moved on to the next part quickly, to discourage further questions or clarifications from me. I sat trying not to worry that my house would burn down while I was at work, and no one would “get me the message” until after the one of the kids had heroically tried to save the other from the flames, only to trip and fall down the stairs (which would be smokey and wet with the water from fireman’s hose) and end up just a charred remnant of my life before the cube farm. I shook my head vigorously to get the image out of my third eye. The HR guy looked over at me with one raised eyebrow, worried that I was going to speak again. I looked down at the employee handbook and blinked hard.

I was a long way from home. My new job was clearly highly structured, and even rigid. This place was a “system” in every way possible, and I was now part of it. This is my first excursion into a cube farm, and I am stunned.

The meeting covered clocking in and out, personal time, attendance policies and how to label your food appropriately so it won’t be stolen from the refrigerator. The HR guy said, “Just so you all know, we had to install security cameras in the lunch room. Every time someone has stolen a lunch from fridge, we have caught them. Stealing someone’s lunch results in a written warning.” Somehow, this wasn’t comforting. The indoctrination continued for an unknown amount of time – there are no clocks in this place. (Note to self: if I can’t have my cell phone with me, I need to buy a watch.)

Finally, it was time for a tour, then our first 15-minute break. I dutifully followed the rest of the sheeple from the training around the maze of offices, classrooms and cubicles. Somehow, we ended up right back where we started, but I knew that none of that “tour” had sunk in. (Note to self: when giving initiates a tour, provide context and relevance to aid overwhelmed memories.)

I tromped back to the break room, again following my fellow sheeple, and sat down to eat a little of the lunch I had packed for myself. The beautiful people were pulling protein bars, tofu salads and energy drinks from their backpacks and man bags. I looked down and realized that I had packed for myself the exact same lunch I pack for the kids every time one of them has a field trip: Lunch meat sandwich, string cheese, sun chips, apple, cookie. Even my lunch was uncool. I quickly ate half of everything I brought (except the apple – apples are hard to wolf down, and harder to repack for later) while watching the interpersonal dynamics of the other trainees.

The young woman I mentioned earlier was paying very close attention to a young man with acne, bad hair, bad teeth, and ill-fitting skinny jeans. I was mesmerized as they introduced themselves and struck up a conversation. I was incredulous that this was the person she had chosen to cozy up with – and it seems the rest of trainees were just as stunned. They made quite a pair, sitting in the center of the room. Her voice was a little too loud, her laugh rich and genuine. She was showering him with herself as he stammered to keep up with her beauty and chatter. I noticed a couple of people glancing towards them and gesturing. It was unbelievable to every single person in that room. Except for – him. The geeky guy fell right in and clearly felt that his place was next to her.

As we wandered back to the classroom (I only got lost once), I wondered if poor orthodontia and hygiene were the new keys for male success. How had I missed that memo? And more importantly, how had it happened? I just sat in my desk shaking my head as I waited to have my ID picture taken and be fingerprinted for the security system.

Categories: A Dollar Short, Voices

0 thoughts on “A DOLLAR SHORT: So uncool”

  1. Anonymous says:

    How could one not sympathize with M. Swensen? We’ve all had jobs where we felt entirely out-of-place, and probably the young hipsters with whom she’s surrounded feel awful too, since the job sounds rigid! What IS a cube farm (polite term for an office)? Yet jobs are necessary to us, and we aren’t always handed the ideal. Excellent writing – made me feel as if I were there!

  2. Anonymous says:

    What kind of job “cannot confirm or deny that you’re here or even that you’re an employee here”? CIA? Cult? Weird…

  3. Anonymous says:

    This totally gave me flashbacks to junior high and high school. Systems of any sort are completely soul-crushing.

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