I produce 9,000 pounds of bean sprouts each week

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In 1982 I was just getting out of the Peace Corps. My dad had bought a farm wanted to do something with property. So we decided to go into business together. He bought the farm originally to grow grapes but that didn’t pan out. At the time, we thought that to really promote your wines you had to have a festival, and that would mean you had to bring thousands of people here for a wine tasting. It was a major thing that we didn’t want to do. So we built a greenhouse and started growing herbs, tomatoes, watercress, European cucumbers. There was an emerging market for hydroponic lettuce so we started growing lettuce hydroponically. Every year we added a greenhouse and pretty soon we had 20,000 square feet of produce.

We sold produce wholesale. There’s a big produce market around, especially in Cincinnati because of the river. There’s an established warehouse district there. We knocked on doors and did cold calls. We were supplying the Meijer chain for a while. And then one of our alfalfa sprout growers lost their supplier and wanted a replacement and asked if we knew how to grow alfalfa sprouts. We didn’t but of course we said yes anyway. (Laughs)

We tried to build our own equipment and grow sprouts in the greenhouse, but it just didn’t work out. Months later we bought the right equipment and did it the way it really needs to be done. The alfalfa sprouts are grown in a large rotating drum. You add water and light, and they green up after a few hours. You load in about 80 pounds per drum, and you get about a 10- 15:1 ratio after about five days. They were used primarily for salad bars, sandwich shops.

The green sprouts (alfalfa) business declined. A lot of the chain grocery stores dropped green sprouts – the green alfalfa sprout has an inherent problem with salmonella and E.coli. The structure of the seed has more crevices for bacteria to hide. We got out of alfalfa ten years ago but alfalfa sprouts led to us see the market for bean sprouts. The bean sprout market is pretty good – a lot of Asian markets and grocery stores.

Bean sprouts are a highly perishable product so there aren’t a lot of growers around. They can’t bring a decent bean sprout in from another state without paying huge shipping costs, so it favors the local grower. You want to get them sold within two days of harvest, and they need to be consumed within 10 to 14 days. I think the distributors we use ship in some sprouts from Chicago and I know there’s a grower in Columbus, but he only has a few sales in Dayton.

The process we use is unique to bean sprouts. The equipment we have is specifically for growing them. We’ll load up 110 pounds of seeds in a 3’ x 4’ x 4’ bin. The bean seeds themselves come from China. I don’t know why – maybe they grow the best beans? The bins are in a dark room and we spray them with water every two hours. We do a test and send it to a lab in Cincinnati twice a week to test for E.coli and salmonella to make sure the product is safe. We have a recycling system that cleans 80 percent of the water we use. The beans sprout on the bottom and push successive layers to the top. Kind of like they’re in dirt. On the sixth day of the process, we process them, package them, and put them in a cooler. We ship them on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. We sell about 9000 pounds per week. It’s an amazingly big market. (Laughs) And that’s just the Dayton and Cincinnati area.

 

(Let me interject and say that a bin full of fully sprouted sprouts is totally surreal – the bins are four feet tall and are completely, completely packed with sprouts. You can reach your hand in and it’s this weird tangle of dense but loose sprouts with seemingly no end. They are so dense that you could probably walk on them. The bins are in a dark, damp room, and standing on a bucket and peering over the top into a bin and seeing an ocean of yellow-green fibers makes for a really odd sight. Not to mention that if you opened the vertical door on one of the bins, a few hundred pounds of sprouts would avalanche out and cover you in their watery, earthy essence. Maybe I’m just used to seeing them in small cartons in grocery stores, so the sheer amount of sprouts in one place is hard to process, not to mention that this is just one of seven bins.)

It’s been a nice business. It’s profitable, the market’s consistent, and it grows. But it takes a lot of commitment. Someone has to be here every day to check on them. We have alarms for malfunctioning pumps In fact, the most catastrophic event we experienced was when the computer that controls the watering cycle broke down last winter. I had to come in every two hours for a whole week and push the watering server bar over the bins by hand. I had help doing it during the day but I had to stay overnight every night and get up every two hours to do it. That’s the thing about small businesses – you make enough to survive, but a lot of times you don’t make enough to pay a manager to take responsibility for things. (Laughs) The responsibility comes back to me.

I graduated from college with a degree in Zoology. I had never even tasted sprouts before we started. In the Peace Corps I was raising fish – it was a kind of farming, but I really had no experience with growing. I learned my business sense along the way. Raising sprouts isn’t something I ever saw myself doing, but isn’t that how most people end up in life – not really doing what they thought they were going to do?

 

 

 

 

 

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Chatting with an electrician in New England

A few years ago, I got a job as a laborer on a four-man carpentry crew. It was my first time working in the construction field and so the way in which projects come together was new to me. Most construction crews do not handle all aspects of a project, and usually contract out the various trade-specific aspects (plumbing, electrical work, etc.) to people they know and trust.

I met the interviewee on a job where both she and my crew were contracted for specific kinds of work. My boss had also worked with her on a number of his own projects. Thus our paths crossed somewhat frequently, and she and I would talk over lunch. I was stunned to learn that she was relatively new to the profession – I had always assumed that anybody skilled in trade had been doing it in some form or another since they were a kid – and she explained that her foray into electrical work was the successful result of a mid-life career change.

This knowledge explained the beatific look of pleasure as she went about her work. Honing in on what you really want, even if it takes you a while to find it, inspires a deeply personal relationship with your profession; she had found her calling and was thrilled to be doing it. Her projects were assessed and undertaken with a meticulous attention to detail that bespoke curiosity and respect, punctuated as her corner of the jobsite was by the occasional outburst of swears in response to the difficulties of her line of work. But as she explains, those frustrations, as dangerous as they are, are part of the reason why the job is so appealing – only you are responsible for figuring out the problem, and in a profession fraught with a million of these challenges, it’s incredible to be able to trust yourself.

How did you get into this profession in the first place? What led you to seek out a career change?

I had no idea that I would ever end up as an electrician. It never crossed my mind. I taught high school English for three years and then I went to grad school in New York City. My degree was going to be in medieval lit. I was pretty much on the road to be an academic, a college professor of English. But over the years I realized I was not fully satisfied with what I was doing.

But I was plodding away at my PHD – at ten years in (laughs) I passed my orals and was facing my dissertation. At the rate I was going, it was going to take me the rest of my life. In the mean time I was teaching freshman college English, but I stopped that and worked as a secretary at a law firm. It was just a job to earn money and I finally realized that I needed to drop out of grad school and figure out what I really wanted to do. I knew that even if I finished my dissertation I was facing a lifetime of this kind of academic work, which I would just procrastinate doing and then cram and then procrastinate again. My problem with literature – even though I loved it – was that it was so intangible, so amorphous, so open to interpretation and you didn’t ever really see (or it took a long time for you to see) concrete results to your work. I liked teaching, I really liked teaching the high school age group, but the problem I had with teaching was that I felt like I wasn’t creating anything. I was helping others create. I wanted to do something where I could see the result of what I did in a tangible form at the end of the day.

I thought I wanted to do some more tech stuff. I tried web design and some computer programming, but I didn’t like the idea of sitting in front of a screen all the time. I didn’t want to be sitting down. I was looking through the help wanted ads, and I realized I wanted to do something more physical. I was thinking about carpentry so I was looking through all these help wanted ads for a period of time, and there was this one ad for electrical apprentices. It planted a seed, and about a year later I decided to try it. And I really liked it. And it’s actually the most enjoyable work I’ve done my whole life.

I hope to continue working at this as long as I am physically able — at least 10 or 15 more years.  However, it would be great if I can arrange my work schedule so that my work hours are not so long and intense, and so that I can take some more time off every year.

Do you think the job is suited to your demeanor or the way your mind works specifically and that’s why you enjoy it so much? You said you were interested things like that in the past – did you do anything like it growing up?

A little bit, for my dad. My dad was an academic and an intellectual but he also liked farming and building, and he did a lot of stuff on his own. So I liked helping him with that kind of thing. But suited to my demeanor? I really like this physical part. I like being able to haul stuff around and crawling through spaces and climbing up high in attics and stuff like that. It’s also a mental challenge. If it was only physical, I don’t think it would satisfy me. I like that I have to figure things out and do calculations. It’s like a puzzle.

Was there an a-ha moment when you realized you made the right choice, when it all clicked?

It was an after-the-fact thing. I had no idea if I would really like it, and I never do things that way. Usually I’m the kind of person that pre-plans everything. I guess because I was willing to try it that…

Was there an element of desperation?

No, not desperation. It was sort of like I was wondering…I’d spent so many years doing things I really didn’t like and it was coming to a point where I needed to find something or else I’d be really unfulfilled. And then when I started becoming an electrician, it was clear that I really liked it.

I started this at 42, and I’m 54 now. So it’s been almost twelve years. And that’s very late in life to start a trade like this. But I wasn’t scared. I felt like it was something I needed to do and I was going to do it. I didn’t have many choices. I wasn’t going to do anything else because it was clear I didn’t like anything else that I had tried. So I was willing to try. The only thing I really didn’t want to do was go back to school. But I did have to go back to school [trade school] but I could keep working during the day and get paid for it. That’s why I like the idea of apprenticeships. I think it’s a great structure because you get to do the work even though you have to do some school at night. You don’t have to wait until you’re finished and have a degree to do the work.

In fact, I was very frustrated with the instruction I received as part of my electrical training.  I often found that the instructors were not well qualified to teach the subject, and weren’t able to answer some of my questions or explain things fully, in detail and in depth.  I had to seek out other sources for learning what I needed to know — extra books, other licensed electricians.  I like to understand something as completely as I can — and maybe men who grow up tinkering with this stuff have some sort of intuitive understanding of it and don’t need it explained — but most of the time it seemed as if very few students or instructors cared about really understanding.  I had one instructor who read to us from the textbook — that was how he ran the class!

What do you think you best at? Where could you improve?

I’m constantly learning. That’s one of the things I like about what I do. I always have to get a better understanding of how certain things work. Or there are certain kinds of electrical components that I don’t know and I have to learn about them. I really like working in old houses, which many people don’t. I love old houses and I have a pretty good understanding of the building structure and what the walls are made of and what to look for when I have to I dig into a wall.

Everything, I could improve. I was pretty slow in the beginning. I wanted to make sure I did everything really, really well. And I still do, but that [fastidiousness] slowed me down. And I have been able to speed up a little more, but I probably could be faster. I do things more carefully than most, but then I know when it’s done right. And I never rush. Because you start rushing and then you’re stapling into your wire… To me, it’s just worth it to do it slower than to not know if you tore something or nicked a wire or something like that.

Has entering this profession changed how you see or carry yourself?

Definitely, definitely. Confidence is a big thing. Confidence is something I did not have much of when I started. It’s something I’m still struggling with. I was very confident before I started this. I felt confident as an intellectual and with literature and that I could teach, but when I started this, it was completely new for me. I didn’t know if I was doing things right. There was so much to learn and understand and so I was always unsure if I was doing something right or not. But that has changed. It used to be that I would never try to do something unless I knew exactly how to do it right off. There are so many things I needed to do at home that I would have never even tried – carpentry projects, painting – and doing this work has given me the confidence to try to do something even if I don’t how to do it.  I now realize that even if I don’t know how something should be done, I can probably figure it out. “Figuring out on my own” is something I had no concept of until after I started doing electrical work.

What’s a typically good and typically nightmarish day in the profession?

A good day is when I am able to figure out why something isn’t working. And when I do it pretty efficiently, without having to open every box. A bad day is when I’m working and I have to add something to an existing circuit and the device boxes are just crammed full. It’s really hard to work on top of someone else’s work when it’s really poorly done. Basically, I have to undo everything and redo it and try to cram things into a box where they won’t fit. And that’s painstaking. It’s just painstaking. A lot of hobbyist electricians will do really dangerous things that I have to work around.

I call these non-licensed tinkerers “Joe Homeowner.”  One of the most dangerous things that I have found that these average Joe Homeowner-types do is to put oversized breakers on circuits with small gauge wire — this mainly occurs where a circuit keeps tripping, so the uninformed person thinks that they can solve the problem simply by putting in a bigger breaker (a 30 amp breaker instead of a 15 amp breaker). The real problem is that there is too big a load on that one circuit.  Putting a bigger breaker on small gauge wire is a real fire hazard because if the circuit is overloaded, it will heat up the wire, but the larger breaker won’t trip to protect the wire because it is set to handle bigger amperage.

I once responded to a service call for a light fixture that kept tripping the breaker.  What I found when I got there was that someone had put a penny in the bottom of the light socket which kept shorting between the base of the socket (“hot”) and the screw shell (“neutral”) part of the socket.  I can’t imagine why someone would even think of doing that — except perhaps if the bulb wasn’t screwing all the way down into the socket and they thought they needed to put something in there to bridge the gap.  Thank goodness the breaker was doing its job by tripping!

Several times I’ve come upon old wires whose insulation had dried up and flaked off — so there was several feet of bare wire visible!  Those situations were pretty scary. Another thing I have seen a lot of is what I call “flying splices.”  Those are splices made between wires without using a box to enclose the splice.  One might see wires hanging across a ceiling with a splice made in mid-air.  Sometimes these might be hidden in walls so one doesn’t even know they exist and cannot gain access to them.  A splice is potentially one of the weak points in an electrical circuit, and if there is not a good connection made between the wires, there can be arcing and sparking.  Enclosing splices in boxes is a safety measure that can contain some arcing if it occurs.  And if the splices are buried inside walls, there is no way of knowing that a potential problem exists.  I once saw a metal box completely blackened from a poorly made splice — luckily that box saved that house from burning down. It’s amazing how more places haven’t burned down with some of the issues I’ve come across.

I’ve gotten shocked a few times, nothing terrible, thank goodness. The couple of times I got pretty bad shocks occurred when someone had left uncapped live wires exposed.  One time occurred when I put my hand up into a ceiling to try to grab something but didn’t check carefully what else was up there, and I hit an exposed wire with my hand.  My arm hurt for a while, but that was it.  I was lucky that was all it was.

I’ve been in really spider-webby basements and attics, but I don’t mind spiders. But I haven’t encountered anything really weird. I have come across some hazardous substances. I hate when people use mouse poison because I have to crawl in it and it gets into my clothes. And it’s such a cruel method for killing rodents. I’m sure I’ve inhaled a lot of really bad stuff. Especially PVC glue. And I’ve been in some asbestos, so we’ll see.

One of the pleasantest perks of my work occurs when homeowners have pets and farm animals around.  I always enjoy seeing and talking with animals on the job.  I’ve had curious cows hover around me while I was working on the outside of a house.  They were really funny.  They tried to pull out tools from my tool belt with their mouths.  There were also some llamas in a barn that wouldn’t let me pet them, but as soon as I stopped paying attention to them and focused on my work, they would sneak up behind me and nibble on my clothes.  I’ve met lots of great cats and dogs who were great fun to be around.

Is it bad form to talk about on the job injuries? (Is it considered bad luck? If not, are there things specific to the job that are said to carry some mystical weight?)

No, it’s not. Most electricians swap horror stories. Mostly about things that have blown up. (Laughs) People talk about what electrical installations used to be like. “He’s an old-timer, he knows it from experience.” I respect the old timers, and many times people talk about them testing wires with their fingers and having such deep, thick calluses that they couldn’t feel the shocks.

Electricity is mystical to begin with. Electricians have a healthy respect for its unpredictability. But nobody talks about mystical stuff, at least not that I can recall. The only time I can think of is when I myself made a joke about it – use this Sharpie marker to identify wires and stuff like that, and it smudges if you don’t let it dry. So I blow on it to dry it. Somebody asked me why I blow on it, and I said I was warding off a spell. (Laughs)

What percentage of customers has an interest in what you are doing? Or have so much interest that it’s annoying, like they check your work or examine your credentials?

Nobody’s really examined my credentials. Maybe fifteen percent are curious or interested and I like those customers because I love to talk about what I do, show what I know. So I don’t mind if people are watching over my shoulder, if they’re interested. Maybe five percent hover around me, and that’s a pain but it’s not very frequent.

Do people who hover around generally know what they are talking about?

No. (Laughs) But I should say that sometimes a customer has a good question or good idea, and sometimes it comes from someone who is hovering over me and doubting. Sometimes they say good things. I’m probably more tolerant than most [when it comes to be open to people watching or offering suggestions].

Does being a woman in a traditionally male dominated field factor into customers’ perceptions and expectations? Does it factor into yours? Do you find that people are happy to give a woman business? Are you sick of thinking about what it means to be a woman in this field and would prefer just to be left alone to do your work?

People are interested in my story, but I’m getting kind of tired of telling it. There’s not that much to tell.

Me being a woman does factor into peoples’ expectations. I’ve generally had a very positive experience. Other electricians, other tradespeople on jobs have mostly been very accepting. And I’m very grateful for that. When I go into a new job, I’m always nervous. I think I have to prove myself, not make a mistake. But it’s getting easier. I think people are aware that it’s a little unexpected – they don’t always say something but they’re probably wondering. A couple of customers have tested me out, trying to see if I know what I’m talking about.

I just take it in stride and see if there was anything I couldn’t have done better or known better, and I try to use that for next time. I just try to gain more knowledge and experience as I go. And most of the time now I can walk into a place with confidence, know I that I don’t have all the answers but know enough to do a pretty good job. It hasn’t changed the way I approach things; it just won’t discourage me. It just makes me want to get better.

Every once in a while someone, especially a female client, will say, “Hey I think it’s great you are a woman!” That makes me feel good. I’m not sick of that yet. But what I really want to do is just be able to do the work. And for the most part I do. This other stuff doesn’t get in the way at all; it’s a miniscule part of what I do. It might be because of the part of the country we’re in. If I had to deal with hostility and harassment, I don’t know what I’d do.

One of the things I’m really interested in is why there aren’t more women in the trade. There actually have been several pushes by educational institutions, schools, and government programs that encourage women to go into the trades. There have been quite a few training programs over the past four or five decades, especially since the 70s. So there have been more women coming to these programs, but they just don’t stay. They just don’t build up enough numbers to stay. I’m trying to figure out why that is, because I really miss having more women around. I’d love to see more women working in the trades.

I guess I just feel more comfortable around women.  And I get tired of hearing talk only about sports and hunting.  There are also other limitations to some men — they’re not flexible enough, or open enough to certain things, or comfortable with certain things.  I just can’t be fully myself around them.  Don’t get me wrong — I like most men, and enjoy joking around with them.  I should probably clarify that it’s not just any women I’d like to have around.  I’d like to be around strong women who are serious about their work and like to work hard.  That would be the best scenario.

I came up with my own theory that [the lack of women in the trade] is partly because there isn’t much of support system, and it’s really hard to stick it out in a predominantly male environment unless you really, really love the work. I came from a place where I did enough work I didn’t like that I was going to keep at [electrical work]. It’s hard to come into that environment on your own, so it’s good to have a critical mass, but how do you build that up? Women have a lot of different obligations that make it hard to work in the trades – if you have kids, if you are taking care of somebody, married. I think that with men, there are those situations too. Men have life obstacles that get in the way and they have to drop out, but there are enough men that keep coming into the trade that you don’t notice the turnover as much. The problem is that women come into the trade but don’t stay. There’s a really good program in Vermont called Vermont Works for Women. They train adults but also focus on high school girls, to get them involved in the trades from an early age. I think that’s the way to do it.

Do you feel like people censor themselves in front of you? Or do they not care? Or do they become more aggressive?

It’s mostly in what a lot of my male coworkers talk about. If they talked about other things besides sports and hunting, it would be better. I don’t think they become more outlandishly masculine. A lot of times they apologize for using foul language, which doesn’t bother me at all. They probably do censor themselves a little, but it’s mostly only a few topics of discussion that interest people anyway. If someone brings up something different, you’d be an odd person out. You have to have a pretty strong personality to talk about stuff that isn’t commonly accepted [conversation topics]. Being a woman gives me a little bit of an advantage: as a woman, I’m the odd one to begin with, so it gives me license to say certain things or bring up certain subjects. I think it would be a lot harder for a gay man. I’ve been very open about being a lesbian. Interestingly, all the men I’ve worked with, even the most conservative, are totally fine with it, but they would not be fine with it if I were a gay man. And that’s very hard to think about. It’s been interesting for me in the sense that most of the tradespeople I work with are very conservative politically. I still don’t understand why they think the way they do. And it’s weird because I like them. They think completely differently from me but I like them. They’re nice people; they’re good people. They know what they’re doing and they look out for each other and for me. That’s the hardest part – how can they be nice people and think that way?

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A little bit about certifications, as quoted from the State of New Hampshire Electrician’s Board website:

“The Electrician’s Board licenses or registers those who are performing electrical installations…for heat, light and power purposes regardless of the voltage. Therefore, it is not the voltage of the circuit that determines the requirements of licensure, it is the type of circuit. For example, no license is currently required for fire alarm installations as these are signaling circuits. Signaling circuits by definition are not considered circuits for heat, light or power purposes.

The categories for licensing are Master, Journeyman and High/Medium Voltage electricians. The Electricians’ Board registers apprentice electricians and high/medium voltage trainees.”

As the interviewee works on the border of two small states, she often works in both. But like the licenses and certifications of many other professions, an electrician’s credentials do not apply nationally.

“The Electrical Safety Section currently has active reciprocal agreements for the master and journeyman license with the States of Maine, and Vermont and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. These are long standing agreements that recognize the master and journeyman licenses of these areas as being substantially equal to those of New Hampshire.

New Hampshire Electricians wishing to reciprocate their license with any of these states or the Commonwealth should contact the reciprocating agency directly for the necessary application and fees. A certified letter can be obtained from the Electrical Safety Section which will be necessary at the time of application as verification of licensure and the applicant is in good standing with the State of New Hampshire.

Applicants applying to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for a reciprocal master license will be required to reciprocate their journeyman license as well as the masters. If have you let your journeyman license lapse due licensure as a master electrician, it can be reinstated for reciprocity purposes by filing the proper application and paying the normal fee for licensure.

In the Fall of 2005 the State of New Hampshire became a member of the Multi-State Reciprocal Licensing Group, now known as National Electrical Reciprocal Alliance (NERA) and therefore has reciprocal licensing agreements, for the journeyman license only, with the States of: Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Maine, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming.

New Hampshire electricians wishing to apply for a reciprocal license with a participating state under the NERA agreement must contact that state for the specific requirements, applications and fees.  Applicants applying for a reciprocal license with a participating state must:

  1. Hold a current journeyman license from the State of New Hampshire for at least one year.
  2. Be active and in good standing with the State of New Hampshire.
  3. Have passed the New Hampshire journeyman examination with a minimum grade of 70%.
  4. Have successfully completed a minimum of 8000 hours of practical experience in an apprenticeship program or equivalent.

Applicants holding “grandfather” licenses or who have not passed the New Hampshire journeyman examination are not eligible for reciprocity under the NERA agreement.

Once the application is submitted the reciprocating state with all applicable forms and fees, the reciprocating state will contact the State of New Hampshire electronically for verification of Items 1 – 4 above. Once the verification process has taken place, the reciprocating state should issue the journeyman license…”

Description of a Struggle

One Afternoon at a Legal Focus Group with Seven Random Participants, 12/12/12

The hotel is a surprisingly sprawling affair. Its many wings and decorative roofs and meeting rooms extend away from the hotel in true Upper Valley fashion, which is to say additions are tacked on seemingly at random and at will. The hotel appears to be an extemporary fort and its insides do nothing to dispel this impression, as its lobby boasts a collection of elevated corridors, blazing fireplaces, decorative and functional stone walls, multi-leveled ceilings, and a surprising number of desks (the front desk, gift shop counter, and a variety of desks corresponding to offices unknown), all of which come together and greet the wary traveler with an unsettling and somewhat unprofessional sense of busyness. The guest is further offended by the uncalled-for pomp of a remarkably officious attendant and is even further overwhelmed by the fact that this entire display is centered around a gigantic indoor stone courtyard, which is itself buried by countless fake trees roped together many, many times over by strings of festive holiday lights, to say nothing of the patio’s surprising number of tables, buffet stations, waitstaff areas, and the enormous, ceremonial pergola in one of its corners. To make matters even crazier, the back half of the patio and all of its many features is surrounded by glass-front meeting rooms and activity centers. But once the guest gets used to the chaos, it’s kind of nice. A guest can feel comfortably secluded in the patio’s secret woods. Like the Bohemian Grove, working in one’s own private forest is conducive to good business, which is why the view from the windows of the meeting rooms are obscured by the hundreds of fake trees. Further luxury is bestowed by the swimming pool and its large AstroTurf beach, a strange though contextually appropriate feature considering the bomb-shelter ambiance of the patio and is in fact much bigger than the actual pool itself. In fact, it’s so big and AstroTurfy that it could be a putting green, though no holes or clubs or leering clown obstacles are present to allow it to function as such.

The reception area and courtyard and woods are so surreal that it would be understandable if guests wandered off with mouths agog, a sort of living metaphor of the mind-boggling meeting that took place the afternoon of 12/12/12. The eight guests scheduled to participate in a legal focus group held in a meeting room at the hotel were spared the indignity of being lost by the presence of one of the host legal firm’s employees waiting politely at the front desk (or at least the desk that looks the most like the front desk), dispatched to snag participants as they walk in. The group was walked over in sets of two or three to the meeting room and welcomed to their own coffee and pastry station outside the room. There was a sign on the table saying that its provisions are for a private group and not the public, though the public can hardly be blamed for assuming that any of the tables hidden among the trees are as public as any other. The coffee is typical hotel coffee, of better quality than gas station coffee if one wants to split hairs but not as strong. The pastries are typical hotel pastries.

The eight participants were recruited by a temp agency. Everybody but one arrived on time and all began tacitly sizing one another up, making assumptions about what the others’ opinions will likely be regarding the case whose particulars have not yet been divulged. All anyone knows is that they are being called to weigh in on a legal case and will be compensated financially and via sandwich. The assignment is scheduled to be about four hours of work, from 10am-2pm and will pay $11/hr.  It is assumed that the focus group has been convened as a practice run for the lawyers, to better gauge a random sampling of the public’s (and therefore the jury’s) likely opinions about the case and to some degree the way it should be argued in court, but until the host lawyers explain exactly what’s going on, this is only speculation. The eighth person doesn’t arrive by 10:05 and is therefore barred from participation, as once the presentation starts nobody else can join in. Thus the final group is comprised of only seven people. The demographics break down as such:

Five women and two men, of which:
– one man is in his late 20s;
– one woman is in her late 30s;
– one woman is in her late 40s;
– one man is in his 50s;
– one woman is precisely 57;
– and two women are over 60.

All have been contacted by the temp agency; college experience ranges from a BA to no experience at all; the 57-year old starts a conversation with “Last time I had a job…,” the lighthearted though not boastful tone of which indicates it was a comically long time ago. The preliminary paperwork filled out at the behest of the law firm asks about Former Employment, which she gleefully answers by writing “Whatever I can get my hands on” and then answers 40 yrs. to the next question, How long have you been doing it? The man in his 50s had his jacket tucked into his underwear and immediately asked the host where the bathroom was, giving the unfortunate impression to anyone who was paying attention that he had been interrupted that morning mid-dump by the necessity of getting to the meeting on time. He came back and smiled at everyone, loudly proclaiming that he was going to write “Santa Claus” where the form asked for his full name, in apparent protest of the questionnaire’s invasions of privacy. He was roughly handsome in an outdated, Burt Reynolds-sort of way, which, fortunately or not, also looked kind of porno circa the 1970s, a distinction stemming almost totally from his full, black mustache. One of the women in her 60s looked like someone’s grandma who lives in a quiet planned community, the other 60s+ lady was slight but not weak, the kind of older woman whose cruel smile augments the power of her sinewy forearms, which grips unsuspecting victims like a scary, wraithlike claw as she says something mean to them. The man in his 20s is reserved but trying not to be; his attempts to engage the others in conversation sound like the stilted dialogue of someone not known to take the initiative in conversation but then tries to in order to get better at it; the woman in her 30s has highlighted hair and a raspy smoker’s voice and the woman in her 40s looks like a mom and is wearing what may or may not be the top of a set of flower-patterned scrubs as a shirt.

The seven sat around a table shaped like a U. That the table was in a private meeting room in a hotel with complimentary coffee and set with complimentary pens and pads of paper (that unusually only had about eight sheets of paper attached to them [and this was before the pads were even used]) endowed the participants with a sense of professionalism before any information or explanation was given as to what was expected of them. It was an involuntary but nonetheless clearly welcomed sensation: posture quickly went rigid, coffee was sipped thoughtfully, and the guy with the moustache began taking off his glasses and pointing with them for emphasis every single time he spoke for the rest of the day, and if he was already holding them when he began speaking he just put them back on in the same way he took them off to emphasize the care and weight put into his opinions; on or off, the gesture of contemplation was the crucial component needed to get his point across, no matter what point was being made and regardless of its relative importance to the topic at hand. The open end of the table faced a projector screen, and at least three laptops were connected to one another by cables and their various adapters. A camera was set up in the corner to record the proceedings and it became apparent that most of the group’s deliberations will be watched live by the law firms in the next room. After the usual aggravations trying to set up technology for a presentation, the laptop projection finally took place. Skype was started and was used to call a woman in the room and was kept running the entire time. This seemed weird but then it became clear that her Skype account was probably open in the next room, with Skype acting as a way to hear the conversation going on in the meeting room. The surveillance is unnerving but after all not unexpected as the whole point of the exercise is to see what “real people” have to say about…

…Someone being sued. The case, whose public details must be kept to a minimum for reasons of propriety and because the case has not yet gone to court, involves a man who fell asleep at the wheel and then crashed head-on into a family driving in the other lane. The infants and the fiancé in the passenger seat were unharmed, but the mother suffered a shattered femur and middle finger and was trapped in the wreckage for at least forty-five minutes as the fire department tried – as one lawyer put it – to “exticrate” her. The sleeping driver was essentially uninjured. After surgeries, rehab, and ongoing pain, the mother sued the other driver. The driver concedes that he fell asleep and should be held accountable for everything that happened, including the medical bills, and then offered to pay an additional 2x the medical bills on top of it for the pain/inconvenience/terror of being in such an accident. (The mother of the victim reported that someone found the victim’s cellphone and called the entry listed as ‘Mom,’ where the mom heard nothing but screaming and hectic emergency activity for forty-five minutes.) The victim and her lawyers considered this amount too low. In essence, the focus group was convened to decide how much, all things considered, the victim should be compensated. Three lawyers for the victim were present and the one lawyer for the defendant kept quiet until his presentation an hour and a half into the proceedings, except for this one time when he needlessly raised his voice and told everyone to be quiet and listen because it was important, a task that didn’t need to be asked, as everyone was already quiet for the most part and knew it was important.

“Choices need to be made,” said the lawyer for the plaintiff gravely. It was a theme that he repeated in different and identical forms throughout the afternoon. His speech began with the deep breath and wizened look around the room well-practiced by lawyers and middle-school principals. “He made a choice to work all night, to go without much sleep, to get in his car, and then to DRIVE to his VACATION HOME in KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine.” His case was made slowly, quietly, with appropriate pauses for emphasis and solemnity, though he sometimes veered from his serious tone to one of direction-exchanging dad-jocularity, especially when he was discussing the series of highways and routes the defendant took that led to the scene of the accident. The ease with which he went back and forth between tones of voice highlighted his skills in lawyerly polemic but the fact that he was obviously playing a character was irrelevant to the group, judging from the gasps of sympathy, guilt, and shame that started within minutes of his recounting of events. He was dressed rather casually, with rockabilly two-tone shoes and a faded tattoo of some unknown symbol between his thumb and forefinger. He was 53, he said, and he had a salt-and-pepper goatee and the full head of hair that helps instill more confidence in full-haired middle-aged people than those who are bald, as if their head of hair is an accomplishment unto itself, his forthright honesty is evidenced by the fact that he looks better than his unfortunately glabrous brethren.

On the other hand, this wasn’t necessarily true, for while the lawyer for the defendant had an equally if not even fuller head of hair, he also committed a series of small gaffes starting as soon as he began that taken in concert (and coupled with the overall-unsympathetic defendant) doomed his case to oblivion. He attempted to make his case plainly, using both ‘aww shucks’ common sense and impassioned speech highlighting the idea that everyone is protected equally under the law (“that’s what makes this country great”). He built on this idea by imploring everyone not to decide things in passion, to please listen to the facts of the case, noting with dubious, cringe-inducing taste that “there were lynchings when people decided in passion.” In an attempt to convey his earnestness and the plainness of the idea of justice, he said he didn’t “prepare a fancy [PowerPoint] presentation” like the other side. His choice of the word ‘fancy’ was kind of cute considering what was being described as fancy, but had he not mentioned this, its absence (and thus his evident unpreparedness) would have likely gone unnoticed. A few moments later, he further damaged his character by saying unapologetically that he wasn’t good at math: when discussing the total compensatory damages his client was willing to pay, he couldn’t add two figures together and his imploring glance at the audience implied that someone should add it for him and then shout out the answer, which someone promptly did, though it was absolutely the wrong answer, so wrong even that the mathless lawyer knew the figure was way off. A quick look was exchanged among the legal teams that basically questioned the validity of the opinions of people who couldn’t add, like, These are the people to whom we are giving power over the life and livelihood of someone else?

His five minute presentation came to a whimpering end and the victim’s lawyers’ began anew, picking up right where they left off, explaining how the medical procedures the victim had to endure were so brutal that they looked more like “someone working on a piece of machinery than a human being,” thanks to the pins and rods that were drilled and hammered into place to fix her broken bones. The plaintiff’s lawyers succeeded where the defendant’s failed: while the attempt to engage the audience in math might have been a ploy to relate to them on their level and to moreover flatter them with a sense of their own intelligence, the many aspects of the case simply would not come together and make the defendant seem likeable let alone relatively blameless in the accident. The plaintiff’s lawyers tried the same trick with much greater success. One lawyer communicated his trust in the participants by not even flinching when they, with the confidence that comes from watching a lot of TV, threw around legal terms like “aggravated” that hadn’t once appeared in anything presented that day, and by claiming ignorance about the pronunciation of medical terms, saying “I don’t know how to pronounce this, maybe you all will know” and then profusely thanking the audience member who knew how to pronounce it.

But even these characters and their stories grew tiresome: attention soon waned and a number of participants took to idle drawing. One woman drew and shaded shapes and another filled her iPad with variations on the same face. The two women sat next to each other and were fully engaged in their doodles that were for some reason extremely annoying to watch: the quality of the terrible art could be excused or ignored as it was simply the result of an activity done while on the phone or while listening to something important (and therefore wasn’t supposed to be good) if the person drawing didn’t appear to be concentrating so hard on the drawing, as their expressions of such deliberate creation and the artistic poise they affected should at least yield a product whose quality is proportionally equal in quality to the time and effort they seem to be devoting to the drawings. Thus that their drawings weren’t was severely disappointing. The backlight of the iPad made doodling a dangerous pastime as anything she drew or wrote was illuminated and readily visible from any angle. The presenters merely had to look in her direction to see that her attention was elsewhere, though ‘elsewhere’ suggests she was captivated by something equally as important as the details of the case, which collections of poorly-rendered smiley faces (even for smiley faces) inarguably weren’t, even if the concentration with which they were drawn might suggest otherwise.

Fortunately for everyone, the real point of the activity/experiment was about to begin. The rest of the time was to be left for the participants to discuss certain factors of the case. The lawyers packed up and noted that they would be in the next room paying attention to the deliberations; instructions were given to answer just two questions on a sheet of paper pertaining to the case. The real focus of the afternoon was to decide how much the plaintiff could sympathetically sue the defendant for, with the participants’ ways of arriving at this figure being studied and applied to the case, as again, it was reasonable to expect that the participants’ sympathies and ways of thinking would be similar to those of the actual jury that would be selected for the actual case. The 57-year old was promptly appointed foreman by dint of her personality, her appealingly unusual name, and the shawl that was royally draped around her shoulders; she feigned surprise at the honor and apparent respect her being commanded, though it was clear that this came as no surprise and was probably expected.

The first order of business was to hear individual opinions on the case, ending with each participant naming the figure he or she thought appropriate to ask the defendant to pay. The man with the moustache was on one end of the table and thus spoke first, of course taking off his glasses thoughtfully before he began. His said his figure was initially five million dollars but he would settle for the (completely arbitrary) amount of 2.8 million. He put his glasses back on and didn’t really explain how he had arrived at the number, letting its decimal point speak for its trustworthiness, rationality, professionalism, and accuracy. No more figures with decimal points were given but the semi-agreed upon number exceeded that which the plaintiff’s lawyers were going to ask. It was determined that the amount that could satisfy the defendant’s debt to the victim and to society was three million dollars, with the rationalization that “it would probably be compromised down in court” aimed at any detractors who thought the penalty was too harsh.

(Given the cameras and microphones and the dramatic lawyers and the isolation in a disconcerting hotel, there was the unavoidable possibility that the whole affair was some sort of complex psychological experiment. It would have been easy to fake a plausible legal battle, not to mention that the extent to which the common person could sympathize or take issue with any number of the issues the afternoon’s particular case raises, as again it is simple enough to be believable and therefore sympathetic. Or maybe it was a gang of wealthy folks who liked to watch people squabble for amusement. They could have been on the other side of the wall eating popcorn with their feet up, shaking their heads in disbelief but laughing in pleasure at how ridiculous a group of people will let themselves be. Then again, it could be heartwarming: when random people are endowed with responsibility, they step up to the task; the professional playacting notwithstanding, most people at least took the opportunity somewhat seriously.)

The participants’ next duty was to determine whether or not the defendant acted with malicious disregard, the positive determination of which allowed for the possibility of more money for the plaintiff. For reasons of space and for reasons of maintaining a readable narrative of the events, the debate about this point will not be related in full let alone transcribed; suffice to say the already-prickly topic was made all the more prickly by the fact that one participant “didn’t like the way [a paragraph of a legal document] was worded,” which then set off a tangential argument about what exactly the paragraph meant and what the literal meaning, once agreed upon, would mean for the point that was originally being debated and then what it would mean for the case as a whole. A few participants seemed willing if not somewhat interested in a debate about the semantics of legalese but their amused indulgence quickly turned to annoyance when they realized they were in a prolonged debate about things they weren’t even being asked to debate about, and besides, who put him in charge of deciding what was valid wording or not? A maddening argument ensued

A:            “Yes, but I don’t think ‘the Plaintiff alleges’ means that the girl herself said this.”
B:            “Yes, it does. It says that she said that right there: ‘the Plaintiff alleges.’”
A:            “Yes, I know, but ‘the Plaintiff alleges’ shouldn’t be taken literally. It means that her entire side of the argument is based around the idea that the driver should have known better than to drive while tired.”
B:            “Yes, exactly! She says that the driver should have known better than to drive. That’s just common sense.”
A:            “Yes, of course it’s common sense. That’s why it’s meaningless.”
B:            “Do you agree that being tired can lead to dangerous driving?”
A:            “Yes, everyone agrees with that. That’s why it doesn’t matter. It’s just a common sense, a truism, not a scientific piece of evidence.”
B:            “So you agree that the driver drove dangerously because he was tired?”
A:            “Yes, that’s obvious.”
B:            “So you agree with what she said, that driving while tired is dangerous?”
A:            “Yes, I agree that she might have said that at some point, but I don’t agree that her saying makes any difference when it comes to making a case against him.”
B:            “But you just said you agree that driving tired is dangerous.”
A:            “Yes, I agree that it is. But everyone knows that. Her stating it makes no difference, if she stated it at all, which I don’t think she did, at least not literally, and not in the way you think she did, literally.”
B:            “She did say that. It says it right here.”

and culminated with the man in his late 20s yelling at one of the women in her 60s, accusing her of scoffing at the points he was making and therefore “not taking the fact that these are real peoples’ lives” seriously. The foreman quieted everyone down and looked askance at the petulant objector.

A woman from the law firm came in and said that they would have no problem paying for another half an hour of everybody’s time as the issue still wasn’t settled unanimously as it was supposed to be. Everyone agreed that they would soldier on and come to an agreement. The woman left but reappeared minutes later when the same debate about the paragraph began again instead of a discussion about payment, looking amused as she drew the whole thing to a close and thanking everyone for their participation. The participants grabbed their coats rushed out, not many said goodbye and further conversation was avoided lest the arguments begin again without the supervision of the law firm to keep tempers under control. And as quickly as they came and set up, the lawyers too were gone. The room was cleared out, the technology disconnected, the tables left bearing dishes and silverware but nothing else, this generic detritus erasing the notion that anything supremely confidential occurred inside the room; by the looks of it, it was probably just a boring, mandatory HR seminar but certainly not a legal focus group discussing the lives of real people nor a secret psychological test that was invariably going to teach the world something sad about human nature.

In conclusion: Is the insanity and utter otherworldliness of the hotel’s interior a fitting metaphor for the confusing, interesting, intersecting displays of the human mind that came together and resulted in the proceedings of that afternoon’s focus group? This similarity might be stretching the capacity for random analogy in the universe; things can accidentally be similarly weird but do not always conveniently share the same symbolism; if anything, the design of the hotel is the opposite of the design of the focus group: the hotel’s many accouterments, despite their busyness and seeming randomness, are all too precise, all too planned, altogether too logical in the fact that each part of the design took into consideration the rest of it, even if only to make sure that a beam wasn’t being projected through a wall or that the hundreds of strings of Christmas lights didn’t get tangled up with something else. The fact that point A leads to B which leads to C then to M then N then F which also leads to C and Z but which both ultimately lead back to A is important: there is always some type of literal connection between disparate parts.. It doesn’t take a madman’s pareidolia to see there are myriad ways that everything that comprises the hotel somehow fits together. An architectural analogy can describe the logic of the focus group as well – the group’s discussions seem to imply distinct chains of logic but the real architectural parallel of the focus group is the immutable force of a single, solidly impenetrable wall. Maybe extending from this wall there would be the beginnings of a few artistic flourishes or the earliest foundations of a second wall, but these pieces, if eventually ever completed, would ultimately be irrelevant when considering the wall as its own immovable entity, and one infinitely, maddeningly powerful at that.

SUTOR, NE ULTRA CREPIDAM.

 

The complex world of a Staples copy clerk

Interview conducted on 8/17/12 and 9/3/12

I’ve been at Staples for about six months. I was working full time but I’m down to 20-25 hours now. When I applied, I just wanted to be a cashier. I wanted a dumb position; I didn’t want to be a supervisor; I didn’t want any sort of responsibility at all because I was going back to school. Then they found out I went to CCAD (Columbus College of Art and Design) and am studying engineering and told me there was an opening in the copy center. They thought I would be better suited there. It’s really hard to find people that have the skillset that they can throw in there and be successful in a short amount of time. Like standing at a counter for long periods of time, knowing how to work equipment (that’s my background in engineering), and my art background. A lot of times customers prints things for presentation purposes, so they’re supposed to look really good. You have to deal with turnaround times and that can be a little more stressful than scanning a barcode. You have to have an eye to spot errors and know how to set things up. I do at least maintain my bottom-tier status, though. (Laughs) I live close, it’s the right number of hours, school is just down the street – so the job’s more convenient than anything else.

In part, I took this job because I was sick of being full time at Target. Target doesn’t seem like it would be that bad, but it really sucks the life out of you. In part it’s because of the people, although I feel like I had fewer assholes to deal with at Target than I did [when I worked] at Michael’s [a hobby store] or Staples. If someone has a problem at a register and you’re a cashier, the interaction usually only lasts about five minutes because then you call a manager. At Michael’s in the frame shop, I would have to stand there, sometimes up to two hours, with the same person. I couldn’t walk away. It’s the same at the copy center. I had to be pleasant and nice – you put on a happy face and do your little dance. I really, really hate customer service jobs but I’ve in customer service for over ten years, so I guess it speaks for my ability to do that.

At Target, everybody was a ‘team member.’ We didn’t have ‘employees’ or ‘coworkers,’ we were ‘team members;’ everything was ‘team’-oriented. I’m surprised they don’t have more of that at Staples. Their focus is customer service. They really drill you about sales, which is really annoying because I’m not a pushy salesperson. I hate that. The way I’ve been able to handle the pressure about selling to customers is that I will inform them [about a sale or upgrade] and that’s it. I’m not going to try to convince them. I’m not going to argue, I’m going to say “We have this” and that’s it, end of conversation. I hate trying to sell something that isn’t necessary. I can’t stand trying to push or force something on somebody.

Unfortunately, even working in the copy center, we’re not supposed to copy anything aside from our schedules. We have to pay for everything else. They have cameras; I don’t know how often they check them but it’s often enough that they’ll page someone over the intercom and tell them to get back to work. There is a little bit of discretion – some coworkers won’t charge me for scanning when I have to – but still…

You just kind of learn where you can break the rules and where you can’t. [When I’m working on my personal projects] at least I can try until it is right. I don’t have to worry about waste because they would work with a project until it was perfect for any other customer. That’s one good thing I guess. If you do that at home, you’re screwed because you’re wasting your own materials. At least there I can lighten the contrast or whatever as much as I want. They assume there will be some amount of fudging on that.

But it’s really, really hard to get fired. They have to want you to be gone and then they’ll find something really small to fire you for. If they need you and you’re experienced and they don’t want to train anyone else, then you have to work really, really hard to get fired. My guess is they’ll just write you up and say “Don’t do it again.”

To the best of my knowledge, there are no hazards to my physical health. Maybe a paper cut. (Laughs) Though we do have a kid there who is on blood-thinners – he recently had surgery and he’s not allowed to cut anything. (Laughs) It’s more work for me when we’re working together but whatever. I did cut myself down to the bone at Michael’s on a piece of glass – it was pretty disgusting and I almost passed out.

In retail, the employees are actually the worst part. They’re gossips. Whenever you work that closely with people, gossip is going to happen but it’s particularly bad in places like a sales floor where you are allowed to just wander around and don’t have someone listening or watching you all the time. People stop working and walk over to the copy center or people call my extension to gossip. That’s something I really hate about the retail jobs I’ve had. At Target, I had to work with up to fifteen people. And a lot of them were eighteen, nineteen, twenty year-old girls, and they were much more concerned with gossip than they were with working. It got really old. I had one employee throw a hanger at another employee and bitch her out in the middle of the floor, which was nice. Another one had a complete and total mental breakdown; she started sobbing and locked herself in a fitting room. There was another girl in a different department that cussed out my friend. It sounded like she made a death threat. Even though they stress teamwork at Target, there was probably the least amount of that out of anywhere I’ve worked. The kids at Target really didn’t give a shit at all.

At the copy center, you only have five people working in a small space. There is a lot of personality going around for that little area. The people here are just as immature. Everybody makes sophomoric comments but they’re a little less emotionally charged. It’s usually gossip about stuff outside of work because that’s more entertaining than talking about work. I don’t divulge much of my personal life because I know people talk. As with any gossip, there’s no way to keep misinterpretation from happening, even if you’re specific or vague. People are really paranoid and false; it’s really, really frustrating and I don’t want to be a part of it. But to be somewhat social and not to seem like you’re a total asshole, you kind of have to play the politics. Sometimes you do get sucked in. It’s really difficult to avoid it. You probably spend more time with the people you work with than your family.

As far as Staples is concerned, I can’t see myself hanging out with anyone there. I tried twice to hang out with people outside of work. I tried twice and I realized it was a mistake. There were a couple of people I thought were decent, but when we went out it was more of the same, it was just “this person this” or “this person that.” It was nothing positive or interesting. Maybe I’m just not calloused and bitter enough yet. (Laughs) When we have the freedom to talk about whatever we want when there aren’t customers around and I still don’t click with coworkers, I don’t see the point of seeing them after work. (Laughs)

Theoretically, if I meet someone who is actually cool and I do hang out with them after work, I don’t see anything wrong with dating coworkers. Technically, if you aren’t the same rank, you aren’t supposed to be dating. But I’m not swayed one way or the other about keeping it professional or not. Whatever happens is fine.

I did date my manager at Target, though. We went six or eight months without anyone even knowing we went on a date. Once they found out, they were worried that he was going to give me preferential treatment. He didn’t treat me any differently. It wasn’t like we were banging in the bathroom or utility closet or anything. I think I probably had less of a problem than he did in terms of worrying about getting in trouble. It would have been much bigger of a problem for him that it would for me. In fact, he was probably harder on me than other people. He raised his voice at me once and told me to calm down and actually brought the store manager back because I was in quite a mood. But I calmed down after that. (Laughs)

There was a friend of mine, “Kate,” who was dating a supervisor who was in a different department, and he and Kate and this other girl that worked with us – another supervisor – all got together; Kate ended up having a threesome with the two other managers. She had two supervisors she broke the rules with. (Laughs) Her boyfriend made some remark about my ass, so Kate asked me if I wanted to join them. (Laughs)

I guess I have learned a little bit working here that has been useful, but not a whole lot. I’ve learned a little bit about printing in general, but I know someone who is a professional printer so if I really have questions, I can just ask him. It kind of sucks because we’re not allowed to design anything, we’re not allowed to do anything like that. We’re not even supposed to edit anything, even if someone puts a comma in the wrong place. I understand why because it can get out of hand and take a lot of time. It’s frustrating if I have ten people in line and someone says they just need to fix this, this, and this, and everyone in line wants to do something like that.

You can get sucked into a hole with that, doing it over and over and over again. So that doesn’t really bother me at all that we’re not allowed to fix anything. It’s just is frustrating to tell someone “Sorry, I can’t fix it.”

The amount of stuff we can do is hard to learn. There is still shit I don’t know how to do. We have to guess how much time a project is going to take. There is no way to figure it out unless you’ve done it. If you are the only person there, something that might take fifteen minutes can take as much as two hours if you get stopped by five people. Turnaround time is hard to judge. If something is late, people get pissed. There’s a lot of procrastination on the customers’ side, and they come in and say ‘I need this yesterday’ and I say ‘I can’t do it’ and they don’t like that answer. Of the people that come in with things they need done immediately, 90% of them get mad when you say you can’t do it right away. We can’t tell them it’s their fault for procrastinating, even if it is.

It’s also frustrating when a customer is completely lost, like they have no idea what is going on. I try to empathize with them, because if you’ve never had to do any printing you don’t specifically know what you need. People expect miracles to happen. If they bring something in that’s marked up or that the formatting is completely wrong, they expect that we’re just going to be able to fix everything. I have to had their flash drive back to them and say “I can’t do this.” I don’t really have a problem with that if I tell them what they have to do and they say they’ll do it, but other people just stand there and stare at you for five minutes like you’re going to come up with another answer.

Sometimes people surprise me with their ideas, and that’s one of the benefits of working here. There was a woman in the other day that was an artist. She had really great, beautiful work but she had it on construction paper, which is a paper full of acid which means the [artwork] is going to be destroyed in ten years. She had me copy it on this iridescent paper and it made it look ten times better. There was one woman that came in that had quotes set up three to a page and had them printed on color cardstock. She turned them into bookmarks for graduation gifts for some kids in a class of hers or a church group or something. It was kind of neat. She went to Target and bought ribbons and was punched holes in them and was putting ribbons all over them. It was neat to see someone doing that. Other than that, it’s all pretty run of them mill, not very exciting. It’s a copy center. There is nothing earth-shattering there.

It’s mainly businesses, dissertations. I do enjoy when people bring in dissertations to be bound or printed because I’ll sit there and read them. I’ve been tempted a couple times to keep files but we’re not allowed. There was a dissertation on mathematics education that I was incredibly interested in. I had As and Bs in all my calculus classes but when I got to upper-division linear algebra, I hit a brick wall. The dissertation was specifically about different ways to teach math, so I was really tempted to keep that one but I restrained myself. Staples takes privacy very seriously. They’re pretty good at grooming for applicants they expect won’t [keep customers’ files]. I think that’s part of why the overall age of the people in the copy center is higher than the people on sales floor. They figure more mature people might not take things…?

It’s nice – sometimes – to be able to interact with people for longer. I had one guy come in who looked at my hair clipped back. He stopped in the middle of what he was doing and looked at my hair and said “I’m sorry… my wife has so much hair, just like yours, and it’s always in the way and I was wondering where you got your hair clip so I can get her one.” I thought it was sweet and really sentimental that he stopped and noticed a small detail like that. It’s interesting the people who pass through there, their comments…sometimes it’s kind of weird. But I don’t get upset at peoples’ comments until they step behind the counter and stand like two inches away from me. [It’s common to look over the employee’s shoulder at the computer when getting an order ready to point out the specifics of what needs to be done.] It’s obvious to me when someone is intentionally trying to stand close to me. Their intention is not to see the computer screen. I had a guy that leaned in a little close and asked if I smelled caramels. (Laughs)

There was a guy in the other day that was a World War II vet. There have been a couple of veterans in there that have photos, documentation of their time, their discharge papers…that’s always something that’s very personal to me. It can be very hard. I have a number of family members who are in the military and I dated a guy for a while who was in the Army, in the infantry. He was deployed twice. I heard some of what he went through but didn’t ask a lot of questions because it was obvious he didn’t want to talk about it.

A lawyer came in with a case where a woman who was a fitness competitor was suing the Red Cross. It was a huge, huge case; he had binders and exhibits. It was some sort of medical malpractice suit against Red Cross. Like a blood transfusion they didn’t check…something went bad. That was hard for me to see because I considered competitive fitness for a while – I did competitive bench-press – so to see someone’s goals and everything tied to that taken away… though I don’t know if it’s worth suing Red Cross over.

There are rules about what we’re allowed to copy and we do have the option not to print something if we are personally offended by it. There was one copy job I would have refused, but that’s only happened to me one time. I had another employee working with me who didn’t have a problem with printing it, so we printed it. But if it was just me, I wouldn’t have done it. I think if it had been different people wanting it done, I wouldn’t have had a problem with it. They were these two creepy, seedy looking characters who wanted to make a copy of what could have been the cover of a snuff film. There was a woman with normal flesh color from the neck down. She was blue and grey from the neck up. The image cut off above the eyes. There were two lines that came down kind of like a vest but went under her breasts, with a zipper. There were two sets of men’s hands; one of them was unzipping the vest thing and the other had a wire wrapped around both hands and around her neck. Both of them had gloves on. It was a photograph – I don’t know if it was Photoshopped or if they set it up that way; it wasn’t a genuine, actual act, I hope.

But that’s the worst I’ve seen in there. That one in particular… I was just (long pause, punctuated by the beginnings of sentences)… A while ago, I might have just swept it into the category of pornography and would not have made a distinction between printing that or something else [in terms of it violating the rules against printing generally obscene material]. If someone would have come in with a photograph that was revealing, with little more room for interpretation, something more explicit without that aspect of violence associated with it, I would print it. I do have some problems with anything that represents a man, woman, or child as not fully human, the implication that they just have a use – it’s a matter of utility, not that this person has unique qualities, that there’s something about them… as soon as you remove that element of personhood, people just become a thing. And you don’t have much respect for things. It makes it much easier to kill or act violently when you don’t have to associate your action with a person dying. If you are actually in their physical space, you can be removed from them by cultural differences, race differences, whatever that makes it seem like you’re not killing a person. There is no part of me that would reproduce anything that conveys that message. The more an idea permeates into a culture, the more it’s made acceptable, and the more it’s accepted and the more frequently it’s going to happen.

There is a guy I work with who has worked at Staples for seven years. If they’re not doing it to be a kiss-ass, I have a lot of respect for that [longevity]. If you value your job that way, if it’s something you’ve built up a lot of knowledge about, if it something you’ve taken ownership of, I certainly respect that. The fact that he has his accolades [evidenced by pins on his nametag] and has worked there for a while does not faze me in the least. What bothers me about him is that he has been there so long that he forgets what he used to not know. Everything is common sense to him, so if you don’t know something, you’re unintelligent. I’ve worked a bunch of part-time jobs and there hasn’t been one where I haven’t been treated like a complete idiot, simply because long-time employees think something I have no idea about – if only because I haven’t been there long – is common sense. But I understand that being in that same position in retail for that long…there’s no way to not be apathetic or have an attitude about it.

Right now, this job is just a means to an end. Just a paycheck. If I had a job where more was expected of me and I had to have a higher degree of professionalism I might feel differently about it, but where I am now, I really don’t care. The only reason that I’ve put more effort into this job is simply because I don’t want to look like an idiot to people who walk up to the counter, even though there are some things that I don’t know and I’m going to look like an idiot regardless. There are some employees who know more than I do, so when a customer walks up and asks for something that someone else has done for them that I don’t know how to do, it’s frustrating. I get bitched at, called “retarded,” whatever. I guess that’s been my biggest motivation to do well, that and I’m generally a curious person, so if I have questions I’m going to ask them. But regarding particular goals to climb the ladder, I really couldn’t care less. I’ll work here until I’m done with school.

Eventually, work for me will not be just “What bullshit can I put up with?” There are only 2% women in mechanical engineering, so I’ll probably have a job in that field if I want.

If I get into engineering and I decide I hate it and I want to go paint, I can devote time to being an artist and work at Staples or a coffee shop and earn my money that way…if I’m ever really in a rut, I can say, I have this degree and I need a paycheck. It’s kind of an assurance. The piece of paper (i.e. my eventual college diploma) is my backup. I can always do art. I can do art without a degree but I can’t be an engineer without a degree. Even if I get an engineering job and I want to take a class on intaglio or something like that, I can go and pay for the class on intaglio and I won’t have to take out loans.

If I ever decide I want to have kids, it’s a matter of not wanting to put them in a position where we’d be struggling financially. What do I teach my kids? Do I teach them to do what makes them happy but have them constantly feel like the floor is going to drop out from underneath them, or do I tell them to go to school so they never have to worry about that?

Events coordinator with the American Arthritis Group

(Note: this is the first installment of what will hopefully be a fairly regular feature. Modelled after those in the oft-mentioned books by Studs Terkel, I want to provide an unbiased and wholly human accounts of various professions, as told by the people that work them. The following is that of an event coordinator for the American Arthritis Group, as told to me while she was setting up for an event that started the next day. She is in her mid-twenties and has been working at her current job for less than a year.)

         When I was looking for a job when I got out of college, I knew I really wanted to work for a nonprofit because I wanted to make sure I was doing my best to do something good.
         My position is primarily event coordination, and we fundraise a lot through events. This event [where the interview took place] brings in a couple hundred thousand dollars gross. We do a lot of events like this, where, you know, you spend money to make money and we also work with donors for charitable gifts and things like that.
         I went to school and got a degree in public relations, and it was always in the back of my mind that I’d kind of like to do events at some point, and so I’ve been working the past several years towards a true event coordinator type of position. Some of the events I’ve done in the past have been minor events with other tasks, but as it is at this job, my position is primarily event coordination and I’m really happy that I found it when I did.
         I’ve worked for a few nonprofits and this one is my favorite so far. It’s got a lot to do with my coworkers. I think that when you’re working with someone who doesn’t feel passionate about what they’re working on, the job is a lot more difficult. A lot of people, as with any job, only have the job because they need a paycheck. People who are apathetic or who come to work unhappy or who choose to be unhappy every day are just really tough people to be around. I think that’s true no matter where you are, but in the nonprofit sector it’s a little bit easier to identify when someone is just coming to work because it’s something they have to do.
         But even on days where I was working with coworkers who had this outlook, I could look at the mission and at least say that I was serving a higher purpose. It’s a workday no matter what, but working for a nonprofit does make it a little more palatable and it makes it easier to focus when you’re having a stressful day.
         I think that the mission we are serving is underserved. Arthritis is the number one disability in theUnited States. It causes the most insurance issues with workers comp and it affects nearly everyone by the time you die. And kids get arthritis too. Arthritis isn’t taken seriously because most people think it’s an old person’s disease, like “that won’t happen to me until I’m old.” But the fact of the matter is that it happens to people at all stages of life. There are different kinds of arthritis, and depending on the kind that you have, it can be really debilitating. People that can’t get out of bed, who are really, truly disabled…it’s just as painful and tragic as cancer or heart disease. People just don’t think arthritis is a big deal, that it’s not something they have to worry about. And that’s just not true.
         I think that it’s really important to spread American Arthritis Group’s message, and I get excited to share the message because I think other illnesses get tons of press but arthritis doesn’t. And I like being part of something where the message I’m spreading is a message that needs to be spread. I feel like there is a need and that makes it better.
         There is plenty of paperwork and plenty of desk time, but the thing that makes it worth it is that it all culminates in big events, which are exciting and a lot of fun. The best part for me is the excitement and when you get done with an event and you’re like, “Oh my gosh – that went great!” or, “That didn’t go so well; what do we need to do next time?” Or when it’s finished and you feel that sense of accomplishment and you look around and think “I did this!” and you look around and it’s a success and people feel good about it. Paperwork kind of sucks, and the worst part about the job I’m in now is changes in leadership. When leadership changes over, in any place, it’s kind of a challenge to figure out what comes next. But pretty much I really like going to work.
         There isn’t another nonprofit I’d specifically like to work for. Working for nonprofit after nonprofit, you kind of take on that mission and it becomes your main focus. And a lot of times they’re like ‘non-compete’ type things, so they don’t want you to donate your money to a fund that isn’t the one you’re working for. For example, we have an event, a 5k walk. I have a friend who works at a hospital in town, and she wasn’t allowed to walk in our walk because [the hospital where she works] sponsored some other nonprofit’s walk. It was kind of weird to me, because it’s like, why does it matter if we’re all trying to do something good?
         Due to the economic downturn it’s been harder over the last couple of years to get bigger donations, but in my experience, it hasn’t been harder to find positions at nonprofits. It’s a matter of looking the right places. And being confident and having a good resume; I haven’t had any trouble finding positions when I wanted them. I have friends who have had trouble, however I don’t think they have the same search methods that I have and maybe they’re not thinking outside the box. Personally I haven’t had any issues with [employment], but I’m sure every sector is affected in some way.
          I think with this job in particular I’ll stay for a while. I would never turn away from a really good opportunity, but at the same time, I really enjoy what I’m doing right now and I’m not looking for any changes. I think I’ll likely be in this position for something more like a career. I’ve only been here for a little more than a few months and I feel like there is a lot of opportunity for me at this point to move up, to see what’s going on within the organization. So yeah, this is my career for now.