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Topic #18
We work hard for the money

I hate to admit it. I am actually one of those people who watch the sitcom Friends. Actually, I never watched it until it came on in re-runs. I always had Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to watch, and come on… who really wants to watch a bunch of thirty-somethings pretending that they're twenty-somethings anyway.

Every time the episode is over, all I can think about is how absurd the whole premise of the show is. I mean, some on. We're supposed to believe that these people are 25ish… which for most of them is an extreme stretch. Then, we're supposed to believe that these 25ish year olds can afford their Manhattan apartments.

Let's look at this rationally, you have one apartment occupied by Chandler-the-whiner and his soon-to-be-lover Joey. Joey is a sometimes working, sometimes not working hack actor. Chandler is a menial middle manager in an accounting office… which is a relatively flooded market, which drives down the prevailing wage. Let's figure that Chandler is pulling down $45,000 a year… and Joey pulls in $32,000. A two bedroom apartment in a secure building in the village runs about (grabbing my handy-dandy Village Voice&#41 $3000 per month, as they have only been there a few years, and are not subject to rent control. They eat out regularly (let's figure three times a week at $250 for the two of them&#41. General living expenses in Manhattan for people of their lifestyle run about $400 a month (gas, electric, sewer, water, cable&#41. They are both single and actively dating ($300 a month each&#41. Since Chandler obviously went to school, let's figure $200 a month in student loans… and they probably both pay about $100 a month each to credit cards (approx national average&#41. Subway fees? Maybe $10 per person per week. Cooking at home four days a week? Add in $150 a week there. Joey, being self employed probably has to pay for his health insurance, that's $50 a month. Oh, and with all the expensive stuff in their apartment, they probably have renter's insurance ($125 a month&#41. Add in a clothing budget (Chandler buys one $400 suit per quarter, Joey buys one $150 "audition outfit" a month&#41. So, with all of this budgeted, the Chandler and Joey are over $3,000 over their budget. They have no savings… and certainly not enough to buy what seems to be two $3 lattes each day ($1095 per year, each&#41, if you believe everything you see on TV.

But, in all fairness, at least they are out and working. When we were about to graduate from college, we would talk about our plans to move out west to San Francisco. At least half of the people we talked to planned on moving back home for a couple of years while they figured out what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. I remember sitting there, completely dumbfounded.

Janet and I were never the sort of people to mooch off of our parents. We went to school without any financial support. I started working when I was fourteen years old, and haven't stopped since.

You see, when I was fourteen, I was a bagger at a supermarket in West Hartford, CT. It wasn't glamorous or anything, but it taught me the value of working. What did I do with the money? I bought better school lunches. I paid for myself when I went out with friends after school. Once I started working, I was pretty much cut off from allowance, so if I wanted something, I would have to save up for it. I can't ever remember going to my mother and asking for twenty dollars (though I am sure that I have&#41.

The bagging job… well, it sucked. Big time. But, I was able to get a job at the library for the summer, which was a much better job. It was air conditioned, the pay was good, and the work was very easy.

My Junior Year in high school, I went to music school after my normal classes ended. This meant that I couldn't work, so I got a small stipend to pay for student lunches and some incidentals from my mother. It wasn't much, but it was enough to get by. I still had some savings from birthday money and my job, so it wasn't like I was broke. But, aside from clothing, housing and meals at home, I essentially paid for my own way.

The second semester of my Junior year in high school, Janet and I moved into an apartment. Janet and I worked two jobs (at Domino's and Sbarro's pizza&#41 while attending school full time. It was hard, but we managed. Our parents thought that we would crack under the pressure after a month or so, but we toughed it out for six months while we saved enough cash to move out to Slippery Rock, PA for college.

Slippery Rock was the only place where we didn't have jobs, regularly. This was due to the fact that for most of the time we lived in Slippery Rock, we had no car. So, we were limited to places that we could bicycle to during the day… and there weren't many places to find a job even if we did have a car. I worked for a small computer shop building custom made machines for about a month. The owner didn't have any cash, so I never got paid. The owner of the apartment building let me pay for a couple months worth of rent by patching the roof on the geodesic dome in the back.

Yes, you heard me right. The apartment building had an 8 unit main building and a 6 unit igloo in the back. I spent two months in the grueling sun tarring the roof and installing new windows, but it was a great way to take care of the rent. It was during this time that we went on Food Stamps. We needed some way to eat until the student loan kicked in. Eventually, we ended up working at the head shop beneath the apartment building and made some spending money. But, as you know from previous Topics of the Week, we only stayed in Slippery Rock for a year, before moving on for greener pastures.

It's good that I had some experience in Food Service, because when we moved to Morgantown, West Virginia to go to WVU, my summer job was the breakfast/lunch shift at the school cafeteria. I haven't eaten cheesecake since then. I remember being stuck on pastry detail one week, and the horrible over-sweet corn syrup stench wouldn't leave my skin. The happiest day of my life is when I quit that job, two days before I was scheduled to leave because the semester was about to start.

During my time at WVU, I worked as an admin for a number of departments as part of work-study. In Boston (our next place that we called home&#41, I worked briefly at a cheesecake shop (I know… more cheesecakes… I never tried one of them&#41 and then started my techie career as a tech support operator at Spirit Technologies in Newton, MA.

Now, I am a Marketing Manager at a Fortune 100 company… I'm not pulling down the "big bucks" and every month I shell out over $350 for my student loans. But I am doing something I enjoy in an industry that I Enjoy.

In the 9 years since I met Janet, we have always fended for ourselves… never given ourselves the luxury of a parental safety net. It's made us strong and self reliant… something that those kids we knew in college will never understand.

I'm the sort of person who would never slack at my job due to an extreme case of paranoia. Because Avery and I have never had a parental safety net to catch us should we run into trouble, we've always made sure to be on our best behaviour…professionally, anyway.

I started working when I was 16 years old, at our family pediatrician's office. He was nice enough to give me a superfluous job of filing the hundreds of patient charts 3 days a week, at $3.50 an hour. I filed the hours away, watching my tiny yellow stack of paystubs grow. Eventually, I had enough money to pay for half the cost of a new (wooden, not plastic&#41 clarinet, which was very important at the time, as I was planning on becoming a music major in college. That was my first foray into the administrative country of the working world…little did I know that it wouldn't be my last.

When I was younger I was very pro-girl. I wanted to do everything the boys did: climb trees, play Little League, be in the Boy Scouts even (my argument at that time ran along the lines of "it doesn't actually say that you have to be a boy in the manual."&#41 Consequently, I had Big Plans for myself back then. What I wanted to be when I grew up included, over time, a veterinarian, a cartoonist, a greeting card designer, a Broadway singer, a librarian, a fashion designer, an editorial assistant, and the very nebulous Any Job With My Own Office, which, as I got older, took to mean an executive or maybe even a business owner.

As I went from filing at the doctor's office to pizza order-taking at Domino's and back to filing at the International Studies office of West Virginia University, I worked on becoming the model employee. During the school year, I honed my copy machine operating and/or unjamming skills and prayed that I wouldn't have to do this for very much longer. The summers were filled with the trying experience of being a checkout girl at the local Kroger supermarket. Ah, my first experience in the customer service arena, in West Virginia, no less. More often than not I would have to deal with the rocket scientists who, even though there was a bank branch located right inside the store, would buy a 33 cent candy bar for the sole reason of wanting to break their brand spankin' new $100 bill.

After five long years of taking classes to fill the "core curriculum," I ventured out into the working world. After moving to California and signing up with a terrible temporary agency that got me exactly one, count 'em, one job (and a lot of I'm-unemployed-and-have-no-money-goddamnit, please find me a "temp to perm" job desperation anxiety&#41 in the whole month or so that I was on their "available" roster, I combed the want ads and found, interviewed for and accepted a job in the financial district as an Administrative Assistant at a small Investment Banking firm. At this point in time I was ecstatic to be finally getting a paycheck of any kind, and naturally thought that this would be a mere holding pattern in my flight toward executive status.

It turned out to be a fun company to work for. The early 1990's were very good to companies that had found their niche in the stock market, and I was working for some very wealthy people. It was a constant party atmosphere where fine wine and expensive holiday gifts were the norm, and the firm was thought of as "one big happy family." They offered to sponsor me for the Series 7 (stockbroker license&#41 and I was quickly promoted to Trade and Sales Assistant. Two years later, when the company changed direction and the trading activity slowed down, I started to wonder if I would ever be more than just someone's assistant. I found another job, again through the Help Wanted ads of the local paper (they really do work!&#41, this time for one of the largest banks in the country. I figured that my possibilities would be endless at a company with upwards of 90,000 employees. I have never had such a misconception in my entire life.

To go from a company made up of about 25-30 employees to one with 90,000 is a huge wake up call to the ways of corporate America. You are a number, a seat-filler, a nobody. You will have a clausterphobic grey, drab cube that is identical to every other clausterphobic, grey, drab cube. You will be allowed to pick up office supplies like pens and staples and paperclips for one hour per day, no more no less. You will fill out endless forms in triplicate and get two Managers' signatures if you have any problem with your computer or computer system logon code. If you misenter your logon code and the system locks you out, it will not be reactivated until the following day. You need to use it? Too bad. Your badge has expired and you need to sneak under the turnstiles because you start work at 6:00 AM and the person in charge of the forms to fill out to reactivate it isn't in until 8:30? That's not allowed, and don't ever do it again. Though you are salaried, you still fill out a time sheet. Not many people know your name and your bosses could care less about who you are or what you do in your spare time, or that you feel so very shitty about your job.

It was like a white collar assembly line where most of the employees were immigrants and spoke English only as their second language. My sole job was to take money market tickets off of the fax machine, look up the customers' accounts to make sure they were OK,circle the amount on the ticket, make a photocopy, and hand it to the next perosn. Since I realized that I was obviously overqualified for this job, I managed to beome so efficient that I was doing 2, maybe 3 hours of work per day. No one cared how I filled the other 5 hours. My brain was atrophying from non-use and I was depressed and confused about my bosses' apathy. How could they be paying me good money to do virtually nothing? How much longer can I do this without going crazy?

In an act of desperation, I transferred to the Customer Service department of the Investment division of the bank. How hard could it be to answer people's investment questions? Suffice it to say, I lasted in Customer Service for a little over 4 months. The job consisted of being plugged into a phone for 7.5 hours a day with every conversation recorded and/or monitored and literally every second accounted for. Reports distributed every week showed how many calls you took, how long the average call was, how long you put people on hold, how many minutes were between calls, and if you hung up on people. Half of the callers were 65+ years old and senile, the other half were just plain stupid, with a few wackos thrown in for good measure. The senile people would call and start crying, explaining that their children were hiring lawyers to steal their money. The stupid ones would ask questions like "what's a stock?" The wackos would just shout death threats.

I miss the people I worked with there the most. Every single person that I sat near hated their jobs as much as I hated mine, and we constantly bonded over our negativity. For fun we would put our phones on "mute," trade obscenities and relieve tension by telling people what dumbshits they were. I once said to the guy sitting next to me, "does this job make you want to push people into the third rail of the BART train?" "Yes. Old ladies especially." he said.

I have Customer Service to thank for making me the scowly, semi-negative person I am today. Where am I today? Well, I went crawling back to the investment banking firm I mentioned earlier about a year ago. I'm still an Assistant, but I'm workin' on that.

Bigger isn't always better.

Posted in Topics of the Week (1990s).

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