Wednesday, March 03, 2004

ODD JOBS #4--XX, 1992-98

Ah, good old XX--Lord of the Flies with middle management (email me and I'll tell you the name of company). I worked there for over five years as a technical editor, putting city ordinances into book form. For a starting salary of less than $6 an hour (I'd been told I'd be making $6 an hour, then at the last minute was quoted a yearly salary I thought equated to $6 but turned out to be $5.75, so imagine my surprise when I got a raise to $6 some months later!), I would perform highly detailed editing work.

Sometimes I even got to field questions from citizens. We were only supposed to get calls from city clerks and city attorneys, but every once in awhile I'd get a call from somebody who lived in a city we did the code of ordinances for.

"Hello, Jeff here, how can I help you?"

"Hey, yeah, um, this is Mike. I need you to change an ordinance for me. There's a mistake in there."

"What city are you calling from?"

"Miami, Florida."

"Okay--so are you with the city attorney's office there?"

"Sure."

"What's wrong with the ordinances?"

"There's one in here about handguns."

"Which one?"

"The one about making handguns in your basement."

"Actually, it says you can't make handguns in your basement."

"Right--that's the problem. I need to be able to make handguns in my basement."

"..."

"The ordinance is all wrong. I need it changed. Can you change it so I can make handguns in my basement?"

"Are you really with the city attorney's office, sir?"

"Uh, no, but if you could just make this change..."

And so on and so forth.

We had some delightful ordinances to codify, too. For example, one town changed their legal definition of buttocks about 10 times in one year, either making illegal another quarter inch or making it legal again. One got the feeling a lot of people wore really tiny shorts in their town. Yet another passed an ordinance establishing an Official Meat Byproduct for the city. Still another proclaimed City-wide Frog Day. And, in an example of a specific nuisance creating a general ordinance, one small southern town passed an ordinance proclaiming that it was a misdemeanor to double-park your pickup truck on mainstreet at midnight while naked.

We had a pretty interesting set of managers, too. Because we had an indexing department and an owner who didn't read much fiction, we once spent quite a bit of time researching the viability of outsourcing our indexing services to fiction publishing companies. It was also rumored that the owner had decided to outsource typesetting and proofreading duties to a small Caribbean island once--he'd seen an advertisement for same in the classified section of the Wall Street Journal, with a phone number listed. According to legend, the owner had then called the number, set things up with the person on the other end, and sent some start-up money (anywhere from $5k to $100k depending on who you spoke to). When we finally sent a representative down to the island, he found out that the address was to an abandoned lot and the phone number was to a pay phone outside of a bar. Another time, a member of the inhouse print shop apparently took all the football pool money and took a bus to Kansas City to see his girlfriend. I do know that once another editor, in anger, punched a hole in the bathroom wall, near the urinals. The hole wasn't fixed for months.

The place had a pretty tense atmosphere--everybody was underpaid and the mix of people ran from the almost literally insane (I once passed an indexer's office only to hear, in two distinctly different voices, "You know you shouldn't do that." "Yes, but you know you always do." "Yes, but you know you shouldn't." "But you always do.", only to peek and find only one person in the office) to the merely eccentric. We also once had a guy walk into our team's office and say to this girl he was infatuated with "Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm a man of..." and continue on with the lyrics of a Rolling Stones song, but in such a way that we thought he was just talking--he then got so flustered that he stumbled by mistake into the women's bathroom, which was right outside of our door. After a pause of about five minutes, the door opened slowly and he scampered away. (Rumors of affairs between team members circulated left and right--at one point, it seemed everybody might be screwing everybody else, but who knew the truth of it?)

The clincher might have been the fact that we had a proprietary publishing system and one guy had the company by the balls in knowing its in's and out's. He was a huge barrel of a guy, bald and gone to fat, whose favorite pastimes were farting and calling women "bitches". Once, it was reported, the company was expecting some foreign dignitaries. They were going to have to meet with this employee. Management supposedly called him in to admonish him against farting in their presence!!

Other lovely stories--the employee who tried to rob a bank with numchucks and, once he was out of jail, apparently was offered his old job back. The first computer expert we had we apparently got because he was serving out a community service sentence for hacking, so we got him for free.

I didn't have a great relationship with some of my fellow employees, I have to admit. The atmosphere was toxic, I was sometimes harassed, and I sometimes got difficult because the place was like some kind of insane asylum. I once so heckled a fellow member of my team over a point of grammar that he came this close to throwing a rather heavy decorative frog tile at me. Another time, my proofreader took off with the pages to a job and ran into the print room, rather than admit to having made a mistake. Yet another time, I was told by the people who archived the hardcopy ordinances that we typeset from NOT to decorate the manila envelope with weird Cheshire Cat illustrations. So, right before I finally quit, I took great delight in using my little green frog stamp pad to stamp frog images over 99.9% of the surface of said envelopes. Was this wise or mature? Absolutely not. But, remember--I was a bit player in a workplace Lord of the Flies. At least I wasn't killing Piggy or eating raw meat.

Probably the worst part was being put on the "X team". This team was supposedly going to implement new ways of doing things, make the job more efficient, and evaluate problem employees. There are few better ways in an atmosphere like the one at that company to make other employees hate you, I think. Not to mention, all the other teams were named after characters or things from the Wizard of Oz, so we stood out like a sore thumb. That was the death knell for my career at that company. I could have stayed on forever, probably. I mean, I could have been an alcoholic with a morphine habit and I could have stayed on forever, but I was so unhappy I had to find another job (And finally did, at Infinity--a place that is as good as this prior place was bad.)

There were certainly people I missed at the company. For every total idiot, there was also someone nice just trying to do their job under impossible conditions. But one thing I know for sure--if I'd stayed on, I would have eventually gone insane.

Jeff

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