EDITOR'S NOTE: The musical career of Portland's own Nick Jaina stretches across numerous albums, dance compositions, and shows over the past decade. Now his career as an author begins in earnest with Get It While You Can (Perfect Day Publishing), a memoir that's hilarious, sad, and heartfelt, and the Mercury is proud to share the following exclusive excerpt. Jaina's book is available now in stores and at perfectdaypublishing.com. Plus, this week, Jaina appears at two hometown book release parties: a reading on Wednesday, January 28 (IPRC, 1001 SE Division, 7 pm, FREE, all ages), as well as a music performance and reading on Thursday, January 29 (LaurelThirst, 2958 NE Glisan, 9 pm, $5). Don't miss 'em!
I HAVE BEEN fired more times than anyone I've ever met, yet never once has someone said the words "You're fired" to me. Like so many things that happen in the movies, getting fired is less exciting in real life.
I've also never heard someone say the words "You're hired." Getting and losing jobs has always been very nebulous. At the end of an interview someone will say, "Well, can you come in on Monday?" Looking back, I've never been sure if I actually had any job. Whenever I hear, "Yeah, we don't need you to come in on Monday," I always have the urge to ask, "Well, how about Tuesday?"
I don't think I've ever been fired because I didn't get the job done. I'm sure it was because of my attitude. I've never done a good job of disguising the fact that when I finish the work they give me, I proceed to do my own work. All these years, I probably would have been much better off if I'd worked harder at pretending to work, because the illusion of workers working is what is valued most highly in workplaces.
I love working. Work is just doing stuff, building stuff, making stuff, cleaning stuff. And yet the kind of work I've often found myself getting paid for is so different than the kind of work I love doing. Instead of building toward a career in a secure field, in the name of freedom I've often taken the jobs that mean the least: temporary jobs.
I was hired and fired from Kaiser Permanente in Portland six times, and each time I'd come back to a different section of the building and work for a different supervisor. One time I was working on the sixth floor and I was lucky enough to have my own cubicle. One of my responsibilities involved making copies of a particular form and then putting each of those photocopied forms back in the copier and copying something on the other side of the paper. However, as soon as the ink is affixed by a copy machine, the paper has undergone a fundamental change. This is why the page is warm and shiny when you pull it out. The machine doesn't like it when you put that same piece of paper through it again.
Eventually the machine stopped working. I told my supervisor and she gave me the number of the copy machine repairman. It's strange to think how often, when I'm new on the job, I've ended up with a responsibility I probably shouldn't have. I called the repairman and he met me back at the copy machine. After he fixed it, he told me that I couldn't just put the same piece of paper back in the machine because the machine would keep breaking. I explained that the only way I could do my job was to put the paper through the copy machine two times, and he told me that the copy machine would keep breaking if I did that and he'd have to keep coming back to fix it. I told him that I didn't know how else to do what they were asking me to do, except to put it through twice. It was his job, he said, to fix copy machines, and he didn't care if it was the same machine over and over again.
I began to wonder how many other people were spending their days in situations like these. How many people were doing something so disconnected from what they really cared about that their primary goal was to make it through the day without conflict?
In most jobs you can look around and find the one person who really knows what's going on. Often this is not the boss, it's just the person who actually cares about the work getting done. In every office there is a dance of uncaring people around this one over-caring person. The point of the dance is to run out the clock: to walk slowly to and from the bathroom, to stare at a piece of paper, to put files into boxes and take them back out, while the over-caring person harrumphs and fills out his or her daily reports. It's as if you asked a group of improvisers to act like they were working in an office. It's almost funny to watch. And then it's not.
I had another job where I worked in a warehouse near the airport. Because we were working with electronics, we had to be protected from static electricity, so there was a big blue rubber mat on my desk and I wore a strap around my wrist, which plugged into a grounding device. I understood its purpose, but it was hard not to feel like I was connected to a machine that was monitoring all my actions. I tried not to dwell on the Matrix implications. Eventually I learned to ignore the strap, which meant that sometimes when I needed to go to the bathroom I would be yanked back into my chair.
The first day at that job, about an hour in, the guy sitting in front of me turned around and started talking to the guy sitting behind me.
"So I'm in this warehouse last night, right? And it's really dark, so I light a flare. And right when I do that I see this guy in front of me with a knife. I try to pull up my shotgun, but he's too close, so I hit him in the face with the barrel, and he falls backward off the balcony. Then his buddy comes up behind him and I blow a hole right through his chest. It was awesome."
I was frozen for the first half of his narrative, but then decided that he was talking about a videogame. He had to be, right? I couldn't picture this guy with glasses and a ponytail actually hitting someone with a shotgun barrel.
Halfway through my first day, the boss called a meeting so he could tell us about how the company was really hurting that month. The problem, he explained, was that they weren't moving enough high-revenue items. I hadn't yet figured out how the company made money, so I wasn't shocked to find that they weren't making enough. The boss said that they'd tried to think of everything they could, and the only solution was to cut everyone's hours back to 30 a week. He gave us a fearful smile and said that it was just short term and not personal. He finished by asking if anyone had any suggestions, anything at all, for how the company could make more money. He gave us a minute to think it over, or pretend to think it over, in complete silence. I had no idea what that company did or how it could possibly have any money to hire people in the first place, so I just kept quiet.
There are two types of temp jobs. One situation is an office that has been overwhelmed with work and has been forced into seeking outside help. As a temp worker, this is the situation you want. Everyone is glad to see you, because every little thing you do is a bonus. There wasn't anyone there before you to do this work, and now, magically, you are here taking care of it, as if a little elf arrived to make everything easier.
The other kind of situation is when you're replacing someone who's out due to sickness or vacation. This is going to be a terrible experience. This is the "You're Not Elizabeth" assignment, because everyone in the office who sees you for the first time is expecting to see Elizabeth and get some help from her because she knows how to do this certain thing, but instead they see you, dumb old you, and even though you're a guy, or especially because you're a guy and they're trying to temper their disappointment with humor, they say, "You're not Elizabeth." Which you're supposed to laugh at, because all office humor, whether it's "I hate Mondays," or "Thank God it's Friday," has the subtext of, "Please fucking kill me." I have a feeling that even more than my distaste for pretending to work, not finding the You're not Elizabeth joke funny is what got me fired. To me, laughing at that joke would have felt like holding out my hands for the handcuffs. I wanted to laugh with joy instead of pain.
I watched the film Office Space one night after work and it was almost too much to take. There's a character named Michael Bolton who always has to deal with people telling him that he has the same name as a famous singer, as though he didn't know that already. The day after I saw that movie I was in my little cubicle with a list of names I was supposed to cold call. Next to me was a woman with a list of her own. We all hated cold calling, and did everything we could do avoid being left with those names. It was like we'd been asked to slaughter lambs, but at least on a farm we'd have ended up with lamb chops for dinner. I was staring at my list of names, trying to figure out how I could get through them all or get out of calling them when my cubicle neighbor turned to me with a look of pure joy and said, "Oh my God! There's someone on here named Michael Bolton! Like the singer!"
Had she seen the movie? Did she know that I had just seen the movie? My expressionless face probably terrified her, and she turned back to her phone. Later that day the boss told me he didn't need me to come in on Monday.
Just because I kept digging my own grave didn't mean I wasn't suffering. I never wanted to be fired. On the long walks home, I'd rehearse what I'd say to my wife Amanda. I dreaded trying to explain why I'd lost another job. "I guess they ran out of work for me," I'd say. "I don't know what happened."
I worked in another warehouse near the airport that boxed up cellphones to ship out to customers. The conveyor belt would roll them past and I'd have to install the battery and send them along. It was frustrating to know that these phones were heading out to every corner of the country. These phones were living the life I wanted to live: traveling, connecting, communicating.
The week the internet bubble burst, I was working in the Trump Building on Wall Street. The NASDAQ peaked on Friday, March 10, 2000. My first day was the following Monday. I worked on the 11th floor at an investment capital company. I was in the corner of a big room where a bunch of guys were calling potential investors and trying to soothe their collective anxiety. They kept telling these people that the market was really volatile at the moment, but that they needed to ride it out. They kept saying that word, volatile, all week. I bet someone came in and coached everyone on how to use the word volatile. You could see everything you needed to see about these men by how much they hunched over their phones. If they leaned back in their chairs and let their stomachs stick out, they were protected from all the chaos, or at least believed themselves to be. If they were curled up over their phones pressing their temples they had no contacts left to call.
These men were little specks on the ocean of the stock market, and their job was to act like they had some ability to navigate those volatile seas. It was incredible to be there at the top, in the building named after the most famous American moneyman, on the street synonymous with greed, just after the technology stock market hit its highest point in history. You would think that it would be glorious to be at the top, but all I saw was terror.
One time in Portland I was called in to replace an Elizabeth at the reception desk of a medical center. The reception desk is a horrible place to land, because everything that happens there depends upon personal connections and idiosyncratic knowledge of that particular office. It doesn't matter how good you are at typing or taking messages, you're constantly disappointing everyone. "You're not Elizabeth." "I'm sorry I'm not Elizabeth, but can I help you with something?" "I'll just wait until Elizabeth comes back." If I could have somehow imbibed all of Elizabeth's spirit, if the temp agency would have allowed me to put a straw in Elizabeth's brain and drink up her knowledge, I would have done that.
This particular Elizabeth, I learned, was out of the office because her mom had died. Whenever you get a temporary assignment, you're always trying to gauge how long it will last. It feels heartless to react to a death so coldly, but what's the difference between you and Sam Spade investigating the murder of Miles Archer? You're both just looking for clues. In this case, it seemed to me that an Elizabeth grieving for her mother would be out for a while. Indeed, the agency told me it'd probably be a week. Even though the first day was rough, I still needed the job, and enough people were starting to accept that I wasn't Elizabeth. I came in the next morning wanting to do my best.
I was surprised to walk into the reception area to see Elizabeth herself sitting at the desk, answering phone calls. Her eyes didn't look puffy or tear-stained. She was handling all the calls and packages that I had stumbled over the day before. It looked effortless. It was the only time in all my temping when I ever came face-to-face with an actual Elizabeth, the mythical creature that I was always replacing. She was such a professional Elizabeth that even the death of her own mother, the ur-Elizabeth, didn't waylay her for more than a day. My heart broke for her. I wouldn't want to do anything for weeks after the death of someone I cared so much about, but now I wonder if maybe this was her choice. Maybe it was her way of working through the grief, to be in a place where she was useful, where she played a role that people appreciated. After all, that is the most important thing that work can give you, a place where you can belong and contribute. When I saw Elizabeth, I turned around and went home, happy to have a day off.
From Nick Jaina's Get It While You Can; courtesy Perfect Day Publishing.