“Did the Temp Eat My Salad?”

Well, how is my first full day of temping going? I am a secretary/receptionist-type person!  (Actually I am a fake secretary/receptionist because the real one actually knows how to do things like make labels on the printer and transfer calls on the big fancy phone). That very competent person was replaced by me, the incompetent one, for a short spell. I didn’t know why the temp agency picked me to do this job at first, because of the slight problem of me not knowing how to do anything related to the position.

Then I realized why they picked me. Want to know why? I’ll tell you in a minute. First, a little something about the gig.

I sit at a large desk in the reception area of a small-ish Wall Street firm. Have you seen that movie, Margin Call, where a bunch of traders sit at the Bloomberg terminals and scream things like “buy!” and “sell!” into phones all day?  It’s just like that. And, yes, they’re all white dudes in the trading room. A human without a penis really wouldn’t feel comfortable in there. All the clerical people are women. We answer the phones and make the coffee while the men do the important stuff. It’s still Mad Men on Wall Street.

This office is way nicer than anywhere I’ve ever worked, mostly because, until recently, I worked in a decrepit adjunct office full off mouse crap and old food.

The Wall Street Boss Man has a large suite with a balcony overlooking Important-Fancy Street. The Boss Man must be high-profile, I surmised.

I was here last week, and I had to hold a check for the Boss Man’s wife’s Chauffeur. That’s right. Chauffeur. Also, I Googled the Boss Man and all these videos of him talking on CNBC popped up on the ol’ Youtube. So, yep.

Needless to say, I was instructed not to speak to Boss Man, as he does not interact with the Help. He did say hello and inquire about my name when he came in today, so maybe he’s not so bad in his own 1% way.

So here’s what you really want to know about, which is what happened at lunch, the one time I felt I could do what was being asked of me: accept food deliveries from the various delivery people. I was also instructed to collect the receipts and write down the tip.

I thought I could manage.

I ordered myself some food as well because I was told to get whatever I wanted from wherever I wanted it without regard for cost.  I just charge it to the expense account. BOO-YAH! That, I was informed, is called a “perk.”

I almost ordered a T-Bone just to see if they would deliver it right here to my desk. But then I thought I should be a little more modest, so I went with the grilled tuna from Expensive Place down the block.

A few minutes later, a delivery person dropped off my lunch. I was starving, so I dug right in – until I realized I wasn’t eating tuna, but chicken. Why did Expensive Place not bring me what I ordered, I wondered, before realizing, in absolute horror, that I was eating someone else’s lunch. That’s right. I have a PhD and during my first full day at my new temp gig, I ate someone else’s lunch.

It’s all so poetic, isn’t it?

Thankfully, I had only eaten a few mouthfuls. So I put the lid back on and replaced the cutlery and called the person who actually ordered it and said, “Your lunch order is here.”

No, I am not joking.

I was sweating bullets in fear that the person was going to notice hir salad was kind of sparse and say, “Did the temp eat my salad?” At which point I would surely be fired from temping. And from life.

Well, that was about an hour ago, and so far ze has not complained. So…sigh of relief?  Or guilty conscience? Both, I guess. It was an honest mistake. 

My tuna dish, which eventually arrived, was delicious.

So by now you are probably wondering why I got this gig since, clearly, I cannot even be trusted to eat the correct lunch (not that this is a well-known fact).

After working for two days, it occurred to me that I got this job because I am white, and I speak a variety of English usually considered “standard.”

I don’t have any direct evidence of this, nor do I think it was done explicitly. Most of the employees here are white (everyone who has come to deliver food or the mail or to fix the Xerox has been non-white). I sit at the reception area, so the first person people see when they come in is me in my corporate pants suit.  

Yes, I am a nice white face for the front office and “unaccented” English for the phone. I embody all the myths that whiteness is neutral and unmarked and plain, which is good when you need Help that you don’t have to deal with.

That is what they want here. No diversity or marks of difference desired or required. A receptionist should be present, but also invisible.

Invisibility – being unremarkable – has its perks, as any white person can tell you. No one thinks you’re the diversity hire or tries to be extra polite to you to avoid being seen as racist. And, as Peggey McIntosh has written, no one will ever ask you to represent your race or your “background.” Being white and a woman, I am simply a placeholder for other white women doing white women things, like making the coffee and answering the phone.

Happily or unhappily, I imagine there will be other (perhaps even plenty!) of temp jobs for someone like me in offices like this all across the fair city. Every employer needs nice, unobtrusive, interchangeable white ladies around, after all.

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11 Responses to “Did the Temp Eat My Salad?”

  1. recent Ph.D. says:

    So awesome. Welcome to secretaryland!

  2. Good for you getting some money. Plus yummy lunches. And you’ve just added a whole new layer of things for me to worry about when I start a new job – not eating someone else’s lunch! Who knew it could be so hard? I hope you get to do some more interesting things one day, but for now – enjoy the novelty of the fancy office etc.

  3. garbotalks says:

    I love your writing. And your self-awareness of the place of whiteness. So many white people are frightened and angry and in denial of the implications of their position in the hierarchy. I could see you working for a union organization or something.

  4. Currer Bell says:

    Hilarious!

    And congrats for getting some paying gigs. It must be a huge relief.

  5. Jeanette says:

    Hi there. I am also a post-academic person, well, kind of in a transitional stage, but most certain that I do not want to pursue higher ed academic (arts faculty) teaching (in the UK). You have just confirmed for me the reality of leaving academia where it is expected that we will be critical of everything that you have described – this is the norm, the more critique, radical, the better. Then we face the ‘real’ business world ‘outside’ and we afind we are the outsiders expected to be silent and go along with the status quo if we are to earn a living. Heavy sigh, the frustration mounts. You must keep writing and reflecting about this experience for the sake of this lovely blog. And perhaps (my academic self says) towards a longer writing (published collection?) that you can share with other general readers who can appreciate your view point. Good luck

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  8. Navel Gazer says:

    Geez…this blog entry made me laugh so hard, especially the part about chomping on another person’s salad and then passing it off as uneaten. I’ve been there. Thank you for sharing. I appreciate your sincerity in these blog entries. I’m an ABD and am also considering leaving academia.

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  11. jz says:

    Why do you disdain and denigrate white people?

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