The Help

I haven’t temped for a few weeks because life happened. But I plan to start again soon. I fear going back to Fancy Wall Street firm, where I have temped on a regular basis (yes, “temping on a regular basis” is a thing nowadays), because it’s so miserable. At the same time, I want to return and check up on the women who work there. They have sort of become my colleagues, and I think about them a lot.

I think about them almost everyday, in fact. I imagine them in the windowless office where we worked together a few weeks back. They’ll still be there when (and if) I return for another short-term gig.

Aside from one twenty-something who works in accounting, the three secretaries are the only women who work at the firm. And they’re the only ones without private offices. All the employees with any authority or status are men.

I think these women are being abused in their jobs. They are abused in a concrete sense because their bosses yell at them or otherwise treat them like dirt. They are also abused in a more abstract sense, as a consequence of their menial status. It’s hard to explain. It sort of feels like a white collar prison. Of course, I get to leave after a few days, not knowing whether I will come back or not, which is a kind of gift. The regular staff, on the other hand, must return day in and day out, from 8:30AM-5:30PM, with no end in sight. Indeed, they get weekends, and vacation days, and probably some sick days. But that’s just part of the prison bargain which makes it impossible to quit. The rest of the time is slow torture.

For example, the Big Boss yells at “the help” everyday for not doing things exactly as he fantasizes that they should be done. And when he’s not yelling, he’s making incredibly patronizing comments (because he’s the patron, after all).  Once, one of the secretaries (a woman in her 50s) did something he did not like, and he howled at her: “Do I need to send you back to school? If you want to go get your education, let me know. I’ll pay for it!”  In other words, he accused her of being an uneducated dimwit who needed special training to learn how to follow his commands properly. Also, he’s filthy rich and can buy her a whole new education, if that is what he needs to do to prove what a world-class prick he is.

The bosses haven’t really yelled at me yet since I am a temp and, therefore, invisible. But I have experienced the horror indirectly.

One day, I was asked to create spiral bound books for the firm’s financial reports. One secretary, let’s call her Mary, showed me how to use a machine to punch holes in about a million plastic folders. Then I took these small plastic bindings and slipped them through the holes one by one to create each book. It was painstaking and detailed work. I had tiny scrapes on my hands by the time I was done because the plastic was sharp. (My PhD did not prepare me for such treacherous endeavors.)

Though I was left alone to do this job, Mary kept coming over to my desk to check on me. She said it was to see if I needed help. But she was really obsessing. She made me redo a few binders that weren’t absolutely perfect, even though I couldn’t tell the difference.

Things were made worse when one of the bosses (the one who walks around the office in his stocking feet all day, because he can) insisted that I redo all the binders because one of the traders, who obviously lacks the proofreading ability of a third grader, had failed to correct a typo in the text.

Having to redo the binders sent poor Mary over the edge. She was stressed out over every single one after that. She was afraid we would run out of plastic covers and might have to, I don’t know, throw ourselves from the balcony in despair? (Frankly, I’m surprised more despairing temps aren’t scraped off Park Avenue after jumping from office buildings.)

I kept thinking, “Why are you being such a tyrant about this, Mary? I’m on your side.”

I realize now, though, that Mary was being a tyrant because her boss is a tyrant. If the secretaries do anything wrong (ie, fail to guess what thoughts are tumbling around in the boss’s pea-sized brain) they are harangued and smirked at as if they were the lowest forms of life. Naturally, the abused becomes the abuser. Mary wasn’t being that mean to me, of course. But what I recognize now, a few weeks out, is that she was perhaps afraid. She was afraid to do anything wrong for fear of being yelled at, which caused her anxiety. And she no doubt felt some responsibility for the work that I was doing, so some of her angst was directed towards me.

Seeing these dramas unfold, while not really being part of the world the secretaries inhabit, has sharpened my sense that I am not one of them .  .  . and yet I am.

The last couple of times I worked at Fancy Wall Street firm, the boss’s main executive assistant started giving me job search advice that I did not ask for. She assumed I would like to do the kind of work that I am doing now: secretary-type stuff, only full-time. She gave me a list of headhunter firms to call and the names of recruiters that she had used in the past. “They helped me get this job,” she explained, then added, “this is the worst job I’ve ever had.” I was not sure how the last statement was supposed to inspire me to contact the recruiters she told me about, but she didn’t seem to think it mattered much.

Soon, the other exec assistant and the receptionist started giving me tips as well. Then, when I went to work again after a few weeks, they asked me how my job search was going. Had I called any of the people they told me about? Alas, I had not.

I have not yet figured out how to explain my situation to my new sort-of colleagues. (One of them asked if I was on Facebook, and I freaked because I don’t want her to friend me and read the stuff I write under my real name. Thank God she hasn’t found me online yet.)

I decided that the women at Fancy Wall Street firm want to take me under their wing. Poor girl, they must think. Almost forty years old and still temping! We have to help her.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the offer. And it’s not that I don’t need a job. But I don’t have any plans yet to enter the world of full-time clerical work. Temping seems better somehow. I want to feel like I am not really a secretary, I guess.

What I’ve been doing, which feels kind of dishonest for some reason, is thank the women at Fancy Wall Street firm for their advice. Then I say, “it’s tough out there!” or something vague like that.

Am I just a snob?  Or maybe I don’t know how to tell them who I really am. And who is that exactly?

Whatever the answer, I am just not quite ready to commit myself to making coffee and spiral binders for the investor class, even though I have spent quite a few days over the last few months doing exactly that. (Yes, I am aware that making coffee and notebooks is not the only thing that secretaries/executive assistants do. In fact, I see all the work these women do and I am amazed they’re not running the company. Since I would be starting at the bottom, however, I would surely have to make a few pots of coffee before I could move up to more interesting work, if such a thing exists, which I doubt because, again, I am a snob.)

Still, what gives me the right to be picky? I am fairly certain these women would not be sitting in that horrid office waiting for their free lunch in between rounds of abuse from the boss if they had other options. Why do I get to keep feeling like I am not them? Is that what earning a PhD does to a person?

I think it all comes down to options. Not actually having them, of course, but just feeling as if you do. Believing there’s another path that will reveal itself to you is a powerful thing.

Where does that belief come from?

It also strikes me that, by trying to help me, the women at Fancy Wall Street firm are engaging in a kind of workplace organizing. Of course, it’s organizing that is not about resisting the situation they’re/we’re in, but accommodating it. Instead of class solidarity based on a mutual struggle for dignity and (god forbid) equality, the best we can do is provide mutual assistance to each other in the form of advice on how to navigate rough waters. It’s a strategy that assumes our best option is to work full time instead of part time in jobs we hate. It’s solidarity based on the hope that, if we’re lucky, we will be demeaned a little less in our next job than we are in our current one. What else can we do, after all?

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5 Responses to The Help

  1. That sounds horrible. I used to work as a professional in an area where many of our clients were grotesque entitled pigges like the motherfuckers you describe in your office. When one of these fucken scumbagges would even come close to treating any of us like thatte, one of our more senior people would smack them down instantaneously and hard. And it was remarkable how they backed down all afraid and shitte.

    Which brings me to the following: You know how you realized that Mary was being kind of a tyrant to you because those motherfuckers were being tyrants to her and she was afraid of them? Well those motherfuckers themselves have tyrants above them who they are afraid of. Yeah, they’re probably natural assholes, but they are also terrified and that fuels their tyranny.

    When you operate in a regime of tyranny, there is *always* a bigger fucken tyrant than you that can kick your fucken asse and who terrifies you. And even if you are the chief fucken tyrant–like Stalin or whatever–then you are terrified that all the fuckers you tyrannize will band together and kick your fucken asse.

  2. nyc says:

    Wow. Great point. Indeed, it is hard to remember that there are tyrants ABOVE the tyrants we know. Sweet Jesus, what is this world coming to?

  3. recent Ph.D. says:

    That does sound horrible. My secretary experience hasn’t really been like that, which is not to say I recommend it — I’m really glad to be moving on after a year and a half of it. But there might be some difference in doing this sort of thing in a nonprofit vs. a corporate environment (even when the nonprofit is a libertarian loony bin, but that’s another story!). I don’t know that there’s really a point to this comment except maybe that a suspension of disbelief about the evil-ness of the people I’ve been working for, in the grand scheme of things I think, has contributed indirectly to getting the non-secretary job I’m about to start? It’s maybe just that I think there’s some value to being in these types of situations when you have the capability to analyze them, as you clearly do. Trying to understand how these people operate — how they think, why they do what they do, just getting inside their heads — can have interesting and unforeseen consequences down the line. So maybe my point is get to know the secretaries for sure, but, maybe if the opportunity exists or you can find a way to create it, get to know the bosses, too.

  4. Jet says:

    I am not surprised to hear your story. Years ago when I finished my undergrad degree I worked as temp but int he capacity of desktop publishing – kind of the time before the technology allowed everyone to do their own PowerPoints. Anyway, I did a stint at a similar fancy pants international consultancy that most people knew of, and the shitty attitudes that the consultants had there were so awful I swore I would never aspire to do that kind of work myself. I was doing the usual temp thing by offering any more assistance at the end of the day (seeing they were so stressed – women consultants included) and one of the women barked something like, ‘You couldn’t help with what we need to sort out…’. Hard to remember exact words, but the shitty tone and the way she looked (or didn’t quite look at me) really made me feel sick. So I can’t really begin to imagine how these poor secretaries must feel getting this day in and day out. My comment to the above response about the tyrants ‘higher up’ is that these tyrants are of course, just the gofers for the ultimate capitalist ideology – I mean in the most extreme and greedy sense. I would argue that I’ve seen some grumpy not-so nice people in academia who do not exactly go out of their way to be so nice to office admin staff. They certainly wouldn’t get away with the awful bullying you’re talking about here, but I think some of the lofty heads could be humbled a bit more to appreciate that admin/secretaries are holding the place up most of the time. Good luck with your experience there.

  5. Anthea says:

    Yikes …but sadly familiar of a temp job that I had where I was the ‘receptionist’ for a fancy pants stockbroker who frankly had the ego which was the size of a very large multi-storey building. Fancy pants stockbrokers had ego problems as he was a tyrant and an ego maniac. The people who he employed fawned all over him – his employees either were mice or mini-versions of him. All I remember about him is that he was a physical being full of anger and frustration and wearing a pinstripe suit. So, yes, you’re right there’s an inherent power structure in these workplaces. It is awful, unpleasant and really just about access to power and money. This desire to power and money is ironically what those who are treating adjuncts badly are also after but in the university world the source of cash is much smaller and not likely to get any bigger given different funding sources are being cut.

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