The Craigslist ad read as follows:
Cement Plant General Labor! $11 an hour! Start immediately! Apply in person at…
After a couple iced lattes and a very casual-yet-candid job interview, I left Starbucks with every indication that they were excited to bring me on at the bank. There was only one problem: there would not be a position for me until early the following year, and I needed work now.
I headed to the address listed on the Craigslist ad. I walked in what looked like a run-down DMV—the smell of dust and body odor was covered in Lysol—and told the seemingly uninterested receptionist, I saw the posting for general labor and wanted to apply.
She looked at me funny before handing me a clipboard and asked if I had a valid ID and reliable transportation. Her voice lacked any fluctuation of pitch and intonation. As she made copies of my identification, I sat down and filled out the application. On the wall in front of me, I noticed a sign that said: 6 days since a work-related injury. 6 days? That didn’t seem like something you would want to publicly display. Another sign stated that the entire workforce gets a hotdog lunch if the location goes 30 days without an incident. I wondered how many hotdog lunches had occurred if any.
Looking around, I realized I was the only person in a nice fitted suit, or any suit for that matter. The guy next to me barely spoke English and must’ve been in his late fifties. He was in worn jeans and work boots covered in dirt, paint, cement—truly having been worked—and a long-sleeve Intocable t-shirt. He was also looking for labor work. I thought to myself, how can anyone be in their fifties and still not have something more permanent—something a little more career-based, more accomplished? Hell, I would hope to retire in my fifties. Plus, the guy looked old. How could he put his aging body through intensive labor work? If I saw him at a grocery store loading his groceries, I would probably offer to help the old guy out, and here he was asking for jobs which oftentimes consist of heavy lifting. I thought about his family at their modest home—his wife, their kids, their grandkids—and figured this guy probably worked his ass off his entire life, and here he was now, still trying to work just to make ends meet. Hard work is a relative term and doesn’t always pay off.
In and out came workers in all forms—baggy gangsta-style jeans, cheap prison-style tattoos in the shape of tear drops on their upper cheek bones. Blurting out demands,talking over others, using language you would never expect to hear in a place of business. I was out of place. It seemed the other guys all knew each other or at least were able to relate to a level of social comfort, boisterously joking and harassing one another. But despite our differences, we were all here for the same reason…we had one common goal: to find work.
One of the ladies escorted me into her office.
“So what kind of work do you do?” she eagerly asked.
“My experience is in managing people—typically revolving around sales and customer service.”
“And you want to apply for labor jobs?”
“Yes. I’m just looking to earn a little extra money during the transition between jobs… something that doesn’t require training or full-time hours.”
“Have you ever done labor work?” Looking at me compared to the other guys that come through here—she’s confused on why a pretty boy like me with a background in management would want to do hard labor.
“Yes. Grew up building homes with my father among other things.”
I guess that was what they consider the equivalent of an interview. They’d call me as soon as something opened up. She handed me a safety gear kit consisting of a hard hat, protective glasses, gloves, a bright fluorescent orange vest.
“Do you have steel toe boots?”
“You’ll need some.”
I didn’t wait long for a call.
It was five months earlier when I woke up sweating, my heart trying to break free of my chest. I took a deep breath in and looked over to my wife, sound asleep, and then to the alarm clock to my left reading 3:22 a.m. Fuck.
When your job not only consumes your day but takes over your dreams—when the loss of sleep turns already dark circles under your eyes into black bags prompting people to ask you, “You ok? You look sick…” That’s when you know, or at least… That’s when I knew.
That day, I typed up my two weeks notice ending my thirteen year tenure at a large retail chain. Hitting the send button was easier than anticipated, and as the email sent, I felt all of the recent pressure and anxieties get sent with it.
Countless times, people asked, “What are you going to do?” My response was always the same: “I guess I’ll get another job.”
I turned down some retail job offers that came about. It took me thirteen years to recognize that working weekends sucks; working extended hours during holiday season sucks; working ON holidays sucks; retail sucks.
Without a college degree, I found myself limited to sales if I were to start out making anything remotely close to what I was as a retail manager. I interviewed for one of those “cool” Austin jobs where people ride scooters and play ping-pong and xbox and drink free beer from the company kegerators every Friday at the work happy hour. Upon finishing my face-to-face interview, they offered me the job on the spot. I was excited and talked this place up to everyone. I was, for once, proud to talk about what I did for a living and who I worked for—a kick-ass online marketing company. I felt like Don Draper walking around the office. I had everything at my fingertips: the opportunity to make $250k per year, all the “cool” perks and of course, weekends and all holidays off. I was living the dream… or so I was sold.
The first day or orientation, they escorted our ripe and eager group through the halls where we were met with applause and high-fives and “You can do it!”s from all five-or-six hundred employees in the office. I had never felt anything like this from any previous employer—a warm and sincere welcoming—and this furthered my excitement and anticipation.
“What was that?”
“Oh, somebody just closed a deal.”
I finished training class as the top rookie in sales—visiting the gong on several occasions—and instantly, I had a reputation. I was placed on the top team in the company and I hit the ground running. After a few slow days, I closed four deals in four days and was feeling pretty good about things. I bragged on and on to my friends and anyone else who would listen about how awesome my new job was.
“But what do you do?”
“I sell marketing packages to small business owners.”
“So, you’re a telemarketer?”
And that’s when it hit. I was a fucking telemarketer. How did I not see this before? The illusion of this place had been sold to me by some damn good sales people, and that’s all it was—an illusion. Yes there was A scooter but I had only seen one person riding it through the halls indicating that he probably owned it. There was a ping-pong table, but only people that took breaks played ping-pong and the bosses weren’t too fond of breaks—same went for the pool table and game systems. Plus, the data guys governed the ping-pong balls and didn’t appreciate Sales using them. Yes, there was even free lunch, but you were frowned upon if you sat down to eat and didn’t cart your lunch back to your cubicle and keep dialing which I soon realized was the reason for the free lunch—they never wanted you to leave this place or the phones.
Like a casino, there was always someone winning. But also like a casino, there were many more who were losing—everyone other than the guy currently at the gong.
And there was something shady about the whole lot of them—especially the managers. Their philosophy was this: The client either gives you a credit card number or they hang up pissed, cursing your very existence, sometimes maddened to the point of physical threats. Either was considered a victory.
I’m not a dick (or at least I haven’t been one since my early twenties—yes I acknowledge my past indiscretions). And I personally don’t think being a dick to people is a good long-term business model or really something I can stand behind with a clear conscience.
As the fog cleared more and more, fewer and fewer of my deals closed. Each paycheck got a little smaller. Other people were gonging away while the rest of us were climbing under our desks to muffle the uproar which only exacerbated the feeling of defeat. I hated telemarketing and found myself stressed out and dreading every second sitting in that pressurized cubicle under fluorescent lighting having to call irritated business owners that didn’t want to talk to me. And I was starting to despise the few who were actually successful—sitting up there with their smug look, hitting the gong superciliously, slowly, repeatedly. GONG! GONG!
I secretly started looking for employment elsewhere and applied at a couple of banks—something more fitting of my personality and skills—but figured moving into a different role here may buy me some time while I secured a position. I couldn’t see myself cold-calling for another week much less another month. I applied and interviewed for an entry-level customer service position on the other side of the building just to hold me over. I was offered the job. The pay was an issue though—the low salary offer had all but solidified my wanting out—and as with every important decision in my life, I told the manager I’d have to talk it over with my wife. He told me to get back to him by the end of the week and said he’d love to have me and promised me there were some exciting advancement opportunities coming up very soon.
A few days later, I saw the customer service manager talking with my sales manager. Shortly after, the customer service manager broke the bad news to me: as of that day, strangely and unexpectedly, there was a sudden hiring freeze in that department. The next day, my sales manager asked me to join him for a one on one. Walking into the office, I saw our HR representative and one of the bigger bosses. They sat me down and informed me they were separating from me—in other words: firing me. My sales manager said, “With a baby on the way, it’s good that you knew you didn’t want to do this right away instead of fighting through it for months and months.”
On the walk to my car, the sun penetrating down, he told me, “I could see us being friends outside of work. You’re a cool guy and a good worker.” He acted remorseful for letting me go. “I’ve never had to fire anyone before,” he said, looking down and away pretending to be concerned. That was a lie. That place was a factory. Half of my training class was gone. I made it three months which was a lot longer than I can say for most.
I left the call center, disappointingly only a slightly improved Ping Pong player, and with the realization that I would rather dig ditches than sit in that boring seedy cubicle bullying and deceiving honest, hard-working people. That was the hardest-easiest job I had ever worked. I don’t wish that environment on anyone.
So here I was. I had an hour to get to my first temp job which was a window unloading gig at a new apartment complex. Did I really need steel-toe boots? I thought about that sign at the temp office: 6 days since a work-related injury. I decided to stop off to grab a cheap pair. Let’s see if we can make it seven.