by Erin Elizabeth Smith

There’s something satisfying about being temporary.  Growing up, moving was a given – a year in a farmhouse where I made hammocks from bedsheets hung between trees, another in a duplex where I fell down the stairs sleepwalking, and a doublewide with a chainlink fence on a dirt road.  My family was always trying to evade eviction, one repossessed car and house at a time.  By the time I graduated high school, I’d moved fourteen times, so it was no surprise to me that leaving South Carolina was only the beginning of my fleeting romances with houses, cities, and jobs.

After moving out of that final house in Columbia – a butter yellow officer’s quarters that’d been trucked onto a half-paved road some thirty years before – I lived in Virginia, where I spent a year at a mostly women’s college (they went co-ed in the sixties, but apparently if a school bears a woman’s name it retains its history).  That summer, my boyfriend and I moved back to South Carolina for the summer, taking on a month-to-month lease in a neighborhood that saw two murders in the three months we were there.  Then on the day I was supposed to move back into the dorms for my sophomore year, I decided instead to repack my car and drove to Rhode Island, where I moved into my boyfriend’s dorm room instead.  He was a junior at Brown, and I was now a college drop-out, living in his single bed in a concrete lunchbox of a room.

To make grocery money and pay for our day trips to Boston or New York, I started swinging temp jobs. My favorites were always as an operator.  Often they’d put me in a room by myself.  The idea was for me to greet the rare customer or point people in the direction of the restroom.  I was a regular temp at Swarovski, a crystal manufacturer, where my job consisted largely of placating hysterical mothers about who to speak with when their child snapped off the tail of their decorative tiger or the maid nicked the rim of their expensive punch bowl.  Sometimes my boss had me alphabetize files or address envelopes, but largely it was me, the switchboard, and a gaudy chandelier twinkling like a Disney movie.

I also worked the phones at a used car company that exclusively sold vehicles that had been owned by rental agencies.  The most important thing I learned there was to never buy cars from such establishments, after three weeks of listening to the irate squawking over customers’ transmission problems, complete brake failure after their first week of ownership.  The number of times I heard the word “lemon” should really only be normal in Italian cooking or the soda industry.  Before that I’d worked at a Chrysler dealership, parked behind the front desk shrugging at the dazzled customers who always asked how much the Prowler we had on display was.

I liked being anonymous, reading John Irving novels and absently transferring customers who were ultimately other people’s problems.  At one of the dealerships, I read the USA Today cover-to-cover every day, gleaning the news from back home in its McNugget-sized state recap page.  I learned some of the switchboards so well that I didn’t even need to look up to send callers through.  The other employees never got to know my name, and I never really bothered with small talk in the break rooms or winked flirtations from salesmen.  At most of the jobs, I’d eat my lunch in the car listening to mix tapes from high school and contemplating the differences between the South and New England.

One of the great things about the temping is that you can always turn down a job, if you’re tired, or lazy, or simply have something better to do.  I flatly refused to do food service after searing hot dogs at a Single-A baseball stadium during the Fourth of July weekend.  It was over 100 degrees, and I sweat onto the food out of spite hoping my poor hygiene would get me thrown out.  (I don’t eat ballpark hotdogs anymore either.)  Another company told me I would be doing catering for a hockey tournament, and I had come with black slacks and high heels ready to tease the bigwigs about their team’s successes.  When I got to the arena, they handed me an apron and hair net, and I walked out, calling the temp agency on a pay phone promising to go elsewhere if these sorts of things happened again.

Later I spent most of a summer working at a middle school in upstate New York.  I had moved again, this time back to my boyfriend’s hometown of Binghamton, where the temp agency loved me.  I typed 90 words a minute (back when that was an oddity) and I was young, cute, and willing to do anything.  My daily joy in those months was sending unstamped envelopes through the postage machine, a piece of electronic wonder that shot the letter through a sealant and stamper and then straight at the back wall with the force of an air gun.

It was almost as satisfying as the shredder, which I learned how to use at some manufacturing firm that had a nominal number of calls.  They would send me to the windowless room where I was quarantined with the bulky paper-eater and a menagerie of product that had to be destroyed.  It was exhilarating watching each thing come apart.  I took particular delight in ripping up the magazines and feeding each picture through its undoing.  (Why they had magazines to shred, I still have no idea.)  When I was done with that, they would find things for me to do – make labels, carry pieces of mail one by one to the mailbox, rearrange a cluttered storage cabinet.  Each task itself was something of temporary significance.  The next day the neatness of my organization would come undone and the lowered tower of shredded papers would again be teetering in near collapse.

A few places I worked at didn’t believe me when I told them I had finished all of the work they’d given me by mid-day.  It was then that I was relegated to those menial, fill-the-time-since-we-got-the-girl gigs, like endless stacks of filing, mindless data entry, alphabetizing old receipts, whatever could be found.  I came to realize at nineteen that I wasn’t smarter than the person whose shoes I was filling; in fact, I was much dumber.  I had not yet learned how to stretch half a day’s work into a full one, which meant that if I wasn’t just a body to fill a desk, many of my positions were cut short.  This also meant that I became the bane of someone’s existence who returned from maternity leave or knee surgery to find that their boss now realized that instead of diligently plowing through daily paperwork, they were becoming expert Minesweeper players or IM-ing with their boyfriends.

At one company, I finished a week’s worth of work in three hours after making a macro which did five minutes of data entry in about ten seconds.  They’d shut me up in a converted closet to do the work, and when I finished at lunchtime, I literally stared at the wall for the rest of the day, my stack of finished work piled beside me.  I finally decided that in order to keep myself employed at any particular firm for more than a day or two I was going to have to learn to get better at Freecell, take up smoking, or both.

It was always strange inhabiting someone else’s desk.  Snapshots of their children stared up at me through faux gold frames.  Their fake African violets or posters of tree-climbing kittens were so jarringly generic that I found myself wondering about the individuality of people.  Having moved as much as I had, I’d already found that faces begin to look the same.  The woman keying in last week’s payroll looks just like your third grade reading teacher, and the high schooler in the mailroom might as well be the first boy you kissed.  The cubicles with the same Family Circus cartoons, the radios set to the same country western stations, and then the same flying through space screen saver that reminded me more of highway snow on a windshield.

During those years, I probably had over twenty different jobs.  I did billing for a liquor distributor, answered phones at a junior college (where I left after being sexually harassed on the first day), really anything to pay the bills.  It was safe, familiar, the constant movement, the rootlessness of not having to participate in employee birthdays or having to remember anything accept the appropriate phone greeting or some company’s antiquated filing system.  If I was tired of doing something, I asked for a transfer, and poof, I was out of everyone’s lives and they were out of mine.  It was clean.  Not much different than the way I moved each year in elementary school – friends disappeared, but enemies, ex-boyfriends, and hated teachers did too.  There was an isolation to each of these jobs that was steady and appealing during my years of geographic rootlessness.

Ironically, when I finally got a long-term job, as an assistant manager at the same video store chain I’d worked at in high school, I stayed there for six years.  Every Sunday, I shrink-wrapped movies to put out for sale.  Every Monday, I remade the jigsaw of a New Release wall, following the store’s protocol for movie title placement.  On Tuesday mornings, I put out the new releases and answered the same question over and over – “What came out today?” Etc etc.  I knew every video we had in the store.  I could name every employee who’d come and gone since I was hired.  I knew every bit of gossip from every other manager – one got caught screwing customers in the office, one spent most of her day drawing out the plans for the restaurant she was going to open with a friend, one got caught drinking Jager with teenage CSRs in the bathroom.  I stayed through five senior managers, a barrage of high school students, a bevy of blue-haired, highly pierced mini-managers, so on and so forth.

And while there was some joy in the consistency, it made me miss the days of anonymous typing – no name tag to be mispronounced, no customers to tell you their endless dramas.  The money was worse, and the uniform was heinous (there were bowties and popcorn-printed vests involved). Yet I found that it didn’t matter if I moved, everyone else did around me, and in both there was a peace in knowing what needed to be done whether it was the simplicity of the alphabet in filing drawers or the hot noise of the shrink-wrapper, the perfection in a tidied desk or swept store.

For the last five years, I’ve been teaching, a task some consider not that dissimilar from a customer service gig.  I love the surprise, the moments when you awaken from your own repetitions of “thesis statement” and “transition” to find a hungry-eyed student with her flailing arm in the air.  I love their mistakes, their humanity, the kid in class who catches my fudged historical facts.  I like the rotating rosters, classrooms, course assignments, that keep my inner nomad content.  But hell, even the Bedouins settled down eventually.

Still, though, I can’t help but hunger sometimes for that old ability to disappear whenever I wanted, to not think, but merely do.  Those afternoons with a shredder and pile of old magazines, a lunch break with a peanut butter sandwich with the sun steaming through my windshield, and that satisfying feeling of telling someone to “Please hold.”

Erin Elizabeth Smith is the author of The Fear of Being Found (Three Candles Press 2008) and The Naming of Strays (Gold Wake Press 2011). Her poetry and nonfiction previously appeared in Mid-American, The Florida Review, The Yalobusha Review, New Delta Review, Water~Stone Review, Third Coast, Crab Orchard, and Willow Springs among others. She hold a PhD in Creative Writing and is currently a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Tennessee.

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