Saturday, February 24, 2007

Tales of Employment Woe- Part III

When I was in my early twenties I was simultaneously trying to get a masters degree in counseling, and attempting to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. I've already mentioned working in coffeehouses during this time, and it was through that work that I decided I'd like to help open a cafe of my own. I met this kid (who I'll refer to as T.) from Florida, who had a monthly annuity from getting hit by a Shop Rite truck when he was younger. We decided to go ahead and write a business proposal for the very first internet cafe in Pittsburgh. He worked on the numbers, and I formulated the conception.

I must have had some facility with the written word, because we were able to use this "proposal" to convince several investors that we were onto something. No doubt the assurances of T.'s future income went a long way in persuading these folks that our plan was viable. Things moved fast, and before we could catch our breath construction was underway at a storefront on the main street of the fastest developing area in the city. T. had elaborate interior design plans drawn up by a local firm. In fact his approach was so financially daft that he soon exhausted his initial supply of investment. Eventually he got around to asking me for some emergency funds. Of course I had none, but he persuaded me (with a personal promissary note) to take out "fast cash" on my credit card for a bigger share of ownership in the business. Now I found myself in the unlikely position of "angel investor". Like everyone else I believed that T. would be financially solventduring his entire lifetime, due to his settlement money. But he had the same approach to running the business as he had for building the store. Everything was elaborate and wasteful. I watched, increasingly dubious, from the sidelines. The cafe only lasted for a few months of operation before it went into an ignominious bankruptcy. Foreshadowing was supplied by a phone call from the local off-track betting business- a blank company check was found on the floor. It turns out that T. had a fairly significant gambling habit, and he was using operations funds to leverage his strategic financial plan... a plan that involved blind wishes, comp cards, and trips to Atlantic City. Unfortunately he fled the area before we could track him down and break his legs. Meanwhile I had gotten myself into a deeper hole.

I found myself once again working in bars. Now I was relegated to a bar-back position because I was too cranky to work the door. This might have been a low point if I had been "with it" enough to reflect upon my circumstances. I found myself staring at the blank ceilings and walls of my squalid apartment. I was a mess, and if it were not for the compassion of an old friend I might have sunk even lower. D. was an account representative for the most prestigious public relations firm in Pittsburgh, and after seeing my living conditions he resolved to get me a job with the company. I was soon hired on as a part-time employee in the market research department. The position initially involved cold-calling the public, with the purpose of getting them to participate in consumer surveys.

Our little corner of the company was peopled by the motliest group of ne'er-do-wells and temps that you could find downtown. In order to make as many calls to random strangers as we did, we needed to cultivate an attitude of irreverence. We asked folks what they thought about toothpaste, Katie Couric and convenience store hot dogs. It was brutally demeaning work. Eventually I was assigned additional tasks during the slow periods of the shift. I began to input the data collected from the surveys. I liked this, as I could put on headphones and lose myself in some Zen-like state of office rapture. My supervisor always sat me in some isolated and unused cubicle, and left me completely alone while I worked. Once in awhile I would get up to wander the three floors of the company and stealthily raid the cold cut trays left out after executive meetings. After a few months I actually found myself preparing reports for the head of the market division. Often I didn't like the client, and so I made sure to impose my own personal touch onto the findings. No doubt this completely destroyed the integrity of these $100K contract studies. But I always figured it was the fault of management- for putting this responsibility in the hands of a part-time, underpaid peon. Despite my own initiatives I soon found myself being cultivated as a full-time staff writer. I went out to lunch with the director and we talked about my future there. He was appreciative of my abilities, but stressed the importance of maintaining a professional appearance for meetings with clients. I went home and thought about this for a bit, and decided that I hated the clients. I didn't want to work for peoiple I despised.

For awhile I stayed on in my initial role. I went outside and through the motions of questioning bystanders on the street about inane product choices. After awhile I would be overwhelmed by the absolute emptiness of my job. I woud find a diner, sit down by the front window with a coffee and donut, and watch the parade of delusion outside. Some of the most enjoyable times at that job were found in sitting in the office in the evening with a few co-workers, discussing the drones in the advertising department and surfing the net for comic relief. Evidently the inefficiency at that company ran deep, because shortly after I left the entire branch was shut down by headquarters. I heard hushed stories of embezzlement that ran to the highest levels. Everyone was doing something that they shouldn't have been doing. In retrospect it makes a lot of sense. It would require a complete lack of cynicism to believe that anyone in the public relations sector derives meaning or reward from playing his/her particular role in society.

Having been through some of the worst of what the corporate world had to offer, I was now ready to turn my attention elsewhere. I decided to try my hand at human services. I genuinely thought that I had learned enough about my fellow animal to "make a difference".

More to Come! Part IV Tomorrow??

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