On Working: Work, Life

It’s apparent, after just two weeks working at my new job: I’m not cut out for this sort of thing. “This sort of thing” being what most people call a “real” job. 9 to 5 or, as in my current situation, 9:30 to 6:30, sometimes 7:30, sometimes later, depending what time my overburdened boss gets back to her desk and catches her breath, drinks water, eats something, and finally, finally, has her attention collected enough to focus on me, the hapless new girl who some five, six years ago might have been able to pass off her incompetence as relative to her age and general inexperience but who now, at the age of twenty-eight, is five to six years older than most of the other whippersnappers at the burgeoning startup and it’s starting to show in her brain. In dog years.

I usually have about two minutes, maybe three, to ask her all the questions I’ve accumulated throughout the day. Questions that no matter how resourceful I try to be (or perhaps I no longer know how to be resourceful) I could not quite answer or wrap my brain around. I’m often embarrassed to ask them, even though my boss is kind and cheery – the sort of woman who says, with the utmost earnestness, “There is no such thing as a stupid question.” Though of course there is. You just don’t know until you hear it.

If she hears one, she hides it well.

My incompetence has much to do with sleep – or lack thereof – but I’ve walked into the office feeling refreshed on the rare instances when, the night before, I went to bed before midnight and the end – or the noon and afternoon and early evening result – is always the same: mental fatigue like you wouldn’t believe. Like I’m solving Algebra II problems all day (Not everyone took calculus in high school). Except I’m not. Not even close. I’m pulling stuff from one Excel-like document into another. I’m asking people if certain things can be pushed back; asking other people if other things can be nudged forward. I’m chasing down the Creative Director only to realize he’s not even in building but downstairs, smoking. Savoring a brief moment of peace while looking up at a narrow strip of sky between our building and the next. Or checking his phone for World Cup scores.

That need I can understand. I do the same thing, except I don’t smoke or watch soccer. I drink glass after glass of water which naturally, prompts an unnatural number of bathroom breaks. The office’s bathrooms are wonderfully designed – each stall is a fully enclosed room – a cell, more like – with a bolt lock that flips a tiny sign on the outside from green to red. “Occupied,” it states, just like in airplane lavatories where you never get people pounding or pushing because they know someone’s in there. I don’t sob from stress or anything. I do, from time to time, just stand. I stare at the toilet and think, “What am I doing here?”

Then I go back outside and ask my boss, if she’s around, more questions. Mostly, why things are the way they are.

Sometimes her answers make sense, “I don’t know,” she’ll say, “It was like this when I got here but I’m trying to change it.” Those answers make me feel better because I don’t know either. Except I realize I’m not trying to change anything and then I don’t feel better. I feel worse.

I’m also doing a lot of random things that remind me of my old assistant job where one time, I randomly had to drive an hour to Long Beach to pick up fresh uni for my boss’s wife so she could gift it to some other boss’s wife. Or that other time, when I had to run out and buy nice napkins because there were important people coming for a luncheon and all we had were paper towels. But it makes more sense here, the random things I’m asked to do because I’m assisting a whole team rather than a single person, though when I think about it, this whole team is subject to the whims of a single person. Namely, the Big Boss. Which is why, last Friday, I took three cabs to three separate Staples to buy a special kind of label paper that apparently, is a hot item because it sells like hotcakes.

“I guess everybody be buying the big labels,” the guy said at the Hell’s Kitchen Staples, (while I commend the employee for his use of alliteration, I recommend you avoid this particular Staples unless you like ultra-depressing office supply stores that stock everything from soda to magazines to Fourth of July t-shirts, all haphazardly displayed, except for the single office supply you need).

The label paper isn’t special in itself. It’s just a whole sheet, because the Big Boss likes big labels and we were making special binders with special big labels for a big special meeting and it had to be this and we were on a time crunch and oh my goodness, look at that mess of an office supply cabinet: we were out.

“Do you mind…” my boss began, and I finished her sentence, the one thing I picked up from my last “real” job:

“I’ll run to Staples and get some more.”

What I didn’t anticipate was having to run to three Staples and finding myself on the East Side 5th Avenue Staples, which is so much nicer than the Hell’s Kitchen one it might as well have been Bergdorf’s vs. Marshall’s. What I didn’t anticipate was having a lot of time to think about things.

At my old job, I often had to take my boss’s expensive car to the dealership or gas station. He would drive from his house to the office and then drop the keys on my desk.

“Gas,” he would say, or, “It needs maintenance.” If it was a particularly busy day, I would groan inwardly (sometimes outwardly) because those tasks took up precious time. But once I got behind the wheel, I’d be reminded that my boss and I shared the same preprogrammed radio stations (or perhaps it was his pre-teened daughter) and the drive to Chevron or to Audi Mission Viejo was not so bad. I would sing along to Rihanna or Nicki Minaj and smile at the people driving by who were amused both by my shameless crooning and by the fact that a very young woman was driving a very expensive car. But on many of those drives, I was anxious and drove with a foot much heavier than necessary; I had things to do back at the office, each and every one which seemed crucial and urgent; they could (at least as I imagined such things back then), affect my boss’s impression of me. I would grip the smooth walnut woodgrain steering wheel and struggle to sit up in the ergonomically designed italian leather bucket seat. I would wonder if God was playing a joke on me for praying for specific things like, “To live in the lap of luxury.”

I probably wasn’t specific enough.

Mostly though, I wondered what I was doing if it was essential.

My old boss was a wise man. One day, after I’d spent many hours redoing simple tasks that I should have just done right the first time, my boss tapped my desk as he was leaving the office for the day. He had a dinner engagement somewhere. The driver was waiting outside.

“You waste your own time when you don’t pay attention,” he said, sympathetic in his own way, “No one else is going to take pride in your job. You have to do it.”

I considered this. The next morning, I made sure to put coffee in the coffee pot.

Every job is supposedly essential to the organization it operates within. (Duh) As an assistant, I knew how I was essential, though because it was in such an assortment of ways, the big picture was vague. Now, I’m a “coordinator,” my function more or less the same. People come to me for answers they assume I have. For deadlines they assume I know and schedules they assume I keep. They come to me to be connected to other people, mostly my boss, who is hardly ever around. I nod towards her empty desk with a look, “The seat is empty. Draw your own conclusions.” But always, there is the familiar (and accurate) feeling I had as an assistant when even on my best days, when I forgot nothing and my boss and I and the company at large operated in perfect harmony, that someone else could and would, in due time, do my job better. This thought bothers me most. Not because I’m a perfectionist – far from it – but because I’m more competitive than I appear. More ambitious than I give myself credit for. So, writing. There’s always that.

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