Life at Sublevel

It was a job. Not a great job. Not even a sensible job. But a job nonetheless.

Dog Bites needs work. Real, full-time work. We quit our job a year ago, expecting past freelance clients to beat down our door, begging us to edit copy. But we were mistaken about the state of freelance budgets in San Francisco and now are only another grunt in the army of the marginally employed.

In November, our friend Camper found an ad on Craigslist for a part-time position at Moscone Center. A company that staffs conventions needed registrars, room monitors, and other flunkies at hourly wages ranging from $9 to $12. Camper and Dog Bites decided to apply. Dog Bites has a degree in journalism. Camper has a degree in physics and made $70,000 two years ago.

Both of us got hired.

SUNDAY

On our first day of training, we ran into Camper, dressed in the company uniform (khaki pants, blue oxford shirt) plus a pair of $150 J.Crew sunglasses. Dog Bites quickly calculated that the shades cost nearly as much as we would earn that week. We found ourselves doing many such computations in our head, such as how 24 hours of work (our first assignment) would net us $216.

During training, a woman next to us sucked down a can of breakfast drink and said she had dealt blackjack in Atlantic City for 14 years. Now, as a full-time temp, she makes less than $9,000 a year. She also said many of the other trainees looked familiar to her. Dog Bites had thought that people who worked for temp agencies did so, um, temporarily. Apparently, it is more of an established subculture than we realized. In the microworld of convention staffers, some "temps" have been doing the job for more than 10 years. The first wave of panic washed over us.

We relaxed a bit when we realized some trainees seemed to be enjoying themselves. One man, with a ribbon of facial hair à la Prince, sat with his shirt untucked, one arm thrown across the back of a chair. He asked questions in a highly enunciated voice and laughed at the trainer's ad-libs. When people behind him whispered, he made theatrically loud throat-clearing noises.

He nodded as the trainer talked about calming "irate surgeons." Our job description included mollifying their endemic impatience, which, according to our trainer, could erupt at any moment for any reason and be directed at the nearest non-surgeon -- i.e., a staffing person.

We then took a tour of the building, trying desperately to reassure ourselves that the job did not define us. Making fun of other staffers seemed to help stabilize our plummeting self-confidence. A future room monitor with a jeans handbag tried to go down the up escalator. Another woman wore -- gasp -- beige pants with an elastic waistband. However, we had to accept that we had been assigned to pass out stubby little pencils, the kind commonly found on golf courses and in bowling alleys, in the sublevel of Moscone Center to 12,000 surgeons over the next four days.

We weren't in a position to make fun of anyone else.

MONDAY

We took BART in from West Oakland with our boyfriend, who stared at us the whole way. He was fascinated by how much we looked like a lesbian in our uniform.

We discovered that our first assignment was with Prince and a young woman we'll call College Girl. CG had decided she was in charge, but was uncertain about Prince's competence. One of our group's duties was counting chairs before a particular medical presentation began, so that after it got under way we could count empty chairs and subtract them from the total to see how many surgeons had attended. Already Prince had multiplied 14 rows by 14 chairs and gotten 296. He had no interest in hearing why he shouldn't carry the 1 more than once.

Two hours after the first presentation had begun, Prince wandered back from wherever the hell he'd been as Dog Bites was passing out pencils and survey forms for the surgeons to jot down their comments.

"I'll do this," Prince gallantly offered. "Why don't you sit down?"

Our first instinct was to shield our armful of forms. We didn't mind the work. Indeed, we craved the brief interpersonal communication. But we realized we were getting proprietary over a very small, very low-paying job. We acquiesced and sat on the carpet. As we did so, College Girl approached and, unbelievably, began to review the staffing company's instruction sheet with us.

She ran her finger beneath certain rules such as "no reading" and "pay attention to the speaker," as if we were in imminent danger of bringing the entire session to a halt with our lassitude. We said nothing. We let her have her moment.

Finally, the surgeons began to file out of the room and hand us their stubby pencils and survey sheets. Next to us was a fire door with one of those wide, push-in handles, and every time we put a pencil on the handle to keep our hands free, CG immediately snatched it up and placed it carefully in the pencil return box. We began to enjoy ourselves, deliberately spacing the pencils so that CG had to lean over.

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