Sunday, September 21, 2008

Persistent Mediocrity

Hallelujah, I'm employed. Oh yes, I've taken the job that I refused to take exactly one year ago, citing something about freelancing glory and not making plaintive allowances to my bills, my interests or my way.

I work for a certain national company that takes school photos. I can't say which because, in fact, it explicitly says in one of my many color coded handbooks that I cannot blog about them, unless I am prepared to field their wrath.

My job is this: Wake up before sunrise, dress and tuck in my emblazoned polo shirt, take out my lip ring, leave before the coffee shop opens, drive drive drive, arrive in a nice school that makes my alma mater, Masterman, look like a litter box of undesirables, set up my equipment along dotted lines and color-coded, idiot proof guidelines, take photos of kids, jump around so they smile, make sarcastic remarks at eighth graders so they don't punch me with their pimply faces, pack up, make nice with the hovering administration, drive back a) home, where I have to spend two hours recovering from hating my life or b) to the office, where my paper work is checked by senior photographers, a process that makes me hate my life a little more.

Training for this job took two weeks; two entire weeks of assembling and disassembling color-coded, marked and practically Archimidean, self-constructing sets and practicing posing. Lean in for me, yes, just like that, now sit up tall, ok, turn this way just a tad, great, now tilt your stupid head just a nibble and give me a big toothy smile. Great, your ma is sure gonna like that one, you cute, little bastard.

At the end of training there was a luncheon. The main manager, G-, was to come sermonize to us about our bright new futures. "You'll recognize her when she comes in," everyone had said. G- walked into the firehouse wearing high heels and an elegant suit jacket.

After she thoroughly welcomed us to the company, she lectured us a rechauffe, in a restrained manager voice, in passive aggressive rigidity. This season’s motto is Zero Tolerance for Negativity in this Zone, she said. Along with the help of enlisted lower managers and long-time photographers, she talked to a fire hall full of underpaid employees in unbeauteous polo shirts about making it, introducing yet another motto in her speech, Success Is What you Make It . Interestingly, she also mentioned an alternate, darker mantra, not officially written on the cake as the others, We’re All In This Together.

There seemed to be genuine enthusiasm among the more established employees, those beckoned to the front of the room to receive their 5, 10, 15 year rings, trophies like anchors, and the others in their in between years, killicked but not berthed, sitting attentively at their tables. They were psyched about the catered meatballs, the chance to sit at large round tables instead of behind small, cubicle-enclosed desks, the promise of more sales and more yearbooks and a fall photographing season that would no doubt inaugurate that bright, new future G- was preaching, giving an early morning birth to a photogenic hereafter.

I sat at a table with some of the other new photographers, a small conglomeration of the more disgruntled and jaded hatchlings. It was comforting to know that my horror wasn’t singular, my shock at the blatant power play and demeaning slogans not my own snobbery and a lucky lack of previous experience in real, corporate America.

G- had clearly gone through intricate managerial training, where she took extensive notes on the fine art of making people feel appreciated and irreplaceable. She remembered everyone’s names after our introductions, for example, and used them unabashedly. I had stood up and said, “My name is Irina, and I am a new photographer.” “An appreciated photographer,” she corrected. Then, she proceeded to ask questions, a sort of pop quiz review of the slogans and goals and technicalities of the company and the job entailed. She called on people to answer, using their names, and when they answered correctly she pointed her manicured nail in their direction and a man with a stack of crisp bills rushed over to the recognized employee and handed them a $5 bill. There were $10 dollar questions too, after which the room swelled with a covetous excitement and hands shot up faster to answer the next question. She would wait, composed, until the masses settled down and then pop a $15 question.

My table slowly emptied out. I voluntarily stayed, taking notes on this strange scene that I had only previously seen in satirical sketches.

I wonder why they stay. When I talk to people separately now, they readily admit the shortcomings of this company/job (although still with a fair amount less of disdain and, let’s face it, haughtiness than yours truly). Is it the convenience? The company’s willingness to tolerate everyone as long as they tolerate the company? A sense of security? Or is it all ok – am I overreacting to a reality that I simply have not been exposed to before, gaping ignorantly at a norm that I just haven’t had? I grow vicariously weary at the thought of that. Not so weary, I hope, that I stay.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Pittsburgh, ye glorious!

Pittsburgh is Philadelphia's cleaner, hillier, more industrial, more bridge bedazzled cousin, unfortunately located in western Pennsylvania, hours away from, some may say, anything desirable. It's closer to Ohio than it is to the ocean, and to me, that's not geographically admirable in any way. But Places Rated Almanac rated it the #1 most livable city in 2007; the same year, it rated Philadelphia #5, so honestly I don't know if it's much to go on. While I love Philadelphia dearly, much like I love my mephitic mutt, I sincerely hope our nation can do better.

Anyway, I went west and here is what I saw:

The first night we camped an hour outside of Pittsburgh, in Laurel Hill State Park. Upon arrival, we discovered that our borrowed, gargantuan tent came with an alarm clock and a room-separator-fly, but no rain fly. We also discovered that it had rained earlier and ended up sitting by a waning, sizzling fire. It was awfully pretty that night.

We awoke to a soft, gray morning and a drizzle that was quickly turning into rain. We packed and fled to The Quiet Storm Cafe , where I had the incredible Magic Snake (cheesy) sandwich and checked out locals' bike legs. The hills and staircases of Pittsburgh remind me of those of Valparaiso, only considerably better paved, so I resolved to bring my bike next time. But driving around, we got to see how green it is, neighborhoods poking out of vast and climbing vegetation-covered slopes.

We went to Braddock, right outside of Pittsburgh, on the Monongahela River. It's a depressed town that rises onto crooked hills from Braddock Ave and creeps with broken houses - porches and windows and slanting walls lying in dejected and somnolent heaps, weighed down with stinking furniture and scattered pasts. It's also home to the still functioning Monongahela Valley Works, Edgar Thomson Plant Steel Mill - Carnegie's first, in 1873. Lately, Braddock's bad ass mayor has been trying to gentrify the town to the best of his abilities and to bring in new folks who can appreciate the cheap land and houses and perhaps even revel in the industrial wonderland that surrounds that town. It's not surprising, of course, that the punks are biting then. But so are others, leading to phantasmagorical scenery, like, say, an organic farm with the mill towering in the background.

At some point we made it to The Church Brew Works. This is not just a brewery installed in a defunct church - this is a brewery that put the brew kettles on the altar, and painted angels with pint glasses in the stations of the cross. This is a brewery that made the most amazing beer I've ever had, a coconut stout that was so light and silky and so perfectly tinged with coconut that I might have prayed a little on the way out.

And then Gooski's (3117 Brereton St).

And then there was Zenith. Color-coded, well-dusted antique shop, tucked yet spacious dining room in back, plant-protected windows, goblet-set tables, vegetarian and vegan delights, an entire table set with pies and cakes. Too bad the food wasn't too exciting (although I hear it's not always bad, perhaps we came on bad day?) because otherwise I may have grannynapped the little old lady who must, inevitably, be responsible for this extravagant buffet. She must have been sitting in a back room, where servers took unpriced items to be blessed and valued. Their website says, "Eat where your seat could literally be sold out from under you," but it so happened that the one thing I wanted to purchase was not for sale. The bestest part of this best place was it's bathroom. Its walls are painted a super-saturated cobalt blue and lined with hundreds of owls. They're there to watch and make sure you're not doing anything naughty in the john.

Afterwards, we did some fancy sneaking around and went to the Carrie Furnace, closed in 1982. It's incredibly rusted but also incredibly intact. There are swinging doors, and stream stoppers, and oil still wheezing and bubbling through minuscule holes in the piping. They're planning to build a museum on the grounds, I think?

So, Pittsburgh. If it wasn't so miserably isolated out there I'd be moving there in a minute. But alas, #5 will have to do for now.