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.

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