The Colonial Theatre Tea Garden

The beauty spot of downtown Richmond was, in 1921, the Tea Garden of the brand-new Colonial Theatre. Herein, we recreate the essence of elegance, joy and hauteur that was once found in Virginia's first real picture palace. Bathtub gin is available at the top of the grand ramps.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

As promised, here's the brief saga of the Jesus Insurance Company.

Don't get me wrong, people. I am not your average hipster boi who believes that Organized Religion is the opiate of the masses, an evil plot to control the world, or anything else. I am a devout Catholic. Okay, maybe I don't go to Mass when I'm hung over, but still... That said, I have no problem with other religions as long as they leave me well enough alone and don't try to convert me. As my mother once told a pair of "missionaries"--who apparently believed that already-Christian (mostly Lutheran, Catholic and Methodist) Walkersville, Maryland needed conversion--"If I really gave a rat's ass, don't you think I'd be at my own church right now?"

So imagine my horror when, on a temp assignment, I was confronted with an insurance company that was, apparently, CEO'd by the Fundamentalist Protestant version of Christ Himself.

Mind you, this was a temp job, but I did sort of need work, so when I saw the Mission Statement in the lobby (why on earth does every modern company need a Mission Statement?) and noticed that it involved several references to God, I very nearly disappeared in a puff of Catholic incense smoke. I mean, seriously: lots of companies are run by Catholics, but we don't have freakin' crucifixes and statues of the Blessed Virgin in the lobbies.

I survived the place for two weeks. They had morning prayer meetings. I shit you not. It wasn't mandatory--I don't think they could have gotten away with that, legally--but it was fairly clear that anyone who wanted to get ahead in the company was going to show up and "testify" and talk about how he (note that I don't include the feminine pronoun; I'm pretty sure that women weren't supposed to WANT to get ahead in this little world) had discovered the power of Jesus and how Jesus had become his personal savior.

This is one thing that bugs me about fundamentalism: the insistent use of that phrase "...accepted Jesus as your personal Savior." Here is why it bugs me. The whole concept of Christianity is that Christ is supposed to be everybody's Savior. It's not all about you. This "personal Savior" thing freaks me out. I have a personal toothbrush. I have a personal cell phone. I have personal lubricant for personal reasons that will remain personal, unless you happen to be the one getting very personal with me, in which case, one of us will use a personal birth control device. So, when Joe the Fundamentalist asks me if I've "accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Savior," my usual answer is along the lines of "No, I haven't. I didn't have to him as such, because He already was, and He's not MINE, He's the Savior of us all." (Except, I'm tempted to say, assholes like you who want to pre-empt His entire philosophy to make yourselves feel like the cool kids on the block.)

Diatribe over. So, here I am, toiling away in The Lord's Own Li'l Insurance Company. Small problem...or, rather, one overwhelming problem. Nobody in this place seems to have the SLIGHTEST FREAKING IDEA of what they're doing. My job, nominally, is to review claims, look for discrepancies, and if one exists, trot over to the document storage room to find the paper file and try to reconcile the discrepancy. Except that: nearly every file on the computer system has some kind of discrepancy, and invariably, there is no paper trail sufficient to clarify anything whatsoever.

This means that what I actually end up doing is a)alphabetizing the files in the system, which seems to have never occurred to anyone, and then b) for each batch of 50 or so, finding the corresponding paper files, bringing them back to the desk, and then c)fruitlessly searching for something that will clarify the problem. For each batch of farbed-up files, I am able to find approximately ONE paper document that helps out. In other words, the whole process could be solved by just saying "Yeah, this whole thing is hosed. Y'all need to just start over."

Except that of course I can't do that, because I'm a temp and I'm an English major, not an Insurance Professional. That, and I'm not a member of the Reformed Church of the Redeemed of the Evangelistic Saints of the Lord, or whatever it is.

Actually, most of the people with whom I interacted were not at all of the creepy "I'm going to convert you or kill you trying" type. That was obviously just a function of the company's owners; most of these folks just needed a job like anyone else. The inherent problem was really that they didn't seem to know what they were doing themselves and therefore really didn't know how to explain to me what I was supposed to do.

After two weeks, I was done. This job, in my view, was like an already-inferior cut of meat that had been left on the grill for three hours and was burnt into charcoal. It was unpalatable, at best. So, I called my *other* temp agency and told them that I needed something, anything, else. They had a new job for me within five minutes. It offered better pay, and it was actually in the city. (Did I mention that the Evangelical Insurance Concern, Ltd. was twenty miles into the suburbs?) Natch, I took the new post.

I told my supervisor at the insurance company that I'd been offered another job and needed to start the next day. She was fine with it, and told me that if I wanted, I didn't really have to come back that afternoon. She also congratulated me on the new job (I didn't mention that it was really just another temp job) and hung out with me to smoke a cigarette.

Here's the best part: After clearing out of the place, I discovered to no small horror that I'D FUCKING LOCKED MY KEYS IN THE CAR THAT MORNING. Thankfully, this place was close to the very last stop on the city's public transit line. Unthankfully, about the time that I started walking towards the station, the mother of all cloudbursts opened up.

Right as I was getting on the train, the temp agency that set the job up in the first place called, and were they ever pissed. The temp coordinator lambasted me because "You knew how much they needed you, and you left in the middle of the day!" I reminded her that the supervisor herself had told me it would be cool to leave, that I wasn't under contractual obligation, and that for God's sake...oh, wait, poor choice of words one actually knew what the hell he was doing in the place, and so it was clear that they didn't need me that badly. I also pointed out that the company's overt display of religion made me rather uncomfortable and recommended that the agency brief any future temps before sending them to this company. After I made the (wet) trek on Baltimore's light rail to get back to the city, I was able to bribe a friend to haul me back out to get my car, and the chapter closed.

In the long run, everything was fine. The next temp job(s) were with Johns Hopkins. I made a lot of good friends and some good professional contacts (I was already working towards a teaching job), and spent a few pleasant months there. Needless to say, the old temp agency didn't offer me a lot of jobs after this little drama.

The two weeks left me with a few questions that remain unanswered: How can a company in 2001 (that was the time frame) get away with such overwhelming religious jingoism? At least, I *am* Christian; what would a Buddhist or Moslem have had to endure in that environment? How can a company continue to function, when it clearly has absolutely no idea what it's really doing? How is it possible, in a world where almost everything is documented in carbon-copy triplicate AND on labyrinthine computer records, to have NO information about 95% of one's transactions?

And, as you might expect: Why was I still temping?

Next in the series: The pleasures and vicissitudes of temping at Hopkins.

Monday, August 10, 2009

As the last couple of weeks of summer trickle down to nothing, and I stare hatefully at the calendar, I invariably start to think "I hate this job."

I hate this job mostly because it's a job, period, and I don't particularly like working. If anyone was meant to be a dilettante, I'm the guy. I do like teaching because-- oh, wait, if you're waiting to hear how much I love children, or how I'm trying to make a difference in the world, skip this part. I loathe children, and as far as I'm concerned, other than a few neighborhoods Baltimore is pretty much irreparably broken and can't be fixed without a well-placed warhead or six. I do, however, love the English language. The job is never boring, and I really really love having the summer off.

When I contemplate this hideous return-to-work thing, though, I'm also forced to contemplate some of the other jobs I've had over the years. Invariably, some dippy co-worker will tell me that I need to write a book. I do, but I'm too lazy, so I thought it might be amusing to start relaying some of the experiences on here. Thus, here begins a brief series:


You see, the United States has painted itself into a very dangerous corner. At one point in our history, everything balanced out. Some people worked the farm, some went to college and did "professional" stuff, some people worked in factories, some fixed toilets, some robbed banks. Whatever. There was a niche for pretty much everyone that fit in with levels of ability.

Those days took a hike around the same time that the first Datsun cars started showing up on the roads, and now we're in deep trouble.

See, almost everyone now has a bachelor's degree. This seems all happy and egalitarian, but what it has really done is to render the degree meaningless. I've met people with bachelor's degrees whom I strongly suspect need help tying their shoes. Plumbers routinely make more than college grads. Why? Well, you see, now most people believe that plumbing work is "below" them, so they go to there are no more plumbers...but LOTS of college grads...who end up doing crappy low-paying jobs...while the guys they look down upon, all three of them in the state, get paid considerably more to install faucets.

In other words, there just aren't enough High-Power Executive positions going around for all of the people who think that they should be filling them. This leads to a lot of underemployed people, and a lot of bitterness. It also leads to having a damned hard time finding a job at all.

Since I graduated from college, I've been through an annoying little parade of crappy jobs. The worst part of the crappy job market is that interviewers will invariably say "But you have a degree from (insert prestigious college here). Why are you applying for this job?"

What you want to say: "You stupid bitch, because my rent is three months behind and I'm fighting with the cat over the last bit of kibble. It's take this shitty little job or die in the gutter."
What you are supposed to say: "I understand this is entry-level, but I'm looking for some new opportunities, and this job seems like a great way to explore some different paths!!!"

In my treatment of crappy jobs, I should probably address my favorite form first.

No matter how bad the economy gets, there's always a sick receptionist, so you can always temp.

Temping can be among the most satisfying of jobs, because it really isn't a job. I've done plenty of it. Oh, yes, there's work, but rarely does it involve any actual labor or thought process, and you get paid for it. Sometimes it does lead to a real job, and it's possible to make some good connections. I've made some very good friends through temp work.

Baltimore is a great city to test the temping waters for one major reason: This town is full of really, incredibly, mind-numbingly STUPID people. The mere ability to type vaults you light years ahead of most others in the regional temp pool. File six lousy pieces of paper between 8AM and noon, and people will be so impressed that they'll buy you lunch.

Some of my favorite temping highlights:
--a credit-card company in the suburbs. This place was the dregs of Planet Temp, and it seemed to be even worse for its real employees. You had to scan in with your ID; if you didn't have it, you didn't get in to report for work. One guy got canned for letting someone else borrow his ID to scan in. The company's whole business model was the issuing of credit cards to people who really shouldn't have had credit cards. I ended up working for a week in their human resources department. This was creepy. Everyone in there had a degree, but I knew that the mung in the breakroom fridge could outmaneuver them. Each cube had a set of binders with impressive titles, but each binder had about six pieces of paper inside. The function of the HR workers seemed to be limited to finding the most ghetto-ass people in Baltimore to work for the company, and then summarily firing them before having to pay out any discernible benefits. My job was to file and type. They were all seriously freaked out when I produced the typed versions of three letters within fifteen minutes. They'd expected that to take all day. Also, a mockingbird in the parking lot hated me, and attacked me no matter where I parked.
--The swanky downtown advertising agency. This one was kind of fun, because I always thought the ad game seemed interesting. It can be. Unfortunately, I was filling in for the receptionist. My job for three days was to occupy a beautiful granite desk in a sleek lobby with leather furniture. And I do mean occupy--not much else. If people came in, I'd simply announce them to the person they wanted to see, who'd come out to meet them. If the phone rang, I transferred the call. Also, it became clear that they usually had hot chicks as receptionists. A lot of people were quite surprised to see a guy at the desk. One of the nice things was that, since I occasionally had to broadcast calls over a PA system, everyone complimented my voice. A couple of people even mentioned that I should try doing some ad work. (In retrospect, I'm not sure why I didn't follow up on the idea.) One of the other cool things was that it was in the World Trade Center, which is the world's tallest pentagonal building. It's Super Seventies at its weirdest, but it makes for trippy corridors.
--The chemical shipping company way down in one of the industrial sections. This was only a few days' stint, but it was kind of fun. Everyone there was genuinely pleasant. I had to report to a woman whose name was...really...Ginger Rogers. I also got to hang out in one of the offices on an industrial floor, which meant that I had to wear hard hat and protective gear to get to the computer. The whole place was full of old-fashioned blue collar Baltimore types, and it was the closest I ever got to being surrounded by normal people while temping.

Coming Soon: Who needs insurance if you've Accepted Jesus as Your Personal Savior?