Monday, June 18, 2007

Brandy You're A Fine Girl...Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love H.R.

I haven’t looked for a job in years. I spent years temping, where I usually interviewed with the agency once, and then just got sent to places cold, on the assumption, usually validated, that I possessed the tools to make almost anything work.

But here in California, during a depression, temp agencies are quiet and the resourceful must look elsewhere. Elsewhere means into the “real” economy. I have to get a job unmediated by agency workers who have faith in my skill range. I am now at the mercy of people who look at my 4’11” and assume that I’m 10. Regardless of the words on my resume, regardless of my educational record, regardless of the references I provide, whom they refuse to call. Because I “look” young, then I must be. I am treated accordingly.

This then is the tale of the worst interviewer I’ve ever had. Not the worst interview on my part, but the least socially graced interviewer with the most disrespectful, arrogant attitude I have ever seen. Granted, I was ten minutes late. Not that I had arrived late, but it took me that long to wrestle my front wheel off so I could lock up my bike.

I was shown into the “lunchroom” a space roughly 6’ by 12’ taken up mostly by a counter holding two microwaves. The end of the room was dominated by a small table and four chairs, behind which was wedged a half-size spring water dispenser.

I cooled my heels for a good five minutes before Brandy made her debut.

She was short, blonde, young, and haughty. Her attitude was not well supported by the coffee drip staining her powder-blue Mervyn’s sweater/tank, half of a twin set no doubt. She seated herself, set some papers, which turned out to be my resumé, on the table and looked at me expectantly. Since I am used to the interviewer asking the first questions, I waited. Finally into the silence, I lobbed, “So what does XYZ Company offer me?”

She gave me a blank look and fidgeted for a moment. She said uneasily, “We’re offering five four-midnight shifts, rotating Saturdays required.” No smile.

Predictably, my next question was, “What’s the rate of pay?”

She retorted with a smirk, “It depends on your experience.”

I resisted the urge to lean over and tap my resumé and say, “Well, here’s the record of my experience which you have had for two weeks. Shall I read it to you, or would you like me to recite from memory?” Envisioning a horde of annoyed nuns from the order who ran my college all descending upon me with sharpened rulers, I said sweetly, “Well then, in what part of this process do I find out what my rate of pay would be?

She started a long rambling answer involving background and reference checks and then putative calls from her alleged superior. I checked out about halfway through and started filling out the paperwork while making encouraging noises like, “hm” and “I see.” I was thinking “I’ve been lied to more convincingly by at least ten other H.R. nitwits, kiddo, you are NOT in their league….or mine, for that matter.”

You see, as the interview progressed, her annoyance grew, uncamouflaged by any such niceties as professionalism or the hint of a social grace. I have never been considered particularly skilled at the ballet of negotiation, but hell, I could jeté and grand battement rings around this girlie without breaking a sweat.

Because I couldn’t resist…and she had just asked me four times why I moved here. Apparently my versions of “Because this is where I want to live” were being turned into Sanskrit by the stale microwaved air…or possibly her shell-pink, acne-shadowed ears. In any case I briskly asked her, “Brandy, how did you come to work for XYZ Company?” She gave a slightly rueful grimace and told me of her last job at SchnauzerTech, where she was betitled Employment Quality Engineer (gag). Unfortunately, due to the current econom….troubles, she had been downsized and XYZ picked her up for their shallow promises of “steady, but really crappy, job”.

I admit, I lost all pretense of wanting this position…but I leaned over and quietly said, “Oh. Dot-Bombed.” The expression on her face put me in mind of a pit bull separated from a teasing ten year old by a ten-foot fence. I didn’t understand. I hadn’t even gone so far as to make the explosion noise! Much less the whistling as it comes down… I gleefully thought of Slim Pickens’ multi-megaton ride, I forgot all about the snippy Anglo attitude stewing across the table.

Annoyed, she then works her way through a series of insipidly inane inquiries as I answer them, such as "Is there anything that would prevent you from coming to work, other than a hospitalization? Do you feel that work is essential to a good life?") Yes, Brandy dear, I have a liberal arts degree too. In fact, I’ve graded the “What Is Essential To A Good Life” essays on several occasions. I bet I would’ve given you a “C”.

She ends up with, “What kind of salary would get you here in the morning?"

I replied “30”, meaning ‘thousand a year’.

She retorts with a supercilious snort "Realistically."

Knowing that thrusting an expensive pen deeply into her orbital cavity would just earn me further agony, I tapped my pen on my lips and murmured, “Interesting that you would say that.”

Which it was, of course. I mean really, she’s offering me a 40 hours a week trapped in a minimally bulletproof cage through which I mediate the relationship of the poorest people with their scant funds. For this glowing opportunity I have spent six years in college, earning two degrees and the inability to write in anything but APA style. At least once a day I would be guaranteed a smelly, drunken, chaotic exchange with someone who was sure I was sent to this earth to deny them their next three dollars, during which I would be expected to suck it up, apologize profusely while not giving in, and somehow convey an impression that I also gave a damn. And for all this consummate acting, much less the math skills required, they apparently wanted to pay me around $10/hr.

This will not do. I make $10 an hour at a job I dearly love, and consider myself lucky to get it. However, you may not treat me poorly, and expect me to take others’ poor treatment graciously, AND insult me with 18K a year (for which at least 1K will be spent on antacids) for the privilege of boring and/or provoking me to fucking insanity 40 hours a week!

I donned my most reasonable mask and leaned over into Brandy’s space and whispered, “Okay, realistically, 29.5.”

She stared at me so hard I could see her eyes water. I felt a mild tingling as I thickened my proverbial skin. She tried another tack, "Do you have any other offers on the table?"

I mentally offered myself the lack of ulcers for the privilege of staying home and never seeing Brandy again. “Of course!”

She pounced, “What are they offering?”

I dodged, "That's not something I feel comfortable discussing.”

"You're not going to let us compete with them?!!!" she flared.

I SHOULD have said, "Do you think price is the only thing you have to compete with?" Which begs the question, what has Brandy offered? A definitive 40 hours a week, ironclad, no changes, no flexibility. An end time of 11:30 pm when I will be a lone woman riding through Oakland on a bike five consecutive days a week. She cannot or will not tell me what my labor would be worth to XYZ company, however, if any other companies have bothered to make this fact known to me, I should immediately tell courteous, kind, friendly Brandy about it just as fast as I can. But I didn't. I said, "If I were in someone else's office and they asked me what XYZ company offered, I wouldn't tell them either." Of course, I couldn’t tell another company about her offer, because she refused to tell me what the offer would be. I gave her the look of contempt anyone who has played casino poker should give to the woefully inept, and waited.

Since her glare just bounced off my by-now-rhino-like skin, she chose to press the issue, Brandy’s Mistake #6421. She favors me with her best supercilious glare to convince me that I have just crawled out the briar patch and even dumb pickanninnies need to show more sense than I have, so far.

I reminded myself that “supercilious” can also mean, “having too many cilia” but I still wanted to slap her pointed little hood. It was one of those moments where I say to the shade of Martin Luther King Jr., “Uhhhhh, dude? When we have judged the content of their character and found it wanting, THEN can we burn down their neighborhoods?” I have always wanted to riot and destroy something tasteful. Why destroy Hunter’s Point, South Central or Watts, or Over-The-Rhine, when we could raze Knob Hill, Beverly Hills, or Sharonville?

I can’t do everything, but I could destroy Brandy’s negotiating “skill”. A friend summed up her negotiation dance, thusly. I start with, “I want $50K a year and 4 months vacation and a signing bonus.

Brandy, “No.”

“Ok, what will you give me?”

“$15K and you're chained in the cellar.”


“Now what?” This is more akin to boxing than ballet.

While I was thinking, she has peremptorily snapped, "Why do you think this is the way to negotiate",

So my answer to Brandy is simply, "Because that's the way I was taught." After which I glissade into the wings to await the next move in our shoddy little pas de deux. .

She glared at the extra head that apparently grew out of my shoulders and was quiet for a minute. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my cat for the many staredown contests we have waged over the last twelve years. They are now coming in quite handy.

Finally, I broke the silence,” So, what’s next?” I was tired of playing mindgames with the underendowed and wanted a mocha. She just pushed the paperwork at me and gestured at a pen. I pushed them back, since I had already filled them out during some previous useless propaganda-spouting moment of hers. She looked through the window behind me and said, “Oh, my manager wants me, I’ll be right back.”

“Yeah, sure, Brandy, except that you left so fast the air molecules were confused, emitting a sonic boom, as they rushed into the space your ego had occupied.” I knew that when I left, all the heads in the office would watch me go, turning like fast-motion daisies following the sun. I used my alone time to pack up documents, tutus, and toe shoes, and extract my keys.

As we walk through the office, conversations stop and all eyes watch me leave. Yes, people, look at the free person refusing to sell her soul to this particular font of boredom and drudgery. And yes, in today’s America, it is mostly a tradeoff of this particularly excruciating tedium for some other slightly less painful tedium. But of such small sacrifices and victories is fine ballet crafted. I like to think Judith Jamison would be proud. I wonder if Oakland Ballet needs an employee. I have a dance for them.

Friday, June 08, 2007

On Not Shutting Up

Today on Forum, the program was called “Silences”. It was about the great and peculiar silence that dogs interracial children.

You know, the silence that ensues whenever one makes reference to one’s race….followed by the defensive, jerky platitudes about “It’s their problem”, and “We’re colorblind.” Blind possibly, colorblind, never.

It was a conspiracy that no one ever signed on the dotted line for, but joined enthusiastically anyway. “We’re raising you as a white person, and as long as nobody ever breaks the illusion, everything’s okay”. Well, fine, but every time I pass the front door, I’m not in that world anymore.

What I can’t do is take my family’s perceptions outside the house, nor can I bring the reality of the outside world inside. I have no idea why I’m not a schizophrenic.

Even now, I’m in the process of losing my friend of 15+ years, partially because any time I mention the word “black” her ears shut off and she attributes everything I say to “whining”. You see, apparently there is no history of black people in America, and even if there is, I am not allowed to speak of it or the discomfort is just too much for her to bear.

How do I deal with “I love you except for the entirety of your appearance and what it means historically and contemporarily in society”. It’s been 36 years and I’m still trying to figure that out.

Make no mistake, everyone else seems fine with adopted people taking on any “culture” they want, as long as said culture matches their skin color. Even though my parents are white and raised me as “white” it’s the ONE culture/ethnicity I can’t pull off.

My apparently-soon-to-be-ex friend is adopted, and has no compunction or sense of irony about regaling me with tales of her Czech “heritage” for hours at a time, however, Kwanzaa-talk from me is completely out of bounds. Sharing my feelings about Angola prison, was definitely unwelcome, not tolerated, aroused intense defensiveness and anger. I’m still not sure why.

It’s not even a question of critique, i.e. “Hey, you’re kinda confrontational. Maybe there’s a less intimidating fashion for you to put your ideas across.” No, it’s “Shut up.”

It was my mother’s reaction when I asked yet again about my adoption when I was eleven, she said, “Shut up. I don’t want to hear about it again until you’re 18 and can go do something about it.” Yes, I’m feeling the “love.” Aren’t you?

The few “black” people I’ve dealt with didn’t like the compromises I made in speech and pursuit of higher education in order to survive in the world from which I came. “You use too many words and they’re too big.” Rather than dumb myself down (I do have some self-respect) I continue to go my own way, but the lack of “black” culture makes me uncomfortable with them and vice versa.

So, I stand where I always have, firmly in a limbo of society’s making, but my very own personal problem. I don’t even get any credit from the majority of people who say they “love” me for the mental balancing act I have to achieve daily.

While it’s lovely for young people growing up today to be able to hear the pain of the people in my generation -- who had no one to look up to, identify with, or even read about, I really wish I had known I wasn’t alone until recently. Luckily, there is now an organization called ipride to help those coming up.

I wish I hadn’t been complicit in silence (and many who know me argue I wasn’t silent, but that they had and have no ears to hear), and I refuse to comply, even if the silence demanded of me will cost me someone I was once so sure loved me, but apparently only as long as I participated in the myth of “I’ll help you rejustify your prejudices by joining in your pretense that race isn’t “important” as long as I hang out with you and promise never to talk about it”.

If it’s so “not important” then why do I keep hearing “Shut up”, no matter how long I wait for people to listen?