Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Touching Paper

Today is (according to Hallmark, anyway) National Secretaries' Day. Or, if you are a man and can't bear to be thought of as doing "woman's work," National Administrative Professionals Day. In recognition of that, and the fact that Monday was my official ten-year anniversary with Fox, I'm telling my employment story.... just this once, then never again.... (Thank God! I hear you all collectively breathe.)

I wish I could say my cubicle was "Dilbert-like" -- at least then I might have a little peace and quiet behind those high, solitary walls made famous in the comic strip. But our cubicles at Fox are in the hallway and have very short walls -- four feet at best. Management praises the "open, airy feeling which might allow for some natural light to spill into the cubicles from adjacent offices." A nice theory, I'll grant you. The trouble is that the designers of the space intentionally staggered most of the office doorways that rim the floor of the building so that they don't open directly toward the cubicles. This was presumably to minimize noise into the offices. We in the cubicles have no such noise reduction strategies.

While Management calls the work place arrangement "open-air," we who work in it call it other things, many of which are not repeatable in mixed company. But "hog pens" is the most commonly accepted description of the cubicle arrangement, at least by the folks who actually have to work here. I sit here as I type this now and think, "How did I get here?" And then I think, "How long have I been here?" And then I think, "Who am I and where did it all go so horribly wrong?" And then I sigh and go back to typing.

My job title at present is "Senior Legal Assistant." The description of this job is "to provide administrative and clerical support to in-house legal counsel in the Theatrical Motion Picture Production Legal Department, to create initial drafts of contracts for artists and talent for completion by counsel, to create and distribute copies of draft contracts and documents to all necessary parties and departments, to disburse rights and some talent payments, and to disburse and distributed signed agreements to all necessary parties and departments."

All of that boils down to one thing. I touch paper that's been touched by the stars.

Ridley Scott. Mike Judge. Queen Latifah. Renee Zellweger. Ewan MacGregor. Yep, I've drafted them all. In fact, just last fall, I had the honor of losing Ann Margret's signed agreements. That was a new experience. I still haven't found a classy, plausibly deniable way of breaking it to her reps. I've been ignoring them.

If that sounds mean, bear this mind. They ignore me all the time. I keep a bulletin board next to my desk with copies of passport photos which were submitted by talent along with their employment paperwork. I keep telling the agents that, as long as the paperwork is completed, they don't need to send us the passport copies. They don't listen. Agents rarely listen. I think the constant din in their heads of "cha-ching" drowns out the sound of my voice.

Anyway, back to my mini-Hall of Fame. Kevin Spacey was the first, and still occupies the central place of honor. It's a cute passport photo, although he resembles an accountant more than an actor. Saturday Night Live's Dax Shepard sent a copy of his passport and his driver's license, also both adorable photos. Dakota Fanning's rep sent her passport, but the copy isn't good. I keep it because I think she's just the cutest thing, and she was one of the few actors whose reps didn't give me any lip. Amy Irving sent hers in color. She's a very attractive woman, that Amy Irving. She takes a nice passport photo. A couple of writers and producers also adorn my walls -- no one you've ever heard of, but people I think are nice and didn't give me any trouble.

Sensing a trend here? Want to stay on my good side? Refrain from working my last nerve. That is how I measure success these days -- by the level of trouble and bother to which I must go in order to see a task through to completion. It wasn't always like this. I used to love my job. I used to live for my job. I used to wake up in the morning, anxious to be able to get to work. What happened?

It started innocently enough, as most things in life do, with a divorce. Mine. In 1991, at the same time the country was busy scouring its way out of the depression the first George Bush precipitated, my four-year-old marriage unraveled at the seams. Since my marriage in 1987, I'd mostly been a stay-at-home wife and mother. I had held a couple of jobs outside the house -- a craft business with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law, a pre-school teacher -- but these paid very little and didn't sparkle on a resume. My primary job during those years were running a home and raising a highly intelligent and energetic toddler. For all the hype about valuing housewives and the work they do, it's just that -- hype. After my marriage failed and I returned to the job market, though I'd held fairly decent paying clerical jobs prior to my marriage, I couldn't get past the Human Resources department. Unbeknownst to me, during the process of childbirth, two-thirds of my brain fell out of the back of my head. Now, apparently, I was too stupid to be employable. At least that's what I was made to feel like.

"What have you been doing with your time lately?" an HR coordinator would ask.

"You mean, my free time?" I would query, just for the purposes of clarification. "After running the house, handling the laundry, the bills, the kid, and the very high-maintenance, soon-to-be-ex-husband? After that? Well, nothing else really. After all that, my day's been pretty much shot."

"Yes, but none of those tasks qualifies you for anything here at ," invariably came the reply.

So much for a housewife's work being worth around $160,000 a year. The truth is, a housewife's work is only worth that if you have to get someone besides the housewife to do it.

To make matters worse, years spent away from the keyboard had rendered my typing skills -- heretofore dicey at best -- virtually atrophied. I couldn’t time test above 45 words per minute on typing tests for any of these corporations. That was about 20 words per minute too slow for anything more than a file clerk. And the file clerk position was looking pretty golden, believe me.

It was the early 90's, before Al Gore got around to inventing the Internet, so there were no Monster.coms or Yahoo!Jobs. If you were at all computer savvy, and you were lucky enough to have a modem -- a fairly rare peripheral back in those days -- you could log on to a subscription computer bulletin board (BBS) service to connect with people in your area. I subscribed to a BBS called Modem Butterfly. I was living alone for the first time in four years, all of my recent friends had dropped away since the divorce, and my ex had been quite efficient at separating me from all of my premarital friends. I was lonely, and Modem Butterfly offered me the chance to connect with some living, breathing people without having to find a sitter for the toddler.

It wasn't like the Internet. Nearly all of the members were LA-local. We had parties. We had BBQs. We met in clumps for coffee, and occasionally took in a movie together. It was an eclectic bunch of folks with little in common but a modem and a will to use it. I loved it, and I loved them. In those days, live chat sequences appeared in "real time," meaning that as you typed, the letters appeared across the chat field instantly. If you made a mistake or were a terrible typist, there was no way to hide it. As you hit backspace to correct yourself, your chat buddy watched the cursor move backwards across the field. I love good conversation, and interrupting it with typos made me nuts, so I tried to type as accurately as I could in live chat. I spent many hours losing myself in chat sessions with people who empathized with my circumstances, who offered advice -- some good, some lame -- and who were just there to listen when I needed a friendly ear.

After a month or two, two remarkable things happened. A woman named Stephanie paged me to chat. Though I'd never met her, we had a mutual friend at the BBS. I entered into live chat with her. She told me she was an employment counselor with a temp agency that was anxiously looking for additions to their pool. She'd heard from our mutual friend I might be looking for work. I warned her of my poor typing skills and the fact that I hadn't been employed outside the home for four years. She pointed out that temping might be just the thing to reestablish a work record. I made an appointment for the following Monday. Someone had actually asked me to come and interview with her for a possible job.

That was Remarkable Thing Number One.

Remarkable Thing Number Two happened that Monday during the typing test. I tested at 68 words per minute, with only two errors. I was stunned. I asked Stephanie to recount. She assured me the results were accurate. Apparently, all the time I'd spent in live chat on Modem Butterfly had honed my touch typing skills without my realizing it.

A week later, I stepped into a temp position in the Contract Administrations Department at Paramount Pictures. It was, in many ways, a little dream come true. First, I was working. That was cause for celebration alone. Second, I was working at a movie studio, which was a vast improvement from the few jobs I had managed to scrounge doing filing at insurance companies. Third, and maybe most miraculous, I was working at Paramount, where my father had worked for several years, first as a story editor, then as an executive story consultant on BONANZA. From the window at my temporary desk, I had a clear view of Stage 5, where I'd spent many a happy time hanging by knees from the hitching post that stood in front of the Ponderosa.

I was home. At least temporarily. At least as long as it took for someone to come back from maternity leave. I wondered from time to time precisely how much of her brain she lost afte giving birth. Oddly enough, she returned after four months, brain seemingly intact, and ready for her job back.

No matter -- I had wormed my way into the hearts of the Feature Legal Department. Besides computer BBSs and Bush-instigated recessions, the other thing that was big news in '92 was AIDS. And one of the Legal Files clerks, Jason, had it. He'd had it for a while, but this was pre-protease cocktails. Full-blown AIDS was nearly always a foregone conclusion. I moved from temping in Contract Administration to temping in Legal Files, where I stayed as temp for six long months. Meanwhile, Jason began his descent into the last stages of the disease. He evolved from the vital, funny, fiery Latino man I'd grown fond of from my first temp assignment, to a withered, confused, pale cadaverous shell of his former self. The last time I saw him, I didn't recognize him, which was only fair, since he didn't recognize me, either. In fact, he had no recollection of ever meeting me. I didn't feel too bad, though. My officemate, Michael, had worked with him for nearly eight years, and Jason couldn't remember his name when he came to visit that day. Later, we would learn that the Kaposi's Sarcoma that marred his handsome face was working behind the scenes, too, and had established several lesions on his brain. Wit, spirit and good looks, no matter how abundant, are no match for cancerous brain lesions.

Jason finally died in his sleep one night, and the department supervisor, Ronnie, called me into her office the next morning. She offered me Jason's position permanently, complete with a raise and full benefits. I cried. I was emotional about finally being gainfully employed, certainly. But I could not shake the knowledge that someone had to die for me to get here. I felt horrible and more than a little mercenary. In a way, I felt as though I were just another opportunistic infection which was taking advantage of Jason's low T-cell count. Then, Ronnie told me something I had never known before.

"Jason was the one who recommended that you be the one to replace him before he left," she said.

At that moment, everything changed. I hadn't stolen this job like a thief in the night -- it was a gift. Jason had given me the last thing he could before he left -- a new start. It is probably the greatest gift I've ever received, both for its timeliness and for the dividends its accrued in the years since, and it was given by a man who was little more than a friendly acquaintance.

Within three years, I had moved from file clerk to legal assistant, and later moved with my Paramount boss to a position at Fox, where I've been since 1995. Since my arrival here, I've doubled my salary and am actually at the top of my pay scale. Even more amazing to me, I've achieved a kind of "street cred" as the assistant who "knows everything." "Ask Amanda," it is frequently said. "She'll know." And, amazingly, I usually do. I attribute this more to longevity than to any overt expertise on my part. After being the "new girl" for so long, I looked up one day to realize I was the second most senior assistant on the floor.

Which brings us back around to the hog pens. Perhaps I'm just too comfortable in my position here. Maybe I've just done it so long, it's lost its joy. It started around September 11th, I think, when, along with 80% of America, I started to ask, "Is that all there is?" I don't suffer fools gladly, which is a handicap in a place where suffering fools is practically in the job description (I refer you back to the part where it says I have to "create initial drafts of contracts for artists and talent for completion by counsel." When I hear an actress is whining that she wants a bigger house for her stay while shooting in Austin, Texas, because the 2000-square-foot rental provided to her is not spacious enough to house her and her three-year-old child, plus the hundred-and-six-pound Belgian nanny, I feel an overwhelming desire to call her up personally and ask her to imagine what being inside Tower One as it was collapsing might have felt like. Or what it might feel like to have cancerous lesions slowly consuming your brain as your bodily systems begin to shut down, one by one.

A pointless exercise, to be sure. I do realize this. This is Hollywood, baby. Not the city, exactly, but the state of mind. It's all a game here. Make the most money. Cut the best deal. Get the biggest house. Go on to the next movie, where you can say, "But on the film I just made for Fox I got such-and-such."

One of my coworkers has a button stuck on the outside of her hog pen/cubicle, which is erroneously attributed to Alfred Hitchcock. The story goes that Hitchcock was directing Ingrid Bergman in Notorious. Bergman, who was accustomed to working with intense European and American directors, found the reserved Englishman unreceptive to her passionate inquiries as to her character's backstory and motivations. Though, in reality, Hitchcock never uttered the words, the sentiment sums up the way I've tried to think of this job in the past few years.
The button says, "It's only a movie, Ingrid."


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