May 12th, 2011 - Lindsay Fowler
I am on the brink of my first post-college job, my most illustrious achievement: my career as a staple puller for an insurance company. Armed with my trusted staple remover, I will prepare client files for digitization, for imaging. No longer shall underwriters, policy raters, and billing specialists be beholden to paper cuts, to long walks to metal shelves staffed with unfriendly filers! Files will appear on computer screens with a touch of the button. I will bring insurance into the modern era! Efficiency calls!
There is a technique to removing staples, one that relies on your choice of tool. There is the standard pinch remover, to be used only as a last resort. Its snake fangs snarl the paper, chew up the corners. Chewed Paper Is Difficult To Image! There is the heavy duty remover, best for thick packets of paper. And then there is my favorite, the blade-style remover, a sleek device like a flattened crochet hook, built for easy gliding and a quick wrist flick.
My aunt set me up with this job. It’s meant to be temporary, a way to earn money while I search for a better position in a field of still-dismal post-recession economic prospects, but taking the job offer feels like an early death. There is no meaning in staple pulling, and my newly burgeoning sense of purpose—to write, to always write—withers in the face of the drudgery before me. Depression sets in, and will last for six months. I will not seek treatment. I will not know I should.
But my future misery holds within it a secret lesson, the key to my workplace survival. I will learn that I am at my best when I am absorbing information, when input is high. I will learn what I should already have realized, that my mind must always be swarming with new information, or I will sink within myself and fester. And so I will do what I do best and I will learn. I will learn to let my hands fly over the pages while I listen to podcasts about the likely gravesites of Marie Laveau, to John Oliver’s fuckeulogy for Muammar Gaddafi. I will learn to track staples in my periphery while I read Anna Karenina. I will learn about the lives of the policy holders whose files cross my desk, like the owner of a hideous dog portrait insured for tens of thousands, or the man who drowned in his own manure lagoon, the man-made pit where farmers haul off and store the refuse from their livestock. I will picture him floundering, shit filling his nose. I’ll wonder if his boots held him down, how he fell in, if he knew how to swim. Even if he were hauled out in time, would there be enough antibiotics in the world to save him?
My staple blade will skim the page, my fingers and nostrils coated in the powder of old paper.
I’ll also learn the ways men are protected in the workplace. I’ll learn that men will think nothing of staring at my chest, of saying how good my top looks. I’ll learn that men will stand behind my chair so I can’t get up, will rub circles on my back. I’ll learn that I’ll freeze, that I won’t know what to say or how to extricate myself. I’ll learn that not being “friendly” or “nice” will earn me the moniker Ice Queen. I’ll learn that complaints will yield qualified apologies. He didn’t mean it. He was just kidding.
Ten years, two jobs, four states, and a degree and a half later, I’m on the brink of yet another job hunt. I like to think I’m better prepared, that I’ve learned how to hold onto a sense of purpose, of self worth, that the intervening years have taught me advocacy for myself and others. If I must, I’ll be the Empress of Absolute Zero. I know I have the strength.
Lindsay Fowler is a writer and hobbyist beekeeper.