Citizens of America (originally published July 19, 2007)

After I took the Bar (the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday of the last week of August, 1994), but before I had results, which traditionally arrived the day before Thanksgiving, I found myself at loose ends. Since I’d graduated without a job, protocol now placed me in a no-man’s-land until November.

I continued to half heartedly read the Daily Journal want ads and send out resumes, but I knew nobody would hire me now. I’d been a horrible law student, and there was every indication I would not pass the Bar (when I did, in fact, pass, and on my first attempt, too, nobody was more surprised than I was.)

During this time (which my family took to kindly and somewhat optimistically calling my “time of transition,” which basically meant I was off the hook from “So how’s the job hunt coming?” line of questioning), I temped at a variety of office jobs. I chose office work because I’d never waitressed, and there was a lot of competition in LA from would-be models and actresses, and retail paid too little and seemed too boring (plus it required too much standing, which makes my back hurt.)

I chose a temp agency based on the yellow pages ads. “Woman owned! Paychecks weekly!” the ad for Blaine & Associates proclaimed. They were located in an office tower in Century City, where, almost a decade earlier, my mom and I had gone to the French tourism office looking for helpful information before my study summer in Aix (the French living in LA and working at the tourism office were just as indifferent and standoffish as the ones I encountered when I actually arrived in Provence later that summer.)

At Blaine & Associates, I was assigned to a short, middle aged man with a thinning comb-over and tatty cardigan named Sheldon Marder. We hit it off at once, and he said he’d find something really good for me. I’d get no benefits, but I would earn $12 per hour doing straight receptionist work, and $14 or more doing customer service, data entry, or secretarial.

I got a call from Sheldon before seven the next morning. This wasn’t the “something special” he’d promised, but if I wanted to start work right away, he had a straight receptionist gig for me in Santa Monica.

I quickly dressed and hightailed it over to the job (in Little Red, my trusty Honda Civic CX hatchback. One of the reasons I wasn’t more worried during this time of underemployment was that my overhead was low; with cheap rent in one of Grandma’s apartments and Little Red given to me by my parents, my consolidated student loan payment was my only required expense other than food.)

Citizen America was located in the MGM Building, in a stretch of Santa Monica where many small film and animation production companies have offices. I made my way in and met in a beautiful glassed-in conference room with C____ A____, director of Human Resources, whose sleek grey bob, wool coatdress and single strand of pearls had “Smith, Class of ’62” written all over it.

She launched into a meticulous yet speedy rendition of the Citizen America brochure, carefully explaining the important difference between the famous (and successful) Citizen Watch Company, and us, the less well-known, less successful printer division.

Then she led me over to the gleaming reception desk and quickly yet efficiently instructed me in how to work the phones. With a brisk smile, she left me, just as I realized I’d forgotten to ask her what my greeting should be (“Good morning. Thank you for calling Citizen America.” “Citizen America!” “Citizen America. How may I direct your call?”)

Just as I’d settled on “Good morning, Citizen America,” (always a risky choice in the reception game because you have to remember to switch from “morning” to “afternoon” after lunch), it began.

I heard it before I saw it. Some of them were quietly sobbing into bundles of tissues. Others looked red faced and angry. A few were shouting, or hugging, or demanding answers, as, one by one, security escorted out the dozens of Citizen America employees laid off due to massive budget cuts on my first day at work. They eyed me suspiciously as they handed me their parking lot passes. I tried to throw in “I’m a temp” if it naturally came into conversation, to make them feel better, but it seemed smarter to just remain quiet and businesslike.

“It’ll be over in a few more minutes,” Caroline Alley reassured me as she hurried past my desk on her way to consult with security.

Right around that time, Sheldon called, just to check on me. “Did you know about this?” I hissed into the phone. “I’ve got to go! The police need to take my statement.” A massive, freckled redheaded man from accounting had made threats to come back with a gun, so the police were now on the scene.

Finally everything blew over, and I settled into a nice routine at Citizen. The phones were slow because business was so horrible, so nobody minded if I read my library copy of “The Hot Zone” (I discovered that in the temp game, you can usually get away with a popular hardcover, like “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People” or something by John Grisham, but not a magazine, romance paperback, or anything with too weird a title.) The phones actually would have been even slower had our name not had the word “citizen” in it. Approximately twenty five percent of our calls were made in error, from people looking for various groups like Citizens of America or Citizens for America.

I got to know my remaining coworkers, an oddball crew of misfits, most of whom were surreptitiously job hunting (the writing seemed to be on the wall and I doubt the printer division of the great Citizen Watch Company still even exists anymore.) Seymour Cohn, the CFO, implored me to attend his performance as an extra villager in a community theater production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Santa Monica High auditorium. I tried to beg off, until he finally admitted that his son was in town for a week and he really wanted me to meet him. I brought Grandma to block for me and we had a great time at Polly’s Pies with the cast and crew afterward. Seymour wasn’t the only budding thespian at Citizen. Dave, an unassuming, nerdy man of indeterminate age who worked in marketing, had a decade earlier been the Sherlock Holmes-like mascot for the B. Dalton bookstore chain (in his cubicle he had a lifesize cardboard cutout of himself as “Books” Dalton.)

After a few weeks, I was moved to the customer service section of the company, and they brought in two temps to share the receptionist position (I learned that the company had some type of slush fund budget for temps so they preferred to hire us, rather than “spend” the money to hire actual employees.) Both new temps were immediately unpopular because they constantly tried to sell multilevel marketing products to everyone else (one gal sold Arbonne, and her trick was to “accidentally” pour out too much hand lotion for herself, then ask, “Do you want to try some of this?” as a starting point to the sales pitch. The other, a rail thin Japanese woman who wore the exact same raw silk pantsuit every single day, sold a green chlorella diet drink.)

Customer service was horrible. People would start out furious because of the lengthy hold times, and calls usually went quickly downhill from there. My coworkers were indifferent at best. Our products were horrible and we all knew it. Our team leader, Giles (an Aussie pretending to be English to match his forged work documents), had a daily afternoon ritual of deleting the dozens, sometimes hundreds, of calls that hadn’t been dealt with by 1 p.m. each day. If the callers were surly, we were even more so. Our supervisor was a beaten down looking middle aged man with a Mike Brady perm named Wayne, who had been a tv repairman, but didn’t upgrade his skills as tv technology evolved over time. He was now a dinosaur, relegated to supervising an unmotivated crew of underpaid temps representing a subpar product. Wayne periodically gave us pep talks or confiscated forbidden National Enquirers and gum (taboo for people who spend ninety percent of their workday on the phone greeting the public.) The rest of the time, he disappeared behind a closed office down to count down the days until retirement in peace.

One day, without fanfare, announcement, or training, I was moved to technical support. I was handed a laminated card with the most common problems we could expect our callers to have, and told that anything “complicated” should go to Ludmila.

I loved Ludmila from the first day I met her, when she came by to offer her dry Russian version of moral support as I manned the reception desk during the mass firing. We had long conversations over lunch about the best way to pay down credit cards (Start with the smallest and pay it off, then move to the next one, so you get an emotional boost? Or plug away at the one with the highest interest rate, regardless of size of the total debt? We also could spend hours debating the “right” way to balance a checkbook.) Ludmila told me about traveling with her extended family, who always packed their own food, not trusting that the plane food would be filling enough. She would hide from them, pretending not to know the old babushkas with oily fish dripping out of its packaging, or pickled eggs in brine. Yet, she said, there was always that point in the flight when she got really hungry, and she’d slink over to her aunt, or grandma, eat some rye bread with pickled herring, then go back to pretending she didn’t know them.

I worked for Citizen for months. The location was nice and it was truly a job I could leave behind at five o’clock. I only stopped working there when they moved technical support and customer service to their El Segundo warehouse, and I didn’t want to commute. My coworkers took me out to lunch and Raisa, an angry, tough girl from New York who had just been dishonorably discharged from the military for mysterious reasons, choked up when she read a letter to me about how temps are not supposed to leave any personal items overnight, because you might not be asked to return to the assignment the next day. “Don’t get attached, they tell us. But we get attached!”

I finally was free to move on to the “really good” assignment Sheldon had promised me, at Rogers and Associates, a public relations firm founded by the son of the famous Rogers (of Rogers and Cowan advertising fame.) Ron Rogers ran a crisis communications firm, which meant he was the guy to call when you were accused of running a sweatshop, white slavery, child molestation, or deadly car toppling at thirty five or more miles an hour. I worked there for weeks on end, then the frighteningly busy reception desk at Motown Records, then the offices of Blaine & Associates, administering typing tests to applicants. I was back to working at Rogers and Associates in April, when I called Mom and told her I was going to Biafra to work for President Clinton’s new Americorps “Spread Democracy!” program as an April Fool’s Day joke. Ron Rogers wrote a personal note on my behalf to then-District Attorney Gil Garcetti, but they were under a budget mandated hiring freeze (I knew I didn’t want to put people in jail, anyway.) Ron had me do a lot of his personal writing, which was fun, and he’d sometimes have me get someone on the phone for him, at which point he’d take the call, like he was the Pope or the President (that was how I got to personally talk to Art Buchwald for three minutes, which was very exciting for me.)

Finally, in May, I had my life altering interview with Alan Oberstein, who hired me on as a public defender in Riverside, which changed the course of everything. My first interview had been with his ineffectual second-in-command, a grey haired, soft faced woman marking time before retirement who wore a purple sweatsuit with cats on it and asked me about my hobbies. Meeting with Alan, he told me Riverside was like the Wild West and the DA thought he was the white hat sheriff (I didn’t grasp this until about a week after I started, at which time it all made perfect sense, but during the interview, I just smiled and nodded.) Alan brought in Robert Keller, and when they heard I’d just interviewed with the LA public defender’s office, they spent the rest of the interview mocking the hypos the interviewer (whom they both knew) dutifully asked me.

I drove through 100+ degree heat to Santa Cruz, where I had plans to visit my parents. “I got the job!” I told them, from a pay phone outside a liquor store in Barstow. At every stop, I read about the vision plan and full dental and Aetna (“It’s the Cadillac of insurance!” Mom exclaimed, when I told her my choices.) I met Dad at the airport, where together, we picked up my sister. He happened upon an acquaintance waiting to pick up his grandkids. “You remember my daughter. She’s a public defender.”

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