I was laying awake last night, contemplating my future and worried about what sort of path I should be taking. I had spent part of the day filling out an online application for a merchandising position at a brand-name clothing store and got to the portion of previous employment. I have a lot of it. In fact, I list only specific past jobs based on what kind of work I'm applying for, because I've truly been all over the place with my employment choices.
In this instance, I put down my four years retail experience, my year+ employment at an animal hospital, and my work temping for a prominent Chicago staffing agency.
I was very good at the work the agency presented me with over the year I was employed by them, and I gained a lot of new, irreplaceable skills. But my favorite aspect of the work was where I worked. The assignments took me all over the city: high-rises on Wacker Drive and Michigan Avenue, an office in Greek Town, a hotel overlooking Lake Michigan. I took the Metra from my Ravenswood apartment to Ogilvie Station and scurried among the hustle and bustle of downtown professionals, walked across the Chicago River as the first snow of winter fell in the early morning light, gazed at the captivating architecture of the Lyric Opera House. On another end of downtown I walked by the Presidential Towers and basked in the warming spring air as I crossed the Madison Street bridge over 90/94 toward the smell of braised lamb and a lingering haze of Ouzo.
Needless to say I loved working in Chicago and I loved the feeling that I was going somewhere with my life, that I had come to the Big City just as I'd dreamed and was making my way.
However, one of the last jobs I had through the temp agency is so foggy to me now I can barely remember where it was held or what it was for, because of the end result I'm assuming. I think it was in a hotel, and us staffers were in charge of registering the business men and women arriving there by computer, then giving them color-coded name tags and lanyards according to whatever category their registration information had them in. It must have been a computer software company, as I recall one category being for "programmers".
The conference-goers were all very pleasant people, chatty and cheerful, as if they were on a paid vacation rather than a business trip. I don't blame them. The majority were new to Chicago and raved about how great the city was. And they were obviously being well taken care of, because the spread downtairs from registration was beautiful: stacks of cheeses and breads, rainbows of fruit, shrimp kebabs and many other hors d'oevres, fancy desserts, all piled high on elegantly decorated tables. Most important, however, was the mahogany bar offering free alcoholic beverages.
I took it upon myself to mention this to many of the attendees, which seemed to lift their spirits even higher as they hurried downstairs to the booze.
It was a very fun day (it might have been a two-day event, but like I said, can't remember). There were a lot of temps there, some of which I knew from an extensive three-week data-entry job we'd done. I also made fast friends with one male individual when, after talking about the men in our lives, we quickly bonded.
The atmosphere was easy-going. The job itself was not a difficult one, rather it bored most of us to tears, but I was enjoying getting to know my new friends. This mindset seemed to keep all of us friendly and outgoing, which put the software people at ease and made the day go quickly.
The woman in charge (I'll call her Jessica), only a couple years older than me as I remember, whom I got along with insanely well and spoke with often throughout the day, began moaning about there being too many people working. We all seemed to be standing around with nothing to do, as she put it. I told her I agreed, there wasn't much left for us to do because most conferences had begun. Was there anything else we could help with?
Jessica decided to move some of us toward the escalators to help direct confused conference people where they needed be in the building. This move included me and my new talkative friend. This lovely friend, however, would often ignore his "post" and stand by me to talk, and Jessica had to ask us more than once to break it up. It ended with me also asking him to stop, because although I enjoyed our gushings, I was tired of getting into trouble. Despite this minor upset, we successfully finished the rest of the hours required and Jessica thanked us profusely for our work. She began to break down the setup while we all went to gather our things.
One of the key coordinators came up to me with his computer as I grabbed my bag and change of clothes. He (I'll call him Brad) was with the software company, but on the events side of things, which is what Jessica did as well. They literally traveled the country setting up these lavish conferences for their employers. I was fascinated, though got a sense Brad had other intentions for speaking to me. He finally got to the point by saying something typical like, "So what are you doing later? Wanna grab a drink?"
Turning a guy down has always made me extremely uncomfortable, mostly because I grew up incredibly shy and inexperienced. But this was especially uncomfortable since I was already living with my now fiance. So instead of saying so, in an idiotic attempt to keep things light, I made a joke about grabbing a couple beers from the free bar instead.
But Brad responded with, "Yeah! Let's do it!" I laughed, but then paused when I realized he meant it.
"Won't we get in trouble?"
"Nah, I go to these things all the time. The drinks are already paid for, it'll just go in the garbage otherwise."
This guy was practically my second boss at this job, so I believed him.
I hopped down the stairs where there were still quite a few software people lingering around. No one was really eating and most of them were getting drunk. I laughed to myself at this rich spectacle, grabbed a few pieces of cheese and fruit, then went to the bar to ask for a couple Miller Lites.
I came back up with the goods and drank casually with Brad as we talked more about the day's work. Then suddenly, as if out of a movie in which I had come between the leading actress and her leading man, truthfully an innocent bystander, but in the mold of a scheming blonde (this all in my mind in a split second), I hear: "What are you doing?!"
I was afraid to look. I knew it was Jessica. I braced myself to explain very calmly that I had a boyfriend, but when I turned and saw her gaze I realized she was staring at my beer. I looked over at Brad as he slowly lowered his to the floor behind a table. Bastard, I thought.
"We were just having a beer," I said, managing calm.
"Well you really shouldn't be doing that. You're still wearing your work badge."
"Oh, sorry," I said, not really sorry at all. I made a move to take it off when she continued.
"And you really shouldn't be drinking that at work."
I scoffed in response, to my own surprise as well as hers I'm sure, and took another swig of the beer in defiance.
"I'm not working anymore, you signed me out, remember?" I pointed to Brad, not willing to let him slink away, "And he said it was fine."
"Well it's not fine," she said walking away with some signage and another employee in tow.
"Ok, well, I'll finish it and go," I said and took another gulp. Brad wasn't looking at me anymore, he was pretending to be working again, eyes fixed on his computer screen, posture closed. I set my unfinished beer on his table and said goodbye, disgusted.
It only took a couple days for the staffing agency to call me:
"Megan, we have a serious problem," my favorite team leader said. "We were told you were drinking on the job. This is very serious; the client doesn't want to pay you for the work you did."
"That's ridiculous! I was off duty and drinking with one of their employees!"
"But they said you had a beer on the job...And they also mentioned you had to be asked repeatedly to stop talking and get back to work."
"Yes, and I apologized to her for that, but everyone was so bored at the beginning of the day. I got people talking! Would they really prefer we be tired and dull? Or be open and friendly with people and do a good job?"
"Well, ok, but about the drink-"
"I got two from the bar downstairs, after I was done working, for me and this guy Brad who works for their company, and who told me to go get them!"
"Look, I'll talk to them again but this is probably going on your record. And it will affect any job you get through us very negatively...I can't promise you'll be hired again."
"This is crazy! I've done a lot of good work for you guys-"
"Yes you have, but-"
"Look, they can't not pay me for the work I did! I did the work! I had finished for the day!...I don't believe this."
I got a call back later that day from someone else, someone much more threatening who proceeded to actually threaten me by saying I was screwing the agency out of money because they'd have to pay me out of their own pocket. I gave her the same schpeel I said to my team leader, then threatened her right back with legal action, and hung up. I was actually out walking, navigating my way across one of the many busy 6-cornered intersections in Chicago. I had started the conversation on my first corner and had hung up on the woman to cross the street, when I got another call back upon reaching the third corner, that quick.
The woman apologized (sort of) and said of course the agency would make sure I got paid, as I had completed the assignment I was given. She reneged on her initial hasty reaction, but reiterated this incident would still be on my record.
I was livid. I felt doubly guilty and doubly fucked. I had nothing less than a perfect work record with the agency and rave reviews from the clients, however I make one mistake and they turn on me.
I'm not a moron though. I know I probably should not have been drinking the booze paid for by the same people who would eventually be paying me. And I suppose I had somewhat of a chip on my shoulder that day, for whatever reason. I grew up the epitome of a "goodie two shoes" and was probably reveling in many things that day: being the social butterfly I never was, the rarity of being asked out by an attractive guy, feeling like a superstar among my co-workers...I'm usually very self-deprecating, but I was on top of the world...until it bit me in the ass.
I didn't hear from the staffing agency again until a couple months later. She was a new team leader who loved my work record, didn't mention the above trangression at all, and had a great job for me that could lead to permanent employment. I'd be starting up the offices of a new, rapidly-growing company and working closely with the founder to expand. I even had a phone interview with the man, who told my agency he loved me and when could I start? Chip permanently lodged in my clavicle, I turned it down. I didn't want to commit to a job that was full-time, that would be very demanding and involved, that wouldn't allow me to pursue my acting dreams. But mostly, I didn't want to work for the agency ever again. I was still angry, and still embarrassed.
Now I'm just a bartender with the same dream, a girl wanting to make it in the Big City, but accidentally catapulted back into one of the small towns she left, not necessarily wishing she'd taken that particular job, but wondering where that path might have led her. Would she be here now?
Are all our dreams ill-fated? Am I kidding myself? Does a struggling actress actually translate to lifelong waitress? Should I get a "real" job? I can't say I'll sleep better tonight, but I hope putting these questions out in the cosmos will help me answer them, somehow, sooner rather than later.