This December 1st, I started training at the Worldwide Widget Manufacturers. Having lost my last job three months previous due to this superb economy, I was happy for another chance at solvency. Also, I have a sick mom whom I partially support and an out-of-work brother. I need this job, so I will not tell you exactly what kind of widgets we produce. Let’s just say we work very complex widgets with lots of government regulation.
So on the first day, there was orientation. And it was good. We eight new employees are herded into a conference room containing slick company folders and little Worldwide Widget gift bags full of goodies. The corporate world may steal your soul, but at least you get a cup cozy. Peppy, the woman from HR, welcomes us to Worldwide. I notice the perfection of her lipstick and upswept hair. She tells us that WWM is X years old and one of the fastest growing widget manufacturers in the country, yet still small enough to be personal and “like family.” Every day we have an inspirational quotation to focus on and we have fun themes such as Everyone-dress-like-a-hippy day or Let’s-all-wear-flannel day. She turns a page in her orientation manual and sits up straighter. “Now, I’m going to tell you what will get you fired.”
First, there is sexual harassment. We get this long copy of the company policy and a form to sign. There are detailed descriptions in business language of the kind of behavior that could be construed as sexual harassment. We can’t proposition an employee, even if in the beginning the employee seemed to invite it. We can’t touch each other, unless someone appears to be dying or on fire. We should not comment or notice someone’s body or dress. We should not use vulgar language. By this time, I am certain I have sexually harassed many people in the past (in fact, probably one or two that very morning). I will have to be more careful. We all initial that we have been warned, then Peppy moves on.
Attendance and Punctuality. Peppy says this is important, as the company can’t make widgets without widget makers. There is a long list of rules about what happens at each absence or tardy. The first one is a written warning. While discussing the second one, Peppy points to the wall. “See that?” she says, gesturing to one of those foam “We’re number one” hands. “We put those up next to the desks of our best employees. But we also have these…” From beside her chair, Peppy pulls out a foam hand that is giving us the middle finger. “On your second tardy or unexcused absence, your coworkers are encouraged to beat you with one of these—an F.U. hand, or, as we say, a foo.”
Peppy keeps explaining what happens after each successive absence or tardy. “Is there paid time off?” a girl with bug eyes breaks in. Peppy nods. You can get paid time off, IF it is the 5th Tuesday in a 30-day month and your mother was eaten by a bear. There are a few other stipulations. We are told to sign. Peppy moves on.
Next is dress. Peppy stresses that this is very important. She gives us 10 seconds to look at all the rules, then tells us to sign.
We sign forms about our badges and how to use them to get in the building, out of the building, clock in, clock out, go on break, and go to the bathroom. “Worldwide wants to know where our employees are at all times.” Last year, Peppy points out, they found some employees hiding in the closet, fearful of a foo beating. Now the closets also require badges to open them. “Let’s go on a tour!” says Peppy. She leads us around our “cubes.” They are each about 10 x 10, so we will share them with only 6 other people. “Worldwide wants to maximize space to reduce our overhead,” Peppy says, pointing to one woman working on a laptop while wedged under one of the counters in her cube. A man is sitting in the only available seat, and her head is near his knees. The bug eyed girl asks Peppy if this can be construed as sexual harassment. Peppy reaches for a nearby foo, the girl apologizes, and we all go silent. Peppy finally smiles. We move on.
“Here is the water cooler,” Peppy gestures with a flourish, then points out that it also accepts our badge. We are allowed to visit it once a week for two and a half minutes. About this time, as Peppy reaches over to show us how to swipe our badge, I can’t help but notice how full she is up top. She is tall and lean except where a woman is not supposed to be. My eyes fall on a nearby foo. There I go, committing sexual harassment. I feel ashamed.
We are led back to initial and initial and initial again. We are taught a company cheer. We are given a two and a half minute break, then led to the training room. But that is another story.
At the end of the day, I go home. My mother sits quietly in her rocking chair. I turn on the light. She is staring at nothing. I sit beside her. Finally she speaks. “How was work?”
I look at her small face. Her mouth and hands tremble from the effects of prescriptions. She sleeps most of the day and almost doesn’t smile. Two years ago, after my father was killed, she’d had a heart attack and was shocked back to life. I’d prayed vehemently for God to spare her. Now I see how selfish I was.
I tell her about work. The rules. The badges. The foos. She says nothing for a minute, then gravely comments, “The devil is a liar, Delia. He tells us if we work and slave all our lives, we’ll be left with something in the end. Do you know how much I’ve lost?” I’m not sure if she means time or retirement money. Both my parents had trudged into work at their own widget factories. My mom’s boss wouldn’t even let her stay home when my brother had a fever. After my father died, I read things he’d written, and I saw how much he hated work. “I believe I could make for myself a new life, and forget about all those people.” This was scribbled next to plans of how he could save and get out early or try selling insurance on the side. He did not get out early and was killed after only a few years of retirement.
“You have been left with something in the end,” I tell my mother. “You have us.” She says nothing. I take my training manuals and company policies and goody bag back to my room. I take a nap. Tomorrow will be a long day.