File It Away: A Temp Worker’s Oddest Jobs

One peripatetic laborer shares his career lowlights.

PUBLISHED APR 30, 2023 8:53 P.M.
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A screenshot from “Modern Times” (1936), Charlie Chaplin’s meditation on the vicissitudes of labor.

A screenshot from “Modern Times” (1936), Charlie Chaplin’s meditation on the vicissitudes of labor.

My first exposure to the mystery of something called “work” was watching the departure and arrival of my father. He’d leave before I got up and return in the evening, foul tempered, to open up some Coors and loll wordlessly on a La-Z-Boy with a cold washcloth on his forehead. Dead silence was required from children in the house, as he watched the Lakers on TV playing their apparently 11-month-long season.

Pretty much all I knew was cartoons. Both The Flintstones and The Jetsons suggested that what happened was that my father had gone to some place where a much shorter man with a much louder voice yelled at him, and he’d submit but mutter under his breath, “You old slavedriver!”

As a result, I asked Dad if he hated his boss. He didn’t give me a memorable answer.

But the cartoons weren’t all that wrong. It was A. J. Liebling who said that the journalist’s life is like the plot of Black Beauty: Sometimes you have a kind master who gives you blankets and fresh straw, and sometimes you have a cruel one who wallops you and leaves you out in the rain. This is true of all professions, and I must have tried them all.

File Donkey

1978: I’ve made a living from the filing, retrieving and vaulting of paper. This career began at a posh Los Angeles hospital’s Accounts Receivable office, staffed entirely by temps who could stand the work. The job was a refuge for eccentrics, whose true careers would never fit on a résumé.

We held the paperwork in a room where no one but us clerks were allowed. Sour debt collectors came up to the Dutch door and banged the bellboy bell. We’d hand them a file, and they’d go back to their desks and try to squeeze money out of widows. Typically, their husbands had keeled over on the sidewalk and been scooped up by an ambulance. After a short ride, they came to the emergency room DOA and owing $15,000 dollars. I used to see the old ladies puffing up the stairs for a conference with the manager, a sort of Italian gila monster with gold chains dangling in his chest hairs.

One weekend, a disgruntled employee set off the fire sprinklers, causing the already tightly packed files to swell up with water and bend the shelves. Excavating them, copying them, and tossing the originals before the mold set in was my last task at the hospital…at which I got sufficient money to leave L.A. and never ever go back again. 

Blood Sacrifice

1977: The Plasmapheresis Center in Isla Vista seeks burly students to crawl up on that leatherette couch, get their arms punctured, and yield up a pint of energy-rich college boy plasma. Having extracted it, the nurses would whirl your red cells around in a saline solution and sluice it back into you. Ideally, it leaves you $15 richer. If you went twice in a week, you got a sweet $10 bonus.

All my life I’ve avoided upshot if I could. I didn’t reckon that one day I’d be old. Far less did I realize that oldsters are constantly being stuck with needles. If the phlebotomist can’t get a good stick because of scarred veins, they’ll have to wiggle and dig the needle around in your arm, while you sit there making a John Wick face.

The bright side is that I got a noble rep in my family as a scholar so devoted to learning that I sold my blood. I should have been known as the idiot who forgot about the existence of food stamps.

And all thanks to whomever it was that spray painted a vampire bat on the building.


1981: Today, the Richmond waterfront draws the gentry: joggers, bicyclists, kayakers, and those who have the wherewithal for a meal at the hip brunchery Assembly. In former days, it was a post-industrial hellhole that looked something like the coal-covered beach at the end of Get Carter (1971), a long road of ruins with rusty metal sticking out of the polluted mud. 

Me and a fellow hapless temp named Jeff had a task of destruction to carry out. Miners were using these Mylar-wrapped packs of chemicals that, when struck, would heat up to 350 degrees. In mines where open flames were a bad idea, the miners used these packs to heat up and seal vinyl patches on pipes. Piping hot!

One day, a miner struck one and it burst, burning his hand. The subsequent lawsuit convinced the company that they needed to destroy their entire warehouse of these heat packs, one by one, because they were full of corrosive chemicals that couldn’t be dumped en masse.

That’s where Jeff and I came in.  For two weeks for eight hours a day, we dug out cardboard containers, punched the packs, and waited until they heated up and cooled to calcified lumps. Then we pitched them in a Dumpster.

To make the task festive we arranged the packs in nine-foot shiny letters spelling out the Famous Word, hoping the planes would see it like an SOS. Then we trod up and down them. Sometimes at lunch we’d use one to melt a cheese sandwich.

This was a lesson in capitalism that I still haven’t figured out, a weird parody of the consumer’s life that has no punch line.

Asbestos Monkey

1981: Another short lived job. One again, the agency sent me deep into industrial Richmond to a transmission fluid factory. They suited me up in HazMat wear and put me on a ladder. My task was to strip a boiler covered with vinyl and chicken wire, protecting an asbestos layer. The man next to me sprayed it with a hose so the particles didn’t fly. (“I sure hope OSHA doesn’t see this!” he said.) 

I wasn’t making enough progress, so the boss transferred me to the assembly line. Big cans of tranny fluid hurled down the conveyor belt at what I’d consider an unreasonable rate of speed. I did my best impersonation of Lucille Ball packing chocolates. The boss scowled at my ineptitude. Right then, some fellow wage-earner walked up to him and said, “Boss, this job sucks! I quit!” I laughed, and El Bosso said, “You’re fired too!” Temper, temper!


1985: A job of just a weekend-long duration, after which I was justly fired. Someone I knew had a client, and the client wanted to see if women could be coaxed into calling a 976 line to listen in on a recorded spicy tale. (Spoiler, no, of course not, they’re too smart.)

I didn’t know how to attack the script, so I went for a supermarket-novel-like playlet. A debonair continental I modeled on Charles Boyer urged the listener to come to him, proudly clad in filmy nightwear. “Oh, you are so beautiful!”

First note comes back immediately: “What if the girl calling in isn’t beautiful?”

I was just about to type, “You have nice eyes and a winning personality,” when I got paid to stop. The boss, as shady as he could be imagined, came straight to my house. I got my check handed to me wordlessly by his assistant money man, who had an attache case handcuffed to his wrist.


1984: San Francisco was hosting the Democratic National Convention, the streets were alive with protesters, and the Dead Kennedys played for free.

I missed most of it, doing serious cubicle time as a copy editor at a small patient information publisher in one of the Peninsula’s gloomiest and fog-smothered towns. Got three months probation, and then a bonus month, so the writing was on the wall even before I got canned. The main memories of this third of a year are:

  1. Cancer was to be referred to not as “cancer” but as “your cancer.” Meaning a personalized ownership was stressed. Presumably if you knew it was your problem, you’d comply with the doctor. You still hear this formula used on medicine commercials.
  2. The word ‘pain’ was to be avoided at all costs, in favor of euphemism: “You may experience some discomfort during this procedure.”

Shirking Microficherman

1986: Two widely hated corporate giants decide to play War of the Gargantuas. Subpoenas are exchanged, and then comes discovery. “Discover THIS, you weasels,” says one party to the other, dumping (no kidding) 4 million pieces of paper on their opponents’ heads. Call for the temps, to make sense out of all this rubbish photographed on reels and reels of microfilm.

The lawyers rent a third story in a decrepit and since demolished Mission Street office. And in comes a motley crew of punks, painters, musicians and writers who, in time, make this shabby warren scary enough to cause the legal types to keep their distance. They might have put up some mannequins covered with stage blood. If memory isn’t serving, and they really didn’t go that far, they did everything but that.

We were there for a couple of years. You’d show up when you’d show up, and then leave when you were good and ready. The quota was 300 pages an hour, to be monitored and logged in on a database. Oh, what’s this? A 900-page manual with a table of contents? Two minutes to type it up, and three hours to goof off and talk about the movies we saw or wanted to make, or maybe a little show and tell, or cartoon drawing time. The very nice sub-boss was too Minnesota Nice to say anything but to warn me that I was the ringleader and I really ought to keep the noise down. She must have been complaining about the time I was acting out the killer-chimp movie Link, which had this bull chimpanzee in rut chasing Elizabeth Shue.

Great job, I wish I had it back. And we won the case!

Landlady’s Dogsbody

1992: Stupid opportunism strikes! The manager of my apartment building had gone feeble, and the landlady was worrying aloud about how she could get a replacement. Pick me! “What I don’t know, I can learn!” I said. Such pep, such get up and go.

The town’s hard water was constantly eroding the washers on the faucets, so that kept me busy.The complex—an Art Deco cluster built in the 1920s—had other issues. I recall them all. One was the power system: black widow webs on the electric panel, gleaming with pretty glass fuses. Next to it was an almost illegible 80-year-old description of what switch went to what apartment, penned in rusty ink in perfect tiny copperplate script like a Civil War letter home. Then there was the time I was cleaning the gutters during a robust thunderstorm on a teetering ladder. And one unit’s water heater decided to void itself right on Thanksgiving morning.

I had no people skills. I enthusiastically approved a pair of junkies to move in—ex-junkies, they claimed. They bailed out owing rent, after selling the telephone I lent them.

At least I had the sense to veto the craziest applicant: “Richard. I really want to get into this apartment, Richard*, because you see, Richard, I’ve got Satanists living under me now. And their chanting keeps me awake.”

“Are you sure they’re not Buddhists?”

“No, they’re Satanists, Richard.”

There was no one last straw, except that a friend’s duplex opened up in the suburbs, and that turned out to be nicer than just getting a break on the rent where I was.

On the way out, I visited the old manager’s apartment, a hive of 40 years of old newspapers populated by several battalions of roaches. I should have called protective services, which I knew nothing of.

Senile he was, but the old man was canny enough to know a fraud when he saw one. “How much is she paying you? Hah! I got $600 a month!”

*Dale Carnegie tip: repeat your mark’s name hypnotically and wear down their sales resistance.

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