“Well, at least it’s work,” I thought, as I walked into the office for the first time.
A family friend had very kindly asked if I’d like to be the new receptionist at his small business. In many ways, the job offer was a blessing. I was planning to move abroad, and while I was going through the red tape that entailed, I still needed to earn a living. But I’d never imagined myself in a business environment. Every other job I’d had had either been freelance writing, copy editing, or translation work, tutoring, or cat-sitting. Just thinking about things like structured days and meetings gave me the willies.
A co-worker introduced herself and showed me how to use the phone system. “See, it’s easy – to put someone on hold, you just press this button, then click on the button up here that has a blinking light.” I nodded. It did seem simple.
That day, I (accidentally) hung up on more people than I ever had in all the years of my life combined.
The biggest challenge, though, was my boss’s obsession with logging everything. No matter how insignificant the call, I had to type up a small report about it as soon as I got off the phone. “Always cover your butt” my boss said. That wasn’t always easy, since the phone might ring again while I was typing up the summary.
I found solace in coffee. Whenever I brewed a new pot, I was supposed to announce it in an inter-office email. At first, I just wrote a polite message. But one day, I decided to have fun with it. My coffee announcements took on the forms of riddles, parodies, haikus. Not only did the creative exercise entertain me, it started to be a highlight of the day for everyone in the office…except my boss, whose annoyed looks implied that he thought it was a waste of time.
After six months working there, I said my goodbyes. “We’ll miss your coffee announcements!” my co-workers said. I shook my boss’s hand and thanked him. A few days later, I got onto a plane and took off for a new life.
“This is more like it” I thought, as I walked through the door of my new workplace.
I’d found a job at a small independent film company where I was going to be in charge of managing their festival submissions and helping with any other necessary tasks. There would be phone calls to make and answer, emails to write, lists to create – in a way, I was a receptionist again. But in such a cool, creative environment.
The phones were simpler, too. The first day, I didn’t accidentally hang up on anyone. And not having to take notes after each call – what a relief!
Days were spent working, but also talking about art and film. Our boss was Italian, so each day at lunchtime, we all gathered at the table in the office kitchen to feast on big bowls of freshly made pasta with different sauces. Film, art, pasta – I couldn’t have been happier.
At least, I was happy at first.
Because we were a small company, there were limited copies of film reels. Keeping track of them was complicated, I soon realized, since many were constantly en-route from one festival to another.
“Where is the English-language copy of this film?” my boss asked one day.
“It’s in Bruges,” I responded.
But the Bruges festival had sent an email saying they’d never gotten it.
I was sure the person who’d had the reel was shipping it there. But maybe I was wrong?
“Cover your butt,” my old boss’ voice echoed in my mind.
We were working hard to find shooting locations for a small promotional film. We needed a luxurious house, but we didn’t know anyone who had one, and we didn’t have the budget to rent a place like that.
By mid-afternoon, most of us were mildly panicking. Then: “Okay!” Tomas told me jubilantly, “I found a friend of a friend who as a beautiful mansion in the suburbs. It’s exactly what we need for the shoot, and he says we can film there this weekend!”
We ran to tell our boss.After hearing the news, he looked thoughtful. “Does it have a swimming pool? Because I need to do a shot with the camera plunging into a swimming pool.”
Unfortunately, the mansion did not have a swimming pool.
Much as I respected – and, as a writer, understood – artistic vision, I was surprised to find myself getting frustrated, just as my old boss had with my creative coffee announcements.
Weeks passed, with still no shooting location chosen.
The chaos seemed to increase. I now found myself taking notes after every phone call, to keep my sanity. I sometimes surprised myself by wondering what my old boss would think of the disorder in our office and the obsession with details that blocked us from getting anything done.
I went home one night and did a lot of thinking…
The next day, I turned in my resignation.
The jobs we have may not be the ones we keep, but they can teach us things we never would have expected. For more than two decades, I’d seen myself as free-spirited, unconventional, and totally against structure. But after working at these two very different places, I started to realize I had more in common my first boss than I would have imagined.
Six years later, self-employed, I do things at my own pace and sometimes have delicious pasta lunches…
but I always take notes after a phone call with a client.
by Alysa Salzberg
Thank you to everyone who’s “bossed” us around and taught us so much.