More chapters from “Withholding.” (UTemps, Alamo AV Services/Texas Education Agency, “Bauble Magazine,” Hill Country Boulangerie.)

UTemps–2001–3 days–Full-Time/Temporary Furniture Mover for UT.

Within a few months of my uRb-N-gUyDz lay-off I applied with seven different temp agencies. Most said they couldn’t help me because I’d scored poorly on my typing test and displayed an incomplete knowledge of the most popular software programs.

One place that did accept me was UTemps, the temp agency that worked in the University of Texas Employment Office and assigned people on-campus temp work.

The guy in charge was an ex-Marine, and like many ex-military types, he tried to drag that military mindset into civilian life. I have a violent hatred of authority, and tend not to get along with cops or military personnel, and in turn, I think they can sense the anti-authoritarian vibe I give off. Nevertheless, I tried to be polite, and sprinkle the word “sir” liberally into my conversation, as much as it pained me to do so.

And so I was given an assignment. Or actually two similar assignments—one lasting two days, one lasting one day. I was to go to the Radio-Television-Film Department and help them move office furniture.

Now anyone can look at me and see I’m short, fat, and out of shape, so I don’t know why I was selected to move furniture unless it was a sadistic joke on the part of that Jarhead.

Along with a supervisor and/or another temp, I moved furniture from the offices of several professors in the main RTF buildings over to other buildings on campus. I noticed one professor had an office that was filled with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” material. I asked her about it, and it turned out she taught a media studies course.

–Yes, I use “Buffy” as an ur-text to discuss feminine empowerment, pop culture, inter-textuality….

I got excited—this was just the sort of pseudo-intellectual stuff I thrive on and which I almost never get to talk about, but she cut me short. It was clear she couldn’t see beyond my facade of furniture mover. She couldn’t conceive of me as a person that was her intellectual equal—at very least. I was just some ignorant, lunk-headed laborer. And anyway, I was called out into the hallway to help push a desk.

On one of the days I did this job I had a co-worker who seemed fascinated that I had once been a restaurant critic. He said it wasn’t every day that he met people like that, so he wanted to treat me to a nice lunch and hear my impressions of it.

He took me to a nearby Chipotle Mexican Grill—a Tex-Mex fast food joint. The food made no impression on me, and I got a wicked case of gas. We sat at a bar by the front window and, noticed a pile of dog shit on the sidewalk—a pile of truly heroic proportions. And all during the meal we giggled as we watched dozens of students—mostly sandal-shod—walking straight ahead, eyes focused on their bright horizons, and stomping squarely into all that shit.

*******    

Alamo AV Services/Texas Education Agency–2001–3 days–Full-Time/Temporary Audio Technician. Temp job, recording State Board of Education meetings.

In the Fall of 2001, my friend Matt called me, saying he could give me three days of full-time work. He was with a company called Alamo AV Services, which had offices in the Texas Education Agency building, and which had a long-term contract to do video and audio recording of the various meetings of the State Board of Education and it’s sub-committees. I was a little reluctant to take the assignment, because temp work complicated the paperwork for my unemployment benefits, but I became paranoid that the State might found out I’d turned down an offer of paying work and would cancel my benefits altogether.

I don’t remember much about this job. I would eat breakfast and lunch in the building’s cafeteria, staring out the window at a little garden.

Matt had a co-worker, there in Alamo’s basement offices—a fat, eccentric, middle-aged guy, who reminded me a great deal of the character “Milton” in the movie “Office Space,” and who found it amusing to wave and call out the word “Taliban” in a sing-song voice as a greeting.

The work I did was idiot-proof. I turned on a cassette tape. Five minutes before it was to end I turned on a second one. When the first one finished I’d flip it over and start the second side, then do likewise with the other tape.

I was sent to tape a committee meeting. It ran on into the night. It was so boring I had to fight off sleep. The guy who had set up my equipment had failed to give me much leg room, so I had to sit with my legs at an angle. They quickly went numb.

For decades the Texas State Board of Education had essentially operated at the whims of a pair of intolerant religious lunatics, Mel and Norma Gabler. Any textbook that came up for approval that did not conform to a strict, right-wing, Christian fundamentalist world view, was loudly protested by these stupid cocksuckers. Texas is the largest buyer of textbooks in the United States, and as goes Texas, so goes the rest of the country, because the textbooks Texas has revised are purchased in all the other states.

By 2001 old Mel had long since died and gone to his much-deserved reward of sucking Satan’s cock  in hell, but his batty wife was still going strong.

One morning Milton and I were to tape a full session of the State Board and we got set up in a darkened sound booth before everyone started arriving. The room filled quickly. The Board Members took their seats behind an elevated, curved counter, rather like a judge’s bench.

Finally, Norma strutted in, followed by a phalanx of lawyers, some rather dazed adult holy rollers, and a half-dozen white trash children, wearing their Sunday best homemade dresses and suits, which appeared to have been awkwardly copied from the pages of the 1973 Fall/Winter Sears, Roebuck Catalogue.

A few Board Members jumped to their feet, ran around the counter, and went up to greet Norma, clutching her by both hands and bowing slightly, as if she was visiting royalty. Once she and her mouth-breathing entourage took their front row seats, the meeting began.

Only one item was discussed at that morning session—there was no time for anything else. The textbook under debate was to have a very limited distribution, to high school students taking advanced placement, college-level courses. It was an environmental science book. The chief point of controversy was that it had been written by an environmentalist who was pushing, it was alleged, a pro-environmental view.

There was a slide-show of some of the book’s illustrations and their captions. One photo depicted a subdivision, built on a group of rolling hills. The houses were identical and built cheek-to-jowl. The caption said,

–When construction is allowed without zoning or other restrictions, suburban blight such as this can result.

At this point one of Norma’s Members stood up, and clutching a microphone, went into a big speech, which concluded,

–Now the author of this book and the other liberals in the environmental movement would have you believe that what you see in this picture is wrong, that there’s something bad about this. But I look at this picture and I see homes for families. I see jobs for carpenters, plumbers, and contractors. I see streets going to shopping centers, businesses, school, churches, and entertainment. I see unlimited economic growth and the fulfillment of the American dream….

I blurted out before I even realized it:

–OH, BULLSHIT!!!

Milton gave me a sheepish look. Had I said that out loud? I guess it was a good thing I was in a sound-proof booth at the time.

*******

“Bauble Magazine”– One assignment. Fall 2001.

Carter Newton connected me with Ahmet Barry, the publisher of “Bauble,” a new magazine  devoted to the “beautiful people” of Austin and their glitzy lifestyles. I confess that I didn’t see the need for such a publication. Austin is basically a city of slobs. Much of the populace consists of old hippies, new hippies, and computer geeks—demographic groups not known for their style, glamour, or fashion sense.

Sure, we had a Fashion Editor at uRb-N-gUyDz—but her job was mostly reviewing cute little shops and boutiques. The “Austin Chronicle,” the local alternative weekly, had a Fashion Editor, Stephen Moser, but he was the talentless brother of longtime Staff Writer Margaret Moser, and I always had the impression they gave him a column just as a favor to his sister. Indeed, the column wasn’t so much about fashion as it was dish about the famous and near-famous people that Stephen Moser either met or had an opinion about. Navel-gazing, in other words.

But what was undeniable was that Austin was home to an ever-increasing number of rich people, and rich people like to go to galas and fund-raisers and other black tie events, then afterwards see photographs of themselves aiming plastic smiles at cameras. So “Bauble” and a number of other publications sprang up to offer a place for those pictures to be published.

Barry agreed to meet me at a coffeehouse near his office for an initial interview. We took an immediate dislike to one another. He was a swarthy foreigner, dressed in an open-collared shirt and an expensive jacket. He oozed LA scenester. He seemed impatient and a bit cross, as if the last thing he had time for in his oh-so-busy schedule was coffee with a mere local writer. He acted as if he thought I should kiss his ring or prostrate myself on the floor in gratitude for the appointment.

He mentioned something about his LA background, and how he saw “Bauble” as an LA sort of magazine, transplanted to Austin. Indeed, he mentioned LA so often I had to wonder why he didn’t just stay the fuck back there. Why had he fled the Left Coast for the Flyover States? Was he too small a fish in that great big pond?

He was unimpressed with my uRb-N-gUyDz credentials. At any rate, he already had two or three regular food writers, including one of my former uRb-N-gUyDz freelancers. “Bauble” didn’t do restaurant reviews. It only published positive stuff—puff pieces—and the articles about restaurants were vague, impressionistic, prose poems. You could read one and still not come away with any concrete information about a restaurant.

So he decided to have me do a theatre piece. I had almost no knowledge of the local theatre scene, but reluctantly agreed to give it a shot. I was given a rather short deadline. I panicked. I called up friends for ideas. Matt had a friend named Adam Schwartz who had a sister, Jessica, who had been in a lot of local plays, films, and TV shows. She seemed an ideal subject for an article.

Jessie and I met at Spider House Coffee House and I taped our conversation. After I transcribed the tapes I realized that what Jessie had to say was much more interesting than my rather pedestrian and uninspired questions, so I devoted the majority of the article to Jessie’s actual words. I mostly stayed in the background.

It was a wonderful piece. I violated one of my journalistic rules and sent Jessie a copy of the version I’d submitted to the magazine. Jessie was so excited with and flattered by the piece that she told Matt that if the article got published she’d sleep with me. (I hadn’t asked, but it was kind that she offered.)

But the article was not a hit at “Bauble.” First, Barry was annoyed that I’d written the article without clearing the subject of the piece with him first, though I thought Jessie had enough interesting credits to be worthy of a profile. Then, Barry complained that his editor didn’t like the piece. He said there were too many quotations. I explained why I’d written the piece that way, but offered to make changes. But no, Barry and the editor, didn’t want to bother with changes. I was sent a check—the full amount for a published piece—but the article never appeared.

And every time, for years thereafter, when I saw stacks “Bauble” in chic Austin shops and stores, I muttered an obscenity under my breath, cursing the name of that pretentious twat, Ahmet Barry.

*******    

Hill Country Boulangerie–2002–1 day, 4-5 hours–Part-Time Front Counter Worker.

During those months in the spring and summer of 1998 after I found jobs and an apartment in Austin but before I actually moved, I often fantasized about what my new life in the North Campus neighborhood of Austin would be like. I’d go to foreign films again. I’d walk my dog Fred in Adams-Hemphill Park. And I’d enjoy leisurely breakfasts at Hill Country Boulangerie.

As it turned out, after I moved back I rarely went by Hill Country Boulangerie. I just never seemed to have the time or the money for it.

During the summer of 2002 I stepped up the pace of my job hunting, looking for bad jobs…, but privately hoping I’d not get hired. Since I thought it a pleasant place and it was only three blocks from my apartment, I decided to apply at Hill Country Boulangerie, despite the fact I really didn’t want to go back to doing food service work again.

The owner/manager couldn’t suppress his glee for the fact that a former restaurant critic was now reduced to looking for minimum wage restaurant work, and as he took me around to show me the operation, he introduced me to everyone the same way:

–This is J___ B_____. He used to be Restaurant Critic for uRb-N-gUyDz, but he’s going to be working for us now.

And the owner and the employee would exchange smirks.

It had been sixteen years since I’d worked in a a commercial kitchen.

The floors of all commercial kitchens collect liquid, which in turn mix with dirt and food particles and other substances and form a black, viscous goo that stinks of, among other things, sour milk, and gets on every available surface in the kitchen—appliances and fixtures, shelves and racks, supplies, brooms, mops, dishes, food, and the clothing of the people who work in the kitchen.

No matter how hard you try to get rid of it, this black goo doesn’t go away. Even in the most sanitary-looking kitchens the goo is only temporarily pushed back into hiding. It never really goes away. And the black goo was the first thing I noticed on my tour of this restaurant. It reminded me immediately of all the crappy restaurant jobs of my past.

I was to work the lunch shift. I don’t think I was put on the register. I stood behind a refrigerated glass display case and took out food items as customers requested them. I may have occasionally gone back into the kitchen to get fresh supplies of food. And every few minutes I’d walk around into the dining room, gather up the cups, trays, and implements left behind by the customers, covered with human slobber, along with the wadded up paper napkins upon which they’d wiped sticky creams and juices from their hands and lips, as well as snot from their noses, toss this filth into the garbage can, then slap a grey-formerly-white rag full of water and bleach onto the table top, pushing the crumbs onto the floor.

(During all the years I worked in the food service industry I had to wonder if the people I waited on were even human beings at all. They seemed more like mutants or aliens from another planet. They had extra mouths–the way cows have two stomachs—and extra spit glands, to churn up pints and quarts of saliva as they ate, and extra ducts to emit greases, to spew all over the table. I can never remember, from any of the 51,000-plus meals I’ve eaten in my life, ever making one mess at the table as great as the kind my customers made on a daily basis.)

The restaurant’s stereo was turned up to an unpleasantly loud level. The customers felt the need to raise their voices even louder so they could hear one another over the music. And the guys behind the counter would shout orders back to the guys in the kitchen and vice versa. All this noise bounced off the brick walls of the restaurant, the concrete floors, the glass display cases, and the aluminum appliances, until I felt as if I was at the center of a metallic drum of noise.

Standing in one spot on a concrete floor sent knives of pain into my feet, legs, hips, lower back, and shoulders, as it always has. I couldn’t hear and couldn’t understand what the customers and my co-workers were asking of me. My co-workers, frustrated with my slowness, began stepping around me, and rapidly opening and shutting the display case doors, the ends of which would slam painfully into my fat belly.

After about four or five hours my shift was over. The owner seemed genuinely surprised when I said I couldn’t handle this. The noise and the hectic pace was just too much.

–Well, you thought this was bad? This was actually a very slow lunch day for us. So, yeah, you might not be a good fit for this.

During the interview we’d never actually discussed a wage. Nevertheless, I was rather annoyed after a month had passed that the cheap son of a bitch never bothered to send me a paycheck for the day I worked for him. And needless to say, I never went back to eat at his restaurant again.

Oddly enough, my mother was actually supportive of my decision to quit.

–At least you tried, even if it didn’t work out.

A few friends had equally pointless and condescending comments.

I’ve never really understood why some people feel the need to make great and empty failed gestures just so you can say you tried.

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