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This Is Not a Drill
As his startup trims staff, one would-be editor learns to be ready for anything.- July 16, 2003
Arriving at work, I put down my bag, fire up my powerful dual-processing computer, with its 17-inch display, make myself a cup of strong black coffee, and survey my glorious workspace. My machine hums a throaty roar as its fan flips on and cools its churning innards. I’m not sure why it thinks this is necessary, as in the last two days I haven’t used it for anything more taxing than instant messenger.
When I was hired at this market-research firm as a production/research editor, I'd assumed I would be chinos-deep in Quark layouts and Illustrator designs, burning up this sweet sled’s CPU. The company produces analytic reports written by Ph.D.s and other people with daunting abbreviations after their names, and I was brought in to help start up this startup’s editorial-services department. I was going to blueprint processes, create and enforce timelines, design templates, and choose color schemes. I was going to take my banal career to its next and rightful level. O, the sleek beast I would build! The efficiency I envisioned would revolutionize the transition from manuscript to bound periodical, and, as I brought in these reports under budget and on time, I would seize this opportunity to prove my mettle as a leader and a creative thinker.
And, for a couple of weeks, that's exactly what I did. Like God creating the Garden of Eden, I built tree structures on the remote file servers that were meticulously mapped out and adroitly created with a handful of right-mouse clicks. I broke the spine of a crisp new Chicago Manual of Style like Samson breaking pillars at the temple. I wrote pages of documentation as I built my departmental fiefdom. I spec’d and sketched and coded and templated and even used the Microsoft Wizard to learn pivot tables in Excel for scheduling. (OK, that’s a lie: I made some data nerd I used to work with to do it for me.) Everything was falling into place.
Until two months after I started, when Anne, the office manager, was let go. (It was the first of the three rounds of layoffs that I would ultimately live through.) She exited in that round along with the receptionist and assistant, some offsite salespeople, expensive high-end IT folks, and assorted others I hadn’t met in the couple weeks I’d been there. As Anne, teary eyed from anger and frustration both, left the building, she pointed to a filing cabinet, winked a salty drop at me, and said, “Everything you’ll need is in there.”
And this is when I began to learn the real meaning of the startup credo "everyone chips in." As I slid open the cabinet’s top drawer and found only a well-stocked tool chest, I wondered if perhaps Anne had left me a riddle. I suppose if I were that gadget-loving Asian kid from The Goonies, I would have been excited. But I’m not; in my mind I'm all artsy daughter from Six Feet Under. Maybe Anne had seen me tackling the pittance of an editorial budget and knew that I was a man who enjoyed a challenge.
Alas, she had seen nothing of the sort. What she had seen was one of the few remaining non-vice presidents, who needed to hold on to any damn job he was lucky enough to get his mitts on in this appalling economy. I had too many unemployed friends to be proud, and beggars can’t be choosers. So, not long later, when I was told they had hired another Ph.D. and a desk needed to be assembled, I knew what Anne's cryptic, departing words had meant.
Feeling manly, I strapped on the tool belt I found in that file drawer and embarked on my first project: assembling a cheap IKEA desk. I looked over the assorted cotter pins, nuts and bolts, screwdrivers, and Allen wrenches, and I remembered similar scenes from my youth. I was, and still am, under the impression that if the model airplane’s directions are too vague, lay out the pieces on the floor and, like John Nash staring at a blackboard, all will be revealed. And, sure enough, when all was said, cussed over, and done two-and-a-half hours later, that desk stood proud and firm. It was a mighty task, and it filled me with a sense of accomplishment I hadn’t felt since I put together a figure-8 slot-car race track under the Christmas tree.
And this is what my job has become. I manage now and again to throw down some quick commas or take a spin with my old friend Quark, but the work is rushed as deadlines have shortened and the company is more involved in securing additional funding than in creating products for me to design and edit. Besides, there's no one else to keep the day-to-day office tasks from piling up. So it goes: spell check here, logo placed there, then reorganize the closest so the toner cartridges don’t keep spilling their micro-dust on the floor, duct-tape the Ethernet cables to the carpet to prevent lawsuits, and help order lunch for an all-day meeting in conference room two. With little else to be proud of, after each accomplishment I stand back and take a moment to admire my handiwork.
Stupid me. I should have known that that this egotistical habit would catch up with me, that standing idle in the middle of the office would only draw attention. I am a mighty black bear silhouetted against a pale sky, a penguin dawdling on the edge of an iceberg—'m a free set of hands that doesn't belong to a VP. And, eventually, not long ago, a hunter locked me in his crosshairs and pounced. Doug wheezed and pushed his bifocals up his nose: "Do you know how to work the Pitney Bowes mail machine?"
It's been months since I started, and by now my skill set has grown extensively. I looked Doug up and down, smirked, and holstered the rechargeable Black & Decker drill. I’ve mastered a wide range of handheld power tools; ordered extensively from myriad supply catalogs; sold off unnecessary office furniture (chairs in three sizes: small, medium, and Executive); picked the locks of file cabinets like an experienced jewel thief; and Doug, sir, I motherfucking own the Pitney Bowes mail machine. With my gentle coaxing that machine and I have established a symbiotic relationship. It completes my ZIP codes for me: I type "10116-" and it supplies the "-1702."
And don’t let us start on the dual-fulfillment beast that is the color copier and spiral-binding station, Doug. Together we make PowerPoint handouts that clip art tells stock photos about.
Sometimes, while I toil, I can’t help but think about my unemployed friends, the guys who stay up all night snapping digi-pics of themselves sucking shots of Cuervo off the stomachs of Brazilian bikini models. While I curse another missed swing with the hammer, I also curse their depraved, irony-soaked 2 a.m. outings to Monday Heavy Metal Karaoke and midnight movies at the Sunshine theater.
But then I remember I have a job with health benefits, and they have the beginnings of liver disease. I count. And I've adapted. I don’t get my hands on optical mice or scanners as much as I had hoped. There’s a marketing one-sheet that should have been ready a long time ago for the conference next week. My Bezier curves are starting to resemble the scribbles on the margins of a Highlights for Children, and, oh, Pantone color charts—I miss thee like you were my misspent youth!
But this jack-of-all-trades just made a dentist appointment, got a hernia checkup, and was told that the staple-gun wound isn’t going to require a series of painful tetanus shots.
Chris Gage has a new job: He's now a production editor at John Wiley & Sons.
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