The Office

Some of the best TV I’ve seen in a while, that. I just finished the end of Season 1 (having watched three episodes tonight), and a little anecdote came to me about crap jobs and the interviews we go through (and lies we tell) to get them.

The chain of associations is kind of complex, actually. Read on if you dare to step into my history…

The manager character in that show is execrable, but thinks he’s kind of cool. Well, now, I once worked for a manager at an HMV who looked just like the manager on the TV show. While he was nowhere near as bad as the guy on The Office, he was a bit of a poser and something of a wanker too. For some reason he didn’t like me, I don’t know why, but anyway, he let me go after I’d worked there for over two years, while he kept some young, skinny, sorta pretty girls on staff, who’d only been on staff for a month or two. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t worked hard, but it also wasn’t as if I was dependent on the job; I’d gotten so busy putting on recitals that when they let me down to 5 hours a week for the last few weeks of the semester, I thought it was a favour to a staff member who’d been on a long time.

It wasn’t. It was an excuse to fire me when the cutbacks were applied. My “inability to work the hours required of a part-time position” was the reason given, though I’d worked practically full time that Christmas and though it’d been a special case I’d discussed with him, when I’d been required to put on all those recitals that year. Anyway, when I got fired from the Lawson Heights branch of the shop, I actually felt kind of good about it, free from hearing the damned crap were were required by head office to play because kids would spend their money on it if they heard it playing in the store.

But as I remembered that it was the Lawson Heights location of the shop, I had to think hard to remember where the other location had been. You see, a few years before, when I’d taken a year off from school and simply up and moved to Edmonton, I’d gone with only the cash from my last month of work at an apiary. So I’d been desperate for a job, and gone down to several shopping malls to apply for jobs.

The Kingsay Garden Mall location of the HMV contacted me and asked me to come interview for a position in their new, expanded location. I went wearing a suit and with a new haircut, which meant I was embarrassingly overdressed, but I tried to act as if it were irrelevant. Somehow I bluffed my way through my first real job interview—the first job interview that actually mattered in terms of my continued quality of life—and I got the job.

But I did have to lie during the interview. I swear it was the only time I lied to the manager, Tammy O’Neal, who was an incredibly cool person. It was when she asked me where I’d bought my music, when I had bought music in Saskatoon.

I told her I’d bought it at HMV, of course. She might even have known that I was lying, because she asked me why. I told her that the selection was good, and the people were nice, and then I let it trail off. She mentioned the Club Cards, and I agreed, those were a draw too, though I’d never completed one myself.

I’d never had one, in fact. I owned perhaps 3 or 4 CDs at the time when I interviewed for the job, and I’d never played any of them. I didn’t even own a CD-player; all of my listening had been cassettes I’d dubbed from LPs from the library, or that my friends (especially Mike, now a famous DJ) had recorded for me. I found CDs ridiculously overpriced and couldn’t for the life of me understand why LPs had been abandoned industry-wide. (I imagine the RIAA feels roughly the same way these days about the industry’s adoption of CDs.)

So I was coming into the business to sell a product I neither understood nor believed in. Well, of course, after a few months of collecting playcopies at staff meetings, and buying CDs at (supposedly) near-cost price discounts, my folks had sent a CD-player and I’d gotten it… by 1995 I’d joined the early 20th century and was using and enjoying the medium of CDs.

But it was all because of one little lie to my boss. Such a very stereotypical lie, really; “Yes, I’ve been a customer at your store.” And the funny thing is, I know I worked my ass off for that store, most of the time. I did without a real Christmas, for the first time in my life; I hurried breaks because others were waiting; I went to work even when I should have called in sick. Since I did a good job, I see no wrong in a little white lie like that.

But it’s funny, because it came back to haunt me. By the time I’d been working at the HMV in Saskatoon, I’d stopped buying CDs, not just from a lessening of interest, or the pain of having to special-order everything I wanted because the location was too small to carry anything I’d ever buy; it was also a shift in my interests. When I lost the job, I also started moving away from music in general, and was getting more deeply into writing. I landed a job in a bookshop the following autumn, a job gotten for me by my friend Joleen, the same person who connected me with the Wonkwang Language Center, which was my first job in Korea.

How strange, all of that.

The weird stuff from all my retail jobs… oh, it never ends. I’ve worked in bookstores with people who never read books and think East Indians are Ojibway Indians, but in turbans; I’ve worked with guys who have stacks of CDs piled so high, out of the case, that they nearly reach to the ceiling in their basement apartments several times over. I’ve worked with people who collect tattoos all over their body and with people who think Christianity means they have the right to insult anyone for any behaviour, even polite and devout behaviour.

Sure, there were cool people, even among the ones I’ve mentioned here. The CD-stacks guy reminded me of a fairly cool, kindhearted version of Barry, the bigger and harsher of the music-obsessed shop clerks in the movie High Fidelity (played by Jack Black, the lead in the movie School of Rock, which I watched recently). The tattoo guy was pretty cool until swore at him about his freakishness. Joleen was great, which may be a reason why she got out of retail, only to resort to it occasionally when other methods of earning money temporarily fail her. Hell, even Tim wasn’t so bad. But there were some damned strange people I met working in shopping malls. People whose lives were… I don’t know, just kind of laid out before them like a stream of mangled, twisted railway track. People married to people who cheat on them and hunt wild animals with bows and arrows; people who treat their fiances like babies and then wonder why the fiances lie about having cancer in order to get out of the wedding. And of course the endless petty racisms, bigotries, and ignorances.

But I’ve realized that people in retail aren’t, as I once thought, the dregs of society. Ignorant? Often. Politically pliable? Apparently. The dregs of society? No, no, not really. There are ridiculous tossers in all levels of any society’s hierarchy, which is more infuriating than any theory that says the lowest people inthe society are more often ignorant tossers while, at least, thank goodness, the elites have better educations and can be trusted more with the fate of nations and of the world.

They can’t either. Even those of us who aren’t the pathetic tossers are mired down by them. Without the intervention of some elite that has not only a very strict moral code regarding honesty, compassion, justice, and truth, humanity is unlikely to do better on the above counts, while its ability to do harm to itself and its environment will continue to skyrocket.

Who shall we look to? I don’t know, but I am beginning to think scientists will not be able to be the kind of people they are now, in the future. Their ties to corporations and governments, their publicness, their avowed concern with a kind of consumerist/capitalist society’s morality instead of independent professional moral conscientiousness, and so on all point to the fact they need to break from the state and the corp, just as state had to break from the church and the military, ever so long ago when the modern foundations for liberal democracies were being laid upon the ground.

3 thoughts on “The Office

  1. Keisha and I recently watched the first season of The Office. We found we had to do it in small chunks because the banal realism was actually painful to watch (and painfully funny). My favorite retail experience was when I worked a Christmas job as a bookstore clerk. The store had a little alcove full of various editions of the Bible, and I was explaining to some little old extremely white and Protestant ladies the differences between the various editions. One of them said, “Gosh young man, you certainly know a lot about the Bible. Are you Jewish?” I goggled and tried not to laugh…because of course I’m not Jewish and I don’t know that much about the Bible–I just knew a bit about the markets at which the different editions were aimed.

  2. Hahaha, sounds familiar from my own bookstore days. I think my best was the time the co-worker told me how important Priscilla Presley was, and I asked her whether Gandhi rated. When she said, “Who?” and I gave her a series of hints, she said, “If this guy were so important, I would have heard of him by now.”

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