Thursday, October 28, 2010

You don't have to be mad to work here...

By my reckoning, it is now about 6 weeks since I started doing administration work for a real estate agent in Surry Hills. As someone who has never aspired to work in administration, real estate or for that matter Surry Hills, I simply took this job because, as an FOB British working-holiday visa holder I really needed the cash and this was the first halfway decent thing the recruitment company found me. 

Within five minutes of arriving, I learned that my predecessor, another working-holiday Brit, had lasted only two days... Clearly, the boss was not one to suffer fools gladly. Things went well for the first three weeks and I even turned down a couple of other possible postings because the boss seemed so pleased... although to be honest a (poorly) trained monkey could perform most of the tasks I'm asked to complete. 

I'm not an arrogant person, but I think after 25 years, (17 in education), £16,000+ of student debt, more passport stamps than I can count and a decently varied CV there would be something intrinsically wrong with me if I found myself unable to do basic word-processing, answer a phone and stuff envelopes.

As for Surry Hills? Well, I really like it- even if it did take a few days for me to conquer my Anglocentric desire to spell it with an 'e'. As the most cursory of google sessions will indicate, it's an interesting little Sydney microcosm. First settled by Europeans in the late 1700's, the area became a nesting ground for colonial gentry in the 1820's before later developing an unfortunate "reputation for crime and vices" in the mid nineteenth century. This unpleasant perception of a suburb in deterioration stuck until the postwar years, when an influx of foreign migrants helped fuel its revival. Thanks to these residents and a concerted drive for gentrification which began in the 1960's, today Surry Hills is once again seen as a 'desirable' postcode... But not TOO desirable... What I really like is that despite the clean-up crusade, it’s still a bit rough around the edges. Indeed, whilst some describe the area as a "bohemian Sydney village" and as one of the city's "most artistically-vibrant neighbourhoods" and "hippest suburbs" I find others on the internet are eager to warn me of the "high crime rate" and that this is a "really scary dodgy area at night" with "constant fights and loads of drugs". 
As well as the typical metropolitan Usual Suspects (slick-looking suited-and-booted professionals, symbiotically linked to their Blackberries; painfully skinny Hipster-types in rolled up trousers and beaten-up loafers with permanently affixed disdainful expressions; Yummy Mummies resplendent in designer cashmere, accompanied by their perfect 4-syllable-named offspring and artfully crossbred family dog...) I have encountered an eclectic mix of people since I started coming here- some of whom I think may be certifiably crazy. 

I've been asked for spare change A LOT (once by a woman who kept staring at my hair and angrily declared that I was 'JUST as bad as JULIA" when I didn't give her any money), I witness at least three screaming arguments a week and last week I had to duck out of the way of not one, but two people trying to fight invisible demons. 

This same duality is also present in the very architecture of Surry Hills- A hotchpotch of buildings of all shapes and sizes which, as well as residential properties, now host an eclectic mix of vintage clothing stores, overpriced interior decoration boutiques and an impressive selection of bars, cafes and restaurants, offering a range of cuisines so diverse it reads like a UN delegate attendance list. 

But there, discretely nestled in amongst the fairtrade-organic-soy-chai latte purveyors and post-post-post-modern art galleries you'll also find the NSW Users and AIDS Association, complete with street side needle drop and, a little further along the road the Oasis Youth Support Network for disadvantaged and homeless you people. Both are strak reminders that there are some people in Surry Hills facing more difficult challenges than whether to accessorize with the blue or red Wayfarers today.

But I digress, during the last fortnight my fortunes have changed somewhat dramatically and what started as 'friendly banter' from my boss has basically descended into verbal abuse. I don't know what I did to deserve it, but I have well and truly fallen from grace. From being praised as some sort of administrative golden girl, I am now criticised, belittled and insulted on a daily basis and my patience is wearing extremely thin. I've lost track and lost count of the precise details, but I have been informed, among other things, that I really think I'm "something special", "need to shut up and **** off", "would try the patience of a saint", am "sending him mad", "talk a lot, but don't know how to bloody listen" (which is only half true) and that I must think he's "bloody stupid" if I think he doesn't know what I'm "up to" (also not entirely true- although yes, I do think he's bloody stupid). Oh, and this week he also made a point of mentioning that I was a few minutes late one day, but of course, the fact that I've come in ten minutes early for the last few days has escaped his attention, as has my consistently taking only twenty minutes for lunch. In short, I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't: If I make a tiny error, I'm told I need to stop doing my "own personal shit" and that I think I'm "too clever and need to just slow down and concentrate". If I then spend three times as long proof reading a document, he yells "it's only a bloody draft, what's taking you so long?"

For some reason, after a particularly grueling barrage the other day, I began to picture one of those irritating "You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps!!!" posters. You know the ones I mean- posters which are normally possessed by only the most inexplicably and infuriatingly cheerful of office support staff.  It’s the sort of poster that Elaine from accounts has tacked to the side of her monitor under the watchful gaze of two Trolls and a Beanie Baby. Realistically, despite being a self-described ‘zany lunatic’, the craziest thing Elaine has ever done was to accidentally put four sugars in her tea instead of two. That was in 2001, but she still enjoys recounting the story to unwary office newcomers- a tale like that doesn't age. Brian from IT agrees with her. He still thinks it is hilarious and actively looks forward to joining in with the now customary punchline of "Uhoh... This tastes a bit... funny!" It's developed into a 'thing' they have. Brian has a copy of the "You don't have to be mad..." poster too- Elaine printed it for him; she knows another madcap screwball when she sees one. Brian has been working up the courage to ask Elaine to come live action role-playing with him for three years. He's not quite ready to yet, but he thinks he's getting close. 

Perhaps if Elaine and Brian were real people and worked in my office then they could take a share of my boss's wrath from time to time? After being made to cry for the second time last week, I consulted some friends and asked what to do. Unfortunately, whilst it does give me some comfort to "know, deep down, that he undoubtedly has a tiny penis" and I did laugh when slashing his tires and treating the office toilet to the 'Upper Deck' were mooted as suggestions, it doesn't really help me.

This week, I found myself taking pre-emptive strike action. For example, I no longer ask questions or make conversation (less communication = less opportunity for him to be rude) and instead of making ‘things to do’ lists I’ve been compiling ‘things I’ve done' lists (= irrefutable evidence in case he feels like suggesting I'm not working)... But despite my best efforts, he's still being horrible. 

I rang my recruitment agent on Tuesday and she was about as much use as a chocolate teapot. Obviously, as they are making a tidy sum from me, it's in the company's best interests for me to stay here and, to quote her well-meant platitudes, to "not take it personally" and to "not bother saying anything because he won't take it on board". 
Armed with these pearls of wisdom I returned to the office to be met with a demand as to whether I'd "done these yet?" 'These', were two letters that needing amending. I informed him that, no, I had not, because when I asked him about them earlier in the day he had bitten my head off. Bad move. To that, I was treated to "Oh my god, stop being such a woman! Don't be so stroppy. Christ, the world must be a scary place for you". When I suggested that this was both an unfair and unpleasant manner in which to speak to me, I was rewarded with “I’m the one paying you; I’ll talk to you how I ******* like”. Wow. No covering up this one, cue bursting into tears take three… Three glasses of wine, two more confirmations of his miniature member and a dinner bought by a very kind friend later and I realised I'd REALLY come to the end of my tether and that it is time to be a LOT more proactive on the job-hunting front.  
Luckily, it seems the employment gods are smiling on me today as earlier I got a call offering me another position... The details aren't finalised yet, but I'm already worrying about how I tell my oh-so-empathic employer that I want to quit. When I got off the phone, I went for a quick walk around the block to mull it over a bit and, as per usual, found myself doing a bit of casual window shopping. At one point I was looking at the display in a vomit-inducingly expensive lighting shop and marveling at how anyone could possibly consider paying $900 for a lamp that could well be made of reconstituted tampon applicators. I soon noticed there were two other people approaching the shop front. From my right, a barefooted man with a matted beard obscuring from clear view a grin as wide as the harbour bridge. The other, approaching from the left, was a glamourous (if rather bitchy) looking woman who I imagine smells of Chanel and money. She gave both me and barefoot brief looks before strutting purposefully into the shop, possibly to buy an $8000 styrofoam chandelier. Barefoot shook his head and grinned even wider before gesturing at the shop and declaring "She's crazy! This... shit!" and then of course asking me for change. He didn't seem fussed when I said no, but instead shrugged and and told me “they don’t know I got twelve!” before carrying on up the street, trailing a piece of string behind him. 
And as I looked from him, to the lighting shop to my own reflection, I couldn’t help but ask myself, who’s really the mad one here? The homeless guy taking his invisible dog for a walk? The woman prepared to spend a developing country's GDP on pretentious lighting solutions? Or the girl who has travelled 17,000km from her country of birth to figure life out a bit and ends up doing mind-numbingly boring, isolating work whilst being made to feel like scum that's been scraped off the bottom of a shoe?
You don't have to be mad to work here: You have to be a masochist. Screw you mate, I quit.

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