WE ALL RECEIVED tickets upon entering. I found a small space near the wall where I stood on my toes, clenching every muscle I could. I was willing myself to be as thin and straight as possible. I didn’t want to touch the dirty wall behind me or the sweaty man in front of me, and here in the group of twenty or so people, I hardly looked out of place. They ranged in age from just out of teendom to the upper edges of middle age, and as if we could be an ad for the American dream, every color in the rainbow was represented. Still I felt like I didn’t fit. Just a few months before I was an account manager, sitting in a cushy office easily paying my bills with enough money left over to stash some away, but that life was in the past, and everyday I felt like I was further and further from returning to it.
I made sure not to get caught staring as I looked over each person trying to determine what events had led them to this room. Two guys wore suits. A woman was in a dress and heels, which I thought was a bad choice. A number of men had on jeans and hoodies. One guy, wedged into the corner, wore blinding yellow Crocs. A man with long stringy white dreads opened and closed a Zippo lighter. I wore khakis and a button-up shirt I’d bought from Old Navy with a birthday gift card, underdressed compared to my normal job interview outfit, but slightly more professional than my typical t-shirt and jeans.
We had all responded to a call for UPS holiday help. I was skeptical since nowhere in the job description was there a mention of the hourly wage. I told myself I’d accept anything above $14, which was a significant drop from the $20 an hour I made managing online seller accounts before my eleven-month contract expired, but after a string of failed interviews and a dwindling savings account I had expanded my search.
We were led into a large conference room and given a sheet of paper with the meeting’s agenda. At the very end was a bullet point that read “hours and pay.”
“Before we get started does anyone have any questions?” the man at the head of the room asked. He was in charge of HR and his toned biceps and thick neck gave the impression he had spent time hauling packages before working his way up to a desk job. “You over there,” he said to a guy in the back.
“What’s the pay?”
“I’ll get to that,” he said. “My name is Ron. I’m going to tell you about the driver helper position, and then we’re going to do some one-on-one interviews.” He tugged on a Seahawks lanyard hanging from his neck that displayed his name badge. “This job isn’t for everyone,” he said, and sized up his latest batch of laborers. I spent plenty of college summers pushing lawn mowers and packing heavy things into trucks, but this was the first time the label laborer seemed appropriate for me. “Feel free to get up and leave if you hear something about the job you’re not comfortable with. I won’t hold it against you. There’s no point in sitting here if you’re not the right guy for the job.”
I looked around the room and considered who would be the first person to go. There was a woman who couldn’t have been taller than 5’2’’ and had thin wrists. Was she aware that all employees were required to be able to lift 50 pounds? Next to her was a man shaped like a brick. His work boots and worn flannel shirt reminded me of the guys I used to see standing in front of Home Depot when I drove to the office. I imagined he’d be hired on the spot. I ranked somewhere between them. Fifty pounds wouldn’t be a struggle, but I’d be sore the next day. I didn’t lift much more than my coffee mug to my mouth at my old job.
“Don’t enter a fenced-in yard if there’s a barking dog,” Ron said. His tone was professional and friendly. “Maybe if it’s a little dog you can, but stay away from anything that looks like Cujo.” He paused and a few people laughed. “Dress warm and don’t distract the driver. And most importantly, handle packages with care. You never know when a camera is on you. I don’t want to see any of you ending up on YouTube throwing a package. It’s not good for business.”
The job sounded easy enough. I would be paired with a driver working in my neighborhood and I’d be picked up and dropped off near my apartment. However, I did worry about running into someone I knew. I’ve never been a fan of the stop and chat, but having to do it wearing a brown uniform made me nervous. People were used to seeing me headed off to work in a cardigan, sipping a latte. I was sure I’d be met with an encouraging tone if I was spotted by an acquaintance while on the job, but I knew I’d be regarded with pity. “Oh, you’re a UPS man’s assistant?” This acquaintance would say while looking down at her phone, careful not to meet my eye. “Good for you.”
My second concern came when we were told there was no set schedule. Driver helpers were on call, and the driver decided every morning whether he needed help or not. Helpers were to expect a call early in the morning if help was needed.
“Does this mean we shouldn’t expect to work 40 hours a week?” One of the suit-guys asked.
“It all depends on how you and the driver click,” Ron said. “If you go out on your first day and you vibe with your driver and he wants to pick you up everyday until Christmas Eve then you’re all set. Other drivers won’t require help everyday.”
“Fulltime work isn’t guaranteed?” the man asked. He was playing with the pockets of his suit, trying to pry open the flap. He gave up when he realized they were sewn shut.
“No, but it’s a likely possibility. You wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.”
The guy in the suit stood, pushed in his chair and exited the room.
Had it been my first month of unemployment I would have followed him out, but I had nothing to go home to. If not for that meeting, I would have never gotten out of bed that day. I spent most of my time alone in my apartment browsing the Internet for fight videos. Watching a couple shirtless guys pound on each other behind a liquor store was the only thing that stopped my brain from panicking—that and competitive cooking shows.
At night I watched the glowing numbers on my digital clock manically dance into morning. My persistent dread only allowed for a few hours of sleep a night. My stomach was always uneasy and I exhausted myself wondering if I was ever going to find a job. Sometimes it seemed so hopeless I thought it would be better if I weren’t around. I certainly wasn’t brave or desperate enough to do anything drastic, but I fantasized about being an innocent victim of a mass shooting. It seemed like an easy way to change the public perception of me, instead of unemployed loser I’d be looked at as heroic victim.
“Now,” Ron said tugging on his lanyard, “for the disappointing part.”
The guy across from me who seemed to have checked out raised his head off the back of his chair. A girl who’d been texting sighed and slipped her phone into her purse.
Ron held a nervous smile as he told us we’d earn a little more than $11 per hour. The group shrugged in unison. I caught eyes with a guy in a University of Washington sweatshirt. He smirked and walked straight out the door. No one spoke, but the room was loud with movement. The last time I made that kind of money was working in my college library over a decade ago.
The other guy in a suit left. Someone in the back in pressed Dockers with followed him. I shifted in my chair but thought maybe I can still do this. I had drained most my savings and wasn’t far from putting in a call to my parents to ask for a loan. I hadn’t done that since graduating college, and I feared calling them more than running up my credit card debt. Accepting their money was an admission of failure. When I’d crossed the stage and received my diploma, I never expected that ten years later I’d need their help, let alone consider a job that barely paid over minimum wage.
Yet, I hadn’t heard anything that was a deal breaker. I could work whenever I got called and continue my job search. If something better came along I’d stop answering my phone.
“Okay, you guys have all had enough of me,” Ron said. “I’m going to hand the floor over to Tammy who is a union representative.”
Tammy was a stocky woman who looked like she had skin made of leather, which I assumed came from spending the last 20 years of her life in a boys club. “Who knows why it’s a good thing to join a union?” she asked.
Looking around the room and judging by the puzzled faces, I wasn’t the only one curious as to why a union rep was here for a job that was only one month long. When no one attempted to answer her question she continued.
“A career at UPS can help you raise a family and provide you with benefits, and certain positions even help pay for college. Have you ever noticed when you’re at a party and someone says they work for UPS and everyone looks at them in awe, like, ‘Damn you work for UPS?’”
I’d heard about the great benefits, but I’d never been at a party where the UPS man was looked at in awe. I met a FedEx guy at a party once and no one seemed to pay him much attention until he shared a story about having sex in his truck.
“If you accept this job you will have to join the union. Joining the union requires a $250 initiation fee. A percent labeled ‘union fees’ will be deducted from your paycheck. Once you have paid that off you’re in the union.”
I stood up from my chair and headed towards the door. As I passed Ron I shook his hand and thanked him for the opportunity. I took a look at the group before closing the door behind me. This time their clothes weren’t what stood out to me. It was their faces. They looked depressed and sleep deprived, similar to the look I saw in the mirror. But, they didn’t have the luxury to follow me out that door and that made my worries and moronic death fantasies seem less valid.
A few days later I noticed the UPS trucks driving around my neighborhood were carrying an extra person. On my way home from the bank where I’d just traded in a 24-ounce cup of coins for $47 in bills, I passed a helper on the sidewalk. I had to move out of his way. The box he was carrying was so large it obstructed his vision. When he got to the doorway, he lowered the package and tapped some numbers into the callbox. He glanced over his shoulder. His collar was wrinkled and sweat-stained. I wasn’t sure if we’d been in orientation together, but the look of tired-fear that had been plastered across everyone’s face in that room wasn’t on his, at least not then. He seemed almost to smile to himself as he waited for someone to answer the door.
“Here you go, sir” He handed off the package and ran back to the truck to grab another box. He tucked it under his arm and rushed off down the street. He had purpose. Something I hadn’t had in months.
When I got home I broke up the $47 into various envelopes labeled groceries, gas and bills. I turned on my computer and hit the job sites, wondering whether maybe I’d made a mistake walking out that door. I wasn’t sure, but I sent off my resume and cover letter to three jobs and then called my dad.