I enter the lobby in one of Seattle's tallest skyscrapers and start looking for the directory plaque. When I find it and locate the name of the staffing service, I'm surprised by the company's location. Top floor, number 45. This must be one high powered operation. I wasn't expecting some basement broom-closest, but I also wasn't expecting to go Top Dog.
I load onto the elevator and take a smooth, noiseless ride to my floor. Exiting the cab I step onto a plush, deep blue carpet and stroll down a hall lined with nice art work. It's dead silent in the hallway.
I find the right suite and push open a heavy door. I'm greeted by a large room filled with waist high cubicles. It's loud with phones ringing and people scurrying around the room in formal dresses and suits and ties. I look at my own suit and breathe a sigh of relief—I've worn my charcoal suit with the grey pinstripes, which is too formal for most places but is perfect for this setting. Whenever I interview I try to match my surroundings, but for a temporary staffing agency I had no idea how to dress. In clothes I wouldn't be keeping long? To be safe I guessed the high end and got it right.
The receptionist greets me at a large, circular counter and asks me to have a seat. I drop into a plush chair under a wall of renaissance era reprints and page through an Atlantic Monthly (no People magazine for these folks). Between pages I watch the action in the room. People are literally running down the aisles, and I catch a few haggard faces at their desks, chirping away into phone headsets. There's no music coming from above or pulsing out of personal radios. No one has quotes or amusing pictures attached to their cube walls. The place is serious and formal and bathed in a high-powered, almost frantic energy.
The receptionist leads me into a large office with tall, leather backed chairs. The room is spotless, with stacks of paper meticulously aligned along a large glass table. I glance around the office but don't see a rusty guillotine for underperforming salespersons, so the place can't be that serious. I look through the windows, which offer a view that sails over downtown to the shipyard cranes south of town. I'm admiring the impressive view when I hear my name from behind. I spin around to see a petite woman in an Ann Taylor outfit clutching a clipboard. It's Kimberly, the owner.
We chat through small talk, testing each other out. The first stage of any interview is always a strange dance of quick judgments where each person tries to gauge the worthiness of the other—it's like a blind lunch-date for busy professionals. But I seem to be well matched here. I'm interviewing for a job teaching computer software to adults, and I've already gotten a feel for this place, so I keep it serious. The school, a startup, will be set within a temp staffing agency run by the woman sitting in front of me. If the school turns out to be half as organized as her desk then I'm definitely on board. Sign me up.
I learn that the school will be located at a branch south of Seattle. The starting pay is good and includes benefits. More importantly, the owner seems excited to build something with enduring quality. This is a first for me.
As the interview concludes Kimberly throws out one more question. She issues a small, tight-lipped smile and asks: Where do you think the school will be in a year from now?
I've had a solid interview so far, and I think I've got the job, so I chance a small joke, my only one so far. I glance at the serious but pleasant woman and say, "Right, where we are now?"
Who knew that humor could be so prophetic?
ACT II: THE BAD MIDDLE
Pam bursts through the front doors of the office two minutes after our team meeting is slated to begin. Her frizzy hair bounces above her face, which carries the usual harried look. The office goes silent, the normal response when the #2 person in the company arrives. No one wants anything getting back to Kimberly at headquarters. People summoned to headquarters often don't return, and everyone knows about Jake, the last office manager here. He was called downtown and ended up in the office in Anchorage, dispatched gulag-style with no advance notice.
Pam hustles into the classroom where the school team is assembled. I can smell the cigarette smoke on her clothes from ten feet away. It's like an ashtray grew legs, grinded to the top of the corporate ladder using KGB style tactics, and then decided to visit. After curt greetings everyone settles into a seat.
The meeting begins with a short update from the sales team. In addition to her many duties downtown, Pam oversees the sales force at the school, and this is one of the few times they meet in person. She listens to the feeble results for the last month and shakes her head, realizing that a new approach is needed. The two salespeople shift uncomfortably in their seats. I feel for this pair—I've been helping to develop marketing materials as much as I can, but the teaching comes first. They're getting squat for support, and it's showing.
Pam glances at her watch, sighs, and decides to move on. She lurches out of her chair and marches to the whiteboard. After drawing two intersecting circles she breaks into a motivational talk, Tony Robbins style, and keeps motivating for twenty minutes. No one asks questions or is prompted to ask questions. We sit in our seats and nod silently. The core concept that emerges is based on "synergy": two or more bodies working together can yield far better results than each operating independently. Like parts in a car. Like a pitcher and a catcher on the field. Like honeybees. Like a group of co-workers with far greater concerns nodding their heads in despair.
When the meeting ends I stroll to the men's room, thinking that we didn't even touch the topic of the IT roll out. We're supposed to start teaching computer networking in a few weeks, and the equipment issues are pressing. The meeting wasn't a total washout however. There was a small touch of humor towards the end. When Pam asked if we felt like we "had our ducks in a row," one salesman, a guy I doubt will make it much longer, said, "Since we teach spreadsheets, why can't we have 'em in a column." He's still too new to realize that you don't joke with Pam. I see him joining the sales force exodus—the team operates like a hotel, with people arriving, staying a bit, and leaving a short time later.
Something familiar catches my eye and I glance down into the urinal. A rubber pad with holes rests next to a pink odor-freshening puck. The pad is made by "The Synergy Company," based out of Texas.
As I re-enter the classroom Pam intercepts me and says, "Let's do lunch." Uh oh, Sanford's again. Since being promoted to Lead Instructor, this is one of the harrowing duties that have entered my work life. There are few places to eat near the office, which is bordered by interstates on two sides and a mall on the third. Cutting through the fourth side is a nasty four lane road seemingly built for the purpose of filming Bruce Springsteen videos. Tucked between a Jiffy Lube and a fast food joint, Sanford's Grill is where the heavyweights in the area gather to conquer the business world.
Pam and I drive the one block to Sanfords and settle into a padded booth near the back. It's fairly dark with only meager light pressing through the faux stained-glass windows set into mahogany beams. The minute we drop into our seats Pam fires up a long, skinny cigarette and takes a sustained drag. A moment later she blows out a stream of smoke, exhaling dragon style. I glance through the menu, shifting the huge plastic binder to pick up light from the chandelier above.
I start making small talk as Pam relaxes in the seat next to me. When I ask her what she has planned for the weekend she flashes a wicked grin. Her pointy, sharp teeth are dark yellow, almost borderline black in places. Jesus girl, fix those things. You're #2 in the company, not some coal miner.
Pam looks at me and says, "I have to go up to the office in Anchorage...I hate Anchorage, especially in the winter." Why's that? With 20 hours of dark it's a great place for biting necks and sucking blood.
The waiter arrives to take our order. Pam gets the popcorn shrimp. I get the roast beef sandwich. Given our proximity to Jiffy Lube, there's no way I'm getting something fried at Sanfords. When the waiter walks away we get down to business.
Pam says, "So what's this about Kurt needing new computers." Kurt is the person Kimberely hired to head up the nascent IT program. I'm not sure why, but Pam doesn't get along with him. I suspect that she feels shunted from the hiring process. So, I've become the go between, a sort of Deep Throat for a computer school.
"Well," I reply, "he needs actual servers to do the initial lessons, as well as some later ones."
Pam stubs out the remnants of her cigarette and quickly lights a second. As she works through her initial drag I catch the music from overhead. Rod Stewart is singing about feeling sexy. I'm quickly losing my appetite.
Pam asks, "Can't he just go get one at that place?"
"Yeah, technically he could," I reply, "but they're expensive. I know I wouldn't want to shell out $1,200."
"That place" is Circuit City, where Kurt buys equipment with his own credit card and then submits a receipt to headquarters. Our school doesn't have its own budget. We tried using purchase orders, but the extended wait for approval, often lasting months due to turnover in Accounting, forced us to take matters into our own hands. Now this approach has become de facto policy.
Our food arrives. Pam flaps her hand in the air and says, "Go ahead, go ahead and start...its okay." She keeps working on her cigarette while I buy time, fiddling with my water glass. I can't start until the butt is out. It's like having a picnic where you put the blanket near the rear bumper and leave the car running while you eat.
Two drags later Pam crushes out the cigarette and reaches for her plate. She stabs a shrimp and moves it towards her mouth. I turn away. There's just no way I can watch her eat.
ACT III: THE UGLY END
The first thing I notice when I walk through the front doors is how quiet the office is. It's silent. No phones ringing, no people marketing to companies. I glance at the four pods of desks in the main room and see only one person. At his desk plugging away is Jerry, the man who places temps into industrial jobs. When I stare across the empty room Jerry notices my puzzled look and yells, "I have no idea what's going on, but at least it's quiet for a change."
I slip into the classroom and start booting up computers. The new list for the day's students is sitting on the teacher desk and I look it over. Another pretty slim crowd for today. I've got a few people from now to noon and then nearly no one after lunch. If it weren't for the temporary staffing side of the business, this school would have died months ago.
My first students arrive and settle behind their monitors. They're pretty self sufficient and don't need much help getting started. Staring past the two adults I check out the emptiness in the main room. The placement people are probably out on some kind of sales training today. But it's strange, everyone being gone at the same time. Usually they stagger out in groups, leaving behind at least one person in each division to handle calls and walk-ins. Carol, the office manager is also gone. And then there's Jerry's strange comment.
A figure blasts past the door to the classroom and races down the aisle toward the office manager's desk. The person stops suddenly at Jerry's desk and waives both hands in the air, gesturing frantically. Jerry shrugs, lifting his hands in a prayer pose and nodding his head. The assailant jogs down the aisle and drops into the chair in front of the office manager's computer. I catch the face. It's Pam.
A few minutes later the hour lesson ends and my students get up to take a break. They shuffle out of the room and I follow, heading for the coffee/break room. Seeing me exit the classroom, Jerry stands up and nods slightly towards the coffee room. I follow him in after catching a quick peek at Pam. She's staring at the monitor with a fierce expression.
When I enter the room Jerry spins towards me and says, "Did you know anything about this?"
I give him a perplexed look and say, "About what?"
Jerry laughs and puts both hands on the counter, as if for support. He reminds me of Cedric the entertainer, a big, black ball of humor. The first time I met him and asked him how it was going, he said, "It'd be going a lot better if they got me some candidates with teeth."
Jerry shakes his head and says, "Everyone bailed at the same time. Even Carol." He pauses for a moment and says, "I've seen some strange stuff in my days, but this takes the cake. This place is fucked."
I'm processing the information, trying to figure out how everyone could quit on the same day. I'm no stranger to turnover, but people usually fall intermittently, not all at once. This is like Jonestown.
"Pam's over there on the computer trying to find the client information."
This makes no sense to me. If everyone quit, what's that got to do with clients? I ask Jerry to help me understand this.
"Well," he says, "It seems that Kimberly's mom came out of retirement, got the reps down here to come along, even Carol, and opened up shop. With Kimberely's clients."
I look at Jerry in disbelief. I'm not going to ask how, but somehow the rest of the office planned an escape without letting him know. That's gotta hurt a guy's feelings. This is better drama than anytime daytime soap, and I wouldn't surprised if Kimberley and her mom ended up on The Peoples Court.
Jerry fills up a coffee mug and says, "Pam and Kimberely must be calling the clients, trying to get them back." He takes a big sip and then walks towards the door while I picture the utter mayhem that must be raging downtown. As he pushes the door open, Jerry groans and says, "These people are completely fucked."
The next couple of weeks would be filled with short memos and emails exhorting the computer school members to "remain patient during this difficult time." While Kimberly hired lawyers and fought off her mother, sales people came and sales people went. Our office chewed through a string of managers. The purchase order for the servers never arrived but, on the flip side, I never had to endure another smoke filled power lunch at Sanfords.
Six months later the company imploded and the school died, fulfilling my prophecy.
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