Friday, April 23, 2010

The Toothbrush Factory

It was a temporary assignment.  One week, they said, no more. I was to replace a woman who was out on maternity leave. "Just some light typing, a bit of filing" the temp agency told me. But when I arrived at the toothbrush factory they put me right away at the main reception desk where I was to greet incoming visitors and answer incoming calls on a busy 9-line switchboard. A chart, taped at the side of the desk, listed all 40 or so employees and their individual telephone extensions. The calls came in three and four at a time, non-stop.

"Good morning, Toothbrush Factory, how may I help you?"
     --I wanna talk to Bob please. He there?

I consult the staff chart. There are two Roberts and two Bobs listed.

"Excuse me, Bob who?"
     --Bob! Works in the plant. Look, I'm in a rush here. Just leave him a
        message, will ya? Tell him I said we need eight #6's by 2 o'clock."

The caller did not tell me his name.

A call comes in for a Donna Smidleybock. No such name is listed, nor is there anyone on the chart with the name of Donna. "I'm sorry, we don't have an employee by that name," I respond. "Oh for crying out loud," the caller huffs. "Donna's been working there for sixteen years! Give me the supervisor please." I forward the call to the supervisor, who later comes out to my desk and says: "Uh, Donna got married two months ago. She's no longer Donna Bradley. We forgot to cross out her old name on the chart. Sorry."   So "D. Bradley" is Donna Smidleybock. Okay, got it.

Six calls-in-a-row later a caller wants to talk to Pete Robinson. I ring Mr. Robinson's extension. No answer. "Can you page him?," the caller asks. "It's urgent." Two men are standing in the entranceway having a conversation. One of them is leaning on my desk, where he has placed his cup of coffee. "Pete Robinson, can you call the front desk please?" I announce over the loudspeaker. The man leaning on the desk frowns and gives me one of those--what-kind-of-an-idiot-ARE-you?! sort of looks. "I'm Pete Robinson!" he says, irritated, as if I should have grasped that intuitively.

At times there are six and seven lines on hold simultaneously and people are never where they're supposed to be, rarely in their cubicles, especially the supervisor, who is usually to be found on the shop floor where they make the toothbrushes--when he isn't in the hallway chatting with someone, at the coffee machine or out in the parking lot taking a smoke.

The supervisor gets the most calls, and instead of calling back the numbers on the pile of pink message slips I leave for him, he comes to the desk and shuffling through them, one by one, tells me to: "Call X back and tell him I can't make the meeting at noon; call Y back and reschedule the inspection for Thursday instead of Friday; call Z back and ask him if that shipment from Portland got here and when can we expect delivery. Oh, and remind him about that invoice from Spitzers--have him get in touch with Frank. You can ask Sherry for Frank's number. She'll be back at 3...."    And as I'm writing all this down, eight more calls come in, the red lights on the telephone blinking frantically.

"Hello, Toothbrush Factory, can you please hold; Hello, Toothbrush Factory, please hold; Hello, please hold; Please hold. Please hold."

By about noon, I am a nervous wreck. I am finding the whole experience extremely stressful. I would have preferred to have been assigned to the section of the plant where they make the toothbrushes, doing some simple, rote task where the fingers do the work and the mind is free to roam--or a challenging task doing something I'm actually good at, involving research or transcription or editing or something. But this particular assignment reminds me of that old television gameshow "Beat the Clock", where you're given a task that by itself seems simple enough but then they go and tie your hands behind your back, blindfold you and place huge obstacles in your way--and time you. Hurry up, get there before the bucket of water falls on your head. Hurry up, the clock is ticking.

Hurry up, get those messages to X before he leaves the building--there he goes, run out to the parking lot and wave him down--wait, get those four lines first, you don't leave people on hold for more than 60 seconds, remember? Hurry up, he's getting in his car.... [I run out door].  Another staff member sees me and scolds, "Why aren't you at your desk? There are calls coming in....."

I once had a boss who I heard talking on the phone one morning to the branch manager in New York, telling him the contracts were Fed Ex'd out "yesterday." Which puzzled me because I hadn't yet been given them to type. This was a legal office where that type of insane rush-rush-rush to beat-the-clock type mindset was common. One learned to get faster and faster and faster, skipped lunch to meet deadlines, stayed overtime to meet deadlines, came in an hour before scheduled, to meet deadlines, most virtually impossible but routinely imposed. Some people actually thrive on this kind of adrenalin. I am not one of them.

I don't know what made me think of that toothbrush factory this morning. I am told it has gone out of business. I find the stories from people who work in factories fascinating, though. Zlata, an old neighbor friend, once told me, proudly, that she had personally sewn on 10,000 (or some such number) stomachs for the bears in the Teddy Bear Factory. That was all she did all day--sew together the part that becomes the stomach. I once took a tour of this factory and there she was, sitting behind her machine, sewing away. She waved and smiled. When we were leaving I passed her again. This time the workers were taking a break, standing up and stretching, doing some kind of little exercise in unison.

That evening I saw her out on her concrete porch, watering her flowers. She loved her job. I hated mine. I would have given anything, at the time, to have traded places with her.

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