“Workers’ Comp” is a four part excerpt from my first book, Down and Out in California.
Office drama! Due to this odd office beef between paralegal and transcriptionist, the night guy comes in early because he knows it’s my first day, and they send me home once he arrives.
I feel a rivalry already, but he still treats me kindly. Before I leave the night guy teaches me how to put a book on the play pedal for the Dictaphone so that I don’t wear out my ankle holding a foot down on a pedal most of the day.
“This job will chew your body up.” He says.
He looks haggard. The night guy has pale skin and pitch black, shoulder-length hair, and wears dark jeans and a black t-shirt every day. I don’t heed his warning. Also don’t ever use a book on the play pedal, because it doesn’t allow me to be as nimble.
I check in with the office manager at the end of the day to have her sign my time slip for the temp agency. We discuss the upcoming schedule. She tells me that they don’t want to hire me because I’m going to be away for a week for Burning Man. I’m devastated. I stand at her desk frozen for a moment, heart pounding in my chest.
I’ve of course pre-spent money I’m not even guaranteed to make, and hearing that all this prep and investment went into a half a day of work is terrifying. I ask a few times if they are sure. She makes me feel like an idiot for asking or expecting to keep a job when I’m leaving for ten days only a week into it.
Later that day they call me back to ask if I will work until they find someone. I gladly consent. It’s a huge relief to have any guaranteed work.
The next day I get to work a full day. I note how nice it is to have a pile of work that I can complete, and how cut and dry it is. I still run into Marcella’s office and covertly ask her for the spellings of words or sometimes what it is even that I am hearing. When it’s a term I’ve never heard and there’s no experience in my brain to give it context, I note I can misspell something radically or hear plosives as other syllables.
There are three floors to the building and the legal offices occupy half of the floors. There are three sets of offices off of the main hallway. I am working in the paralegal front office, while Marcella, my ally, works in an office off of that room with a closed door. She works at a feverish pace, yet takes frequent breaks during the day, during which I hear more about her hatred for the night guy, and how he responds to her edits and changes of his typing.
“You’re just so good though, you change things right away when I ask for it.” She says. It’s only my second day. Office drama.
“I’m going to tell Bret he needs to keep you permanently.” She grabs me by the shoulders “IT HAS TO HAPPEN.” I try not to react to her intensity, because I agree with her.
Later that day, the night guy comes in. He goes directly into her office. They get into an altercation and I hear him throwing a file on her desk and screaming “FUCK YOU!” three times. Then their back and forth yelling becomes so intense I can hear every word even with the headphones on. I stop typing and listen.
“You treat me like a child! You’re nothing but a schoolmarm! You don’t belong in this industry, you should be teaching kindergarten or something!” he yells.
“I wouldn’t need to treat you like a child if didn’t act like one! You are defensive about my edits and when I ask you to correct mistakes. You can’t use the kind of language you do with me. I am your superior. You clearly have mommy issues.” She retorts.
I can’t tell who is in the right, but it’s clear to me that if I side with Marcella things will go better for me.
When the night guy comes out of the office, slamming the door behind him, I quickly pull the headphones back onto my ears and pretend I wasn’t listening and stare at the screen and type gibberish into the doc I’m working on because the Dictaphone isn’t running. He runs by me to talk with the office manager. Well, no more night typist or no more Marcella, it seems. If he goes, I’ll certainly stay longer.
The next morning I come in to find that I am the only transcriptionist. Office drama settled.
They do keep me permanently, and never replace the night guy. An attorney liked my work and mentioned it separately from Marcella, and that clinches it. The boss calls me into the office and makes me an offer.
So far I’m making eleven dollars an hour, and I tell him that in order to stay permanently, and be his only typist accomplishing in eight hours what is used to take two to accomplish in sixteen – I want fifteen dollars an hour. He tells me he will think about it. I leave work and thirty minutes later get a call from him. He goes for it.
And so, I type. I type letters, dictations, notes, depositions, and just about every bit of correspondence that goes through the legal office.
I feel a bit of resentment towards people for not typing things themselves. Even the secretaries come to me to have their correspondence typed, because I am quick, and because it means less work for them. Some people even have me type up their personal dictation, and I never tell on anyone, just do as I’m asked. I know more about the goings on in the office than any single person working there. The lawyers come to me for advice on their cases, as they know that I have a better handle on every detail than they do, and when there are cases that intersect I am often called in to consult.
I learn more than I ever want to about workers’ compensation, injury, and the California legal system.
The lawyers, all of them defense attorneys, often talk about the good old days when the CA law was more permissive and everyone tried to sue for workers’ compensation. At first I question why defense attorneys would want more permissive laws that allow people to sue more easily, but then quickly realize that means more work for them. Some years after working here I hear that the law cracks down even further, and I wonder how the attorneys I worked with fare now.
It does seem like the place for failed lawyers. Even the boss is cynical and resigned about his position. He’s not passionate about workers’ compensation, he just found an easy niche and the lawyers that work under him are cheap and he has good profit margins.
He also feels a bit gutted by the change in the laws, and one time he complains to me about the California ballot initiative system that so easily allows any damn person to change the law.
I see how it’s affected him personally, but I hear entitlement. I don’t mention my history as a petitioner. Definitely don’t mention that I entirely disagree on principle, I think the power to move policy should be in the hands of the many. I don’t mention that in practice, this seems to only be a good idea fifty percent of the time. Don’t want anymore office drama.
The office manager and I become closer, and she warms to me, and I get that her defensiveness is partly cultural, she is Ecuadorian and is very specific about her culture, bringing it up frequently and distinguishing herself from Mexicans at every chance that doesn’t create office drama.
She finds out that I have a masters’ degree and tells me that the former night typist also had one, and that their last transcriptionist as well.
“What’s with all these typists with masters’ degrees?” she questions.
“Maybe that’s what it takes to do the job.” I quip.
I never think about being too skilled for this job, or that my education means that I should be doing something else. All that matters to me is the money, and most of the jobs I’ve had have paid around fifteen dollars an hour, which is also the going rate for my graduate school trained skill set. The money is the same, but the stigma is still there – and I’m still careful around saying what I do for a living. I’m keenly aware that “transcriptionist” sounds more official than “typist”.
I go to Burning Man, and come back with my hair in dreadlocks and covered.
I say nothing about it. They say nothing about it. I keep covering my hair the rest of the time that I work there. It’s business as usual, and they are happy to see me. Marcella has quit while I was gone. The office rumor is that she is bipolar. I keep my head down, and am happy for the work. I dream of being naked but for a wig, wearing purple glitter, and wandering the desert with a bottle of liquor in my hand. Burning Man has become an institution in my life, and I am becoming a celebrity there. It’s difficult to go from that strange reality of celebrity in an alternate culture back to an office job in the default world.
They move me into the main office with the secretarial staff and now I have a cubicle next to the office manager. It feels a lot more connected and makes the job more social and fun, but it means I am closer to the water cooler and closer to the conversation that surrounds it, and I am developing an allergy to that conversation. Lowest common denominator, risk-free conversation. Not office drama. Milquetoast. It makes me bristle, and I throw myself into the work more to avoid it.
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