Being employed by the federal government comes with it’s benefits: cheaper health insurance, reliable retirement plans, paid holidays, and of course, job security. Having no post-high school plans, and at my parents urging, I joined the gov worker force at the tender age of 19. It beat cleaning houses, which I wasn’t that great at anyhow.
My first week of having a ‘real’ job was alot like submerging oneself into a dismal swamp on a blank day in mid-October. My duty hours were from 7am-4:30pm. Attire: business-casual drab. Everyone has to wear a badge, and if you lose it, you have to pull off and sign in at Gate 5, then visit the security office, located in Building 3. I worked in Building 4; a drafty cream-colored brick building with 3 floors and 4 wings. A few parts of the wings were blocked off for asbestos removal; the whole place smelled old, and the windows squeaked if pushed open.
People are ranked by “grades,” depending on education level (college graduates start out as a “7”), and how high one has climbed the ranks of hierarchy. Every office has a “chief,” aka “supervisor,” who is most likely a grade 13 or 14. My official title : Office Automation Clerk. What is that? Quite a boring thing to be called, but better than going by my appointed “grade”, a measly 2.
But most of all, working at the Department of Population Information (DOPI) was the icing on the red, white, and blue cake. We were not a prestigious department like Defense or Justice or Labor, where social skills or business savvy were high on the list of job qualifications.
The DOPI roster primarily consisted of:
- miserable middle-aged women who put themselves in charge of (ultimately meaningless) tasks, hungry for “power” behind the mighty circa-1960 wooden desk(my office mate, Sandra)
- extremely awkward statisticians
My very first day on the job, it was clear DOPI was not big on training new employees; I was sat behind a desk in an office on the third floor, along with three women and a perpetually confused messenger named Michael. My boss, Peggy, did not seem as enthused about my arrival as I imagined; in fact, no one was really enthused or seemed to go through any feelings at all. With the exception of Sue. Sue was the one friendly smile who made a difference, so if you think that line about a smile changing someones whole day is BS, you’re wrong. Peggy briefed me: “well, there’s going to be a lot of random things we’ll ask you to do, if you have any questions, you know where to find me,” before returning to her room within our “office.” One of my main responsibilities: answering the phone.
Meanwhile, I opened up my inbox on DOPI’s mail server. The mail was as mind-numbing as you can get, next to receiving bills. “BROADCAST MESSAGE: Retirement reception for Dan Wallocks, in the Howard Tabernacle Conference Room, today at 1:00pm. Dan is retiring after nearly 45 years at DOPI. Refreshments will be served.”
*blop blop blop, blop blop blop* The phone! IT’S RINGING.
“Administ…. Admin…Administrative office”
“Hello, may I speak to Sue Feldman?”
“Wait a minute.”…… “Sue went to the bathroom, can I take a message?”
“Yes please let her know I called.”
Behind me, Sandra stirred at her desk. *tap tap tap* (Sandra used a large plastic floor mat under her chair, perhaps to maximize her chair-rolling comfort, unfortunately her nervous ‘heel tapping’ habit was also amplified.) She cleared her throat: Um,…Mary Beth. We usually say “one moment please” when placing a caller on hold, and a more appropriate answer would be “she stepped away from her desk.”
Silly, silly me.
And so began my ten year federal government experience, which I will bring to you in forthcoming stories of befuddlement, complacency, idiocy, and vengeance….
Welcome to “Tales from the Federal Government.”
*Names and other personally identifiable information have been changed to protect everyone.