Saturday, January 23, 2016

At Work: Initial Impressions

A fortnight ago, people were asking me how my first week of work had gone (now that I've completed three, they don't bother--it's really extraordinary how the miseries of two years' job seeking can so quickly be forgot). My boilerplate response: "They haven't fired me yet!" I later emended this to "No one's become apoplectic with rage/begun screaming incoherently, and fired me yet!" On the other hand, it is rather hard to tell how I am doing, both relative to expectations and to the other editors, since my training hasn't been linear, nor has feedback been regular, but snippets gleaned at rare less-than-feverishly-busy moments. There is much I still don't know, that I am finding out by error--"You wouldn't have known this, but..." discoveries by means of screwing up. Still, everyone's been patient and complimentary, and I think I'm keeping my head above water, having been tossed unceremoniously into the sea.

De Klerk Publishing occupies a two-story building in downtown Columbia, SC. The facilities are not grand, but they are comfortable. Inside is a creaky composite of corridors and rooms with previous lives still printed in their shapes and contents. A long un-vacuumed industrial carpet stained with decades of coffee and ink covers the irregular floor. The walls are hung with an eclectic assortment of sketches, orientalist paintings, original World War II posters, newspaper clippings and holographs of famous authors' work. Bookshelves line walls in every room downstairs and are stacked with hardbacks, loose paper in ragged piles, and other flotsam of composition and consumption (ancient bottles of soda, plastic flatware and plates). The furniture consists of mismatched chairs, tables and desks, staffed with mismatched intellectuals, mostly frustrated former academics rocking prayerfully in front of pairs of computer screens. With few exceptions, the female staff are either rather large or extremely thin, and the men are pale intellectuals. Almost everyone can be described as bookish, given to spouting odd literary and movie quotes. I have already discovered at least one K-drama addict, one of the two girls and the three people with whom I share an office.

I am the only one of the four editors that does not sport a full beard, as apparently facial hair denotes gravitas, the ability both to talk in measured serious tone about obscure authors and to use 15 syllable words appropriately and without sounding like a snob. I like the guys, even if I'm not a hirsute sage. We meet with De Klerk himself, a fierce, white-maned sexagenarian whose desk is respectably cluttered, every morning promptly at ten, reporting the latest developments and what we plan to accomplish during the day. He's always succinct, and such formal assemblies rarely last longer than 10 minutes. 

The only male of my officemates is a fellow editor--the two women in the room are from different divisions of the publishing process. I am surrounded by people for whom grammar, gambling, sex, trichotillomania, philology, and  dialectal materialism are all part of ordinary conversation. They type furiously and silently for hours, hum, curse, and burst into gales of laughter over the peculiar passages they are manipulating on their computers.

I am at an oak table just inside the door. Behind me sits a half-Korean girl in her early 20s, whose desk is decorated with Hello Kitty themed items, tiny model chickens, and a retro Japanese geisha bobble head. She hand-painted a poster of an anime panda for her wall, and displays the September page of a wildcat calendar...that features a donkey. She contends that the name of the donkey must be "Tiger". She talks daily about the tastiness of kimchi and the mental limitedness of her cat.

The other editor and the other woman sit at desks facing one another next to the window. On a table between them is a small Christmas tree decorated with Charlotte Panthers ribbons and blue candy canes and topped with a large ski glove (for high-fiving--daintily, lest the tree fall over--when the team wins). There is a football poster with a fellow clutching the ball in a peculiarly foreshortened arm on the wall behind the guy's desk. The woman is a former English graduate student with a mild adenoidal voice that maintains a pitiful affect even when she is swearing vigorously at her computer, which happens multiple times a day. I knew I'd like her when she described going to a concert and being battered by "pointy little elbows" when she found herself in a scrum of sorority chicks. Also, when we were talking about movies, she remarked, "John Malkevich has such scary eyes." I laughed and said that the guy I'd liked in college looked like a young John Malkevich, and he had scary eyes, too. "Was he a murderer?" she asked. "Not an active one," I replied, though it occurred to me that destroying someone's self-confidence was akin to homicide.

The second workweek, the day I received my first paycheck (joy!), we had a potluck in the breakroom. In lieu of a blessing (ours being a religiously secular establishment), a twiggy septuagenarian Scotswoman read the Burns poem "To a Haggis." She had prepared vegetarian and meat versions. I was relieved to see that the traditional sheep's guts encasing said entree had been replaced by plastic. They weren't bad, just a wee bit bland. Over lunch, I talked with the other editors and found that apparently there is a lot of afterhours drinking associated with editing, either as a result of the indescribably convoluted sentences with which academics present us or as part of the whole traditional "alcoholic writer" subculture. The grimness I'd attributed to some error on my part earlier in the week was in fact the result of a hangover.

My probationary period lasts through mid-April.

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