Friday, February 13, 2009

75 Varick

They sit at desks or stand around, sucking on Life Savers. The woman at the front who pointed me to check-in. The woman who verified my name and pointed me around the corner. The standing man who said, "Down the hall and to the left."

A haphazard group of adults, a focus group for nothing. We sat at several institutional tables with a gross of pencils at each end. 4099-Y yellow hexagon golf pencils. I thought this didn't seem to be the right kind of pencil for the occasion but someone must have thought the other way.

They had a little bit of trouble with the projector.

They showed a PowerPoint with a male voice dutifully narrating every last, bullet-pointed phrase, enunciating a bit too clearly, laboriously spelling out e-mail addresses and URLs.

There was the distribution of materials: some stapled, others merely collated. The taking of one and passing all the rest along. Thank you. Thanks. Job workshops and their descriptions: How to outclass the competition: turn a "No" into a "Yes." The 3 secrets of communicating with confidence. 5 traits of highly effective networkers. Sad printouts from the Web with all the links turned ghostly and inert. There was confusion regarding pages one and two. I had a two but not a one; others had a one but not a two. We played the game of requesting missing pages and acting satisfied when they were given.

A kindly, absentminded old lady took questions, if there were any. Someone in the back didn't get his benefits last week. We sat fidgeting with golf pencils. Some looked down into their laps as though they were introspecting deeply and despondently, the telltale pose of surreptitious BlackBerry or iPhone use.

There was a younger woman with dark hair. "You won't get credit for attending if I don't get your forms. Make sure I get your forms."

After some time there was a tremor of unrest. The old lady was talking to the man in back. She turned around to face the room with a lost and airy expression.

"Oh, you can all go. You can go now."

We gathered our handouts and got up. The rustling of coats, sliding of chairs and burble of elated small talk formed the familiar, elated cacophony of class dismissal.

The dark-haired woman appeared in the doorway with a clutch of papers.

"You can't go yet. No one can go yet. We're going to be calling names."

We sat back down with the chastened resignation of those who knew it must be too good to be true. Names were called.

"It ain't necessarily a bad thing if your name gets called," a black woman sitting next to me said to the woman across the table. "Sometimes it's like, there's something wrong on your benefits and you won't get more until they fix it." The other woman did not seem convinced. One by one they went.

A paunchy Hispanic man walked in to recite the list of names of that were not on the list.

"If I say your name, let me know you heard me. You're free to go."

He did not call my name. More were called by counselors, leaning through the door. I hung my head and read my phone. Eventually a young, black woman and an Englishman remained. She was a lawyer; he was in "finance." They chatted flirtatiously, ludicrously pledged to stay in touch, and wished each other luck. Finally, I was alone. They called my name.

Another older lady led me to her desk. I spent most of the time trying to tell her what I did.

"Project managing, for software products."

"Is that the Internet?"

"Yes, on the Internet. Products on the Internet."

"Do you call that e-commerce?"

It went like that for a quarter of an hour. I realized that my role was to make her feel like she was doing her job. I tried hard to think of things to say that might accomplish this. She printed out an editorial job description from some jobs site and I thanked her profusely. I asked her for the name of the site; she told me and I thanked her again. From a stack of papers on her desk, she found a faint Xerox of a job resource for writers and handed it to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And when I thought I'd finally made her happy I thanked her once again and left.