Photo by Daniel Oines
There’s no real sorrow in this account. I wasn’t working the red light district, nor had I become a Mole Person. I wasn’t destitute or physically mistreated. I was a recent college graduate, holding an entry-level position as a paralegal at a personal injury firm in East Midtown, Manhattan.
In fact, with everyone talking about the recession, I felt very fortunate when I heard I’d gotten the job. Loan-ridden, I had found work right after graduating. Back then I also planned on attending law school eventually, and paralegal work—sort of like hazing– is a rite of passage into this realm.
I worked in the Birth Defects department. A few weeks in, the attorneys gave us our first big assignment: to “code” thousands of documents on the computer. We had to look at digital scans of the papers that the defense attorneys had produced, and enter some basic information: the date of the document, its author, the type of document, and so on. This process was called “coding”.
When coding became intolerable, the lawyers suggested we switch to entering case information into a program called “LawBase”. This project required the same type of work that coding did. That is, it called for your full attention because you had to record a series of details in a database, while sapping all critical thought. We worked on both assignments from 9AM to 5PM, with an hour in between to eat lunch. Every few days we received emails from our bosses, asking for progress reports.
Well, my coworkers liked to say that we had the “best real estate in the office”– meaning that unlike the other paralegals, we had a window. Outside this window was a gray, rundown hotel staring back at us. But it was still a portal to the outside world; I’d spend minutes on end watching the rooms across the way. Now and then there’d be a naked-body-sighting. Often kids would notice us, and wave, amused. Mostly I’d see guests come out onto their balcony and look around, their faces falling a little at the view, before quickly going back inside.
After a month in the office, my boss, the founding partner of the firm, asked me, “So, do you feel as though you’ve died and gone to heaven?”
Phillip wasn’t being ironic and I even felt he harbored a kind of pompous affection for me. He was simply so engaged in his own work that he didn’t realize the ingenuity required in an hour of his day was alien to our tiny world down the hall. But pure intentions aside, his comment was my introduction to the lawyers’ utter detachment from their Support Staff.
His wife, also a partner, was another matter. Elaine was petite and clearly attended her Pilates classes diligently, with well-behaved brown hair and a permanent snarl resting on her upper-lip. She barked orders, interrogated us about our use of time, and the notion of positive reinforcement seemed unheard of to her. Not once in nine months did I hear praise for my work, nor did I hear it for my coworkers, who actually deserved it.
Amidst the coding and the window-gazing and the LawBasing, I could feel the toll the office was taking on my body. I was doing Taekwondo twice a week, and probably that helped slow the decay. But exercise cannot erase the physiological harm of sitting still eight hours a day, five days a week. Gradually, this lifestyle perverted my whole outlook on food; I could feel that every morsel I put into my mouth was not turning into energy, but sinking fast to my rapidly expanding thighs.
And yet, I have never been exposed to more sweets, or craved sweets more, than when I worked at the firm. Such food became an obsession and I was not alone. Candy and cupcakes and cookies were passed around the office like illicit, sultry substances that could briefly pull you out of your stupor with the rush of sugar to your brain, before they wore off and dragged you lower than you had been.
The sucrose frenzy was even institutionalized. The office management had created “Cookie Friday,” which meant that at 3 PM every Friday, people would start compulsively refreshing their work email, waiting for the notice: “Treats in the Kitchen.” Oddly enough, Cookie Friday only occurred about two thirds of the time, and completely erratically, so that one could never tell whether Friday afternoon was going to be a huge letdown or a cookie triumph.
Lawyers very rarely showed up for Cookie Friday, and partners never did. We’d pass by their offices in giddy hordes, climbing to the second floor kitchen where the treats awaited. It was quite clear that the trough of McDonalds cookies, or Entenmann’s donuts, (or, for very special occasions, Junior’s cheesecake), was for the Support Staff. It felt belittling that this ritual was our compensation for lousy pay, lousy treatment, and lousy work; and yet somehow it felt worse whenever the lousy sweets were withheld. I was told of glory days– when instead of cookies, management sometimes served ice cream sundaes—told by paralegals who had been there for over a decade.
Nobody with whom I spoke among the Support Staff, and I mean nobody, liked his or her job. Their discontent surfaced in the meaningless exchanges–social niceties– that humans always grant each other. The most common small talk was for one person to say the day of the week in the day-appropriate format, and for others to nod, mutter, or chime their agreement.
For instance, Monday was clearly: “Moondaaaaaay….” A beat. “Yuuup.” Tuesday was similar but maybe with a sigh, to show we had survived Monday. Wednesday was “Hump Day”, meaning that it had been an arduous climb until now, when things were going to get easier. Because on Thursday, it was “almost Friday!” and Friday was, well, you know, “Thank God it’s Friday.” We lived our entire lives waiting for the two precious days away from work. Although really it was just the one precious day, because everyone knew that “Sunday blues,” caught up with you, in anticipation of Monday. Our unrest, however, stayed within the confines of petty dialogue. Perhaps corn syrup had become our opiate.
The proactive response in my situation would have been to apply to other more dynamic jobs with comparable salaries. I did apply to a few teaching positions. But more to the point—somehow applying felt hard. When I arrived home most days I just wanted to get in bed. Sometimes I’d watch a movie, or, if the computer screen were too harsh, I’d simply lie there. I stopped reading during those nine months, and I definitely stopped writing.
Distantly, I was fairly certain something was happening to me. So that when I’d ask other young and miserable paralegals why they’d been there for the last three years, their answers were never entirely convincing. Often they cited the recession.
But I began to realize that the hamster wheel into which we’d all fallen had little to do with the job market and much more to do with an epidemic of malaise afflicting the Support Staff. Just as your muscles begin to atrophy from lack of use in this work environment, so does your brain. Round and round we went, rote and full.
And yet, my story ends, or perhaps I should say begins, happily. I paid off the worst of my loans and my mother said she could afford to cover my health insurance for a few months. So, shedding my anxiety over my failure to stick with it, or first secure a new job to hop into, I quit.
As word spread that I had given my notice, other paralegals began coming up to me to confirm the news, shake my hand, and give me the first genuine smile I’d seen on their faces in nine months. I was staging a prison-break and my fellow inmates were in full support.
Around that time, Elaine surprised me by waving me down as I passed in the hall. “Congratulations,” she said with a smile, “I’m sure whatever you end up doing will be far more interesting and challenging than what you’ve been doing here.” And with that, she walked off.
I think of the rest of my former colleagues now, mostly in their early or mid-twenties. I know some got out. Sharon had a beautiful, healthy baby and went on maternity leave. Chris got into law school, and left. One lucky girl was fired and is now bartending in the Slope. There must be others. But for those who stayed, one image sticks with me: Friday has hit, and the afternoon wears on. Slowly, those in the Support Staff rouse. They throw out lunch’s leftovers, re-apply lip balm, and straighten their backs. Now screens have started flickering– LawBase to email, email to LawBase. Together, they wait for Entenmann’s to herald the freedom of the weekend.