It was the start of a new semester, and I needed to buy books. I didn't really need them, as I bought less than half of them last year and came out ahead grades-wise. All the same, my parents thought it would be nice if I tried harder. This meant I needed money.
I worked for a temp agency, which was perfect for me. At the time, I was far too neurotic to work at one job for longer than three months, case in point being the time I almost got fired for making a catapult out of office supplies. You know those video cameras in public places? Someone actually watches those tapes. (They know what you did in the housewares aisle.)
The downside of working for a temp agency was that I never knew what sort of assignment I'd end up with. I could be waiting tables at a banquet, doing concessions at a sporting event, or trying to convince students they needed a credit card. I never took the last job, even if the only other option was “hobo bathroom attendant.” I have standards, after all.
For six months I was a hotel maintenance man for. I jury rigged toilets because the hotel in question never had the pieces to actually fix them; I once used a hammer, a penny, and some duct tape to fix a toilet while a guest watched. I'm pretty sure he never used the toilet again during his visit, finding it more comfortable and humane to squat over a Mountain Dew bottle.
At the same hotel I once got a call that there was a frog loose in the halls. A man - a sober man - informed me he could hear it croaking as it roamed. After making as thorough a search as I could, I told the man with a straight face that there were, quote, "No rogue amphibians on the premises." He slammed the door in my face.
(Does he still hear the frog in his dreams?)
At any rate, the job available to me when the semester started was assembling furniture for display at a big box store. The company didn't like using a temp agency, but their regular guy had quit under sudden circumstances, something that would have made a smarter man have his first doubt.
I did wonder what sort of man he was to make a career out of an inconvenient necessity. It’s like he was a professional shoestring threader, or the guy who always set up the tents on a camping trip.
He was a brave man, I learned.
My co-worker for the day was named Neil. Neil was a down on his luck violinist, talented but unable to find steady employment in his chosen field. Such is the lot of those in the arts. I knew what he did for a living - the same sorry shit I did - so I asked him if violin was his passion. He responded that he had a passion for survival, and said he'd do whatever it took.
I nodded and smiled without making eye contact, the same procedure I’d follow for an adult male silverback gorilla.
Most everyone has assembled cheap particleboard furniture before. There are incomprehensible instructions, missing and/or extra pieces, and diagrams drawn by the hand and eye disabled. Thankfully, I started with something simple, a coat rack.
Neil was stuck with a TV stand, one that lacked facing directions or labeled boards. It was the Gordian knot of furniture assembly, and my heart wept for him. All the same, I knew not to stand too close.
I had finished three pieces while Neil was still working on the TV stand. At the beginning of the day, I had heard him utter “goshdangit” when a board slipped; he was now working blue, and the only other people I've heard curse like that were war vet buddies of my dad.
I imagined the family that bought the same model of TV stand, and the inevitable conversations that would follow:
“Oh, just put your coats on the box in the corner. Roger assembled it.”
"Is it safe? Why is it leaning like that?”
“It was a TV stand, but he said something about not being able to find board C, and that slot A was where slot G should be.”
“That’s awful! Can it hold the TV?”
“Not even remotely. He glued it together and started to drink. He swears it’s post-modern commentary on furnishings.”
“That’s what we get for falling in love with academics.”
Neil went on to finish the TV stand - his Waterloo - and quit. Watching him slink out of the assembly room was somehow sadder than if he’d made a final, desperate scene.
I contemplated all the things that contributed to his break with employment: the irrationality of hexagonal bolts, and their attendant metal sevens; the glue that came pre-packaged with everything, but was never mentioned in the instructions; the fenced in cage we sat in to assemble furniture, like we were orcs toiling under Isengard.
To say we did the work of men is disingenuous; we were men, and we worked, but the job itself was fucking clown shoes.
I was thankful at the end of the day when I put my last coat rack together and got to leave. When I got home, I looked at all the furniture in my house. We were poor undergrads, so about half of it was the same stuff I had spent the day putting together.
Maybe I should tell you to buy quality, craftsman made furniture that will last decades instead of years; maybe I should tell you to be wary of people who work for temp agencies, as they're a piece of plywood away from tearing out your jugular with their teeth; maybe I should tell you to be more grateful when you see furniture displays at big box stores, and realize what sanity was lost in the construction.
However, I am definitely warning you not to sit on said furniture - the Gb Major scale and the subjunctive mood make for shit construction, and you will lose something vital.