Located in an imposing high-rise, on a block that's home to a number of historic landmarks, in a burg whose downtown is a permanent fixture on the syllabus of urban-design classes across the nation, lurks the wave of the present. The rent-a-cop in the lobby, sitting next to the rented fichus, filing the ends of her unabashedly temporary press-on nails, is the first clue to what's going on upstairs: temployment.
In the wink of a false eyelash we've gone from an economy where diamonds were forever to an economy where cubic zirconium is a defining industry. Temporary is the growth sector of the '90s. Manpower Inc. employs more people than GM — the big dog of work in the days when job security wasn't as quaint a concept as homemade Christmas presents. Even more old-fashioned, GM harbored this weird notion that it should actually make something. Manpower makes ... what? Arrangements? Fill-ins? Try-outs? Temps.
They litter the workplace like Styrofoam cups; every city has a dozen or more : Acuntemp, TempJob, SecTemp, TempTechie —the names are to the temporary economy what Soft and Net and Web are to the techie economy. I find my local TempWorld on the Web and make an appointment.
When I arrive for my two-hour skills evaluation, there's no one in the waiting area — a row of flimsy rental chairs lined against an unadorned wall painted Unemployment Office Ecru except a furrow-browed Xer-cum-child. The has the dark snappy eyes, and long pinched nose of a child's pet whose destiny is to be buried in the backyard. He's filling out a form pinned to a clipboard. Beneath the chair beside him lies the child, an over-bundled toddler with light blond curls.
Sheila, all of 24, scurries out from her cubicle, elbows pumping, more like a burger joint hostess than the "talent liaison" she calls herself. She wears Prada green dress. Round of face, eye, and hip, she's adorable.
The Xer looks at me and explains, "My wife's a lawyer. I tried to do the stay-at-home-dad-thing ... Evan, stand up." He tells me he has an MBA, and that he's been temping on and off for a year. The problem is, temp-work is perma-hell.
"It's like being a substitute teacher," he says. "You get the feeling that everyone in the office is changing their names just to screw you up. At one place I had to page an Abby Loney over the loud speaker. And they talk about stuff right in front of you, like you're the maid or something — who's having an affair with who, who's filched how much out of petty cash, everything. At an electronics firm I was at once everyone kept calling me Chris. The secretary told me they called all their temps Chris. That way they never have to bother to learn your name."
I counsel him to look at the Bigger Picture. The advantage of being a temp is that at least you know your job is temporary. Permanent employment is only an illusion. No one on our astral plane has a permanent position — it's just that some positions are merely less temporary than others.
"Chris" considers this; his son tears subscription cards out of a magazine.
Another talent liaison named Wendy pops up from behind her cubicle, and bustles over. Wendy herds me into her cubicle, and offers me a folding chair beside her full-metal desk. Before she can start down her list of prefab questions, I lay out a few of my own.
"What, exactly, does it take to be a talent liaison?"
"That's a good question," she responds, perkily. "I think it's a matchmaking instinct. I was always setting up my friends with my brothers in high school. It's sorta the same thing."
"Discovering people's skills — people don't even know they know how to do something —and setting them up with the right client. I got a girl from England a job as a receptionist based on her accent. The company wanted the right voice to answer the phone. Then they made her permanent."
"A temp permanent? Is she still permanent? Or was it really temporary?"
"The company went out of business," she shrugs. "Permanently."
I ask if Wendy had ever been a temp, and she looks offended at the question.
"Actually," she laughs, "I don't think I could ever be a temp. Let's just say, I don't have the right personality."
"You don't enjoy being one paycheck away from a shopping cart?"
"Sorta," she snorts.
On my way out, I pass Chris as he's wrestling his son's arm into the sleeve of his jacket. I wish him luck.
He looks at me with the eyes of a seeker. "How is Long-Term Temporary Employment different from Short-Term Permanent Employment?" he asks.
Ah, grasshopper, now you have begun the journey.
The Spy is a novelist and Zen master in the Pacific Northwest.
A version of this article appeared in the Dec 1996/Jan 1997 issue of Fast Company magazine.