It was just another 3 PM sugar break. at the time it seemed like no biggie: Rhonda often stopped in at lotto- Donut-Pizza for her afternoon Skittles fix. I'd been working there a couple of months, having replaced Fred, who'd quit to go hawk cell-phones. At first I assumed I'd use the job the same way Fred had: give people their candy, condoms, and Coke, and, in return, eavesdrop on their office politics. Then, when I heard a lead on a good job in the Flonkey Building — Keith gave notice, Amber is pregnant, Bob just got canned — I'd pounce. But after a couple of months, something weird happened. I realized I was . . . happy. I was Counter Person. I rang up orders of HoHo's and Slim Jims, Smartfood and KitKats. I kept up with my magazine reading. I could tell a fresh candy bar from a stale one, just by feeling the wrapper.
I was chewing Hot Tamales and daydreaming about creating my own Web site (www.counterperson.com), when Rhonda appeared and mentioned a going-away party for one of her office buds — that night, her apartment, and could I bring some goodies? No problem, I said, Who's gonna be there? I wanted to customize the order, because that's how Counter Person does things. Almost all my regular customers would be there, it turned out.
I showed up with a grocery bag full of things I knew they liked. I got to Rhonda's about a half hour late (I was on schedule, but Holdup Person had a gun this time), and they were all sitting in a circle. A little Quakerish for a going-away party, I thought, but I didn't stop to think what it could mean.
I had emptied my bag of treats and was starting to feel a little sluggish (it'd been hours now since my last Big Gulp), when Rhonda announced, "This isn't really a going-away party - "
" - it's about your job," said Fred, my tattooed predecessor. "Time to move on."
"I don't understand."
"OK! This is a Dysfunctional Job Intervention," Rhonda blurted out. "What you're doing does not constitute work! No one with a pulse could find what you do satisfying unless - "
" - you're an addict," said Fred. "Hooked. Face up to it."
"It is work," I said, too loudly.
"It's a paycheck," said Spud, the CEO and founder of PotatoWare, some kind of software shop. "It's not work."
"Hey, look, I got no overtime. I got no office politics. I can even say 'got' instead of 'have' without feeling self-conscious. Every day is casual day — I can just grab something from the dirty clothes bin."
"You're making our point for us," said Rhonda gently. "Let me ask you this: What do you spend your paycheck on?"
"Corn dogs," I said.
My words hung like a cardboard Budweiser display suspended from the ceiling.
Then, high on sugar, my tongue studded with canker sores, my hair and clothes reeking of oil from the deep-fat fryer, I saw that I wasn't the only one with a Dysfunctional Job Addiction. These people were hanging on to jobs for all the wrong reasons: Because of the free parking space. Because Fridays are half days — because the boss golfs that afternoon. The excuses were endless, and I'd heard them all when I worked as Counter Person. Notice that I said "worked." Because I had already quit Lotto-Donut-Pizza. In my mind, I was already the CEO of DJI —Dysfunctional Job Interventions — the consulting firm for the dysfunctionally addicted worker.
I could see it all: the infomercial, the seminars, the audiotapes, the book, and even the bumper sticker: "It's not a job — it's in convenience!"
This is episode two of "Working Behind Enemy Lines," the Spy's continuing adventures of the new world of work. Next episode: From intervention to interview — the Spy's great leap backward. Stay tuned!
A version of this article appeared in the December 1997/January 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.