The next year I decided to skip the index-card and classified-ad route. Instead, I went to a job-placement agency. They knew where all the good jobs were hiding, and for a small cut of my salary they would hook me up with something that fit my skills.
That’s how I ended up as a file clerk in a gothic cathedral of a bank in Old Montreal. Built when the city was still young, the bank was a classic monument to the riches of the British Empire back when it was still a real empire. Architecturally it was beautiful to look at. Unfortunately, I never got to look at it on the job because I was stuffed inside the world’s smallest, densest file room.
Once again, a kid with no references or experience was thrust into a situation that offered unlimited access to sensitive financial information. But this time it was on a scale so vast, I couldn’t even consider all the fraud possibilities. Here was an unsupervised room, with just a few underpaid workers, that contained the financial records for every major Canadian corporation you could think of. I could have rooted through the most intimate details of all their dealings with the bank if I so wished. I didn’t, however, because it all looked so damn boring.
The thing about this bank was that their filing system was a complete mess. Most of it hadn’t been computerized yet, because the idea of trying to put all that old data on disc must have made the building of the pyramids seem like a diverting engineering whim. Instead, what they were going to do was overhaul the filing system. New folders were brought in by the truckload, and with them, colourful alphabetizing labels. The suit-and-tie peons would be required to sign files out instead of coming in randomly, taking what they wanted, and screwing up the system.
The filing room was hot as a furnace, and the only air circulation came from a giant fan that roared like the engine of a Cessna and cooled exactly one square foot of floor space. If you weren’t standing in that exact sweet spot, you were screwed. To remedy this situation, I took to the filing overhaul project with gusto. Whenever there was a free moment, I would grab an armful of files and disappear into one of the available boardrooms to make new folders and labels. And I got to do this with a charming co-worker from the Maritimes who already had a boyfriend I was hoping she’d split up with in a timely fashion.
In the board room, we would chit-chat about music and pop culture and the incredibly high auto-fatality statistics in the Maritime provinces. We would also gossip about the third file-room clerk who we both disliked. This clerk was a weird chick, considerably older than us, who held multiple jobs. By day she was a bank file clerk, but by night she was one of those creepy people who wander into restaurants and bug customers to buy flowers from them. With her various jobs keeping her busy at all hours, the only time she had to sleep was at her bank job. She would sneak off to the basement where all the old files in deep storage were kept, and sleep for hours in a nest she had made for herself among the boxes in the back, away from prying eyes. All of her duties would fall on our shoulders for the duration, and we resented her for it.
But there was one duty our sleepy co-worker wouldn’t trust us with. The photocopy machine was her domain alone. As far as she was concerned, no one else was qualified to operate it. In a brilliant twist of irony, it was the photocopy machine that precipitated her downfall. She was so determined to man it alone, she was discovered sleeping face-down on it one day. Within the hour we were informed that she was no longer an employee of the bank. A number of euphemisms were bandied about, but we finally made the middle-management executioner admit she’d be fired. It was music to our ears. We liked her replacement much better, even though there were serious communication issues.
The replacement clerk only spoke French and we only spoke English. Charming girl was unilingual because she grew up in the Maritimes. I was unilingual because I’m a bit of a fucking imbecile and never really learned to speak the language despite five years of French immersion and a bilingual certificate that claims, quite falsely, that I can. Nevertheless we managed to train her in the intricacies of the file room through a series of ape-like gestures and primitive sign language. We told her nothing of the filing system overhaul. We kept that perk for ourselves.
Progress with the overhaul was slow but steady, and I could see it really making a difference in the file room. It gave me a sense of accomplishment that had been lacking in my previous job. Slowly, the newer files were becoming a visible presence in the system. Things were easier to find. I firmly believed that by the end of the summer, I could have the entire Mount Everest of paperwork whipped into shape and arranged in an orderly fashion.
I was so pleased with my accomplishment, it didn’t even bother me that much when I found out my co-workers were getting eight dollars an hour compared to my five-fifty. My placement agency had been quietly siphoning off two dollars and fifty cents an hour from my paycheck without me realizing it. I’d known they were collecting a certain percentage, but not a pimp-daddy amount.
With great chagrin, I learned a few days later that my favourite co-worker was leaving the bank. Charming Girl and her accursed interfering boyfriend were moving out of their apartment and would be seeking new jobs in a new town. I would be left with no one to talk to (conversation with the other girl was still at a flea-picking primate level) and no one to date after her protracted high-school romance came to its inevitable end. Once her notice was handed in, I counted the days until her departure with growing sadness. What I didn’t know is that I’d be following her out the door.
With Charming Girl leaving, and our overseer boss increasingly fobbing off her file-system responsibilities, the middle-management executioner was given dominion over the file room. The day he took over, I was called into the boardroom for a private meeting.
The filing-system overhaul project was dead, I was told. From now on, I would be working in the file room and nowhere else. Other parts of the riot act that were read to me involved being stripped of any and all freedoms and responsibilities I had managed to collect for myself. Even my lunch hour, taken whenever I judged things were slow enough to go eat, was to be set at a fixed and inconvenient time that assured the afternoon shift would be long and tedious. Things were going to be very different now that a new master was in charge. This much he made very clear.
He had my letter of resignation, effective immediately, the next morning.
The replacement clerk expressed her great sadness that she was losing both her co-workers on the same day — just not in words, since we wouldn’t have understood. We all knew she was screwed. She was too new and untrained to know how to find much of anything in the file room, and the bank’s ability to function must have been severely compromised the moment we walked out the door for the last time.
We took the train home, Charming Girl and I, said our goodbyes, and never saw each other again. Although she came to mind from time to time for years after, my thoughts about this period of my life tended to dwell on a different aspect of the job entirely…
Boy did that placement agency screw me.
Lesson learned. If someone is going to claim a piece of your salary, make them earn it.