Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Why I Should Have Read Ivanhoe

My uncle, the CIA agent, had offered to get me a job at The Agency. "I can pull some strings," my uncle had told me, "but you have to read the classics." I was 13 at the time, and already my chance for success was "50-50 at best, and steadily going downhill." I was wasting my summer reading "Earthly Paradise" by Colette when I hadn't even started the book he'd assigned weeks before. I never did read "Ivanhoe."

          And so, here I am, more than 30 years later, at the door of The Agency, proving my uncle right.

          I'm asked to take a seat, someone will be with me shortly. Because the row of metal chairs is empty, I choose a seat in the exact middle. To sit at one end or the other might indicate an extreme personality and I want to convey neither shrinking violet nor pit bull. Why not keep 'em guessing?

          The walls are painted a grayish mauve, which was big in the '90s, suggesting they may once have been on the cutting edge, but no more, and the eggshell finish indicates that the walls can be easily wiped down.

          Hanging on these walls and visible from every cubicle are large framed posters depicting various animals that are supposed to illustrate key words in bold print, such as: Attitude, Success, Achievement, Motivation

          For my interview, I've selected a big, ugly black cotton dress from L.L. Bean. I used to wear it over my bathing suit when I'd take kids from the autism summer program to the pool; it's the only dress in my closet. My green sandals are very dark and almost pass for black. My toenails are turquoise blue and clearly a problem, but less problematic than, say, a neck tattoo or an eyebrow piercing. In fact, my eyebrows are plucked to perfection, groomed but lush.  Not too lush. Too lush isn't good.

          A friendly stick figure with frosted hair (and a suspicious cartilage piercing) directs me to a white room with six identical white desks, each outfitted with a white pen personalized with the agency logo. Stick hands me a stack of booklets and papers to fill out and leaves me alone with a Caucasian male, mid-20s, slight build, who wears a blue suit and has an Afro. His desk is shaking and at first I worry that he's masturbating, but it's just his knees shaking. I have an urge to start laughing diabolically, because he's my competition. Instead, I just smile and we nod at one another, each convinced of our own superiority.

          I fill out a W2 form and complete a lengthy questionnaire for medical coverage before crossing it out and writing DECLINE in big, block letters and underlining it twice. The medical insurance costs only $30 per week, but there is a $5,000 deductible and it appears to cover only a small amount after the deductible is met. There are time sheets in triplicate, an agency application form, a reference form, and an agency handbook I don't even bother opening.

          By the time I'm ready to be tested, the white guy is already in the testing room, transfixed before a blank computer screen. He tells Stick his machine has crashed. She asks if he tried using the back arrow, so he clicks on it over and over. Stick makes a clucking sound, the universal cluck of disapproval, and Afro starts up with his legs again.

          The typing test is first. I skip the warm-up and dive right into testing, which is a mistake, because right away I am distracted by the copy.

"In today's world, workers cannot expect to find job security.  Gone are the days when we can hope to work for one company all our lives, until we retire. In this fast-paced, highly competitive marketplace, our jobs are always in danger. The best way to secure your position is to make yourself invaluable, and the best way to become invaluable is to be early and always strive to do your best and learn new skills that can be transferred to different positions. Don't be afraid to ask for more responsibility..."

          Am I sweating? Did I just mutter an expletive under my breath? Did Afro crack a smile?

          Stick resets my computer so that I can retake the test.  She says, "No problem" in a way that clearly asks "Are you fucking kidding me?"

          This time I blast my way through the typing test by ignoring all the booby traps and scary images the text conjures up. I regard myself as a Man on a Mission, a Man Who Takes No Prisoners, a Man with Fixity of Purpose. I will not read what I type, I can get the job done, and I do.

          Next is the alpha- part of the alpha-numeric data entry test. The NumLock is on and I realize halfway through that I've been keying in jibberish because the delete key is making numbers.

          I logout of the system the way Stick did, inputting her password, and get back in to retake the test with no one the wiser.  White Man probably couldn't do that. I'm practically a hacker.

          The numeric part of the test is so boring that I just keep on till I time out, even though I must have made mistakes.  It's not like I'm actually going to do numeric data entry for a living.

          The Microsoft Word test is sneaky. There are at least three ways to complete any task but only one correct answer. Without fail, my answer is wrong. I wonder if the agency takes such nuance into consideration. Couldn't it be seen as an asset, the ability to  solve problems in unconventional ways?  True, I don't have the foggiest idea how to locate a template, or set up a spreadsheet, nor do I have a burning desire to do so. So I click Next, over and over, without even answering most of the questions, and complete the test in record time.

          Turns out I type 78 words per minute without errors, which is "impressive," but my numeric data entry was "off the chart," with no errors. I'm a numeric data entry savant. These Agency tests really pinpoint my untapped strengths. Who knew my hidden talent would be numeric data entry? It more than makes up for my questionable word processing skills and the blue toenails.

          I can't describe the person who interviewed me or what we discussed, not because I signed an oath of secrecy, but because I'm afraid she might read this by mistake. Although I can't imagine why anyone would  bother investigating a data-entry genius. Maybe it's the perfect cover.

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