Q: How did you become a computer-hardware technician?
A: I had just graduated from college with an English degree and was panicking about where I’d find a job. My soon-to-be roommate had two friends that worked at a mail-order computer-supply catalog. I had no idea how I was going to find a job using my degree, so I figured I should follow every job lead. I also thought maybe I would have the opportunity to “advance” into the catalog-publishing side of the business. I know, so glamorous!
Q: Did you think you would do it long-term?
A: I figured it would be a decent job for a while, at least a way to pay the rent while I figured out how to establish myself in copyediting.
Q: What kind of training did you get?
A: My good friend Emily, who had earned an incredibly versatile degree in psychology, had also decided to pursue this opportunity. So we basically helped each other survive through two weeks of training, which was 40 hours a week in a little classroom, where we each had a computer and learned all about the inner workings of computer hardware.
Q: What kind of people were in the class?
A: The person that had the biggest impression on me was our instructor named Steve Earth, who was this small man who wore a suit every day, and had a gold hoop in his left ear. He was really patient and really nice, and he was one of those people who reveals his sense of humor very selectively.
Q: What were the classes like?
A: All day long we’d get lectures from our main instructor, Steve Earth, or people from the company would come in for a guest lecture. It was all about RAM and ROM and memory and motherboards and, basically, the inner workings of computers and all the peripherals. They’d show us the guts of computers a lot. I remember one day was special because some new, high-powered computer had just come on the market and we all had to file into this lab where they talked to us about how incredible this computer was and how it had the fastest Pentium processor yet. We’d take periodical quizzes that were administered over the computer. I don’t remember my performance on the quizzes, but I’m sure I didn’t do too well, because none of it ever stuck with me to this day.
Q: And after training, you started on the phones?
A: Yes, and it was pure agony. Because I was a newbie, I got a shift of 2:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. It was in a scary part of town where rumors of shootings at gas stations circulated, and there was no building or parking-lot security, and I was the only person walking to my car and feeling like I was going to be assaulted at any moment. Also, I didn’t know anything about computers, even after 80 hours of intense lecture.
I distinctly remember one exchange where a guy called me and told me he wanted the very best modem we offered. Great. I don’t know one modem from the other. So I was paging through the catalog in a panic, and he started getting the picture that I didn’t know anything about modems, and he started getting really mad and finally insisted I transfer him to someone who knew something about computers. I turned around and, thankfully, one of the obese computer-geek guys that were very helpful and patient with me took the call and then later told me that it was OK—some customers were just jerks. Basically, every call was some variation on that unless people knew exactly what they wanted, which was rare. It was just a stressful eight hours for me, and I dragged myself there for the two days I could stand it. I seriously have never had a job that made me that miserable before or since then.
Q: And so, after two days, you left?
A: Yes. I usually am very conscientious and leave behind rave reviews from whatever job I depart. But this one was so bad that two more weeks of this hell was totally inconceivable.
One day, before work, I was sitting around with my roommate and my friend Emily who also worked there (and equally hated it). Emily’s shift was an hour before mine, so we had mornings free to sit around and moan about how much we hated the job. My roommate had this cute little bowl sitting in our living room, full of these little cards called Angel Cards. Each card has an inspirational word on it, and you’re supposed to pick out a card every day and then live out the word, or some nonsense like that. I was joking and said that I needed to calm down about the job, and took a card saying that this was the attitude I would take with me to work that day. I looked at the card I had chosen, and it said “Surrender.” That was all I needed. I called work, told them I quit, they begged me to stay the two weeks, I said no, I would be more of a burden than a benefit to them, and finally got off the phone feeling completely liberated. Emily said, “Well, if you’re going to quit, then I am, too!” and she called them and did the same thing. We had to avoid phone calls from Steve Earth for the next two weeks. That was the one thing I felt bad about, and for years I lived in fear of running into Steve Earth.
Q: So you never ran into him?
A: No, I never did see him again.
Q: Would you ever recommend the job to someone else?
A: I guess I would if a person knew a lot about computers and couldn’t get a job actually working with computers. You could potentially make a decent living on the commission. I personally think taking mail orders would be mind-numbing, but if you need a job, then hey, who’s complaining? Except me, of course.