Wednesday, August 18, 2010


When I was working for the City of Portland in the Nineties, every time I moved to a new clerical desk, I got a 3-ring binder with a set of dividers and created a new desk book. I left the one for the previous desk to the person who switched into that position. Clericals were supposed to be interchangeable, but actually each desk handled a slightly -- sometimes radically -- different set of procedures and relationships. In the worst job, a department run by a woman named Nancy, the boss was so insecure that she changed the rules all the time, couldn’t remember what she had already told us, and blamed us for everything that went wrong. One of the city commissioners asked if Nancy could be required to take Valium as a job prerequisite. (Not.) A super-complex system that had developed like kudzu actually amounted to job security because no one else could understand it. Much of the job was referring people to other departments, so I put all that information in my desk book. Then the others asked for copies. When I left, Nancy went around, collected all the desk books, and threw them out. A few people were alert enough to hide theirs. I’m quite sure she was related to Dilbert’s pointy-headed boss.

Then I transferred into being the cashier for the contractor permit center where the booming city was overrunning the supply of inspectors and clericals. The cashiers handled quite a lot of money. Two women shared the job so there would be no gap at lunch time and also, I suppose, so that the likelihood of skimming money would be less. I was replacing a former minister’s wife, a gentle soul. (He divorced her so he could marry his church secretary -- not at all an unusual event.) She was highly conscientious but easily confused. She had not been able to balance her cash drawer at the end of the day in time to go home to supper, so the management solution had been to allow her to keep two drawers: one being used and one being balanced. This only increased the confusion, so she had grown increasingly desperate until her doctor made her quit. It took me two days to figure out her system and get rid of that extra drawer.

The other cashier was a woman I called the Texas Mermaid. Actually, her name was Joy. But her long hair was crimped until it floated in all directions and she had a deeply honeyed accent. I’m pretty sure she was making money off some of the rougher contractors during her lunch break. Since she never got any lunch, she brought in a big tray of greasy steaming food to eat at the cashier counter, slopping soup here and there. I banned that and luckily the actual manager -- who had a soft spot for her since she’d been beaten up by a “boy friend” and the manager and his wife were active in an organization for opposing violence against women -- this time backed me up.

A statuesque blonde with a voluptuous mouth, she had previously been working in the water department on the street, flagging or actually digging or raking asphalt, but mysterious fights broke out around her so someone had the bright idea of putting her behind the cashier counter. She kept the combination to the safe taped to the wall above the safe because she couldn’t remember it. When I took it down, she was genuinely in terror and protested that I would get her killed because someone was sure to come in with a gun to hold us up and she would be too scared to open the safe, so she would be shot. The safe was so balky that even WITH the combination it didn’t always open. I asked for a security camera or a panic button, but it was considered unnecessary.

I always expected to open the newspaper and read that Joy’s naked body had been found half-burned in a dumpster in some remote clearing in the West Hills. At the time exactly that was happening now and then. (The Portland Chamber of Commerce will not give you this information.) In the end she was found dead in her former boyfriend’s bed. He had been gone for several days and had not invited her, but evidently she had never surrendered the key. At least that was his story. I never heard the autopsy report. She was in her thirties. I never thought of her as a drug user, except maybe pot.

Some young male bright light convinced the Bureau head that we needed to update and that he could convert our computer system though he had no real training and had never done it before. Two or three parallel systems on different operating platforms meant three screens had to be reconciled in order to record a payment for a permit. For two days we worked with the equivalent of muffin tins since this guy, in spite of staying overnight at least once, couldn’t make the transactions record reliably. Money and permits were in piles everywhere. In the end we simply declared every permit issued in that time frame to be paid, regardless of whether it was or not. This confused people who came to pay for their permit and were told it had already been paid, but they didn't protest.

By this time I was as addled as the computer and there were supposed to be two cashiers anyway. We struck gold. A tiny brunette woman, married to a long-time Marine boot camp officer and trained overseas by a German bank, came in like a blitz of precision. In short order, she had designed a form for balancing the money, established dependable routines, sterilized and organized the cashier’s booth, and become my savior. OUR savior. Happily, I put it all in my three-ring binder.

One page was always devoted to “the rhythm of the day.” To me it was one of the most important factors. The preparation before the doors open, what happened when the door actually opened so people rushed in, when the most likely first lull might come, and so on through the surprisingly regular surges of demand and slack. Then the best sequence of sorting, computing, securing and closing up after everyone else left. One day after another went quickly and smoothly. The manager had nothing much to do with it, but he was grateful since it preserved his job.

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