Fish Bowl

The annals of temping.
  June 10, 2004

I got a temp assignment photocopying supersensitive documents at a financial trading outfit on the forth floor of a building in Chelsea—let's call the place Lucrex.  Not surprisingly, the documents are supersensitive because they are devoted to money; they tell you who at Lucrex made how much of it and when.  The company is a democratic kind of place; a college grad with a salary of $45,000 sits right next to an energetic motor mouth of a trader with a salary of $100,000 and bonuses upward of a million.  They share the same long desks arranged under halogen lights inside a spacious, borderless room.  I and a fellow temp, by contrast, have been enclosed in an adjacent conference room with glass walls that allow us to look in on the traders as we sift through the records of their wealth.  Sometimes we connect a name with a face.

“There are some very attractive women in this office,” Fred, the other temp, remarked to me.

I can only agree.  Watching the attractive women through the glass has been relieving my boredom, easing the strain inflicted on my eyes by the computer screen, and focusing my crumbling attention.  I believe it also has helped my circulation.

The discomforts of the job include air made stuffy by the recent hot weather and lack of an air conditioning vent.  Flouting the demands of secrecy, I keep our door wide open to let the cool air from the main office come in.

The lack of privacy can be discomforting, too.  The computer guy who set up our network connection grinned at me and said, “So, you like the fish bowl?”

“The what?” I asked.

“This room,” he explained.  “We call it the fish bowl.”

Which makes me and Fred a pair of fish, I suppose, observed just as we are observing.  Two curious goldfish swimming in paper.

The worst thing about this job is having to go hungry.  On Monday, when I received the call asking me to do the assignment, my bank account was down to three dollars and sixty cents.  A check I recently wrote to the tax authorities covering a monthly installment of the large sum I owe them had just bounced.

No money in the bank means I have to buy meals with the twenty five dollars that the examination of my wallet had produced on Monday morning.  My credit cards are maxed out.  It's a minor, temporary hassle, but when I'm hovering over a photocopier with a rumbling stomach, acutely aware of the slow passage of time, it grows enormous.

Yesterday, someone left half a chicken sandwich on the table in the dining area.  It was wrapped in foil and wax paper, cross-section exposed, laid out on a white plastic plate.  The table sits in the way from the Fish Bowl to the nook containing the copy machine and the men's room; therefore, I had to pass the sandwich dozens of times that day.  It appeared on the table around one fifteen in the afternoon, right after I took a leak.  It was plump and obviously expensive, shelled in a pesto tortilla with red and white speckled sauce oozing bountifully from between thick cubes of meat.  When whole, it had cost at least eight dollars, I surmised as crumpled singles cowered in my wallet.  Possibly ten or more.

Passing back and forth by the table, I cast furtive glances at the plate.  It was a tricky affair, for I was ashamed to betray too much interest in food that, apparently, no one around me found inviting enough to eat.  The longer it sat in the warm air, I reasoned miserably, the less appetizing it grew in the public mind and the less acceptable my interest became.  In an opposite trend, my hunger increased with time.  The combination was mildly sadistic, although I could find no one to blame.

From my stand at the photocopier, I could see the silver of the wrapping foil some ten feet away, glimmering against the room full of gaping faces.  From my seat in the Fish Bowl, the line of sight terminating in the sandwich passed by the desk of an attractive trader named Allison; after a while, Allison started returning stares that had not been addressed to her at all.

It was interesting to observe the changes in the sandwich's appearance as hours passed.  Its formerly plump form began to sag, flattened by gravity; gravity also drew out a small pool of sauce that extended across the plate like the tip of a coated tongue.  It spread and widened from about two to about four in the afternoon.  Then some kind of an internal equilibrium was reached; the sauce stopped expanding and started congealing.

People's constant passing by the table, some even noticing the plate, made me tense at first, but as the day dragged on I relaxed.  Towards six o'clock it became clear that the only rival I might face was the Mexican cleaning lady, over whom I had the advantage of being first on the scene.

By six forty five, fifteen minutes before the start of the cleaning shift, I made my move.  The trading floor had emptied out an hour earlier.  A few late workers still buzzed in the side offices but they paid little attention to me, and my target was almost concealed from their view by its proximity to the alcove with the office kitchenette.  As I came out of the restroom, I turned into the alcove and made a show of washing my hands.  While drying them, I turned around and scanned the terrain; no one seemed to be paying attention.  Emerging into plain view, I quickly approached the table, grabbed the plate and retreated back into the alcove.  The maneuver took no more than five seconds to execute.

I planned to carry the sandwich outside, find a place to sit down, and degust in peace.  To make my exit inconspicuous, I wrapped the sandwich in a double layer of paper towels (protection against leaking and staining), then walked with this bundle to the Fish Bowl and stuffed it into my messenger bag under Fred's incurious stare.

“Well, I'm off,” I told him cheerfully.

“So long,” he said, and with that I stepped into the elevator, went down, went out.

I walked to Union Square, sweating and cursing myself for not grabbing a complimentary bottle of water from the office pantry.  Along the way, I stopped by the bank; the machine showed my account as empty as it was when I checked it in the morning.

There was no place to sit down without paying except the long steps on the square, across which the usual crowds swarmed, encouraged by the receding heat.  The steps were warm from the sun.  I found a place out of the way, by the subway entrance, and sat with my back to a group of students playing hackey sack.  Someone behind me was smoking a cigarette; flakes of white ash floated in the breeze.  For a moment, I was reluctant to take out my loot; a tiny feeling of shame lingered, like a fart carried into another room in the bottom of one's pants.

I took the bundle out, unwrapped the towels and for the first time, examined it up close.  The sauce managed to eat into the frayed creases of the wax paper, and the surface of the chicken cubes exposed to air lost its creamy whiteness, becoming dull yellow.  It still smelled delicious.

I raised my head and looked around.  I was surrounded on all sides by people; the faces and sounds were blurring into a single stream, flowing around me like rippling water.  There was nothing, no one, aware of my presence.  In the crowd my petty indignity became anonymous, lost its focus and slowly dissolved.  I leaned into the sandwich and took a big bite.

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