Slumming Through Cubicles

by Bill Tuomala

At times my writing seems to be slipping into the dreaded "hobby" niche. Being beholden to the Midwestern Work Ethic, I feel that if I'm not knee-deep in a writing project it means I'm not working. Plus I have been going through long stretches where I don't generate much for writing ideas, especially of the personal essay and/or popular culture varieties that permeate this zine. For kicks I sometimes dive into the jottings I have on my daydream projects as I still feel the need to dream about big things. Because while I have fulfilled my dream of becoming a writer, I still need writer's dreams. And because I haven't been feeling like a writer day in and day out like I used to, I've been looking back on the days when writing burned in my mind always and when ideas came to me from all angles. I've been looking back at the time when I slummed as an accounting temp.

The jobs were almost always in downtown Minneapolis. The dress code was generally business casual, meaning khakis and a collared shirt. I would get there by eight, leave at five, and have an hour away from the office for my brown bag lunch with the newspaper. I took the bus to and from work, which gave me another forty minutes a day to read. I showed up at an office and they gave me a stack of paperwork, numbers, and spreadsheets. Invariably, any of my given temporary assignments was scheduled for a month and invariably I'd be asked to stay much longer at that location. This was because being underemployed made me look like some sort of star hitter playing Double A in a rehab assignment and they'd find more work for me. So I worked away in my cubicle with my transistor radio on and sipped the lousy-but-free office coffee, observing and listening while Corporate America ground on. It was the perfect cover for coming up with ongoing writing that I found so much fun. I took cheap shots at the corporate life from the perspective of a disillusioned outsider, while also throwing in commentary on popular culture, sports, and whatever else was on my mind. (This duration covered The Wyman Weekly and the first couple of years of Exiled.)

During my time temping, Russell Banks was quoted in Poets & Writers as saying that beginning writers needed a way to stay outside the economy for a few years to get their creative bearings. It might be disingenuous of me to claim that doing accounting for forty hours a week in corporate offices was "living outside the economy," but I had no career ambitions and no vested interest in how those companies performed financially. I just went there weekdays to work for the paycheck and dropped my timecard in the mail on Friday afternoon. And five or six nights a week I would write and create my own version of the daytime world, throw in my nighttime revelations, and have a blast doing it.

I've been thinking about that three-year stretch of being a temp a lot lately. And it's not because I miss temping, I don't. I don't miss the early rising, I'm not a morning person and these days rarely have to be anywhere before eleven a.m. And I surely don't miss the nomadic work life that had me in a new setting and with new people every few months. Towards the end of my temp career, those changes started to shake me as I'm a live-within-a-routine guy. I came down with insomnia caused by anxiety any time I started at a new place. These days my accounting work is actually interesting. I'm self-employed and enjoy the perks of being my own boss. But instead of my writing mind checking out to work in the background while the rest of my mind plugs away on numbers, I actually have to take time to think about what I'm doing accounting-wise. As Bob Seger put it: "I've got so much more to think about, deadlines and commitments …" Plus there's not much in my daily life to rail against or poke fun at. Instead, I just write and write and write and hope to come up with subjects to address. And I look back wistfully on that routine I had while temping, when the stakes of my accounting work were so low and when so many writing ideas dropped into my lap like manna from heaven. I would never go back, but wow what a situation to put a young writer in. The slumming paid off.

Exiled on Main Street #45

Exiled on Main Street