SHAMEATORIUMChapter OneThe Hedge
I awake abruptly at 5:00AM, my sinuses clogged from all the shame. As I roll over, I look directly into the face of she that isn’t here. I ponder the significance of my day.
I think for a moment about all the selling I will do. Today is going to be the day. It is going to be the day when my name will vanish from the overhead electronic bulletin board, the source of all that is evil in the world and all that is good about keeping my job. More than that, it is all that is good about being loved.
Rolling over, I make a cursory attempt to lift myself up from the ratty Sele Posturepedic. I must look like one of those clowns, the type that little children pummel as they resurrect straight up again, a look of permanent anguish across its hideous face. One, two, three…and up I go, onto the ugly shag carpeting full of microscopic organisms eating every delicate morsel of decay. A quick shower follows by a “lomtick” of toast, and I am out the door and on my way.
Glendale, 1998 and the Dodgers have just hired Ohioan Jim Tracy to be their new manager. A plain and kindly grandmother figure who cost the team virtually nothing, Tracy is going to bring the Dodgers their first championship in ten years to a now starved Los Angeles, or so I think. Little did I know the truth. This nostalgic memory haunts me still.
I drive along quickly in my Ford Fairmont, smoking one Merritt cigarette after another, listening to sports talk radio on my AM/FM, replete with broken cassette player. Up ahead is my exit, Burbank Blvd. A quick jaunt to the North and I can make it into the parking lot of my employer: Public Storage, Inc. What happens next feels like a dream, but I assure you, is true.
This particular summer is as hot as its ever been in Southern California. I park my car and begin the half mile walk to work. The parking lot is a giant abandoned mass of concrete that obviously belonged to some other concern, a concern that must have gone belly up years before and, like almost all of Los Angeles, fled the city amidst its own temporality. What is so strange is the size and scope of it. There must be a thousand empty spaces, with only about ten cars, including my own, parked there. My mind flashes on another time, a time when this lot was bustling and energized with the hope of the American dream, it’s current decrepitude a signature of modern existential hopelessness. In order to get to the main structure, you have to walk roughly half a mile away from the building then double back over a bridge that brings you down into the mouth of the beast. I get about three hundred yards and notice the carcass of a dead crow stuck under a newspaper. I wonder if the crow died of old age or just bad air.
As I turn the corner near San Fernando road, I catch up to a man who goes by the name of “Belly”. He is a late thirties African-American who neatly weighs a good 450 to 500 pounds. He carries his entire life in a filthy backpack and puts one foot in front of the other, moving about an inch a minute.
“Hey Belly” I say, as I move past him like the Concord. He looks up at me with confusion and agony. It is obvious he has no idea who I am, the sun blinding him. “Yeah. Hmmm mmmhhh”, he intones wisely. “You go on ahead, don’t worry ‘bout me, no ma’am…you don’t worry nothin’ bout me.”. I smirk a touch and wave ta ta.
Thirty more minutes elapse and I finally get to the mothership. The main Public Storage building is an homage to prefabricated emptiness, but you can’t beat it for its behemoth mass. Thrown up in a matter of months, this giant structure dwarfs any and all other buildings in its path. I imagine it unmooring itself from the earth and devouring other punier offices in its way, digesting plaster and drywall for nourishment and belching out the remnants.
The oddest thing about the main building is there does not seem to be an entrance to it, just small little orifices all around the perimeter with security lock boxes to get in and out. That’s right, you heard me, to get in AND out. These boxes are also located inside smaller antechambers, sort of like the room that Dave blows himself into when trying to get back onto the ship in 2001 A Space Odyssey because HAL won’t let him aboard. Every employee has a combination badge/security strip, ID photo with insignia and smaller voice activation code, sort of a like a mantra, which opens the exterior portal. When you open the first portal, you automatically enter the second hall which is operated by an electronic palm reader. After that you enter the final room, a spiral hemisphere which is anti-gravity in nature, or at least that’s how you feel after the security air bursts are blown up your ass and groin which look for traces of explosive or biological chemicals. The fortress in the movie Andromeda Strain seems tame in comparison.
Once you are allowed inside, you expect to see some sort of NASA like control room, but end up seeing something that looks like an Escher drawing: row after row of cubicle after cubicle of phone booths. When you are going through the depressurization process, there is virtually no sound at all, but when you enter the main room the sound hits you like broken glass. “No Ma’am, we don’t have anything for you today, what part of the country are you calling from?”. “Sir, I know you have to be out of your apartment in an hour, but the only space we have is the one for $500 a day…minus the storage fee of course, which is always free.”, “Uhm…hi this is Bonnie from Public Storage…you wouldn’t want to buy…hello…hello”. The voices collectively sound like something from outer space, a large cosmic “Om”, but once you get to within ear shot, you hear the pressure and the lies, the desperation of each employee to please the unpleasant master we call : The Carousel.
The Carousel is our master. The Carousel is our God. The Carousel is an electronic bulletin board which circles the main floor in giant red lettering, all in digital living color like the one in Times Square. It is enormous and runs every half hour on the half hour preceded by a deafening clarion bell which could be misinterpreted as Gideon’s thunderous trumpet. The sound of the conveyer belt moving could be the four horsemen of the apocalypse galloping around the room ushering you to the day of judgment. What is on the board, however, is far more distressing. As the board moves it activates electronic impulses which read each and every single employees sales numbers for that hour. It processes them at the speed of light and if it is below the average, or “mean” for that day, the employees name, photo and sound bite of that employee stating his or her name, is captured and thrown up on the carousel. It then circles the entire facility for 15 minutes in a marquee of shame revealing the losers and pariahs of the moment.
I make my way past a woman who never seems to leave the facility. She is dressed in a dark caftan, a red chiffon scarf and the makeup of a Kabuki. She has not one but two headsets on her head. As she speaks to the patron on one line, she blurts expletives on the other line simultaneously while depressing the mute button. Her head pulsates with anguish as she belts out the fuck word every other second. I have been told she has tourettes syndrome and works 80 hour weeks.
I quickly make my way through the maze of cubicles to the destination hub. This is where I will get my reports, headset and phone tree for the afternoon. I will also be assigned a cubby hole, either alone or with a “trainee”. If I am alone, my options for comfort greatly increase, if I am with a “trainee”, things could quickly go from bad to worse.
Turning the corner, my heart drops as I see a line stretching roughly one hundred yards zig zagging through impromptu turnstiles that have been put up to insure order. These are all employees waiting to check-in. Clearly a blue-flu has hit the phone room, hitting the “team leaders” quite hard. I crane my neck above the pituitary freak in front of me to see how many team leaders are working. I see ten empty windows and the only one open is manned by a denizen of hell named “Choochy”. Oh no, I cry aloud, knowing full well that Choochy is the most obsessively compulsive team leader in the facility. Originally named John, Choochy changed his name after an LSD trip in Guam that took away half of his spatial recognition. Left for days in a tree during a Catholic Feast , John claimed a visitation by Father Padre Pio, a former Catholic mystic who was known to bi-locate and be seen in several locations at once, although he never left his monastery at San Giovanna Rotunda in Italy. He was also known to have the stigmata, which John, or rather Choochy, says also happened to him after conversing with Padre Pio in the tree. Choochy was found days later on a nearby Malaccan Island in Indonesia. No one quite knew how he got there, but after that he packed every personal item how owned in individually wrapped sandwich bags. He also never spoke above a whisper, mouthing words that were deceptive in that they resembled nothing like what he was saying whatsoever, making it virtually impossible to communicate with him.
After a quick half hour in line, I got my daily check in done and went to station 13, in the Blue section of level ten. There I was met by my resident floor leader, Flor, who smiled her alluring yet deadened, soul killing Cheshire grin which triggered me and led me into fantasy. I stumbled my way past her Latina hips into the carbuncle of my cubicle. Lifting the tent like door fabric, I was met by my partner for the day, trainee number 115. Or so I thought.
The Carousel is not just an electronic monitor, it is also a hell of a practical joker. Randomly, it chooses an employee who ain’t cuttin’ it, in this case moi, and creates a brief hologram that appears to be a real person. It is almost impossible to know if the hologram is real or not, because it is encased in a convex pyreen skin. As I sat down I began to converse with trainee 115 who nodded and said hello. I asked him how his day was and he nodded and said hello. Plugging in my headset, I asked if he received his daily training reports. He nodded and said hello. Oh that Carousel, what a card. After twenty of minutes of nodding and repetitious banter, the hologram vaporized and I was left alone, as always, with my tele-monitor, headset and phone reports.
As soon as you plug in your headset, a sanitized female voice comes on over the loud speaker and your ID picture is projected onto monitors all through the phone room. She announces your name, last name first, and ID number, and says that you have logged on. Each employee is then required to push a button on their console acknowledging your presence on the floor and then yell the words “Huzzah”! You, however, are exempt from this requirement. I plug my phone jack into my terminal and open my phone tree book to see what part of the world I will be calling. Turns out I will be calling…Nova Scotia.
My monitor emits a whirring noise and then a panoramic video of Nova Scotia comes on, complete with local folk music of the culture. The monitor also encodes my translation enabler so that everything Sven and Jukkka say to me will be instantly recognizable in good old UH-MER-UH-KIN.
As I adjust the headset I already am in mid conversation with someone who has no idea that I haven’t signed on because my automated tele-doppleganger has been engaging in conversation already. The man on the other end sounds quite old, ancient really, and is trying to figure out what our catalogue is saying when we offer no fee down. “Is that in U.S. dollars or in Nova Scotian?”. I quickly glance at my pricing at-a-glance and run down the currency exchange rate domestically versus overseas. “Uh, sir”, I say, “it says here that the exchange rate is dependent on international borders running concurrent with exchange rates not impacted by the Land of the Midnight Sun caveat”. Silence on the other end. “Sir, did you understand that?”. More deafening silence. I adjust my headset and doodle a bit on my notepad. Suddenly “Oh, of course young man, how could I have been so stupid?”, all of this in a weird computerees voice with his native language underneath. “The Land of the Midnight Sun caveat, why yes, I am such an idiot, hah hah, oh.”. I smile and place his order in the overseas to do later pile, which will get processed one way or another.
After a series of calls from abroad, I get a beep thru- code four, which is the signal that a supervisor is on the other end. As all good companies go, our supervisors have their own methods of monitoring our behavior and output for the day. We are required to hit fifteen major points in our sales pitch. If those points are hit we receive an increase in our local points awards, a half point for each point hit which contributes to the sale. This can be slightly misleading however, as the points system is rather arbitrary and quite open to interpretation. For example, point number #11 says: “When suggesting a domestic companion facility, storage sizes 1-234 are located in designated areas that are subject to both Interpol and U.S. Justice Department regulations. You must inform the prospective client (boob) of these facts BUT do so in a way that does not compromise existing local regulatory statutes that are self-governed by city or county law enforcement penal codes. IF and WHEN these are understood AND CONTRIBUTE DIRECTLY to a client’s (boob’s) decision to purchase a companion facility, you MAY be eligible to receive points towards designated hours adjustment OR other merchandise OR tickets to Sea World”.
It seemed like the supervisor had some sort of “issue” with this particular point.
Ms. 213579/Zed/companionfacility/supervisor-bluelevel was on the line. I had no idea what her real name was as they are required to use their company Nom De Guerre. Also, none of us earth dwellers in the phone room have a clue as to where the supervisors unit is located. Some of us don’t even think it is in the building, others think it is in India. I think she is calling from her home, in her boudoir no doubt. When they break in to your conversation, only you are able to hear them while the client is unaware, sort of like a false mirror that only you and she are behind. A standardized animation female happy face comes up on my screen with her identity beneath it. Happy music plays as well. Her voice comes on again, it is lusty without being perverse and pinched with just the right relish of hostility.
“Operator AKF3104, respond please”. I patch in to her frequency using the Heliotrope satellite which arcs over North America and is just moments away from ranging out.
“This is I, your highness, Ten Four good buddy, come on back now”.
I hear a slight snortle and agitated exhalation on the other end.
“Operator AKF3104, that is inappropriate nomenclature when using this frequency. I would ask that you refer to me properly and use the standard and correct employee recognition response…PLEASE”. Ooh, I like it when she acts salsa. It makes my foreskin ashiver.
I sober up and use the proper complimentary response, but with a shimmer of defiance. “Operator AKF3104 present y aqui, broadcasting on Heliotrope Satellite North America Greenich Mean Times 0:13:43 and 20 seconds. How may I assist you in resolving any areas that need resolution?” You gotta fucking be kidding me. “Thank you 3104, that’ll be all”. Dead air. Fantastic! An observation fly-by. The supervisors just love to do that, and you know why? Because they can.
The animated female dumb-show image on my screen rolls out replaced by an image of Pago-Pago where my current client, Mr. Pow Pow, has been on hold. Tribal drums play underneath his call, piped in from the luxurious CD I downloaded called “Sun God’s of Burma”. He is singing to me softly, seductively, in a kind of bizarre and creepy acting out. I find myself rather lulled by it though and hear the computer translator intone mechanically his words:
“Where the palms of my troubled heart, meet the smile of your joy, we dance amongst the coconuts and fragrant milk on the bonny shores of Krakatowa, my Javanese puppet.”
I laugh a warm laugh, which quickly turns to tears.End Chapter One