You might think of the worst job ever as something physically grueling and involving the hot sun, and that may well be, but I assure you while I have been in the hot sun and have done things that are physically grueling, I have never done both at the same time. I did, however, work as a paralegal in a small corporate law firm in New York in the early '90s — an experience, in my opinion, which could not have been worsened by any factor or element.
We should have known right away that it wouldn’t work out, Sandy Steinman and I. His name wasn’t really Sandy Steinman, but it was similarly, magically alliterative. Sandy Steinman was the managing partner at Waterman, Hanson, Kramer and Steinman and he loved my cover letter. He loved my cover letter because all it said was:
Hi, my name is Sarah Miller. I just graduated from college and so, let’s face it, I haven’t done anything except that, which was, let’s face it, not terribly hard. I’m looking for a job, but, unlike all the other people who write you and pretend to have done things, I am not pretending. Please give me a job. I am living with my parents in Massachusetts and would like to move to New York, Sarah Miller.
What I did not fully realize, and what he had perhaps been choosing to ignore, was although other young persons’ résumés and cover letters might have been annoyingly padded, they at least had something to pad. They’ve had summer jobs or internships or won an award. I had done nothing but sit around and read books or, more often, magazines. I also frequently sat around doing absolutely nothing. But Sandy was charmed. “You’re a real no-nonsense kind of girl,” he said. “I like that.”
Because my first visit to Waterman, Hanson, Kramer and Steinman had involved an amusing chat with Steinman, I assumed the job would be more of the same, only with an occasional task, like sending a fax or picking up a sandwich or looking up something in a big, dull book. I was very wrong.
The next time I saw Sandy Steinman, he was handing me an enormous stack of paper while telling me to Xerox it approximately 700 times and then to put these 700 new stacks of paper into 700 binders. I remember thinking, “What a nightmare this would be if I had to do it every day.” It turned out to be exactly what I did every day, all day, 8 hours a day.
There are many ways in which what sounds like a fairly straightforward task was far from it. The first problem was that Xerox machine broke a lot. I’d get halfway through a job on say, a 178-page document and have four sets of 170 pages done and eight more pages to print, but since the Xerox machine had eaten page 171, you might have to go print another, and for some reason, this particular page 17 would come out a different size and could take half an hour to reprint correctly.
Sometimes a few of the stacks would be missing a page and some wouldn’t, and I’d forget which stack was missing what, or there wouldn’t be enough room where I was working for each stack to have its very own space, and one would fall, and another would fall on top of it, and everything would get shuffled like a deck of cards.
Then there was the three-hole punch. You could only put so many pieces of paper in it at once, and then you’d have to do another set, and my holes never, ever matched up. Finally, there was some sort of binding process. I don’t recall the exact mechanics of it, but there was a part with teeth, and then a part with holes that went over the part with teeth, and then some step which involved heat and melting plastic. If you didn’t melt the plastic enough you had to start over and if you melted it too much you had to start over. I started over a lot.
Additional tasks involved going through depositions and looking for and circling words like “separation” or “cancer” or “time-share” (this was before machines did that for you). I would always find most of the sought-after words, but as the point was to find all of them, I was not considered successful at this. Also, we had to answer the phone for one hour a week when the receptionist went to lunch. I was always pushing the wrong button, sending someone to the wrong person, or simply hanging up on them.
I worked with three other girls, all just out of college, none of them noticeably smarter than me, one of them arguably a bit dumber. And the job might have been fine if any of them had found it remotely difficult and I could have commiserated. As it was, they were all mystified by my incompetence. They all liked me well enough (even if my ineptitude did make their lives harder sometimes), but they did wonder — first gossiping about me, and then, after it was just obvious, aloud, why it was so beyond me to make neat stacks of paper. Or why I was unable to look at the flashing light on the Xerox machine trouble-spotter and attend to the issue at hand. It was also unclear to all of us why everyone except myself could remember the four phone numbers for the ten employees at the firm. I was still asking what we were supposed to say, exactly, when we picked up the phone.
Also odd to me was how none of the other paralegals had trouble just buckling down, getting to the task at hand and slogging through with reasonable cheer. But as soon as I even started thinking about something I had to do, I would start to panic about how tedious it was going to be and then how difficult, and by the time I started, I was in the sort of state that insured it was all going to go horribly wrong.
My favorite coworker was prim and British and had just graduated from Yale. One day, after a nine page fax I’d sent arrived with seven pages, she looked at me said, “There does indeed seem to be something a bit off with you.” She wasn’t being mean or judgmental. She suggested I go talk to Mr. Steinman and tell him I was having problems and ask him if there was a way that I might get organized and improve. I thought this was a very good idea.
I knocked on his open door. “Oh, I’m glad you came by so I don’t have to find you,” he said. “You’re fired.”
I burst into tears. I was sad, but I was also so relieved.
He shoved a box of Kleenex at me. “I think you’re very funny and I like you … or, I did at one point. I don’t really like you anymore. At any rate, I’ve been a lawyer for 25 years and you’re the worst paralegal I have ever seen.”
He told me I had two weeks to find another job. Then he said, “Just make sure it’s nothing where you need to use a Xerox machine. Or count. Or remember anything.”
I went and worked at a non-profit. I did not distinguish myself in this position either. At one point during my employment, I sent a woman in a coma an invitation to a party that read, “Get Up and Dance.” I didn’t get fired, but when I asked for a raise my boss told me she would consider it once she thought I was actually reasonably competent, so I quit.
Whenever people ask why I became a writer, I say, “Because I’m bad at everything else.” They laugh, like this is funny.