Hat, meet gift box… a holiday temp job to get me out of the apartment

Just how I like my Christmas elves... large, creepy and two-faced.

Just how I like my Christmas elves... large and creepy.

After visiting the mall this weekend, I’m extra happy that temporary holiday season job at the big department store fell through. What a horrible nightmare of crowds and slush and noise. Holiday spending may be down, but holiday shopping is alive and well. As is the Queens Christmas spirit, which translates into lots of pushing and screaming and grabbing. I’m actually making a documentary about it; the working title is “Holiday Kill! Kill! Kill!” I did find a little temp work to prop up the bank account. Rather, a little temp work found me.

Wifey’s company sends out holiday gifts every year to contacts and clients. Most companies do. It’s a corporate holiday tradition to get in a little branding with the giving. Though in my experience, few companies are as classy and generous about it. They hired me to run the show, to be head elf. I was happy to oblige.

I’d forgotten what it’s like to wake up for work. Sleeping in isn’t my usual approach to weekdays. But I never have to be anywhere for anything either. My schedule is fluid and flexible, yet stuff always fills up the time. It felt oddly freeing to wake to an alarm and know that I had an hour to leave the apartment. Those with jobs may be wondering exactly what kind of crack I’ve been smoking. The 2008 model Norm would’ve asked a similar question. But unemployment is a seemingly endless series of uncertainties. Something defined and concrete frees up the brain to think about other things.

That something was putting gifts in boxes. Wifey’s employer sends out snazzy-looking hats emblazoned with the company logo. They design a new one each year. As a rule, I prefer my baseball hats to advertise for overpaid, underperforming sports teams, not corporate brands. Overexposure to crap-tastic corporate conference schwag has scarred me for life. But sports teams are just corporate brands anyway, and these hats are sharp. So what do I know? That’s right, nothing. You can say it. I know the truth, or, uh, I don’t. I’m so confused.

There were five of us to do the job. Each person was a friend or family member of a company staffer and in a similar situation – unemployed and/or cash-poor. The project was straightforward and is best presented in list form, last week’s diatribe notwithstanding…

  1. Separate box tops from bottoms.
  2. Put tissue paper in box bottom.
  3. Put hat on tissue paper.
  4. Put top on box.
  5. Put bellyband on box.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 approximately 1300 times.

Some boxes got mailing labels and postage. Most didn’t. That was the extent of the project.

With our marching orders, we convened in a conference room and set about separating the boxes. The space was a little cramped, the back wall a floor-to-ceiling window that looked out over much of the office. It didn’t occur to me until later that we were on full display. Within a couple hours, we filled the room with swaying stacks of box tops and bottoms. A gentle breeze would’ve toppled them all, spelling disaster for the fearless crew, or at least minor annoyance.

We didn’t talk much initially, being complete strangers and all. Nor did anyone want to make an executive decision on what online radio station to play. Group deference led us to a middle-of-the-road pop station. I’m not up on what the kids like these days, not since the end of my DJing days many years ago. So figuring out samples in songs was a fun diversion while working. One co-opted Elton John‘s “Tiny Dancer” in the name of Hip-Hop. Another put a melody over Gary Glitter‘s “Rock and Roll, Part 2” – the “Hey” song played at every sporting event ever, by law. I mentioned that the artist who recorded the original, went to jail for child pornography. Nothing like a little light trivia to break the ice and let everyone know I’m completely normal. After that, we all became fast friends, chatting about everything from Michael Jackson to AARP to¬†hair salons. Did you know that hair stylists have to rent individual chairs in salons? I didn’t.

After separating boxes, we filled them. Two people took on tissue paper duty. Two others did hats and box tops. I did a bit of everything, from getting more supplies to breaking down boxes to hat stuffing. All the boxes were stuffed by late morning the next day, and the belly bands affixed by lunch the day after that. We hit a little snag with postage, because I miscounted the number of boxes. But that soon resolved itself.

With the boxes done, two of us stayed on to put together holiday gift bags for extra special contacts. The bags -themselves reusable shopping bags – contained some serious schwag, including fancy brownies, a cookbook, spices, a dove made of blown glass and more. All of the gifts came from companies that do something good for the world. And a booklet was included to explain what.

The work was mindless and monotonous, as assembly line-type work tends to be. My feet and lower back hurt by the second day. And a dull headache lingered throughout. But my coworkers were friendly and hardworking. And we had unlimited access to the stocked snack closet and all the holiday sweets that came through the office. I was happy to be productive, and to push back my unemployment insurance by a week. Box stuffing isn’t a career move, nor will it bolster the old resume. The experience was worthwhile though. I always think of temping as a horrible soul-sucking experience. But this time was different. I didn’t sense the least bit of condescension, maybe because they knew me already. More likely, it’s just a good company with good people. I also felt like what I was doing mattered in some small way. It’s nice to have a purpose, to be relevant again.

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