A few posts ago I mentioned the book project for my Creative Nonfiction class.
Class project: make a book from writing samples.
I am currently hiding in my sister’s room with a rather large bottle of Smirnoff Pomegranate Martini, and as I attempt to ignore the Christmas chaos outside the door I find this to be the perfect time to post the contents of my little book.
The assignment was to chose writing samples and include them in a small paper book to share with fellow students. We had to include a writer’s manifesto, so I used a piece I already had called A Coinstar Kind of Writer. We also needed a writer’s bio:
Janine McCarthy grew up on the mean streets of Pasadena, CA. She holds Certificates of Completion in Business Writing and Management Skills from USC’s Professional Development department; Basic Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) for Dispatchers from Rio Hondo College; POST Communications Training Officer from Golden West College; and Terrorism Awareness from Chino Police Department. There are at least a half dozen more, but she can’t remember them all. She is a member in good standing with the Yahoo! Group CHPercolator: Coffee House for Writers. Her work has appeared in John Muir High School’s The Inner Eye, USC Public Safety’s Dispatch Training Manual, Urban Dictionary, and Facebook Notes. Janine is currently a student at PCC and author of the blog The Letter J, The Number 9. She resides in Monrovia, CA., with a motley crew of pets and people, including two teenagers and a savior of a roommate. She swears that everything on this page is true.
Many students used several short pieces in their books, especially if they were poets. I chose just one essay. I’m a nervous wreck as I share it here on the public interwebs (and this strong red martini stuff isn’t the liquid courage it should be), but here it is, with the forward included:
This piece is from Writing Assignment #4: intersecting a personal story with a historical moment. I chose the current economic recession as my historical moment, and the hour I spent waiting to be fired from my job last year. I use this piece for my chapbook simply because I’ve put the most work into it. The biggest revision I had to make was to the tone: to choose between deep and emotional or funny and ridiculous. My natural storytelling tendency is to make things humorous; however, the sadness of being fired is still so raw it
was difficult to water down. My hope is that I struck a good balance between the two.
Waiting for an Hour
It’s a beautiful, sunny October afternoon. Not on my side of the street, though. No, the sun starts across the street, at the far end of the parking lot, shining on fancy red brick buildings and the glamorous people who work in them, people with titles like Doctor and Professor. My side of the street is grey, dominated by a seven-story parking structure and the long perpetual shadow it casts to the north. The scraggly ivy and bald azalea shrubs barely survive in the constant gloom. The dirt in between sure seems to thrive in it, though.
I park my car on the narrow street as the grey grimaces at me, gap-toothed and menacing. I enter a door in the side of the parking structure marked “Authorized Personnel Only” in rust, where the original decals peeled off exposing letter-shaped sections of the metal underneath. A long narrow hallway leads through more grey to the cavernous Communications Center.
I’ve been a Public Safety Communications Operator with the university for eleven years: think 911 dispatcher with a different phone number and three times the call load. It’s stressful, difficult, and not at all congruent with my bubbly personality, but with two kids to raise and a recession to ride out I’m not going anywhere. Besides, job hunting terrifies me. Writing a resume gives me hives. Job interviews make me want to shrink into a dark corner. I can’t begin to describe the horrors my body endures swathed in business-casual for a day.
The Communications Center looks like a dungeon of technology. White-washed cement block walls and cheap linoleum flooring sit right on top of parking spaces. A four-pack of grey and burgundy cubicles occupies the center of the room, each outfitted with two computers, three large monitors, and an overworked dispatcher. A long workspace matching the cubicles sits against the far wall under two giant 7’x10’ screens, each displaying forty postage-stamp-sized views of the surrounding neighborhood. The room is alive with a quiet urgency: electronics buzz, computer screens blink, keyboards tap, radio voices squelch through speakers, and live voices chat quietly with invisible callers.
Normally I’d fling my car keys and cell phone into a cubicle and race to the locker room, but it’s my Monday. Not a Monday: my Monday. I move slowly on my Monday, so I’ve still got keys and phone in hand, blinking as I adjust to the dungeon light, when Robin pokes her head out of an office that looks more like a fishbowl.
“Go to the chief’s office and see Sonya,” she says.
I startle. “Now?”
“Should I put on my uniform first?”
“No.” She doesn’t look at me.
Robin is the Director of Communications. She’s a tough, burly Harley chick, but these abrupt commands are unusual even for her, especially when I’m not even on the clock yet.
I stand a little straighter to give the butterflies in my stomach less room to flutter, and turn on my heel toward the chief’s office.
The chief’s secretary, Sonya, is expecting me, but doesn’t know when “they” will be ready. She invites me to take a seat and wait. I scan her face, searching for a sign, a clue, something to tell me what I’m in for. I see nothing. I don’t know which is worse: a something, or this nothing. She offers me a cup of coffee, but I decline. I already feel shaky, I don’t need caffeine. I look around the office for a distraction, and see a picture of Sonya’s children on her computer screen.
I ask about her kids. She swivels her chair toward me and smiles, and we chat the way mothers do. I choke down the high pitch in my voice that will betray my fear. Sonya’s oldest child is a teenager. My own kids are thirteen and eighteen. I’m light-headed with dread.
“You sure you don’t want a cup of coffee?” she asks. “I just stocked up on Equal.”
“No, no I’m good, but thank you.” In the main hallway of our small station is a kitchen niche, built into the wall like a preschool cubby. A big commercial coffee maker just fits on the counter. Before every shift the Coffee Gods bless us with two full pots of fresh, life-saving coffee, and I do my part to empty them. A box containing coffee paraphernalia sits on a shelf above the coffee maker. If I’m lucky there are a few colored packets of fake sugar in the box, but not usually. Sonya has her own little white coffee pot in her office, and all manner of sweetener and creamer in a pretty basket next to it. My pre-shift ritual often includes shuffling into her office bleary-eyed, hot hallway coffee in hand, hoping for a pack or two of Equal. My declination of coffee is unusual, but Sonya doesn’t seem concerned: that disquieting nothing again.
I fold my hands into my lap and squeeze them together until my fingers turn white. I inhale with purpose so that my nerves don’t stop me from breathing altogether. I fight the urge to bounce my knee up and down and try not to fidget.
Sonya stands up. “Be right back,” she says as she leaves the office. Now I’m alone.
Six weeks ago my supervisor, Robert, pulled me from my workstation and asked me to follow him. He carried a stack of papers as we walked across the street, through the parking lot, to the red brick science building on the other side. He led me to a conference room on the second floor. There are plenty of empty conference rooms in the station, so when supervisors come all the way over here to use this room it’s a grim sign.
The room itself wasn’t too foreboding. Cork boards lined the walls, peppered with multicolored bulletins that curled around the thumb tacks and staples holding them up. The furniture was a cheerful blond wood, and tall narrow windows overlooked the campus.
We sat facing each other. He spread the papers out in front of him, took a deep breath, and began to describe a call I had handled two months before. A drunken student was harassing people on the street. He didn’t need to be arrested, he didn’t need a hospital, but he couldn’t be left alone. The officers just wanted to take him home to sleep it off. The problem was that he had no ID, and refused to give any information other than his name. Together, we did everything we legally could to find him a safe place to go, but in the end we had nothing. The officers decided to take him to a halfway house that would provide him a bed until he was sober.
Robert broke down the call and asked me to explain each step I took, right down to the notes I typed and the follow-up calls I made. I answered his questions, but I didn’t see any serious mistakes. Why was I being grilled?
The kid had mouthed off to someone at the halfway house, who in turn stabbed him. He survived, but his parents were suing the university. We shouldn’t have taken him somewhere so dangerous, they claimed.
“How is that our fault?” I fumed. “We did everything we could to help that kid!”
A note I put in the call indicated that the kid might not have been enrolled in any classes, Robert said. Would the officers have taken him somewhere different, better, had they known the he was a current student, as opposed to a random drunk off the street? Why hadn’t I dug deeper to confirm his student status?
“Because it didn’t matter! We needed his address, not his student status. We figured he was a current student anyway; we talked about it on the phone. Didn’t anyone pull the recordings?” Yes, they had pulled the recordings. And that’s all Robert said about it.
He looked me in the eye. “This is bad, J. This is very, very bad.”
I try to wipe the scene from my mind. They can’t fire me, can they? No! The university makes it damn near impossible to fire people. There are procedures, paper trails, patterns of behavior and such. I’ve only had one written reprimand in my eleven years here: that’s hardly a pattern. Maybe they’ll give me time off without pay.
I make a brave attempt to think positive. This waiting might not end in something bad. Maybe I won a service award. Maybe they’ve created a new position just for me, because I’m that awesome!
Probably not, kiddo. They wouldn’t make you wait alone in the chief’s office for anything good. I slump a little in my chair.
I breathe deliberately to keep my heart from racing, timing each inhale and exhale. Every shift in my seat and rise of my chin is a conscious movement to coerce my body into calm. I follow the second hand on the round grey clock mounted above Sonya’s desk, hyper-focused on each tick, tick, tick, and the nearly imperceptible bounce between each second. Please, please don’t let this be the end, I silently pray. I can’t sit through endless interviews and wear heels every day. Humor doesn’t work. The back of my neck starts to prickle.
Two of our IT guys had their jobs eliminated this year. The smartest woman I know lost her job and her house, and has been living in a homeless shelter for three months. My mother-in-law receives too much in Unemployment benefits to qualify for public health insurance. My dad hasn’t been able to find steady work in years. This recession has hit everyone so hard. I’m grateful to have this job, no matter how much I hate it sometimes. My panic is rising. What if they really do fire me?
I’ve been sitting in the chief’s office for an hour now. My coworkers are well into their shift. They’re probably swamped with calls and wondering where the hell I am. The clock on the wall continues its mocking tick, tick, tick. Tears are pooling in the corners of my eyes. I rub the tops of my thighs slowly, hoping I appear casually unconcerned as I dry my sweating palms on my jeans. Don’t crack, I say to myself. Calm down. Don’t cry.
Our Internal Affairs officer peeks around the corner of the doorway. “Janine? We’re ready for you.” His breathy, simpering voice makes me want to punch him in his damn face. I force a weak smile and follow him through the hallway, past the last dregs of burnt coffee, and into a grey conference room too small for the group of people inside: Robin, the deputy chief, a captain, some pencil pusher I don’t know, and now us. The captain sits at the far end of the table slowly simmering, red-faced, lips pursed, eyes ready to spill angry tears. The other three look as if they stopped breathing ten minutes ago. The deputy chief motions to an empty chair. “Have a seat, Janine.”
The deputy chief introduces the pencil pusher as so-and-so from Human Resources. I don’t hear more than fragments of the speech that follows, but I understand enough. I hear the drunk kid’s name; something about the investigation; a decision has been made to terminate my employment; here is my last paycheck and vacation pay-out, please sign here; Robin will escort me to clean out my locker, and then escort me to my car.
There’s no stopping it now: the floodgates open, and the tears come. I sign my name in the general vicinity of a smeary line and accept my paperwork. In between chokes I apologize for crying. Their voices turn soft and understanding, but they, unlike me, are still employed, and they don’t snot and ugly-cry in a room full of law enforcement professionals. They shake my hand and wish me luck. I wish they wouldn’t.
Robin walks me to the locker room. I feel like a criminal. As soon as the door closes behind us, I turn around to face her, drop my head into the crook of her neck, and bawl outright. It’s more than tough-chick Robin can take. We stand in the middle of the room, surrounded by cold grey lockers with our arms around each other. “I tried,” she sobs into my shoulder. “I tried so hard.”