What Happened When I Went From Temp to Perm

While I will always love the excitement of movement, there’s a beauty to staying still and creating a life in front of you.

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The summer after graduating high school was the first time I entered the temping world. I stood on the D train from Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan in my best-pressed navy suit, wearing pantyhose for the first time and feeling stunned how a little piece of tan material could stretch to fit over my legs. I had an appointment with a recruiter on Madison Avenue.

The receptionist buzzed me in through the glass doors and told me to have a seat. I looked around and noticed all the women wearing nicer suits, some with leather briefcases sitting upright in a row in the lobby.

My blouse wrinkled and feet blistered, I felt out of place. She handed me a clipboard filled with various forms to fill out. I wrote my name, social security number, address and then started to panic. All the questions were about computer programs, typing speeds and other skills I didn’t have. So much for my college degree. I handed the near empty papers back to the receptionist.

“How fast can you type?” she asked. 

“Um, I can’t really,” I replied.

She marked something on my paper and told me to have a seat. All the other ladies were taking typing tests and chomping away on computers like classical pianists. I was adjusting my panty hose and unnerved. Then a friendly woman named Lizette with a raspy voice and oversized red glasses called me into her office. She took a liking to me right away and got me a job at a top-notch magazine company starting the next day.

I was excited to use my creative skills, but the job was anything but. It was lonely really; sometimes I was forced to eat my lunch quickly in the company’s bathroom because I had no place to go. I thought it would be glamorous to work in the city. I wasn’t writing copy or meeting with executives. I was either answering a phone that never rang, or transferring calls like an auctioneer, faster than I could handle.

 

It’s only temporary. I would repeat every day. This isn’t my real life.

 

I think I hated the commute most of all. The heat and humidity trapped in the subway platforms. Within seconds of standing there, feeling puddles of perspiration flooding down my face. How I wished I was in the country, drinking black and white milk shakes, swimming in a lake—I would even take a rash of mosquito bites instead of going to the 45th floor of an office building. It’s only temporary. I would repeat every day. This isn’t my real life.

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As years progressed, for better or worse, Lizette would always find work for me: college breaks, summer vacations, even long weekends, and I was always grateful. It’s now for the first time that I question this gratitude. What would have happened if I did not get temporary assignments? What if instead I was forced to hone in on what I wanted to do or how I truly wanted to spend the lost summers of my youth. While these jobs led me to numerous exposures and communications, it also set off a trend in my life—that things were temporary and need not need any permanence.

And so my life imitated work as I began a world of part time and sublets, a vagabond member of a lease less society. In college, I transferred schools and moved a minimum of twice a year, because for some reason, I thought I “had” to—that comfort equaled entropy. Eventually came larger moves, cities, jobs, etc. I thought this movement was a result of my adventurous spirit, a refusal to accept conventionality and the status quo. I was like a child without Ritalin. I simply could not sit still.

Occasionally my temp jobs were offered permanently, and I would never take them. Something better would come along, I imagined. How could I settle? Then I decided to leave New York. On my last day, Lizette called me into her office. She told me I was crazy to move without a job lined up. I told her I would be crazy to stay. After four years of consistent help, I left the office and never heard that sonorous voice again.

I spent over a decade temping, traveling and working two jobs without insurance. Anything not to be a 9-to-5’er. But by the time my 30th birthday rolled around, I seceded. I’d moved back to New York City as a freelancer. I would have remained so for a while, because I still liked the flexibility. But then 9/11 happened, and everything about how I saw the world changed. So when an opportunity to teach opened up, I took it. I think I needed something to be permanent to compensate for all that was taken. And it worked for me.

 

Instead of packing everything up in old supermarket boxes, I could stack my life, my accomplishments, in front of me.

 

All of a sudden, my life wasn’t as seductive, but it wasn’t as chaotic, either. I realized I didn’t have to give up travel or adventure; the only thing I had to let go of was the fear of the unknown. I had insurance for the first time ever, meaning when I got sick, I actually went to the doctor—it was satisfying knowing that I could really take care of myself, be independent just in a different way. And I even bought an apartment, no longer held hostage by Craigslist to find a roommate. I finally felt like I could create my own life and watch it grow. Instead of packing everything up in old supermarket boxes, I could stack my life, my accomplishments, in front of me.

I’m permanent staff now. Tenured. Pension. Grown-up stuff. And truth be told, I actually like it this way. There’s a comfort knowing that I have a steady paycheck coming in, that my life has some sort of structure to it—flow. I wonder if I discovered this stability earlier on, if things might have turned out differently.

Sometimes I doubt myself. Like when I hear a friend is relocating, I want to pack up my things and go. That by moving, things will magically get better. Then I pause. I look around at my life and realize that while I will always love the excitement of movement, there’s a beauty and a peace to staying still and creating a life in front of you. So that’s what I am doing.

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Elana Rabinowitz

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