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Temping for the One Percent

What life as a part-time receptionist taught me about the pre-pandemic elite

It’s 7:00 p.m. The office is empty, silent. I’ve dimmed every lamp, neatly stacked the newspapers, closed every conference room door, and shut down the computer at the front desk—which is my desk. Fox News, Fox Business, or Fox Sports is flashing on the television screen in the lobby. I reach for the remote to click it off, then remember: The television stays on. Do not, under any circumstances, turn the television off. I walk out the door and into the elevator bank.

I imagine that, even now, those television screens are still flickering night and day, over the course of weeks and months, in the now-deserted offices of financial institutions across New York City. In the year and a half before the coronavirus struck the United States, I worked at several of those institutions as a temp receptionist. My job was to let the men—sometimes women, but mostly men—through the door to the lobby of their company and into their offices.

I was not good at this task—though, in my defense, door-opening was never a task at which I set out to excel. The plan, actually, was not to be a gig worker at all. After earning my master’s in English from New York University in 2018, I completed the requisite intern circuit for an aspiring writer: venerable publishing house, venerable literary agency, hip literary magazine. Somewhere along the way, the director of one of those intern programs told me that if I really wanted to write—and I did—I could make about as much temp-working as I could as an entry-level assistant or fact-checker. The difference would be that I would have greater freedom to work on my own projects, even if the working hours were, well, temporary.

The cons—the necessary formal wear, the long train ride, the “always keep your head up, your eyes and ears peeled”—seemed negligible. I was sold. The day after interviewing with a temp agency, my first full week of reception work was scheduled. The work itself was predictable and monotonous: taking calls, opening doors, hanging coats, signing for packages, restocking refrigerators, cleaning up after events. It involved the usual circumstances of most temp gigs: I didn’t know my schedule until the week before (or sometimes the day before) a gig opened up, the hours were never consistent, I was without benefits or job security. The difference was in the details. Unlike Uber driving, grocery-delivering, and the like, this gig was premised on interacting constantly with the one percent.

I was, more or less, just another part of the one percent’s office space, like furniture except I could talk back. Now, in the coronavirus era, the very concept of “office space” feels part of an ancient, perhaps arcadian past. It’s a term that will soon refer to spaces unimaginable to our pre-pandemic selves, where plexiglass sneeze-guards will separate the cubicles and office desks will come with built-in hand sanitizers. Before that time comes to pass, it may be worth examining what these spaces, which housed our working lives for so long, meant.

For the one percenters—who occupy some of Manhattan’s priciest real estate—office space meant expansive lobbies with walls of granite and marble, interior pearwood paneling, conference rooms whose panoramic views inspire vertigo. Now the executives of various firms are questioning whether to return to their office spaces at all, having realized the work of raiding the American economy can be done just as well elsewhere. So if these upscale accoutrements are not necessary to funnel ever more wealth to the upper echelons of society, what purpose do they serve?

It might be that one’s sense of self-worth is inextricably wrapped in one’s sense of space. How do these titans of finance feel about themselves without the daily experience of grandeur? Without doors opening before them, one by one, reinforcing their conviction that literally nothing obstructs their path? Without people like me?

Memories of these times have taken on a surreal twist. The maskless faces of the men—the stubble around their lips and cheeks, their gum-smacking and mint-sucking—now seem overexposed, in retrospect. These faces were always so clear to me, likely because, for the most part, I was a glorified greeter, seated at a faux-gilded desk that spanned the length of my apartment.

If I had to use the bathroom or craved a snack, I first had to find a secretary to cover my spot. When I wasn’t buzzing in suited men, I handled expense reports, found the matching receipts to $2,500 lunches, or stuffed envelopes with invitations to charity galas. And in my free moments, I would sit there, writing and reading, waiting for the faint ding of the elevator to indicate a financier’s imminent arrival.

To unlock the doors—which it was necessary I do, my supervisors told me, before the employee reached the threshold—I had to press a ribbed button underneath my desk whose location, somehow, tended to grow less intuitive to me over the course of the day. I thought of moving it somewhere more visible. “Don’t bring the button to the surface of the desk,” one supervisor warned me. “We like to keep things seamless and,” she used her foot to nudge my backpack further behind my chair, “out of sight.” When the elevator opened, my hand would reach down, feeling for the button’s square contours, finding only fiberboard. The men, fresh out of the elevator, anticipating uncontested entry, would pull on the door to find it still locked. They’d look at me through the glass, perplexed, momentary exiles cast out from their own domain. I admit here to feeling a surge of power.

Sometimes the younger men would smile shyly and look down at their shoes, as if they knew they had shown their impatience and were ashamed, having confused my impotence with their own. They shouldn’t have feared: The impotence was all mine. How did I miss their approach? It was often the case that I was too absorbed in my work to hear the elevator at all. I found myself laughing at, for instance, a blithe line by Samuel Beckett (“Personally of course I regret everything”) and feeling a general sense of bliss at this curriculum I’d built for myself. I calculated again how many cents I was making a minute (~27), and how many of these minutes I could dedicate to reading and writing, letting the emptiness of life eddy up around me, until I was delivered, by some fortuitous alchemy, back into the world of arts and letters (without ever imagining, of course, that world’s own pandemic-prompted mayhem). A knock—clearly in its second, maybe third iteration—would interrupt these musings. I’d lift my head to see a gaggle of suited men standing outside, looking about in various directions, each performing his own faint waddle, waiting for my attention. I’d leap up and reach for the button. “It’s under the desk,” one yelled to me once, his voice muted from the other side of the glass. “No, I know,” I hollered. “I know.”

In one instance involving a particularly elusive button, a group of men stood outside as I got on my knees to peer beneath the fiberboard. In a harmless breach of protocol, I had left the desk unmanned (an urge struck for pistachios, unaffordable at the supermarket but often complimentary at the financial offices), and my button had apparently vanished in the meantime. I realized, once genuflected, that actually the device had only lost its adhesion. There it was, dangling in shadow, performing a slow, senile spin. I snatched it, pressed it, allowed the men to enter, rose to greet them. “I’m so sorry about that,” I said. Only one of these men looked me in the eye, a man I had unintentionally spurned one too many times, a partner and general counsel at the firm. (He’d also been given a mini-profile in The New Yorker and has, apparently, helped to create a variety of American history storytelling exhibitions at both Carnegie Hall and the New York Historical Society.) It was a look of disgust. I did not blame him.

Perhaps he had recognized my hunger for power and the possibility, however infinitesimal, that one day we might actually be on equal footing. It was a power that I was starting to accrue and exercise in subtle ways. One of them was my secret collection of data. Security footage was funneled into a split-screen monitor on my desk, which meant that, in certain sections within the office, I could track the men through the halls, study where they stood as they noshed, whose desks they stopped by, at what time they went to the restroom, the other men with whom they went. These benign activities now seem reckless, almost pornographic in their unmasked intimacy. Back then, they were fodder for my voyeur self, who fantasized over assembling these minutiae into some kind of illustrative report.

But most of the time there was no surreptitious upper hand to be gained. The facilitation of food deliveries, for instance, was only ever a Sisyphean task—except that at its completion you lay down and let the boulder run over you. A delivery man would call me to say that he had almost arrived, his voice muffled from city wind and an invariably bad connection. “Which side is that again?” No answer. I’d take the elevator to the building’s lobby, which often had multiple entrances, one on either side of the street (entrances on both Lexington and Park, for example). I would race outside and scan the crowd for a man with a delivery backpack twice his size, compressing his posture. Failing to find him, I’d run across the building to the other entrance. Still no sign of him. I’d repeat this relay twice more. Sweating, I’d take a lunch-hour packed elevator back up to the lobby and would call him. No answer. The assistants to the hungry financiers would rush toward my desk. Where is the food? Then the courier would call. He’s been waiting for me. Where was I? I’d go back down and, by some miracle, we’d find each other. The urge to embrace was mutual. Back upstairs, I’d set out the food in a conference room or kitchen and, later, empty the leftover make-your-own-taco material into the trash.

Eventually, I myself was infected by the space. My desire for power grew mixed with a desire for luxury. In dealing with expense reports, I often encountered a financier’s use of Uber and other delivery services, which meant, if I searched the fine print, I could find a home address. I’d use the company computer to research real estate databases and peruse executives’ Manhattan penthouses and properties in Westchester and southern Connecticut. There was an old French-style estate with crenellated roof lines, a newly purchased Brooklyn condo with chrome-plated faucets. I’d try to match the face of each man to his place of residence, so that I knew, as he stood outside the door, waiting for me, the kinds of assets I was dealing with. When the pandemic struck, did they Uber all the way to their vacation homes in Aspen, Napa Valley, the Hamptons?

And if I were to show up at their door, would they recognize me? Some certainly would. At the offices, I was often replacing or filling in for a person—a woman, most likely—the men had come to know. They were curious about the new face. At each location, the company CEO would usually take time to introduce himself to me personally, shaking my hand and serving me some MBA-grade eye contact. Guests who were familiar with the usual receptionist and knew I was temping would sometimes ask me, with cozy, paternal authority, what I planned to do with my life. Rarely did I mention anything about writing, but when I did, the response was typical: “Literature! Maybe we’ll find ourselves in one of your stories!”

Most people were content to ignore me. This is likely because while my presence was clear, my use-value was essentially invisible. The employees had other people at the company who really took care of them. The executive secretaries and other administrative staff were often remarkably protective of the men they “supported”—the corporate lingo for “served.” At one institution, the office manager had me organize snacks according to her favorite employees’ preferences. At the end of the day, I was to covertly place specific mini-boxes of cereal (two Apple Jacks and one Special K Original) at the respective desks of her three favorite businessmen. If nondairy butter was running low, I was to put it in her “special place” so that her favorite lactose-intolerant could find it and spread it on his toast. Certain employees had their needs so fully anticipated that it’s doubtful they still felt them.

Were these subtle dependencies part of a larger pattern of arrested development? Yes. I never thought I’d hear the word boys, for instance, used for groups of adult men outside of a sports-related or collegiate context. But there I’d be—sitting at my desk, listening to the yelps over some business deal whose resulting profits would never trickle down to me—when the CEO would call from his office, “Boys, boys, boys! Come in! Bring bottles!” I’d hear the backslapping, the glad-handing. Someone would put on music. Maybe Moby, maybe The Stones. I’d sit and wait for them to emerge from the room, drunk on generosity, maybe throw me a fifty (they never did). Is the swaggering goodwill of these interactions making it through the Zoom calls? Are they still playing “Gimme Shelter”?

In other situations, though, the trappings of sophisticated adulthood were more performatively abandoned. At low-key, in-house parties and events, employees would drink wine and champagne from plastic cups without making a fuss about it. They’d gather in small groups around games of Scrabble, Monopoly, Pictionary. At such events, I was typically asked to stand in the corner, away from the action, where I could observe whether a stack of napkins had been pushed askew, if a bottle of champagne had emptied, or if freshly unpacked crackers called for imbrication. I also could observe the sky out of floor-to-ceiling windows, which was a novelty, given my usually windowless view of the lobby. I’d watch clouds scraping their bellies on steel spires, flecks of honeyed light streaming down glass facades, on the other side of which were, perhaps, parties just like this one.

The last time I requested work as a temp was on March 8. On occasion, I do wonder how the employees are faring without their mini-cereals and dairy-free butter, without the workplace built to edify their souls, to assure them, No, look, you deserve it! They know they deserve it. They didn’t need a building to tell them this. When I read that the stock market is booming as the economy is contracting, my soul feels some odd relief that at least some people, however vile, are doing well.

But, of course, when I think of the millions of people like me, those who were already living hand-to-mouth and have since filed for unemployment, those for whom the thought of paying rent sends a shot of cortisol through the body, I wonder why I opened that door at all. I should have taken the time, really, to laugh. To relax. How fun it would have been to watch the men pile up, suit on suit, their palms against the glass, all as I chomped on my pistachios, put my feet up on the desk, sucked the salt off the shells. I hope, now, never to see them again. I’m going back to graduate school, where a work-study job awaits me. I’ll take out loans whose interest rate will interest them, and on which my entire financial future will depend. From now on, we’ll be worlds apart. But I will always know certain things. I will wield a certain phantom power. It’s not enough, it’s nothing, but it’s something, too.