America's Most Critical Journal (since 1999)
My First Cubicle
Golden Publishing recruited only the foolhardy and the destitute, the bungled and the botched, and held their employees in a tight vise of hopelessness. Desperate job-seekers like myself were attracted by its "Help Wanted" box in the Sunday paper:
* 6 Editors
* 6 Copy Editors
* 6 Proofreaders
* 4 Sales People
Contact: Golden Publishing, Orlando, Florida.
The ad created the impression of an expanding business, one with so many open positions that you just might have a chance at one at them. The reality was that the turnover was so high that it was impossible to keep all the positions filled. The exact same ad ran for 75 consecutive Sundays during my year-and-a-half stint there.
Golden Publishing was a place of the damned, the down-sized, the newly-divorced, or in my case, simply the naïve. I was all of 24 when I started there. People who worked there found it hard to respect each other, to overcome the vapid expressions which revealed the obvious lack of self-esteem or marketable skills that kept them there.
In 1995, three thousand people per week were moving to Central Florida, and most of the available jobs were for Disney World, food service, maid service, or telemarketing. Florida is a "Right to Work State"—an Orwellian euphemism that I was told meant that high wages and unionization are discouraged.
I had already worked an odd assortment of jobs in Florida during my first six months there: telemarketer (1.5 days), medical transcriptionist (3 weeks), Tshirt attendant at the Harley-Davidson Southern HOG Rally (1 week), photo-copier (6 hours), phone-dialer at the Sprint Booth at the Daytona 500 (3 days), and others too humiliating to recount.
Nonetheless, my first cubicle was at Golden Publishing, as an "editor" of statute books. The Goldens published Criminal and Motor Vehicle law books that policemen apparently liked to buy to toss in the backseat of patrol cars, and refer to from time to time. I admit that for my first day or two I was impressed that I was an "editor," but it quickly became clear that this was a glorified title. I was really a copy editor, and the "writers" I edited were state legislatures. Actually, I had to print whatever the legislatures produced, no matter how botched the grammar, reasoning or justice of the law.
On my first day Mr. Golden handed me two things: a razor-blade and a rival publishers’ Compiled Statutes of Connecticut. My mission was to slice out the pages of the Connecticut state code comprising the Criminal and Motor Vehicle titles, and place them one-by-one on a flat-bed scanner, and scan them in. My two weeks’ of all-day scanning would become the electronic foundation of Golden’s own Connecticut Criminal and Motor Vehicle Code—after I had cleaned up two bazillion errors created by the crude scanning technology of early 1995.
After I cleaned up all the errors, Mr. Golden himself would personally add a few "deliberate errors," he called them, which would help him catch any renegade publisher who had attempted to copy from the Golden’s crudely doctored volume.
Even imagining the publisher that would steal from the Golden’s books proved beyond my powers. After personally preparing some of the abortions that the Goldens marketed and sold, my trusty razor-blade and I had first-hand knowledge of their low quality.
How could an underpaid and unappreciated workforce produce professional work? (Actually, because we were paid so low, we were granted seemingly endless time to finish each work, and so some of the editors were conscientious to the point of neurosis—their pride in their work being their last clutch at self-esteem.) Aside from the low pay, there was the gallingly bleak benefits package. This was posted in a document near the time-clock, alongside the company’s policies. This made sense since so many of the benefits were conditional anyway.
In summary, the Golden Publishing benefits package consisted of:
*No sick days;
*No retirement benefits of any kind;
*No life insurance;
*No vision or dental benefits
*Health Insurance, in the form of a stingy HMO;
* Six paid Holidays! (New Year’s, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas), contingent on your working a full 32 hours the week of the holiday, as well as a full 40 hours the weeks before and after the holiday. Many people failed to work these hours and received no holiday pay.
Other Featured Company Policies included:
*Mandatory punching in and out each day, including for lunch;
*No scheduled breaks (2 five-minute smoking breaks permitted);
*No possibility of advancement;
I tried to read the entire list of rules one day, but Mr. Golden walked by, and asked me to go back to work in his mock-tyrant way.
Golden Publishing is a family business, run by Mrs. and Mr. Golden, and their sons. It was clear to me right away that Mrs. Golden wears the pants in the family. Mrs. Golden hired me.
"We’ll try it," she shrugged after looking into my desperate Haven’t Worked in Months eyes.
It was true. I had even driven 40 miles to my interview, my 1977 Cadillac leaking gasoline the whole way. Many times I would have to yank the steering wheel rightward to avoid the toss of a lit cigarette butt from the driver of the pickup truck speeding in front of me, displaying Confederate flag bumper stickers on the gun rack. I vividly imagined the lit cigarette butt bouncing under my car and achieving a direct hit on the hole on my gas tank. Since Floridians tend to smoke more than average, I was often dodging such thoughtfully tossed cigarettes. But my own idiocy of the time is seen in that I myself smoked in the incredible leaking Cadillac.
The fact that I now drove 40 miles each way in order be to be exploited was a truly humiliating proposition.
So as walked out to my car at the end of a workday, I was almost glad to see the pool of gasoline under my car. It was if my Cadillac had taken a leak on the Golden’s property. "Good Cadillac," I’d encourage it as I entered the unlocked car. Of course, I could only drive one mile away from the Golden compound, before I’d have to stop at the gas station and fill up the twenty gallon tank for the next few days. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paid enough at first to get my car fixed.
After a month or so, on the job, as the poor wages, lack of benefits, and the Golden’s complete lack of interest in our performance became clear, I joined my co-workers in expressing anti-Golden sentiments. But there could never be any major victory over the Goldens. The best we could hope for were the trivial humiliations, and the revenge fantasy that if there were a God, there would be a special place for the Goldens in the Lake of Fire of Brimstone.
Mrs. Golden walked on stout legs and heels in business suits, with a regally slow bearing. She had a round face with round head of graying hair thick as a babushka cut down to the globe-size mop she wore. Her eyes remained stern, focused and alert during almost all interaction with her employees—even while exchanging greetings—as if any perceived sign of weakness would result in more people asking for raises. Occasionally, such as the times I talked to her about her art reproductions on her wall, her eyes sparkled with gaiety despite herself—or perhaps it was just a reflection off her glasses, I can’t be sure. The fact that I occasionally saw this side of her, made me even more aware of her constant effort to hold herself proudly, distancing herself from human contact with her employees.
Mrs. Golden walked around every Friday morning to pass out our checks to us. She would smile grimly as she handed us the clipboard, on which she insisted we sign a statement that we had both received our paychecks, and that we acknowledged that we had not been harassed in any manner the prior week. She would say a few things—mixing with the commoners, as it were. It was clear this pained her. I learned that she came from old money, and owned millions of dollars worth of real estate. The operation known as Golden Publishing, was in many ways a front or base of operations for their far wider field of operations. These other operations were probably what the Goldens screamed at each other about most of the time. Once I overheard Mrs. Golden scream: "Norman! I told you we should have sued those bastards!"—as if this were a standard procedure from which they had foolishly deviated.
I never heard Mr. Golden (Norman) talk back to his wife. He was the more passive creature, roaming the labyrinthine halls of the Golden compound in his sneakers, invariably wearing brown dress pants of cheap hybrid-materials, and white dress shirt sporting unfashionably long collars. His black hair obstinately refused to comply with his half-hearted comb-over. Usually a layer of wispy strands of hair would stick up into the air; it might even flop around while he talked to you, requiring discipline of you to not laugh or at least follow the flopping strands it with your eyes. The skin around his eyes was permanently crinkled but there was a certain plaintiveness in eyes. while looking at him I was invariably reminded of Yoda from the Star Wars movies, though he didn’t have Yoda’s aspect of wisdom.
Mr. Golden was more apt to walk around quacking "What?! What?!" like a wayward penguin. He might not speak with you for weeks, but then might take a sudden interest in the book you were editing. Then he would offer a rapid series of inappropriate suggestions for expediting the book’s completion, suggestions you could only hope he would promptly forget—and then he would, and might not speak with you for several weeks. Like Mrs. Golden, perhaps his mentor in these matters, Mr. Golden conveyed the impression he didn’t know who you were—any sort of relationship might make a slight prick in his conscience, and force him to give you more money.
The Goldens were nothing if not cost-conscious. On one occasion, the production staff was rushing out copies of the Illinois Criminal and Motor Vehicle Code in order to meet a strict deadline. There was no problem except for the gloss covers, which took many hours to dry on their own. So production usually sprayed an aerosol sealant on the book covers to accelerate their drying time. But after they ran out of the aerosol, Mr. Golden became desperate.
Not wanting to spend the time or money to acquire more of the fast-working aerosol, Mr. Golden brought a few copies of the book into the kitchen. A few production staff watched in awe as Mr. Golden placed a copy of the Illinois Criminal and Motor Vehicle Code into the microwave, selected a heating time, and pressed the Start button. After a few moments, Mr. Golden removed the melting experiment from the appliance, threw the book in the trash, and ran cursing out of the kitchen. One of the pressman, mindful of the demand for Golden artifacts among the workers, retrieved the book as evidence of the Goldens’ inventiveness. But what if the experiment had worked? The mind reels at the thought of the makeshift assembly line Mr. Golden might have fashioned in order to microwave 2500 copies of the Illinois Criminal and Motor Vehicle Code.
Perhaps the same kind of workflow he used to salvage the occasional unused stamp from the daily mail. After the three Goldens had finished opening their daily load of mail, and had personally fed any envelopes from compromising sources into their paper shredders, two people from the production staff were called to pick up the opened envelopes. Then they were to stand and scrutinize each envelope for stamps that the post office machines had failed to mark as used. The two employees confessed that they recovered several perfectly good stamps this way each day, but failed to see the cost-effectiveness of paying them to fish out a handful of 32 cent stamps, even bearing in mind their embarrassingly low salaries.
After I felt I had made myself quite valuable to the company, and not placing great stock in the conscience of the Goldens, I wrote them a letter giving my resignation if I were not given a substantial raise. I was quite nervous about this bit of brinksmanship, especially after Mrs. Golden called me into her office. She was impervious to my inaudible mumbling about the fine Monet print she had on her office wall. She asked me to sit down. She told me it was a fine letter I had written. "What about X?" she said, stating an hourly wage somewhat less than the one I demanded. I surprised myself by making a counter-offer—still less than the wage stated in my letter—that she accepted. I was able to wheedle a few raises out of the Goldens this way. Others didn’t feel that a showdown with the Goldens was worth it. "Besides," so many of them said, "I won’t be here much longer."
But everyone’s failure to escape the Golden’s exploitative clutches was especially acute around Christmas time. I’m sure people were even drafting their New Year’s resolutions, and "Get New Job" had to be even more pressing for many than "Quit Smoking." Luckily, I only spent one Christmas at the Golden’s. Mrs. Golden was very excited about our Christmas party. She bought a "big sandwich" which she placed in our lunchroom. But we still were not provided with more than our standard half-hour for lunch. An array of wrapped gifts sat on another table. When my curiosity got the better of me, I opened it to find a coffee mug filled with small chocolates. Merry Christmas. When she passed out our checks that week I discovered I had been given a 25 cent raise along with everyone else. Let’s see: 25 cents X 40 hours is $10 per week, $40 per month, $520 per year before taxes!
Years after I left, I heard that the Goldens had started providing a Christmas lunch at a Chinese party. But one employee who had the temerity to give his two week’s notice a few days before the Christmas party was actually denied entry into the Chinese restaurant despite his four years’ service to the Goldens.
The Goldens themselves only recognized Yom Kippur. Despite working on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, all year, and displaying not the slightest shred of piety, they observed Yom Kippur without fail. They were probably hedging their bets about the whole God thing. So for one day their empire ran itself without direction. How it must have galled them, even as they sat in synagogue, to think about us slacking off, chattering to each other, perhaps stealing pencils. It was impossible to imagine the Goldens praying, whether singly or in concert, to imagine that they acknowledged any higher power.
During the last few months of my employment with the Goldens, there was increasing talk about their handing the business over to their son, Bruce. Bruce was the middle of their three sons, and had an office up front with his mother and father. The older son was up north, running the New York branch of the family. The youngest son was apparently a spectacularly successful corporate lawyer, who had earned the undying awe of his parents by renouncing his inheritance. He wasn’t on particularly bad terms with the family, and would occasionally do some legal consulting for them, he had just made his own fortune, and so didn’t have to waste his days in the Golden’s Florida compound—in all probably a "sick" building by OSHA standards—worrying about second-rate legal manuals.
Not that Bruce’s assumption of the Golden’s Florida empire required much effort on his part. Bruce frequently arrived around 10:00 a.m., and was known to leave around 4:00 p.m.. We knew that Mrs. Golden supervised the personnel aspects of the business, and Mr. Golden the technical aspects (watching Mr. Golden sweat before a DOS prompt gave us all a sick pleasure), but what was Bruce’s role?
We received some clue as to how Bruce spent a working day the day he bought a new computer. Bruce gave his hand-me-down computer to Dave, one of the editors, who happened to be a little more internet-savvy than most for 1996. Out of curiosity, Dave checked the computer’s internet images cache, and found that Bruce had maxed out of his hard drive by failing to delete his temporary internet files. That’s probably the whole reason Bruce thought he needed a new computer. Dave called a bunch of us to check out the images in the cache. Dave laughed gleefully, pointing out the "See Brad Pitt Nude!" images and the like that had maxed out Bruce’s hard-drive.
Later, we heard all about Bruce’s lovers from the Golden’s housekeeper, whom they occasionally sent over to clean their publishing compound. The time-honored servant grapevine began to work, and Shelley, the mousy maid, told us all about the wild, all-male parties Bruce threw at the house.
Shelley also told us about Mrs. Golden, who was a fiendish hotel-soap collector, and devoted several shelves in a closet to her myriad collection of barsoap, some of which Shelley was instructed to bring to Bruce’s and to the publishing compound whenever supplies ran low. Suddenly I understood why there was always a different kind of tiny barsoap in the men’s room.
During my last few months there, I really felt I had outgrown the place. I had taught myself some computer programming while I was there. My future wife and I had decided to try our luck in the much better Washington, D.C. job market. I triumphantly told my co-workers about my departure, and they felt the usual goodwill mixed with envy.
I actually benefited a lot from working there, though not financially. Most importantly, I met my future wife there, though she had the good sense to leave after six months. I also learned a great deal about computers and publishing which have benefited my career ever since. It also gave me a palpable sense of starting at the bottom, and so made me grateful for the jobs I held later.