The starving artist is a well-worn cliché-but one with some truth to it. Not only because art isn't always commercial, but also because many artists would rather spend time practicing their craft than earning a living. They often work part time-as bartenders, as waiters, doing something just to pay the bills. Rarely do we think of them filling 9-to-5 office jobs.
However, Jim Geary is an example of how office work can actually complement the artistic lifestyle-provided the work is temping.
Geary, a filmmaker, sculptor and musician in his late 20s, temps in his native San Diego after having recently moved back from the Bay Area, where he lived for two years. For the first year up north, he had a series of odd jobs. But when he and his live-in girlfriend Leann, who was working on her master's degree in fine arts, realized they weren't bringing in enough money, Geary looked for what he hoped would be steadier work through a temp agency. Glutted with employees in a poor economy, the agency couldn't offer him anything initially, but after two months, Geary got an assignment.
“I just walked into this office job and ended up working there the whole year,” he marvels.
“It ended up being for a company called LSI, a specialty sugar manufacturer,” he says. “A year before I started working there, they'd been bought out by this corn syrup manufacturer called Minnesota Corn Products, which came in and fired most of the employees.”
Making the least of it
Geary said that midway through his term working at LSI, the company was bought out again. LSI's volatility frightened its regular employees, but it didn't ruffle Geary. If the company foundered, his agency could always send him somewhere else. As he details the absurdities of working for the sugar manufacturer-or his recent receptionist gig in San Diego-one advantage of temping becomes clear: the less attached you are to a job, the more humorously you regard it.
Geary recites one funny office anecdote after another. Like the real estate agent who talked about taking her daughter's “alligators” to the vet (she couldn't remember the word “iguana”). Or the coddled receptionist, who never did a lick of work, yet somehow remained everyone's pet. With its hallmark cynicism, the office tale is a well-plied genre-but Geary's stories are different. His seem removed, almost sweet. Perhaps temps are uniquely situated as aloof, bemused observers in the workplace-an ideal vantage point for an artist.
Artists hope to conserve their energy for creation; their day jobs shouldn't demand too much of them. Geary describes temping as, “really easy work, most of time.” Temp workers, he says, know how to make the least of things:
“People who have worked as a temp for awhile and are lazy can gauge how long they can get away with being slow at something. I could have been at the last place like three months and still projected this aura of adjusting myself. ‘OK, I got this down pretty good... let's bring things on slowly here.'”
Geary thinks he can justify this slothful approach.
“You know you're being used. They're not paying you a lot of money, they're not paying you health care, and you could be fired in a moment's notice.” With conditions so breezy at the sugar manufacturer, Geary the artist accomplished a lot after-hours.
“I would work all day long in this office, but at the end of the day I would still have a ton of energy left, and I would sculpt with my girlfriend all night. It would be like part two of my day.”
But doesn't temping's rote mindlessness-answering phones, filing papers-eventually kill creativity? Not necessarily, says Geary. He says paper-pushing temps can find inspiration if they know where to look for it.
“At the last company-and I had to force myself to do this, to be the proactive, subversive artist-all I'd do all day long is read... worker's comp claims. One of my favorites was the woman who worked in a lab at UCSD who got rat urine in her eye. She cut open rats for a living, so that's karma from the grave. She was allergic to rat urine and didn't know it, and that's what she does for a living, cuts open rats.”
Geary says such gory reading made him ponder the theme of “risk”-how in the most commonplace settings, lives can instantly, violently change.
From almost every point of view (except a financial one), the temp's position, with its generous allowance of thinking (and snooping) time, is a privileged one. Most other people in an office, Geary has observed, work unbelievably hard. He's seen more than one person break down weeping, tortured by job stress. While expressing admiration for their work ethic, he doesn't envy the lives of his employers' so-called “permanent” co-workers. He says their dedication to a job and their dreams of families and material possessions stand in direction opposition to his own sense of identity.
“I think temping enforced my personal morals and values. It enforced who I am and what I want to do. That's been one of the most rewarding things working in an office and being a temp, just confirmation of who I was.”