It had to happen eventually.
I had a “worst temp job” experience. Not just temp- worst job I’ve had, ever.
The actual job was normal. Fine, even. Receptionist/admin for an accounting team. Answer phones, update people’s Outlook calendars, make coffee, check the mail, handle Fed Ex… oops, don’t click away, I’ll get to the story!
I was filling in for a couple of weeks because the regular receptionist was out sick. It was a small office, about 12 people, everyone had been there for a minimum of 10+ years. Tight knit but friendly group. How is the worst job? Well.
The woman I filled in for was more than sick, turns out. She was diagnosed with cancer. Scary, but she planned to get treatment and other staff started arranging to send flowers and cards. I kept answering phones. A week later, everyone is humming along as usual, thinking good thoughts for the receptionist.
I came in the following Monday, booted up the email to see what meetings I needed to update and so on. I also came down with a chest cold that weekend. My voice was deep and scratchy and I had a disgusting cough. It sounded like I was puking gravy; I should have stayed home at least one or two days that week, but I was filling in for a sick person already!
I was going through the email when I read that the receptionist passed away over the weekend. I looked around the desk I was sitting at. Her desk for 18 years. Sticky notes with her handwriting posted around- phone numbers and extensions she needed to remember. Her altoids and tissues in the top drawer. Her neglected plant on the desk’s edge. I felt dizzy from actually being ill and because I felt like sitting there was some kind of intrusion on her personal space. She planned to return to work.
The office manager came in and asked if I could help clean out the desk. I got a box and started putting those altoids and tissues in it. A crossword book, an address book, a discman. I found a book titled something like “How to Live When a Loved One Dies.” I learned her son suddenly died a couple of years before. The rest of the week the office was very quiet (minus my deep, echoing cough). An accountant started watering the neglected plant. She fiddled with it, picking at its leaves and I would either watch her mess with it and tell her she was making the plant look very nice, or I’d stare at my computer screen.
I stayed there for a couple more weeks while the office decided what to do with the position. I started changing contact information for things like UPS and the coffee delivery. One afternoon, the week the receptionist died, the regular UPS woman came in with some mail and asked for an update on her health. I slowly explained, stuttering a little because I wasn’t expecting to have tell anybody, “actually, I’m sorry, she passed away over the weekend.” I thought the UPS woman was going to faint. She just backed out slowly, sadly. The Fed Ex guy asked a couple of days later and said, “Huh. Wow. We liked to talk about golf.” He was more confused. It did get easier to break the news to various people (I stopped stuttering) - the security guard downstairs, water delivery guy, but it still felt strange, like it wasn’t my business to tell.
We ran out of legal paper once. I guess the receptionist was always a few steps ahead and I didn’t realize that was on my to-do list. I didn’t get reprimanded or anything, people were mostly realizing how much their receptionist actually did for them. I hated to be sitting at her desk when everyone trickled in each morning. I’d say “good morning!” but I’m sure it wasn’t the same, no matter how chipper I was (again, when I wasn’t trying to keep my phlegm down).
Another day, the office manager, while mostly keeping her composure, got pretty upset with the postage machine and its certified mail option. “I’ve had 18 years to learn how to do this, why did I never learn?” Fortunately, I do know how to get those damn machines to do certified mail, so I showed her and made a how-to to post above the machine. The next day I heard a commotion in the kitchen/break area. I walked around the corner and found the office manager had opened every drawer and cupboard, emptying all the contents. I helped her dust and throw out stale sugar packets and the like. She ate some of the receptionist’s old cereal because she didn’t want to toss it.
I was so glad when the office decided to hire a part time receptionist. It was too sad to work there (also, they made it only part time). They needed a brand new face, someone who hadn’t witnessed UPS woman breakdowns or coworkers eating old cereal. Someone who didn’t have to take down old post-its.
I felt like I knew her even though I didn’t meet her. She was in her early sixties. You learn a few things from people’s post-its. Reminders, to-do’s, phone numbers you need to recite often, even if you memorize them after a while- it’s good to have them handy.