Wednesday, April 13, 2005

"I Was a Cigarette Captain"

It was the summer of '95, I had just quit my first job out of college without having another one to fall back on (a scenario which would play itself out repeatedly in my professional career) so I became a temp with Kelly Services. "Oh, a Kelly Girl," my dad said, "we hire them sometimes."

My very first time as a Kelly Girl was with CitiBank. I handed out the daily marketing report on the trading floor. Every desk had 3 monitors, two for cable news stations and one Bloomberg station with stock quotes inserts, tv inserts and a microphone - a super media consumption trough. One time a guy started banging his phone so hard on his desk the receiver split into pieces. I discovered later he was "doing currencies." "Must've been the deutschmark," my friend said, "it crashed that week." Everybody kept to themselves and were very intent on what they were doing.

I got a call for my second temp job on a Sunday night while I was eating dinner. "How do you feel about working for Philip Morris, you know, the cigarette company?" My roomates and I were literally watching 60 Minutes with Mike Wallace explaining why they were not going to air the Tobacco Whistleblower story. Looking at the TV I replied, "Sure!"

The next morning I walked into the lobby of their midtown Manhattan office and the receptionist handed me an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) to sign. A document that prohibits me from ever discussing my experience there or so help them God they will sue the crap out of me. After I signed it she looked up and said, "Hello! Welcome to Philip Morris."

Every person I met was the nicest person in the world. They all said hello and asked me how I was doing and welcomed me. They smiled and not that fake kind of smile but a genuine I'm-noticing-you-and-want-to-be-nice-to-you smile. I sat at my desk and noticed a sign on the wall. It was a No Smoking Sign with a gangbuster symbol over a cigarette. Except it wasn't. I looked more closely and saw that the gangbuster sign was modified. The line was curvy instead of straight making the sign look like a yin and yang symbol. Below it read, "Smoke Friendly".

I worked in the Employee Services department for Margot C. Margot was very nice. One of her main jobs was making sure that employees were relocated successfully. My main responsibilities were:
- updating the gym calendar
- updating the Health Awareness calendar
- making sure deceased employees got a flower arrangement at their funeral
- making sure employees who've just had babies were sent a congratulatory baby spoon
- helping out with the United Way fund drive
- making sure everybody in my department got their free weekly carton of cigarettes.
- dealing with retired employees who were not sent their free monthly carton of cigarettes

On Monday I would receive a legal-sized hardstock sheet of bright fluorescent green paper. At the top of the page it read "Cigarette Captain" with directions on what to do. It also listed all the brands of cigarettes made by Philip Morris: Marlboro, Virginia Slims, Benson & Hedges, Merit, Parliament, Alpine, Basic, Cambridge, Bristol, Bucks, Chesterfield, Collector's Choice, Commander, English Ovals, Lark, L&M, Players and Saratoga etc. I would walk around the department asking each person (there were 12) what brand they wanted. I would record how many cartons were requested of what brand on the green sheet. Then on Tuesday it would get picked up by the mailroom person. On Friday, sitting on my desk would be a stack of cigarette cartons held together with rubber bands. One by one, people would stop by my desk and pick up their carton and walk back to their desk.

The interesting thing was nobody in my department smoked. They would give their free carton to their friends or family members or just store it in their desk, but they never turned down the cigarettes. In fact, only one person on our entire floor smoked. A white-haired middle-manager who would light it up every half hour or so with his office door wide open. It stank up the entire floor.

Where were you when the OJ Simpson verdict was read? I was at Philip Morris, coming back from an errand and my officemates were crowded around a radio at someone's desk. I made it to within earshot just as the juror stumbled over her sentence ending with, "not guilty." Later that day, I was riding an elevator with a few officemates and their friends. One woman was theorizing about who may have killed OJ's wife and friend. She recalled seeing footage of OJ's white suburban car chase and when it was all over and OJ came out to greet his family from the car, his son ran to him first giving him a big, emotional hug. She thought it was his son who did it.

Sometimes I would check Margot's voicemail for messages and write them down. It was something she encouraged me to do, but in retrospect it wasn't such a good idea. One time, a woman, who was clearly a friend of hers, left the message: "Margot, this is _____ and I'm in Washington, DC with a million black men surrounding the entire block." She said it not as if she were threatened, but as if it were exciting, thrilling, scandalous. It was the week of the first Million Man March. Do I delete the message? Do I write it down? Do I save it? If I save it, it clearly shows been heard. I was embarrassed to have inadvertently eavesdropped on a personal voicemail of racial proportions. I don't remember whether I saved it or deleted it, but I think I saved it.

In the lobby, security was tight. You had to show your card to the security doorman and pass through a turnstile. One day my officemate was pretty upset. She said that one of the doormen had just died the night before. Apparently he had an altercation with the police and they apprehended him using pepper spray. He had had some sort of allergic reaction to the spray and couldn't breathe. By the time they brought him to the hospital he was dead.

I was walking by a conference room one day and the door was propped open and I could hear the presentation inside. The man was saying that yes, the cigarette business in the US was on the decline. Yes, the media onslaught from the whistleblower story was affecting sales. But something to consider is the global market. The sales in Asia were on the increase and South America was on the rise as well. You have to look at the bigger picture, he said, and in the global view, we're still doing pretty well.

I worked as a temp for almost 3 months and towards the end Margot C. offered me a full-time job. I actually felt guilty about turning it down. Because here I was working with all these nice people, all of whom had this enormous chip on their shoulder or dark cloud hanging over their head because they were working at a cigarette company, a cancer factory, an evil empire. It was the unspoken guilt and shame that full-time employees carried with them like a scarlet letter sewn to their suits. I just said no.

I finished my last day of work taking the call of a gravelly voiced retiree, making sure that she was re-sent her monthly carton of Marlboro Reds. I had to fill out a yellow form in triplicate. Then I turned around and filled out the blue form for sending flowers for a deceased employee's funeral.