Mask with a Crush

Reflections from a novelist who takes a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment center

An edited excerpt from Heike Geissler, Seasonal Associate.

What’s up with you now? You seem strangely distracted, almost like you’ve been caught out. As though something major had occurred to you that now absolutely has to be dealt with. As though you had to work out a way to steal away from your work unnoticed to deal with the matter.

You’ve got a crush as well. You hadn’t noticed it before. Now it’s clear, though. When did it start? You couldn’t say, exactly. It just kind of developed, and now it’s obvious. You feel funny now, a little bit common or garden variety. You wonder whether infatuation is in the air here, whether everyone falls in love with a workmate after a few weeks with the company and if so, what that might reveal about your feelings. You don’t know, and you decide to keep your crush to yourself anyway, and not to consider it anything special for that very reason.

So there’s this forklift driver you like; you don’t know his name. You’re so infatuated you can’t look him in the eye. As soon as he approaches you turn away, first taking off your glasses, casting a glance down at yourself, paying attention to your posture, standing straight and acting savvy. It would be no surprise if my old girlfriends from school were to peek out of a box of books to stage-whisper at you. Say something to him, go on! You think he’s watching you. You blush when you think he’s nearby. You think you see him driving every forklift, this man for whom you suddenly feel something. You’re so flustered, you confuse him with all other men. To be precise, it’s like the Pavlov thing, the dog and the bell—which, as Heinz von Förster once said in a lecture, rang mainly for the scientist; for the dog, the sight of the bell was enough to get the saliva flowing. Or how much less sufficed for the dog? For you, in any case, the sound of an approaching forklift suffices, the sound makes your heart flutter and the bottom drop out of your stomach, but you wouldn’t want to see it like that. Now you even start feeling at home in your emotional turmoil, taking your blushing as a signal that you ought to try and get a permanent contract. You change sides through flights of fancy, exchanging my professions, where a person never knows what anything should cost and when the money will be coming in, for a wish for a permanent contract at this place. Knowing exactly how you feel, of course, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. Why all these feelings of yours all of a sudden? You’re nothing like this really. And, above all, not long ago you had plans for the company and not just for your private working life. So?

No reaction on your end; you’re busy receiving books and also with nursing and reining in your emotional state. But: I know you, and I know where your feelings come from: You’ve just watched too much TV. You’ll never admit it but you think of this simple solution: You enter the forklift driver’s heart, whereupon the forklift driver skillfully maneuvers you into a permanent contract. He carries you over the actual threshold of the company. From there on in, you’ll have a life that can be narrated in easily understandable phrases.

I’m afraid you have a Friday-night-made-for-TV-movie heart, which believes a person has to have the kind of love that’s in no way threatening or challenging. A nerve-calming kind of love, a bench in the sun with shaded spots as and when required. You wouldn’t say that, though. You’d say: Hey, it just happened.

In the meantime I think of my friend Anke, who likes to tell me about a job she had at Berlin’s international cultural center, the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. She and all the other temporary workers hired to guard an exhibition wore uniforms and were given a guided tour by the curator’s assistant, who wasn’t in uniform. The assistant told them one of the pieces had been influenced by the work of Paul Bourdieu, whereupon one guy from the circle of prospective museum guides asked whether he was Pierre Bourdieu’s little brother, whereupon most of the uniformed prospective museum guards laughed. The curator’s assistant didn’t understand why they were laughing. The uniformed group went on giggling, and giggled itself into a kind of desperation, or giggled a kind of desperation out of itself, because those who were being told something knew more than the person telling them. Later on, the poorly paid but very well-educated uniformed guards would sit on a staircase in the HKW building for their lunch break where they looked, Anke said, like aged boarding-school students who had long since grown out of their uniforms.

You can stay, I say. You can let your brain come to a standstill in this place. But you won’t stay anyway. It’s simply the case that “life, which for all other animal species is the very essence of their being, becomes a burden to man because of his innate ‘repugnance to futility.’” And because you are me, and I am like everyone else in essence, you can’t take any additional burden, especially not that burden of futile activity that you—understandably and yet inappropriately—are trying to mask with a crush and a belief in the necessity of a permanent contract.

You press the button to switch on the red light above your workplace, which signals to the forklift drivers that you need a new delivery. The book box next to you is empty and you wait for more books, as nervous as before a first date.

And the forklift driver you’re thinking of really does come driving up, but he hasn’t got any units on his truck. He says if you haven’t got anything to do you should go find Falk at the lead desk. He looks past you, his gaze slightly slanting. You don’t reply, just head straight off, instantly forgetting what his voice sounds like. You go over to Falk, feeling glances that the driver isn’t sending after you. Falk looks up and then looks straight down again.

Yeah, he says. You get started then.
Doing what? you ask.
Didn’t he tell you? asks Falk.
No, you say.
He was supposed to tell you though.
Maybe he forgot.
Yeah, says Falk. Aren’t you cold just in a T-shirt?
No, you say. I just had to do a lot of lifting.

Alright, says Falk. He finishes something on the computer. Then he looks up: We value cleanliness, so we use the time when we don’t have any inbound shipments to make the hall cleaner. Go and sweep up the Receiving section, please.

Where exactly is that? you ask.

It goes from underneath the conveyor on the one side to the managers’ glass box on the other side.

You get yourself a broom, bucket, dustpan, and brush. You start sweeping the floor, brushing up dust that makes you cough, and you don’t know where to start. The hall is hard to clean; remains of old strips of tape are stuck to the floor, impossible to sweep up and gathering dirt. You start by sweeping up the most obvious dirt but then you get more precise. Losing your bearings, you sweep some spots twice over. You can’t see an end to the task; it feels like you’re supposed to sweep a whole residential district. You sweep and sweep but there’s a crack in the dustpan and it doesn’t pick up dirt well. You sweep along the side of the glass box, watching the managers you were told at the beginning had an open ear for all your concerns, but you fear any concerns that got poured into the glass box would leak out again through the chinks between the panes.

Inside the glass box, everyone works alone, each at their own computer, absorbed, sitting with bent backs, staring at screens. You sweep the place like a powerful woman, upright and strong, drawing the broom along the edge of the glass box with force; you want them to hear inside that you’re sweeping, that someone’s sweeping around the managers’ box. You sweep around employees’ legs too, and they feel sorry for you: Are they already creating work for idle hands? one coworker asks you.

It’s OK, you say. At least I’m not just standing around.

You’re covered in a thin layer of dust and haven’t yet swept a third of the space, when Falk turns up again.

Are you still sweeping? he says. I didn’t see you doing it.

I haven’t finished yet, you say.

Falk tells you a new delivery’s come in so you can go back to your workstation. You watch him walk away and you’re surprised it no longer matters whether you’ve finished sweeping or not. He didn’t even ask how far you’d got.