My Life as a Kelly Girl

Voice Card  -  Volume 22  -  John Card Number 11  -  Sun, Dec 22, 1991 9:39 AM

After six months of hunting I finally have a (temporary) job. For the last two weeks I have been working as a Kelly Girl, doing technical writing for a company in Berkeley called Miles/Cutter Biological. It is, as they say, a learning experience.

I work in a trailer full of women: my boss (Jeanette), three word processors (Monica, Rinda, and Patti), and a receptionist (Ina). They call themselves the trailer chicks (in contrast to the Building 52 studs), so I am an honorary trailer chick. I created a slight panic when, on my first day, I innocently asked where the men's room was. It was a question no one in the trailer had ever asked before. Finally Jeanette led me from one building to another, whispering in the ears of various burly men and pointing at me, until we found one. So now, when nature calls, I have to leave the trailer and go into the plague building.

Miles/Cutter manufactures a vaccine for the bubonic plague. They also use recombinant DNA to create treatment for hemophiliacs. It is exacting and potentially dangerous work and is thus heavily regulated; everything is done by the book, or rather, books. There are rows and rows of thick black books chocked full of procedures. And anyone who ever wants to do anything differently must first change one of these manuals and get that change approved. That's where the trailer chicks come in.

We are in a division called GMP (Good Manufacturing Procedures - often referred to by grumbling biologists as Godamn Military Police). Our job is to examine proposed changes, clarify them, tidy them up, and send them off to quality assurance and other such places. We are in the front lines of change. Every day my pen runs red.

I am not supposed to understand this stuff - that is left to someone higher up. My job is to make sure that these requests make sense. I check to see that all the i's are dotted and the t's crossed. I quietly fix spelling mistakes (HA!) and massage awkwardly written paragraphs into gleaming subsections. When section IV.G.3.c refers to figure VII.B, I make sure there really IS a figure VII.B. And when a twenty page procedure has been rewritten I go through, line by line, and make sure that the only changes are in the parts that were supposed to change. You'd be surprised how easily "Make sure transfer line is clamped" can become "Make sure transfer line is unclamped."

Every day I am confronted with a swaying tower of documents to be proofed. Mysteriously, the more documents I remove from this pile, the taller it grows. Each document is actually a collection of documents, held together with an impressive assortment of paper clips, staples, and rubber bands. Each packet consists not only of the document itself, but also its original version and all the incarnations in between, along with a sea of routing forms (impressive documents in their own right) that detail each proposed change and provide justifications. I edit documents, I edit other people's editing of the documents, I edit the documents that describe other people's editing of the documents, and I even edit other people's editing of the documents that describe other people's editing of the documents.

It's the kind of job I always imagined one would do in the underworld upon the completion of an especially sinful life: an eternal sentence of paper shuffling in the bureaucracy of Hell. Now I understand what a temping friend of mine meant when she said she was "doing the devil's work."

Sometimes, when I am alone in my cubicle, I permit myself a few moments of introspection. This factory I work in is, in fact, a huge organism and the men and women who serve here are mere cells. The cells come and go, but the organism endures. The thoughts and actions of this organism are far beyond my ken. My role in all this is a microscopic one. I am like one of those enzymes who travel up and down a strand of DNA looking for mutations. Paradoxically, I am as tiny as can be, a mere speck, and yet, at certain moments, the evolution of the entire organism is in my hands. And, like the organism I work in, indeed, like the cells of my own weary body, I struggle each day against the same dark forces of entropy. Theoretically a single misplaced semicolon could bring the factory to its knees.

And that is my life as a Kelly Girl. This job will probably last for a few more months until they can find a permanent replacement. The money I earn will get us partly out of debt. In the meantime, I will continue to watch the eddies and swirls of paperwork as it crosses my desk - mysterious as any river. If I find anything in there worth mentioning I'll be sure to let you know.