A Day in the Kinkos Life

For the past three years, the editors of web magazine Word.com have been sending interviewers all over the United States to talk with people about their work. Inspired by Studs Terkel's seminal oral history, Working, they've spoken with CEOs, temps, bounty hunters, Prozac salesmen, heavy metal roadies, congressmen and supermodels, among many others, asking these people what their jobs are really like and how they make them feel about themselves. The result is Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at The Turn of The Millennium.

Starting this week, AlterNet will be excerpting chapters from Gig, starting with a portrait of Natasha, a Kinkos Co-Worker who slogs through the graveyard shift, fending off the weirdos who use the computers at 3 am and resisting -- but at the same time relishing -- Kinkos' corporate indoctrination tactics.

We think readers will enjoy these vivid and varied monologues from American workers, not because they are so shocking, but because from the mouths of these ordinary and overlooked citizens come the most fascinating things. As Gig co-editor Marisa Bowe explains, "We weren't trying to say anything in particular about the people we interviewed. We think they speak pretty well for themselves."

Kinko's Co-Worker Natasha Werther
Interviewed by John Bowe

I work at Kinko's. I'm a co-worker. That's what we're called. I mean, the slang term with the gang is "Kinkoid," but "Kinko's co-worker" is what it says on our papers. I've been doing it for nearly three years now. (Laughs.) Once upon a time, I had more prestigious jobs. Now I wear an apron.

The last job I had was teaching at this kinda crappy community college-type place. I was an instructor, which didn't pay well at all, and they were constantly screwing around with me -- canceling my classes at the start of the semester or, you know, over-enrolling them, or whatever. (Laughs.) Basically, it just sucked. I hated it. And then my husband got into graduate school. He got a full scholarship deal and his mom lives out here so we could live for free. So we came out and I was looking for a job to fill in the gaps. I picked Kinko's because (laughs) like, nothing here is open late and I really liked the idea of working at the only all-night place around. You know? I thought it would make me feel like I'm back in the city maybe. And it's just -- I figured it wouldn't be a big deal. I figured it would be an easy job to get, an easy job to do. And I was right, sort of.

As it turns out you have to take all these like psychological tests to make sure that you're not going to steal from them or go postal. They were weird tests, I mean, just weird but kinda obvious questions. I actually think they're kind of standard. I think most big companies have them now. You do them over the phone. There's a phone call for you and you just have to hit keys. It's all automated. "Hit one for yes and two for no." They're just yes or no questions. There's a lot of stuff about anger. Like, "Do you think it's right if a co-worker gets loud with you in anger that you get loud back?" (Laughs.) And you know the answer's no. You're supposed to say no. You know? "Would you ever raise a fist to another person?" If you even pause too long on that one I think they don't hire you. You know? So they have you go through -- God, more than a hundred of these questions -- it was endless.

And then they train you and that's pretty weird too. They say they're teaching you technical stuff about the equipment, but what they spend most of the time on is indoctrinating you into this Kinko's philosophy. So, like, mixed in with a little ten minute discussion of the laminating machine, they'll slip in thirty minutes of stuff like giving one hundred and ten percent to the customer, you know? Like how when you give more, Kinko's gives more back. And stuff like that. (Laughs.) They kind of rally everybody together. I think they believe that you're less likely to rip them off or be irresponsible if you feel like you're in like a family-type thing. So they get you in all these little ways. They give you grades. You're treated like a kid. Do you know what I mean? And so by the end of this two week period, you feel sort of beholden to Kinko's.

Even after you start working, they're always kind of testing you and indoctrinating you. Like they have these mystery shoppers come in. There are companies that do this job for different corporations -- they'll send these mystery shoppers into the store, and they're just people who pose as customers. And what they'll do is they'll give you a very simple job. You know, "I need ten color copies, double sided." Or whatever. And you go and you do that job. And they're making a report on how long it took you to acknowledge them. On if the store looks neat and how the job was done. They take your name and everything. Because we have to wear name tags. And what they do is they make a report, and they send it to our store and then our manager posts it and we all read how each of us is doing. And there's this weird kind of store pride, or group pride, that forms. You know, they'll say, "Congratulations, Natasha," if a mystery shopper gave me good points and said nice things about my appearance or something. And so it locks people into this whole family mentality. You're afraid of being the bad kid, of being nasty to a customer. (Laughs.) Because you know it will be posted that you screwed up. And the whole gang will know.

They also make you keep going back to take more courses. Every few months they've got you enrolled in a new course and you have to learn a new thing. And it's always supposedly about color copiers or about the "point of sale system," which is just a fancy name for the cash register, but each time you go back, they re-indoctrinate you. And I can't believe it, but it actually works. People jump around saying, "I got a ninety-five on my audit! I got a ninety five!" Like forty year olds in aprons (laughs) are jumping around like saying, "I did it! I got the Hundred and Ten Percent quiz! I got them all right!"

I do it too sometimes. It really -- I think it's amazing. I feel goofy jumping around like that. I mean I know they're just going for my enthusiasm. They don't really need to test me on the color copier, right? But it really works. It's just totally amazing how it really works. I mean, like, there was this guy who stole from our store who got led out in handcuffs. He was a co-worker. And I think people would have thrown rocks at him if they could have. Do you know what I mean? Like the sense of community is so built-up. They still joke about that guy. There were jokes about him last night at work. It's a little extreme.

Anyway, here I am. (Laughs.) I started part-time, moved to full-time after a few months. My shift goes from ten at night until six-thirty in the morning. I do everything from dealing with customers to black and white copying and color copying, laminating, dry mounting of things onto poster board, computer print outs, putting people on the self service computer stations and helping them out there. (Laughs.) I do about fifty different jobs.

Mostly, of course, it's copying. (Laughs.) I make a lot of copies. And because I work nights, I have to do a lot of the bigger jobs that they can't get to during the day shift. So I'll have to do really huge boring collating jobs, because if they get stopped in the middle with customers all the time during the day, they'll screw up their count. So I do an awful lot of -- we call it monkey work -- hours and hours of collating and binding projects and stuff like that. Thousands and thousands of books.

It's very, very dull. But that's kind of what I like about it. I really like the job (laughs) because I have all these things in my private life that never have any resolution. You never know when you're done in a sense. And they're endless. Like your marriage or your family and friends and stuff -- they're just all these little problems that are always in flux. Or like when I was a teacher, that's a very human thing, and the years end, but there's no resolution, you know? The students just disappear and you never know if you've accomplished anything. But this is something where you can see you made a thousand books that night. And there's something actually very satisfying about that.

And then, you know, the customers come in very occasionally, and they're wackadoo because it's the middle of the night. They'll come in (laughs) like, "I need this job done NOW!" And there's no way -- like why on earth would they need it now? You know, there's nothing open. There's nothing to do. So they'll come in at three, four, or five in the morning like that. You know? "I've got to get this now!" (Laughs.) And so I'll turn off my little Book on Tape, and stop my binding, and I'll go up and help them. And it's kind of nice because I can actually help them. And they really do need help.

I've dealt with a lot of customers in a lot of places, and people are remarkably odd here. Some of them stay at Kinko's all the time. It's like people who've got no other place to go. And they just stay on our computers for as long as they can. And they come in every night. They're regulars. And some of them are these very computer literate entrepreneurs, small business people who seem to be doing very, very well, and we get a lot of students, but most of them are just generally -- they're kind of sweet, very alone, sad people. And they're constantly looking for jobs and making new resumes. (Laughs.) They finish one resume, and then they have to make another bunch. You know? And they're constant customers because they're nuts. We have one guy, I think he's been looking for a job the whole time I've been here -- I mean, I don't want to make him feel bad if he ever reads this -- but he was here, you know, the first day that I worked here, and he was in last night. And he's forever printing out five hundred more resumes. He's just in all night long. And he's one of these sort of big, fat guys with like a zit at the end of his nose and -- you know what I mean? It's just tough.

I hear that like the really hip Boston Kinko's and the LA Kinko's and the New York Kinko's now have these like hipster caffeinated kids that are there all night long. And that it's almost chic and cool to be just hanging at Kinko's doing your work. Our Kinko's hasn't had quite that.

These people, they just like to sit in front of the computers. I don't understand that. It must cost them a fortune. I mean, it's like ten cents a minute so to come in night after night for hours -- my God. But they do it. I think part of it is that they just like to be around us. You know, where they almost -- you know, everybody knows each other by name. I know each of these customers, the handful of customers that do this, by their first names. I know when one is going through a lawsuit. I know when the other has a job interview.

It's kind of like being a bartender in a way. They want very little attention, they just want you to be nice to them. You know what I mean? And when they do need attention, they're the kind of people who sort of expect an argument and when you don't give them one, and you just give them some attention, they're so happy and they just keep coming back. It's so sweet. Unfortunately I also have some people hitting on me at night, which is a little unfortunate. But I wear my wedding ring. And they don't hit on me directly. They just sort of come by and, you know, there's a bar next door and they'll ask me to go over for a drink or want to bring me back (laughs) something. There's a lot of stuff like that. It's tolerable.

Actually, Kinko's, I think, is my favorite job I've ever had. It's very low stakes. It's really not that hard, you know, so you can be very helpful to customers. And so you feel sort of competent and you get all this work done. And the management here seems very happy with me. I used to get all tense going in to different jobs. There would be things that could screw up and people were counting on me, blah, blah, blah. And now I just roll in, and it's kind of like weaving baskets all night long. You know, I like it.

The only bad thing is there's like a definite sense of being watched all the time. Because there's fifteen cameras in our store -- and they're all pointed at the workers. So clearly, you know, they say we're a family, but the biggest thing they're worried about at Kinko's is the workers in the stores, right? (Laughs.) I mean, everybody knows the one place in the store where the cameras don't see is over by the self-serve printers. I was actually told by other co-workers when I started here, "The cameras don't go to where the self-serve printers are." So literally, if you want to eat in the store, there's a back area, but it's kind of disgusting, so you take your food and go to where the self-serve printers are. You eat or drink your coffee standing up over there, which is a little uncomfortable. Or you sit on the floor, which isn't so great either. You have this definite sense of being watched.

And they let you know, you know? I mean, I'll bet they only look at the tapes very occasionally, but it seems like whenever they do it, they mention to us what they saw, even if it's just a meaningless thing -- just to give us this constant sense you're always being watched.

We rip them off anyway all the time. But we don't rip them off for money that I know of. I mean, except for that one guy who got arrested -- who was actually taking money -- the way people steal is just by constantly making posters for their kids and, you know, doing all that kind of stuff. It feels like a fringe benefit. Because it is a low-paying, you know, kind of endless job. And so people do it all the time. Like just last night I made -- oh, my gosh, maybe forty color copies of my mother-in-law's new grandchild. Which are a dollar twenty-nine apiece, you know?

There was this assistant manager once who told me that there's only two ways you can get fired from Kinko's -- number one is you don't show up for a shift. You can be late for a shift. You can call in. You can be late all the time. But if you start missing shifts you're out. Number two is if you steal money. You can steal products, you can steal service. But if you steal money -- that's it. And it's funny because this guy was applying to lots of graduate schools and he took crazy advantage of the store. He was, I mean, doing thousands of dollars of work every single week. Making color posters that would impress Harvard. Making catalogues, like incredibly professional looking stuff and spending endless time on the computers and using every single bit of equipment. And they didn't fire him or have any trouble with him. Then he got into school and he missed two shifts and they fired him. Isn't that funny?

And all this stuff he was doing was right on camera, so they definitely knew, or sort of knew, what this guy was up to. But they're smart. What they want is for you not to abuse them. You know what I mean? They know it's not the greatest job in the world, so they sort of make it right in your head by being kind of smart and nice and all of this stuff. Like they sort of give you this stuff for free. Like I needed a lot of legal paperwork because of my student loans. And it would be constantly faxed to me, and I would be faxing back stuff to these banks. And I would get these embarrassing forbearance notices because I don't have any money to pay my student loans. And they would put them in the back office for me and seal them in envelopes and give them to me by hand. (Laughs.) Which I thought was really sweet. And they would also never make me pay for them.

They're actually a really decent company to work for. They have a health plan. They have a very lame 401(k) plan, but it's there. They match your funds, you know. And so even though they're kind of like a McDonald's chain, they're trying very hard to be a corporation that their people love. They've said they're gonna give us stock and like, Fortune Magazine or some magazine said they're one of the best hundred companies to work for in America. And it's kind of true.

I mean, they're a nasty old corporation, but there are a lot of advantages to working for a corporation. You can get lost in the corporation, and I kind of like that. You know what I mean? And you can save yourself from a lot of bad shit. I mean, I'm thirty-six years old. I've seen the world. I've been a waitress, I've worked around schools a lot, I've been a teacher, I've worked at a lot of stores for owners -- not retail chains -- just stores that belonged to people. And the thing is that people in their own small business can be nutty and dysfunctional. But if people are nutty and dysfunctional and they're managing a store for a corporation, they get the boot. You know what I mean? They can't be that zany. They can't throw stuff at you. They can't have tantrums. They can't be obviously racist. So the same corporate Big Brothery thing that kinda takes all the personality out of everything can also be a good thing.

It's like, I think that in part people are kept from becoming their dysfunctional selves by working for a corporation. Do you know what I mean? Because the corporation has so much to lose if their people are wack jobs. They can get sued and lose a big chunk of change. Like this store has had several sexual discrimination suits or threats of suits against a couple of the daytime managers -- guys who weren't promoting women -- and Kinko's took those things very seriously. They have to fire the wack jobs. They have to figure them out right away and not let them have management positions. So, like, basically, I think the legal system keeps corporations in line. Not as far as pollution and taxes. I mean I don't think corporations are in line as far as pollution and taxes and what not. I think the corporations obviously get away with murder. But as far as how they have to treat their people, I think it's basically good and I'm all for corporations.

Well, actually, I guess that isn't true. There are terrible corporations. Kinko's is just okay. Like they do not recycle at my store. But I think it's corporate policy to recycle. And I do believe that other stores recycle. However, the town that I'm in charges for a recycling bin a chunk of money. So our store doesn't pay for it, and we throw out a dumpster of paper every week at least -- a huge dumpster of paper every week at least. And that just sort of breaks my heart. It fucking sucks. But I don't think that's a Kinko's thing. I know people who work at two other Kinko's stores and they both recycle. So I think this is just this store.

I mean, I don't know. It is very corporate. That's just the way it is. And so things are the way they are. You know. Like this weekend, all the managers and assistant managers are at a company picnic -- they're playing golf someplace. They do these little jaunts. And they'll come back and be all like rah-rah-rah! And they'll pull the co-workers together, and have a very jargony talk with us about how any business the store is shown in our paycheck. That it's not just for the company, it's for us. And it all feels very false. (Laughs.) But they aren't bad people, you know? And this is the first job I've ever had where I don't get all bummed that I'm going to. I mean, I remember when I was teaching, I would just get so bummed every morning. I'd cry sometimes, on the way in. And I am not sad at all about coming into work now. I am happy to see everybody. It's just -- you know -- I can't argue with a job where I go in, I do my little thing, maybe I work hard, but it's no problem. And the people are totally nice. You know what I mean? (Laughs.) It's really hard to be nasty about that. I mean, even if I think it is a little silly.

For more Gig interviews, visit the Gig archive at Word.com or buy Gig at Barnes&Noble.com.

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