The Interview

You’re the only person to get off the tram at Amazon’s stop, and you immediately know what a global corporation looks like. It can’t be missed, but it could be improved. The dispatch hall is built gray and low, parallel to the street; it’s huge but discreet. It appears docile, like a tamed giant or a prisoner on parole, trying hard neither to do anything criminal nor to look like he might. There’s a banner on the fence surrounding the building, announcing job vacancies. Your boyfriend told you not to even think about failing the interview, that they’re bound to take you.

Christmas on Amazonstraße

Amazon Leipzig. Image via Wikimedia.

The following excerpt from Heike Geissler’s nonfiction novel Saisonarbeit  (“Season’s Greetings From Fulfillment”)—which originally appeared in the German-language book series Volte, edited by Mathias Zeiske and Joern Dege, published by Spector Books, Leipzig—has been translated by Katy Derbyshire. Read the following chapter here.

Dear Ms . . . ,

Thank you for your interest in a position as Dispatch Agent for the Christmas season at Amazon Distribution GmbH.
We are pleased to invite you to the next Selection Day on our premises this coming Wednesday at 1 p.m. This day gives you an opportunity to find out about the various positions at Amazon. You can then take a practical selection test in the working area of your preference.

We have vacancies in the following areas:

Incoming stock: standing activity, working
with PC
Stock storage: walking activity, working
with hand scanner
Order fulfillment: walking activity, working
with a hand scanner
Packaging: standing activity, packaging
items, working with scanner

Should you be unable to attend on this date, please contact us to arrange a new appointment.

Our address is:

Amazon Distribution GmbH

Please note that we unfortunately cannot reimburse travel expenses for the appointment. We look forward to meeting you!

With best regards,

Your Human Resources Department

Is all this a matter of life and death? I’ll say no for the moment and come back to the question later. At that point I’ll say: not directly, but in a way yes. It’s a matter of how far death is allowed into our lives. Or the fatal, that which kills us. To be precise: compared to the fatal, death is nothing but a little orphan boy. Or: death, compared to the fatal, is a gentleman with good manners and a shy look in his eye.

From now on, the fatal is your constant companion; that much I can say. But first of all we’ll set out, because you have a job interview. You set out, and I’ll accompany you and tell you what it’s all like and what’s happening to you. From now on, you are me. That means you’re female; please don’t forget that, because it’s important in places. You’re a writer and a translator, and at this point in life you have two sons and a partner who suits you well, something you’re usually aware of.

Your boyfriend wished you luck before you left home and told you yet again that you don’t have to do this. But that’s not true, you do have to do it; you have to take the first best job that comes up, to get some money in the bank.

Your job interview isn’t called a job interview, so you haven’t thought up anything to say or put on any special clothes. You’re wearing jeans and a sweater; we’re not talking about a career move here. You leave the house, possibly nervous because you want the job; you haven’t got any money,  and you refuse to claim welfare benefits for certain reasons that I’ll explain later. You do get child benefits for the two boys, you can get your bills paid, but unfortunately your bills don’t usually get paid in good time. An aggravating factor is that you’re not good at writing invoices either; you tend to put them on a back burner. That back burner is a long way back, about a mile. You never send out payment reminders either. You think people won’t give you any more work if you do. You are now, if you weren’t already, a delicate soul. You’re very sensitive—you have that in writing—but don’t worry too much about it. People shouldn’t hold your sensitivity against you; from now on you’re welcome to regard your sensitivity as a form of potential. Your vulnerability harbors all kinds of options. As I said: you’re sensitive and you’ll stay that way—and we’ll be coming back to that, too.

Possibly, even this trip to Amazon, which may or may not, you don’t yet know, yield success—that is, a short-term employment contract—might seem to you like the beginning, or the evidence of, a slide down the social ladder. You’ll try over and over to view it differently, but even from the start, the experience forces you to your knees and down a social stratum, and that’s the way it will stay. Yes, you’ll start to see strata in society, if you don’t do so already. You’ll see the strata before your eyes as clearly as geologists see the structure of the ground where they’ve dug a deep pit. When you think about it, you sometimes come to the conclusion that the term “social descent” is only a makeshift description for something that is in fact closer to a solidified lack of options and farsightedness. So this is how it will be: you’ll get the job and will be pleased to have gotten it, and then you’ll be tired, will hardly keep your eyes open every day. You won’t have enough energy for anything pleasurable, or for anything at all, and you’ll know a great deal more about your life and the lives of your parents and all those who have bosses. You don’t normally have a boss. You’ll soon know something about life that you didn’t know before, and it won’t just have to do with work, but also to do with the fact that you’re getting older, that two children cry after you every morning, that you don’t want to go to work, and that something is essentially rotten in this job and many other kinds of jobs.

You’ll spend a lot of time thinking about what work is, why work ought not to be imposed on anyone. You’ll misunderstand things and muddle things up and your sensitivity will be processed and challenged by the first best instance of the fatal, so that it will take you a while to find out what’s really troubling you, and to realize that your trouble and suffering is by no means specific to you but of an astonishingly generic nature. Yes, you are generic; I intend to regard you as generic and introduce you to your most generic traits. But the specific comes first.

It is at any rate almost impossible not to be forced to your knees and into defiance by this job you’re about to have.

You take the Number 3 tram toward Sommerfeld. The carriage fills up until the main station; most people get off there and no one gets on. You assume that all those still on the tram are going to the group interview at Amazon, like you. You look at your note: tram to Teslastraße/Heiterblick, then Amazonstraße.

Pale winter sun. You’re now on your way to attempt to participate in the company’s pre-Christmas rush. But it could equally be Easter or any other surge in orders coupled to a particular season or holiday that might yield a job for you here. For the time being, though, it’s winter, it’s not much longer until Christmas, and it’ll soon be very cold. The tram heads further and further out from the city center; many of the buildings lining the tracks are empty. After a while, as you approach the city’s functional regions, grassy areas and industrial plots prevail: gas stations, car rentals, crane rentals, brothels, vacant office complexes, prefabricated housing projects at some distance from the street. You’re nervous; it hasn’t died down yet. You cast about for an appropriate position, a way of thinking that doesn’t require thinking that no one must see you on this trip out of town. You’re sitting on the tram on your way to the test day because you’re interested in the company. You’re a book person, and you’re perfectly within your rights to be interested in the company for research reasons. You’ll learn to say, however, that you just need the money, that you have this job but are still a writer and translator. Lots of things are possible. At some point you’ll find it easy to cast all your strange ideals about careers and life and success overboard, to say that you have this job, your actual job, and another one on the side. That’s when you’ll know that it’s not all your fault and that the building worker carrying four wooden beams so heavy they bent his legs into an O, the one my younger son and I watched on the job, wasn’t in the right when he said to my son: pay attention in school so you don’t have to do a job like this later on.

You’ll be constantly thinking about what ideas everyone has about making a living, why it sometimes feels like failure when you can’t live off your actual job. You’ll surprise even yourself when you abandon all heroic narratives of success, the idea of getting somewhere with hard work, and instead begin to praise idleness and oppose the eternal commandment of competition and growth. You’ll nevertheless utter the occasional sentence that prompts your boyfriend to say you’re the only neoliberal left-winger he knows. Then you’ll think about that. There’s always something for you to think about. As trite as it sounds, that needs to be said.

You’re the only person to get off the tram at Amazon’s stop, and you immediately know what a global corporation looks like. It can’t be missed, but it could be improved. The dispatch hall is built gray and low, parallel to the street; it’s huge but discreet. It appears docile, like a tamed giant or a prisoner on parole, trying hard neither to do anything criminal nor to look like he might. There’s a banner on the fence surrounding the building, announcing job vacancies. Your boyfriend told you not to even think about failing the interview, that they’re bound to take you. But you’re not the kind of person who doesn’t think about things, although of course it’s questionable whether worries are even thoughts at all, and not reflexes.

You stand outside the turnstile to the corporate premises and press the visitors’ bell. You try to get your bearings quickly; you don’t want to get in anyone’s way. You follow the instructions written on the sign before you that direct you to look into the camera above you as you ring the bell and wait. The turnstile doesn’t move. You ring three times while staring into the camera, not knowing if you have to trigger the opening mechanism with your eyes or why you need to look into the camera at all, something you don’t seem to be able to manage anyway. It doesn’t occur to you that your eyes might be merely filling up a screen placed among many other screens at the security counter in the lobby, ignored and unimportant. A green light flashes, and you push against the revolving gate, but the turnstile won’t turn. In the end, an employee presses his ID card past you to the sensor from the right, pushes against the revolving gate, which immediately begins to revolve, and sends you through with a hearty, “In you go.”

Ahead of you is a concrete tower, which you enter because it seems obvious and because the man who let you in did the same. The tower is yellow and, as you’ll soon learn, is called Banana Tower because of its color. A laminated photo of a male hand gripping the handrail is stuck to one wall, alongside it the instruction Use the handrail! You don’t use the handrail, demonstratively refuse to use it, and that may be rather petty of you, but it shows what kind of person you are: you don’t like taking orders, but people are welcome to ask you.

When you spot the handrail photo on the next level of the tower, you put your hands in your pockets and graze the surveillance cameras in the corners of the ceiling with a cool stare. You still have the time and the energy for that kind of thing.

The staircase tower releases you on the third level. The bridge to the hall entrance clatters beneath your footsteps. Below, trucks are parked at the docks. The docks are temporary extensions of the hall; they look like they’re held on by suction. A DHL truck undocks and drives off. You stumble over a floor mat.

And there you stand, now on pale floor tiles. On your right are people sitting waiting on gray chairs, sitting like at a doctor’s office, a doctor for those left over, a doctor for the distressed who don’t make any great effort to lean away from the worn, greasy wall; they’re all going to die. You’re one of them now, you see, even though you see it differently and will say all sorts of things to emphasize that there’s a distance between you and the other employees and especially between you and the company—but that’s not true. You’re now in the mouth of the company (between its jaws?) and are being predigested before you’re allowed to enter the rest of the digestive tract.

So you sit. From your right comes the stench of unwashed laundry or of laundry hung out to dry in an unaired room, stinky socks. You sit in the last free chair and breathe through your mouth; you’d actually thought you’d have an appointment of your own. You are one woman among many, but if you happened to be a man, you’d be one man among many as well. You’d be sitting there, just like I sat there and just like you’re now sitting there as me. So you sit and you look around. Opposite you is a table made of a door on trestles, and this door, which appears instantly incomprehensible, will remain incomprehensible to you. It’s a symbol of stinginess and is intended to represent Jeff Bezos’s first desk and thus the beginnings of this company, this very successful global corporation. It’s obvious that some other symbol could have been chosen, because there’s always some other symbol, but it wasn’t chosen.

You see signs of minor or more major neglect: the dust on the leaves of the plant opposite you, the door that doesn’t quite close, the gray patina on the wall above the chairs where the heads and shoulders of many waiting patients have leaned and made their mark. The employees at the reception desk watch the images provided by the surveillance cameras halfheartedly or not at all. Behind the reception area, a glass wall enables a clear view inside the hall. Fat lamps dangle from the ceiling on long cables. A modest light falls through the windows in the roof. It seems restrained beside the huge “daylight lamps.” From your seat, no employees are visible in the hall, only the empty space above them.

It’s easy for you to tell, incidentally, who belongs here and who doesn’t. The ones who belong walk the tiles in relaxed but purposeful strides and don’t look around. Most of them wear jeans, the hems frayed at the back. Thousands of tiny denim fringes polish the path behind the ones who belong. One of those who belong, a young man with a clipboard in hand and a long key chain, positions himself in front of all the waiting people. He says, “Anyone who doesn’t know yet what area they want to work in should watch the information videos in the cafeteria first.”

You’re curious; you want to see as much as possible, but you need these instructions in order to get up from your waiting seat. The cafeteria is large, with a view of the parking lot, the tram tracks, the hill, and the field on the other side of the road. A handful of workers are eating lunch. They wear orange protective vests and cast brief glances at the people who enter. They say hello to each other, people reply, and then you move toward the TV screens attached to the ceiling, your head leaning back as you stand and watch, one among many.

The film shows how a stock delivery reaches Amazon. A pallet-truck operator drives a huge box to a young employee. She smiles, opens the box, and unpacks it. She scans the barcode on the items, puts them in yellow crates, and pushes the crates onto a conveyor belt. A cuddly elk pokes its head over the edge of a yellow crate, peeking into the world of work as if peeking out of a child’s bag packed for a trip away. The elk is the leitmotif of the introduction. It reaches the warehouse in its crate and then is removed from the crate by an employee. Once again, the barcode is scanned, and the elk is placed on a shelf. You have to be a good walker, says the employee in the film. He walks almost ten kilometers a day, he tells you; that saves him joining a gym. Another employee takes the elk off the shelf, scans the barcode, and packs it in a yellow crate. Again, the elk peeks over the edge of the crate as it travels via transport belt to the packaging station and is finally put in a cardboard box to be sent to a customer.

You think, this is a game everyone’s playing, and of course that’s what it is, it’s a game, a parlor game, and you don’t like parlor games, you never have. You’re not so familiar, this much can be said, with situations where everyone plays different roles, performs multiple functions. You prefer dealing with people who are what they do, and you were asked a few years ago whether what you’re looking for is authenticity. The question came from a slightly confused journalist, and you answered with a yes. Let me tell you, there’s nothing wrong with it, simply nothing wrong with authenticity, but if it helps I can also call it consistency.

Now, at any rate, you’re standing in a line; you don’t like standing in line either, but then who does—and aside from that: from now on it will be unavoidable. You’re supposed to tell the employee sitting behind a desk at the end of the line what area you want to work in. The employee has all sorts of white sheets of paper and is holding a scratched ballpoint pen. Things are small and handwritten and improvised even in a global corporation. It’s your turn, and you tell the woman your name. She stands up and calls past you: “How am I supposed to work when everyone speaks so quietly I have to ask them three times over?” So you speak up a little. You feel as though you’re giving away a secret. Two girls snigger behind you; they look entirely young and youthful. Only a few weeks ago, it felt like you were about as young as they are. The two of them laugh more and more, but of course it’s only a matter of time before they see the serious side.

What you now know is: you are surrounded, for example, by people who are simply looking for a job, who don’t care where they work. There are those who could find other work, who are here by chance or lack of imagination, not by necessity. There are those who have other options than this one or could have them, except that something’s going wrong right now. There are those who seem to have other options, only those options are no better. And there are those whose other options are worse. Then there are those who seem to have assumed they had the option of getting a job here but don’t actually have that option. All the applicants can be divided into those sent by the employment office and those not sent by the employment office; the latter is a very small group.

Yes, you still have time to let your mind and your eyes wander. You already know plenty about the company, about the sort of work that awaits you here; presumably you know it all. But at the moment this is still an excursion, an adventure; you’re making mental notes. It’s all fascinating. You’re not actually here to write about it, but you have nothing against experiences and insights into companies you otherwise only encounter as an interface on the internet.

Everything takes a while; they’re very generous with your time here. They aren’t actually keeping an eye on your time. You’re at their disposal from the very beginning. You’re an item on a list. You’re now sitting on a folding bench in a cold white room, waiting for the practical selection test among other trial workers. You’re nervous and afraid of messing up. You don’t want this job, but you’re sensible, and you have kids who want things every half hour, and your boyfriend wants things occasionally, and you want things of your own as well, although you hardly ever want anything, and you usually pretend you need the things you want. You simply need money regardless of the time of year, you’re just like anyone else in that respect, and if you want it to be, that can be a comforting truth or a starting point for trying a different way at some point, and not considering the truth incontrovertible.

To your right is a section of room partitioned off by screens, where people can get information on health and safety at work. You see a photo of a swollen thumb blown up to A4 size; it must have been bleeding shortly before the picture was taken, as a scab along the nail bed and a thin trace of blood toward the tip of the thumb suggest. You turn away, feeling slightly nauseous and unable to get the image of the thumb out of your mind. When a person’s sensitive they’re sensitive in all areas, something’s always upsetting them, and you’ll soon notice how something’s always coming along that you don’t expect and how that’s hard to deal with for a delicate soul like you, someone more suited for happiness than unhappiness. Whereby it has to be said right away that no one is suited for unhappiness, but that this fact doesn’t get enough recognition, however unbelievable that seems.

Behind you is a man in a thick woolen coat. He’s in his early fifties and comes across as though he’s just taken a tour around his expansive estate, as though he’s just checking on things here. A boss type of person. You, incidentally, are not the boss type of person, but you’ve probably guessed that already.

The room is a well-prepared stage that presents the various sections of the company.

At the end of the room where they’ve recreated a packaging station, a thin older man is laboring over packaging material. Beneath the eyes of the tester—a man a head taller than anyone else, with a jaunty paunch and a slightly smug look on his face, the look of a man who doesn’t belong and finds everything ridiculously easy, a look that occasionally drifts to the stopwatch in his hand—the trial worker pulls out packaging set after set from next to the table and considers which would be best for a DVD. He spreads out the various precut brown cardboard sheets and envelopes in front of him, places the DVD on them to test them for size, and finally chooses one cardboard sheet. He examines the DVD in his hands from all sides and misfolds a box that almost folds itself into shape, so worn is it by many trial workers’ folding, so that the box springs open again the instant he puts the DVD inside the packaging.

You can tell this man has never peeled a product out of a cardboard envelope and then folded up the packaging as efficiently as possible so as to save space in the trash or keep the cardboard for something he wants to send himself at a later date. You’d like to show the man how to go about it. It would be nothing, easy as pie. The trial worker removes the DVD from the packaging. Stop, calls the tester, stop, he repeats, as the trial worker puts the DVD back in the box, your time’s up. The tester takes the package and shakes it. Is it supposed to sound like that? he asks. Are you supposed to hear it rattling? He waits. As no answer is forthcoming he leaves the question unanswered and sends the man to the folding bench, where he’s to wait until Human Resources call him. The tester makes notes. The trial worker sits mutely; you can’t tell whether he still has his hopes up. You’d like to know what his motivation is. You always assume people need something, some kind of motivation, a goal, a wish, and a clear idea of where they’re heading. You’re not the kind of person who gets up in the morning and attaches yourself to a day as something balanced, inconspicuous, something that easily pushes you into sleep at night. But no one’s like that, although you might get the wrong impression here.

You’re shivering and sweating at the same time on the bench. Time’s flying; it’ll soon be time to pick up your children, but you don’t want to make a fuss yet. In front of two shelves full of books, CDs, and DVDs, as if for your entertainment, the most beautiful and elegant of trial presentations begins. A young woman lifts yellow crates from one pallet onto another, empty one beside it. She doesn’t bend her back as she does it, holding it as straight as a rod; she performs all her work calmly, following a well-practiced choreography. This dance, this piling dance, which then becomes a box-counting dance and segues into a dance for the location of various products on the sample shelves, is masterfully accurate and ends with lackluster succinctness. You expect a speech at the end, a jump, a banner unfurled to reveal something eye-opening; you expect something. The woman, the dancer, stands in the corridor and eats a granola bar.

When your name is called you walk through a stream of warm air coming down from the ceiling. You say a friendly hello to the tester, as is your habit, which is not actually worth mentioning, except that the circumstances make it worth mentioning, and it might be said, in anticipation of what’s to come: if it were less important to you to say a friendly hello and get a hello back, you’d find a lot of things easier here at the company. But it won’t be as linear as that, and anyway, there’s only a grain of truth in that. The tester hands you a sheet of paper and tells you to read it. It is printed with instructions for the correct lifting and setting down of crates to avoid back damage. You get the impression you’ll be given more time to read than to try out. You feel like laughing. You’re tempted to hold up the sheet of paper and ask, “Seriously?” You consider making a suggestion to correct all the spelling mistakes in the short text. But you simply start your trial. Demonstratively, you lift the crates in line with the rules. You bend your knees, squat down, and stand up again without bending your back unduly. Next to you, the thin older trial worker gets a second chance. He’s so clumsy you can hardly bear to watch. You don’t want to be better than him and certainly not faster. But in comparison to him, you move the crates like a big strong man who could toss anyone here in the room straight up in the air.

Once all the crates are piled you go to the computer station. You’re supposed to transfer data from a column on the left into a column on the right. The left column contains mistakes or typographical peculiarities, which are supposed to appear exactly the same way in the right column, without corrections. Later you’ll ask yourself why you didn’t simply copy and paste the information. You type everything meticulously, start running out of time, finding the most difficult thing to be having to lean over at this normal-height desk without a chair, and that makes you nervous.

The trial worker is allowed to sit down again. You continue to the packaging station. You pack dispatches, hold products in your hands, and it’s a game you’re familiar with. You’re the daughter of a former postmistress, you see, and spent childhood afternoons or feverish days half playing, half helping at your mother’s desk or between the shelves behind the parcel counter, packing play parcels, storing play parcels, locating real parcels on the shelves and lugging them to the counter. And you’re a customer of the company that now makes you wait on the folding bench yet again.

If you get the job you want to fill up your account, which has reached the limits of its extendibility, and change banks. That’s your dream. You would leave your current bank, which you feel always holds back money when it’s not going well for it, the bank.

At the same time, a searing sense of worry creeps over you and informs you that if they don’t take you here and now, you’ll only get a job somewhere that pays even less. If they don’t take you now, maybe no one will. You instantly grow ancient and wooden, as though crawling out of a dark coal mine. You’ve completely forgotten that you have a profession and are only here to alleviate momentary poverty. Something inside you is essentially unsettled and will never calm down again, even though you do get the job. From this point on, you are beside yourself with worry.

Read part two here.

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