Training Day

He says: “We at Amazon think every day is a first day. Remember that. This is a good opportunity to make a note of that and get in on the ground floor and move up. Jobs are still being filled, the company’s still on the up, but between you and me, everyone knows nothing can grow forever."

“We at Amazon think every day is a first day."

Inside an Amazon warehouse. Image via Wikimedia.

The following is part two of a two-part 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. It was translated by Katy Derbyshire. Read the first part of the excerpt here.

So now you have a job. That makes you feel much calmer. You calculate over and over how much money you’ll earn as a seasonal worker. You work out that the sum you can expect is approximately equal to your overdraft. So you assume you’ll soon be able to balance your account and then change banks. Really, you want to get away from your bank, I said that already, and incidentally I still want to get away from that bank, but I haven’t managed it yet. I’m like you in that respect, which is of course because here, you—at least to a large extent and only in your imagination, you know—are me. You’re no good with money; you often think of what Gertrude Stein wrote, namely, “Is money money or isn’t money money. Everybody who earns it and spends it every day in order to live knows that money is money, anybody who votes it to be gathered in as taxes knows money is not money.”

“I remember,” writes Stein,

when my nephew was a little boy he was out walking somewhere and he saw a lot of horses; he came home and he said, oh papa, I have just seen a million horses. A million, said his father, well anyway, said my nephew, I saw three. That came to be what we all used to say when anyone used numbers that they could not count well anyway a million or three. That is the whole point. When you earn money and spend money everyday anybody can know the difference between a million and three. But when you vote money away there really is not any difference between a million and three. And so everybody has to make up their mind is money money for everybody or is it not.

That’s what you think of, but it doesn’t help much. If someone were to ask you what has to be paid for out of your money, you’d gaze into a dark crevasse. Your money is very similar to the aforementioned money administered by congresses and presidents, but by now you do try to be more precise and transform the numbers on your screen, illustrating the events in your bank account, into individual notes and coins. That only works sometimes. You forget what money is. Presumably, the money doesn’t remember either what it actually is. At any rate, in the thrill of anticipation you forget all the outgoings you have every month and imagine the expected wage payment as a jigsaw piece, a jigsaw piece the size of a boulder, which fits precisely into the enormous gap in your bank account, and then the account would be finished, done, and you could admire it like a completely finished 1500-piece jigsaw. You might not like the motif that much, but you can choose another jigsaw, an account with money in it, or simply turn your mind to other things. Sometimes, at least, you want to write invoices for activities for which people don’t write invoices. Sometimes you just want to invoice everything and never stop. We’ll come back to this, because the end of work, for example the seasonal work you’re about to perform on a daily basis, is not as clear as it seems; that end is, so it will appear to you, nonexistent.

So now you’re on your way to a training day at Amazon, and you won’t be paid for taking part in the training day. Of course you ought to be paid for taking part in the training day. There’s a quiet complaint to be heard inside you as you approach the company premises, but there’s no one inside the company to listen to you or the likes of you complaining that a training day ought to be paid, only to say, “Right! We just forgot about that. We’ll change it right away.”

Anything you could possibly want from this company, you’d have to tell the company’s customers and make them understand. You’d have to win over the company’s customers to your side to get paid for the training day. Anyway, 75 percent of the customers would probably respond to your call to get paid for the training day with, “Why? I didn’t get paid for my training day either.”

In any case, you’re sitting in a darkened training room in one of the last of seven rows of chairs. Almost all the chairs are occupied. Around you is a random collection of people of various ages dressed in dark clothing; there are plastic bags under all the chairs. Your plastic bag, which you immediately unpack, contains an orange safety vest, a blue ballpoint pen, an ice scraper for car windows, and general information on color-printed sheets of paper. You stuff everything back in the bag, which seems to you like a cheap imitation of the freshman’s backpack you were given when you started college, contents: a Frisbee, pens, and condoms.

You wait; everyone’s waiting. Some people know each other, others start up conversations, most of them stare into space, take their jackets off, on again, off again. You’re holding a padlock for a locker. You’re prepared as if for an excursion but, as I said, you’re waiting, and you’re no good at waiting, waiting for absolutely no reason, you want to go home again or somewhere else. So I’m telling you: you’re not getting paid for the training day, but you can try and see the training day as a kind of stage play. A not very well-written stage play, because it’s simply ripped off from reality, but a play nevertheless and not a training day, or maybe a training play.

So the play is called training, and it begins.

A man who has exercised his body into a state of squat firmness enters, says nothing, and exits again. A few seconds later he comes back, leans against the desk between the screen and the rows of chairs, crosses his legs and arms. He’s wearing well-kept, athletic-looking clothing; he presumably exudes a scent of fabric conditioner, but you might be wrong about that. A woman with pale purple streaks in her hair also enters the room, leans against the wall on the right of the audience, and smiles at the man by the desk. She’s rather fat and wearing a faded black T-shirt.

The man claps his hands. “Let’s get started,” he says. The woman goes and closes the door. Anyone who comes late has to apologize to everyone, she says, speaking half toward the audience. The man’s arms dangle loosely by his sides, perhaps because they’re so muscular that they don’t bother him; he shows no sign of nervousness, doesn’t look for a place to put his hands.

“My name’s Robert,” he says. He speaks German with a slight American accent. “I’m a qualified sports economist,” he says, “and I’m studying for an MBA at Leipzig University. I’m currently on an internship at Amazon.” He takes a small step forward. “Now I want to introduce you, though,” he says to the woman still standing on the edge of the room. T”his is Sandy, she’s an old hand, although she’s still very young. How old are you, Sandy?” “Thirty,” says Sandy. “She’s been working here,” Robert continues, “since the dispatch center was built. Sandy works in Dispatches, you should see her go. When she’s working her arms fly incredibly fast. She almost looks like that Indian god with all the arms.” Sandy laughs.

Robert continues: “As you’ll have noticed, we call each other by our first names here. We’re an international corporation, but as you know our roots are in America. And Americans don’t have a formal term of address like the German Sie, so we don’t use it either. We’re all on first-name terms from the bottom to the top, that’s how it works here.”

“What are we doing today?” He looks around but doesn’t wait for an answer. “Right, a training day,” he says. “We’ve got a lot to cover.”

He claps his hands again. As he leans over the computer to start the presentation, he says that he also happens to be a semi-professional rugby player, used to play in America. As an athlete, he takes everything sportingly, he tells the audience. He says: “Anyone who doesn’t stick to the rules has to do push-ups. America is a wonderful place, but Leipzig is a wonderful place too.”

He says: “We at Amazon think every day is a first day. Remember that. This is a good opportunity to make a note of that and get in on the ground floor and move up. Jobs are still being filled, the company’s still on the up, but between you and me, everyone knows nothing can grow forever. There’s still plenty of potential here now, but at some point that might be different. So take your opportunity. It starts now, and you’ve already done a whole lot right by coming here today.”

Laughter around the room. Robert switches on the projector. The Amazon website comes up on the screen. “What does this look like,” he asks. No one answers. You feel you haven’t understood the question. “Hello,” says Robert, “remember the push-ups. So, what does this look like? If no one says anything we’ll be sitting here till midnight, and I don’t know about you, but I’ve got better things to do.”

Someone says quietly: “It doesn’t look great.”

“Did someone say it doesn’t look great,” asks Robert.

A woman giggles and raises her hand.

Robert points at the projection. “Nothing is supposed to be distracting,” he says, “and everyone is supposed to find everything right away. Even a grandma is supposed to find everything right away. And that grandma’s particularly important, because if Grandma can’t find the cat litter she’s going to close down the computer, put a crocheted cover over it, put a vase on top, and that’s it. But because we, I’ll admit it, are keen to get Grandma’s money, the site is designed so that even Grandma understands everything.”

Robert moves to the middle of the room, the projection of the Amazon home page across his face, stretching down to the middle of his stomach. He folds his arms in front of his chest. What happens otherwise, he asks, and gives the answer himself: “Grandma wants to buy cat litter, so she goes to the store, lugs the heavy package home, and needs help to carry it upstairs, but the students on the first floor are still asleep, and they can’t help her. So what can Grandma do? She orders from us, and then the young, fit postman brings the package to her apartment door, and everyone’s happy.”

The audience laughs; Sandy smiles on the edge of the room. If she were a real actress she’d have to practice standing so that she doesn’t look awkward or unoccupied. You as me don’t see a young, fit postman, but your old courier service driver out in her rusty Ford Escort until seven every evening or longer, a woman with the look of a witch to her in her long, wide skirts, already past retirement age and only capable of climbing stairs up to the third floor at most.

“What do you think,” Robert asks, “what’s the biggest thing Amazon’s ever sold?” Sandy shrugs. “A piece of the moon,” she says. “Almost,” says Robert. “That hasn’t been up for sale yet, but it will be.” Then he pauses and takes a slow look around the room. He gazes slightly above the audience’s heads, but it looks as though he’s examining every one of you.

“No,” he says, “what you need first is a basic course. He steps aside and points at the projection of the door on trestles. Seen this before?” No one reacts, but you’ve seen the door before, of course, you were sitting opposite the door while you waited for your trial to start, and you thought how shabby it was. You don’t put your hand up; you don’t want to put your hand up or you can’t manage to raise your arm. And of course you’re exempted from getting involved because you’re at a play, and I’ll also tell you that you won’t learn anything on this training day, that everything you might learn here will be explained to you again in the dispatch hall over the next two days. By that point you’ll have your so-called coworker Norman by your side, as muscular as Robert, and he’ll like you the best out of your group of five. Your hairband with the two red bobbles on it will catch his eye and he’ll call you girl with the cherries. You won’t know straight away what that means, and that it means you. But you’ll know he means you when he responds to your question of why it has to be done the way Norman says and not the way it says in the instructions, which would be much easier, with the remark that you’d look much better without your thick glasses—and says nothing more than that.

So, carry on enjoying the training day, and assume that you won’t get through your working days as un-addressed and un-commented on as this. You are, as I can say in anticipation and addition, an item on a list with breasts, a ponytail, and glasses.

While you were thinking about the nature of your participation in this training day, building up a definite compulsion to counter the boredom and annoyance of Robert’s comments and attitude with a sudden active and above all unstoppable participation, to take the event into your own hands and instantly put an end to it, Robert has explained that the door, the door table, is a reminder that the customer is king. “Is it important to the customer that I have a mahogany desk or that he gets what he wants for a good price? Does the customer want us to be sitting here on comfy sofas? Does the customer want to pay for smart offices for us? Exactly. The customer wants his order.”

You’d like to contradict him, incidentally, and say: “I, who am also a customer of this company, would be glad to sit more comfortably here. And I think the company could afford to provide us with more comfortable seats without having to put prices up for the customer.”

You don’t say that, though, because you’re me, and that means you’re shy; you can’t get your mouth open. Robert steps aside and hands over to Sandy.

Sandy says: “Now you know what the customer wants.” “And what does Amazon want,” she asks. No one answers. “Push-ups,” Robert calls from the sidelines. Laughter.

“Amazon wants for its employees not only to be healthy when they’re working here, but also healthy when they leave the company,” Sandy explains.

“Right,” she says, “let’s get moving.” Everyone stands up and leaves the room, which is locked behind you. You stand there like in a kindergarten group, but the children have apparently grown up suddenly. All of them uncoordinated and lacking orientation. Sandy pushes through the group, taking the shortest route to the trial room, with which you’re already familiar. You and the other participants are to study the wall charts with safety instructions. “You have to know all this,” says Sandy. You try to memorize everything, but your mind drifts. You look at the posters and try in vain to eavesdrop on Sandy and Robert’s conversation. After ten minutes, Sandy leads the group back to the training room and waits for everyone to sit and quiet down. The screen behind her shows the rules.

Sandy knows them by heart and recites them.

Don’t leave the marked paths.
Only cross the roads at the marked crossings.
Wear sturdy shoes.
Don’t run, don’t jog, only walk.
No loose clothing.
On hot days, knee-length pants may be worn.

For the women, Robert interjects, the rule is: Please don’t wear anything that gets the men so worked up they drop everything.

Use the handrail.

“Anyone who doesn’t use the handrail has to do push-ups,” says Robert. “You’re laughing now,” he says. “When I was state coach everyone had to do push-ups.”

“In Bad Hersfeld,” says Sandy, “someone managed to fall on the stairs and cut their head open. He wasn’t using the handrail. We’re not saying this for our own amusement.”

Don’t put your hands in the conveyor mechanism.

A picture of a bleeding hand comes up. “This doesn’t look good,” says Sandy, not turning round to the screen. “This is an employee’s hand. He was working on the conveyor belt. When the belt stopped he put his hand inside the mechanism to adjust the slipped belt. The belt started moving again. There was a lot of screaming. This accident could have been avoided. Most accidents can be avoided.”

Don’t step on the pallets.
Always wear cut-resistant gloves when using cutting blades.
Lift correctly.
Anyone who doesn’t lift correctly doesn’t just harm themselves. Sick days harm Amazon.

Sandy repeats: “We’re not saying all this for our own amusement.”

Robert steps up to Sandy. They look like an old TV presenter couple about to say a few warm words of farewell to their viewers. Someone’s cell phone rings. “A good tip,” says Robert: “no phones in the hall, no cameras or anything like that. Anyone who takes something like that in has to hand it in when they leave. The SIM card is removed, and the phone immediately destroyed.” “And the punishment?” asks Robert. “Push-ups,” answers a man in the front row.

“Good luck at Amazon,” says Sandy. “Remember,” says Robert, “everyone here has done every job. Even the big boss has done what you’re going to do tomorrow. Everyone here knows about everything, otherwise it won’t work, you see.”

And so ends the play that wasn’t a play, and it segues into the break, which is to be followed by your first visit to the hall. You bite into the sandwich you’ve brought along and pace back and forth between the training room and the entrance area. Strictly speaking, everything here is dreary and outdated and banal, and that seems to be the best disguise for a business idea to launch itself violently and expansively into the future.

Robert leads you into the changing room, where you have to choose a locker like all the others, put away your bag and jacket, and put the padlock you brought on the locker door. You’re now wearing the orange safety vest, which feels far too light to be as luminous as it is. No matter how much you tug at the zipper, it keeps slipping off your shoulders.

A moment later you enter the dispatch hall, in front of and behind you other employees, also wearing safety vests. It’s a kind of field trip, an excursion to unfamiliar territory, but it’s a field trip that will last several weeks, and of course you’ll forget it’s a field trip, you’ll be busy with puffing and panting and the like. But for the time being you wander the field, glad that there’s finally a little exercise to be had. You wander through the security check, examined by security men. You’re holding the key to your padlock in your hand, but nothing beeps in the machine. You stand on a metal staircase, a chilly gallery above everyone’s heads. Below you, the almost placid sight of business as usual. From above, you see an astounding order and structure, or, if you like, the deviations from this order and structure. Pallets placed out of line, bottles tipped over, cardboard fallen out of the recycling bins, plastic foil containers spilling over.

You follow the back of the man in front of you, walking down the stairs as if attached to a string, past the workers and into the warehouse area. You take automatic footsteps and look around. A mishmash of stock fills the towering shelves, the top levels only reachable by means of forklift trucks. This is where the stock comes to rest; the stock really seems to be sleeping and not actually for sale, as if it’s reached an end there in its corners and compartments, in its random neighborhoods. You see a dust-coated stock museum; you like it. The things on the shelves, silence reigning around them because no one is here to collect them and send them to the customer, radiate sobriety and are something like the dabs on a painting, something with nothing threatening about it, nothing mechanical. The products look like retired former workers for this global corporation. You don’t quite understand how a fortune could be made out of these things on either side of you and out of books and data carriers and a program and a website, a fortune that’s still growing. Nor do you understand why that fortune is not allowed to have a reverse effect on the hall, to add a little comfort or shine. It’s not as if you don’t have any understanding of the fact that the fortune is prevented precisely from flowing back toward the employees; you simply don’t understand it, and of course it can’t be understood.

You’re given a pair of work shoes. There are two different kinds, one with blue markings and the other with orange; all of them have rather large air holes in them. You try on the shoes like a chance find, like shoes you’ve found in some kind of donation pile. You might think what I thought at the time, namely of New York, of Coney Island, where I spotted shoes under a pier on the beach, an incredible amount of shoes. I couldn’t imagine where the pile of shoes might have come from or why it was there in the first place. I stood in front of it for a very long time, not touching any of the shoes even though there were some very nice, undamaged-looking shoes in the pile. It was only in my hotel room that night that I realized the pile consisted solely of shoes for left feet.

You slip into the work shoes; they’re spacious and stiff, but you’ll soon wear them in and stop laughing at them like a disguise. Sandy urges you all to get a move on, and everyone folds up their shoeboxes, throws them in the paper recycling container, and marches after Sandy. An orange employee caterpillar with billowing edges crawls out of the hall in a somehow cheerful mood, lines up at the security check, and casts off its color ready to leave.

So you’re now a seasonal employee with a locker of your own at Amazon, and you’ll soon be home. Outside the drugstore in the city center, a reporter approaches you with a microphone. You stop because you can’t dodge him, and the microphone is almost touching your nose. “Good afternoon,” says the reporter. You stare straight ahead and listen to his voice, a trained reporter’s voice that seems to require no body, that’s too perfect to come out of a person and not immediately and solely out of a radio, that says to you: “Guinness World Record Day is coming up soon.” “Aha,” you say. “Have you heard of it,” asks the voice. “No,” you say, and you want to go on walking, but from ahead of you come tourists with suitcases and from behind you, a group of school kids push past. “What record would you like to hold,” asks the reporter. “None,” you say, “I don’t want to hold a record.” You don’t have the faintest idea why anyone should hold a record. It’s a question for children, and you tell that to the reporter, you tell him to catch up with the school kids, but of course, on closer inspection you realize: you wish you were the richest woman in town. Or at least the richest woman in your neighborhood.

You are, incidentally, the daughter of lottery players, so you’re familiar with the hope for money, the expectation of money. It’ll soon arrive, and it will come from somewhere, that’s what you believe, and at the same time you’re constantly contradicting that belief, trying to persuade yourself against it. But something inside you believes unshakably that a huge pile of money will one day come to you, far exceeding any demand for unconditional basic income and with no connection to any work you might have to perform. Something inside you dreams ready-made dreams.

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