Friday, March 13, 2009

The Civil Service Exam

I took a Civil Service Exam today, and unfortunately the experience sucked my good attitude reserve dry because I think I flunked it. Maybe I didn't do well because I didn't haul my big bag of degrees into the testing office. Plus, the ambiance didn't help.

It was conducted in a building dedicated to agricultural products in Louisiana. Why? Probably because it is massive – multiple offices seem vacated—so it can warehouse rooms of test takers.

Big doesn't mean beautiful in this case. The building's asymmetry inspires depression. On the outside, the parking lot and modular cement building look like abandoned Wal-Mart facades. The interior is comprised of unrelated decorating details. There are the silver covered planks on the ceiling, and live the plants on the floor in an area where there are oddly no windows or florescent lights. After walking through a long, low tunnel of plants there is an unexpectedly expansive atrium with a white shiny school-tiled floor and a massive open staircase to the second floor. I’m sure the room is large enough to stage a state-expo or rodeo, or maybe a Katrina triage unit or NASA lunar module assembly plant.

The room, hall, stairway, and upstairs do not fit together. The building looks like is made from pieces of other buildings that were never used. I'm guessing that the finished product was completed at such a cost savings that they drove every available state vehicle to the Home Depot and bought container-loads of plants and plank outdoor fencing, and gallons of silver spray paint.

I'm feeling dizzy and I think I might cry.

I tell myself to stop being upset and make a plan. Go over other possible options. Can I do something other than work? Actually the question is: How much longer do I have to work? If not long, maybe I could dedicate the rest of my life to something bigger than myself. Quit working for money. Save the world.

Or, maybe it’s not too late to be a lady of leisure, what Daniel calls a tennis woman? I could go to the University Lakes and walk with the other tennis women. I could write, dabble in charities, talk on the phone, and watch foreign films. But, who would take my calls? And if I don’t work will we have enough money for Netflix? What about a budget for tennis racquets, club dues and court fees?

Then I remember, the stock market is in the toilet and our investments have been reduced by nearly 40 percent. We have a freaking huge mortgage, and I’m working now for a ‘cause’ saving the world for less money than I am supposedly supposed to make. I have terrible hand-eye coordination and those tennis women never accepted me.

Will work for Netflix subscription


Really Great Face Cream

I’ll never retire. I’ll die in an office building just like this, maybe of a stroke, maybe by falling off of the second floor balcony to the shiny floor below. I think of the sad clothes and too-wide-of-shoes I’ll be wearing when I die because of the skimpy salary I’ll be making. I think of how easy the tile will be to clean-up.

Ack. I would love to set-up at least a part-time residence in the land of self-pity but unfortunately I don't have the time because I need an income, which means I need a job. I tell myself to remember that no matter how frustrating the job, it is good to get up in the morning and have a purpose; someplace to go. Getting paid is important. It makes me feel empowered-- like I didn’t get all of those degrees for nothing.

And today, I’ve done well. I showed-up at the testing center early because the website said to and I follow orders. It is 11:45. The test is to begin at 12:15. I approach the clerk, and without looking at me she says “you’re too early. We won’t even begin processing applications until 12:15. The test is at 12:45.”

My face contorts into a “huh?” because I’m the only one in line. I shove the test schedule at her that shows the test time is 12:15, but I say nothing; I’ve lost my voice. She’s not looking or listening.

I hate that I am early mostly because I’ll have to spend even more time in this cavernous place.

There is a “cafĂ©” at the end of the first floor, if you can call it that. And absent going out into the deserted, broken cemented parking lot and hanging out in my car, I decide to hang out there and order “lunch” while I wait. The tables are of the outdoor variety, and look like something that I would have put on my patio 20 years ago. They aren’t massive enough --are dwarfed by the sheer size of the room. This is the surplus furniture that goes with the surplus building parts, that go with the surplus people here.

I pay a $2.50 for a cheese burger-- about the only thing on the menu-- and wait for maybe 30 minutes. I glance up from time to time and try to make eye contact with one of the cooks at the window. I smile. They act like they don’t see me. So, when I see someone else retrieving food that was ordered later than mine, I go up to the window, and the server says “I called it out and you didn’t come.” She points to the Styrofoam container next to the cash register with my now cold hamburger in it. Although I’m not even hungry, I pick it up and eat it, because it looks like I’m doing something rather than just staring at the odd assemblage of people sitting on the outdoor lounge furniture, who like me are trying to appear engrossed in something.

I see a woman in the distance that is eating take-out from McDonalds. She has obviously done this before.

I should have gone to McDonalds

My stomach begins to ache and I hope it’s because I am stressed, and not because the hamburger sat too long. The other people in their patio seats are all overweight. Then I start to think, maybe they're thinking the same thing about me? I go into the ginormous, vacant, water stained, tiled bathroom that would be big enough to service all of the passengers in O’Hare, and look at myself in the mirror. I look fat. I suck in my gut. My stomach feels worse. Going to the bathroom doesn’t help. I wonder what I will have to do if my stomach explodes while I’m taking the test. I hear that you can’t re-take it for 90 days.

This makes me wonder how we would survive for 90 days without my income. I mentally calculate what I would cut from our budget to make up for the money I bring in: the gym, occasional house cleaning, meat and fish, fresh vegetables, decent wine (not all wine), good cat litter (very important: this helps our house not to stink like the urine of two cats-- one of which has a bladder problem), prescription compounded hormones, hair color, highlights, and a good cut once every two months, miracle face cream that makes me look 10 years younger, cancel the land-line, sell my fuel efficient car, beg my mother to pay off James’ car, tell my son that he’ll have to get loans to pay for his room and board and spending money in college.

I reconsider saving on my son's college living expenses. Surely he wouldn’t want to live at home? Another year of living with my 18 year old and I will be unemployed because I will be dead.

I do not like Boone's Farm but there must be a dry, oaky, tanniny, dark grape cheap wine? By cheap I mean around $1.39 a six pack.

I leave the bathroom, pick-up what looks like a Craig’s List and sit down to read about livestock and farm machinery for sale. I read about Hotots, Netherland Dwarfs, Californian and New Zealand Whites, Havanans, and Dutch, English, French, Fuzzy, Holland and Mini Lop Rabbits for sale. I wonder if buying a bunny would make me happy, or if I could make some money without having to kill it, because I couldn’t do that.

I look around again at the conglomeration of humanity waiting there—the half a dozen middle aged women who have stomachs that look like they’re pregnant; three men right in front of me that are eating with their bad teeth; the several women to my left that need a good haircut and color; the one man and one woman to my right wearing 1980s polyester pant suits that are too short and covered with those fuzzy balls that appear on cheap worn material; the multitudes of people that are wearing shoes that too large for their feet…

I love living bunnies

I think about my mother and the money she spent to buy me narrow shoes for my skinny feet. My well clad feet and I do not belong here.

Everyone here looks desperate to me; like they just came out of the woodwork for this one long-shot precursor to a job, after which they will crawl back into whatever cave they came from, most likely never to be seen again……… because who would hire them?

I realize that the state would hire them. And if I’m lucky enough I will be working for them.

I also realize that I'm a snob, which makes me feel even worse.

As the time draws near, or at almost 12:15, I retrace my steps back to the testing office, and walk up to the window. I see than I am 2 minutes early and apologize to a different clerk. She accepts my examination materials anyway. Thank God for that; somehow it makes me feel better. She directs me to a hall, and says, “maybe there is room to sit down.” There isn’t. I stand and wait until maybe 5 examinees are called and then I sit in between other people, young, old, black and white. They all look nervous. No one talks. I can hear my heart beat.

The Good Old #2 Pencil
I am a "chewer" but did not chew on mine because it was supplied by the State
Who knows where it might have been?

No one speaks until the proctor recites the rules, “walk single file, present your identification and your test registration materials, pick up pencils and the test booklet, when I call out a number and a letter proceed to look for your seat, put your identification on the upper left side of the desk you are assigned, anything else goes under your seats, do not open the test booklet until you are told to do so, just slide out the registration materials, put away your cell phone-- if it buzzes or rings you will be escorted out of the building, and may never be able to test here again… I take this seriously and I hope you do too.”

I had already turned off my phone, but I check again. Maybe I’ll turn it on? I don't like this guy's tone... "never test here again! ha!" The ringing phone would seal my fate and establish me as a rebel-civil-service-anti-test-anti-regimentation-hero; or maybe just a stupid person who can't follow directions... Anyway, I don’t think a soul will call me. I don't use my phone enough. Damn me! I decide to save myself the anxiety of waiting, so I put my turned-off phone back in my purse.

Note to self: find more contacts for phone
And stop being a phone phobic

I feel like I’m in prison, or in a bad hospital or nursing home, or maybe in the 5th grade.

I sit down and fill out the personal information on the header of the test form. This hasn’t changed in 40 years. Still with the number 2 pencils, circling a, b, c, or d, erasing completely, guess rather than leave a blank.

Twenty minutes after the test starts I panic because I realize that many of my answers are the last letter, which means that there either is not enough information to answer the question or the answer is not stated in the options presented. What are the chances of that? I complete the test and go back over the first 10 questions, the ones I have marked “no acceptable answer.” I write all over my pink sheet of scratch paper with calculations, then I go and get another sheet, calculate more and I’m still unable to change my answers.

Mine looked just like this but with many more erase marks and lots of "E"s

Twenty minutes early-- after 2 hours and 10 minutes of test taking, I leave, hoping that a bad score will just prove to me how over-educated I am, or how in the wrong company I am, or that this is just not meant for me, anything but that I’m stupid.

As I drive home, I think about where I find myself. I am 51 years old, have two terminal degrees and am taking the professional entry examination that recent college grads take because I need to work to pay the mortgage and our children’s expenses, and maybe for a dinner out or a beautification thing or two. Oh, and remember, I am putting money into our 401K: for every $1 I put in I can take .60 cents out.

Oh Bill Clinton: Those were the days

Can I save myself from the embarrassment of caring that I flunked the Civil Service Examination, by moving to another less expensive house and never working again?: No, my mother’s addition -- that she LOVES-- is attached to the back of our house, so we can’t leave. In fact, I’m sure she will outlive me.

I have a gigantic headache and when I get home I lie down and ask Rich to come and rub my neck. He can’t even bear to turn off his music video. He turns it up and comes to lie down with me. My headache returns by tenfold and I feel like I will throw-up. He ignores what I’m trying to say to him, and I realize I don’t feel like talking anyway. The neck rubbing lasts about 10 minutes. He goes upstairs to play the guitar while I cook dinner. I write this and burn chili beans and hamburger on the bottom of the pot. He says, “You wouldn’t have done this if you hadn’t been blogging.” The truth is that I wouldn’t have been writing this if he would have been talking to me. I start to tell him how depressing living in Louisiana is for me. He says, “you’ve been saying this for 15 years, and that dog won’t hunt.”

Not a "bad" dog; he just ain't gonna hunt

After cleaning out the pot I burned, he goes back upstairs to play the guitar.

Tomorrow, he’ll go back to his job from which he can never be fired, due to me putting him through his PhD program and moving to this damn place and being stuck here.

James wants to give me a hug and honestly, no matter how bad this sounds, it doesn’t help. I watch Grey’s Anatomy, sort of. I take two Benadryl and lock my door and go to bed.

The last thought that enters my mind before I drift off to sleep is, "my mother's right; I should take better care of my shoes."

Mommy's little pink pill

When I wake up in the morning I print out the test questions for the next Civil Service Exam I’m going to take. I’ll study them while I wait for my mother’s physical therapy appointment.


  1. Well, it wasn't a pass or fail thing. I did get enough points to be considered for jobs. I never ended up working for the state, and in fact, got a job in private industry. However, I know people who did "pass" and have had jobs offered to them. I think it's definitely worth a shot!


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