For the first few years that I lived in New York City, I worked temp jobs to earn money. Most of them involved office work, but occasionally there was something different or downright weird.
For instance, there was a one-off evening gig at a women’s luxury designer-clothing company. The agent who found me these jobs didn’t have much information about it other than the company’s name, address, and the name of my temporary supervisor. He said something like, “Well, I don’t know exactly what you’ll be doing, but it’s a legitimate company and we’ve worked with them before. Let me know how it goes.”
I showed up for work that night and, along with another temp worker, was taken up a few floors and down a few hallways and, finally, through a plain white door. We stepped into what was probably a large room, but was so full of boxes and clothing racks and mannequins and dollies that it felt like a broom closet. The door swung shut and closed the three of us in. The other temp and I took stock of the room and made quick eye contact.
The supervisor pointed to a space behind us. “See those boxes over there? The ones with all the heels?” We looked and saw. “Those are prototypes for next year. The design team went through them all and made their decisions, so now we have to get rid of them. We can’t just throw them away as they are or give them away, because our competitors could get their hands on them and take our ideas. So we need you to destroy them so we can get them out of here.”
She stepped over to a gray metal cabinet and rummaged around inside it. “Let’s see...ok, here they are. Take these.” She held out two pair of scissors and two box cutters. The other temp and I took one of each. “Ok! Just grab a shoe, shred it up, and throw it into this box when you’re done. I’ll check back in in an hour or so. I’ll be across the hallway if you need me.”
It didn’t take long for the other temp and me to realize that these were not “shoes” in the sense that we knew them. I don’t remember which of us was first to discover a tag with the words “suggested retail $700” written on it, but I do remember the sight of that tag and my sensation of complete stupefaction as I looked at it. Anyone could tell at a glance that the high-heeled footwear we were charged with ruining was very fancy and expensive, but these were on another level entirely.
There was a grim, yeoman savagery in our work that evening that I find I still grapple with almost a dozen years later. It was many things: the act of intentionally and methodically wreaking destruction on something so carefully crafted and, apparently, precious; the aesthetic absurdity of cradling luxury in a musty cardboard box in a storage closet; the stark differences in the fortunes of the company, its customers, me, and the man I saw outside the building sleeping on a grate; and the pure waste of it. It was strange to cut into the leather of the shoes, and oddly hard work. I felt like a butcher.
When the job was finished, the other temp and I stepped out into the cool night. We didn’t linger long, but I remember shaking his hand and one of us saying, “That was fucking weird.” We nodded in solidarity. He turned and walked up the block, and I glanced back at the building and went to catch my train.