Tuesday, September 21, 2010

F. Lancer, At Your Service

While I enjoy working from home and not having to worry about the state of my hair or if my socks match, it's an eye-opening experience to work in-house and step into someone else's workspace and corporate culture. Not only does it break up the monotony of staring at the same set of walls and watching the dirty dishes pile up, I also get an instant group of colleagues to fill that void I sometimes feel for human contact.

And, if I'm lucky, the coffee won't suck.

I've freelanced at ad agencies, small publishers, newspaper offices and even for a diamond merchant who had their employees practically frisked every time they entered and exited. These were short-term gigs, but for a while I was fortunate enough to slip into a regular, in-house freelancing slot with a large publisher of industrial magazines. One of the titles was produced solely by freelancers: writing, editing, and composition. It was a good gig. If my usual clients were a little slow, I knew that I had at least five days of solid, well-paying work each month.

It was also the first time I worked in such a large office. The publisher had its own four-story building that spanned most of a city block. On each floor, cubicles upholstered in neutral gray stretched half a football field to the windows. It was a busy hive; proofers and typesetters ran galleys about with singular focus. As I ran my own proofs around, I would take mental notes only as an outsider can. Most employees appeared to like their jobs, until you got talking with some of them. Most employees had a kind of pallor that comes from working beneath old-style fluorescent lighting. And they all had little nameplates velcroed to the outsides of their cubicles. First initial, last name. Not only had I never worked in an office that large, I'd never worked in one where employees had their names on their office doors. Or, whatever serves as a door in a cubicle.

There was no nameplate on the freelancers' cubicle, because we changed up so frequently, but for five days out of the month, that real estate was mine. Even though I was "just a freelancer," I wanted my own identity, my own statement. I felt that I was as vital to the organization as anybody else on the production floor. Not only could I come in at a moment's notice, they didn't have to pay me benefits, and I did good work. Isn't that important enough to any employer to rate a cheap, plastic nameplate?

No dice, said Human Resources. Nameplates were only for permanent employees. So I enlisted the help of my temporary colleagues. J. Carter helped me find a blank name holder. M. Rizzo showed me how to open it and slide in the printed insert. Since this was before the days of desktop publishing, I made my own insert with a piece of paper cut to size and a black magic marker. I slipped the paper inside the holder, snapped it closed and stuck my brand-new nameplate outside of my cubicle.

My name was F. Lancer. I thought it would be funny, a private joke with my fellow freelancers who occupied the cubicle the other three weeks out of the month. I didn't realize my name would confuse some people. Several of them actually asked me what the F. stood for. I told them it was "Frieda" and they believed me.

I even started answering to it. When I moved to New York, and sadly had to leave most of my clients behind, I also left the handcrafted nameplate velcroed to my former cubicle. It was to let those who would come after me - Frank Lancer, Francis Lancer and their sister Felicity - show the company that they are just as vital as any J. Carter on the production floor.

May they wear it with pride.

And join me at International Freelancer's Day on September 24th.

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