Seasonal Associate

No longer able to live on her freelance writing income, German novelist Heike Geissler takes a holiday seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment center.

Heike Geissler | translate from German by Katy Derbyshire | an excerpt from the novel Seasonal Associate | Semiotext(e) | December 2018 | 12 minutes (3,203 words)

You have a stride today that leads you almost above everyone’s heads at speed, but you walk in their midst, and it’s not down to you that a logjam forms down at the time clock; you’ve got your ID at the ready and you hold it up to the sensor as you pass. It’s down to others who are newer than you, who have to examine what the screen says first, who wait for the display to formulate clearly that they’ve been logged in. You make small noises to express your annoyance, jostle a little, but you’re not as snappy as those who pass by the waiting line and really hold their IDs up to the sensor as they walk, so fast that the new employee currently examining the screen and slowly raising his ID to the sensor doesn’t even notice.

And now: things, oh boy, things. It’s because of all the things that are here, which someone or another wants to buy, that you’re here in the first place. Strange products in your hands, for example this baseball cap that already looks so lived-in it could hardly get much more worn. Used- or distressed-look fashion, you get the point, but the cap is nothing but a ragged piece of cloth, more like something for adherents to a radicalized acceleration of the commodity cycle, people who only buy what has to be thrown away because it fails to meet its requirements as a usable product, serves only to move money and material. The cap has an Iron Maiden logo on it and has slipped out of its bag. You almost sense the greasy feel of sweat mixed with dust. You’re tempted to try it on for a moment, perhaps because it looks like something you found on the street for which you might have some use. A colleague at the next desk calls over that a guy was fired two weeks ago for trying out a skateboard he was supposed to be receiving. You nod, stuff the cap back in the bag, and tape it shut.

Many of the products you receive have traveled further than you have in the past five years. You’re now processing mugs designed in Santa Monica, USA; made, printed, and packaged in China; then offered for sale in France; and now shipped from Amazon France to Amazon Germany as seasonal specials. A charity mug, the product description reads; the mugs boast self-portraits drawn by celebrities. You scan the barcode as usual and the computer reports the product has to go to the Sample Center because it hasn’t yet been subjected to the drop test. So you take the mug in its cardboard packaging to the Sample Center. The associate there examines the box, stands up, and drops it on the floor from a height of a meter. He picks up the box and turns it so that a different corner will hit the floor first. You watch, fascinated. The man repeats the test. There’s no clink of broken porcelain until the last drop. Well, the man says, no need to be too demanding — it’s passed the test. He sniffles; he’s got a cold. On his desk is an open plastic box containing two sandwiches, one of them with a bite taken out of it. You’re hungry too but you’re not allowed to bring anything into the hall with you. You carry the mug back to your workplace, the well-traveled mug now clinking in shards inside its packaging.

Everything exists, in case you were going to ask. Absolutely everything exists, and people can buy it all.

You log the other mugs into the system and wonder who’ll buy them, who’ll buy all the other things. Surrounded by products you’re preparing for sale, you don’t get curious about things; you grow immune to them. You see the ridiculous side of reflexive consumption so clearly before you, and you’re not like me, who once spent all the illicit cash I got paid — as the sole employee of a bad-tempered boss — almost the instant I earned it, buying all manner of things. I didn’t like that boss but I never thought of quitting the job. The boss was always at risk of ending up in jail; he’d jump out of the window when creditors made an appearance, escaping across garage roofs. I had nothing to do except tell unexpected visitors and callers on the phone that he wasn’t in the office, buy him four refrigerated minibottles of Prosecco a day from the shop on the corner — never all at once, only one after another throughout the day — and wait eight and a half hours a day for the one and only letter to be typed. I was bored, until I began writing my first book right under my boss’s nose, which helped slightly. After work I had to get rid of the cash. I could have given it to charity but I had to convert it into things I didn’t need but wanted to own, things that didn’t suit me. If someone asked you what you need right now, you might say: Seeing as I really needed a job, or more precisely money, I won’t complain now that my first payday’s approaching. I’ll soon have what I need.

And I’ll say, in a questioning tone, in the words of Friederike Mayröcker:

you need a tree you need a house
not one all for you just a corner a roof
to sit under to think to sleep to dream

Sure, you say, but strictly speaking that’s not actually enough. And you’re right, I’m sure.

You look closely at the mugs with the self-portraits of George Clooney, Madonna, Robbie Williams, and so on, and put them slowly into the tote. It’s very easy to explain why these mugs exist, why they travel the world and get bought or are supposed to get bought. But each one of these mugs and most of the other products are really dull as soon as you take a look; it doesn’t have to be that close a look.

Later on, you’ll start to like things again, the way I do now. You’ll like fewer things than before, but you’ll still buy them or want to buy them. Yes, you like money. The money you have or ought to have. For the time being, though, you sit down on a pallet for a moment and gaze at the pallet next to you, stacked up with wheeled children’s toys that are all sorts of things at once: a chair for pushing along, a kind of balance bike, and a car. You wait a little before you log these products in, and you suspect this: that the superego is a thing made up of things.

Next to you is your task before the lunch break, a crate so huge it makes you laugh and cry, a crate that makes you look like a tiny little human being, one that has received a sumptuous gift and has to stand on tiptoe to open it. You use your cutter to remove the lid flaps, which are as bulky as window shutters. Inside the box are red plastic cases: children’s emergency sets for rescuing boring clothes, including a children’s cellphone. According to the picture, the case contains sequins, stickers, bows, and a figurine for trying out all the emergency clothing rescue measures.

Everything exists, in case you were going to ask. Absolutely everything exists, and people can buy it all.

After washing your hands, you join the line in the cafeteria and get a plate of soothingly overcooked pasta with sausage and tomato sauce. You’re already eating much faster than at the beginning of your seasonal job. One might say you shovel your food down. You’ve eaten half your meal when Stefanie and Grit join you and unwrap the sandwiches they’ve brought in, scrunching up the aluminum foil into little balls. Have they seen Hans-Peter around? No, they say. Stefanie’s heard he’s working the garbage compactor now, but she doesn’t know for sure. Who knows? you say and go on chewing. A lot of food fits in your stomach. While your generously filled plate empties, you peer over at the food your workmates are carrying from the counter to the tables. Stefanie and Grit get up to go for a cigarette and ask you to keep an eye on their bottles and the rest of their provisions. When the two of them aren’t back after five minutes, you stand up, take your plate to the dirty-dish counter, and leave the cafeteria. No one has all the time in the world, but anyone with only a half-hour break that includes the walk to the break area and the walk back to their workplace has too little time to spend it on waiting.

You return to your workplace, where the full cubi-tote pallet has meanwhile been replaced by an empty one, and you too want to go back to a beginning.

You replace the Band-Aids on your hands. Your thumbs, forefingers, and middle fingers on both hands now have hangnails from all the reaching into totes and boxes and from cutting and folding cardboard. Harmless irritations, but they make every movement harder. You hear the words shift termination, although nobody uses them, and you look around. Oh, you think, interesting. And of course, there’s a wish implanted in your mind: May every day be a day when shifts are terminated, ideally right after they begin. Before you get back to work you go to the restroom, and that’s just the beginning of a retreat, a partial entering of the restroom, which will soon seem to you like a place that belongs at least a tiny bit to you, here in this gigantic hall. A place that’s not transparent, where no one checks on you, where it’s quiet and the light’s not too bright. A place comparable to your employee box, where you now keep rushed notes on yellow Post-its along with your Band-Aids, hair bands, and candies. In case you don’t already write, the dispatch hall is a good place to start writing. Pretty much the best place. You need to be rescued, if not now then soon.

Until then, though, you receive tool kits so heavy you shouldn’t be allowed to move them on your own. You receive aquariums and luminous globes; you know the ropes now. Although you don’t yet know everything about this work, you do know enough to do it well. You’ve internalized the procedures. Unfortunately, there’s no next useful lesson to learn, you can’t flick forward to a new chapter offering you fresh, interesting material. You remain on this level and you look around; presumably everyone here does. It’s all about sheer endurance, about presence, about translating your time and energy into money.


Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up


So while you’re thinking you now have everything in the bag and all you have to do is mark off the days, an experience is preparing itself, a minor intermezzo I’d have gladly done without. But I’ll still share it with you:

Next to your workplace is a pallet for cubi-totes. Products that are new in the warehouse and haven’t yet been measured go in what’s called a cubi-tote, which is taken on a pallet to one of several cubi-tote collection points. If one collection point is full, you look for another one. Near the end of each shift, the pallets of cubi-totes are collected and taken for measuring. There’s a pallet like that next to your workplace, very full of cubi-totes, stacked above the maximum level. Leaning towers beside you, which also wobble because the bottom layer consists not of totes, but of cardboard boxes, which can’t take the weight of the crates piled on top of them. A punching bag is propped up against the already unstable totes. You adjusted the punching bag in the morning so it wouldn’t fall over and bring everything crashing down with it, and you do the same now. Along comes a coworker with a cubi-tote from somewhere on your left, and stacks it on top of one of the wobbly towers. You say: It’s going to fall over.

He dismisses you with a waving gesture and says: No one cares anyway.

You say: I care.

That gesture again, and he turns to leave. You instantly lose your temper. Attempting to keep your voice calm, you ask him to stow his tote safely or, better still, somewhere else. If it falls over, you say, it’ll be my feet it falls on. Your coworker looks at you as though you were at the end of a long tunnel, as though he had to adjust his focus to even see you.

I can’t do it any better, he says, the pallet’s full.

Take it to another one then, you say.

I don’t get paid for long walks, he says, and leaves.

You watch him go and you take your time, you have to slow down right now, although or in fact because you feel like running after him, fetching him back so he’ll take his tote away again. He’s beating a retreat, he’s simply leaving, you think. His pants are hanging loose, dusty gray on the seat, and the contours of an undershirt show through his T-shirt. You’re presumably tempted right now to repeat the man’s dismissive gesture, but you’re me so that’s out of the question. You take his tote-containing a child’s alarm clock, a thermos flask, and a disposable camera — and you carry it toward him with powerful strides. You say: Here, take it. You want everything to be clear now, clearer than clear.

He says: Are you kidding me? You turn away and walk across the hall with the tote to look for a place for it. Your hands are trembling; you’re ashamed of yourself.

Industrial spy without an espionage mission — present, of no account, walking the aisles of Amazon.

You can’t back down now, though. You empty the pallet next to your workplace, rearrange it. Totes at the bottom, cardboard boxes on top. You drag the punching bag to another cubi-tote pallet, which is empty but well hidden. There’s no more wobbling now. You go back to receiving silver kitchen implements, you don’t look that closely — you’re still trembling, still agitated, when the man comes up to you without you noticing.

You didn’t really rearrange it, did you? he asks.

Now it won’t fall over, you say.

The man does a facepalm. You fix your eyes on the strand of hair now stuck to his forehead from the force of his hand.

You must have a screw loose, he says.

You give him with a questioning look.

He repeats that you must have something wrong with you.

And then you yell at him: Get out of here, get out of my face.

He’s on your turf; you’re taking possession of a zone for yourself because you need one right now. For this moment, this workplace in the darker, quieter part of the dispatch hall belongs to you. Your coworker pauses for an instant, then shakes his head, and leaves.

You’re involved in a matter that might be easier to solve if you had intercultural communication skills.

You’re like a coal miner who wants to split a rock with a big heavy hammer, who raises a hammer he can hardly lift, and brings the hammer down on the rock with full force, but can’t make even the tiniest chink. You hope for fast results, where only continuous light work is possible and necessary on that rock.

You receive cheese graters, miscounting three times in a row.

You take a walk and hide in the bathroom. There, you don’t cry the internalized tears of more experienced employees; you cry internally and externally at the same time.

After a while you calm down and ask yourself what just happened. What a commotion, you think, and this is what you decide: Deal with it like the hero of a courtly romance who fails at the first attempt. You have to ride out once again and act more wisely this time.

You return to your workplace, where the full cubi-tote pallet has meanwhile been replaced by an empty one, and you too want to go back to a beginning. You notice the guy watching you, as well as anyone can watch someone out of their corner of their eye. You stride over to him. He straightens up.

You say: I’d like to apologize. I didn’t mean to shout. I apologize for shouting at you.

The man lets you finish. Then he says: Did you really lug that punching bag halfway across the hall?

You shrug.

Your coworker says: That punching bag went with the parts in the boxes. It was one product. You broke one product down into parts, and now no one can put it together again. You caused total chaos.

He does that gesture again.

You blush and say: But if you saw that and knew it was wrong, you could have told me and then I wouldn’t have done it.

He says: There was no talking to you.

Yes, there was, you think, and I agree with you, you’re easy enough to talk to. People can always talk to you, no matter how you seem; you’re a receptive person, it’s just you’re not receptive to ignorance.

You say nothing, just stand and stare, majorly uprighting your posture so that you don’t collapse in front of him or lose your temper again.

The man says: The cubi guys will have a whole lot of problems, they’ll be looking for all the parts.

You say: Anyway, I wanted to apologize for shouting at you.

You turn away and leave. You feel totally vulnerable, unable to protect yourself from him.

Don’t show weakness, you think. Don’t show any weakness in front of him. Don’t show any weakness in front of anyone here. But what is weakness and what isn’t? You fetch a sheet of fiberboard from a pile in the corner and drag it after you. You’re a tired old sheep now, seeing all meaning in its tiredness and having to make space for that meaning. You put the board down on the pallet, sit down, and think: I’m showing weakness. I’m showing weakness and I’m allowing myself weakness. You don’t understand yourself.

You lie down on the pallet. If someone asked, you’d say you were feeling a little nauseous. You stare up at the daylight lamps, fill your eyes with the cool light, and let the pattern that appears when you close your eyes — a little purple crescent — wander across the ceiling.

Your dream job right now: industrial spy without an espionage mission — present, of no account, walking the aisles of Amazon.

Here are a few employee phrases:

Don’t take it to heart.
Just grit your teeth and get through it.
Some things you just have to put up with.
Don’t be such a wimp.
It’s all a load of crap.
Another fine mess the top dogs have come up with.
Once I’ve won the lottery you won’t see me for dust.

* * *

Heike Geissler is a German writer based in Leipzig. Her novel Seasonal Associate is out now from Semiotext(e).

Editor: Dana Snitzky