Inside Looking Out

A new graduate knows everything. What could the real world teach that hasn’t already been learned in those four long, grueling years? Out of college, ANDREW WOMACK goes to Dallas, tries not to get a job, gets one anyway, and learns something new. And then quits his job.

In December 1995 I graduated from college in Austin, Texas. It seemed possible then that I might never need a job. After all, a lot of people in Austin don’t seem to worry much about getting them. Life was pretty good. And then I moved to Dallas. There was a girl, you see.

So now I needed a job. Dallas-ites lead much different lifestyles than Austin-ites. In Austin, everyone’s a hippie. Even those who don’t consider themselves hippies are really hippies. If you like to spend three-quarters of the year shirtless by a swimming hole, you’re a hippie, regardless of political or nutritional beliefs. Dallas people, however, are a little more upscale; their cars are more Cadillac than catalytic converter. Given this, if I was going to get a job, it should be better than any of the jobs I’d had before I got out of school.
Job experience prior to December 1995:
Sacker at grocery store.
Dishwasher at restaurant.

References available upon request.

I wanted an office job. One of those jobs where I’d sit around, pretend to work for eight hours, then go home and forget a third of my life until the next morning.

There was only one major obstacle between me and my cubicle: I really didn’t want to look for a job. After a few fruitless weeks of scanning job listings in the newspaper—while watching back-to-back episodes of Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place from 9 to 11 every weekday morning on UPN—I learned that the only way I’d find a job was if someone else found it for me.

Conclusion: I called a temp agency.

I went and took some tests and was told to call every morning to see if there were any job openings that day. I started by ringing in during the first 90210 commercial break.

‘Hi, this is Andrew Womack. Any openings today?’

‘No, nothing’s come in yet. But call back tomorrow.’


After a couple of weeks, my calls started creeping toward the half-way point of Melrose.

‘Andrew Womack. Anything?’

‘Uh, no. You should probably try calling in a little earlier. You’ll have better luck that way.’


I tried a new approach: I’d call during the opening scene of 90210. And that’s the best part of the show. It’s the teaser. It’s what they use to hook you into the episode. And I was forfeiting it for the sake of (possible) gainful employment. I’d have no shot at understanding the rest of the show after this. Why is Dylan cleaning his gun and filling that suitcase full of money? Has there been a kidnapping? Is he going to Mexico for the weekend with Steve? Has Steve been kidnapped? Still, I called, gave my name, and as that familiar guitar lick from the theme song rolled in:

‘We have a job for you.’

Finally, my hard work was paying off.

* * *

It turned out to be a pretty good job: processing medical records and billing for an emergency room. Ours was a cramped, cluttered office whose workers (of which there were six, including myself) prided themselves on its casual atmosphere.

‘You know how some offices have casual Friday?’


‘Everyday is casual Friday here.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean you can dress casual every day of the week. Jeans, whatever. And then on Fridays, that’s when we have our casual Friday. You can wear whatever you like.’

And, sure enough, that Friday one of my coworkers wore her pyjamas to work.

Everyone on our shift had a precisely defined role. Being new, my task was the one nobody else wanted: collections. It turned out that everyone had to do collections when they first started until someone above them quit, at which point they’d move on to something else and collections would go undone.

Working in collections meant you sat in front of a large stack of refused hospital bills. These usually had something written on the envelope: ‘Not at this address.’ ‘He doesn’t live here anymore.’ ‘Fuck you.’ Outside of the last message, you couldn’t be sure if the person who wrote the note was telling the truth.

To find out, I had to cross-reference the address in the original records and find the name and phone number they’d submitted when they visited the emergency room. Next came my first attempt at contact. Sometimes I’d reach somebody, more often I’d get an answering machine, and most often the number would be disconnected. In that case, I’d resort to the phone book. And if that didn’t work—and it rarely did—we sent the files to a collections agency.

* * *

None of the collections calls were particularly memorable. They all went about the same.


‘Hi. I’m calling on behalf of the emergency room at ______________ hospital. Is ________________ there?’

‘Who are you?’

‘I’m calling from ______________ hospital. ________________ came into the emergency room on ____________________ and we have an outstanding bill in ________________’s name.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘We’re seeking payment on a bill in _____________________’s name, so we’re trying to reach _____________________.’

Possible responses at this point:

1. ‘You’re just going to have to call back.’ (Hangs up.)

2. ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about. I don’t know any ____________________.’ (Hangs up.)

3. ‘Fuck you, man.’ (Hangs up.)

One day I arrived in the office to find my coworkers howling with laughter.

‘What’s going on?’

‘Here, listen to this.’ (Presses ‘play’ on answering machine.)

(Message from the previous evening, after work hours.) ‘Hello? Hello? I know you’re there. You fuckers keep calling me and I’m fucking tired of it. I don’t owe shit to you and I don’t owe fucking shit to nobody. I’m going to blow that fucking building up and kill all you motherfuckers in it.’

So, yes, we got a bomb threat but, no, we didn’t evacuate the building. Instead we sat around listening to it over and over, making fun of the guy.

Later, while looking through my past week’s call records I realized that I had been the one calling and slowly driving this guy insane. Perhaps I’d found a career: harassment. I was a natural. I got results. Someday I could move into loan-sharking. At any rate, my coworkers praised my tenacity, most likely because they knew how awful the work could be.

‘Hi. I’m calling on behalf of the billing department at _________________ hospital. _________________ came into the emergency room two weeks ago—’

‘And that’s right when and where she died.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry.’

‘You should be. Don’t ever call here again.’

‘Yes, thank you.’

Our records system wasn’t exactly state-of-the-art, and it was oftentimes impossible to learn that a patient had died on the table before we marched out looking for payment. In these cases we’d write off the charges. There was something I always liked about doing that. What we were hired to do at the job was heartless, invasive work. We knew that. And we knew that if somebody were doing to us what we were doing to these delinquent debtors—and that we could easily be them, falling into difficult financial times, having an unfortunate accident—that the people doing our jobs would be our worst enemy, the most loathsome of our imaginable callers.

That was why, when we called to demand payment and they told us to fuck off and hung up, we didn’t take it personally. We’d heard it so many times from so many different people that I think we—better than most—really knew how they felt.

* * *

After a couple of months one of my coworkers quit. Goodbye, collections; hello, filing.

Filing, as an occupation, is not so great. But that all depends on what you’re filing. In our case, we compiled all of a patient’s records into a single folder, including: a copy of their emergency room admission form, a copy of their insurance information, and a copy of their ‘dictation.’

These ‘dictations’ were the transcribed notes submitted to the hospital by the emergency room doctors. On the other side of the hospital was an office whose sole purpose was to transcribe the doctors’ mini-cassettes. It was described to me as ‘one room, filled with little old ladies and typewriters.’ I never believed that.

Once transcribed, the dictations would be delivered to our office where they were read aloud before being filed.

We read about the girl who showed up one night (‘obviously stoned,’ according to the dictation) convinced that a marijuana seed was lodged in her ear. (‘Talk about a pothead!’ squealed one of my coworkers.) She was especially worried the seed might eventually sprout. (Another coworker: ‘Worried? She could get high whenever she wanted. She’s a stoner. She wasn’t worried.’) The doctor washed out her ears, examined her, and found no seeds on either side. She was immediately discharged.

We read about the night a couple came in, the woman obviously pregnant, with neither of them knowing much English. The man had burnt his lips and mouth in some way, and only once the attending nurses located a translator did they realize the nature of the emergency: The couple heard it was possible to detect a fetus’s gender if the pregnant mother’s urine was mixed with crystal Drano. Unable to understand the product’s cap release instructions, the man, frustrated in his various attempts at opening the can, bit the edge of the cap and wrenched it open with his teeth. Some of the Drano entered his mouth and began eating away his flesh. His injuries were minor, and he was sent home—with a bandaged mouth. (‘Now that’s just sad,’ commented a coworker. ‘Stupid and sad.’)

We read about how, early one morning, a very large woman (described in the doctor’s dictation as ‘morbidly obese’—their descriptions were always brutally honest) entered the emergency room, obviously distressed. She complained of a severe body odor that wouldn’t go away, no matter how much she washed. The doctor noted that the odor was pronounced, and that he thought the best course of action was a pelvic exam. Then, as he helped her onto the examining table, a ‘moldy, half-eaten chicken sandwich fell out from between the rolls of fat.’ The woman, understandably embarrassed, said she had fallen asleep while eating the sandwich a few weeks ago, and had, in fact, wondered what happened to it. (One of my coworkers turned to me. ‘Who was the attending doctor?’ ‘Dr. __________. Why?’ ‘Did you know they call him The Vegetable Doctor?’ ‘What?’ ‘Yeah. Because he’s always finding food lodged in people. The Vegetable Doctor.’)

* * *

There was a large car accident one afternoon on the highway outside our window. Fire trucks and ambulances arrived, their sirens blaring and their lights flashing. Paramedics jumped out carrying stretchers and medical supplies and raced toward the victims. They examined the bodies, then hoisted them onto the stretchers and wheeled them into the ambulances. They gathered their equipment, stowed it, got into the vehicle, and silently drove away.

‘Oh, that’s sad,’ one of my coworkers said.


‘You can always tell if anyone survived by whether or not the ambulance drives away with its sirens on.’

* * *

After a few months I wanted to go back to Austin, where I’d probably be unemployed again. My coworkers were all impressed that I worked until I left town—I only took a half-day off for my final day and I drove out of the city that afternoon. On that final half-day, my coworkers ordered pizza and got me a giant chocolate-chip/M&M cookie ‘cake’—about fourteen inches in diameter. We wolfed down the pizza, then shared a little bit of the cookie. Everyone wished me luck, and I took the leftovers back to Austin in a pizza box.


Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack