How To: Collect a Paycheck From 311 While Reading a Book a Day at Your Desk


When people ask me where I work, I tell them I work for the city’s 311 line. This in inaccurate in several ways:


• Like almost everyone you will speak to when you call 311, I do not work for the city. I have a contract job with a private company that handles any number of clients, including a small subsection of calls sent to 311.

• The only way you will ever talk to me when you call 311 is if you drill down to a very specific subject handled by a single city agency. Therefore on the average eight hour workday, I will almost never spend more than an hour on the telephone.1

• Which means really, my job is to clock in five days a week and read.



I have no special affinity for the topic I am paid to intermittently discuss with the public. Prior to being hired I had zero knowledge of this agency’s policies, and I have never received training materials outside of printouts from their public website. Questions I have forwarded through the private/public bureaucracy above me have almost never been answered. My job is essentially to navigate the city website on behalf of those unable or unwilling to do so. When faced with a topic the website is unable to answer, we are advised to tell the caller to visit the agency in person and if they will not or cannot make the trip, we will send an e-mail inquiry (through the public website) to the agency. We never receive feedback from these inquiries. As such, the learning process ended after about two weeks on the job.

When your workday consists of sitting in a cubicle with a heavily-firewalled computer2 waiting for a phone to ring, the most pressing work-related issue you face each day is making sure you have something to read for an eight hour shift. This may sound incredibly easy, and it is in comparison to most jobs in the world. Nevertheless, it can be challenging.

For starters, we are very explicitly forbidden from having “any electronic devices” at our desks, allegedly in the name of information security. Even though all of the material we handle is public information available on the city’s own website, and that we’re allowed to take handwritten notes with no oversight, it has been affirmed that eReaders constitute a security risk equal to a mobile phone3.

As someone who lives both in a small apartment and the 21st century, I have spent the past several years trying to reduce the amount of physical media I own. I have sold or given away untold hundreds of books with the reasoning that should I ever want to read/re-read them I can just buy the eBook. There comes a point where you realize you’re carrying eight Douglas Coupland novels into their third apartment and you’ve read four of them and only enjoyed one. Now that I’ve hit the point that I could easily affirm my ambivalence to Coupland by reading all of them in a week, I no longer have them on hand.

So I’ve had to re-examine my reading priorities over the past year. I’ve read over 350 books on the clock since last March. It’s a complex ecology sitting on my desk on any given day. They can be divided roughly into a few categories:


Airplane Reading:

My job is a lot like taking a daily eight hour plane ride where you’re occasionally roused by a flight attendant who just wants to make sure you know how to open the door if the plane crashes. I rarely board an actual aircraft, and I head to the beach even less often, so I’ve rarely had time for the breezy literature people associate with those locales. I am the snob who wonders why you’d waste limited reading time — there’s so much important and fascinating work laying unread — on fluff? Well, one reason is because you’re not feeling up to reading anything more taxing. This means subscribing to print magazines for the first time in probably a decade, plus finally giving Stephen King a shot. I read the extended version of The Stand in about a week, and he’s incredibly easy to read. I don’t mean this as an insult, but the story just rolls along in a clear and compelling way that you can plow through when you’re tired or sick or stressed or (hypothetically, I assure you) hungover. This is in sharp contrast to most of your Bolanos or Pynchons, though I’ve read them at work too. Sometimes you lack the caffeine or vigor to tackle them, though. This is also when you read magazines. It’s a dying industry, and they’ll sell you subscriptions really cheaply these days!



In addition to the “to read” pile, there were dozens of books I couldn’t bear to part with, because they covered an area of interest and weren’t available digitally or at any local libraries. I may not have read them, and I may suspect they weren’t very good, but how could I part with them? Now I’ve read (another) 14 books on professional wrestling, and have affirmed that fourteen of them aren’t worth keeping. I’ve also given a number of books a second chance (I still don’t like The Sun Also Rises yet I’ve kept a copy of it since eleventh grade AP English) and filled in some cultural gaps: I read a used copy of The Outsiders one day and not only learned what “Stay Gold Ponyboy” means, but also found some profanities written in a child’s hand on several pages. That is why eBooks will never truly replace print media.



One thing that keeps me from prolific book reading at home is the ability to pause and look up related things on the Internet: you start reading a book on craft brewing and two hours later you’re elbow deep in a Wikihole about different logos that Milton Glaser designed. Being cut off from other sources only elongates this process. Rather than falling down a Wiki hole, you just track down books about the development of frozen food, the VCR, dog behaviorism, and the vocoder because of passing references in other books. Many of these aren’t topics I have an abiding interest in, but when you’ve got the time and an expansive public library system it seems a shame not to read the book on craft beer, then additional books on bourbon, liqueurs, bitters and punch. After all, Mevil Dewey put them all next to each other for a reason.


Not The Internet:

The biggest adjustment I’ve made in the past year is not being connected to the Internet during all waking hours. Reading books instead of blogs dislocates you socially: what you thought of as “that one sketch from Saturday Night Live” turns into “The Controversial SNL Sketch That Launched A Thousand Thinkpieces and Twitter Comments” while you were at work re-reading Salinger. You find out celebrities die at the end of the business day. You miss out on a lot of last-minute offers for tickets and get sniped on eBay like nobody’s business. More importantly, being Off The Internet makes me realize what a high percentage of my friends I keep in touch with solely through idle daytime Google Chat conversations. I don’t talk to many people on the phone, and I don’t have long discursive e-mail correspondences with many people either. Sending links of funny GIFs and then catching up with far-flung acquaintances was the primary engine of keeping in touch with a huge swath of my friends, and after a year I still haven’t adequately compensated. So if you’re reading this pseudonymous blog post and recognize the author, and I haven’t communicated with you for about a year, I’m sorry! We should exchange e-mails! Also please do not contact my employer and get me fired.


Den Skert lives in New York City and has worked many jobs where his impeccable background references and education have made no difference whatsoever.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons


1. There are a few busy periods for our agency where it’s possible that I will spend as much as four to six hours on the phone in a given day. There are also days where I have timed all of my calls to determine that I spent around 24 minutes out of eight hours on the phone.

2. Our network was initially so heavily firewalled that significant portions of our client agency’s website was blocked with no real explanation save for that we could technically find most of the information in those sections in a series of infrequently updated PDF files. When Adobe Acrobat stopped working across our Windows XP network, they unblocked the previous forbidden subsections of the website. They also unblocked Google, and eventually the entire Internet. Still, we have been verbally informed we shouldn’t access anything but the approved website, and are occasionally reminded we shouldn’t be even be using portions of our own contract employer’s website as a resource, we’re just unofficially allowed to do so until they figure out how to update Acrobat.

3. Which is to say no security risk.



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