Chapter 4: Temp Pass
The Center for Commuting Workers' Culture and Recreation District building was a long, squat building that sat under the shadow of the tram station. The building itself was, in essence, a box made of grayish bricks. Thin rectangular strips of glass served as windows, but they were just above the height where one could stand and look out of them. I couldn't really blame the center's employees for their perennially sour moods. Just looking at this building from the outside, in the full light of day no less, was enough to make me feel depressed. I steadied myself and then opened the tinted, soundproof door.
I was hit with a wave of noise that nearly knocked me over. Lines of people waited for their turn at the counter and conversed loudly with each other. There were a handful of nervous, fidgety kids who were probably applying for their first Work Pass, but most of the people here have had to stand in this infamous line far too many times and now came prepared. Books, handheld games and headphones abounded and several people had brought folding chairs and simply scooted up when the line moved. An impromptu tennis match had been formed between two lines and spectators from each line cheered loudly every time the opposite "team" missed the ball.
I walked up to man at the back of one line who was watching the competition intently.
"Who's winning?" I asked.
He glared over at the opposite line, "They are, but ‘taint gonna be for long."
I patted him on the shoulder. "Thanks," I said and moved to the back of the winning line.
"Traitor!" the old man called out, showing off a snaggle-toothed grin and shaking his rolled-up magazine at me. I shrugged, a guiltless smile on my face.
"OK, Mr. Suit," the old man said, fishing a small wad of bills from his pocket, "I bet ya 5$ that Line 2 is gonna sweep da floor wit yer line." He waved a bill in the air to emphasize his wager.
"Sorry," I said, turning out my pockets, "I've got nothing to bet with."
The old man shook his head, "A suit like that and no cash to line the pockets. What a sorry thing that is."
A woman a few spots up in the line from me turned around to the old geezer, "I'll take that bet, Gramps! And I'll raise ya 2$ to boot."
"It's a bet then, Miss! Whoever has the better score at the end of the line wins!"
The rest of the room picked up on this wager and soon bets were flying every which way. The cheering and booing became even louder and more spirited with the gamble firmly established. A short girl from Line 3 with pin-straight brown hair and glasses stepped in as the referee.
"Mohawk hits it out of bounds! Point to Oxford!" she called in a fire-siren voice that rang out over the chatter and the cheering. The player in the white oxford pumped his fist in triumph and Line 2 cheered. Those on the side of the wiry man who sported a foot-high red Mohawk booed. By now, the receptionists had given up on trying to stop the disturbance and continued their work with determined scowls.
The tennis ball, which had bounded over the heads of Line 3 and rolled into a corner of the reception room was retrieved and tossed back. The referee caught it and threw it back into play. For several minutes, the players swatted the ball back and forth, reaching over the heads of the spectators to get to the little green ball. The referee followed the game closely, calling out the scores and plays for everyone in the room to hear.
"Oxford gets it past Mohawk to tie the score! The players are coming dangerously close to the receptionists' counter, the game is gonna be a close one!"
The spectators on either side, many with money riding on the game, were quickly whipping themselves into a frenzy. And before I knew it, I had joined them, cheering Mohawk on to victory.
"Cummon Oxford!" the old man across from me cried, "Get it over! Give him a haircut!"
The ball zipped back and forth for what seemed like forever while Mohawk and Oxford inched closer and closer to the counter. Everyone, it seemed, had taken a side and was watching, or listening, to the game. Oxford hit the ball sideways and Mohawk dived to reach it. With a mighty swing, he smashed the ball with his racket. It zipped over the heads of the audience and collided with the back wall of the reception room, landing at the feet of the glowering receptionists.
There was a collective slumping of shoulders and more than a few groans as a graying, heavyset woman behind the counter picked up the tennis ball and, with a triumphant smirk, dropped it into a waste bin.
"It's a tie," our announcer sighed and the gamblers in the room stuffed their meager wagers back into their pockets and purses while the rest reluctantly returned to their former activities. Oxford and Mohawk shook hands, but both looked disappointed at losing the chance to beat the other.
By the time I reached the receptionists' counter, I had been waiting for nearly two hours. Enough time to have a light conversation with the referee from Line 3, whose name was Frieda Zweibel, and get her number.
"I don't have a phone, though," I told her as she forced the piece of paper into my hands.
"Oh," she said, looking up and down at my suit, "I thought you would have."
"It was a gift," I explained.
"Oh, I see," she said. "Well, that's okay. I work at Gretty's on Pond Square and I'm there all day. Come see me sometime and I'll make you lunch."
I nodded in agreement, "Yeah, sure."
"And draw me something nice, OK?" she demanded, holding out her hand to shake on it.
"Deal," I said, taking her hand. It was rough, but warm. Her moss green eyes crinkled up behind her glasses in a wide smile, showing off two rows of very white teeth. I noticed a small gap between the two front ones.
"NEXT!" the receptionist called and I stepped up to the counter.
"I just want to turn this in," I said, handing her the form, "and get a Temp Pass, please."
The woman, who looked to be the youngest of those working behind the counter, was a little friendlier than her contemporaries and managed to give me a false, obliging smile as she leafed through the completed form. She checked the information against the computer that hummed quietly behind the counter and, after a few clicks, the receptionist turned to a tiny printer and, selecting a blank rectangle of yellow plastic from a wire basket, fed it into the machine. The smell of heated plastic and ink filled the air around the printer and moments later, a fully fledged Temp Pass emerged. She picked it up and waved it about for a bit to cool it, then strung it on a piece of clear cord with a magnetic clasp at each end. The whole process took less than three minutes.
"Here you go..." she paused to look at the name on the tag, "Allen. The tag is good for one week, upon which time you should return it to our dropbox for recycling. Remember, you will be fined for any unreturned expired tags. Have a nice day," she said, flashing me another phony smile.