I know that we have all — every one of us — worked in an environment that, at one time or another, we have deemed to be a little slice of hell or at least a slightly more sanitized version of an insane asylum. As a teenager, my father worked grueling, hot summers in a meatpacking plant in Fort Worth, treading carefully as he lugged pound upon pound of freshly-butchered beef across floors slicked with blood and viscera in the days long before OSHA or plant management executives ever attempted to make the packing floor safer for employees. Fresh out of the Navy after World War II, my maternal grandfather worked in a three-story shoe store in San Francisco for a store manager so nasty that, even as his mind is failing him at the age of 90, is still remembered with a clarity only invoked by certain levels and means of cruelty, leaving their marks upon his mind after nearly seven decades. In the summer of 1978, my stepfather was indoctrinated in the methods of “crowd control” used by the Houston Police Department as he clashed with Black Panthers and other demonstrators during the race riots that plagued the city, battering sweat-beaded temples with his nightstick and Macing unprotected eyes as he fought through a tide of rioters. My paternal grandfather was an orphan, raised at the Itasca Home for Boys until he was 18 years old. The boys earned their stay by making, mending and washing their own clothes, milking the cows and collecting eggs from the hens, and growing their own food — all while getting an education.
I…work in an office. It has air conditioning and inspirational framed artwork (not mine). I have a comfy chair that I stole from the office next door when the former occupant was asked to resign. My iPod is docked in a Bose stereo system that pipes out Chet Baker and Air while I work. I get fresh office supplies every two weeks and a paycheck every other Friday. I do not pack meat. I do not fit shoes onto smelly feet while being harassed by a paranoid asshole. I do not get shot at, wear riot gear, or get urinated on by arrested suspects. I did not work in an orphanage for my entire childhood and adolescence. I also do not work in a Chinese sweatshop, a Thai whorehouse, a Ukranian smelting plant or a Columbian coca plantation. So why do I feel like I’m losing my mind when I’m at work? Why do I feel like this, of all jobs, is the worst job on earth?
Sometimes I feel like I’m in an elaborate reenactment of “Gaslight,” or maybe that’s just my narcissism rearing its ugly head. But I do believe it’s the little things, the small insanities and pretensions, that will wear you down over time. Tiny things, really; very tiny things. Things that, in a normal world, would go unnoticed. Things that, if you bring them to an outsider’s attention, would make you seem insane for being bothered about. Only your fellow inmates can commiserate and understand — Did you see the way that guard let Nacho get an extra chocolate pudding at lunch today? And he let him stay out in the yard five minutes extra to finish his cigarette! Nacho must be slipping him something through the outside… — and you feel foolish for venting about your frustrations during the fleeting moments that you’re in the outside world.
Today — maybe if I explain “today” then I can make more sense — was nothing special. It was a Tuesday, still is a Tuesday. The recently-appointed director of our department has recently gone what Moira and I have termed “power-retarded” and we are all dealing with the repercussions of the massive promotion and accompanying breakdown of all of his social and intellectual skills in our own silent ways. He has responded to his promotion by finding new and subtle ways to demean us and insinuate to other directors and their departments that we are all terribly worthless and shouldn’t be bothered with matters of real importance – all issues are to go through him now. This also includes my area of “expertise” (cue huge peals laughter from me here — okay, but seriously, I really do have an area, breathtakingly lame as it may be, that he knows jack shit about), so in between fuming and fielding calls from idiot employees, I entertain myself while I listen to him next door, attempting to explain what a pre-existing limitation exclusion clause is and how it affects Jeff Butterman’s medical plan deductible (hint: it doesn’t and…I hate you). So, again, regular Tuesday.
It’s only 9:00 a.m. and I’m already heavily feuding with the payroll department in our ongoing, epic, Hatfield–and–McCoy battle of “who can put the most monkeys onto each others’ backs.” It would be fun if there were real monkeys involved, but sadly…no. By 11:30, it’s time for lunch. Since we’re always pressed for time, Moira and I decide to take our lunch break and use it to run out to Party City to gather supplies for the job fair that we’re hosting this weekend. Since it’s only a few miles up the road, we don’t plan on claiming mileage and — again — we’re using our lunch break to do this. Moira grabs $50 from the petty cash reserves, we buy our supplies and come back to the office. She takes the receipt, the change and her itemized purchase order — filled out in triplicate, because that’s how much we like paperwork — to accounting. They scan the receipt and P.O.s, count the change carefully. Then they notice it: the sales tax. Being a non-profit, we are a non-taxpaying entity with regard to certain areas and items. Accounting asks Moira, “You paid sales tax?” Yes. “Why didn’t you give them the card showing our tax exempt status?” Because I don’t have one; I didn’t know we had anything like that. “Well, you’re responsible for the extra sales tax paid, then.” Excuse me? “You’re responsible for the extra sales tax! We’ll just take it out of your next paycheck.” Seriously…excuse me? “NCI shouldn’t have to pay sales tax since we’re tax exempt. So, since you didn’t follow agency procedure when purchasing these items, you’re responsible for the sales tax. It comes to $3.52.” You’re going to dock my check for $3.52? You’re really going to do all the paperwork required to dock my check for a measly three dollars? After I used my personal time to take care of agency business for a job fair that I’m being forced to work at all day on Saturday? “I’m sorry, Moira, but you should have followed agency procedure.”
I feel like there should be a paragraph here, but I’m still too aggravated by our $3.52 mistake of apparently monumental proportions to even follow up.
Later that afternoon, our power went out. Our director was in a meeting at the time. My coworkers and I expected that after the first ten minutes of the power outage, the meeting might be dismissed and the assorted directors would scurry back to their departments to “assess the situation,” since everything is a situation around here. A pane of glass broke a few weeks ago when the central atrium was being painted; company-wide e-mails were sent warning of the imminent danger presented by the rogue glass shards that landed in the flower beds below — Don’t go into the flower beds! Dangerous glass!!!11!1! — as if trekking through the flower beds in the atrium was our favored lunchtime activity. So we were surprised when our director showed up nearly an hour after the power had gone out. He was equally surprised that we were sitting in a group in Angela’s office, not working.
Our building was built in the 1960s and in addition to not providing enough parking for all of the tenants (most of us have to park at another parking lot six blocks away and take a shuttle to work), the insulation is shot to shit. I normally love the giant plate glass windows in my office – a view to a sane and sunny world – but during the power outage I started to feel like an ant under a malicious child’s magnifying glass. So the four of us spread out in the one dark office without windows, cherishing the remaining A/C, as Angela suddenly found herself and her windowless office vindicated. We discussed actual HR-related issues for a while before falling into American Idol debates and the pros and cons of DVR. By the time that our director made his way back to the department, we had long left the domain of polite conversation and were viciously mocking various employees and telling crude stories of various incidents (yes, of course the woman who stunk of sex came up…do you even need to ask?).
His first words: “What’s going on here? Why are you all just sitting around?” Moira, jokingly: “Well, in case you hadn’t noticed during your meeting, the power has been out for an hour.” Director: “Yes, but why aren’t you working?” Us: blank stares, hate. Me, finally: “The power…is out. The computers…are dead. The phones…are dead. The copier…is dead. There’s not a whole lot that we can do in the dark, without phones or computers.” Director: “Well, I can think of a lot of different things that we can get accomplished without power. For example, you can collate. You can stuff envelopes. You can organize your office. You can shred things in your ‘To Shred’ bins. You can file.” Me: “File. In the dark.” Moira: “What envelopes? Why would we stuff envelopes? We don’t have any envelopes that need stuffing.” Angela: “Collate?” Me: “Collate what? I don’t have a big pile in my office marked ‘To Collate On A Rainy Day.’ And we can’t file in the dark.” Moira: “How are we supposed to shred things without a shredder? Can we just go home now, please? It’s sweltering in here. And we don’t have any work to do.” Director: “I don’t know…” Moira: “All the other departments have left. We’re the only ones still here. And it’s freaking hot, seriously.” Director: “Well, if you all feel like you just can’t come up with any work to do, then I guess so. Just make sure that you get your work done from home.” Us: blank stares, but this time with much more hate, then lots of shuffling around and getting the hell out of that dark, sweaty pit while we still could.
As we were leaving, I heard the director calling after us, “Well, I guess I’ll just stick around here and do my work, since I’ve got tons of work that I can get done with or without power! And I’ll make sure that payroll knows not to dock your checks since you’re leaving an hour early.” We left him behind in the unusually silent, darkening building, seemingly the only person still there; left him to his scurrying and paper-shuffling and insane bureaucracies, feeling lighter with every step that we took towards our cars, six blocks away. On Tuesday, we got an extra hour of sanity – an extra hour on the outside. Let’s see what Wednesday holds.