For the past five years, 10 months and two days, I have worked at a desk in a large open space without interior walls or cubicles, surrounded by a small cadre of co-workers who are practically within arm’s reach of me. Despite the lack of privacy, the loud voices, the distracting smear of sluggishly moving bodies in my 180-degree line of vision, the occasional emission of bodily sound effects (theirs, not mine … I think) and the fear of one of the bosses catching me as I check the Internet for another job (something I have been doing for the past five years, 10 months and 1 day) – despite all that, and more, it has been a fine way to work. A manageable way to work. An acceptable way to work. OK – it is what it is. Besides, the job I do requires more-or-less continual interaction with my colleagues, as they hand me documents and I, in turn, hand them back, or off to someone else, and so it makes more sense to be out in the field swishing tails with the herd than mooing in my solitary corral. Under a fluorescent glare bright enough to alter one’s circadian rhythm, and possibly one’s DNA, I am one of the cogs.
Most of the time.
Because, of late, I have taken on a new job. Actually, a new task – an addition to, not an instead of. It’s what’s happening everywhere, in this time of retrenchment and collapse: doubling- and tripling-up on duties that have come available because of staff “realignments,” which is just another way of saying layoffs, buyouts and flat-out decimations. “The living will envy the dead,” is what Kruschev said about nuclear war; it’s not quite that in workplaces, but the living can certainly empathize. Anyway, the new “opportunity” that has come my way takes up the first three hours or so of my shift, after which I return to the same Bat Time, same Bat Channel that I have ruminated in for the past five years, 10 months, 2 days and, now, 32 minutes. There’s a bit of squealing and sparks flying as the gears shift, abruptly, as I go directly from one of these “jobs” to the only-semi-related other. But, here is what’s different and odd about this new thing I do: It comes with an office.
And, so, whereas the first action I would take each workday was to make the Bataan march to my desk and say hello to my co-workers, put down my carry-bag, sit down and turn on the computer, now I arrive at my desk, say hello to my co-workers, but then keep on going to my office, which, along with every other office in the place, sits along the perimeter of the big room. My office (how quickly we make or, at least, label something in a possessive way) is, as are most of the others, nothing special. In fact, were it not for the computer, you would expect to see cartons of copy paper stacked in it. What distinguishes it – if distinguish is not too strong a word to apply to a 10-by-12-foot cube full of nothing – is one wall that is mostly glass, so that it looks out on the larger room and all the empty desks that once held workers. It is a furnitured but barren aspect, as if a neutron bomb had hit (and, in a fiscal way, it has), and the only humans who come into view are those headed to the photocopy machine, which sits directly outside my door (you see – the door is already “mine”).
In this office, of which I am now the latest temporary dweller, there are two tables, a two-tiered computer station, a few chairs clumped together as if huddled against the storm of ultimate repossession, an empty bookcase, an empty file cabinet, a floor fan whose purpose one can only imagine and a cork board, on which there is nothing but what is likely not even cork. Every way that art has depicted the corporate work environment – from George Tooker to “Joe and the Volcano” – is in this office. I have not yet “personalized” it – I’m still working on personalizing myself, actually, an action that has gone on decades longer than five years, 10 months, 2 days and, now, 47 minutes – although I have brought in a lamp to cast a more humane, incandescent light on what I do; in my beige and blank area, the Greek-columned desk lamp feels like an anarchic act of revolution, and it makes me feel warm.
Where all this is leading us, in this blog’s focus on placeness, is this: While the office means almost nothing to me – in fact, I feel a bit embarrassed sitting in it, partly like a fish in a bowl, partly like Eichmann in the glass booth, partly like a Dickens middle-manager – others in my workplace now accord me a certain elevated status, one that never came from them to me (and for good reason), now merely because I have this office … this crummy office. Whether they are drawn by the open door, or the soft fire-in-a-cave lighting, or the incorrectly perceived increase in power accorded me less by my new tasks than by where I am doing them … whatever: People who never spoke to me before are turning up to say hi and to chit the chat; my longtime co-workers have stopped by to gaze admiringly at my new digs, nodding almost subserviently with something akin to approval, if not grudging respect, as if I were not in this enclosed workslot but, rather, lounging in a hot tub in Bill Gates‘ rec room, or as if they were homeless waifs with noses pressed against a frosty window, their fervent breaths steaming it, watching me, the one who got adopted from the orphanage, sitting in a warm and glowing room about to dive into a hot 8-inch-high freshly baked apple pie; and those who actually do have higher status in this operation still observe me through Eustace Tilley pince-nez when we meet in the aisles, but burble in intimate and inside-joke tones when they enter my office – my sphere, apparently. But, oddly, nobody actually “enters” my office – they speak to me from the doorway, hugging the jamb, as if to step more forward would propel them through the stargate – as if awaiting an invitation to enter “my” space, or that they are not worthy to enter this hallowed ground, or are afraid to track mud into this pristine environment (although tracked mud could only lend the joint some character).
I have not changed. Indeed, when I lock up the office (maybe a place you can lock up behind you, or even with you in it, is the source of this strange status power) and return to my open-air workspace, I am the same nothing-special functionary that I have always been. Yet, let me walk back to my office and sit in it, and suddenly, immediately, I am hot stuff. The room has a placeness that has nothing to do with beauty, or empathy, or history – it seems to have everything to do with a social contract we make when we begin our work lives: offices are private, and a thing apart, and important things are done in them by people more important than the mass of workers. And the bestowing of this respect occurs, as it did with me, simultaneously with inhabiting the space, without actually having to do anything that merits respect. Maybe it’s like what William Goldman said about Hollywood, that nobody knows anything, and those who get movies made must “know,” must have the juju; I must have an office because I know something – how the game is played, how to move ahead, how to read the tea leaves – and I must know something because I have an office.
Does having an office ultimately change you? Do you become what having an office implies? Does the mere act of walking to a door with a key in hand, turning the handle and walking into a space that you can keep people out of empower you in other ways, especially creative ways? Or are you just a bookmark until they actually do move in the cartons of copy paper or, as is more likely, just shut off the lights and put the “For Sale” sign on the front door? And then how important and empowering is that office, eh?
I don’t have the answers. Ask me sometime around 6 years, 3 months and however many days. If we’re still here. But if we are, don’t presume to come any farther into my space than the doorjamb, without invitation. Hey, this is my office.