Tag Archives: George Tooker

Physical Plant

When blood-siphoning hedge-fund greed and the declining fortunes of what young techno-Turks sneeringly label “legacy” media forced us out of our old offices, among the things that new management said we could not under any circumstances transfer with us to our clean and green and ergonomically astute new offices were our potted plants. The news came in the form of an item in an emailed newsletter from the image-makers involved in the Big Move; here is the notice:

Puzzling, this. One would surely assume – and, thus, one would be so utterly and completely wrong – that plants could only be good for an enclosed work environment, that their beauty and pet-like quality might help soothe those toiling in a pressurized and deadline-driven occupation, that the oxygen produced by personalized in-your-face photosynthesis might bestow on sleep-deprived and lung-capacity-diminished journalists a puff of non-caffeinated alertness, that having to occasionally water a bit of philodendron or petunia might demand a certain level of responsibility and interest in something other than self rare in this ego-drenched and cynicism-thick atmosphere. The owners of the building in which we now lease space expressed concern, apparently, that plants might add something unbalanced to the filtered and formulated air, and that these undocumented aliens might harbor insects that – what? – might ruin this year’s 3rd-floor-office peach crop? We were assured that professionals would be determining and providing the proper flora, and that they would maintain them with perfect light and hydration as only professionals can.

OK. But, first, a bit of necessary background: The newsroom from which we were deposed by squeeze-the-corpse-dry owners – that storied, classic, fabled, memorable newsroom – was, let’s face it, a subterranean, black-lung-dispensing pit with carpeting that had not been vacuumed in anybody’s memory and twice that long for the cleaning of the air ducts (the most frequent sound in the place was not keyboards clacking but everyone sneezing), with oozings and droopings and ashy moundings and vending machines that dropped down items already chewed on by mice. Natural light came into this room only on the side of a beer can, and then it was spelled L-I-T-E. The idea that we bad-news bearers might have the urge to bring illicit contraband potted plants with us to the new clean-room office stumbles on the reality that the old office was so toxic it barely supported human life let alone pansies. The main reason we would not be bringing our plants to the new place is that we had no plants, in the way that sensitive couples decide not to bring children into this terrible world.

(But we would not tell management that turning the new digs into the equivalent of the California border’s agricultural Maginot Line had no meaning for us leafy green-less deportees – we might be able to use it as a grievance come contract negotiations.)

And, so, when on a Friday we bade farewell to our beloved Superfund site and on that following Monday arrived for work in an entirely new environment, one so scrubbed and kilowatted and boxy and soulless, that not a one of us – trying to find our cubicles among the rat warren of minimum-security cells – gave even half a thought to potted plants.

Until we saw them. In our area, 6 of them.In dark ceramic pots. About 6-inches tall, including the (now that we look closer at it) possibly ceramic pot. Looking for all the world like half a dozen packs of wheat grass waiting to be juiced. Aligned in two perfect rows atop facing walls across a work-station aisle from each other, they seemed – how you say? – disappointing? No – insignificant. Negligible. Puny. Absurd. Hilarious.

And, preternaturally odd. Something …

I tried to pick one up, to see how heavy the pot was. I could not pick it up – it seemed, all several square inches of it, to be as densely weighted and gravity-redolent as a black hole. It was then I discovered that the pot – indeed, all of them – was glued to the surface, as if it were the Hope Diamond in a museum setting, held in place to thwart that menacing band of roaming wheat-grass thieves.

The grassy stalks were so lushly green, so perfectly trimmed – I ran my hand across their crew-cutted top – so … artificial. Plastic. Plastic wheat grass. The perfect plant for this unliving George Tooker-ish office.

It is somehow depressing to consider that these tinted and decorative bits of petroleum byproduct will almost surely outlive the enterprise that they have been drafted to decorate. The newspapers will be the stuff of memory and mold when these perky simulacra will be, unchanged, ever unchanging, the belles of the landfill.

However, I have noticed something of hope. Recently, secretly, colleagues have begun to stick things into the artificial grass, and place things atop them, in ways that can only be deemed clever or, at least, anarchic. First it was candy balls – a sure sign of simple rebellion, but a serious one, because I know of no journalist who readily or easily lets food out of his mitts. Then there was the wag who, in a nice film reference, stuck a packet of artificial sweetener into the stalks: Splenda in the grass. Just the other night I became aware of tiny toy reptiles placed to lend a kind of jungle air to the thick growth – and, in a way, the plastic animals made the plastic grass seem more real.

This is all good news. What is happening to these green accessories is what happens to statues on campuses that become the targets of student pranks and hazing requirements – old Civil War generals or figures personifying virtuous values suddenly, in dawn’s light, seen to be wearing sweaters or painted blue or holding a leashed goat or sporting a tattoo. Our wheat grass has become the equivalent of this sort of ritualistic nose-thumbing; I can envision them becoming the repository of little Halloween costumes and Christmas ornaments, office supplies and all sorts of offensive stuff that will give vent to journalists’ sarcasm, darkness, insubordination, mistrust of authority and general screw-you pissed-offness. In other words, in some strange ironic way, these artificial plants will have brought something very natural into the newsroom, and given it a place to thrive.

Just don’t add water.

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Filed under Life, Musings, Nature/Nurture, Random

Holding a Higher Office

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.

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