City Paper is not for tourists
These days I work as a writer at a technology company in the D.C. area. When my new boss came on, it was made known through office back channels that each person in the department was expected, like primates laying meat at the feet of a new alpha male, to visit him in his office for an “asset assessment” session.
When I finally got around to meeting with him—I’d been the last one to schedule—he was sitting at his desk looking at a stack of papers. From his expression, they might have been autopsy photos, but as I drew near I saw they were printouts of some of my articles.
After a few preliminary questions, he said that the first thing he wanted me to do was to draw up a spreadsheet documenting my creative process.
At first, I was confused. “You mean my writing process? Like, introduction, thesis, body, conclusion?” I asked.
“No, no, you’re thinking too small,” he said. “I want you to formalize your actual creative process in a spreadsheet.” The idea, he said, was to create a step-by-step blueprint that anyone (read: my eventual replacement) could use to produce an idea, any idea. He gave me an example. “Let’s say that the first step is getting a ‘notion,’ probably from some media source. Next, you have to hone that ‘notion’ into a ‘concept.’ Once you have a ‘concept,’ you have to laterally build it up or something. Get the idea?”
I was speechless. Creativity for Dummies, in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. Was this so different from medieval alchemy? I’d seen the guy he wanted to bring in—a born bean-counter whose idea of creativity was probably to market books as doorstops—and I was sure that once I made the creativity blueprint, once I commodified the one contribution I had to make, I’d be given the boot. Of course, that might be the best of all possible outcomes. The money at this place is good, the benefits are great, but it was becoming clearer every day that I was working for Lumbergh.
I thought of the first meeting he’d led, his first week there. At some point, in a discussion about the company product, he said, as if to reassure us, “I just want to make a billion dollars. I don’t care how we do it.” Such an unashamed display of rapacity!
I went back to my desk and made that spreadsheet. I started to dig. I started to dig my own grave.
I’ve worked at Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the Kennedy Center, the United States Parachutists Association (USPA), USA Today, and now a technology company in the suburbs. Insurance giant, federal subcontractor, nonprofit, giant media company, small tech outfit—I’ve experienced the spectrum of office culture, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to call me an expert on the subject. All the absurdity, the crushing conformity, the psychological warfare, the hypocrisy and foot-stomping demands and petty ego battles—I’ve seen it all.
You just want to come in and do your job? Too bad. Before you can get down to business—and that is the reason for work, isn’t it?—you have to wade through nonsense, miles of it and hip-deep. Pep rallies, team-building exercises, politics, line-toeing, tribute-paying, office cliques and nepotism and hoop-jumping. And it’s all the bullshit that’s really important. If you don’t buy into all that, it doesn’t matter how well you do your job.
Read a human-resources manual today. Whereas the field used to be about health plans and 401(k)s, now all the talk is about the Myers-Briggs personality profile, Jungian archetypes, loyalty contracts, ways to interpret body language. The next frontier of loss reduction, of control and efficiency, is the individual.
At my present job, we have after-hours jamborees every Monday, and the weekly announcements end with a passive-aggressive disclaimer along these lines: “Participation is not required, but attendance will be taken.” Week after week, some grinning consultant prods us into reluctant, insincere camaraderie as the stony-faced VPs look on. Role-playing, song-and-dance routines, comedy improv—they do it at Harvard Business School, so it must work!
At one such outing, we had to write our own lyrics to the tune of a popular OutKast song—lyrics praising our company. When one group dared to write a song about how they were still at work at 8 o’clock at night, singing nonsense, when they should be at home living their lives—their performance brought down the house—the faces of upper management clouded over.
During these little hoedowns, I always make a point of surveying the faces of my co-workers. Young or old, senior or entry-level, sales or creative, they exude glum resignation, a flash of resentment now and then. It’s the expression of someone being forced to sing naked at gunpoint.
At another jamboree, we had to form circles and toss oranges back and forth to each other in order to hone our “multitasking and management” abilities. As the ringleader VP circulated among the chaos, gleefully clapping her hands, the guy next to me was muttering about all the work he had to do; he was months behind, with a deadline hanging over his head, and they had him playing catch.
As the night went on, the orange-tossing got more frenetic, with unofficial score being kept and the weaker tossers/catchers being singled out. Believe me, you don’t know anything about dignity and the human condition until you’ve seen a red-faced 55-year-old accountant unsuccessfully try to juggle oranges in front of 100 peers as “Eye of the Tiger” blasts in the background.
The reason cited for all this after-hours nonsense, all this camaraderie at the point of a gun, was to “team-build.” To bind us together, to create an insular culture. You don’t start a job anymore; you join a cult. They’re not your co-workers—they’re your “family.” But why engender such intimacy between employees? To what end? Ostensibly, it’s to create a “warmer, kinder workplace.” But quite the opposite is true. Any intimacy that’s forced is, by definition, false. What they really want to do is engage more of you and get you hooked in, so that you care about the job and the company the way you care about a friend or a pet.
Of course, for all their talk of “family” and “obligation,” it’s a one-way street. Cross them, fail to pay tribute at a critical juncture, and it’s the pink slip, no hesitation.
At my Kennedy Center gig, I answered the phone one day with my usual “This is Frank.”
It was the head of the office, a supercilious little penguin named Edmund. “No,” he said. “It’s ‘Good morning, Kennedy Center. This is Frank. How may I help you?’ And you say it like you mean it. Got it?”
“Yeah, I got it,” I said. I worked there as a writer/administrator and didn’t think I needed to use the chirpy script of a customer-service rep. Edmund asked me to fax him some documents and then hung up. A second later, the phone rang again.
“This is Frank,” I said.
There was silence on the line. Then, someone clearing his throat. Ahem, ahem.
“Hello?” I said, knowing suddenly who it was.
“‘Good morning, Kennedy Center. This is Frank. How may I help you?’” Edmund said, his voice rising an octave and a half with false perkiness. “This is your last warning. Got it? That’s how you answer the phone from now on.”
“OK, boss,” I said. He hung up. A second later, the phone rang.
“This is Frank,” I said.
“‘Good morning, Kennedy Center! This is Frank! How may I help you?!’” He was nearly screaming now. “Say it! Right now, repeat after me! ‘Good morning, Kennedy Center!’”
“Good morning, Kennedy Center,” I said in a slurring monotone, trying to keep the glee out of my voice.
“Say it like you mean it!” His voice rose again, into shrillness. “‘Good morning, Kennedy Center!’ Say it now, and you better mean it!”
“Have I ever not done my job satisfactorily, Edmund?” I asked. There was a moment of silence on the line, and then he hung up.
Not just service—service with a smile. Perception trumps substance. Within the month, I was fired.
I remember, as part of the hiring process for a trade association in Alexandria, having to take a personality test. Word association; questions about surreal, dreamlike hypothetical situations; Rorschach blots. After reading the prefatory admonition to “be honest in your answers,” I of course proceeded to choose the answers that would get me the job. (“Night” is to “dark” as “You” are to: (a) “honest”; (b) “dishonest.”) I was sick of not having money, my parents had finally succeeded in making me paranoid about not having health insurance, and I thought I was committed to my course of action. But later, as I thought more and more about what taking that job would mean—ties and dress shoes, clock-watching, packing onto the train every morning and standing ass to crotch with the other zombies—I began to regret my decision. And so when the employment agency called and said that my test results had been lost and would I mind taking it again, I did so with relish. This time, I picked all the wrong answers. My girlfriend sat with me at my computer, and we laughed as I deliberately spiked the test. If I were angry at a co-worker, would I rationally and calmly discuss my grievance, or would I bottle it up and brood? If I pass someone in a hallway, do I make eye contact and greet him or ignore him? Anything that might paint me as antisocial, lazy, unstable, indifferent, or rebellious, I picked.
The woman from the employment agency called the next day: Could I start Monday? I was shocked. She was furious when I told her I’d decided to keep working at a movie theater for $6.10 an hour rather than plunge back into the office-space nightmare. Did I know how much those tests cost to administer? she asked me. Whatever they’re charging you, I told her, it’s too much.
The USPA sold parachuting-themed merchandise—gaudy tie-dyed T-shirts and tin-cheap pins and brooches—out of a mailroom in the basement. On my first day, they showed me around and introduced me to the mailroom clerk. He seemed friendly, but when he went upstairs to sign for a package, the manager took me aside and whispered, “Just between you and me, he’s not very bright.”
My job required me to work pretty closely with the mail clerk, so I got to know him quite well. In my experience, he was conscientious, competent, and personable. And yet management consistently treated him like an untouchable. Every time he left for lunch or the bathroom, they’d shake their heads in disappointment, as if to say, “The poor bastard just doesn’t get it.” I watched for any hint, on his part, of slacking off or disobedience, but I never saw it. On the contrary, even as he was treated like a second-class citizen, he bore it with dignity and resignation.
Finally, thinking back to my middle-school playground days, I realized why he’d been ostracized. Like the boy who’s shunned by his schoolmates for wearing the wrong brand of shoes, the clerk was cast out for no good reason. Completely arbitrarily. A hierarchy demands a whipping boy, and his number had come up.
After I realized this, I stopped trying. The place disgusted me. There but for the grace of God, go I. I became friends with the mail clerk, and, again, within a month, I was let go.
Not long ago, an edict to decorate our cubicle section came down from above, the logic being that since we were creative, our cubicles should reflect that. The plan was for revolving colored lights to illuminate a cubicle farm laid out underneath a huge silk cloth, with soothingly “Zenlike” water fountains scattered throughout.
I casually said, in a private conversation, that I thought it was an insipid, patronizing idea. It’d be like working in Romper Room! “Doesn’t creativity come from within, not from wacky surroundings?”
Most of my co-workers agreed, but not our section’s lackey. He overheard and bitterly fired back: Who did I think I was to express my opinion on upper management’s ideas? I should just shut my mouth and take orders, as he does. We got into a heated argument over it—him calling me a petulant child, me calling him a spineless yes-man.
Later that day, when the VP walked through to say good morning to everyone, the lackey loudly pronounced that I’d expressed the opinion that the VP’s idea about decorating was stupid, silly, and insulting and that, furthermore, I refused to work in such a place. Silence fell as the VP glared at me, quivering with rage. She explained the reasoning behind her idea—some foolishness involving Buckminster Fuller—and then offered my chance to make amends. I was expected to say, “Wow, I was so wrong. Your ideas are quite the opposite of stupid and demeaning—they’re actually brilliant.” But I couldn’t do it. I repeated, in somewhat diplomatic terms, my belief that it was a slightly patronizing idea. She turned on her heel and stormed away. If not for the last-second intercession of my bosses, I would’ve been fired that very day. Of course, I remain on the blacklist, hanging on by a fingernail.
If you fail to “buy into the program,” it’s a no-brainer that the big boys are going to freeze you out. But the most devastating blow of all comes from your co-workers. Cool Hand Luke aside, people in general don’t like a rebel. Like all collaborators, they’re much more comfortable shrugging and saying, “We have no choice. Resistance is futile.” But maintaining this delusion requires universal collaboration. If even one man rebels, the rest are exposed as cowards. The world of the office, the world of lockstep conformity, is a balloon, and the rebel is a pin.
At every place I’ve worked, every single place, someone has taken it upon himself to break me. Infuriated by someone doing what he himself dares not, he voluntarily acts as the hand of management to demonstrate that bucking the system is a hopeless cause. Too spineless to resist power, he serves it instead. He’ll stab you in the back and throw you under the bus, whistling merrily all the while. Adrian, stand up! Russ, Sheets, take a bow, you cringing bootlickers! Skinny, rodent-faced woman whose name and job title I can’t remember—fuck you very much, too!
Not that I blame them, exactly. The need for security is universal. They’re just trying to hold on to something. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve tried to play the game, too. It’s nice to have that deposit show up in your bank account on the 1st and the 15th of every month. It’s nice, if you get sick, to be able to flash that insurance card and waltz past the writhing, uninsured masses. It’s nice to fit in somewhere, to have lines in which to color, to exchange banter every morning with a fresh-faced 25-year-old woman at the coffee machine. And there is nothing romantic about poverty and struggle. But I have my limits.
Why does it have to be like this? I don’t know. But I once had a conversation with a high-placed official in my company during which I was told straight out that management preferred “good” over “excellent.” Excellence, she told me matter-of-factly, is out of reach for most people, and so it’s a corrosive and alienating quality. Excellence is the enemy of a smoothly run office, she said. Strive for good, I was told—aim lower. Aim for mediocrity.
At a party at the CEO’s house, you see that the shower in the guest bathroom is literally as large as your bedroom. People talk about his legendary black AmEx card (you get one only if you spend $250,000 a year), lavish dinners of Kobe beef, and $30,000 bottles of wine that taste like ambrosia. It dawns on you that this guy could live anywhere, in any manner he wanted to. What you are seeing is earth-moving wealth. He could probably afford to buy a private island. And yet he’s still coming in every day, slogging through the meetings, crossing the “action items” off his to-do list. People say they heard that he tried to retire but “got bored.” You find this profoundly depressing. Is this the inevitable endgame of the kind of success that requires total commitment? Will I end up like that, materially able to partake in anything on Earth but spiritually bankrupt?
The high-rollers, the bean-counters, the capitalists, and the white-collar tyrants: The office is the last arena in which a certain type of people can discharge their thirst for domination, their will to power. In bygone eras, these types might have gone off to war and removed themselves from the gene pool, or off to whatever frontier to impose civilization on the inconvenient mess of nature. But now it’s business, and that’s all. They created and perpetuated this world of afternoon-meeting ambushes and arbitrary power struggles, of mergers and acquisitions and hostile takeovers. Few things are more relentless, more dogged, than an ego in crisis. Workingman, beware.
In the end, it’s a question of how you accommodate to the horror that is office life. The communists and leftists can’t save you. You’re stuck with this system, its grinding gears inescapable.
If, like me, you go to work each morning and sit in front of a desk, you belong in the professional lineage of Sisyphus, the mythical figure damned to roll a massive boulder up a mountain, only to do it all over again when the rock rolls back down. After all, do you really make any substantial difference from your cubicle? Even if you carry a lot of weight in your office, does it matter, in the big picture, if you move 10 percent more units this quarter than the last? For anyone living a conscious life, office culture inevitably brings the onset of a mild sort of existential despair. Call it the blahs if you’d like: What am I doing? Am I just flushing 40 hours a week down the toilet? And unless you’re a heart surgeon or something, the answer is generally a resounding “yes.”
But you need that paycheck. You need those benefits. Your only hope, then, is to live in the moment, keep at it as an animal might, with consciousness tethered securely to the present. Don’t think about pushing that rock back up the mountain, about the brown-nosing yes-men eclipsing you, about the dehumanizing nonsense that presses in on every side, the petty tyrants in upper management using you as a salve for their shabby, wounded egos. Shut all that out. Just keep at it, left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, moving cell by cell across that endless spreadsheet. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Robert Ullman.