31 January 2016

When I Worked in an Office

I used to work in an office. One of those nine to five kind of places where people connived to get corner offices and there was gossip and office politics and the men wore bland suits and the women uninteresting skirts and blouses. It was Coopers & Lybrand, one of the top five or six accounting firms in the country (it has since merged with one of the others) and I was a copyeditor and proofreader. This was in the early/mid ‘80s when my alcohol intake was at its zenith. Drinking heavily seemed to go quite well with working in a daily office grind with a cross bay commute.

There were two other copyeditors and a part timer. We had a supervisor and in an adjacent room were four people called word processors who would type. When I started I was working with two women. We were all in our mid to late twenties. One woman was from New York, very brassy, very loud, an addict who was in recovery but still using so she really wasn't in recovery. Her name was Joanne and she may rank as the single most self absorbed person I’ve ever met. We got along well enough although she could be pretty obnoxious. The other woman couldn’t have been more different. Her name as Melissa. She was a devout Christian, married with a baby at home and a husband who liked to pee sitting down (what, you think I’d make something like that up?). One day right after work hours we were all taken to a bar, it was Melinda’s first time in a saloon. Talk about straight-laced. Joanne dressed like a call girl and Melissa dressed like your grandmother. They both got along well enough with me, but not so much with each other.

The part timer was a very, very cute woman from the South named Julie. The first time she came in after I started she intentionally leaned forward and displayed a great deal of cleavage, actually it was more a view of virtually all of her breasts. She had planned this with Joanne to see if I’d peak (I did) so that they could determine whether I was gay or straight. The two men who worked in the typing department were both gay. One was very open and talked about sex a lot, his name was Michael and he was in an out of AA. The other was much more discreet. There were also two women in that office one was twice our age and the other was also in her 20s and had a massive crush on me. I’d have preferred Julie to have had the crush but such is life.

Our supervisor whose name was also was Julie and she was about the best boss I’ve ever had. She was a sweet middle aged woman married to a much much older man who was a raging bigot. I never got that relationship at all.

We were all pretty close and despite the tedium of our duties and the occasional Melissa-Joanne friction, it was a nice place to work, at least in our office, which was called the Report Department. Of course accountants would forever be sauntering in. Some were fresh faced lads just out of college desperate to make a good impression on higher ups. Others were middle aged middle track men hoping to hang in long enough to get promoted to the top rung or land a bigger job somewhere else. And occasionally we’d see one of the old fossils who’d already made a bundle of money and advanced as far as one could go at the firm. They were variously the mellowest gents, content with life and not needing to ruffle feathers, or they were salty, grumps still bossing people around never satisfied with anyone or anybody.

Mostly the accountants were white men. There were few women and virtually no one of color. It should come as no surprise that all the receptionists, secretaries and office mangers were women. The receptionists were usually just out of high school or college, often cute and wonderfully excited about life, sure that there futures were elsewhere. I dated one of them, but like most people who worked there in any capacity, she was not anywhere near being the type of person I would want to spend time with unless inebriated or well on the way to that condition.

Somehow gossip always made its way to us — usually via a receptionist or friendly secretary. Many of the accountants were cheating on their wives either on a regular basis with a paramour or in one  one night stands. Their partners for such assignations generally came from the secretarial pool. The less satisfying the job the greater the need for gossip, juicy tidbits to fill the day, give titillation. Thus the high premium on gossip.

Most of the accountants were decent enough sorts although some clearly looked at us as "the help" and thus lesser beings. A very few couldn't have been nicer. Two of them took me to lunch and many many drinks on my last day. Besides gossip there was an inordinate amount of time spent talking about personalities. It filled the time but was akin to the sports talk you hear on the radio, really just a lot of noise with no value. I never worked in a job in which clock watching an obsession with countdowns to weekends and holidays and vacations was so pronounced. To think that this is so typical of so many jobs is depressing indeed.

The offices were in a high rise right in the smack of San Francisco’s financial district. We were many floors up and could soak in nice views during lax times. When it wasn’t busy I could be counted on to orchestrate silly shenanigans, especially in the afternoons after I’d drank lunch. There were bars and restaurants aplenty around and I got acquainted with many of them either during lunch or after work. Sometimes there’d be celebrations that the brass would take us too and we’d feast on sumptuous meals and down the best kind of cocktail of all: ones on the house. Most of the accountants were eager drinkers and the younger ones — so we heard — were not above snorting a line or six during off hours or to help them through tax season.

It was while working there that I decided to enter the teaching profession. No doubt a deciding factor was realizing how much I hated so much about working in an office among suits whose profession revolved around the almighty dollar. I knew there had to be one helluva lot more meaningful ways to live. I’d previously been a journalist and a good one at that but dropped the profession as if it was a girlfriend I loved dearly and was well suited for but felt unworthy of. Teaching seemed a profession that had the same nobility as newspaper work so I pursued first a masters in history and then a credential.

There was nothing formative about my time at Coopers & Lybrand, at least so far as the work was concerned. I gained nothing from the job itself except perhaps that it started me on the road to being obsessive about grammar and spelling (except, oddly, my own which I still hate to proof read, edit and correct, as readers of this blog can testify). I made no lasting relationships there either. The two women I initially worked beside eventually moved on and their replacements were too hopelessly banal people who’s name I can’t even recall. I did get some insight into the way people work and the prison of the 9-5 Monday through Friday two to four weeks of vacations existence. It grinds people to dust. So many of the people who work in such places are terribly unhappy and unfulfilled during most of their waking hours. They are, as Thoreau put it, leading “lives of quiet desperation.” They scratch and claw for raises, more vacations, sick leave, better accommodations, promotions. Their professional lives are all about the end product because the process is prosaic and dreary. It is only through their bank accounts and possessions and time away from work that they find joy.

Working there aided and abetted my drinking and using. Indeed it gave fuller meaning to it. I carried on as I went back to school and then started my teaching career, but that was more the function of my addiction than it was a need to counteract the dulling effects of an office job. An office job. My god I had one once. Once for nearly three years was enough, more than.

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