Friday, December 07, 2007

office space

Up until last month, it had been a long time since I had an office of my own.

I’d tell you that I lost my office gradually, except that doesn’t make any sense. How can you lose an office gradually? For one thing, no matter how big that hole in your pocket is, or how careless you are about where you leave things, you aren’t going to be able to lose a whole office.

You might lose an office key; they’re rarely affixed to big pieces of metal like that all-important key to the service station restroom. And with any luck, your office is much nicer—cleaner, sweeter-smelling, more hygienic—than a service station restroom. Nothing leaks on the floor and no-one pees on your chair. I hope.

But even if you lose the key to your lovely hygienic office, you still have the space itself. You’re just stuck admiring it from the outside.

So how do you lose an office gradually? It’s not like an office can go flat like a tire.

But that’s what happened at The Soft. At first I had an office across the hall from my pal Revi. We used this strategic positioning to irritate an over-earnest co-worker, one of those guys who spends entire afternoons fretting over his PowerPoint deck for the Management Review.

You know the type: the guy who shoots himself in the foot with his own technical bullets.

It was a bland interior office—and I’m not the sort to decorate my office as if it were a dorm room—but Revi and Lyssa took care of that: One day, I arrived and it was rife with things that are pink. Pink flamingos. Pink crepe paper. Pink pillows. Pink wind chimes. Pink. Pink. Pink. You could even say it was festooned.

That was a rosier time. A more sanguine time.

Revi moved on and I moved to an even less desirable interior office, this time with an invisible office mate. In time, he was replaced by a more visible office mate who commuted from Arizona. Then I had two office mates. Then, through some kind of corporate mitosis, I had multiple indistinguishable German-speaking office mates who glared at me whenever I'd show up to claim my bit of desk and share of the electrical outlets.

Then we all moved—lock, stock, and barrel, Germans, Arizonians, invisible people—into a large storage closet.

That was when I worked for The Walrus, and it was The Walrus’s stuff there in our shared office.

Well, calling it an office is something of an exaggeration, isn’t it? I became just another element of the collected detritus.

It wasn’t so bad: If I’d wanted to throw a party, there was a punch bowl and a giant Coleman cooler.

I helped myself to the candy and the zip ties.

There was a cardboard box that represented The Walrus’s library; he’d gone paperless in a moment of excess, and all he had in his large office (an office with a view of an expanse of perfect green lawn and fir trees) besides furniture was a functional-looking gas mask. It was around the time of the World Trade Center attacks and the anthrax scares and you couldn’t be too careful.

He'd thoughtfully left the his ‘n’ hers Uzis at home with the missus.

Like me, The Walrus made only occasional appearances, and then only to direct his three admins in restaurant reservations-making, lunch-ordering, breakfast expense-reporting, and generally doing the sort of things you can do using a Zagat’s as your main source of inspiration.

I’d sit in the storeroom, rifling through the container of extra-long zip ties and eating box after box of stale Nerds candy, listening to what was going on next door, where the Walrus’s admin sat.

It was the perfect location for innocent eavesdropping. You didn’t even have to be nosy: you just had to not cover your ears, and you could eavesdrop.

“NO PRAWNS IN THAT DISH! NO PRAWNS!” he roared as his admin ordered an extensive buffet of Chinese dishes for lunch. “NO PRAWNS!”

Apparently they’d included prawns last time. That was my guess.

She covered the phone delicately with one hand. “How much rice should I get?” She asked him. By this time, the bellowing had piqued my interest; I’d emerged from the storage closet and was peering around the corner into her office, a spectator to the lunch order. If she was ordering food for a meeting, well, I’m not proud. I’d scavenge the leftovers even if a few of those nasty larvet-like prawns had nestled in among the dry-fried long beans.

The Walrus was leaning over her desk. She really ought to have handed him the phone.

He looked at her as if the rice question were nonsense.

“One order. One order of rice.”

Oh. It was his lunch. Not for a meeting. His lunch.

I slunk back into the storeroom and sulked amid the corporate schwag, the free briefcases and XBox t-shirts, and the odd assortment of toys and fake sushi.

I didn’t really mind sitting in the storeroom. It’s like real estate. Location, location, location.

Or, as Amex would have it, knowing what The Walrus is having for dinner: priceless.

How often have you overheard a conversation about sorrel sauce in the corporate hallways? That's what I thought. Location.

“Did you know he had three admins?” one of my colleagues asked me breathlessly after he’d parted ways with the Soft.

“Think about it: there’s breakfast, lunch, AND dinner.” I told him.

By that time, I was completely nomadic. I’d roam the halls looking for an empty office to set up my laptop in. My briefcase had turned into a great, hulking, lumpy ballistic nylon sack of office supplies, computer cords, and battery chargers (and the occasional snack).

I carried my own Swingline stapler.

Empty offices are very poorly equipped at The Soft. I’d try to find one with a table and chair, but Facilities would invariably take out the phone and turn off the room's Internet connectivity. Interns would try to chase me out, convinced that once I moved in, I’d appropriate the space for good.

“Go away, kid. You bother me,” I’d tell some perky young thing.

Because, really, poaching offices like this is humiliating. Humiliating. Carrying your own stapler: humiliating. Sitting on the floor because there’s no furniture: humiliating.

I started working at home full time.

You know the story. Howard Hughes made us all too aware of what happens to the recluse who works from home. It’s a short step from realizing that you haven’t changed out of your sweatpants yet at 6pm to wearing cardboard tissue boxes on your feet and aluminum foil on your head and peeing in jars.

A short step.

You enter into a nether world. Your day-to-day schedule decays. Your wardrobe declines. Your hygiene goes to hell in a handbasket. You no longer own any hard soled shoes.

Not only that. You also run out of bookshelves.

An office isn’t just a place to sit; it’s a place to store stuff. Journals and books just don't look that great when you put them on home bookshelves. The same stacks of paper that make you look productive at the office make you look like a slob at home.

I’d given up though. I’d completely given up on the whole idea of an office. Never again would I have an office mate like Matt or be the victim of pink flamingo pranks. I’d passed the apex of my life as an office worker. No more quad pads, no more swivel-y chairs, no more donuts, no more fancy phone with lots of buttons, no more eavesdropping. None of that.

I was becoming maudlin, nostalgic for the series of anonymous corporate settings I could call my own.

About six months ago, all this changed. My great good luck had returned me to an interior office and an incredibly nice office mate. And it was swell. I still had no phone and no storage, but it was the thought that counted. I felt revived. Revitalized. Like a human again.

Last month something even more surprising happened: I got my own office back. A real office with an Aeron chair and a window through which trees were clearly visible. An office with some bookshelves and a phone. An office with my very own black wastebasket and blue recycling bin.

Let me explain about the wastebasket. When I have an office mate, I’m shy about what I throw in the wastebasket. For example, a banana peel is inappropriate for in-office disposal. You have to go to someone else’s office or a break room to discreetly dispose of a banana peel. Because if it starts to smell banana-y mid-afternoon, you can’t help but think that your office mate will start to resent you, to associate you with vaguely off-putting smells. Especially if fruit flies begin to congregate around your wastebasket because you’ve been throwing banana peels in there.

Even things that just look icky shouldn’t go into a shared wastebasket.

Here’s a short list of items that you’d have to slink into the break room to dispose of:

  • a banana peel

  • orange or grapefruit rinds

  • prawns

  • any other lunch detritus, especially if it involves salad dressing in any way

  • band-aids

  • paper towels saturated with cleaning fluid, especially if you’ve been huffing the cleaning fluid

  • anything else you’ve been huffing

  • roaches, either kind

  • used dental floss

  • fingernail clippings (which make me nervous anyway—don’t people use these for voodoo purposes?)

I think you’ve got the idea. You can’t dispose of personal stuff in your office if you’ve got an office mate. You just can’t. It’s unseemly.

So now I have my own wastebasket again. I never thought it would happen.

I can stand at the window and watch the guys who work at the small manufacturing facility in the building behind us play basketball and huddle in the back of their building, smoking cigarettes in the cool dank air that rolls in from the bay wetlands.

I can know the exact moment when twilight turns to night.

I can stand at the window, looking out at my dirty white Honda, and eat a portion of a leftover donut that someone’s left in the break area. And I can dispose of the remains in my very own trash can! It's not unseemly!

And I can make phone calls on my office phone.

At least in theory I can make phone calls on my office phone. If I could only get it to recognize my fingerprint again.

My new phone has a biometric login; to use the phone, you “Swipe the finger currently used to unlock the phone downward across the fingerprint scanner.”

No kidding. That’s what it says.

Swipe the finger. Swipe the finger. It doesn’t sound like it’s your finger. Swipe a finger from someone else. The current finger. The finger of a passer-by. Swipe the current finger of a passer-by. He will howl in pain as you swipe his finger.

And unlock the phone downward. They say “unlock the phone downward” because by the time you’ve swiped a finger a few times with no success, you’re ready to throw the phone downward toward the floor. Hard. And unlock the phone that way, with all due force.

My phone tells me that I’m Away. That’s because it’s never recognized my current finger again. Obviously I’m swiping yesterday’s finger. Or I need to swipe yesterday’s current finger.

Actually it’s just as well that my phone is Locked and I’m Away. Because the one time I had it unlocked, I did all kinds of damage. You touch it on its touch screen and it dials. Someone. Someone you’ve called before or someone who has called you. Or someone it’s found at random in your Outlook Address Book contacts—a spammer in Nigeria, perhaps, or a thoughtful online pharmacy who has notified you of an impending 74% discount on V.I..A.G.,R.A. It’s like pocket dialing, this touch screen, only more embarrassing because you see it dialing and all you can do is hang up on the person and hope they don’t have caller ID.

Sure, it’s less embarrassing than drunk facebooking, but certainly not as dignified as a normal misdial, where you end up talking to a stranger and simply apologizing. With this phone, you have the clear realization of just who you’ve called accidentally.

I’ve just taken to roaring into the phone: “NO PRAWNS! NO PRAWNS IN THAT DISH!”

Then the person at the other end doesn’t worry about who you are.

The Walrus, you must realize, was my mentor.

There’s a button with a question mark below the phone’s touch screen. Sometime I become optimistic and press it, hoping to get some answers. Answers to anything—perhaps answers to life’s more pressing or elusive questions.

But you don’t get answers. You get Windows CE Phone Edition documentation, which is just as awful as you’d expect. Here’s an entry: “Forgot PIN – enter password to configure your new PIN.”

Got that? You’ve got a PIN. And it’s different than your password. And if you forget it, you just have to remember your password.

Where’s that darned Jakob Nielsen when you need him? Who’d have thought you’d need documentation to use your phone?

But I do, because I also don’t know what the iPod-like touch wheel does. Probably if I knew how to select something from the File Menu using the iPod-like touch wheel, my phone would bake me a cake. Or empty my trash, where the fruit flies are beginning to congregate.

The real problem with the phone is that you have to take off your mittens to use it.

Oh, I forgot to say: It’s cold in my new office. Really cold.

Offices are often cold. You have to build a small bonfire in that clearing between your desk and your whiteboard—mind the sparks because your wastebasket will melt. And wear your parka. And your mucklucks. And you have to wear your mittens. Which makes it hard to dial your phone.

Mittens make it especially hard to swipe the current finger.

This office is colder than most. It doesn’t have a regular thermostat, but rather it has some kind of T1 connector for you to plug in your laptop and reprogram the darned climate. Stan Lanning used to have the kind of hex wrench you needed to break into the thermostats at Xerox PARC, hex wrenches not dissimilar from the kind you use to assemble Ikea EXPEDIT bookcases. You’d use Stan’s hex wrench, remove the cover, set the thermostat at a comfortable temperature—75 or so—and get back to work.

But this thermostat is different. The Facilities guy who came out to address my office climate woes mumbled something about temperature cycles and speeding up the frequency and all kinds of mumbo-jumbo. Naturally, when he was finished, my office was no warmer. In fact, I half believe it’s actually gotten colder.

Perhaps it’s the icicles hanging from monitor.

I honestly can’t complain though: I’m perfectly happy to have an office again. And if they try to kick me out of this one, I’ll mobilize the small army of fruit flies lingering over the wastebasket, and we’ll barricade the door.

We can call out for Chinese food.

On my cell phone.


Anonymous oxnard office space said...

it is SO good to have your own office space!
ive NEVER had one until 5 months ago!
im so happy, so congratulations!


10:23 PM  

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