Just as moths and germs evolve, so do offices
-- not individual offices, which are born, grow up, and die, just like
anything else, but the species as a whole. I have known many offices over
the past forty years, and I don't think evolution has been as kind to them
as it has to, say, germs.
We've gone to extremes, lately, when you recall
the early offices. I'm thinking in particular of Sam Spade's, of Maltese
Falcon fame. His secretary couldn't wait to go to work in the morning,
and why not? She could have smoked if she'd wanted, even rolled her own.
She could faint if she didn't like what was going on. Her boss called her
"angel", "sweetheart," or "darling," and let her sit on his desk. She got
to inject a little of her own personality and opinion into the job, with
remarks like "You'll want to see her anyway, she's a real knockout," and
"Sometimes you're too slick for your own good."
Nowadays, a secretary who faints at work gets
sent off to the doctor for alcohol and drug testing. Even if she passed,
she'd probably be fired because her bosses' insurance carrier wouldn't
want to cover a potentially unhealthy person who might cost them money.
Sitting on a bosses desk would be taboo, and could get the 90's gal arrested
or sued for sexual harassment. The boss wouldn't dare call her "angel"
or make remarks like "You're a good man, sister," for the same reason.
Consequently, both fainting and conversation in the workplace are nearly
In the sixties, when I was doing office work,
fainting was no longer done, but we could still smoke and eat doughnuts
at our desks. We hatted every now and then, to break the monotony, and
I knew the name of everybody's spouse, kids, cats and dogs. People took
turns bringing in doughnuts and brownies, and everybody took two coffee
breaks a day. Lunch hour was a joyous occasion that nobody ever missed.
I missed the last twenty years worth of evolution,
having been busy doing other things, but the modern office is the stuff
of nightmares. I spent the last month doing temporary office work and going
on job interviews, and now that I've seen a wide variety of offices, I've
decided I'd rather be a bag lady.
Some modern offices require that you wear a
badge to get in, a little piece of plastic rather like a bank cash card,
that allows you to get into the building and stay there. They're necessary
because nobody knows your face well enough to be sure that you work there,
let alone your name or your kids', cats. and dogs' names. Some people have
even forgotten their own, it seems, because when I introduced myself to
some coworkers at one job, they became confused and gave me their secret
computer passwords, instead.
Cubicles with little shelves for computers
seem to have replaced the old fashioned desks, which could explain why
nobody keeps junk food around at the office anymore. Some offices today
don't even have coffee pots. People who don't take breaks don't need them.
I snuck out once for a cigarette, having finally found an ashtray outside,
directly under the rainspout. Nobody else ever went there, I deduced, because
the only cigarette butt in the ashtray looked about five years old.
After three hours in my cubicle, I decided
to walk around a little and stretch my legs. I felt invisible. My coworkers
were glued, riveted, to their screens, eyes unblinking, skin grey and rubbery.
The frame slipped and I saw, for a second, their Third World counterparts,
hunched endlessly over sewing machines, the folks we pityingly refer to
as "slave labor."
All was silent, and I was reminded of the Invasion
of the Body Snatchers, or maybe Night of the Living Dead. There were frightening
similarities between these office folks and the pod people the plants from
outer space left behind when they snatched the real, human bodies. I reflected
that if the plants from outer space came today, they wouldn't be able to
tell us from them. I had a fantasy, briefly, of warning my cubicle mates
of the situation and leading them to freedom, but then I recalled that
they, too, had avoided lunch, coffee and cigarette breaks, and that none
of them had even been to the bathroom all day. Zombies? Aliens? Androids?
The Stepford Secretaries? Pod people? I didn't stay around long enough
to find out.
Is there a remedy for this, a reverse evolutionary
path, a way to bring life back into offices? I say yes, this is America,
and we can do anything! Revolt, office workers of America! Take coffee
and doughnuts to work tomorrow morning! Make sure everybody knows about
the problems you're having housebreaking your poodle! Graffiti the cubicle
walls! Xerox jokes and leave copies on the bulletin board! Start calling
our coworkers "Toots" and "Buster!"
These small steps won't solve the problem,
but they might bring a little more humanity into the Land of the Androids.
Robothood should be a choice, not a job description.