Yesterday, I left my office for the last time. Took the keys off the key ring, put them in an envelope, turned on my autoreply (“As of March 18, I am no longer with…”), closed my laptop with a final slap, walked into the elevator’s metal box, and walked home in the snow. This was at the end of eating a series of Crumbs cupcakes, chocolate chip cookies, pizzas and scones that others had bought for me. And then I was leaving, dropping my keys and laptop in a lonely receptacle, and walking quietly away from thousands of carefully planned e-mails, late nights, and early frantic mornings clutching coffee by my laptop. Anticlimax if I ever felt one.
You never see people, really, in offices. They’re like holograms. Leprechauns waiting within the little pieces of foamcore that make our cubicle homes. Magic in interstices. Telling someone “I’m going to sleep here tonight, in between the cubes.” Eating craisins as you inspect Outlook calendars. Maybe it made sense that I left on an eerily quiet Friday afternoon, while people were on conference calls and no one looked up from their headsets. After all the festivities and cupcakes and chocolate, they went back to agendas, back to strategies, back to Cisco phones and “Welcome to WebEx…” as I waited for the elevator to open.
You never find out who you really are to other people until you leave a place. Until you look around and see your imprint like a snow angel on the low pile carpet. Until the cupcakes creep out of the cupboards and the poems start appearing on top of your bedroom dresser, and you start to imagine people’s faces while you’re waiting for the train; you’ve seen them staring at computer screens for years and years and years of weekdays.
Mission-critical. Strategic planning. A sign from the strategy that is key to achieving the mission that will take us to our vision that will take us to the Board of people asking us about our strategy and us having to give responses that make us sound aligned, goal-oriented, backwards-mapped. Build it out. Build out that strategic plan for reaching our 2014 vision. And drill it down. Drill down to the key pieces. Action those pieces. Pieces, scattered across the low-pile rug on the floor of an office building in New York City.
The bcc, and the cc. The delivery man who yells out names in a thick Ecuadorian accent. The picking up coffee. The barren walk to and from the coffee machine. The sound of the radiator. The sound of the headset. The sound of shoes with urgency going absolutely nowhere.
A committee meeting, more emphasis on the milk and cookies and Starburst and agenda and outcomes and metrics than on what people actually say during the time when they’re sitting next to each other in a room in Manhattan at 11:30 a.m. on a beautiful Thursday in May.
You never find out how large of a hole you’re going to leave until you keep hearing the word “transition” as a verb and the subject is you, and someone asks you to give them all your knowledge and you do it through a series of e-mails forwarded with the subject “FYI” or “thx.”
You never find out who you are until you get notes back on your last day, from people who admire your “professionalism” and “persistence” and “ability to have a laser-like focus on what matters.” From people who will miss when you booked them a flight that was on time, or when you came in early to buy them a breakfast with oolong tea.
Why am I writing an essay about this? Why am I feeling so much nostalgia about something that in moments made me think of myself as an arm of a computer or a mid-twentieth century cog? Something that made me wolf down large hoagies in the 30min of vacant time between meetings? Something that made me tape the flimsy paper of white receipts to the more sturdy paper of white 8.5×11 while staring at the yellow, mauve, and marigold of multiple Outlook calendars?
I think, in contrast to what all the Marxists out there think, our baroque divisions of labor (I knew someone whose title was “National Director of Learning Systems Management and Support”) are good for us. I know, all you Thought Cataloguers are scoffing at this – all of you just want to quit your office jobs as soon as humanly possible so you can assume full lives, overseeing 100% of your work without any division to speak of. But these pigeonholes are helpful, meaningful, and worth the effort we expend within them. It’s nice to know where you stand, what you do, and what you don’t do. It’s great to, at the end of the day, be able to put your computer to sleep and know that you’ve done your miniscule piece of a much larger puzzle. And most importantly, it feels wonderful and liberating and truly good to have an identity that is circumscribed, and one that you can fill, completely, like a cubicle with everything that represents you.
We’re all just wandering bodies looking for someone to tell us who the fuck we are. And how amazing it can be, then, to get a letter from someone asking you to “accept the role of Systems Manager…” Yes, I will accept that role. In a few years, I’ll accept the role of 30-year-old, and then husband, father, retiree. I’ll keep cycling through these roles because no one ever knows who they are, and that’s OK. Just give me a new role to play every few years, and I’ll be like Leonardo DiCaprio, cycling through them until people who don’t know who I am start to follow me on Twitter and think of me as one of them. And like Leo would certainly be fucked and confused on a street corner without all those canned lines to speak, I’m nothing if I’m not playing a part.