I used to work for an academic publisher. I held this job for nearly two years. I worked in production editorial, helping to print dissertations and other dense technical publications. I had to subject each of the manuscripts I received to a predetermined series of steps before sending them to the printer. Sometimes a piece of art would be too lo-res or permissions wouldn’t be furnished and I’d have to contact the author. Otherwise, it was an almost mindless process. Every working day required me to sit in front of a conveyer belt and spread mayonnaise across each lightly toasted piece of white bread that passed before me.
The job never demanded that I work overtime or on weekends. It required almost no interaction with anyone else at the company, save one supervisor and a fellow production editor who did the exact same job and appeared just as invested in the work as I was (i.e., not at all).
The job was so low maintenance that I took a side gig writing a sports blog for a Major Internet Provider. This required me to compose 5-10 blog posts on the sporting news of the day, a task I was easily able to squeeze into the wide gaps between quote-unquote action during my 9-to-5. The blogging was remarkably easy too, as long as I accepted that no one read this blog save the impotence pill pushers and overenthusiastic Eastern European teenagers who filled the comments section.
None of it was what I really wanted to do, of course. Not the day job and not quite the blog gig. I saw this day job as I’d seen every other day job I’d owned: a means to the end of supporting writing in my spare time. I thought of the blog gig much the same way: A way to have my name somewhere out there in world, a way to possibly get noticed.
Then the company decided to eliminate my department in New York and relocate production functions to offices in Boca Raton. I had gone on a business trip to this facility and was nearly killed on two separate occasions by elderly drivers who could barely see over their steering wheels. So I was not keen to relocate there, not that they asked.
The company gave me a month’s notice, which was generous as such notices go. I’d lined up some temp work that would sustain me until I found a new full-time job, and the blog gig offered a small but steady paycheck. I could not afford any employment gap because my wife was four months pregnant. Technically I was not yet a parent but I already knew that being one would be insanely expensive, especially in this city.
So when the last day on the job came, I barely had any feelings about it at all. If this job was a pet, it was the fish I won at a carnival that died in the Ziploc bag on the way home. I never got to know it and found it quite easy to flush the thing down the toilet.
By 3:30 I had packed up my few personal items and set up my automated “I don’t work here anymore” email message. I didn’t fire off any good-byes to coworkers because the only people I knew there were also being let go. I had shut down my computer. My section of the office had a half-abandoned feeling to it already, with several banks of dead fluorescent lights and not another occupied desk in sight. I had placed my hands on the armrests of my chair and was about to hoist myself upright and walk out of the building for good.
And then the phone rang.
The noise jolted me because my desk phone never rang, save for the occasional call from my wife. The display on the phone, employing old school digital calculator font, indicated this call wasn’t her. It held a jumble of numbers that didn’t look familiar at all. The string of digits seemed too long to be a real phone number.
I let the phone ring. It rang seven times because my office voice mail had already been turned off. I instinctively looked around me, as if the call might be for someone else who was on his way to answer it. But in this part of the office, I was alone.
So I picked it up. Before I could say hello a man asked if I was interested in great savings on office supplies. The man said his name was Brian but his very thick subcontinental accent suggested his name was probably not Brian. I told “Brian” I did not handle that sort of thing for this office. I did not tell him that I was seconds away from not handling anything at all for this office.
“Brian” asked to speak with someone who did handle that function. I said I would try to transfer him to our purchasing department. I cringed while saying these words because I had no idea if the company even had something called the purchasing department.
I opened the drawer of my soon-to-be-abandoned desk that was full of dead pens and ancient ketchup packets about to burst from breeding bacteria. At the bottom of this drawer was an employee handbook I’d never once consulted. It contained a phone directory full of names and numbers I didn’t recognize. No “purchasing department” was to be found among them
I apologized to “Brian” that I didn’t know the number for the purchasing department. This should have been his cue to hang up.
Instead, “Brian” responded, How do you not know the number for your company’s purchasing department.
There was no question mark at the end of his statement because it was not a query but an accusation. His voice, which had been reasonable and sales-cheery before this point, was now cold and sharp.
If “Brian” should have hung up before now, then the same went double for me. I’m sure 99% of the folks reading this post would have done just that. But I have a very particular condition that forces me to endure any amount of pain/humiliation if I think extracting myself from discomfort will cause someone else pain/humiliation. If someone dumped a bucket of broken glass on my head, I’d keep on walking rather than ask for an apology that might embarrass the guy who did it.
So rather than say goodbye to “Brian,” I stammered to come up with a response to his pointed exasperation about my lack of knowledge. “I don’t know how I don’t know…” was the lame answer I spit out.
That is a vital function of your company, “Brian” said. How can you not know where it can be reached.
I told “Brian” that I never had to use the purchasing department.
You have never had to use the purchasing department, he said, exhaling something halfway between a sigh and a derisive laugh. You have never needed anything from your company. That is impossible.
I told “Brian” that I didn’t know what to tell him, because I didn’t know what to tell him.
I think you are not a good employee, “Brian” said.
I pulled the phone away from my head for a moment and looked around the office, searching for evidence that a prank was being played on me. Distant cackles from another cube, maybe. But I saw no one. There was literally no one else in my part of the office, and the only sounds I heard were muffled car horns and air brakes eight floors below me.
I told “Brian” that he was being very rude.
You are making my job difficult, “Brian” said, and for good measure added, You should not be so bad at your job.
The joke was on “Brian”. I no longer had a job to be bad at.
I told “Brian” that a salesman who cold-called potential clients and told them they were bad at their jobs sounded like he was pretty bad at his job, too.
I am only bad at my job, “Brian” said, because you will not help me and you will buy nothing and you will not give me information that even the man who cleans up your office should have.
I told “Brian” that fielding sales calls was not my job.
But it is your job to know your company, “Brian” said, the coldness in his voice being placed with a little more anger moment by moment. I could hear it through a phone calling me from the other side of the world and it stabbed me with the kind of shame I thought I’d left behind in childhood.
I thought of all the hours I’d spent in this place doing a job but not doing work. I’d spent the majority of my waking hours in this place for almost two years and it had made no impression on me, nor me on it. I knew as much about the company I worked for and the people I worked with the day I left as the day I started. I had taken a side gig writing a sports blog for an audience of spammers, just so the fleeting thrill of doing something semi-secretly on the company dime could inject a modicum of excitement into my day.
I realized all at once that I’d filled a chasm of time with nothing but garbage, for the sake of a paycheck. A sizable chunk of my life gone, never to return, all of it wasted. I was mere months away from being a father and no closer to anything I wanted from my life than I’d been the minute I stumbled my way out of my mother’s house to go off to college. I’d been playing it safe my whole life because I grew up poor and I was terrified of being poor again, and I knew I’d probably keep playing it safe for that very reason and tread water until my legs gave out.
And I only realized this thanks to a literal last-minute call from the world’s angriest office supply salesman.
“Brian” started ranting at me. I could only make out every fourth word or so. So I started ranting back. I can’t remember what I said except that I was so mad I started to sweat. I yelled at “Brian” because I couldn’t yell at myself.
When I was all out of words I slowly hung up the phone as the furious voice of “Brian” echoed through the receiver. Then I stood up and grabbed my bag, weighed down with coffee mug and books and family photos, and I started to walk out of the office even though I could barely move. I was rattled. I felt like I’d just walked away from a car wreck and I wasn’t sure if I was okay yet. Every limb in my body was shaky and my legs were unsure underneath me and I had no idea where I was going.