Do you want to know something strange? For three years I worked on the fourth floor of my company’s five-story building and never saw the guy who sat in the cubicle next to me.
I heard him on the phone almost every day. I knew when he was talking to his ex-wife by the way he’d cut her off: “Sheila, Sheila, SHEE-LA, I’m in a meeting…” I knew he wasn’t really in a meeting, but when he was, then he used his smooth salesman voice.
I knew his first name, Tim, and I even remember his last name (although I won’t reveal it here). Tim. Three years next to Tim, and I wouldn’t know him from Adam if I saw him today.
I’ll say this about work. Everyone has a story, which is easy to forget when everyone also has a badge with a photo and an ID number. At my company there are nearly 100,000 people worldwide; a couple or so thousand at the site where I work. People always ask me if I know this person or that person. I rarely know the name, much less the person. And, then, in unison, me and the person doing the asking: “It’s a big place.”
There was a time when I was both bothered and fascinated by my work environment. It seemed so impersonal. As an experiment I decided to count the number of faces at work I was seeing for the first time. I divided the people I saw each day into three categories: Never Seen Before, Seen But Don’t Know, and Know. I found that most people fell into Never Seen Before.
I would get into the elevator and look around at the people standing in there with me. It was awkward, those doors closing and then my peeking at the faces of fellow riders, trying to recall if I’d seen this face or that one. Staring at people in an elevator is bad elevator etiquette, so I had to do it discreetly. On a given day, I’d see six or so Seen But Don’t Know faces but I’d see maybe 20 or more Never Seen Befores.
I was amazed I could work at a place that long (when I was doing this I’d been there about seven years) yet bump into more strange faces than familiar ones. It was odd this notion of moving among strangers year after year, never saying much more than “Fourth, please.”
There were exceptions, of course. There was Mario, from Valley High School. He reintroduced himself to me one day in a stairwell. I couldn’t place him at first; after more than 20 years his hair was gone. There was Andy, who had been a high school hunk and who all the girls, including me, had a crush on. Andy lost most his hair, too. And the class clown, Lorenzo, I discovered worked there.
On my very first day of work, the New Employee Orientation trainer exclaimed to me as I picked up my course packet, “You look exactly the same!” I peered into her round face as she said, “Don’t you remember me?? I’m Ana! Remember?? We had Mrs. Wood for first and Mrs. Salisbury for second.” I smiled one of those mouth half open smiles that said, “I think I remember who you are, but give me a minute to really get it.”
I remembered the teachers, but who wouldn’t remember Mrs. Wood? She looked like Marilyn Monroe; at least, she did in my memory. Most the kids at Armijo Elementary had brown hair and olive skin and surnames like Chavez, Garcia, Martinez, Ulibarri. Mrs. Wood was totally different, which I guess meant we liked her all the more. Mrs. Salisbury also stood out. She was a lot older than Mrs. Wood and more maternal. I remember she hugged me more than even my own mother did. She was Black, probably the first Black person that I’d ever known and certainly the only Black teacher I had until I reached high school. She wore her shoulder length hair in an old-fashioned flip, and she wore tortoise-framed glasses.
Ana the trainer had hair so thin on top I could see her scalp. She was short and shaped like a marshmallow on a stick. “I can’t quite place you,” I admitted, squinting my eyes as if that might give me x-ray vision into 1967.
In the end, I never did pull the six-year-old Ana from the adult Ana’s face. My one chance of connecting with someone who’d known me before almost anyone else (minus my parents)…and at a huge company, no less.
I know a lot of people would refuse to work in the place I work. Not even factoring in what the company does nor that it’s for-profit, the very environs would be a turn-off for most creative types. The carpet is bland. The walls are white. There are no curves, only angles. And then rows and rows of square spaces with people sitting in them working on computers or talking on phones. I once described it as a “cubicle farm – people in cubes like calves in cages.”
I’d like to say the structure of the place serves the function that structure often serves, which is to let wild mind run free. I’m not sure this is the case. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Instead, I look at it this way: I like many of the people I work with, I’m paid well, and I’m challenged. I’ve stopped questioning whether I should accept my career and my company. There is no such thing as job security, but there is another kind of security. It has to do with showing up for the things you’re signed up to do.
This is what I signed up for. Here I am.
-from Topic post, A Place To Stand.