Thursday, February 9, 2012

The real world

M. arrived at work at 7:45 AM, her usual time. Still a little flushed from her walk from Grand Central as she always was. Carrying a small container of coffee -- light, one sugar -- from Nikos' cart downstairs. She bantered with the dark Greek and he refused her five dollar bill. "For you, koukla mou, it's exact change only." It was a good deal for both of them, a little dance before the scramble for a living began.

The inhuman corporation -- an effin machine made out of people that labored to turn people into machines -- needed M. She was pretty and she was single. One of those outgoing and empathic young employees it could bank on to make a habitable social space out of cheap office furniture, stifling boredom, and sexual tension. (Hey poot -- you like that word "empathic?" Effin bloodless.) Her natural flirtatiousness was more effective in maintaining the departmental pecking order than any system of rewards and punishments management could devise. That's because she was a good girl, as Sr Viper put it. "Eye candy with brains." So much for gender equality and those comprehensive definitions of sexual harassment put forth in the corporation's Human Resource manual. "This is the real world," Sr Viper explained. SOBs like him define the real world.

M.'s cube sat outside Sr Viper's office. It wasn't like the other ones on the floor -- her desk had a front panel so visitors waiting to see Sr Viper couldn't see up her skirt. Her little domain was prettily arranged. The multi-line phone, the flat screen monitor, the keyboard and trackball, the delicate Chinese vase that she used to fill with sprays of pussy willow, the floral box of tissues, the Monet wall calendar. For employees like M., whose complicity was necessary in maintaining the morale of the Big Producers and Flaming Arseholes, the corporation relaxed its rule against displaying personal items in one's cube. Of course ordinary middle managers were given no such consideration -- the corporation couldn't care less about its expendables.

That fateful morning -- ("Aren't all mornings fateful?," M. thought to herself) -- I watched M. hang up her little green bolero jacket, then go to the bottom drawer of the file cabinet to the right of her desk. That's where she kept her shoes, two pairs in black (one with a buckle), one pair each in red, oxblood, and green, all with sensible heels. She sat in her Herman Miller chair, undid the laces on her walking shoes, pulled them off, and the anklet socks too, (that was a special thrill!), then slipped on the red pair, expertly matched to her charcoal gray wool dress, wide black patent leather belt, and red scarf. She held her thick black hair up and looked at herself in her compact mirror. She turned her head from side to side, raised her eyebrows, pursed and smacked her lips, and let out a little puff of air. It was a performance, of course -- she knew we were watching her in the crosshairs of our desire. And we knew she knew, and she knew we knew, and on and on, like an image in twin mirrors that repeats itself into infinity, each iteration smaller and smaller. We were behaving exactly as the corporation intended, our hormones in the service of the Big Machine.

By then Nikos' coffee had cooled sufficiently for M. to sip it comfortably. Sr Viper wouldn't be in for another thirty, forty minutes so she fired up her computer and studied the screen. There were the usual matters to deal with: gossip and news, business correspondence, Facebook updates and email deletions. She checked her portfolio. Despite the recession and her overextended credit, M. had held her own since the fall of 2008, largely due to her brother-in-law's investing acumen. She boasted that her sister had been extremely clever in marriage: soon after the wedding the new husband had taken on management of the whole family's finances and now all of them were doing well. This bred simmering resentment in the other girls on the floor, most of whom were making considerably less than M.

By the time I joined the corporation (as though you join anything that owns you), M. had been working there for five years or so and was probably pulling down a hundred thou base, more even than most of the so-called middle managers who toiled in the cubes around her. Sr Viper paid her handsomely because he needed her. She was his almighty gatekeeper. She shielded him from his employees and his own paranoia.

Given the character of corporate life, it made a kind of sense that Sr Viper had gotten where he was. The corporation did not like or reward intelligence or creativity. It much preferred inertia, craven loyalty, and the ability to keep a secret. Glad-handing and procrastination were signs of "emotional intelligence" (aka "covering your arse"). A great deal of emotional intelligence flowed back and forth between his office and the rows of cubes out on the floor. Sometimes you could see it, like a yellow miasma.

When J. walked me around the office on my first day in captivity, M. was introduced as the go-to person for anything involving the day-to-day operations of the office. I asked what exactly that "anything" encompassed. She brandished a high-wattage smile and said, "You name it. Supplies, maintenance, corporate calendar, cube assignments, petty cash, all the little things that keep the company going. Expense approvals, the rest. If you need anything, don't hesitate to ask." I soon learned that the critical thing she provided was access to Sr Viper. As we continued the tour that day, J. turned to me and said, "Maria's the most important person in the division. Sr Viper would be nowhere without her. She's the one who fills the candy bowl when the stress level around here gets high. Stay on her good side and you'll do fine." I thought to myself, that's exactly what I plan to do. What a mistake.

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