May 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
Our building had a rooftop garden where, during nicer weather, many took their lunch or bronzed those portions of their hide left exposed by summertime fashion. Levi used the area in all weather as a sanctuary from his hectic duties and tormentors. Because of his calm demeanor, I sometimes pictured him sitting cross-legged amid the potted plants, meditating and practicing deep-breathing exercises to find an inner peace. In reality, he used these brief respites to release the anger and frustration that accumulated with each phone call or capricious agenda from Ms. Hooper. I imagined a clever mechanism of behavior-regulating valves rigged up to Levi’s innards by a pipe-fitters union working on behalf of some cosmic anger management organization.
As we emerged into the muted, gray afternoon, Levi twisted the first valve, which let loose an explosive tirade.
“It says right there on all those laminated placards from the State Board of Employment in the kitchenette that I don’t have to take this shit!”
I was only able to make out a sentence or two before it turned into an incomprehensible rant akin to a sermon preached by a homeless person in a deep state of agitated passion.
Working in tandem was a sort of intake valve. This he used to pull the fragrant smoke from his special cigarette deep into his lungs where a spicy cloud remained for longer than I thought humanly possible. Little wisps of smoke would trickle out through tightly clenched teeth while his lips mouthed the syllables of the unbroken anathema, his voice no more than a choked, wheezy buzz. A long suspiration carried his final incoherent rambling mixed with a ghost-colored plume of effluvial exhaust to join the metropolitan smog.
Levi offered the cigarette to me. It was rolled by the nimble fingers of an expert, using a blend of tobacco and hashish. A delicate tendril of smoke curled from the ashen tip and I placed the moist end to my lips and took a drag. I began to cough almost immediately, while I struggled to keep from wasting our receptionist’s precious anodyne.
Whatever his system was, it had restored Levi’s calm composure and my spasms had helped return his convivial smile. I passed the smoldering narcotic back and took a cleansing breath.
“Did I ever tell you about my piss test?” I asked.
“I don’t believe we’ve had this conversation.”
Employment here was contingent on the successful completion of a drug screen and background check. I presumed that we had all been subjected to the same humiliating experience of reporting to a diagnostics lab and supplying a technician in scrubs and tacky jewelry with a fresh urine sample, although I found it difficult to understand how our Human Resources department had received a clean report for a candidate by the name of Leviticus Johnson.
“I couldn’t go, couldn’t perform. I seized up under pressure. Shy bladder, they call it.”
Levi took a drag. He spoke while holding his breath.
“Bladder. You can’t pee around other people or in strange places.”
The idea seemed to amuse him more than my inability to hold smoke. The cigarette dangled from the corner of a grin that had grown slightly sadistic and he made motions with his hands for me to continue.
“No shit. Go on.”
I had not always had this problem. It had developed somewhere along the timeline of traumatic events that marked my life like mileposts on a crooked highway. It was an inconvenience, but I had developed a few tactics to manage my handicap. For instance, whenever a trip to the physician required urination on demand, I made a point to consume as much coffee and water as I could hold beforehand – to the point where I would be cramped and desperate upon arrival to the examination. Such was my strategy that day, yet I remained uncomfortably full for several hours after two failed attempts to deliver the goods.
On the day of my test, I took the paperwork sent to me by the Human Resources department to a lab in my area. I had not been required to make an appointment; patients were handled on a first come, first serve basis. I located the suite number and entered a narrow, somber waiting room. The space was sparsely decorated with a row of well-worn chairs that ran along the wall. Above them a few framed prints portraying pastoral scenes on yellowed paper were hung. At the end, opposite the door, stood a high counter that was deserted except for a sign silently commanding all patients to add their name to a list and wait to be called. Although unattended, the sign made the desk an indomitable figure in the space. A ballpoint pen was tethered by a piece of string to a clipboard holding a form in the tight grip of its metal clamp. The form had suffered the long-term effects of inaccurate photocopier reproduction. Each generation had introduced a slight deformity into the original and the column headings for Name and Time of Day along with the ruled lines on which to enter information had taken on a wavy appearance. I made note of the hour and jotted it all down before taking a seat. I thumbed through a soiled, out-of-date magazine full of smiling Hollywood buffoons to take my mind off my swollen belly. Periodically, an expressionless lab technician would appear behind the counter, consult the list and compare the number of entries to the population of the waiting room.
My name was called by a Puerto Rican woman with an immaculate manicure and more gold jewelry than a lineage of monarchs. Her only identifying marks that she worked in the medical profession were her pink, surgical scrubs and a photo ID. She gave me a stubby bottle accompanied with a baffling set of instructions that seemed overly complicated for peeing in a cup and pointed to unoccupied toilet.
It felt as though my excess water would cause a severe rupture or take a more dramatic exit by leaching out through my pores when the normal exit route refused to operate as designed. Both of the times that I came sheepishly out with an empty cup, my technician greeted me with the type of admonishing glare an exasperated parent reserves for a naughty child. She offered no empathy or comforting words of assurance and encouragement – only a stern warning that after three failed attempts the test would be cancelled and I would have to return in 24 hours to try again.
I stood frozen above the gaping maw of the porcelain bowl on my third and final try. It seemed to be mocking me and I felt my manhood shrivel. Humiliated and dejected, I was about to admit final defeat when I remembered a bartender friend’s passion for bizarre tales. I figured this qualified so I dug the cell phone from my rear pocket and dialed his number. His sonorous chuckling, made raspy by a two-pack-a-day habit, got me laughing so hard that I would have wet my pants had they not already been unfastened and dangling around my knees. With smug triumph, I presented the bottle containing several ounces worth of drug free evidence at a fresh 98.6 degrees to a caramel-colored hand. She screwed the lid on tight and carefully affixed a sticker that held my identifying information around its fat middle. Over the top she ran a piece of tape with some laboratory data and flattened the ends down to either side. This was evidently to prevent tampering with my watery testament and it reminded me of an unopened bottle of liquor. I was amazed that her long, glossy fingernails allowed her to perform these duties so deftly. I signed a form and was free to go.
Levi drew the word out as if he was holding a musical note for several bars.
“And I thought I was uptight. Come on let’s get off this roof. There’s probably something I’ve got to clean up by now, anyway.”
The cigarette had burned down to an empty paper twist and Levi flicked it with his thumb and index finger into the wind. Its tiny white body was just a spec but I tried to follow it as it flew from the roof joining the snow flurries that had started to swarm in the growing darkness.
The partygoers had abandoned the conference room leaving behind the scattered debris of plastic cups and dishes with the remains of food, balled paper napkins, crumbs, and empty bottles. Levi dragged the large chrome waste can out of the corner and began to fill it indiscriminately with the waste he cleared from the table.
“Another L.A. office party.”
I had been to Los Angeles on a few occasions but there was nothing about this party that even hinted at having a California theme with the possible exception of the guacamole dip or the odor of reefer which had entangled in the ropey wool of my sweater along with the February cold.
“Lame Ass, is what that means, if you were wondering.”
The CD we’d left playing had reached its end and the only music to be heard was someone in the distance whistling the Cornell fight song, if such a thing still existed. The greasy, fetid stench of fast food drifted in, comingling with the lingering post-party smells.
“You ever ask yourself, ‘Why did I put up with that kind of crap just so I can get a job working here’?”
I held up a wine bottle to the light. It still had a good mouthful or two left swirling around inside the tinted green glass. I considered upending the thing and finishing it off.
“Every day, Leviticus. Every day.”
February 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
“This is a story about an office worker who questions the value of his new job after relating a humiliating experience he endured in order to be eligible for the position.”
The L.A. Office Party
Preparations for the L.A. Office Party began in the morning and included collecting proceeds from the entire office staff to fund the event. It was intended as a celebratory sendoff for two people I’d never met, much less ever worked with, yet before me stood the soiree’s two organizers holding a child’s trick-or-treat bucket made from orange plastic and molded into the shape of a smiling jack-o-lantern. By the time the pair of young women had worked their way through the labyrinth of cubicles to my desk, the garish, fake pumpkin head was lined with wrinkled bills. I tossed in the requested cover charge and they shuffled on to the next desk where one of the girls picked through the Halloween gourd to make change for a twenty. Going desk-to-desk was a popular strategy here whenever a barrage of e-mail invitations to a corporate function was met with little enthusiasm. I had witnessed the same tactic employed during the holiday season after a string of e-mails, decorated with holly and candy-cane clip art, had failed to generate enough interest in the office’s Secret Santa. No one could refuse two beaming young ladies with hat in hand and a wholesome, company sanctioned purpose and so I watched everyone in my row, even the people who would never attend, ante up.
I had no desire to spend an additional hour with co-workers after the whistle blew, drinking cheap beer while nibbling on corn chips in the vain hope that the explosive crunching noises in my head would drown out the banal small talk. I was already spending a full nine hours sitting in a small cubicle, lit only by the light emanating from my computer monitor. On the day I started, the fluorescent tube overhead had buzzed for a brief period, sputtered, and gone dark. It had remained that way ever since. I should have taken that as a portent, packed up my stuff and gone home, but instead I dutifully reported the malfunction to the office manager who assured me an electrician would be hired to make the repair. A full six months later and I was still spending my day in a cramped, dark pen and drawing parallels between my life and that of a veal calf. It was hard to imagine, in the difficult economic times of the day, that it would be such a challenge to find someone with a pair of wire cutters and a roll of electrical tape who needed a little work. But I reasoned that any electrician worth his salt was too busy making real money helping desperate landlords rewire their buildings to burn down for the insurance money.
I rode the elevator two floors up to another department where people would migrate as the working day lumbered to an end. The spread was laid out on the table of a conference room beneath a skylight that framed the bleak, winter heavens. I took a quick inventory to see what my money had bought me and decided I’d seen more promising fare at high school keg parties. Party-sized bags of junk food had been opened and their contents shaken out into a matching set of four plastic bowls ordered from an office supply catalog. The large containers formed a semi-circle around two smaller vessels. One was nearly overflowing with artificially red salsa that had come from a jar with a label sporting the bright national colors of Mexico. The other held an unctuous, chartreuse blob that I figured was somebody’s version of guacamole dip. The empty chip bags were crumpled in the waste basket, but for some reason the jar remained on the table with a few globs of glistening salsa clinging to the inside of the glass and around the rim. Its top, however, was nowhere in sight. A board with an imitation wood-grain finish was piled high with rubbery cubes of yellow and white cheese. Some of these had been speared with toothpicks as if to suggest the proper etiquette for eating this particular savory. A few bottles of red and white wine towered over neat rows of domestic and imported beers. By the look of the condensation beading on the brown and green glass, they had almost come to room temperature in time for the arrival of the first guests. I chose what I thought was the most expensive brew and wasted no time getting the coldest part inside me.
People began to filter into the board room in groups of three or more. Formal organizational charts be damned; the real structure of the corporation was comprised of these tight-knit units: tiny confederacies and alliances forged from common interests, departmental membership, or out of office political necessity. They circled the table like gastro-aficionados carefully mulling over the generous choices set before them, but in fact this was simply the ritual dance people perform when overly self-conscious about displaying their gluttony in front of one another. Two people joked about the vintage of a certain Shiraz while another attempted to extract the cork. A man I recognized from a desk near my own dipped a large corn chip into the bowl of salsa. His scooping action sent a wave of chunky sauce over the edge of the bowl leaving what might have been enough for another chip on the table. Like blood being spilled, it was a sign to the others to descend upon the kill.
I took another beer while there was still an opening and got to work on making an exit before I got boxed in by the swelling numbers. Quite a crowd had gathered already, so I had to flatten myself against the wall and inch along toward the door like a man on a narrow ledge. Outside, a few people were standing in a circle, looking at pictures of a newborn on a proud parent’s cell phone. According to one of them, she had her father’s eyes. Music was playing from a set of computer speakers in a cubicle that was abandoned except for Levi whose attention was focused on reading the insert of the CD that was presumably the thing providing the party’s background music.
“We have it on good authority that the baby has her father’s eyes.”
“Huh?” Levi glanced up from the little booklet at the circle and resumed his study of the CD credits. “Oh, that. Shit, people are full of it, all babies look alike.”
Leviticus Johnson, Levi for short, was our receptionist and general office factotum. He was ordered around by nearly everyone but never more unreasonably so than by the office manager, Ms. Selena Hooper, whose diurnal harassment he endured with the serene composure of a Buddhist monk. I liked Levi and we got along nicely. Having been a receptionist once myself, I empathized with his situation and never bothered him with inane requests or complaints. When I first shared this information with him, we connected in the same way that two soldiers might after surviving combat together. We were also the same age in an office with two predominate populations. The first: recent college graduates who used the word “like” in every sentence – it was the “uh and um” of a new generation. The second was a population of professionals. Well into their careers, they too had developed their own esoteric tongue by combining business speak and the dialects of domesticated suburbanites.
When I reported for my first day of work, Levi was the only person that knew I was starting, aside from the human resources department that operated out of corporate headquarters in another state. Nonetheless, he had a building ID, surrendered by my predecessor, ready for me. He had carved out a temporary space and even convinced the bitter, exasperated desktop support specialist to loan me a laptop to use in the interim until a new computer arrived. By the end of business, all of the necessary paperwork ensuring I would receive a bi-weekly check, had been faxed off to payroll due to Levi’s efforts, alone.
Levi Johnson was a longtime denizen of our alienating metropolis. Many years ago, the promise of fame and fortune had drifted from the big city to Johnson’s tiny hamlet in the South East and, like thousands of young people before him – and since – he’d boarded a Greyhound with little more than a change of clothes and the dream of becoming an actor. He had held down a series of menial jobs to support his passion and, while he had gained a wealth of experience and insight into the ugly gears and guts of the business world, he’d met with very little success as a thespian. So, with his mid-thirties fading, he had scrapped what was left of his dream and enrolled in an MBA program.
I pointed over my shoulder with a half empty bottle towards the conference room. “Have you joined the party, yet?”
“You have got to be joking. I’d lose a finger if I stuck them into that feeding frenzy. You’d think these people hadn’t eaten in days the way they pounce on free food. It’s chips, for Christ sakes.”
The low rumble of unintelligible voices vibrated through the walls of the conference room like a massive engine in endless, groaning toil. Occasionally, a louder voice would rise above the drone before sinking back into the cacophonous throb.
A heavy set man with a shining, bald head and a ridiculous, salt and pepper Van Dyke emerged from the party shouting into a cell phone. He pressed a pudgy index finger into his other ear to block the sounds of celebration and surveyed his immediate surroundings for a quiet corner. He squinted at Levi and me as if the music that hummed around us was of a blinding volume and took off down the hall in the opposite direction.
Levi threaded the CD’s liner notes back into the case and slid the package along the smooth desktop like a hockey puck. “Come on man, let’s grab a smoke.”
(to be continued)