On the Large Relatively Anonymous Office

Mildly desperate, my investment in writing a loss, I decided to get a job.

I was 27. The last person I had worked for, a lawyer, was (long story, I had zero to do with the mess) under indictment. My prior work experience was patchy, cash jobs I had taken for survival or taxable ones to satisfy around six months of a fleeting interest. I had refused to commit to the cruise ship of a discernible career and found no place on the deck of the merry and like-minded who, seeing themselves in me, would give me a chance. My friends were not far along enough in their careers to help and were weary anyway of what seemed like commitment issues on my part. I had no pedigree of any kind to fall back on. My parents were recently divorced and totally broke. I was broke and exhausted from not having enough control over whether I might be broke again. I longed for a quaint steadiness, one that I perceived as being under the governorship of a large relatively anonymous office.

The advice I received from the career services of my alma mater, from my mother, from friends and others, was to take my unrelated experiences as connected by skill sets within each that pointed towards a type of office place I could make a case for having always wanted and long prepared for. I chose law.

(Inevitably, suggestions of law school followed to which I demurred. Many a decent, restless brain grew tired of being alone and set off to law school. Some found a home, others a crematorium. Understanding of the law is useful for practical, social hermeneutics, but as a science it is far broader then it is profound and I disagree with the average lawyer’s only tenet—that all narratives are arguably equal. Besides, I needed money, pronto, not loans.)

I scoured the search engines, met with recruiters and alumni, fine tuned the list of specials called a resume, repeated and repeated my personal pitches and after two months received one offer, which I took.

For $41,500 (I scoffed at the original proposition of $40K), dental and all the overtime I could get, I became a paralegal at a Midtown law firm of some 40 lawyers that specialized in litigation and real estate. I was given a desk and existence as email address and phone extension. Not much happened the first week. I even asked the guy who hired me when I was going to get some work. Shortly thereafter I was swimming in recyclables.

Because our hours were all billed to clients and because I had to keep track of all my hours, I know that out of 125 days at the law firm, 96 were spent filing, 50 were spent indexing and over 25 were spent copying, entering data or running one word searches of pdf files with tens of thousands of pages to them, with considerable overlap of tasks over the course of the day. Occasionally, I was sent out of the office to deliver documents, usually to a court (on 27th and Madison is a tiny marble and wood galleon of a courthouse, free to the public and superlative), once to a kosher steakhouse to get a signature from a couple:

    Wife, “Why’s he interrupting dinner?”
    Husband, “He has something for us to sign.”
    Wife, “Will it get me in trouble?”
    Husband, “Just sign and keep eating.”

The trips out of the office were billed by my co-workers as the major perk to my role; I would be the only one who could get away from the office; I would be the only one who would not always have to engage in dreaded work. I never bought the idea behind this supposed perk, that work inherently sucks and by extension nothing is better than to leave work. The tasks I was given sucked big time for sure, and I did not have to step far back to think of much worse jobs (most of these have to do with killing or jerking off animals, to say nothing of the expedited death that comes with much of the developed worlds forced upon endeavors. My personal soft spot for worst job has always been with the weathered model who poses provocatively with shawarma, white sauce smeared on lamb shreds with gusto, on deli posters; wherever you are, babe, I got an acre on my wide heart waiting for you.). Still, averse as I am to the environment, I have never been convinced that to be in an office was to hand over an essential part of oneself for the duration of the time one spends under florescents. Cubiclitis, in my experience, was never a degenerative disease but a cold most everyone caught.

I did not make any major friends at the law firm, but I got along well enough. Denise from accounting told me about her daquiri infused weekends. Marcus, a fellow paralegal, a neocon with a flaccid Masters in German literature, was good for political talk in a two North ends of a magnet meet kind of way. I got a workplace nickname from a lawyer who trusted my efficiency, Alexcelente.  I had my water cooler conversations, was pulled into some important projects and emailed silly forwards. My workplace enthusiasm was drenched after I followed loud laughter to a cubicle with three people around a screen watching what turned out to be cat bloopers. This, the cat bloopers, happened a number of times, with different people, at all hours, cat bloopers. I bore the machine gun fire of the cultural epitaphs, “you’re fired”, “that was easy” and quotes from Goodfellas. I was condescended to more then I care to be and regularly kept late, far far past my tolerance for my dull tasks.

The lawyers were hardworking and generally cordial, with one requisite jerk screamer who, outside of his office, was pretty contained. They were almost all men and all white except for one black lawyer who lived with his door shut and a well-aged blond who was the sole member of their booming divorce practice and always had her door open. The secretaries were almost all women and fell into two categories: young mamacita’s surrounded by pictures of their kids and faded Mediterranean beauties consoled by pictures of their grandkids. A good portion of them kept candy I lived off of on their desks and almost all of them were nice as well.

For most, the community seemed to be the major draw of the office. Where the repetition of tasks and conversations stunted me and made me anxious, most were comforted by the familiarity of their roles and the personalities around them. Even many of the cases I worked on followed formulas so pervasive—fighting over a dead relative’s house, one brother ruins a family business but keeps all the money, the building of malls—and central to human nature that it was hard to tell them apart sometimes. This community seemed a decent enough attraction for the employees. On its best days the large office was a cousin of, two or four times removed, the kind of personalized neighborhood whose looming extinction people often point to but rarely offer winning solutions for. The office had policemen and mailmen, sports leagues and boards and local representatives, drunks and idiots. The Mom n’ Pop store was the old secretary who helped with the copy machine and in passing compared the easy-to-handle-once-you-get-used-to-them pitfalls of the machine with navigating a long life. This community, complaints of Monday aside, the general longing for a vacation or just taking in how emotionally engorged people would become with a long weekend on the way, kept the majority of my co-workers contented, if not quite fully so.

I was nowhere near content and in my entire time there learned only two things, both on the same occasion, one month into the job. On that occasion I attended a commercial real estate closing for a lawyer who could not be present or did not care to be. My assignment was to deliver checks and wait until the money went through. People have told me that residential real estate closings can be exciting, touching—a young couple buying a bigger apartment or, not long ago, flipping one for the money afforded by our faded housing boom. Commercial closings are bureaucratic affairs. One waits, hands over a check and waits some more; $50 million might be exchanged, but it could just as well be $50.
So, I was sitting in this conference room, checks in hand, on the 38th floor of a Midtown office building, with a long wait on the way and everyone else jibber-jabbering on their phones about what they were doing the next hour and the hour after that and thereafter, and I was looking out at all the tall buildings around me and I realized.

I realized what architects are getting at when they design these tall buildings and how New York never ceases to provide engaging angles from which to be viewed. Any space can be observed from an infinite number of angles, but life quickly teaches us that the majority of these angles are quite similar to each other. Except in New York, where the viewing experience rarely repeats itself, is often new and generally wonderful. And, I realized that I would never make it to the surface of the sea I had willfully decided to start at the near bottom of.

Five months after my thoughts in the conference room on the 38th floor, I left the firm to incredibly little fanfare. Writing a book for a combined two hours a week while being stuck at an office wasn’t cutting it. Ten months later the novel’s far from done. I’m still broke. I squatted for some time at a girlfriend’s. That ended. I stay at my mother’s. Some days I get a bunch of writing done. Some days I get a blissful amount of writing done. Some days I wonder at the purpose of writing a stupid book and wonder at what I am trying to achieve, devoted to a wilting form. Some days I set aside an hour to masturbate, turn it into three, read through several newspapers and a handful of, ehem, good blogs, and have meandering conversations with friends, some at an office, doing quite well (what was a sea to me is for them more like one of those knotted ropes hanging from the ceiling in gym class. They are scaling the rope quickly).
Which brings me to the trouble-free point of this here break from my writing. Do not take on a job that does not challenge you, no matter what your impression is of how the world works. This applies as much to the individual plying at a desk as to the idealist spinning like Samson in his mill around an art form he or she might be better served leaving for an engaging office. And if you do pick an unchallenging affair, your reasons for doing so must be very strong. In my case they were not.