I have a new desk at work. It has a window. If you’re thinking I’ve been promoted, no; just moved. Since I am attached to no particular group at the paper that requires me to whirl around in my chair, whip off my glasses and stare with inhuman concentration at A NEWS STORY that is DEVELOPING it doesn’t really matter where I sit. I was moved to the news pod a while ago, but it was an odd place, and didn’t feel quite right.
No, let me go back. Allll the way back.
First desk: in the bowels of the Minnesota Daily. Way in the back in an area that was probably a storage closet when the building was erected in the teens or twenties. It had a window, but since we were in the basement, the view wasn’t exactly spectacular. That was fine. It was the editorial office, and it was homey back there – enormous old wooden desks, a clanking radiator that kept us warm, and the use of the Selectric typewriters. The Daily had two. Editorial, being the highest function of the paper (coff) got the Selectrics. I dreamed about this place last night; in the dream, I was moving backwards in time until I got to the Titanic, and then reset without memory of what had happened. Except that I remembered a little, and had to piece together an escape strategy. (Yes, that’s an episode of Star Trek: TNG.) Probably dreamed about it because I knew I’d be moving today. Anyway, after that I moved to a cubicle in the Wordsworth book section, where I was editor for a year. This was the standard of early 80s offices: tall fabric-coated modular partitions with rounded plastic edges. I would learn more about those at my next desk . . .
TV Guide. They were grey, I remember. Big metal cabinets on the top, clanking metal drawers. It was here I first experienced Office Life; it was here I discovered my instinctual aversion. The camaraderie was a fine compensation; working downtown made me feel Aww Gwowed Up. I took the bus and looked forward to Friday; one of the horde, and better off than most of my predecessors who just had a desk in a clamorous room.
I mean this.
That’s from “The Crowd,” and you can see the scene from which the image was nabbed HERE. The shot at 1:57 – 2:36 is quite remarkable.
My cubicle was, of course, decorated with all sorts of whimsical, ironical, and sentimental pictures, designed to place a “personal stamp” and make me feel at home. O the deliberations that go into choosing those things. A New York postcard to show my cosmopolitan nature! Something kitschy and retro to indicate hipness that transcends the clutter of modern pop culture, but shows a pop sensibility! An inelegantly worded headline clipped from the paper to indicate the proper cultural stance towards an issue of the day! And so on. As I’ve mentioned before, this was an office that actually had a poster of a kitten hanging from a branch, with the deathless phrase “Hang In There ‘Til Friday” written below. I also remember a small breakroom where you could eat your rations at the noon hour, freed from your desk, which was 20 feet away. But you weren’t there now! Kick back! Relax! Cut loose! Read a magazine! Look at your wrist and see a dotted lines! Wonder if both have to be slit, or if one will do!
Next office: St. Paul Pioneer Press. A real newsroom, and by that I mean “quiet as the grave, with muted typing.” The dominant style was still the tall partition. Everyone had a cubicle. You could walk into an office, and you couldn’t tell if anyone was there.
This drove managers crazy, I’m sure. And so, after a few years of the “individual office for the drone” style of office design, someone decided the time was right to make offices pay for an entirely new look, and one that would satisfy managers everywhere. Shaka, when the walls fell. The managers looked at the low desks, with their vestigial walls that merely hinted towards the idea of personal space, and they said YES. YES YES. With one sweeping glance they can see everyone. And if everyone is there then everyone is working.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. After St. Paul I moved to Washington, where the offices were individual, tall, modular partitions covered with felt, with a foam core so you could use pushpins to put up pictures and posters and make the space “yours.” A word about the pushpins: I believe the most highly-valued of the genre are clear. That’s all I’ll use. I have separated out clean one from the mixed-nut selections, and have bought boxes for my own use, rather than rely on the higgly-piggly assortment you get in the office.
I put it to you that there is no reason to have a colored push-pin at all. People who want color should be required to go outside the supply chain.
That is all.
Anyway, Deb Howell at the DC bureau swept her arm across the office and Jericho’d the partitions, and we got new desks. Everyone was now joined together. As a concession to individuality and personal space, a wall 12 inches high stood between you and Other People. I went there every day from 9 to 5. I do not believe I did more than 100 hours of significant work in that space for my entire time in the bureau. Writing there, on DOS machines, felt like doing a slow striptease atop a mound of fireants heaped on the altar of St. Peter’s – which is to say, wrong in every respect. I wrote at home at night and piped my work to the office. When the editorial gaze swept past me, I would be seen at my desk, looking at the screen, but what was I doing? Surfing the web. One problem: the web had not been invented. I was reading the wires, the firehose of information we privileged few could access.
When I moved back home I set up at office in my new house, and it was the best office ever. A room of my own. My books, my things, my color scheme, MINE. It was glorious. I spent a few years waiting for the internet to be invented, and then I really started to enjoy the space. Fiction, journals, columns, movies. Freed from the office, freed from the tick and the tock, just work. This was the Friday for which I had hung in there.
And then I got a job at the Strib, and a desk. Space was at a premium in those days; every spot was filled, but I got one back in the middle of the newsroom. For reasons I never understood – but were perhaps typical of the industry in the days before The Harrowing – I started in June, with the expectation that the column would start in July. Uh – okay. One day I went to Crate and Barrel and bought some pencils, imagining myself sitting with hard copy and making editorial marks, like real columnists! I put them in a coffee cup. They were natural wood, each a different shade. Too lovely to sharpen. Never used them. In a few months I packed them up and moved to another spot, and here was my favorite place at the paper. A big pod with a Real Wall, solid and tall, on one side. Next to my copy editor, next to the TV critic, next to a brilliant illustrator, and next to a glowering bald former Marine copy editor from the old days. Here was where we all spent the hard fall of ’01 and the difficult days of /02. But the old gang was broken up by another reorganization – strategies blow through a newsroom, shake things up, make you reform and regroup. I was sent off to another desk, across from the national political writer, and I’d hear his deliberate interviews, patient and fair, a model for all. Next to me was the former Marine, growling and rolling his eyes and biding his time until retirement.
I had the coffee cup with the unsharpened pencils on my desk, and all the rest of the desk flair from my previous place, but it didn’t seem the same.
Then the bottom fell out of everything. I saved my job by juking to online, and for a while I thought I’d go over to the new building across the street. But it didn’t matter where I was. I was working on an orphaned site whose construction and implementation had been the most important thing about it, and the moment I took it over, it was as if a box was checked, and it faded from everyone’s radar. They had more important things to do. So I ended up waaay back in the absolute back alley of the office, back in an area devoted to technical / logistical support, although I never really knew what they did. I had one desk in a big pod of four, and the other three were empty. The Craigslist Rapture had eliminated jobs and people, and they’d left without cleaning out their desks. There was a big cardboard picture of Bogart. There was a bag of dirt in the drawer of my desk.
There were the unutterably sad and depressing office supplies. The stapler. The box of staples. The binder clip. The box of floppies, fer chrissakes. The rubber bands. The stained and dogeared manual for a program no one used, or a phone, or a microrecorder. I didn’t spend a lot of time at that desk. I was online; did it matter?
Under my desk: two boxes of stuff from previous moves. This time I didn’t unpack. On top of my monitor: a model of the Hudson Hornet from “Cars.” Still in the race.
Then I got attached to video, and made my own desk in a vacant area. This was the new paradigm for the paper: fast and mobile and ready to roll. No computer: I had my laptop. A few pieces of art in the form of old newspaper rack ads from the 60s: one said “EVERYONE READS THE MORNING TRIBUNE,” and had a picture of people queuing for the bus, reading the paper; the other promised full coverage of a Shriner convention. When video really got going I moved to another desk a few feet away; set it all up again.
Two boxes of stuff under the desk.
Coffee cup with natural-wood pencils, unsharpened.
The video gig proved untenable, because the head of the division had no space in his head for my other jobs, like blogging and writing columns, and regarded me as an asset to be deployed at his will. I understood his position, but disagreed with it. Parted ways with video . . . which meant cogitation at the managerial level about where I would sit. So last year I was moved again, over to the Metro area. The pod was mostly empty. I didn’t have a computer; didn’t want one. I use my laptop. Put up the same pictures. EVERYONE READS THE MORNING TRIBUNE. FULL SHRINER COVERAGE. Picture of daughter. Lamp. Vase. Three small coffee cans of Mickey’s Coffee from Disneyworld.
There I blogged half the day. But I didn’t belong. Made a request for one of the back offices – alas, it was used by graphic artists when they wanted to get away.
But there were a few other empty spaces in the back. No one was using . . . that one.
It’s the biggest desk I’ve ever had. U-shaped. Completely and utterly removed from everything else. Quiet as a library, because it’s in the library. Right next to the file cabinets that hold the extensive photo archives. It has two windows. There’s space for a big framed poster. It’s perfect.
I set everything up today, put up the EVERYONE READS and SHRINER COVERAGE pictures, dusted and scrubbed, adjusted the chair, plugged in the laptop, and wondered what was in those boxes under the desk, anyway. Probably a coffee cup with natural-wood pencils, unsharpened. There’s a space where people leave things for other people to take. Old magazines, giveaway promo items, pictures of Bogie, dirt, and so on.
The day I leave the office for good, I’ll leave the pencils for someone else.
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