This one goes out to all y’all out there living the office job life. After kicking it in a cube for about a month now, I can confirm that it’s not for the weak spirited, caffeine intolerant few. It’s for the fixed, the immovable, the indefatigable many. Five days a week, we rise, armed with break room coffee and a mountain of sticky notes, fighting for our souls against the mighty forces of sheer drudgery.
Getting into this world was a rough start for me, being hitherto uninitiated in the grind of the 9-to-5. Over the course of one week on the job, I sustained nine paper cuts from hours of stuffing envelopes and shuffling timesheets. My self-imposed limit of no more than one diet soda a week crumbled under the need for artificial energy throughout the day, and I felt my environmentalist standards plummet as I printed page after page of forms and drank water from the styrofoam cups in the break room. The alphabet was engraved in my skull thanks to days in the filing room, to the extent that I (almost) no longer need to sing it to myself every time I put another pile of files in order. My sad little sack lunches felt even sadder when I ate them in the four-table break room, reading a book and watching employee after employee come in, microwave a Lean Cuisine, and return to their desks to dine. This new life was a far cry from my previous 15 hour work week with 90 minute lunch breaks among jovial French teachers eating baguettes and pot roast on office china. When I made it to my first weekend, I collapsed into it. Just five days into my administrative assistant temp job with three months to go, and morale was low.
On the other hand, I was, and am, grateful for this job, as you may remember it was preceded by a week hopping from restaurant to restaurant searching for a minimum wage service position. It could’ve been worse--I could’ve not found a job at all, and there are obvious perks to this position. The company itself isn’t at all an evil one, so I don’t feel as though I’m sacrificing any personal convictions to work there, and my superiors do all they can to give me varied tasks that keep me from totally losing my mind. It’s not their fault I’m the summer temp. It’s a job I took knowing full well the type of work ahead. Plus, I have a steady paycheck, don’t have to work nights or early mornings, and my weekends are free, the combination of which having never been the case in my previous student and/or working life. I also don’t have to spend all day on my feet or speak a non-native language in an unfamiliar cultural setting. I’m very comfortable. It’s kind of fun playing the adult, too, getting to grumble about Mondays, celebrate Hump Day, seize the opportunity to ask, “hey Jim--hard at work or hardly workin’?” Lately, I’ve been rewatching The Office, and it’s never been funnier now that I feel like I’m in on the joke. Just like the characters on the show, I, too, have been called to meetings in a conference room! We even have the same vending machines! Oh, Michael Scott, what will we do with you.
It’s fascinating. My coworkers discuss weekends spent golfing or dealing with theirs kids’ car payments, and I nod sagely as though I am now also a part of this brave new grown-up world, which is looking gray and congealed like an old bowl of oatmeal to my 23-year-old eyes. It’s a kind of glimpse into my middle-aged American destiny, when I’ll be paying a mortgage and hiring my neighbor’s kid to mow the lawn for me before the neighborhood association gets on my back about the length of my grass. We all have our ways of coping. One woman mentioned to me in the elevator at 8:55 AM that her near-70th birthday was the night before, and she’d had eight shots to celebrate. She seemed a little worse for wear, but fiercely ready to face the eight hours of work ahead of her. I’ve never been more inspired.
While I’ll never be quite on her level, I continue to learn from her and others in my new cubicle clan how to properly manage the office environment. They’re the real heroes, the bastions of small talk and job security, and together we mine joy out of a wasteland. We chat through our cubicle walls about light trivialities, in doing so reminding ourselves that we are still people, not yet dissolved into our desk chairs. When another department has a catered meeting, we circle the conference room like buzzards, then pounce on the leftovers and rejoice in the bounty. We look forward to our own birthdays and those of our coworkers, as we know it’ll be an occasion to put up some streamers and order tiny bundt cakes right at that 2:30 PM witching hour. There are snacks in our drawers and pens in our cups, the visionaries among us going so far as to keep mixed nut medleys in decorative glass jars. We adorn our cubicles with pictures and inspirational quotes to prove our multifaceted existence both on and off the clock.
I’ve come to learn that office workers are more than their excel capabilities, as I am now one of them: they are a we. Of course, I am nothing but a lowly temp, someone to whom it would be silly to assign long-term, challenging projects, which dulls my view of cubicle living. It’s entirely possible, even probable, that my coworkers have office jobs that they find personally fulfilling, which I celebrate and can only hope for myself in my future career, whatever it may be. It could even be in an office, and that would be just fine. Ultimately, as cramped as our cubes may seem, you'd be surprised of their true size. They contain multitudes.