“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.”