It's Nice to Not Work With Idiots

posted 9 Mar 2005, 4PM | 5 Comments

Everyday in my office, Linda makes coffee using Gavi´┐Ża gourmet beans in the NEWCO brand multi-caraf coffeemaker that sits down the hall between the copier and the grid of mailboxes. The coffee tastes quite good, but gets a bit burnt after hours on the hot plate. Yesterday that burnt flavor triggered a smell memory that I hadn't accessed in a long time: memory of the summer that I worked with a bunch of morons.

Since I'd chosen to live in our Allston apartment straight through the summer of 1998, I'd scoured the B.U. student jobs boards for any work that didn't blow, knowing nothing would beat the previous summer's gig driving my ice cream truck. After one afternoon doing yard work for some lady, I landed a $10/hour temp job in the decrepit accounting office of the California Paints corporation, located in Cambridge near those Polaroid buildings. I used to like to walk over the Charles river in the hot sun, listening to Hello Nasty.

The office was nestled (decrepitly) above a paint chemical warehouse in a dirty, circa-1900 sort of building that's common in Boston. The chief executives and sleezy "paint-and-paint-products" sales reps enjoyed the cleanly vaccuumed cubicles of That Other Building, whilst in our crappy office I bumped my head on low ceilings and did my best to tolerate the sad cast of characters. This required a relaxed sense of humor (which happens to be my specialty). I took ironic pleasure in watching office lifers sprint for the 10am hot truck for an unironic donut and Newport 100s break. I did word-processing crap and later managed to rescue their primitive Lotus 123 spreadsheet-based invoice system with an MS Access database I figured out how to build. I was young and underpaid.

Five principals stood out from the cast of sad office characters: Passive Agressive Jay, Condescending Tommy, Chinaman Jim, Executive Joe, and Ugly Greek Spike. Since I don't remember anyone else, I'm assuming that my other coworkers were a bit happier, or at least had adjective-free names.

I reported directly to Passive Aggressive Jay, and worked at a desk across the room from his. Jay took care of the big accounting computers, and he seemed like a kind, WASPy conservative fortysomething family man who'd worked there for a long time. I could sense that deep inside he was angry about his long commute from the north shore, and about the fact that he was a WASPy conservative fortysomething family man who'd worked at a paint company for a long time. Jay had blue eyes, talked with his hands, and wore short-sleeved cotton twill shirts. He liked to maintain a careful pace.

One day when I had the sniffles, Jay asked if I'd like a tissue. I declined. After about four hours of silence, he exploded.

I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE! It's disgusting! I'm trying to work over here... I've got work to do, and I can't concentrate when EVERY TEN SECONDS you're sniffing snot up into your damn nose! It's disgusting! I've got work over here!"

He left the room muttering, hands up in the air. We never spoke of it again. I presently tend to blow my nose a lot.

Jay's friend in sales was named Tommy. Tommy was a 40-year-old condescending fratboy-for-life type who came by once in a while to talk shit with Jay about other people in the office. He always wore a white shirt and tie. Tommy liked sports and dick jokes. Over 5 months, the only sentence he spoke to me was, "That is a very nice nametag." His comment caught me off guard. My nametag read I am taller than you.

Chinaman Jim was a hard-working numbers man with a family and a strong Cantonese accent. When he wasn't around, Jay and Tommy would sometimes make fun of him with the kind of unselfconscious racism that's fairly common in the northeast. They seemed not to realize that Jim held exactly the same station in life that they did. I began using the unprefered "Chinaman Jim" nomenclature when telling office stories to my friends, to mock that racism and give props to The Big Lebowski. Jim was punctual and didn't say much.

Executive Joe appeared to be the sort of Beantown Italian who had reached his high station through hard work, good people instincts, and a few mysterious gonnegtions. I liked him, but dealt with him little. At a meeting with Jay and I toward the end of my California Paint career, Joe said something about "getting me started on receipts" and "getting me more money". Niether of these things ever happened, fortunately/unfortunately. Executive Joe didn't stop by our side of the alley much.

Finally, there was Spike. Spike was both Ugly and Greek. Jay liked to regularly remind him of these things; the two had a antagonistic office rapport that took a comedic form but was clearly based on some deep-seeded hatred. I never understood where it came from, and Jay had nothing substantial to say about it when I asked. Spike worked downstairs, and among other duties, was in charge of making coffee. He had low standards, and the coffee would regularly cook down to slidge, filling the office with a familiar burnt smell.

As I sat in a team meeting yesterday, sipping hot liquid from a foam cup, I looked around the room. I feel proud to work with people who are smarter and more talented than me.

There are 5 Comments


9 Mar 05 at 08:04PM star said:

Wait - so it's Jay's fault that you constantly steal all of my damned tissues with a never-to-be-fulfilled-promise of "I'll get the next box, dude?"

- Star, the one person at Ryan's present work less talented than him, whom he is neither proud to work with nor hesitant to call an idiot.


9 Mar 05 at 11:09PM sixfoot6 said:

Yes, it's Jay's fault, you untalented idiot.


10 Mar 05 at 12:39AM star said:

Lest anyone reading these comments think that Ryan's barbs of hatred were in retaliation, I shall now amend my previous post for clarification (though Ryan surely understood this to be what I meant in the first place):

- Star, the one person at Ryan's present work less talented than him, whom Ryan is neither proud to work with nor hesitant to call an idiot.

Otherwise, nice post, as always.


10 Mar 05 at 11:41AM risa said:

i used to work for the cafe in indigo bookstore. i don't think they have that down there- it's all proud to be canadian, but then they bought a bunch of Chapters too so now they can compete with themselves and against their own canadian-ness. anyway. it was awful.

There is something that happens to your brain as you learn the manual and are drilled in the peppy but all-too serious collective rhetoric. (and i still can't shake the knowledge of when the coffee should be thrown out or the taste of drippy almond croissants scarfed beneath the counter. ok that part wasn't so bad) To survive the numbness of having the part of your brain that can see good ways of doing things made subserviant to a monstrously unchangeable system we started drinking heavily and rubbing up against each other at office parties. The hypocracy of happy and inspiring staff becomes apparent to those inside the company pretty quickly when your english lit degree only qualifies you to make lattes, and only if you swallow your pride and admit to thinking outside the box. But once you have a little invested in the job, and they have you believing you are valued, and that there will be legitimate opportunities for advance, you get defensive. The way it is done makes sense, the surfaces they show you are not artificial- they are, they have to be, real. In the end I was glad to be fired, and two years later the poor guy who had fired me was fired, and a year later I went back and the sweet guy who had hired both of us had been sacked as well.

anyway. i can relate, ryan, and also, i love your site, it's beautiful.


10 Mar 05 at 11:50PM aardvark-news said:

Very interesting story. Unfortunately, images of hummingbirds kept intruding on my thought processes while I read.

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