Busywork

A tale of toil by Laura Markley, an office worker.

9:17 a.m.: Monday morning at Cretin/Croak Management. Peel and eat an orange as slowly as possible. Time is a syrup and I Am the Fly. It's the beginning of the month, the time when my beloved co-worker Steve enters dividends onto "The System" and completes other mysterious prep work for the month ahead. This takes about four days. The rest of us, who balance rich folks' accounts each month, can't do anything until the preliminaries are taken care of. My pet peeve (one among many) is that we are supposed to look busy during this time period, or else suffer the fate of a dreaded "down-time" assignment, such as revamping the filing system or cleaning the coffee machine. In kindergarten, this used to be called "busywork," and was designed to fill any remaining time at the end of the day. Busywork means easy, repetitive tasks that don't require any thought. My normal duties (I call them "Administrivia") are a microstep up from busywork, and I dreaded the idea of doing something even more boring. So I walk slowly over to Mr. Coffee -- my one friend in this godforsaken electronic sweatshop -- prepare one cup, sip it slowly and read Xeroxed pages of Jean Genet which I've hidden inside a manila folder. I close the folder quickly as my supervisor walks by. She's got nothing to do, either, and has been talking sports with Steve for the past eighteen minutes (I'm timing her, the way I've heard she times my mid-morning break). Now, armed with paper towels and a bottle of Windex, she's actually polishing the controls on the Xerox machine and cleaning the already spotless Formica cabinets -- this to atone, I suppose, for that lost company time spent doing something she enjoys. Not willing to stoop to such levels of shameless brown-nosing, I begin to peruse the dictionary for new words to use in scrabble. Again, I must slam the book shut as the President of the company walks by. He's carrying a small vacuum which he just used to suck up all the lint under his desk. My co-workers are absorbed in all sorts of meaningless, unnecessary tasks. Does anyone pick up a newspaper or call a friend to chat? No -- this is not leisure time. Some form of work must be done.

The stock market has its bull and bear phases. Businesses experience changes in work flow just as every other aspect of our lives is subject to change. Yet workers are forced to adhere to a rigid, 9-5, 40 hour workweek whether they're busy or not. These arbitrary schedules are antithetical to life's natural rhythms and their aim is to suppress and control every natural human impulse. These strictures are present in all institutions from schools, to prisons and mental hospitals.

It's 10:00 a.m. and I've completed everything on my agenda. So why do I get a dirty look if I so much as glance at The Living Arts (as opposed to The Deathly Business) section of the NY Times? One thing I never get any flak about is eating at my desk. So I milk this privilege and eat about four meals a day there. Soda cans, bagel crumbs and banana peels litter my desk and it's no problem for anyone. But if I dare to even unfold an SF Weekly, all hell breaks loose. It's amusing what you can or can't get away with. Once I worked for this fat, arrogant lawyer who was positively the most noxious authority figure I've ever had to contend with, and if his eagle eyes spotted so much as a single coffee grind polluting his precious, stainless steel sink, I would be called into his office and subjected to a verbal hurricane forceful enough to rattle the life-sized porcelain Buddhas he collected. However, reading at my desk was no problem and I spent many hours of "downtime" with my nose buried in novels. Go figure.

At the office I hold the title of "Worst Attitude." I can brag about that here, but at work I'm shy about it (paranoid is a better word) and I try to keep it hidden. I'm a diligent worker, fast and accurate. But I don't kiss butt by making small talk about the weather or Steve Young with the higher-ups. Everyone knows that I loathe every moment spent in that sterile environment. They're lucky if they get so much as a "good morning" from me. Even if I put up a front, hummed Madonna songs and acted all bright and cheery, I think they'd smell my bad attitude as though it were a pheromone. There must be a special class in business school that teaches them supervisory types how to detect (sniff out) workers who hate working.* Usually the signs are obvious enough, but in my case they were subtle -- clashing thrift stores ensembles, wet hair in the morning, no makeup and even a two month vacation in Europe (they took me back when they got busy enough, even though I'd begged them for a job weeks earlier when I first returned, desperately broke.) Once they smell you, you are scapegoated, treated like an oddball and if you don't conform to Their rigid demands, you had better start standing in line at 8th and Mission with the rest of society's misfits and castoffs. In my case, Cretin/Croak began hiring a succession of younger file clerks with the hidden intention of grooming them for my job. Bobo Lick, a cheerleader-type from LA, didn't last long at the low paying, excruciatingly tedious job. She had the intelligence of an oyster and couldn't grasp the concept "alphabetical filing system." That didn't matter, since she had a smart executive wardrobe and a pandering, totally faked kissbutt attitude which quickly ingratiated her with the crew. But even her idiocy had its limit. She couldn't endure the boredom of a job beneath the brainwave activity (that of a still pond) of her own lobotomized noggin, and quit after three weeks. The company mourned. In the meantime, I wait, and wonder, and contemplate a future without a paycheck. It might turn out to be a blessing in disguise when I change careers and start raking in the dough at The Market Street Cinema.

-- Laura Markley

* Ed. Wabbit: yes, indeed, many of them and many special "seminars" besides.

Probably better comment for Talking Heads ...P. Morales