(c) 2009 E. John Love
Back in the Eighties, the office he worked in was likely at the height of corporate décor. The mileage and history were in the details, like crow’s feet on an aging actor. The shapes of door handles, the sick beige of old filing cabinets, and the yellowness on light switches. It passed for contemporary at first glance: the carpet was practically new, a lovely plush plum, and the walls were painted in a cool bluish white, probably intended to evoke some fresh ideal.
“Lipstick on a pig,” Jack Owen decided. Sitting in an overused chair in his cubicle, he wondered how many companies had passed through this same office over the years. He imagined some clerk breathing in the same stale air: the recycled halitosis and lunch farts that swirled from the first floor up to the tenth. He sniffed furtively. That same clerk was still here in spirit, he decided dismally.
Jack blinked and wiped a few locks of brown hair off his forehead. He arched his back and rolled his neck. Grunting, he felt a small crack and sighed. His PC showed no new support requests for him in the past twenty minutes. He’d been doing part-time tech support at BlueSky Systems for three weeks, mostly helping customers set up their online productivity apps. He felt like he was finally getting the hang of it. The current lull was welcome. He spun his pen lightly between his fingers. His watch said FRI 10:02. Maybe a coffee, he decided.
A bing-bong noise and a new window got his attention. It was a message from Erwin, the Network Admin.
“dude – check your inbox”
Jack read a message from the HR Manager, cc’ed to Erwin by mistake. He scrolled down about ten replies until he saw the original sent by “bpowell”, the CEO. It read: “Unfortunately, Sales hasn’t met its goals last quarter. Combined with the loss of large hosted application accounts like MediHealth and Fraser Credit Union, and poor reseller performance, we’re in a difficult position.” Jack felt his mouth go dry.
“By the end of the week, I want to see a plan from each department to decrease costs by at least 20%. Halt non-critical projects, improve productivity and reduce costs on non-essential contractors and staff.
Travel and tradeshows are cancelled. By making individual sacrifices, we’ll be in better shape to weather these challenges and emerge in a stronger position.”
Individual sacrifices? Jack wondered which individuals would be sacrificed. His throat felt raw. He wanted a drink of water. Padding around the edge of the cubicle farm, he followed the purple carpet to the far side where the cubes ended and office doors began. Sunlight snuck through the tinted outer windows, and past etched glass partitions that separated the Execs from the staff. Each little office resembled an aquarium, with occupants circling their desks, moving their mouths silently at unseen listeners.
Jack stood at the water cooler in a beam of sunshine, drinking slowly. He closed his eyes and let the light soak into his face. Standing there was like emerging from a gopher hole. He pictured the “Whack a Mole” game at the PNE. Yeah, that was him.
“Mr. Owen! How are you today?” It was Graeme Foster, BlueSky’s Senior VP of Marketing. They’d chatted about books and music a few times before. Jack liked him and peeked around the open doorway into the older man’s office.
“Hey Graeme. How’s it goin’?”
“Come in,” Graeme beckoned from behind his desk. He was a large grey-headed Englishman with what sounded like a cockney accent. In his bright white dress shirt and navy blue tie, he resembled a crisp white sail caught straining against a full wind. Miles Davis honked a plaintive solo from the small speakers on his desk. The mood was cool. Graeme settled back in his chair, which replied with a painful squeak. “I know you’re a reader. Can I read something to you?”
Graeme pulled glasses down from the top of his head and squinted at his monitor. Jack heard things about the company’s market presence, its record in groupware and support, and blah, blah, blah, blah.
Graeme recited corporate achievements until he noticed Jack staring blankly out the window.
Jack took a breath. “Er, kinda dry and boring, actually.”
Graeme snorted. “Yeah. It’s from the CEO. Supposed to be a report to the Board. Probably some bean counter wrote it. Bill asked me to have a go at brightening it up.”
“Well, it talks about the company like it’s independent – separate from the people who actually make it go.”
Graeme leaned towards him. “Hm. Yeah, I hate this dry shit. I used to be a club manager back in London. Rock bands, Comedians, even bloody dog acts – entertainment, all of it! Crazy people doing crazy things and lying their asses off about how well they did it in the trades the next day. Tons of fun.”
He wiped back a stray lock of silver-grey hair that had been shaken down over one eye. Jack saw a bead of sweat on his forehead and smirked, enjoying the undignified and irreverent outburst from an otherwise businesslike fellow.
“Well, to me,” Jack replied, “it’s all about the people that buy the products and the people who sell and support them. That abstract stuff you said sounds like it’s all just about numbers.”
“Yeah,” Graeme nodded, “this place does have a rather high-ratio of Chiefs to Indians. There’s directors who’ve sunk a lot of cash in on this thing, who expect their return in kind, and see it in those terms.” Graeme sat back and tilted his head up towards the ceiling. “Still, putting a human touch in might be a good idea. But, I dunno…”
Miles Davis bleated and wailed in the spaces between their dialogue, and Jack heard something familiar. “Is that, um, Autumn Leaves”?
Graeme listened for a few beats and then nodded. “Yeah! I didn’t know you liked Miles.”
“My Dad does. He says he’s like sad and strong at the same time.”
“Too right. Aren’t we all, eh?” Graeme winked. “I saw Miles in Montreal years ago. Old guy was still going strong. Amazing what you can do when you do what you love.”
An awkward pause. Graeme took a breath and peered towards his open office door. “Jack, can you jot some things down?”
He flung a small pad of paper and a pen at Jack and watched him fumble them into his lap.
“You want me to…”
“Write. Gimme your thoughts. Something. Whatever you can.”
Jack blew out a ball of anxiety and started scribbling scraps of gossip and opinions from his meager time on the job.
“lots of execs seem stressed.”, “some customers are way more trouble than they’re worth”, “some managers don’t know basic computer stuff – helping them wastes time”, “we’re like a herd, not a team”, “we should talk more”.
Jack looked down at his hasty list of bitching and handed it sheepishly back to Graeme, who studied it while Jack wiped sweaty palms on the sides of his slacks. If the coming cuts didn’t eliminate him, Jack figured that his attempt at business critiquing probably would. On borrowed time anyway, so what the hell. He could still count on a few hours each week at Bertrand’s Books. He’d find a new job, but it probably wouldn’t pay as much as this one.
Graeme looked up and took a breath. “Well, you’d better get back or you’ll get in trouble. Thanks mate.”
Jack mumbled a reply and left, feeling like his day had taken a turn from bad to worse. He heard people whispering to each other and he thought about Graeme, his Dad, and Miles Davis and that bleak horn. As the newest guy, he’d get axed first if there were going to be staff cuts.
Landing in his chair, Jack noticed a new support ticket blinking at him. He shrugged his feelings aside and focused on his screen until it gradually blotted out the periphery, immersing him in its abstract glowing little world.
After lunch, an email from the CEO asked all staff to meet in the main boardroom at 4 pm. Georges, a burly Quebecer who had been Jack’s first friend at BlueSky, crept over from the next cubicle.
“’ow are you today, my friend?”
“Good Georges,” Jack lied. “You?”
“I dunno. Dat email – what do you tink is going on?”
Jack shrugged. He didn’t want to worry his friend with idle speculation. Georges had been at BlueSky for about a year, but Jack had heard that his friends’ position was also far from secure. Apparently his Franglais had caused concern with their supervisor, Brian, who small-mindedly equated English pronunciation with skill and intelligence. A label of “incompetent” had unfairly been hung on Georges after news of a minor misunderstanding with a customer had reached Brian’s desk.
Georges had a Bachelor’s in Comp. Sci. from Concordia. He knew his stuff even if his thick Quebec patois sometimes got in his way. Jack figured that Brian was being uptight and mainly looking for someone to scapegoat.
Georges was also the only guy in the company who seemed to have less money than Jack, which only strengthened his affection for the man. He had a wife and kids to support and here he was, stuck in the butt-end of knowledge worker paradise.
Jack noticed that instead of a polo shirt, Georges was wearing a new dress shirt with what looked like a frayed, fuzzy mauve knit tie.
“Er, nice tie, man,” he smirked. Georges looked back and forth mischievously. “Ha! It’s da belt from my bat robe. My baby puked on my tie dis mornin’.” They both chortled at Georges’ fashion improv.
Jack laughed. “So, what’s the occasion?”
“Bio-Med place is looking for a Java programmer for some web project. Good money. I’m gonna go interview at 3:30.”
Jack was disappointed but faked enthusiasm. “Go for it man! Good luck!”
* * * * *
At four o’clock, people filed into the main boardroom in groups of twos and threes. Jack stood near the front of the room by the door. At 4:05, Bill Powell entered with some VPs and Graeme Foster behind him. There was palpable tension in the room – a sense of expectation. Voices stopped talking and chairs stopped squeaking in anticipation.
Powell’s slender six foot frame straightened, filling out his navy blue suit. Jack stared at the gold silk tie and its immaculate double Windsor, and recalled Georges’ desperate bathrobe belt. He wondered how many worlds actually separated those two men outside on the street.
Powell resembled a large fox impersonating Dick Van Dyke. Jack had never seen him in person before and prepared himself for bad news. Powell’s face opened into a surprisingly warm, genuine smile, and looking around the room slowly, he began:
“Good afternoon everyone. Before we start, I just want to say that this could have been a very different meeting.” Jack looked at the other Execs and recognized expressions of ease and calm confidence.
“I’m sure you’ve heard rumours about the challenges we’re facing. The short story is that we’ve secured bridge financing that will see us through the next few quarters – maybe further.” Sighs and shuffles rippled through the room, and someone tried to clap. “For the past few months,” Powell continued, “some of our senior Execs have worked without pay until we got the financing wrapped up.” Powell paused while Graeme leaned over and whispered in his ear. “Unfortunately, there will be some cuts and… a couple of departures.”
Graeme shot Jack a wink and stepped forward. He hitched up his pants by the pockets, as if he were going to give an amateur football club a little pep talk, but maybe it was just a bit of nervousness. Graeme thanked the staff for their friendship and support and told everyone that he was going to run a small music store over on the east side with his son. “Anyway, meet us at the Elephant and Castle after work,” he said. “First round’s on me!” This produced laughter and some awkward applause.
Later that night at the pub, Jack experienced his first (and last) Guinness and found himself at a round table surrounded by men and women, both familiar and strange. He studied them with their guards down, laughing, swearing, slurring and cracking jokes. He wondered where they each came from and why.
Two Kokanees later, he shrugged on his leather jacket and stumbled blearily out to the curb to search for a bus stop. As he pulled up his collar, a voice called from the pub door. “There you are! Need a lift somewhere?” It was Graeme, finishing a smoke.
Jack cleared his throat. “Um, headed to East Van?”
“Can do. Let’s go.” Graeme flicked his cigarette away and waved Jack to follow him as he ambled down the sidewalk.
“Um, are you good to drive, man?”
“Pfft. Been drinking club soda all night kid.”
“AA. Two years.” He led Jack to the passenger’s door of a brown 1978 Impala that looked as long as a bus. Jack climbed in, surprised that the car wasn’t something small and efficient, instead of a huge North American land yacht. As they glided away from the curb, inside the vast car it was like a rolling lounge, all low light, smooth sailing, and tinkling piano keys.
“So, what brought you to the company anyway?” Graeme finally asked.
“Oh – my sister’s boyfriend got me the job,” Jack said apologetically, as if he had stolen the opportunity, instead of earned it.
“Not your cup of tea, eh?”
“Not exactly. It’s weird – like a different world.”
“Yeah, you’ll get used to that. You’ll go through lots of those, I bet. Trick is to keep yourself in it – to make your own space when you need to. You know?”
“Yeah – space. Like, inside. Avoid distractions. Working through crap and getting your job done is a skill. Like getting the evening receipts done while there’s a big punch up going on at the bar,” Graeme laughed. Jack wished he could have seen that.
“For me,” Graeme continued, “it took perseverance and the right tunes. When you find a musician that helps you, it’s like a gift.”
Graeme settled back and leaned his right arm on the back of the front seat while he steered with a few fingers. Diana Krall crooned from the speakers. Popsicle toes. Jack felt cool and relaxed, and slouched as if he were lounging on his couch at home with his Dad.
Monday came and another work week yawned at Jack. The ‘gift’ came in a small, brown box and arrived at noon. Jack tore it open and found a tiny thumb drive packed with jazz tunes. With Georges’ old cubicle sitting empty next to him, he plugged in his headphones and listened for Miles.