An excerpt from
In Light of Recent Events
In the New Jersey suburbs where I used to live, the ranch and split-level houses were packed shoulder-to-shoulder for blocks on end. I had developed a habit of taking strolls just after the sun set, spying through these literal and symbolic windows into other people’s lives. Each bulging bay was a giant TV screen featuring mostly mundane, modern living. The hanging up of a coat in a closet, the orbit of someone setting silverware around a table, the delivery of clean laundry from bedroom to bedroom. And of course, the television—the actual television—remote controlled, flipping through syndicated sitcoms, past commercials to the local news stations, and back again.
Sometimes the things I witnessed were not so mundane. Like the time I sat on a bus stop bench watching a remarkable fight between a blazing-angry blonde in silky blue pajamas and a stocky, basketball-coach-of-a-guy, bald and brooding with arms folded tightly over his chest. Her face was contorted and fierce as she circled him like a raptor, until a spring snapped and he stood abruptly, shouting back at her. That was when she picked up a palm-sized object from the table and winged it right through the side window, startling the neighbor’s dog into a barking fit. Seconds later, the man blasted out the front door and down the concrete steps. He paced in the driveway, fists pressed to his hips in rigid triangles at his sides. There was nowhere for me to hide, and he spotted me sitting under the streetlight at the bus stop at a time of day when there were no buses stopping. I offered a tight, sympathetic smile and a weird kind of wave. He let out a long, slow sigh, then with a bitter laugh, shouted to me, “She hates when the pasta’s not al dente.”
And though I never tipped the scale to become a peeping tom (I didn’t even own a pair of binoculars), I will admit that at least twice over the course of the three years that I lived in my quiet condo, I happened to inadvertently witness the coupling of a young couple in the second-floor apartment that could be seen from my bathroom window. But (a) both times, I was in the middle of brushing my teeth, not actively being intrusive, and (b) their lights were on, their blinds wide open and she was bent over the windowsill like the farmer’s daughter in the hayloft. So, while I didn’t necessarily turn away from the scene (and I may have turned out my own lights so as not to be spied in return), I don’t think their lack of discretion should damn me to classification
as a pervert.
My interest in other lives was not kinky, just curious. Seeking out those everyday moments of poignancy or grace, silliness and tenderness, explosive scenes like the shattered window or quiet moments like someone slowly turning the blinds closed for the night.
Though not a skill most human resource professionals would actively seek in an employee, I found that the ability to likewise sit quietly and observe in the workplace provided a subtle advantage that seemed evolutionary in nature. Because really, at its most basic, an office (such as the one in which I worked) was a living demonstration of the pack mentality, whereby every interaction was filtered through the lens of perceived status. And status—whether bestowed by one’s title, office size, or number of subordinates—mattered. When you took the time to look and listen before exposing yourself in a meeting or at the nearly empty coffee pot in the break room, you were better able to navigate the complex social maze of cubicles. This applied to the go-getters as much as the coasters. I fell into the latter category.
Pseudo-voyeur, coaster, technically single young woman with a slight case of ennui and an undersized sense of ambition, this was me circa 1996. And it only mildly troubled me. After all, the vast majority of the world’s population led quiet, not particularly remarkable lives. Odds were, I would never be a Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes winner, but it was just as unlikely that I would be struck by lightning.
What I hadn’t counted on was the kung-fu kick of coincidence. The chance encounter. That notorious butterfly effect that sets in motion a series of actions and reactions that make complacency a joke. Or at the very least, irrelevant.
Regardless, at that time, as long as I had a reliable paycheck that afforded me a comfortable home and the ability to take a nice vacation once a year, I found little to complain about, and even less to strive toward.
And I had found a kind of kindred spirit in my administrative assistant who, like a pain-in-the-ass younger brother, was equal parts exasperating and entertaining. We were part of the Economics Department in the Business Division of the College Textbooks Unit of Preston House Publishing. Like me, Pooter was not wired for climbing the corporate ladder. But while my strategy was to blend into the background as an undistinguished, mildly effective middle manager, Pooter’s was to channel a sort of harmless con-man who succeeded by being exceptionally helpful to everyone but me. I, he assured me, was too clever to fall for that kind of ingratiating behavior.
Together, we formed a kind of Wonder Twins alliance, facing off against corporate America with the sheer force of our own skepticism of things like leadership training and wellness initiatives. We might have been cogs in the wheel, but we were not just along for the ride.
Or were we? This was my disheartening thought as I sat beside the Xerox machine while it doled out printed pages like a blackjack dealer. Moments later, the copy room door was hauled open.
“I just saw your note and came straight here,” Pooter said, pretending to be out of breath. My expression read unimpressed.
“Sorry. It’s Melita’s birthday and a few of us took her out to lunch. And the waitress was really slow. And there was construction. Both ways—”
I put up a hand like a traffic cop telling him to stop. He picked up the cover page from the top of one of the stacks. “I thought Hollister was already out the door?”
“It was, but there was a missing figure that screwed the pagination.”
I pulled a completed manuscript from the output tray and began inserting the corrected pages. He nudged the finished pile sideways so he could slide up onto the table.
“Really, Pooter, don’t stress yourself. I’m sure you could use a break.”
“Speaking of, I have to leave at three o’clock today,” he said.
“Because a four-hour day is just too much?”
“I have to pick up my nana in the city.”
Ignoring him, I set the Xerox to do another run.
“It’s Thanksgiving,” he said. “You’re cutting out early too.
“My boss isn’t here. Yours,” I said, my hands pointing to my own shoulders, “is.”
Pooter held his finger up and cocked his head. “Hold on, shh...”
“No, I won’t shh.”
He shushed me again. I listened for a hint of whatever he was hearing, but all I could make out was the copy machine.
He started nodding his head to the mechanical beat. Standing abruptly, he hunted around the room, eventually picking up a ball point pen and a broken pencil. Taking one in each hand, he started to drum on the table. It was a galloping beat.
“Do you recognize that?” he asked.
He repeated it a few times then stopped, anticipating that I would have figured out what it was he was toying with. When I still showed no sign of comprehension, he began to sing while drumming in time with the rhythm of the copier: “We’re on the road to nowhere, come on inside.”
His singing was on key, but thin and awkward. I was embarrassed for him, but Pooter was not embarrassed. Rather, he was completely enamored with the discovery of music in the machine.
He was nearly dancing now as he continued drumming and singing the song louder. I was not going to let him see me laugh. He gestured to get me to sing along.
“I get it Pooter. Can you shut it, please?”
As if the needle on a record had been lifted, he stopped. “What?” he said. “It’s not like there’s a painful symbolism in the office copy machine playing ‘Road to Nowhere.’ Am I right?”
Along for the ride. Road to nowhere. Asleep at the wheel. Choose your favorite inertia idiom.
“It’s more about your shitty singing,” I said and tossed a crumpled title page at him, which he deftly swatted away.
“You clearly underestimate the brilliance that is David Byrne,” he said. “Technology is the heartbeat of modern meaninglessness.”
He jettisoned the marker. It popped in, then out of a mug featuring a sleeping basset hound and the words “Wake me when it’s Friday.”
“Oh, by the way,” he said. “Rigid is looking for you.” Bridget only sought you out when there was a problem. And generally, the degree of unpleasantness with which you had to deal was directly proportional to how long Bridget had to wait for you to address said problem.
“You didn’t think to tell me until now?”
“Don’t worry. I told her you just were catching a light snooze in the supply closet.”
I handed him the remaining insert pages. “Just get these done and bring them to A.J. Today. Before you leave.”
The office population was already thinning. Several desk lights were off and the white noise of phone conversations and drawers opening and closing had become muted.
If there was going to be an upside to an encounter with Bridget, it would be the possibility of seeing Dan before we headed out for the break. That hope was snuffed out seeing his door closed and light off when I reached her desk.
Seated straight-backed before her typewriter, Bridget Knutson gave the impression of a concert pianist. She was focused and fluid, modulating her tempo, clack-clacking with force, halting with dramatic pause, leaning her head forward or to the side on particular points of emphasis. It was best not to interrupt, so I stood patiently, hands folded.
Bridget’s desk was a masterwork of organization: color coded files with typed labels, a polished steel cup holding six lethally sharpened pencils, and a tightly packed, perfectly edged Rolodex. Off to the side, there was a dust-free computer that she never used because it was “sinister,” and a framed photo of her prize-winning corgi, “John Carlo.”
Without breaking her typing stride, she said, “We have a problem.”
“Okay,” I said.
She stopped and turned to face me. “The approval sheet for the Metcalf manual cannot be processed.”
I mentally rewound my steps in getting signoffs from the various approvers. “Does this have to do with Franny being out?”
“She needs to sign it. I won’t even bring it to Dan until she does.”
I took a breath. Freakin’ Rigid. “Bridget, she’s out for another week and a half. If Dan will just sign off, we can at least start pre-production. Then when she’s back—”
As if summoned, the elevator doors opened and presented Dan, his tie loosened, hair wind tousled. As he came toward us, I could feel my ears heat up.
“There is a process, Audrey,” Bridget admonished.
“If Dan approves, then Franny makes changes, you’re going to get everything all knotted up.”
“I understand, but Franny saw an earlier version and was pleased with the general direction.”
She simply shook her head the way a teacher disappointed by a cheating student would do.
“You both look displeased,” Dan said when he arrived.
I jumped in first. “I was hoping to get your approval on the Metcalf manual before heading out for Thanksgiving. That way we can start pre-production on Monday.”
Dan looked at Bridget, “That’s not OK?”
She heaved a sigh. “As I told Audrey, she needs to get Franny Pike’s signature first.”
He looked at me for further explanation, but I knew he would defer to her. He outsourced all his administrative thinking to Bridget, relying on her to keep him sheltered from things that mentally taxed him like appointments and processes. In many ways, Bridget functioned as Dan’s boss rather than the other way around.
“OK,” I said. “I’ll figure it out.”
“Good.” He smiled. “You having Thanksgiving with your family?”
“Yeah. My brother and his wife are coming in from Texas. My sister and her kids will be there, and my dad and his girlfriend. It’ll be a little weird. I mean nice, I’m sure. You?”
“Patricia is in Switzerland, so I’m going to visit my folks in Minnesota,” he said. There was something slightly adorable in the way he referred to his parents as “my folks.”
Bridget resumed her typing. “My sister, John Carlo, and I will be enjoying some vegetarian lasagna and ice cream sundaes.”
“That sounds like a delicious alternative,” I said, trying to appear more gracious than I felt.
Dan flipped through the message slips he had picked up off Bridget’s desk. “Well, I hope you both have a nice time with your families. I’ll see you Monday.”
“See you Monday,” I said, and hovered a bit until he disappeared into his office.
Looking back, it is quite possible that at that very moment a particularly colorful monarch butterfly, whose effect would soon be felt, was taking flight from Los Angeles to Newark.
I turned to leave. Bridget held out the unsigned approval sheet. “Don’t forget this.”