A Man What Takes His Time ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
For a year and a half, I worked as a contract technical writer on Market Street in St. Louis in a federal office building beside the old Kiel Opera House and two blocks down the street from Union Station. (We went to Union Station for a good lunch.) You could see all the way down Market Street twelve blocks away to the Gateway Arch on the edge of the Mississippi River.
When that job ended, as I knew it would, I had a few weeks of freedom and then, before I was ready for it, I got another job. I was hired as the only technical writer in the managerial offices of a restaurant chain that caters to an upscale clientele. For the purposes of this narrative, this restaurant chain will hereinafter be referred to as HNO for “Hellhole Number One.”
To work at HNO, you must abandon all thoughts of “self.” You DO NOT matter. The only thing that matters is the good of the company, and “the good of the company” means only one thing: PROFIT.
Here is a little anecdote about company profit, a sort of little “story within the story”: Quarterly profits had just been announced and were larger than expected, larger than ever before. The head of the company came in and gave us a “pep talk.” He didn’t thank us for our work that led to the highest quarterly profits in company history. Instead, he said we must all work harder so that profits could be even higher next quarter. They call this good business practice. I call it greed and ingratitude.
Not only must you abandon “self” when you go to work at HNO, you must also abandon any original thought. If you have a thought in your head, you’d better let go of it as fast as you can or it will get you in trouble. Management at HNO doesn’t want you to think—they will do your thinking for you. And, if you have any opinions on any subject, even non-work-related subjects, you’d better keep them to yourself. The only opinions that are allowed at HNO are the opinions that management says you may have.
If you are accustomed to doing things your own way, you can forget it at HNO. You will have a “manager” in your face or on your back at all times telling you how to do the job you were hired to do. “You can’t use that background color,” she says, “you must use the color that’s on the company-approved list of colors.” Or, to put it in as few words as possible: “You can’t do it your way! You have to do it OUR WAY!”
After a while I figured out that I was being watched at all times at HNO. My telephone calls were being monitored, as was my Internet activity. What time I left for lunch and what time I came back were noted and, I’m sure, written down to be reported to a higher level of management. What time I came in in the morning and what time I left in the afternoon were also noted. And that’s another thing at HNO: You don’t spend eight hours in the office and then go home to resume work the next day. You will stay at your desk and work until the work is finished, even if it means you stay until midnight or two a.m. We DO NOT go off and leave work unfinished. We’re all “salaried,” rather than “hourly,” so that means management has figured out a nifty (for them) way to get us to work extra hours free of charge. “You worked fifty hours last week? Tough! You only get paid for forty.”
I once opened a document of my own (a short story I was working on that had nothing to do with my job) at HNO and a “manager” walked in just at that moment. I wouldn’t have opened the document if I had known she was looming, but that’s the way it is with witches. They hover all the time so they can find something to disapprove of when you least expect it. Within minutes, I was called into a private office for a “scolding.” “Why were you looking at something you weren’t supposed to be looking at?” she asked, nearly in tears with frustration. “Don’t I get breaks?” I asked. “NO, YOU DO NOT GET BREAKS WHEN WE ARE THIS BUSY!” was the replay.
Another time, when we were having a REALLY BIG IMPORTANT ALL-DAY MEETING, I was told the meeting would begin at nine a.m. I was still fairly new at HNO. I stayed at my desk working until five minutes before nine and then I went into the conference room. The all-day meeting was mind-numbing and soul-killing, but the meeting proceeded as planned and I didn’t think anything was amiss. The next day I was in BIG trouble because I hadn’t help “set up” for the meeting. “Why didn’t she tell me she needed my help in getting set up?” I asked. “Because you were supposed to ALREADY KNOW THAT THAT IS PART OF YOUR JOB!” was the reply. (The ironic part of this is that the next time we had an all-day meeting I asked the same “manager” if she needed my help in getting set up before the meeting started and she say, “No, everything is fine.” Go figure.)
After I had been at HNO for a while, management resorted to making personal remarks about me. About the way I dressed—not that the way I dressed wasn’t good enough but that it was too good for HNO. It would give people the idea that I had the time and energy for bathing and grooming and that I thought more about myself than I did about the company. Management also disapproved of the desktop on my computer—I had too many icons and I had a picture of a family of meerkats as my desktop background. Meerkats are not a company-approved animal. I kept a small fan at my desk and kept it going most days because management kept the office as hot as possible to replicate the “sweatshop” environment. Personal use of a fan would not fly at HNO. It shows you are overly concerned about your personal comfort and, what’s more, the fan can be heard when you’re “teleconferencing” and the people who hear it are bothered by it because they don’t know what it is.
My cubicle at HNO was right next door to the cubicle of a self-important, bubbly blonde who rarely stopped talking. (I think “vivacious” is the appropriate word, just like Ginger Rogers, except Ginger had the advantage of being pretty.) She had the world’s most irritating voice and manner. She held a management position, so no criticism of her was to be brooked. Her constantly running (and loud) mouth kept me from concentrating. Everything I did, or tried to do, was to the accompaniment of her voice. When I complained, very mildly, that the bubbly blonde was a hindrance to my getting my work done, I was told that I just needed “go with the flow.” On the days the bubbly blonde was really wound up, with one telephone conversation after another, I would go outside without a word to anybody and stand and lean against the building in the heat and look off into the distance. (If I had been a smoker, I would have used that time to smoke myself a ciggy.) Of course, if I was gone for more than one minute, my absence was duly recorded so it could be used against me later.
I was in trouble more at HNO than I had been at any other time in my life, including grade school. At first I thought it was just me, but when I stated hearing the things other people said, I found out that everybody was in trouble all the time. It’s the way HNO operates. They crush you by crushing your spirit. You either take it, or you walk. The only way for you to be accepted by management is to become one of “them.” I didn’t want to be one of “them” and I wasn’t willing to give up my soul just for the sublime privilege of being employed there.
And then there’s the question of how long you take to do your work. If you take longer than management thinks you should to complete a designated task, you will be in trouble, you will be belittled and made to feel like a piece of crap. Everything must be done at lightning speed. Some people just can’t be rushed and I’m one of them. If I can’t take my time to do a thing the way I think it should be done, then I don’t care if it gets done or not or how long it takes to do it. Do I look like I give a shit?
As you work at breakneck speed with no breaks and with daily “deadlines,” you must also keep in mind that you are not allowed to make mistakes. If you happen to make a mistake because you are being harassed and you have eye strain (or any other of a hundred reasons), you will not live it down for as long as you remain employed at HNO. Forget about the work you do that’s done right and well because it will never be praised or even acknowledged, let alone appreciated. You only hear back from management when you do something they don’t like and that is just about all the time.
Every person who has worked at HNO long enough will tell you that management expects every person to do the work of three. They don’t care how much you hate them because they hate you more, in spades. Their rationale for treating people like unfeeling robots is that the restaurant business is “fast-paced” and “highly competitive.” They laugh at new employees who have the “shell-shocked look” after a few days or weeks of employment. Those of us who have any feelings of empathy feel sorry for them because we know what they are experiencing.
I despise the corporate world and I’m thankful to be out of it. I don’t really believe in hell, but if Satan and his many flaming demons want to make hell as hellish as possible, all they have to do is replicate the corporate environment of HNO and companies like it. It will make you want to get into heaven that much more.
After a year and three months, I left HNO. I was physically and emotionally exhausted and in need, for the first time in my life, of professional counseling. Every day for about three weeks I went to bed at six o’clock in the evening and slept until morning. The worst dream I ever had was the one where I dreamed I had to get up to the sound of the alarm clock and report for duty at HNO. Yes, Sir! Right away, Sir! The floggings will continue until morale improves.
That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp