Urban Indignities

Have I told you guys before about the complete pit where I work?  It’s not the firm I’m talking about.  The firm is great.  I mean that where I work is an actual pit.

dnews city creek demolition

My building sits in Salt Lake City’s gleaming new commercial development, City Creek Center.  Just kidding.  My building sits on the precipice of a huge hole in the middle of a city whose busy urban life is on a four year pause.  The hole functions as the center of gravity for the city.  That is, it is the center of gravity in much the same way as a black hole is– it sucks the life and pride and human dignity out of everything in its orbit.  It turns out it’s very hard to maintain your dignity as a person when you live in these conditions.  It’s not exactly Nazi-era Warsaw or 1970’s Saigon or anything like that.  But it’s not exactly any better than those places either.

When I took this job five years ago, construction was just starting.  My first week there were three major power outages.  It was a nice way to get to know people, standing in the darkened hall under the weak backup light with three or four super angry lawyers who just lost a couple hours work on a document they’d been drafting, or who had been cut off in the middle of a deposition question. It seemed like people loved to calculate the money lost to the firm in billable hours for every half hour of darkness.  Somehow, every time someone added it all up it was in the trillions.  I didn’t follow the math, exactly, but it felt like trillions to me too.  After a few hours, they’d get the power back on and you’d go back to work, sapped by the half-holiday-half-tragedy feel of something like that, and you’d save your work every thirty seconds in case of another sudden outage.  After the worst week of these outages, building management distributed one dollar coupons to McDonald’s to each person in the building.  Honestly, I thought there would be literal rioting in the halls.  It was ugly.

The building would shake frequently.  You’d look up and see your door swinging back and forth.  The sound of demolition penetrated your office and made you mis-type words, just from the vibration.  Water lines got cut.  We had to take an elevator to the ground floor, walk across the block and use a little bathroom that was still being built for future customers at the future mall.  People started getting stuck in elevators.  You got a fateful feeling when you stepped into an elevator with more than four or five people, like you were taking your life into your hands.  I escaped the elevators for a while, but one day last year it hit, on the way to lunch with eight or so colleagues.  I’m a pretty patient guy, but after about an hour, I was losing it.  We were connected with some management person on the little emergency phone, and he literally just kept telling us over and over, for an hour, that someone was on his way.  “Someone is on the way,” he’d say.  “Someone is on the way,” again.  But no one came.  Maybe “someone” was on his way from elevator HQ in Switzerland?  He didn’t say.  We ended up shaken, paranoid, but with several dollars credit at any Temple Square eating establishment.

man in elevator

The dehumanizing machine

After several years of this, people on that block walked around a little dazed, less human than they had been before.  I remember the moment I almost snapped.  It was after a tenant appreciation day, which is where they set up a room in the construction zone with some free pie, and everyone who no longer has any pride left walks slowly down, picks  up a piece, and is instantly filled with self-loathing in contemplating how easily they have been subjugated by the construction overlords.  At the end of the day, a crowd of people was on the ground floor heading for the exit.  There was an empty trash can in the middle of the exit corridor, right in front of all the foot traffic.  I absently threw my empty cup into the oddly-placed trash can and kept shuffling.  “Sir,” came a voice from behind me.  “SIR!”  I turned around.  There was a small, pinched man in a building management uniform.  “Sir, this is not a trash.”  I stood and tried to understand what he wanted from me, while the crowd moved past me.  “This is not a TRASH,”  he said again, pointing down at my cup, alone at the bottom of the receptacle.  He tilted it up and pointed the top over toward me.  He wanted me to reach in and pull my cup out of this trash can that had been sitting in the middle of this big public area, because it was not a trash.  The enormous weight of the indignities I had faced washed over me.  I experienced a rushing burst of rage incomparable to anything I had known before.  I bristled and shook and gritted my teeth.  And still I submitted to this ugly man with the ugly accent who had this inexplicable authority in his dominating demeanor.  I retraced my steps against the exiting traffic, reached down into the trash can that was not a trash, and picked up my cup.  I tried to kill him with my eyes.  He didn’t look away from my stare.  He knew he was the master.  I walked out the door and dropped my cup in an actual garbage can, which was indistinguishable from that man’s trash can.  If I had come across a bunny right then, I would have kicked it so hard.

Time has helped me cope with life under the oppressor.  I am less volatile now, more used to the abject subjugation that is expected of me every day.  Last week’s bomb threat would have made me angry a few years ago.  But I’m different now.  I save my work, walk down the hall, head down the elevator and wait in passive disgust for building management to give me the all clear.  A few weeks ago, I discovered a pleasant place in this war zone.  They’ve completed a nice patio out overlooking the pit, tucked away behind my building, where no one ever goes.  It’s the only place you can go within a few city blocks to get some fresh air on a nice day.  There’s no place to sit down there yet, but a few warm days I grabbed my lunch and a book and headed down to eat sitting on some big planter boxes- a rare moment of dignity and enjoyment in this chaotic mess.  Then one day I walked down to my sunny new place and was met with a scene I have seen thousands of times before.  Yellow boundary tape had been wrapped across most of the patio, warning that it was not safe for anyone to be there.  The planter boxes were now restricted.  There was nowhere else to sit.  Improbably, I spied a little white plastic chair alone on a corner of the patio.  It was filthy, but I moved it to the little part of the patio that hadn’t been taped off, and tried to enjoy my lunch in the tiny remaining space.  After about three minutes, an orange-vested construction worker ten years my junior walked around the patio corner and saw me sitting in that little plastic chair.  He said “sorry, I need that chair.”  I looked up from my sandwich in mid-bite and blankly stared at him.  He needed the chair.  The only possible thing I could sit on out here.  “Yeah, the chair, I need it back.”  It took me a minute to put my lunch back in the plastic sack and gather my book and papers.  I stood up and walked in off the patio while the construction worker appropriated the dirty white chair for his important authoritative uses.  Back at my desk, my lunch uneaten in its sack, I stared at my computer, doing nothing, hitting save every thirty seconds.

This entry was posted in Annoying, lawyering, Pain, Work. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Urban Indignities

  1. Oh man, “If I had come across a bunny right then, I would have kicked it so hard.” LOLOL

  2. Layne says:

    “He knew he was the master.” Great line.

  3. Ben Pratt says:

    Oh, Ryan. I also laughed out loud at the bit about the bunny. I’m glad you put that there, because it allowed me to laugh instead of cry. The worst part of all of this is that if I were the construction worker and I had found some lawyer sitting on a chair I’d left some place, I would have done exactly the same thing. The same is true for the other construction workers, but definitely not true for the building management ‘people.’ I mean, the creature with the bait trash can? That’s just demonic.

  4. Andrea W. says:

    Seriously giving out a $1 McDonald’s gift certificate is worse than doing nothing. I don’t know why but that’s so funny to me that that was their big idea to make everyone feel better. Such a well written post, too well written I felt very oppressed after reading this.

  5. Troy says:

    “Oh boo hoo I’m a lawyer and I work in a fancy office building downtown and the construction workers aren’t very nice to me snivel snivel. One time, the machine that makes it so I don’t have to spend energy on walking up and down the stairs was broken but fixed the same day whine whine. And the verandah doesn’t have enough seating arrangements for me to eat, read, and relax. Waaaaahhh.”


    Guy Who Works Out Of His Car

    JK. I totally loved this post. You had me at “it sucks the life and pride and human dignity out of everything in its orbit”. LOL

    Did anyone yell “scrounge!” when you retrieved you paper cup from the garbage can? That always a classic heckle. Same genre as slow-clap applauding when someone drops or spills something.

    Great post.

  6. Ryan says:

    Troy, the machine that saves me energy stopped- with ME IN IT!!! DID I tell you I’m a VERY BUSY lawyer? VERRRY BUSY. Your inability to empathize with the universal human suffering of the urban professional classes make me worry that you are perhaps a murderer. Not saying you are or anything, just that I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how things end up, you know?

  7. Ryan says:

    Ben, but why? Why would he not want me to sit in the chair? The one remaining shred of hope for a little peace and quiet, and he has to take it away. Why are construction workers like that? I don’t ask for much. But sitting? Sitting seems like it would be okay to ask for, right?

    Ange, you are spot on. Getting that one dollar gift certificate had the effect of passing out a bag of sewage with a sarcastic note attached. People honestly just lost their sanity for a few minutes there. It was crazy to see.

  8. Troy says:

    A murderer? Maybe. I’ll give you that. But at least I’m not the one that almost took out that poor building manager guy and his donation bucket for his daughter’s leukemia you mistook for a garbage can.

    Ryan: “I experienced a rushing burst of rage incomparable to anything I had known before. I bristled and shook and gritted my teeth.”

    Poor Guy: “And then he threw his trash in Sally’s donation bucket just like it was a garbage can! Can you believe the nerve? I would have let it go, but I figured if he saw it up close he would get a clue. Guess not. Lawyers.”

  9. Ryan says:

    Looool. So that’s what that was. Makes me hate him even more.

  10. Wade says:

    Ry, what does it say about my state of mental health when (between saves of course) I would roam my floor looking to score a few extra $1 McDonalds coupons from the people still clinging to their dignity?


  11. StefStar says:

    Oh man. This is not the post to read before starting a long day of work. Especially when that day is preceded by intolerable LA traffic.

    At least I’m not alone in the volatile emotions thing. I’m glad I’m not the only one experiencing these kinds of wild fits of angry passion!

  12. Ben Pratt says:

    “So today I’m installing blast-door panels around the shield generator area, right? I get to this one that’s got to be six feet off the ground, and I’m like where’s that white chair I was standin’ on before? So I go to look for it and I find it on that little patio we finished the other day–yeah, with the planters–only there’s this sad-lookin’ guy in a suit sitting on it! So I tell him I need the chair, and he gives me this look–I swear he looked at me like I just bulldozed his house or somethin’. I mean, come on, it’s just a chair, right? But he slowly gets his things and tromps on out of there. Man, bein’ a lawyer must be tough, right? The guy looked absolutely broken.”

  13. Ryan says:

    Loooool. That’s a great entry. Hook that guy up with a featured comment award, somebody.

  14. So your fancy office building in beautiful downtown SLC bordered on one side with a construction hole and temple square gardens and birds chirping on the other side is comparable to nazi-era Warsaw? Here’s an idea: how about next time your building shakes because Bob the Builder installed another blast-door panel, you and your lawyer buddies can pretend it was a nazi air raid or maybe a U-boat attack on your white collar fortress. Then you can pull out your topo maps and “Risk” game pieces and plan a counter attack against the construction overlords. But watch out, the overlords know how to break you down and find your weaknesses, because they have spies and important consultants like Jose and his trash can on the payroll.

    You have no choice but to surrender. Resistance is futile.

  15. Jaron says:

    Ryan, your office chair has wheels, right? I mean, if it’s anything post 1950, it has to have casters of some type. I think the solution is obvious, take your own office chair, use the freight elevator if you’re too embarrassed to ride seated while the rest of the normals have to stand, and enjoy your lunch in the sunshine and luxury of a Herman Miller Aeron (or some other task chair model, I don’t know what you guys at RQN use…). By your own admission, most of the dignity that would keep somebody from wheeling around their building in their own desk chair has already been sucked from you by the pit. Take some of it back!

    Although, you do run the risk of having your firm’s property commandeered along with any remaining shred of resistance in your heart… I suppose that would be a shame. No pain, no gain, right?

  16. Ryan says:

    Uh, wow. That’s kind of genius. There would be so much dignity sitting on that patio in not just a patio chair but my nice office chair. I just may do this. But if I do, I’m taking my lamp, trash can, and a few of my pictures of my family. Make it as hard as possible for any stupid worker to come up and try to push me around, in my own quasi-office on the patio.

  17. Christian says:

    The bunny line was great.

    I can’t believe you actually took the cup out of the garbage. I wouldn’t have. I know I’m badder A than you, but I was disappointed you let him win.

    Most the time I’m fine obeying various people’s authority, but every once in a while “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore.” and I become a little crazy.

    And Ben was right. That construction worker was probably having an awful month working in the dirty underbelly of the fancy offices he has to watch all these suited lawyers ride elevators up to every day. Then on his worst day, the only thing in the world he’s looking forward to is eating his home lunch on his chair on his secret patio spot in peace. Then he finds a suited lawyer reading some french novel on it. You’re lucky he didn’t snap your neck.

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