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.
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.
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.