The essential worker's lament

I have cramps, too much toner, and nothing more to say.

Published August 26, 2002 7:34PM (EDT)

I work for a Bankrupt Telecommunications Company (BTC). When my phone rings I let the call go directly to voice mail. After lunch I sit with Kevin, a friend and colleague, and fast-forward through the messages. Lately I've been getting stomach cramps.

Color-coded wires hang from the ceiling and entire panels are missing from the walls because the construction workers hired to finish the office walked out when they discovered that their checks were not only late -- they weren't coming. Before they left, one of them told our vice president of sales, Henry, that he was a "fancy little shit" and that when he got fired he should practice sticking his head up his ass because he'd never get another job and everybody should have a hobby.

Yesterday, Rachel, our receptionist, told Kevin that the Atlanta office called asking if we could ship them toner for their printers. It seems that they're close to running out. We have toner, lots of toner, according to Rachel. But we're going to hold on to our toner. It's a tough break, but we are a BTC. No one is actually printing anything, except for their résumés. There are no more contracts to print. We need that toner.

My cubicle faces one of the few finished walls in the office and above my desk there is a poster of a snow-capped mountain. The poster says: REACH FOR THE TOP. Rachel told Kevin that she is afraid one day a customer will come to our offices and shoot everyone here. My desk is close to an exit.

Yesterday BTC laid off 2,220 "non-essential" workers. When we heard the news, Kevin and I high-fived each other in celebration of our "essential" status. Then we went to the vending machine to get candy bars. I decide to call back one of my customers. It is my job, after all. She says she hates us and she is planning to sue us.

I check my e-mail and find a memo from Henry. Evidently, if we can hit the annual quota ($5 million), BTC is going to fly us to a resort called Atlantis for a five-day weekend of total relaxation. As salespeople, it is our professional obligation to be brazenly optimistic. But at this point, making our number would require more than optimism; it would require magic. Henry might as well make the quota $100 million and promise us a trip to Oz.

This afternoon Kevin actually scheduled a customer appointment. Everyone is very excited. He returns an hour later with bad news. The customer had already signed on with another company, they just wanted him to stop by so that they could, in their words, "get a look at the person who had screwed them with an iron pipe." Kevin takes it well, though. He says it was nice to get out of the office. He has bagels for all of us.

We gather around his desk and eat bagels until Henry storms out of his office, attracted, I imagine, by the smell of salmon cream cheese. "What are you doing here? You know what happens when you're not out selling? You're being outsold!" So we all go home and water our plants.

One day I will get laid off. In the meantime, I take advantage of the best thing about this job: the insurance. My family doctor, Dr. Judson, writes prescriptions for Valium, Xanax, lithium, Ritalin -- anything you want. He is a crowd-pleaser. Dr. Judson hates technology. All of his money is in bonds and real estate. He is a fat, satisfied, smug man. This would bother some people; but I like Dr. Judson. He doesn't think too much. And this is an attractive quality in a general practitioner.

I schedule a colonoscopy. When I arrive at the gastroenterologist's office, I find a comfortable position on the table. He greases the tube and turns on the monitor so that I can watch this gross reality TV show starring me. As the tiny video camera worms its way up (down?) my intestines I squint to see the monitor, but I lose interest. Fortunately I brought a book.

The test results are fine. "Yours is a phantom disease, a psychosomatic problem," the doctor says.

Back at my desk I gaze up at the poster of the mountain on the wall above me. It occurs to me that I have never actually seen a snow-capped mountain, and yet the poster moves me and, sitting at my desk, I am overcome with the urge to take up mountain climbing.

It occurs to me that there is a great deal I have never seen. My stock options, for instance. What do they look like? What are they exactly? And our network, the famed and infamous transcontinental fiber optic jungle that was BTC's prize through a rash of mergers and acquisitions -- have I ever seen it? No. I've talked about it in glowing terms for years, but I really can't imagine what it looks like. It's a great beast, a behemoth, the Moby Dick of networks. It travels under oceans, carrying on its back ones and zeros. And now, as I sit at my desk, I wonder if any of it is real.

When my desk phone rings I don't move. When the ringing stops, I listen to the voice mail message. The message is from Cheryl, the CFO of a company that trusted all its Internet services to us more than a year ago. I can tell from the tone of her voice that she is no longer angry. She is too tired to be angry. She just wants someone to talk to. She says, "Call me. Call me whenever you can. Let's try to get this thing worked out."

I listen to her message several times, and her voice, though it is only a recorded voice, sounds real to me -- more real than anything I know at this moment. She is from the South, and her voice carries that relaxed cadence that, despite circumstances or intention, always sounds friendly. For a moment I consider calling Cheryl back, if only to bask in her accent. I imagine picking up the phone, dialing her number. But in the end I don't call. I can't call.

What would I say?

By Matt Bergantino

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