It’s 7: 00 p.m. The workplace is empty, silent. I have actually dimmed every light, neatly stacked the newspapers, closed every conference room door, and closed down the computer system at the front desk– which is my desk. Fox News, Fox Service, or Fox Sports is flashing on the television screen in the lobby. I grab the remote to click it off, then remember: The television stays on. Do not, under any circumstances, turn the television off. I leave the door and into the elevator bank.
I picture that, even now, those tv screens are still flickering night and day, over the course of weeks and months, in the now-deserted workplaces of banks across New York City. In the year and a half before the coronavirus struck the United States, I worked at numerous of those institutions as a temperature receptionist. My task was to let the males– often females, however mostly guys– through the door to the lobby of their company and into their offices.
I was bad at this task– however, in my defense, door-opening was never a job at which I set out to stand out. The plan, in fact, was not to be a gig worker at all. After earning my master’s in English from New York University in 2018, I finished the requisite intern circuit for an aspiring author: age-old publishing house, age-old literary company, hip literary magazine. Someplace along the way, the director of one of those intern programs informed me that if I truly wished to write– and I did– I might make about as much temp-working as I might as an entry-level assistant or fact-checker. The difference would be that I would have higher liberty to work on my own projects, even if the working hours were, well, momentary.
The cons– the necessary official wear, the long train flight, the “constantly keep your direct, your eyes and ears peeled”– appeared negligible. I was offered. The day after interviewing with a temperature company, my first complete week of reception work was arranged. The work itself was predictable and boring: taking calls, opening doors, hanging coats, signing for packages, restocking refrigerators, tidying up after events. It included the usual situations of the majority of temp gigs: I didn’t know my schedule up until the week prior to (or in some cases the day before) a gig opened, the hours were never ever consistent, I was without benefits or task security. The difference remained in the information. Unlike Uber driving, grocery-delivering, and so on, this gig was postulated on connecting constantly with the one percent.
I was, more or less, just another part of the one percent’s office, like furnishings except I could talk back. Now, in the coronavirus age, the extremely principle of “office” feels part of an ancient, possibly arcadian past. It’s a term that will soon refer to spaces unimaginable to our pre-pandemic selves, where plexiglass sneeze-guards will separate the cubicles and workplace desks will include built-in hand sanitizers. Prior to that time happens, it may deserve examining what these spaces, which housed our working lives for so long, implied.
For the one percenters– who inhabit a few of Manhattan’s most costly property– office implied extensive lobbies with walls of granite and marble, interior pearwood paneling, meeting room whose breathtaking views influence vertigo. Now the executives of different firms are questioning whether to go back to their office spaces at all, having realized the work of raiding the American economy can be done just as well in other places. So if these upscale accoutrements are not necessary to funnel ever more wealth to the upper tiers of society, what function do they serve?
It might be that a person’s sense of self-respect is inextricably covered in one’s sense of space. How do these titans of finance feel about themselves without the everyday experience of magnificence? Without doors opening prior to them, one by one, strengthening their conviction that literally nothing obstructs their course? Without people like me?
Memories of these times have taken on a surreal twist. The maskless faces of the men– the bristle around their lips and cheeks, their gum-smacking and mint-sucking– now appear overexposed, in retrospect. These faces were always so clear to me, likely since, for the many part, I was a glorified greeter, seated at a faux-gilded desk that spanned the length of my apartment or condo.
If I had to utilize the bathroom or longed for a snack, I first needed to discover a secretary to cover my spot. When I wasn’t buzzing in suited males, I managed cost reports, found the matching receipts to $2,500 lunches, or stuffed envelopes with invites to charity galas. And in my totally free minutes, I would sit there, composing and checking out, waiting for the faint ding of the elevator to suggest an investor’s imminent arrival.
To unlock the doors– which it was needed I do, my supervisors told me, prior to the staff member reached the threshold– I needed to push a ribbed button beneath my desk whose area, somehow, tended to grow less instinctive to me over the course of the day. I thought of moving it somewhere more visible. “Do not bring the button to the surface of the desk,” one manager cautioned me. “We like to keep things smooth and,” she utilized her foot to push my backpack further behind my chair, “out of sight.” When the elevator opened, my hand would reach down, feeling for the button’s square contours, finding just fiber board. The males, fresh out of the elevator, expecting uncontested entry, would pull on the door to find it still locked. They ‘d take a look at me through the glass, perplexed, momentary exiles cast out from their own domain. I confess here to feeling a rise of power.
In some cases the younger guys would smile shyly and look down at their shoes, as if they knew they had revealed their impatience and repented, having confused my impotence with their own. They should not have feared: The impotence was all mine. How did I miss their method? It was often the case that I was too soaked up in my work to hear the elevator at all. I found myself laughing at, for example, a blithe line by Samuel Beckett (” Personally naturally I are sorry for whatever”) and feeling a basic sense of happiness at this curriculum I ‘d developed for myself. I determined again the number of cents I was making a minute (~27), and the number of these minutes I might commit to reading and writing, letting the emptiness of life eddy up around me, until I was delivered, by some fortuitous alchemy, back into the world of arts and letters (without ever envisioning, obviously, that world’s own pandemic-prompted chaos) A knock– plainly in its second, possibly 3rd iteration– would disrupt these musings. I ‘d lift my head to see a gaggle of fit guys standing outside, looking about in various instructions, each performing his own faint waddle, waiting for my attention. I ‘d leap up and reach for the button. “It’s under the desk,” one shouted to me when, his voice muted from the opposite of the glass. “No, I understand,” I yelped. “I understand.”
In one instance involving an especially elusive button, a group of men stood outside as I got on my knees to peer beneath the fiber board. In a harmless breach of procedure, I had actually left the desk unmanned (an urge struck for pistachios, unaffordable at the grocery store however typically complimentary at the monetary offices), and my button had obviously disappeared in the meantime. I recognized, as soon as genuflected, that in fact the device had just lost its adhesion. There it was, hanging in shadow, performing a sluggish, senile spin. I snatched it, pushed it, permitted the guys to enter, increased to welcome them. “I’m so sorry about that,” I stated. Just one of these men looked me in the eye, a man I had accidentally rejected one too many times, a partner and basic counsel at the company. (He ‘d also been provided a mini-profile in The New Yorker and has, apparently, assisted to create a variety of American history storytelling exhibits at both Carnegie Hall and the New York City Historical Society.) It was a look of disgust. I did not blame him.
Perhaps he had actually acknowledged my hunger for power and the possibility, however infinitesimal, that a person day we might really be on equal footing. It was a power that I was beginning to accumulate and exercise in subtle ways. Among them was my secret collection of data. Security video was funneled into a split-screen monitor on my desk, which suggested that, in particular sections within the office, I might track the males through the halls, study where they stood as they noshed, whose desks they visited, at what time they went to the restroom, the other men with whom they went. These benign activities now appear careless, practically adult in their unmasked intimacy. At that time, they were fodder for my voyeur self, who daydreamed over assembling these minutiae into some type of illustrative report.
But the majority of the time there was no surreptitious advantage to be acquired. The facilitation of food shipments, for example, was only ever a Sisyphean task– except that at its conclusion you lay down and let the boulder run over you. A shipment guy would call me to state that he had practically gotten here, his voice stifled from city wind and an inevitably bad connection. “Which side is that again?” No answer. I ‘d take the elevator to the structure’s lobby, which typically had multiple entrances, one on either side of the street (entrances on both Lexington and Park, for instance). I would race outside and scan the crowd for a male with a shipment knapsack twice his size, compressing his posture. Stopping working to find him, I ‘d run across the structure to the other entryway. Still no sign of him. I ‘d duplicate this relay twice more. Sweating, I ‘d take a lunch-hour packed elevator back up to the lobby and would call him. No answer. The assistants to the starving financiers would hurry toward my desk. Where is the food? Then the carrier would call. He’s been waiting on me. Where was I? I ‘d return down and, by some wonder, we ‘d discover each other. The urge to embrace was mutual. Back upstairs, I ‘d set out the food in a meeting room or cooking area and, later, empty the leftover make-your-own-taco material into the garbage.
Eventually, I myself was infected by the space. My desire for power grew mixed with a desire for luxury. In handling expense reports, I frequently came across a financier’s use of Uber and other shipment services, which suggested, if I browsed the fine print, I might find a house address. I ‘d use the company computer to research study realty databases and browse executives’ Manhattan penthouses and residential or commercial properties in Westchester and southern Connecticut. There was an old French-style estate with crenellated roofing lines, a freshly purchased Brooklyn condo with chrome-plated faucets. I ‘d try to match the face of each guy to his home, so that I knew, as he stood outside the door, awaiting me, the type of assets I was dealing with. When the pandemic struck, did they Uber all the method to their vacation homes in Aspen, Napa Valley, the Hamptons?
And if I were to appear at their door, would they acknowledge me? Some certainly would. At the offices, I was frequently changing or substituting a person– a woman, most likely– the men had actually familiarized. They were curious about the brand-new face. At each location, the company CEO would typically take some time to present himself to me personally, shaking my hand and serving me some MBA-grade eye contact. Guests who were familiar with the usual receptionist and understood I was temping would often ask me, with relaxing, paternal authority, what I planned to do with my life. Seldom did I point out anything about composing, but when I did, the response was typical: “Literature! Perhaps we’ll discover ourselves in among your stories!”
Many people were content to ignore me. This is most likely since while my presence was clear, my use-value was essentially undetectable. The staff members had other people at the business who truly looked after them. The executive secretaries and other administrative personnel were often incredibly protective of the guys they “supported”– the business terminology for “served.” At one organization, the workplace supervisor had me arrange snacks according to her preferred employees’ preferences. At the end of the day, I was to discreetly put specific mini-boxes of cereal (two Apple Jacks and one Special K Initial) at the respective desks of her three favorite entrepreneurs. If nondairy butter was running low, I was to put it in her “unique place” so that her preferred lactose-intolerant might find it and spread it on his toast. Particular staff members had their needs so totally prepared for that it’s uncertain they still felt them.
Were these subtle dependencies part of a bigger pattern of detained development? Yes. I never believed I ‘d hear the word kids, for instance, utilized for groups of adult men outside of a sports-related or collegiate context. However there I ‘d be– sitting at my desk, listening to the yelps over some organisation offer whose resulting profits would never ever drip down to me– when the CEO would call from his workplace, “Boys, boys, kids! Be available in! Bring bottles!” I ‘d hear the backslapping, the glad-handing. Somebody would put on music. Perhaps Moby, maybe The Stones. I ‘d sit and await them to emerge from the space, intoxicated on kindness, perhaps throw me a fifty (they never ever did). Is the swaggering goodwill of these interactions making it through the Zoom calls? Are they still playing “Gim me Shelter”?
In other scenarios, however, the features of advanced the adult years were more performatively deserted. At low-key, in-house parties and occasions, staff members would consume white wine and champagne from plastic cups without making a difficulty about it. They ‘d gather in little groups around video games of Scrabble, Monopoly, Pictionary. At such occasions, I was normally asked to stand in the corner, far from the action, where I might observe whether a stack of napkins had actually been pressed askew, if a bottle of champagne had emptied, or if freshly unpacked crackers required imbrication. I also might observe the sky out of floor-to-ceiling windows, which was a novelty, provided my normally windowless view of the lobby. I ‘d enjoy clouds scraping their tummies on steel spires, flecks of honeyed light streaming down glass exteriors, on the other side of which were, possibly, parties much like this one.
The last time I asked for work as a temp was on March 8. On occasion, I do wonder how the staff members are faring without their mini-cereals and dairy-free butter, without the workplace developed to edify their souls, to assure them, No, look, you deserve it! They understand they deserve it. They didn’t require a building to tell them this. When I check out that the stock exchange is growing as the economy is contracting, my soul feels some odd relief that a minimum of some people, nevertheless vile, are doing well.
But, obviously, when I consider the millions of people like me, those who were already living hand-to-mouth and have since declared unemployment, those for whom the idea of paying rent sends out a shot of cortisol through the body, I question why I opened that door at all. I need to have taken the time, actually, to laugh. To relax. How fun it would have been to watch the men pile up, match on fit, their palms against the glass, all as I chewed on my pistachios, put my feet up on the desk, drew the salt off the shells. I hope, now, never ever to see them once again. I’m returning to finish school, where a work-study job awaits me. I’ll secure loans whose rate of interest will interest them, and on which my whole financial future will depend. From now on, we’ll be worlds apart. I will constantly understand particular things. I will wield a specific phantom power. It’s not enough, it’s absolutely nothing, however it’s something, too.