Everything still worked that morning, one week into the New Year. The automated elevator sang, "Seventh floor, good [img_assist|nid=5684|title=Portrait of a Landscape by Marc Schuster © 2009|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=188|height=251]morning!" The keycard opened the office door. Halogen yet buzzed like a life-support system.
Beside the copy machine sat a dumpster, old and dented, scratched with graffiti. It would have looked at home in a refuse-swept alley running behind a row of cheap storefronts, an emblem of decay normally exorcised from any modern workspace. Someone must have carted it in earlier that morning. It was, as yet – I could not help but note – empty.
People were huddled in their offices, whispering. They glanced up with intense faces, returned to private conversation.
This is it, I knew. It’s happening today
The fax machine was warm, filled with copyright forms to be scanned, processed, filed, forgotten. My computer turned on. The password worked. The inbox filled up with panicked e-mails from production editors waiting for the next issue’s line-up, authors demanding to know what had happened to their manuscripts, notes about upcoming meetings, projects which needed completing. But all I could think about was that dumpster.
How would it come? An e-mail? A phone call? A trusted friend stopping by?
Beyond the walls of my cubicle, a voice said, "Grace, may I see you in my office, please?"
Grace was a stalwart of organized chaos, surrounded by stacks of journals, calendars, catalogues of office supplies. If the question began with, "How should I…?" or "Who do I ask about..?" The answer was always, "Ask Grace."
I heard Grace answer, "Sure," followed by the slow creak of her chair.
A moment later, an office door shut.
Everything that happens beyond my cubicle is faceless, without form. Every day, there are private conversations, conference calls, inner-machinations, corporate politics. I hear without listening. They don’t know my name. They don’t know I’m there. Usually, I drown it out. On this day, however, I find that I am hyper-aware.
“Diane, may I see you in my office, please?"
Diane, my God. She’s the one who hired me. She’d been in the business nearly as long as I’d been alive. I caught a glimpse of her as she passed my cubicle, on the way to the back office. She looked afraid, but also professional. Professionally afraid.
The office door shut.
All morning, that was how it went. Each time they were led past my cubicle, dead-man-walking style.
The only one who stopped was Carl. He’d always been my favorite publisher. He had one kid and another on the way. He stood at my cubicle and announced, “Well, I got the e-mail!" all giddy with fear.
He told me everything he knew. It’s not just Philadelphia, he said, it’s Baltimore. It’s New York. He gave me names, and the list kept going.
That afternoon, I got a sandwich from the Wawa down Walnut Street, and the man who took my money was in his fifties, well-groomed, well-spoken. I could easily imagine him wearing a suit and tie, sitting in on board meetings. Perhaps a month ago, he did.
Outside the entrance, a woman sat on the steps – no way to get around her. The layers of jacket and sweatshirt, coat and sweater, made her twice as large. She demanded a dollar, real indignant.
And what will I do when it’s me who has to beg? I wondered. There’s a million end-of-the-world scenarios to choose from. Nuclear annihilation is the big one, of course, humanity forced into underground bunkers. I’d read all those books, watched all those movies. But maybe we’re all just meant to slowly go mad, slowly starve, slowly horde until everything is depleted.
On the other hand, why not imagine more utopian scenarios, wherein we turn our parks into massive gardens, feeding our families with all the food we’ll grow? We’ll use those green slips of paper – what in an earlier era had been known as “money” – to wallpaper our eco-friendly cob homes. We’ll live in socialist collectives, contributing equally and singing Hosannas to the God who in His tender mercy allowed those corporate towers of Babel to crumble, so that a new world would rise based on love!
Either that or cannibalism, hard to say.
“Seventh floor, good morning!”
The dumpster by the copy machine was half-full. Mounds of textbooks, folders, medical journals, pens, pencils, staplers, all thrown together in a bubbling cauldron, a button-down Oxford witch’s brew.
People were no longer huddled, no longer whispering. They talked openly, stood around the proverbial water cooler. For two years, I’d passed some of them in the halls and never known their names, but a demonic presence had been lifted, we could all feel it.
"It’s over, that’s what I heard," said one.
Later that afternoon, Judy and I went outside to smoke a cigarette. I hadn’t smoked in six months. I called my wife and told her I was fine. It was over. For now, we were safe. The relief in her voice made me want to cry. Many phone calls had been made that day which had not brought relief.
My friend Saul once gave me some advice. "You should be fine, Jon, at your level,” he said. “Just don’t get promoted."
Blessed are we, the underachievers.
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This one time in Tennessee, Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner sang songs with Pete Seeger. Then, years later, found himself brushing snow from Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, MA, and thought to himself, What is this? Why am I here? This was not long after he had strolled nonchalantly into City Lights in San Francisco and the sudden sight of an aged Ferlinghetti nearly led him to void his bowels. Jonathan has this theory that everything is a story, all human expression a form of storytelling, something like that. It’s not very clear. Currently, he and his son make up stories together and tell them at the Glenside Farmer’s Market.