I work in a cubicle farm. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. My cube is larger than most I’ve seen on television. That’s a plus, I suppose. Although the way my computer is situated in the corner, I cannot see people walk up behind me. Others in the farm have mounted mirrors to the left and right of their computer screens, so they are alerted when someone is behind them. It’s a little long-distance truck driver for me, but it must work. They are never caught by surprise. Last week, I carried on an entire conversation with a co-worker while she looked at me in her rear-view mirror. It was a little off-putting.
Working in a cubicle makes me feel like a little girl who has been put in the corner for punishment. Being sentenced to standing in the corner was a big deal when I was little, it was a space I wanted to escape quickly! As a grown up with a family that needs relatively affordable group health insurance, you learn to sit in the corner. With a smile. All. Day. Long.
My 8 x 8 cube has grey panels with light-blue stitching in a pattern reminiscent of the 1980s, not quite splatter-paint, but close. The panels fit together at the sides with beige metal lock-in tabs, life-sized erector-set pieces. The big, beige, four-drawer file cabinet right behind me takes up most of my cubicle space. I have two overhead storage bins on both the right and left sides of my cubicle wall, too. So, my cube, in particular, has a rather cavernous feel. Someone told me not long ago that the standard cubicle length is approximately the same size as an adult coffin. Lovely.
You can tell how long someone has worked at the farm by how their cube is decorated – or not. Some cubes are nests for humans with tiny bits of treasure tucked into nooks and crannies: yellowed certificates of one type of recognition or another, cartoon clippings, a plant or two, a candy dish, pictures of family. Long ago, a co-worker advised not to bring anything to the office that I couldn’t gather it all up to leave within three minutes. It’s worth thinking about.
While perfectly positioned in relationship to my boss’s office, my cube is the first in a bank of cubes belonging to the IT department. Therefore, I am privy to lots and lots of computer-speak, jokes I don’t understand at all, terminology that sounds like we work at NASA, and the occasional pieces of personal information which are the most interesting and, consequently, my favorite things to overhear. It’s a fascinating window into the lives of complete strangers.
Sir Jingle-Jangle has his own office, directly across from my cube opening. He is some sort of technology-fixer because I hear him on the phone saying phrases like: “Have you rebooted?” or “I keep telling you there is no way we can manage all these tickets. I’ve told management this many times. Obviously, no one is listening. If you can fix by re-booting, then you don’t need to call me.” Jingle-Jangle has a set of keys clipped to his belt loop with a stainless steel carabiner. Every time he leaves his office, which is often, he locks his door.
All the door locking increases my intrigue. I know a substantial amount of computer equipment is housed in his office, but honestly, I don’t know that anyone would be interested in taking it. We don’t get a whole lot of foot traffic in the farm.
The constant locking and unlocking of the door is a personality indicator: He is a rule follower. He trusts no one. He is either really important or he has a false sense of importance, what with all the keys. Either way, the keys on the carabiner alone are a not-so-subtle implication that he’s kind of a big deal.
Sitting directly across and sharing a cubicle wall with me is Mr. Whiskers. On my very first day, my co-worker walked me around the farm in the proverbial, awkward first-day meet-and-greet. When she introduced me to Mr. Whiskers, I extended my hand and said, “Pleased to meet you.” He spun around in his swivel chair, looked at me over the top of thick, dark-metal framed glasses, did not extend his hand and responded instead, “I know you are.”
I have since learned he does this same shtick when meeting anyone new. He’s also a fan of responding to “Have a good day!” with “Don’t tell me what to do.” Once, when the office secretary asked, “How are you today?” he answered with, “None of your damn business.”
I never engage Mr. Whiskers. He is not that kind of cube-neighbor. What I know about him, I’ve picked up from eavesdropping (it is literally IMPOSSIBLE not to) and keen observation. I often fantasize about fashioning a tiny dental mirror on the end of an antenna that I can use to look over the top edge of my cube wall.
Although he has multiple cats, he only speaks specifically about one. Mephistopheles, clearly his favorite, hates the rain and is terrified of thunder. Anytime dark clouds begin to form, Mr. Whiskers gets super anxious about his cat. He will begin saying to no one in particular in a phlegmy voice, prone to a nervous cough, “OOOOh, I know someone who is not going to like this. I bet he is already under the bed. <cough, snort> It’ll take me forever to get him out tonight.” As the storm worsens, Mr. Whiskers gets more anxious. “I hope my wife remembers to give him his anxiety meds,” he whisper-frets while standing at our only office window (which I cannot see from my desk.)
Once, I overheard him complaining to one of his co-workers about the frequency with which we have to change our computer passwords, “All my passwords are based on characters from Tolkien novels, and I keep them on a rotation.” I spent the rest of the day Googling characters from Tolkien and trying to guess password possibilities.
Life in the cube farm follows a schedule. I settle in at my desk between 8am-8:15am. Mr. Whiskers arrives for work between 8:15am-8:30am. After putting down his zippered, polyester briefcase and turning on his computer, Mr. Whiskers goes to our staff cafeteria and orders scrambled eggs and a biscuit with sausage gravy. Every. Day.
It is incredibly important to Mr. Whiskers that he not waste food. As a result, there is a great deal of plastic-utensil-scraping-Styrofoam-plate noise until around 8:45am. Sometimes, he requests extra sausage which he keeps at his desk in a to-go box wrapped in Saran Wrap. A treat for Mephistopheles, perhaps?
Around 9am, belching and blowing begins. Mr. Whiskers has chronic indigestion. It’s probably the sausage. He usually treats this indigestion with Tums from a large plastic container. I can hear them shake out into the palm of his hand.
At 9:30am, it’s time for medicine. Mr. Whiskers keeps his medicine locked in his desk drawer. I know this because the first indicator that it’s medicine time is the jangling of keys, followed closely by the opening of a metal office desk drawer. Then, pills rattle in bottles that are moved around inside a plastic grocery bag. Of course, all this racket piques my curiosity. What kind of medicine is he taking?
If I listened more closely to his bi-weekly conversations with his pharmacist, I could probably write down the medicines and Google them. I’m not that creepy. I can report that whatever he refills, he refills in high quantity.
I can also report that if any of his medicines are for sinus allergy, post-nasal drip, or drainage, they most definitely do not work. There is an inordinate amount of sniffling, coughing, sneezing and blowing. He’s been congested lately, which adds snorting and honking to the daily mix. As I mentioned earlier, he has a nervous cough and clears his throat frequently. “<cough> I was <cough> unable to open the portal because the RDF is full. <cough> If you want the RDF cleaned off, someone <cough> will have to download the cognition from the portal.” <cough>
At 10:30am, it’s time for a mid-morning snack also pulled from a plastic shopping bag. He eats the same snack every day because the unwrapping of the snack sounds the same each time. There’s a great deal of plastic opening noise, but the actual eating of the snack is quiet. What could it be? A honey bun? Powdered donuts? It’s anyone’s guess.
It is around lunchtime that he winds an old-fashioned ticking kitchen timer so that he won’t use more than his allotted break. Lunch is usually from the staff cafeteria and once again served on Styrofoam. It is only at lunch that Mr. Whiskers drinks a carbonated beverage and slurps the first few sips off the top of the can before pouring the remaining liquid into a large plastic drinking cup with a large accordion-style straw, the kind hospitals give as the prize for a hospital stay.
Around 3pm, it’s time for his afternoon snack. This snack is also quietly eaten, but is considerably messier than his morning snack, for when he’s done, he brushes crumbs off the seat of his office chair with his hand. Vigorously. He also wipes his bearded mouth with a paper napkin an unusual amount during this afternoon snack time. The sound of the napkin against his beard is loud in the silence of the IT cube farm. It’s rough and papery and sounds like sandpaper.
Around 4:30pm he talks with his wife about plans for supper, or together they review her shopping list. “<cough> I saw in the Publix flyer <cough> Albacore tuna in the can is on sale. Get a few of those, <cough> but not the kind packed in oil. Get the kind packed in water. <cough> I have to stop at the pharmacy on my way home. <cough>”
Some afternoons, he clips his fingernails. He enjoys an occasional lozenge. Toward the end of the week, he tires more easily and falls asleep at his desk, snoring gently. I am beginning to worry he has sleep apnea because he chortles himself awake and subsequently falls back to sleep several times during nap time.
Yesterday, a telemarketer called his desk. That’s unusual, for sure, but Mr. Whiskers handled it with aplomb. “How dare you call here,” he whisper-spat, “This is a nursing home <cough> and you have awakened my grandfather. Don’t ever call here again.” He chuckled to himself after he hung up the phone. “Well done, Mr. Whiskers,” I desperately wanted to say.
He turns off his cubicle lights at 4:56pm and leaves the office at 5pm on the dot. Once, I left at the same time as he and found myself walking behind him to the time clock. Although I thought I was keeping a respectful distance between us, I must’ve made him nervous, because he stopped walking, leaned into the wall to his right, and barked, “Go around.” I did. Quickly.
Mr. Whiskers is not my biggest fan. Sometimes he mocks me, which I find infuriating. The other day I answered my phone with a big smile and probably over-enthusiastic voice, “Of course, I am happy to help, ma’am.” From the other side of the wall, I heard in a high-pitched, sing-song, mocking lilt, “Muah, muah. La, nah, nah, muah.” Nice, Mr. Whiskers.
There are others here at the farm. Typhoid Bill works down the hall. He is a veteran because I heard him talking about a medical bill he received from the VA. Every afternoon around 2pm he begins coughing a deep, thick, persistent cough. When Typhoid Bill comes to Mr. Whiskers’ cube, he doesn’t greet Mr. Whiskers at all. He launches directly into a conversation, which makes me jump because it’s so unexpected. He has a Marlboro-colored voice, deep and loud. No niceties are ever exchanged. Out of complete silence comes a loud, “There’s a missing file on the U drive. I can’t connect my DKR because the structure has been compromised. I will wait until the RDF is functioning before I try again.” It sounds very important and official and scares the beejeezus out of me every time.
A co-worker asked the other day if I thought I would be a “lifer.” Would I work here forever? There’s no way to tell. If I stay, I’m definitely going to need a carabiner full of keys, a dental mirror, and an antenna. Pronto.