Falling slowly

We met in a bar close to his place. He looked a bit older. You check for that in middle age, who’s aging how quickly, who’s grey, who’s dying their hair, the depth of lines around the eyes. Solid evidence, and unwelcome. He’s holding up pretty well, though, takes care of himself.

After an hour or so of Irish whiskeys alternating with Bass ale, he coughed up what’d been bothering him.

“So, my boss called me into his office” (and immediately you think, damn, he got fired,  but no.) “He’s a good guy.” He paused. “And he tells me I fell asleep in a meeting the other day.”

“Hey,” I said. “It happens. Did I tell you about my client’s boss, the guy who had narcolepsy?”

He said it’s happened more than a few times. So it’s evolved into a delicate situation now.

“Well, you told me the job’s boring as shit.”

“Yeah, but I need the money. I need the health insurance, too. You know.”

“Sure.”

“It’s just that the meetings go on and on. Afternoon meetings.”

“Maybe you need to get more sleep.”

“Yeah. I try. Doesn’t work. To much action around the house. Kids, dogs…”

He has to get up around 5:00 am for a long commute, longer than mine because he’s stuck in his house, a place he can’t afford to sell and can’t afford to leave. I picture him, briefly, getting up every weekday before dawn, the quiet and loneliness of his house, the snap of the too-bright light in the bathroom, the harsh transition of that moment when you shift from drowsiness to getting on with the day.

“I’m just going to go back to mainlining coffee. I dunno know why I thought I should give it up, anyway.”

“It was that health kick. Diet Coke’s good, too.”

“Well, y’know, I drink. Of course — mostly red wine — but that’s gotta be worse than coffee. Some health kick.”

“So no big deal. Get a thermos. I saw a guy on the bus who had a whole case of Diet Coke. He takes it on Monday, like his whole weekly supply.”

“Actually, it’s a big deal.”

He leaned into me over the empties.

“Now, no matter what, I’ll be That Guy.” He didn’t have to explain. But he did.

“That Guy. The guy who falls asleep in meetings. No matter what I do, it’ll always be attached to that — that falling asleep. If I score a big deal it’ll be, yeah, he brought in Big Widgets — can you believe it? Must’ve stayed awake during those meetings. Or, nice guy — did you hear how he nodded off during the team session?”

“Yeah, no. Maybe. Who cares?”

It happens. Standards of office behavior are narrow. Quirks, petty rudenesses, a failure of etiquette can haunt you. I swear a receptionist I worked with got fired because she kept trimming her nails at her desk, driving her boss up the wall. Or, the vegan who kept farting. She became, “Aw, Susie,  nice girl…wish she could just…”

And everyone nods right away, knowing what’s coming.

And there’s also that fear. Maybe the biggest one of all in Office World (and in life, too). That you get marked with the spore of a loser. Not that anyone’s a loser, not really, not in the grand cosmic scheme of things. But here, in the cruel specificity of a tribe, a clique, an office, yeah, there are losers.

One day, a perfectly average person–maybe even above average–will muff something, not learn a necessary skill, get stuck, blow an assignment. Then he or she starts getting nervous. They become overly cheery by the coffee machine. They make sure they contribute in meetings, which usually means they spout some nonsense. They compound the situation. They gradually become shunned. Firing is usually the last, least painful stage. If they’re lucky, that stench won’t follow them.

“I gotta get a new job.”

I nodded, and made sure I paid the check.

 

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