7 – Do You Have My Stapler?

Arwin rushed from the bus stop to the office building that his interview was in. Traffic had been bad and the bus had arrived a bit late. He nervously kept checking his phone for the time. He took the elevator to the ninth floor. 

Arriving in a nondescript office space crammed with plain gray cubicles, he found two other people waiting on a bench outside the elevator doors. They had the nervous look of job applicants, although perhaps supplicants would be a better term. Both had, as with Arwin himself, a certain atmosphere of desperation about them. The other two, however, had at least come in full suits, and ones much nicer than his own. Arwin felt out of place. He made a mental note to invest in a new suit in the very near future. Maybe more than one. If he got the job, he’d probably have to wear a suit every day. Yet another thing on his long list of expensive things that he needed money for. 

A chubby, very nerdy man wearing very thick, red-framed glasses came up to Arwin. He was sweating and blinking profusely beneath a horrible combover. A scraggly attempt at a moustache somewhat covered his upper lip. “Excuse me. I think you have my stapler,” he said to Arwin.

Arwin looked down at the shorter man in surprise. “Stapler? No, sorry. I don’t have it.”

“Yes. Yes, I was told that you have my stapler,” the odd man insisted. “Please give me my stapler back.”

“I’m sorry, really. Here, you’re free to check my bag, if you like. And look, nothing in my pockets.”

The nerdy man blinked in frustration. “That…that liar.” His mouth moved repeatedly, probably trying to formulate a new sentence, but he never got the chance to continue.

A slick executive in a crisp navy suit arrived and brushed the nerdy man away as if the latter was meaningless. “Yolanda, Jun and Arwin?” he asked. When the three nodded, he smiled and gestured to his right, a red stapler in that hand. “This way, please.”

At the sight of the stapler, the nerdy man’s eyes seemed to bulge straight through his thick glasses. One eye began twitching madly as they left him behind. 

The office had one of those huge, open floor plans where rows of cubicles painted ‘professional gray’ were laid out in a grid, like something out of the 80s or 90s. No working from home with this company. The walls of each cubicle were not even head high, forcing people to uncomfortably hunch over for any degree of privacy. Around the outside of the floor were big, windowed offices that likely belonged to the ‘higher ups’. Because apparently you didn’t deserve a window if you weren’t special. 

Arwin began feeling uncomfortable almost immediately. The atmosphere here seemed unnatural to him. Everything was in gray and black and white, with some beige and brown here and there, as if more vibrant colours were forbidden. Everyone working here had their ‘professional’ face on, looking serious and self assured at all times. The air hummed with the drone of voices, plastic keyboards clicking, phones ringing and office machines beeping. It was as if each person and each cubicle had been photocopied from some standard blueprint. Everyone was fifty very similar shades of masochistic, office worker gray. Rows on rows of fluorescent lights shone from the ceiling, making everything look bland. 

He imagined working here. The mind-numbing boredom. The never-ending work. Always pointlessly grinding away, always more to do, never catching up, never ahead of the game, bosses breathing down your neck and demanding endless unpaid overtime. And for what? What did this company do that mattered? 

They sold…stuff. Not important, necessary stuff, just consumer junk. Jewelled cell phone cases, long-distance plans, doilies, disposable couches, junk bond investments, and a wide array of crap that you only found on late-night shopping channels. Nothing here was going to save the world or make it a better place. Nothing done here was unique or innovative. The company was just a machine designed to make money however it could.

He instinctively didn’t want to be here.

But he had debts and new bills to pay and his currently salary wasn’t cutting it. He tried to tell himself that working here would only be temporary. Even if he hated being here, he just needed to suck it up and take the money for a while until he found something more suited to him. 

Just doing things for the money didn’t seem like a very healthy or happy way to approach life. Were the apartment and new car worth having if it meant a job he hated? Did he really need those things? Was his purpose in life to spend as much money as possible on stuff that he didn’t really need and then work like crazy at a job he hated to pay for it? 

Maybe he could talk Kelli into a different kind of life.  

Someone caught Arwin’s attention nearby and he looked over.

A guy stood at a printing station, frowning. He banged on the printer with the heel of his hand. “CP Load letter? What the fuck does that mean?” He angrily stabbed a couple of buttons. The machine beeped. But nothing happened. He opened a door in the side, pulled out a tray, then pushed it back in. “Why does it say paper jam when there is no paper jam? Arg! I swear, one of these days I’m gonna throw this piece of shit right out the window!” Furious, he kicked the machine and stormed off, the document he’d wanted to copy now crumpled up in his hand. 

Three-point-two seconds later, the printer happily chirped and began printing his copy. 

Arwin looked the other direction, towards the offices which had an outer wall. Each office could have held a half dozen cubicles or more. The cubicles were boring, utilitarian workstations but the men and women in the big offices sat in nice leather chairs behind beautifully constructed wood or glass desks. Floor to ceiling windows offered a wide, open view of the glass-faced office building across the street. The view might be dull, but the windows did provide copious amounts of real sunlight, as opposed to the endless rows of fluorescent lights above the cubicles. 

The nicer offices came with beautifully stencilled titles on the doors, announcing each person as someone better than everyone else. These offices and titles were no doubt voraciously sought after. Along with a dramatically nicer, semi-private workspace, being called the manager of something or the vice president of something else somehow magically conferred more respect and social status on a person, even though the people in these nice offices were mostly just older versions of their lower-class peons in the cubicles. 

Arwin watched a man in an outer office type away at his keyboard with pudgy fingers. Sweat stains were just visible under his armpits, despite the early hour. His belly bulged, a product of a lifestyle with too many hours sitting down. 

Would that be Arwin after a couple of years of working here? Was that really the type of person that Kelli wanted him to become? What was so attractive about it? 

The man looked up and waved Arwin over. 

Arwin, puzzled, stepped up to the door of the Assistant General VP of Office Space. “Yes?” he asked.

The man spoke in a mind-numbingly dull voice while he adjusted the designer glasses on his nose. “So…I’m going to need you to come in on Saturday. So…if you could go ahead and come in around nine, that’d be great.”

Arwin glanced around. Was the man talking to someone else? Nope. “Uh, sorry, I don’t even work here yet. I’m just interviewing.”

The Assistant General VP of Office Space nodded solemnly, squinted in thought and stared for a long, increasingly awkward couple of moments. “Riiight. Anyway, I’m going to need you to come in on Saturday. So…if you could go ahead and come in around nine, that’d be great.”

Arwin wondered if the man was brain dead. “Um, sure. No problem,” he answered, just to make the guy happy.

“Great. Thanks. Oh, and remember: next Friday. Next Friday is Hawaiian shirt day. So, you know, if you wanna go ahead and wear a Hawaiian shirt and jeans…” He snapped his fingers like he’d just remembered something. “Did you get the memo?”

“The memo?”

“The memo.”

“What memo?”

“The memo about Hawaiian shirt day. I just sent out a memo about the memo I sent earlier. Did you get it?”

Arwin nodded, playing along. “Oooh, right, the memo. Yeah, got it. Hawaiian shirt day. Brilliant. Yes.” 

“Don’t worry. We’ll arrange a meeting to discuss it in the morning meeting today. And then maybe rehash the subject in the afternoon meeting, just to make sure everyone knows.”

Arwin backed slowly away from the door. This office was full of crazy people.

“Great!” the manager called to Arwin’s retreating form. “And remember, I’m going to need you to come in on Saturday. So…if you could go ahead and come in around nine, that’d be great!”

Arwin forced a smile and resumed his trek towards the interview room. He hurried to catch up, only to find that Yolanda and Jun had been made to wait a little further up while the interviewer had rushed off to take care of something. So he stood and mentally prepared himself for the upcoming task. And promptly faded once more into his morbid analysis of the office around him. 

The folk lower down the company ladder greatly outnumbered the higher members. All apparently slaved away, day-in and day-out, putting up with this monotonous life, all for the slim chance that one day they would replace someone in an outer office, getting their reward at last. 

He felt pity for all the people in the cubicles. There were only so many positions at the top. If you wanted to climb the corporate ladder, then you would have to step over a lot of people to get promoted, people who were otherwise friends and coworkers. For one person to feel successful and in charge, a hell of a lot more people were going to feel like failures. That kind of competition couldn’t be healthy for too many workplace relationships. 

He noticed a smug man in one of the windowed offices talking on the phone, feet propped up on the corner of his chic, modern, glass desk. A set of keys dangled off the edge of his desk. The key fob read Ferrari. At first Arwin felt a stab of jealousy, then a much bigger wave of indignation. What did this guy do to deserve a car that was the same price as some people’s houses? Or equal to the annual wage of ten regular people? Was Arwin really supposed to be ok with slaving away in some cubicle for peanuts while a significant portion of his labour went to making guys like that rich? They would both be doing the same amount of work, putting in the same hours, so why should Arwin’s labour be subsidizing this guy’s wage to absurd levels? It was completely unfair.

This was just ‘the way the world worked’ for so many people. So many people obviously bought in to this lifestyle. And yet, being a part of it just didn’t feel right for him.

The interviewer returned and Arwin and the others followed his lead.

Arwin felt a tense knot growing in his forehead from all this worrying and tried to massage it away. He took a deep breath and tried to relax. He needed the money.