I am working in an office for the summer. I don’t always work in an office, but I have and I will again, and every time, the strangeness of it creeps up on me and occurs to me one day as if I’m seeing it for the first time.
There are people I pass at the coffee station here whose names I don’t know, but whose faces I do. We make short little bits of small talk, mostly about perceived levels of caffeine intake, our own and each others’. The people who become most familiar are the ones who drink a lot of coffee. I wonder if this makes them more like me. I wonder if they also start feeling like themselves around 9 p.m., and then can’t bear to go to bed at 11. I wonder if they feel a little stuck in themselves, too.
I sit in an area with three other people. There are no rules of when to talk and when not to: mostly, we act as if we were alone (but not quite alone). When someone thinks of something interesting enough to say, there are a few minutes of conversation. I learn things about my co-workers.
Mostly, this is the stuff of small talk, TV shows and weekend plans and upcoming vacations. People almost universally like to talk about their children, and to hear about other people’s. I ponder the merit of inventing a kid.
Some of the things I learn are mundane, but secret and endearing because of proximity to relative strangers: when and what someone likes to eat, how they answer the phone, what they wear when they’re in a good mood.
Then there are closer details. One has a conservative family and worries about arranged marriages. One is a devout Christian but, when she goes travelling, collects photos of handsome men. One has a nephew who was in an ATV accident and is in a coma.
One day in my third week in the office, I have such bad anxiety that I have to tell someone, so I admit it to my co-workers. I steel myself to break the silence and say, “I’m having such bad anxiety that I can’t concentrate on anything.” My co-workers make sounds of sympathy. They talk about people they know who have anxiety, too.
I also tell them about my friend Jordan, who died last year. I got a tattoo on my wrist to remember him, and it should have been obvious to me (but wasn’t) that I would talk about him at least once a week because of it. Had I thought it through in advance, I might have gotten it some place more private, but as it is I am glad of the excuse: I’m happy that I get to tell people that we used to drink a lot of coffee together at work, that we planted a cherry tree for him in Christie Pits park, grateful that I have this twee little mug full of flowers on my skin so that I get to say his name.
There are people you try to unearth, who could be friends or lovers. You dig because you think you can create a portrait of them, an approximation that will become truer over time, until you know them as much as you can. Here in the office, I gather little pieces of people without trying to put them together. I will move on, soon, I will forget what an office is like, but tomorrow, when IT won’t answer, when the industrial size coffee maker gives up, when the other summer student addresses all of the outgoing mail just in time to miss the postman, I will be able to remind someone else that I know they are human.