Decades ago, when the building I worked in was one of the tallest and newest in Seattle, I was a file clerk for a big insurance company.
My sole duty was to push a metal cart around the office, stop at each of the endless agent desks haphazardly scattered in one enormous room, collect all the files stacked in their out box, and then go file them in the dozens of metal filing cabinets that filled the back room, in alphabetical order.
Arthur comes before Atura
McNab comes after Macnab.
Brighton comes before Broghten.
Calumus comes after Caluminus.
I became an expert alphabetizer, during the nine hours a day, five days a week I did this job.
The work days were all the same: the agents yakked on their phones, and clattered on their typewriters and pounded their staplers and smoked up a storm of cigarettes. Back then, almost everyone smoked, everywhere.
And then, after exactly three hours and forty five minutes, the round, white clock on the wall would do that little clicking sound, and everyone would stand on cue and file out for their break.
Every four hours.
We punched out with a little card.
Then everyone herded over to the break room with its metal chairs and one free phone, and proceeded to smoke as many cigarettes as they could in 15 minutes.
I lasted about two breaks in that room, yellow with smoke and depression just as acrid, and then I started sneaking away: misfit, miscreant, I hung back from the pack and rode the elevator down to the ground, where I stepped outside and turned my face up into the Seattle rain.
I didn’t last long at that job, expert alphabetizing skills notwithstanding.
I wish I could say that I quit, but I didn’t: I needed the money too much.
Besides, that’s what most jobs were like back then.
But I didn’t go back in the break room, and soon after I did get laid off. Thank you, Universe.
It was decades ago. Those were different times.
But it’s good to remember how silly we were, how stunted, how numbed, how unaware. How we’d put up with something like sitting in room smoking our entire break, our entire life away.
It’s good to look back, and see that we have made some progress.
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