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, unwelcome.
He's holding up pretty well, though, takes care of himself.
After a few hours of discreet Irish whiskeys alternating with Bass ale, he coughed it up, something that'd been bothering him.
- So, my boss called me into his office (and immediately, in a flash, you think, oh, no, poor guy, to deal shock of unemployment, the weeks of networking, the struggle not to sink into pajamas and aimless Internet surfing, but no.)
- He's a good guy.
- So he tells me I fell asleep in a meeting the other day.
It's sort of funny. But I rushed in to buck him up --
- Hey, 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.
Delicate situation now.
- Well, you told me the job's boring as shit.
- Yeah, but I need the money. I need the insurance, too. You know.
- 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 early for a long commute, longer than mine because he's stuck in his house, can't afford to sell, 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 in 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.
- Well, I drink -- mostly red wine -- but that's gotta be worse than coffee. Some health kick.
- So no big deal. Get a thermos.
- It is a big deal.
I looked over at him, and 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.
- 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?
It happens a lot. The standards of office behavior are still 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, Sherri, 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 scent of a loser.
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 their situation. They gradually become shunned. Firing is usually the last, least painful stage. If they're lucky, a new situation will blow that stench away.
- I gotta get a new job.