Working hard on hardly working
It’s a quiet day today, which gives me the opportunity to go through some old unpublished draft posts and mention something that happened on another quiet day a couple of years back. At the time, I was on a contract job covering a maternity leave, so I’m not at that company anymore. Neither is my then-boss, for reasons that may or may not be related.
One day, I noticed my boss stop in front of an empty office next to hers, which I used to be in before getting moved to a better one with a window. “I should get someone in there,” she mused. I thought that was interesting: Was she planning to make a new hire? Or to just bump someone up from a cubicle?
Well, later that day, she stopped in to say that we were going to have some very important visitors from head office the next day, and she wanted to make it seem like we were really busy. She said she knew I wasn’t actually that busy all the time — such is the ebb and flow of the business we were in — so, if I didn’t have anything going on when the very important visitors came in, she asked me to just spread some fake papers out on my desk and pretend to be studying them.
I was actually late to work the next day because I was picking out the right shirt to wear to look busy and ended up changing twice, leaving the house late and narrowly missing the bus, which happened to come early. I wanted a long-sleeved shirt so I could roll the sleeves up and look busy, and I knew that I had one that was freshly laundered but had somehow gotten some deodorant permanently caked around the armpits so that it looked like I had sweat stains. I figured that would make it look like I was really working hard even though, as I said, my office had a window and this made it pretty chilly, so it wouldn’t really make that much sense that I’d be sweating. Anyway, my boss didn’t much care that I was 20 minutes late and probably wouldn’t have been in much of a position to lecture me anyway; she still had her coat on, having only just arrived herself, along with most of the rest of the office. Though the official start time was 9 a.m., I seemed to always be the first one there simply by showing up on time. Such was the nature of the business we were in.
I drank some coffee — all the better for looking alert — and when the very important visitors got there, I unbuttoned my cuffs but didn’t end up rolling up the sleeves after all. It seemed like too much of a cliché, like if I’d put on an old-fashioned tinted green visor while hunching over my work, like a newspaper editor in a movie from the 1940s. As predicted, I didn’t have any real work to do; I imagine everyone else was too busy trying to look busy to actually produce any real work at all. So I spread my fake papers in front of me, but I had only a couple of old printouts to use, and the guests stayed for what seemed like forever, so if they had been paying much attention to me, it would have seemed like I was staring at the same couple of pages for well over an hour and they might have begun to wonder whether I could even read at all.
So I just shifted things around, and tried to look generally stressed out, which wasn’t hard, because I had to go to the bathroom the whole time they were there, but I didn’t want it to look like I was wandering off. I held an uncapped red pen in one hand and kept one finger of the other hand in a copy of William Goldman’s memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade as though I were looking something up, although I actually read two full chapters about the making of Harper and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and wondered what Paul Newman would have done if he were trying to act like he was working. Probably the same as me, I decided, only with twinkling blue eyes.
I don’t think my boss actually got anyone into my old office, but I did overhear her saying “This is where the proofreaders sit” when she was nearby, even though I was the only proofreader working there. So I think she probably pretended someone was working there who was out for the day, maybe even sticking a few artifacts such as half-empty coffee cups and framed family photographs in there to lend the place a lived-in touch, maybe even a poster that read You don’t have to exist to work here, but it helps!
It’s just a good thing she didn’t have an empty conference room to fill. She probably would have had to hire a bunch of temps to sit in there and chant “rhubarb” over and over like a bunch of extras in a crowd scene. That’s what they do in the screen trade, I’ve read.
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