Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Company Man

I'm currently embroiled in a competition and it's kind of consuming me. Well, not consuming but at least adding an odd undercurrent to my days here in the new, new Cracker Factory. First, a little background.
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I was raised by two extremely neat and organized people, my parents. From the immaculate house my mom kept to my dad seemingly being in front of the mirror shaving at the exact same time each morning before work, I was shown that organization and punctuality are the foundations of success. I've taken this with me into my adult life, and though it does lead to inflexibility at times, on the whole I'd say the approach has worked well.

Outside the house, living in so many different places as a kid, I also had to learn how to survive among changing groups of peers. As an introvert, I found that being obliging and non-combative was the best strategy for me. I became more of a listener than a talker, and it all kind of gelled into an M.O. by the time I left college: nice, dependable, hard-working.

This produced some strange reactions in my contemporaries. When I got my first office job, I was surrounded by a great many non-traditional workers (and non-workers). They were amused I shaved every day, punched a clock and liked to talk about where they were from. I was some kind of Company Man who never could quite stop being well mannered, looking at his watch in the middle of a screaming hipster hothouse to contemplate bedtime. They adopted me anyway, with more than a little winking behind my back.

Being so inclined, I seemed to invite tests of my "act." Even my wife the first night I met her gave me a hard time about something my employer had printed — like I would write it on a notecard for corporate communications. I remember thinking, "Take a number, sister," because that's what I got from flaks all week in the office. But I didn't say it because I was a nice guy. And when she introduced me to the people she knew, they all had that look I'd seen before from so many ne'er-do-well Leftists: What's this guy's deal. I wasn't the dissolute rock and roll version of John Gardner they maybe thought she should be with. I was Clark Kent.

I took all of that in stride and more — from in-laws, barflies, even winos on the street. I've never minded. I'm a good sport and, more importantly, I'm proud to be me. It's not an act. And after my role as a dependable father and spouse, I'm most proud to be the real me in the office. Which brings us back to that competition.
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I felt very confident cruising into my new gig that I would, naturally, be the most organized and punctual person there. The congenial guy who shows up early, takes a half-hour lunch at exactly the same time every day, and waits till the tick of 5 p.m. to leave. I would set the pace for sticking to a schedule, always getting my work done on time and in good quality. Little did I know what was in store.

My very first day I thought I'd do right by arriving way ahead of time to show how excited I was about my job -- you know, sitting there smiling at my desk when the boss showed up. But when I tried the door to our suite, I found it already open. In the cubicle next to mine, working at that early hour, was a young man. I'll call him Company Man 2, or C2. This shook me up a bit. When my boss introduced me, C2 couldn't have been more congenial and professional. He said he was happy we would be working together. Huh.

The weeks peeled on and my wonder grew. No matter how early I arrived, C2 was always already there. And when I left at the crack of 5, he remained at his post. I stayed late a couple of days when the Web site launched and saw that he did indeed go home. As much as I kind of wanted him to be a Bartleby type who slept under his desk, he seemed to have some kind of outside life.

Of course I didn't know where his home was, if he lived alone, if he had a significant other — all of it was a mystery. I just knew he was probably around my age and took his lunch each day at 2:15. It was unnerving. A part of me felt like punching my desk. There was nothing to justifiably hate him about. Except being — well — nice, dependable and hard-working. But you can't hate someone for that, right? It would be like hating myself.

I began to feel beaten. My clockwork schedule slipped, perhaps in despair. I only showed up 10 minutes early for work. I took the longer, allowed lunchtime to do my personal writing. I even contemplated leaving five minutes before 5 p.m. C2 was in my head. He was the better Company Man. He made little jokes in our team meetings that I didn't. I felt like John Gardner or something. I might as well have gotten on a motorcycle holding a bottle of Chivas Regal.

That is until last Friday. Our manager gave the two of us the task of creating individual profile pages in the CMS for each of the university's faculty — a good, old-fashioned data entry slog. Eighty profs a piece. My spirits perked up. Few people I know are as good as me at repetitive, monotonous tasks. Maybe, just maybe, I could finally upstage C2.

Friday wore on, and other things kept popping up, but I plugged away at my list, listening for the tell-tale clicks of CMS entry from the next cubicle. C2 was oddly quiet. A Web planning meeting cut into both of our days, and by 4:45, I was staring at 20 more names to go. I did a dead sprint to the finish line, nearly leaping up from my chair in triumph — HA! YES! I WON! — when I entered Zyblonski, Walter.

I peered around C2's cubicle entrance and let him know I was done.

"Wow, you're quick," he said with a chuckle.

I stared at the back of his head a moment. He was quietly clicking away at his list, much more relaxed than me. ... ... ... So. Yeah. That's right, C2, I thought. You know who's the boss now. Don't you forget it. And I've got some new jokes for the next design meeting. You better watch out. I am the Company Man. I AM THE COMPANY MAN.

All of this shouting was only in my head, and I soon quieted. I picked up my messenger bag, ready to return home to my wife and kids but paused. I didn't know where C2 was going that night. I imagined he might take up to an hour to finish his list. Maybe because I'd done mine so quickly. I hoped he wasn't going to do that. Please, C2, I thought. Please just go home.
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Yesterday the staff went out to eat at a Loop restaurant. It was a nice meal full of lively conversation. C2 sat across and to the right of me. I ordered an unhealthy cheese omelet for lunch, and he had the very sensible baked chicken breast.

He told his jokes, and the staff generally treated him like one of the rest of us, maybe even doting on him a little more because he's so formal. You know, trying to get him to drop his act. I knew this treatment very well.

As lunch went on, and the conversation turned to more personal talk of new apartments, new dogs and baseball, C2 grew quieter. I was nearly done with my omelet and, as such a slow eater, expected to be the last one chewing in a kind of self-satisfied mock embarrassment. But I looked across and saw C2 only halfway through his chicken breast, staring at it more than a little dolefully. I put the knife and fork on my plate and did not take my final bite.

On the walk back to the office, C2 suddenly asked me about my work history. It seemed like he was trying to be an open, engaged co-worker, like he'd read in a book that this is something one should do. He told me his opinion of the direction of the university. It was thoughtful and detailed. I had absolutely no opinion about the direction of the university. Being a ne'er-do-well Leftist, my head is full of a lot of warm air.

We got to the side entrance of the building and, after very politely letting everyone in our party go in ahead of us, we both reached for the door. It was an awkward moment of who would be the nicer guy and let the other one in first. I eventually chose to go ahead of C2.

We walked back down the corridor to the elevators. And at some point I wanted to, I don't know, give him a pat on the shoulder. Say something — maybe "good job" or "hang in there." Or maybe that I understand.

I know what it's like to be a Company Man.

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