Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Departed

So the day arrives for the big shuffle at work, when everybody in the lab gets assigned a new desk, along with new neighbors. The process should, in theory, go very smoothly and quickly for me, since, unlike others, I keep no clutter at my desk--nothing but the tools themselves with which I work. The move is also not very far this time, so no need to wait in line for the elevator.

Feeling no urgency to pack things and clean up in advance, I decide to simply work as normal until the scheduled time of the move, at which point I steer my chair and file cabinet over to my new area. What do I find there? A dusty mess littered with personal items. Clearly, whoever has been sitting here has not prepared at all for the move. Are they absent today? That's no excuse; the move was scheduled days ago. They could have at least stuffed some of the nonessentials into their cabinet.

Still hoping that I won't now have to move this person's things in addition to my own, I ask around to make sure that they really aren't in today. I ask their neighbor across from them, currently busy collecting his own things. Not only does the neighbor not know whether this person is here, he doesn't even know who the person is. How could this be? Haven't they been sitting across from one another these last six months? Because that's how long I was sitting at my desk.

I ask the other people who have been sitting in the same area with this individual. Nobody knows anything. A nametag is still on the desk. It's an androgynous name. It doesn't ring a bell with anyone. I ask the supervisor in charge of the seating area, whose job it should be to know where her people are. "Oh yeah, I think maybe he quit or got laid off." That's all she knows.

Checking under the desk, I notice that the computer is actually on. Only the monitor is off, so I switch it on. The first thing I see is an open IM window with a message dated 12/11/2008. That was the date of the layoffs. Things are starting to make a little sense. The invisible man, having just been laid off, with no one to say goodbye to, must have walked directly out without bothering to pack his things or shut down the computer, which has been on ever since.

I close the window and find another. Just an impersonal message from inventory control. Then another. And another. That's not all. I notice a small stack of unopened interoffice letters piled on the desk. Useless memos I'm sure, same as the IMs. But why was he still on the mailing list? And why were they bothering to leave letters on the desk of a man who no longer existed--never existed, if his former neighbors are to be believed? At least whoever left the letters believed he existed. And they too were mistaken.

On closer inspection, he didn't leave behind anything of value. Just a mess of variously colored sticky notes, some pens and pencils, and a miniature trashcan with a bird-shaped stitch cover. But one note catches my eye. "Happy Birthday!" it says, followed by a smiley face and with a heart dotting the letter "i." A strange note for a man to leave himself. But don't we all like to pretend, now and again? Or maybe I was wrong about him.

If I compare the personality of his desk to that of mine, then really the story of the invisible man would more appropriately be my own. Like I said, I keep nothing at my desk but the tools the company gave me to work with. Zero personal items with which to identify me. But I'm the one that exists.

Who knows? At this point, I'm done looking for answers I don't really care about. I hastily stuff all his junk into his cabinet or on top of his chair, then wheel both off to the side, so I can slide my own chair and cabinet into what is now my desk. I neither know nor care what will happen to his things. Perhaps someone will notice them sitting against the wall, then try to find their owner to see why he left them there.

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