I am writing in a coffee shop. Well, I’m not sure how much writing I’m doing here, but anyway, I’m in a coffee shop. I’m with my friend Katherine a/k/a my writing buddy, who tells me she works better at coffee shops than at home. We talked when I first got here, catching up on each other’s lives and work. I got to whine about how working at home, with its isolation and total lack of structure, isn’t working for me. So, this is an experiment.
Unlike home, there is noise here, none of it generated by me talking to myself. Music is playing companionably in the background. I have no idea what it is, since I really only know the Beatles and Willie Nelson, but it’s gritty and rhythmic.
The coffee house is on the east side of Austin, close to downtown. Very hip. I know this, because everybody is wearing black. The graffiti in the bathroom is a lot better than our bathroom graffiti at home, which is nonexistent. “America is a sick country,” it says next to the toilet. “Wake up, people!” Another scrawled notice reads, “I hate people!”
More than anything, this change in venue addresses one of the problems in my working life: total lack of structure. Maybe you think this sounds great — nowhere to be, no one to account to, no pressure. When your own schedule is bulging with a regular job and you’re bringing up kids, you’re pretty sure you’d kill for even a day or two of life without any structure. I can remember many, many times like that in my own life.
Often, I work well and steadily under circumstances like this. But sometimes, the lack of structure and the isolation are crippling and downright depressing. I start to remember all the fun I used to have at workplaces in the past. Like the time my friend Melissa and I kept getting inter-office emails about some woman named Bunny who was retiring after a hundred years of faithful service. Days passed and the emails about Bunny, her long and dedicated service, the luncheon to honor her kept flying.
“Who the hell is Bunny?” we asked each other. Since we had no idea, we started to create a Bunny persona. Bunny, we decided, had carpet burns all over her knees from her years of faithful, unrelenting, under-the-desk service. She was a wonderful woman, self-sacrificing and exhausted and uncompensated for her work. We vowed we would show up at her retirement luncheon, get drunk, weep copiously, and tell many, many Bunny stories, no matter how salacious. We were so involved with our plans that we neglected to show up at Bunny’s luncheon and she left without ever meeting us.
Or I recall a job I had in Dallas. A new temporary secretary came into the workplace. After a day or two, I started hearing complaints from everyone I worked with. The new secretary, a large, fat man with a passing resemblance to Ignatius Reilly, as I’d always imagined him, was a pompous creep. He meddled, he condescended. Oh, brother, I thought. People were so sensitive! Give the guy a chance!
I held onto that line of tolerance till my friend Joleen came barging into my office and announced that the temporary secretary had been re-writing some of my work. I was aghast. Clearly, he was a serious problem. Who did he think he was?
Joleen and I got onto our office computer system, which was open to everyone at work in those days. We found the temporary secretary’s file queue. One of his files was entitled “Letter to Mom.” We opened it, of course, since it was obviously an emergency situation. In it, the guy bragged about how much important work he was doing with public television in Dallas and how he was helping the office run more smoothly by his presence. A few paragraphs of this kind of boasting went on, then he turned to a health update he knew Mom would be interested in: “My allergies are terrible. You wouldn’t believe the things I blow out of my nose.”
Joleen and I looked at each other. We deliberated, very briefly, about doing the right thing before we decided to do the wrong thing. Since the temporary guy had been correcting everybody else’s work, we decided we could improve his. We changed the word “nose” to “cock.” Then we spent the next hour collapsing on the floor, howling with laughter.
Oh, yeah, sure. Every day wasn’t that much fun. But maybe I’m looking for a little more fun and stimulation in a different place. Everyone here at the coffee house seems very serious and motivated — but maybe that’s only the noirish patina you get from wearing black. Maybe there’s a Bunny or a temporary secretary here who needs my help. Maybe I can thrive here and stop being so downhearted.
Did the temporary secretary edit the letter before he sent it to Mom? I wonder that and it makes me smile for just an instant. Hey, it’s a start.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)