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Corporate Freezer Burn: Life Among the Cubicles

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In sum, I can no longer tolerate the stench of microwaved frozen lunches in the break room.

From factory to truck to store, frozen dinners melt and freeze and melt and freeze, and so microwaved frozen dinners smell of warm freezer burn. This, under a thin layer of cellophane glued to a plastic tray, melts in the presence of microwaves. The agitated freezer burn steams the food, and the steaming freezer burn clouds the break room.

Our cubicles line the path to the break room and to the rest rooms. Said more accurately, we work in a hallway. My window is the Internet, though as stricter and stricter policies are rolled out, my window gets smaller and smaller. One can imagine the shareholders demanding that the board enact policies to shrink window sizes, perhaps in an effort "enhance shareholder value". If they calculated, they would find that such policies stand in an inverse relationship to employees' corporate contentment.

In the early days, the hallway was far more cluttered. Seven years ago, I sat next to the printer. It was a hulking heap of a thing, shared by a dozen people scattered through this and other hallways, with the exceptions of the more senior among us who sat next to windows.

For a year, I sat beside the hulking HP machine that spat out a dozen users' documents at unexpected intervals throughout the day. Sitting next to the printer has at least one fringe benefit: you get to know co-workers a bit quicker. Still though, they have no idea what I do. To an outsider, my job description would include responsibilities like "curse meaninglessly at screens", "mutter neologistic obscenities when the screens turn blue", "complain about printers". To them, this is me. To me, they are people who sometimes print.

The early clutter included file cabinets. It was never clear what sorts of papers or other items belonged in the file cabinets. What was clear was that occasionally a person who did not usually print would visit the almond steel drawers to retrieve folders from the Pendaflex jungle. When the file cabinets were finally moved some years later, many of the documents were thrown away, as no one could quite clearly say why we had saved so many in the first place. Or perhaps it's simply a slighter burden on corporate resources to move an empty file cabinet.

The ubiquitous supply cabinet, a staple of any office environment, has never really been present in the hallway, for cast-off file cabinets are a cost-effective solution to the need for a dedicated supply storage resource. What is a supply cabinet but another lockable steel shell, but with shelves? Instead, we have supply drawers in file cabinets whose dented sides and chipped almond do not usually impede the action of the drawer runners.

Sometimes I would look at the file cabinets and wonder who thought to affix a crookedly blank "My Name Is" sticker to the side and outline it with a Sharpie. Perhaps it covers a paint chip? I could run my finger across the sticker to see if there was a dimple or ridge beneath, indicating the uneven topography of a chip. I have been known to affix stickers to chips on my steel frame bicycle so that the tubes will not rust should they come into contact with moisture. But the file cabinets are at little risk of exposure to rain or puddles splashing salty winter waste on the chipped parts. None of this advances us any further in the mystery of the crooked sticker. Or is it the obvious: no one had yet named the file cabinet.

At one point, we got new cubicles. They are taller than the former ones, they are cleaner — or at least they were at the start — and they have, ironically, windows. I now have a window that overlooks the hallway that everyone uses to get to the restroom. Of course, the opening that I walk through that would be a door if there were a door overlooks the hallway as well, so it's not that the window really does what one would expect from a window. A further irony is that the window is tinted.

There are six cubicles in this hallway. Our cubicle desks, like most contemporary cubicle desks, are not furniture: they are Formica topped, rubber banded shelves that hook into multi-purpose, fast-mount wall rails. They are a study in industrial modularity, and frightfully easy to clean.

The funny thing is that we all refer to the modular cubicle "furniture", computer, pens, pencils, staplers and basically everything in our immediate area as "my". It is "my computer". Have you seen my stapler? My pencil broke. In fact, almost nothing here is mine. Sometimes I amuse myself by considering the pandemonium that would ensue if a terminated employee insisted on removing "his" computer as security escorted him to "his" car. Chances are he has a lien on the car as well.

Eventually, the number of daily distractions grew so noticeable that we began counting. About 250 times a day, someone walks down our hallway, sometimes to the rest room, sometimes to the snack machine, or sometimes to perfume the break room with the scent of microwaved frozen lunches.

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About Brian Sorrell

Writer, Storyteller, Philosopher, Expat, Father
  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Brian, I can relate, as my office used to be directly across from the breakroom. I had the advantage of being able to close my office door, however. The microwave aromas didn’t bother me too much (not too many micro users) but sometimes the inane lunchtime conversations did. I feel your existential pain!