.

 

Litany

A sad whine about work, written in the "high amateur" style that so much of my prose favors.

A very definite work of fiction.

Not to say I have it bad, but the office assistant lost track of my health insurance forms. Forgot to send it in.

I had suspected this, and asked her about the form this morning. She told me, "I don't know." I asked if she could find the paperwork which I had given to her her, with clear instructions to fax it to the insurer immediately, three weeks ago. She gave a frustrated sigh, and said, "I don't know where it is, and I can't look for it in this pile. You'll have to fill it in again." She eyed me, angry at my presence. "If you find out how the insurance process works," she said, "let me know."

In her defense, she is not trained in the processes of the office. But still, discovering that, in the last two weeks, had a taxi struck me, had a building fallen onto me, had I been mugged, had the Philadelphia Mummer's Parade been diverted, marched to New York, and run me over, and had the ambulance arrived in a manner timely enough to ensure my survival, I would have confidently said, "yes, take me to an expensive hospital, because I have fine benefits paid for my by gracious employer," only to later find my posessions sold at state auction because of inability to pay the hospital, and then spent the rest of my life with debt hovering over my like a F-117A bomber, and me without any anti-aircraft capabilities, enrages me to the point that I must write incredibly long sentences.

I went to the phones, paperwork in hand, and called the Health Care Provider. I will not name this provider; let's simply call them Famous University in Britain Health Care. Amidst the cyberspace tangles of their phone system, I managed to repeatedly come in contact with individuals informed at total opposition to each other, and each time I gave them essential data, their system crashed. "I am sorry," they said with Southern accents, "our computer went down. Will you hold?" Music would play, and I would say quietly into the phone, "You make all the other hammers look smart in the hammer-box that inspired the phrase 'dumb as a box of hammers.' Your doctor has prescribed radical skull-thinning agents so that bare ideas can penetrate the thickness behind your limp eyes. If placed on a television game show, you would lose even if your competitors were oxen. I will dig up your grandmother's bones and boil the skull."

"What's that sir?"

"It's policy Group number RPS09101."

"Rock, Paper, Skissors?"

"That word is pronounced 'sih-zors.'"

"I know that, sir. It looks as though our database has crashed again." Pause. "Can you call back in 15 minutes? Or maybe an hour?" In the background, the sound of yelling and alarms.

(When I signed up with ConEd for my electric, the service rep embarassedly told me, "I can't complete the transaction. Our power just went down.")

Finally, after 5 calls like this, each one punctuated by long periods on hold, I found a solution where, by telling a lie, I could be legally covered starting today. After some scratching on the quadplicate form, I had the data correct, or at least convincingly prevaricated. To the fax machine, and then to the Pitney-Bowes to stamp an envelope, and I was insured. I could get back to the long list of tasks and long lists of email--

Before I could find my seat, my boss said, "Paul, will you spend some time with Elly to talk about soy products?"

Elly, in her late 40's and well-exercised, in formal clothes, appeared in the space before me. She clutched a large bundle of soy-related documents: cartoons, newspaper clippings, recipes, a press release on tofu sculpture.

There was no room to sit in the tiny front office, so I suggested she and I venture to the back, where the designers work in a gray den of digital cliqueishness, dressed like the extras in that television drama about cliqueish New York designers, "As the World Kerns." The designers lament frequently, in scratchy voices, the very presence of those who, like me, work in the front rooms, creating work for them to do. I avoid going back there too often, in case they make good on their promises and exacto out my eyes.

I spotted two spare seats in the back of the room, and walked towards them, only to realize that by one of the seats, someone had recently printed a full-color, 11x17, tabloid-sized cartoon of a hand with an upthrust middle finger, with the words "fuck you" in generous 280 point type below. The poster was affixed by a scalpel thrust into the shelving.

"No, no, this won't be right, too noisy," I said, turning and shepherding Elly back out into the daylight before her Ohio eyes spotted the profanity. We found a spare desk.

She is a fine client, perfectly capable, working with me instead of against me, but she wanted to say too much about soy. We sorted through the multifarious pages of non-digitized information she had aggregated, a damp process. I numbered the pages with her, noting which would need to be scanned and which would need to be marked-up for a web site, simultaneously creating a bare outline of the site's structure--and then she said:

"We'll have all this done for tomorrow, right?"

I felt like a frog at a dissection. "I don't think that's a reasonable expectation," I said. "You'll need to discuss it with my supervisor. For tomorrow, we could have an outline of what needs completed."

"I really need this for tomorrow."

This happens constantly; the client asks for something unreasonable. They have waited to ask for it, because they know it unreasonable, and now that it is out, they are ashamed to admit that they were wrong in the first place. It's as if they had blurted a love confession, and now that it is on the table, they are unwilling to hear the other party's ambivalence. Only an equal commitment will suffice.

"This is a lot of work. A week of work for even a large firm," I said. There were 200 pages of soy-related news in a large binder clip, and only a few files on a disk. This is, of course, for a prototype, not a real product, so whatever we do will be discarded in three weeks.

"We need it for tomorrow." Royal "we."

"You'll need to talk to Carol," I said. "I can't address that."

This mollified her, and we went on, until the client had to get to her hotel, so she could hit the gym and go out for dinner. They come to New York on a chit, and don't want to get any real work done while here. "Is it safe for me to walk uptown?" she asked, eyes clear.

I said, "People get mugged sometimes. Those from out-of-town are particularly marked, and the worst beaten. The worst murders happen in a cabs. New York will destroy you. You can't handle the tension. This place will devour you the minute you step from the door of the office. You are a lamb at a slaughter." I said this to myself. To her, I said, "yes, perfectly safe."


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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