Phone: Where are you?
Me: Walking through the main hallway. This place is enormous. It is rush hour, and yet it looks deserted. People just vanish behind the sandstone pillars and paneled wooden doors that stand from floor to ceiling.
Phone: do you find it intimidating?
Me: No, I am fine. It has been a few weeks now. It took me some time, though, just to get familiarized with the alleys and hallways here. There is always an alley that is a shortcut to the library, or the café, or simply to the smoking bay.
Phone: Are you smoking these days?
Me: No, of course not. I was simply describing all the go-to hangouts here. I sometimes accompany people from my floor for some fresh air. There are these tiny staircases behind the most unsuspecting doors or at the end of the small walk-in file rooms, almost secretively taking you down to common areas where you find complimentary snacks and coffee and tea. It’s like no one wants you to find them. But you get access to those spaces only at the discretion of a senior lecturer or professor if they think you have earned it or belong to the inner circle now. One such person from the top floors recently gave me a tour of the place but then the next time, a couple of days later, when I wanted a cup of tea for myself, you won’t believe it, I just couldn’t find my way there. It was almost as if the paths and doors and hallways had changed into a new setting behind our backs like in AR games.
Phone: Have you reached your office yet? You sound out of breath.
Me: No, still walking. Just walked up an endless flight of steps to walk across a bridge connecting to another building, the recently constructed side of the campus, only to go all way down again to the basement to reach the maze of tiny offices- I call this place the headquarters for the temp gigs.
Phone: So how do you like your new office?
Me: I have reached the center courtyard, thoughtfully left open to the sky with an air well, to have some access to the natural world perhaps – the blueness and warm light. Are you able to hear me? Oh, thank goodness the network works fine here. There are no windows and thus no natural light inside the workspaces. The adjacent rooms to my work area are mostly admin departments, and the folks there love paper! They prefer every document with hardcopy backup. Every other day there is a cleaning mission underway, and reams and piles and barrels and sometimes plain heaps of pulp of wet Ph.D. theses from a decade ago ruined from leaking rainwater from the damp walls are thrown out. There’s always a lady who supervises this cleaning drive. She sips jasmine tea the whole time. The tea smells so strong I can smell it and know the cleaning is underway and then wait for the waft of old paper to fill the air.
Phone: You said this is the newly constructed side of the campus.
Me: yes, it is. Oh, you mean for the rainwater seepage. I guess the authorities thought all the paper and temps would be safer in the newer buildings, but it turns out the old, stonewalled buildings were better coped for seepage. The other day I had some time on hand, and I went exploring the campus and reached the top of the clock tower – it has a beautifully designed terrace that has a view of the sea. I am planning to go there often. Lovely place to visit and get your thoughts together. It is like visiting another city altogether since that part of the campus is so far from where my office is. I have started work on a book chapter on positive social outcomes used to measure the livability of cities.
Phone: Lovely. Any Friendly Colleague?
Me: Mostly. Just a few who don’t care. But most of us in the basement have this very palpable bond we share – the bond of professional precariousness and the consequent ambiguity of purpose. You could call it an overall atmosphere of the existential angst of the self-admitted privileged. You should once visit the basement’s smoker’s lounge. It’s a jazz festival of fancy swear words.
Mom, are you there? I can hear the microwave.
Phone: Yes, I am here. Send some pictures of your desk, how things look around your office.
Me: I don’t have a fixed spot to sit and work. People move around. Whenever you walk into the office, you sit at the available free desk. No corkboards, and family pictures, mementos and plants, and half-eaten snack left in the drawer. Every day I adjust the height of a different chair. Every day I remove strands of a stranger’s hair from the desk. Every day I put aside headphones that don’t belong to me or water bottles whose owners have drifted among paper submissions and won’t be back for weeks. Bobby pins, clutch clips, hair bands, jump clips, pens, of course, tiny zip locks, stress balls, mint boxes, and most recently, a smoking pipe. I have kept a box in the middle of the room and leave everything that I collect there. You can’t call it ‘lost and found’ because no one comes looking for them. You could instead name the box ‘found and used’. I’ll send you a picture of the box. I have recently repurposed a pressed flower fallen off someone’s book, perhaps, a dandelion, as a bookmark, how original! Although I don’t quite know what purpose pressed dried flowers serve anyway.
Phone: they serve the purpose of memory.
Me: Oh, Mom, you are such a romantic. You would have found something fashionable and revolutionary about this transient nature of my workplace, in its rejection of conventional structures and values. Can you hear the buzz? The office is in full capacity today. I have managed to find a seat for myself. Here is a picture of me precariously perched on a swivel chair with my feet dangling at least half a foot above the floor. And here is a video of me going down and finding my feet on the ground again. Talk to you soon, Mom! Bye.
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Author: Staff Contributor
Illustration/Photograhy: TDLM Design Team