Monday, February 6, 2012

A Chair of One's Own

In the fall of 1998, I started working at McGraw-Hill’s School Division, located then at Two Penn Plaza, literally right above Penn Station, i.e. the last place in the city you’d ever want to be. This is how I got my start in educational publishing, but it was completely accidental. I didn’t want this job and told the interviewer as much, but was then offered the job anyway. (I have been tempted to use this approach on other interviews, but have never been brave enough to actually try it.)

One of the more notable things about this job was a certain co-worker I had at the beginning. When he was gone my other co-workers and I finally were able to say out loud that he might have been something like 400 pounds. For about six months, we listened to his loud angry phone calls in which he tried to return things, such as a bed at a store called “Relax the Back” (which I can only say out loud in the serious angry way he said it) and his lunch on an almost daily basis because it was never quite right. For example: He wanted his broccoli not undercooked, did they understand that, because some people liked broccoli that wasn’t entirely cooked, but he didn’t, he could not eat it that way, and did they understand that? Sometimes the anger would be saved for the poor delivery boy who actually brought his (imperfect) lunch all the way up to the 23rd floor and then was given a mouthful for his effort.

Much of this anger (according to him, anyway) was based on the fact that the guy who was in the TV show “The Fugitive” threw a ball at his head when he was a kid and it permanently damaged him. I’m not entirely clear on when this happened exactly, or why, or how the guy in “The Fugitive” ended up throwing a ball at a kid in the late 1960s in a Boston suburb, but no matter. This was his story and it pretty much explained everything about him (according to him). Which is why we shouldn’t have been surprised when he smashed his chair to pieces in the office one afternoon. But we were all very very surprised, as a matter of fact.

Due to his size, he could not fit into regular office chairs comfortably or, in some cases, at all, and there were very many attempts to find a chair that would suit him. The HR people were always coming around with some new kind of chair that would seem good at first, but would eventually anger him and cause a series of phone calls that we were all privy to, as we were to the daily lunchtime calls. (You’d think that working with him would be entertaining, and it was sometimes, but it was also exasperating. He wasn’t even very good at his job, which meant that he had absolutely nothing going for him, in all honesty.) The HR people were extremely delicate about the situation and responded to his angry calls as though they were perfectly reasonable. But then one day when we were all sitting at our desks, working, or not working, but at least looking at our computer screens, we were stunned to hear the sound of smashing wood nearby. Not a single one of us turned away from our screens. This angry 40something, 400-pound man was smashing his wooden chair to bits.

The next day the HR people returned with a bench. What I mean is, they brought in a wooden bench, the kind you might see in a park or in someone’s backyard and could fit maybe four or five people comfortably (I should probably mention, shamefully, that after our angry co-worker had left, the remaining five of us in our particular section of the office took pictures of ourselves sitting together in the bench. There was plenty of room.). Anyway, the HR people left this bench for him as one final attempt at an office chair. You’d think that he might have been insulted by such a gesture, but no, he was delighted. The chair was apparently just the right size and comfort level for him, and so for the remainder of his time there, he was what you might call slightly less angry.

Now when we first started at this job we were all contract workers there, and in a few months our contracts were up. It was then that our angry co-worker made the startling discovery that all of us had had our contracts renewed, all of us but him. He went around asking all of us and then complaining to the higher-ups, but really there was nothing he could do. They told him that they didn’t need as many people anymore. The fact that they needed all of us minus him was not lost on him, of course, but he ended up just accepting it finally. I wish I could remember his last day there, but I can’t. And you’d think that we might have missed him when he was gone, but we didn’t, not for a single minute. I have no idea what became of him, but I do hope that he has at least a comfortable place to sit.

No comments: