Thursday, October 6, 2011

Silence Day Seven

As I mentioned on an earlier day Harold Pinter saw and wrote language as a battleground, each speaker maneuvering for dominance and position. My most blatant experience of this use, or avoidance of use, of speech occurred in the offices of a law firm. One of the things you discover quickly when temping is the lack of full literacy and numeracy among the populace. Though I had, and have, almost no skills applicable to the modern office – I type slowly, I have no great familiarity with most computer programs – I am literate and numerate. The reaction to a temp who can file alphabetically, numerically and chronologically is quite astonishing. You become indispensible. You can sense that the full time employees with whom you work begin each week relieved that you have returned and they do not have to call the temp agency and run through nine more temps before a tenth shows up who can read and write. I arrived at a very prestigious law firm one Monday morning and went through the usual routine: finding the lunch room, being shown the desk at which I would work, details of break times. The offices were laid out like a frying pan, the reception desk sitting at its handle, the better rooms ringing the outer wall and thus having windows with spectacular views and the lesser rooms grouped in the middle of the pan, separated from the gods of law by the circular hallway. It was both efficient and a clear statement of hierarchy. If you are a secretary you have an office in the middle of the floor and must cross the dividing walkway to approach the higher beings. Conversely the higher beings can be seen crossing the dividing river to descend upon their underlings. Because of a lack of space and the absence of one of the partners I was given the office of said partner and for a week or two I had the office of one of the gods of law with the aforementioned spectacular view. One of the effects of this design is that whenever someone needs to get from one place to another he or she must travel at least some of this common circular divide, so encountering a good portion of the workers each day. On my first morning there I was heading for the lunch room to get a coffee and I passed someone of note. He was not famous, he was noticeable. He was dressed very casually, jeans as I recall and an open shirt and I immediately knew, because I had become familiar with the semiotics of places of business, that he was a Senior Partner, probably a Founding Partner, and that he came and went as he pleased. I also remember that he was short, which may have some bearing on all of this. Being a polite person I greeted him and received an odd response. He sort of jerked slightly or flinched and there might have been a grunt but there was no definite reply, no sign that he had understood my greeting and was responding in kind. Odd, I thought, as I went about my coffee hunting. About half a minute after I had returned to my splendid office on the better side of the river of quite lovely carpet the woman who was my supervisor rushed in (without knocking, what was the world coming to?) and asked me if I had spoken to the casually dressed man. Yes, I had said good morning to him, I replied. You must never speak to him, said she. He is not to be spoken to. She told me that he was indeed a senior and a founding partner and he did come and go as he pleased and he was never to be spoken to by any but a select few. As a man of the theatre and of the unemployment line I asked why and my supervisor’s response was entirely that of a woman of the office, of the world of Law (it might just as easily have been of Insurance or Aeronautics) and it was the usual: that’s just the way it is.

I continued about my day doing dreary things in a rather lovely place and mused upon this man and this culture. The next day, and for each day following that I worked at this particular law firm, I found an excuse to linger at the reception desk as people arrived. I discovered that the Casual Man, He Who Must Not Be Greeted, though free to come and go as he pleased seemed to arrive more or less when everyone else did. He would get off the elevator, put his head down and head for his office. Because the hallway down which he had to travel was circular all I had to do to encounter him was to enter the circle from the opposite side. Which I did. Every day. As we passed each other I would greet him very loudly, very cheerily, making sure that he knew that it was him I was addressing. Even by the second day of my illustrious career in Law my supervisor and those with whom I had worked for one day knew that I was the office equivalent of gold dust. An alphabetical, numerical and chronological filer of mammoth proportions. A reader and summarizer of documents of biblical talent, which is to say that I could read and write and convey meaning from what I had read. I greeted Casual Man every day and no one came rushing to admonish me for my simple human interaction. Whether he was a very shy man or a very busy man or a short man who had decided all those years of being looked down upon, about which he could do nothing, were now to be atoned for I cannot say. I simply could not understand a world in which one person says to another, no one is allowed to speak to me and that other person takes this as perfectly acceptable. In fact rushes about the office enforcing this diktat. Had this man been a philosopher I might have understood but then he would not have been atop a skyscraper with a magnificent view litigating on behalf of corporate America. He’s have been in a soup kitchen line happy to engage with whoever seemed willing.

1 comment:

bsalyers said...

This is my first time reading your blog. Wonderful story.
I've temped in many law firms myself, and I have to say, their weird reverence for hierarchy always made them my least favorite work-places.
The only time I was ever "fired" from a temp job, it was a law office in Seattle where I had an unpleasant conversation with a partner.