Big Smoke

'cause it's hard to see from where I'm standin'

Broken Men

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Working overtime at the annex – one of the slowly atrophying appendages of the gangly octopus strewn across Midtown – as part of the ongoing musical chairs project for one department or another, I was under the tutelage this time of a portly jigsaw-toothed Barbadian who goes by the name Lefty Communist (or Gay Communist, as the case may be; political and social liberalism seemingly inextricable in the two-party system of US politics) whose niche was, effectively, liaison between this satellite and the main office.

It became readily apparent why: It kept him away from direct supervisors, and it kept direct supervisors away from him. He had steadfastly determined to lower management’s expectations of his productivity so as to keep in line with his income, which has stagnated these past few years – but then, for whom has it not? Nevertheless, this personal work slowdown, this one-man strike, is tolerated due to a confluence of reasons largely predicated on bureaucratic malaise and confrontational disengagement. Discontent can become contagious, after all; best not to poke the beast.

In the annex, however, he’s transformed from this mumbling, work-averse lump to the Pied Piper. Almost immediately the initial assigned task is put on the back burner and instead he collects maintenance men, local contractors and day laborers for a multiple-floor odyssey for the mana of the working stiff: Free food. He knows what he wants, and seeks it out with a single-minded focus for which he has attained a reputation and followers. Call it one of the perks of the position: Like sharks, we bottom-feed; snapping up the slow and that which is not long for this world, with little or no regard for its original provenance.

The salaried workers get a host of noshables so as to keep them in the office, some catered and some dry and keepable, like Dilbert’s food pellets or Futurama’s Bachelor Chow, most of which gets tossed out around four in the afternoon. Show up right before then and it’s a smorgasbord of bagels, wraps, coffee, soda, trail mix, cereal, fruit – if it’s prepackaged it’s just stolen wholesale. Indeed, for a corporation with no loyalty to its staff, why show deference to established convention? Hell, nobody espouses this position more than the salaried workers themselves, who actively exploit any boon today knowing full well there may not be any tomorrow.

The same is true for the day laborers. The motley crew he has assembled for this task come from several different contractors and employment agencies and, while they all more or less know each other, they jump from one or the next like rats trying to figure out which ship has the fewest leaks. This week Weehawken. Next week Trenton. The following week White Plains. An existence that sees a lot of reverse commutes, odd hours and, you know it, free food. Such and so got a good gig as a locksmith for X company, $80k and union; such and so got laid off last week. Sad thing, too – he was saving up for a vacation. It’s okay, though; he’s living with his girlfriend so can survive long enough to land another gig or three.

It’s certainly a common enough feeling: One of my work boots, after this annoying and near-endless winter, has sprung a leak, and I can’t get it fixed until I’ve dug out of the hole I’m in thanks to the string of bad deals with moonlighting gigs two months ago. The toll the jobs are taking on my wardrobe is real enough, and the appearance of professionalism is more important than actual professionalism, so as such free food is now part of the budgetary process.

Lefty Communist is cancer, though. A man mentally checked out, stuck in his own bitterness, poison by association. A blood cell stuck in the calcified arteries of an unhealthy industry. It’s easy to see how one gets like him. It’s easy to see how enough of him will eventually bring the system down, and it’s clear to see how if that happens it will be due to the policies of the system, not men like him. But to accept and adopt his means is to be brought down with him. Just as one can see generations of children abandoned by the school system like so much chaff, so too can one see men burned to nothingness by the work system, for a lot of heat but little progress.

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