An Office Tale - Part One
Updated: Mar 2
A vibrant rhythm started pulsating quite early on that day. The scent of success permeated the stuffy air as major client wins were being reported. The moment I came in, I witnessed, all bewildered, the nearby software guys gathered for a special meeting. They exuded a Silicon Valley style demeanour, with their hipster beards and their fancy Rayban glasses. I marvelled at how every participant was allowed to scribble stuff onto the whiteboard. There was laughter and cheerful chit chat, the noise of printers ejecting paper contracts, and the trudging of dress boots emanating from energetic salesmen. Every inch of space across the office had something of a vibe; and it seemed as if the winds of growth had swept away mundane reality once and for all.
But none of that truly distracted me: not for longer than a bat of an eyelid at least. For piling up client deliverables, tied to tight deadlines, were casting a shadow over my presence. I had received an email from Reggie Wilson, our Chief Marketing Officer. He was one of the more inspiring leaders of our company, and the only black person in the C-level executive team. Strangely enough, he would always flash a million dollar smile at me whenever he pranced passed my workstation. I never quite figured out whether his fondness stemmed from a sense of racial solidarity, or from an understanding of the strategic importance of my role. Whatever it was, his email had the length of an A4 page, full of detail and confidence in my abilities.
Reggie wanted me to evaluate his latest campaign strategy, attaching a dozen Excel files alongside tactical rationale. I knew I could simply not afford to fail, under no circumstance. Partly because my line manager had scheduled a final probationary meeting that week, and in part because I saw him as my key to the boardroom. Reggie’s task thus manifested itself as the last hurdle I had to overcome. It was as the sages have once said: 'the desire to prove oneself has ever been man’s curse...'.
By noon time, when lunch hour approached, the non-stop work ordeal hit me like a ton of bricks. My stomach rumbled in the jungle like an old washing machine from skipping breakfast. My finger joints and wrists were aching from writing paragraphs upon paragraphs of code; and my eyes were blinking as erratically as the indicator lights of a defective car. Had the friendly HR lady walked passed, she would’ve surely scolded me for my bad posture. In fact, no one but a sadistic boss would’ve delighted in seeing a spine bent like a boomerang, and a head almost submerged with the laptop screen. I guess when one’s eyes become fixated on these bedazzling data visuals, one becomes thrilled to the extent that one forgets all physical comforts. I didn’t even register until midday that someone had snatched away my cushioned chair.
Life as a data analyst was much like one imagines life as a crime-scene detective. You are called into the boardroom by stern chiefs in suits, get habitually yelled at, and then sent on do-or-die fact-finding missions. The only apparent difference is that your targets are signals and trends in data tables, not murderers and witnesses. And just as in any CSI bureau of investigations, there are cliques, clashes and contestation between workers vying for prestige and promotion. This is why I always brought big headphones into the office, those normally worn by DJs. I often pretended to be the Jazz connoisseur in the team. But they really and truly were nothing but camouflage gear. No one would think that someone wore such a huge piece of electronics without actually listening to something. Yet I would put them on to eavesdrop on the intrigues around me, inviting the unaware to behave as if I hadn't been present. Sherlock Holmes had nothing on me.
Moments later, when I was about to wrap up for lunch, my nostrils began to feel triggered. They detected the penetrant odour of a men’s cologne nearby. Truth be told, I never socialised much precisely to avoid such encounters, although I also did so to keep at bay nosey spies. Wise is he who protects his personal space always was my motto. But it turned out to be a false alert on that occasion. Turning my shoulders, I realised that it was Dragos who had been hovering behind my back, curiously watching the work in progress on my screen. He tilted his head and pointed to his ear with his index finger, being under the impression that my headphones were playing music. I took them off.
'Hey boss, maybe your time will come when you write a book,' he effused, while his trademark chuckle brought forth all of his charisma.
'It was a good piece of writing that I enjoyed,' he added.
Dragos was referring to a line from an essay I had shared with him weeks before. That was the first time I laid bare my soul, sharing personal memories, feelings and hopes on pages of prose. It ended with a rhetorical device called aporia, the act of asking a question when you really don’t know the answer. Though not identical to Bob Dylan’s: “How many roads must a man walk down..”, my final paragraph carried similar sentiments. Reflecting on unsettled scores, I simply asked when my time would come after all the years of hardship.
The fellow moved to the UK from Southeastern Europe, a nook that boasts a rich Roman history that he seemed to be proud of. We worked together in the Data & Systems team, he a software engineer in the latter unit and I a data analyst in the former. I instantly felt connected to him, as we had mutual interests. Dragos loved prose and poetry, even though he graduated from an elite technical institute in his home country, eventually becoming a software engineer. I've never met a scientist through and through - so well-attuned to numbers - but also a man of words like he. So we kind of bonded over these commonalities, which is why I thought to share my essay with him in the first place. A widely read individual with a refined taste would surely give you gems of advice, I thought.
His intro got me gassed up, for excitement buzzed through my veins as electricity through wires. I just couldn't believe that he was expressing all that enthusiasm for my work. Partly due to my preconceived notions about his character, and partly due to the feeling of insufficiency that has been plaguing me since adolescence. Dragos never sucked up to anyone, and distinguished himself in the office in that he neither sought high position nor respected others for theirs. Even his superiors perceived him as problematic, the type to be immune to hierarchical structures and corporate politics. He would call everyone boss out of respect and humility, from cleaner to shop keeper. In view of that, flattery was the last thing I expected of him, to the extent that the whole situation had an aftertaste of awkwardness for me.
"Are you going to take your lunch break on time, boss?" he asked.
"Yes boss, what about yourself, ready to go to Whitecross market in 10 minutes?
Whitecross market was a picturesque street located at the border between the City of London and North London's Islington district, a ten minute walk from our office. Characteristic for the area is the sight of an eponymous street market with dozens of food stalls and takeaway joints. From Indian curries, Turkish sausage rolls, Greek salads and Far Eastern pots, Whitecross market had something for every kind of taste bud.
"Alright boss, meet me downstairs by the gate in ten minutes, I just have to make one more commit," he said.
"I also have some advice for you," he added while blinking with his left eye.
To be continued...