This is a series of posts I started in late May and plan to continue for 40 days, with a goal of hitting 50,000 words by July 5 (this marks the end of “week 4!”). It’s inspired by a three-day solo trek on the Washington coast, with side-story memoir scenes wrapped by a few themes. I’m writing each post live, pulling in stories I’ve drafted before or I’m writing for the first time, for this project. You can come and go (it’s non-linear) or start at the beginning here, which is really the end.
My last day at work I documented and posted on my blog. My friend Ross said it read the same as it would for someone who’d died. It wasn’t meant to be so dramatic, but why not? I’d been there since 1996 and now it was turning 2015. I still remembered my first day on the job—I’d been a store manager for Starbucks before I came to corporate, conditioned to tracking every minute of my time, working in the stores. It was going on 2 and I hadn’t eaten lunch, asked, does anyone mind if I did? And they looked at me like we don’t care when you eat lunch.
On my last day there was an after-work party at a venue down the road, the company Christmas party, for lack of a better name. And I was invited, which was nice, because the nature of my leaving was dubious, not altogether good. To say you were leaving but not for anything particular, for any real reason, was weird. People asked, what are you going to do? And I said I’m going camping, with my kids. Or alone.
I left work so I could get a good parking spot for the party, get there early. There was nothing else to do at work, there hadn’t been for a while. When they start to taking away the work, that’s a bad sign. It’s funny, but the work identifies you. You take away the work and with it, a person’s self-esteem. Maybe it shouldn’t be like that or it’s worse for us in America, but that’s how it is. If you’re going to identify with the work make sure it’s work you love or don’t identify with it, if you can.
I’d been there longer than anywhere else in my life, longer than any house I’d lived in or school I attended. I’d fallen in love with the hallways, the routine. Even climbing the emergency exit stairwell every morning, I got to know the nooks and crannies. There were parts in the cinderblock with damage still from the earthquake. I climbed those stairs in my dreams afterwards trying to get back, but my access badge didn’t work.
Most days for almost 20 years I walked Utah Avenue, a sorry-ass side-street that runs off the backside of the corporate office and peters out around Hooverville, a bar named after the neighborhood: a popular place for the homeless under President Hoover, still was. There was a guy who lived out of his car I got to know over the years. One time, he said he’d worked on our office building after the earthquake, replaced something like a million bricks. And I thought there was something poetic about that, this homeless guy working on the Starbucks corporate office. The unseen hands of the world, its laborers.
I went on walks trying to disassociate from work, to think creatively, to dream up story ideas. Other times, I rehearsed presentations. My friend and former colleague Doris gave me advice before I left, was trying to help: she got on the whiteboard and started with, what would you do if you could do anything at all? And I didn’t know, couldn’t say. She asked if I’d seen that Walter Mitty film with Ben Stiller—I should watch that, she said. They had it on the inflight entertainment going over to Germany, the visit we decided to move there. I thought in a sense the film was talking to me. It was time to pick up and go. Sure, I was a dreamer but I could make something out of my dreams. Then they’d be real, and so would I.
In that film there’s these corporate jerks Ben Stiller’s going up against, like they’re trying to belittle him. He lets them. And then there’s the scenes with Sean Penn, the big shot wildlife photographer. You get the feeling Sean Penn’s a kind of spirit guide to Ben Stiller, that real life is in nature, not the office. That Walter Mitty’s daydreams of his imagined life and travels are the passageway to happiness and fulfillment, I thought the same for me. But it never works that way exactly, you have to come back.
I pulled out of the Oil City parking lot, the 11-mile, unpaved road back to the 101: north to Forks, south to Aberdeen. You pass a homestead with a trailer, a sign saying Congested Area, then it opens up and you can see the Olympic mountains; I think one is Olympus, that flows into the ocean as the Hoh river. I was already calculating my arrival time home with Dawn and the girls—if the Kalaloch would be serving breakfast. I flipped back to the drive coming out, Thursday two days ago, picked up where I left off with the music. Seemed like I’d been gone forever, “a lifetime in three days.” You could go away like that and be the same but different, maybe the experience made it so.
To think, when I started at Starbucks as a secretary it was before we had Outlook. If you wanted to schedule a meeting you had to send an email or contact everyone individually, to write down their availability on a Post-it note, then send an email asking they jot down the time and location in their planners. Crazy. Now you can see if a person’s time shows as blue or purple they’re either busy or out of the office.
I went back to my workplace every eight weeks or so, to see my hair stylist Donnie. I didn’t realize Donnie gave such good cuts until we moved to Europe and I had to go elsewhere. I kept going back, even though it was a half hour drive and arguably strange, to go back to my office—which I only did on Saturdays, so I wouldn’t see anyone.
And it’s true, there was a ghost-like quality to going back. I did that at work and other places from my past: once, the spot on a dead end road where I’d parked with my first girlfriend, and then we split up but I kept returning to that spot, brooding. There’s nothing cool about ghosts, really. Most people don’t even see or believe in them. I wanted to be the kind of ghost that helps people rethink their lives, though: I could do that. They just keep skipping like a record, like a hiccup on the same pocket they can’t get beyond, ghosts. For me it was the need to re-experience or resolve something, and neither could I do for some reason.
I worked at a law school for a couple of years before enrolling and getting a law degree at the same school. Then after passing the bar, I continued to work there for another 4 1/2 years. All told I was there for 11 years. It felt like a second home and when i finally left for a job with a little better pay and a lot less travel, it felt so weird. I went back to visit co-workers every now and then for years and then I eventually stopped, partly because many of those co-workers had also left and there was really nobody left there for me to see. I went back early this year for a conference and during the lunch break I wandered around. Along the tree lined paths and into the different offices I had worked in. So much had changed. The Bordello of the Future (don’t ask) was no longer a purple monstrosity, but, yes, there were ghosts everywhere. Memories of the people who had been there, of the gaps in the bricks. I ran into a couple of professors I had worked with all those years ago (I started there the summer of 1987). We caught up a bit. It’s hard to imagine being in one workplace for 30+ years, but it is amazing how many professors at the law school have actually done that. As I wondered the halls where the professor’s offices are, I counted at least a dozen who were there when I first walked onto the campus.
When I retire in a couple of years, I will have been with my current employer for 18 years. I don’t plan on ever going back. There are no good ghosts in that place. Only stress and drama.
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That’s amazing Mark. Glad you can relate to the ghost thing. Often I think about that Bruce Willis film, you know (The Sixth Sense). What a brilliant story that is, right? I love the sentiment but too bad you have to watch out with “sentimentality.” Probably some analogy to applying mascara here I don’t get, but holds sway.
Several years ago, the place where I worked (a public library) changed its main computer system. I had worked with that system for ten years. It functioned quite well, and its successor wasn’t (in my opinion) nearly as good. The old system was kept on the servers for a couple of years because it contained data that wasn’t migrated to the new system, and every now and then I had to call it up for some reason. So weird — like entering an abandoned palace, a place that used to hum with life, and now echoed with emptiness, dust collecting in the corners and spiders spinning webs on the ceiling. We’re talking about a computer system here — screen displays, buttons, drop-down menus, etc. I wouldn’t have believed you can get sentimental about something like that, but I did.
That’s funny, I wonder if it’s like you put yourself into a part of that old system, like you identified with it…or maybe I’m just projecting my own odd POV on things. Hard not to, though. Yes, it’s remarkable what we can get sentimental about, I wonder what’s at the root of that, some inability to fully appreciate things when we have the chance?
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Well, did spend a lot of my working time using that system. I guess it was like a tool that’s like an extension of a worker’s arm or something. People do get emotional about physical tools, but it was a surprise to feel that way about software.
That actually sounds like good software. It does what it’s intended to, a true tool. Cool stuff.
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Every reference to Mount Olympus has brought a smile. New World, old gods.