I was hired for my current job the way almost everyone there is: you are told it is a favor. They’ve never said so, but I’m almost positive that the last three people to hold my job were told that it would be a temporary favor to a friend, in my case for a few scant weeks in the summer. I didn’t blink an eye when asked to begin work a few months earlier, to get familiar with the office and its goings-on, but after about two weeks it was pretty clear that I was here for summer and beyond, probably for life. I suspect that is how it is for everyone who started working in this office as a favor – by the time you feel the walls closing in, it is already too late.
When I took the job, I anticipated many things – helping out people I’d known for years, doing something in the afternoon, and getting paid, just to name a few. I did not anticipate, however, the semi-constant barrage of disturbing, disgusting, and bizarre stories, sayings, and offhand comments from the people waiting in the lobby.
Anything said in the lobby in a normal tone of voice can be overheard as clearly as a bell from my office, and sometimes these people seem almost to be bellowing. I can’t help but listen, when it’s late afternoon on a slow day, shuffling papers provides only so much distraction from the endless litany of psychosis sitting what must be a mere four feet away.
This test of my endurance, not included in my job description, rapidly came to be known amongst my nearest and dearest as “The Parade of Deranged Hillbillies”. Insensitive? Perhaps. But nonetheless accurate. One pre-teenage girl sat for ten minutes telling my mother of a late-night trip to the emergency room after one of her seemingly innumerable siblings almost severed his thumb with a large knife at a sleepover.
“What I want to know,” my mother ranted later in our kitchen, “Is what that child was doing in the middle of the night to almost cut his finger off!” My mother often rants in italics, except, interestingly, when she writes. Her written pieces seem almost completely free of italics, but she speaks in them a great deal.
I turned from the pot of water I was helping to boil with my stares, and looked her directly in the eye. “You know what it probably was,” I said seriously. “A terrible moonshining accident.”
There are old women who sit in the lobby constantly, and have what Dave Barry once characterized as “Blithers Disease”: “[blithers disease] occurs when there is no filter attached to the brain, so that every thought the victim has, no matter how minor, comes blurting right out.”
“You’ve gotta eat something, you’re wasting away,” they’ve been known to say, issuing forth in voices we have all come to wince at, voices that sounds like the creaking hinges of a coffin being slowly opened, emanating as though from the inside of a gymnasium.
As one employee put it later, “That’s how people develop complexes. What is wrong with you, that you would say something to someone like that? That is how people develop eating disorders. If anyone ever wants to know why anyone is like that, I AM POINTING AT YOU. It is because of YOU.”
Sometimes the old women wander freely into the office, even if we have lightly closed the door, they have no trouble opening it and strolling in as though they’ve been invited to tea. “What’r y’all doin’ in heayr?” they ask, standing, for no clear reason, in the exact center of the room and addressing the office at large.
“Working,” we say concisely, and they will sometimes peer over our shoulders to check. “Hooo, yeah, yew sure are, aren’t yew?” they cackle when they see the evidence that we are, indeed, working.
The old women, while perhaps the epitome of crazy people in the lobby, are not alone. For instance, as barbaric as saying this is going to make me sound, some people should never be allowed to mate, and many fine examples of this rule spend their time sitting outside my office with their children and discussing or enacting the awful things they do to them. I think the worst are the ones who spontaneously decide to have “Teachable Moments” with their children while within my earshot.
We offer snacks and drinks in the lobby, and it is my job to keep them stocked. It’s a pain, because people guzzle, and I am rapidly developing a fanatical dislike for Sam’s Club, where I drag myself every month to procure the mini-pretzels and diet coke and things of that nature. Snacks and drinks are meant to entice, and they certainly do make people hungry. Also, they continually make people have bright ideas about teaching their children deprivation.
One particularly ornery man comes to mind, balding and scraggly gray-bearded, checkered shirt buttoned over a beer belly, he looked to me like intolerance looked in the 1950s – someone had scrubbed it down and given it a presentable shirt, and cleaned up the foam around its mouth, but all the bile was still bubbling and teeming just below that surface, and you could see it if you looked directly in its eyes.
His little girl wanted some mini-pretzels or something. “No, we’re getting dinner. You can’t have any, because we’re having something to eat. Put it back.” Saying this is not a crime. It makes perfect logical sense. But he said it over and over and over. He just sat there, talking at her in his big scary guy voice like she’d done something wrong by asking if she could have some pretzels.
I don’t know the experiences you’ve had, but just about any parent I’ve ever seen would have responded to the situation by saying “no,” and removing the child from the direct presence of the temptation. After about two straight minutes of him saying “no,” in more detail than I think I’ve ever heard, I really began to wonder: if he’s so worried about dinner, why doesn’t he leave and take her to it? Why is he still here having this conversation? She’s obviously hungry, so get her some food! If you don’t want her eating this food, get her some other food!
“You gotta learn that you can’t have everything you want.” He told her towards the end of his monologue, as she whimpered to herself. I could be wrong, but the last time I checked, things such as ponies, diamond rings, and sports cars fell into the “want” category; things along the lines of food, water, and housing fell into the “need” category.
The children don’t appear to develop the cognitive skills required to strenuously campaign for these needs, however, even in later years. I am reminded of a young boy at whom I wanted to scream, “Pick your damn battles!”
“These are soft mints, mama, I wanted the hard ones,” he says. I didn’t even register his mother’s response; so struck was I by the irrelevancy of his complaint. He returned to the math problems he’d been plunking away at prior to the mint debacle. Then, five minutes later, came the protest again. “These are soft mints, mama,” he stated in a tone that indicated he thought he was passing on entirely new information. He said it three more times over a half and hour, each time issuing the statement as though it were a revelation.
My boyfriend used to tell me about a Dane Cook routine, the “Nothing Fight”.
“This woman just keeps gong on and on about jelly,” he’d say. “She keeps saying things like ‘what is jelly, anyway? I don’t even like jelly.’” He always falls over laughing when he talks about it, I’ve never completely grasped what is so funny, but the phrase “Nothing Fight” kept popping into my head as I suffered silently the boy’s complaints, and gave me a smile that is usually absent as I listen to the lobby.
The ghost of that smile helped me to endure the boy’s uninvited entrance into my office, clumsily offering Boy Scout popcorn. I answered him truthfully (“I don’t have any money”) and he left, seemingly undaunted.
While the boy was irritating – the Boy and Girl Scouts have not been very good to myself or my friends, and I’ve lost a great deal of respect for them as organizations – I was willing to let it go, on the theory that he did not ask to be born stupid. His mother, however, is harder for me to forgive.
“I work with pregnant teenage girls.” She announces in the lobby, entirely too loudly.
I mentally add yet another item to my list of Reasons For Not Getting Pregnant For Ten To Fifteen More Years. Right after “I Do Not Want or Need Children At This Point In My Life”, “Abortions Are Sometimes Difficult to Obtain”, “It Would Be Unfortunate to Have to Kill Myself”, and “I Am Not Stupid” I figuratively wrote “So I Will Not Have to Interact With You”.
“The oldest I work with are about eighteen,” she says, although I can’t recall anyone asking. Then somebody does ask a question, apparently fascinated, although, if you ask me, she looked old enough to have heard the phrase “Florence Crittendom” applied with all of its original terror, and therefore shouldn’t need to ask anything at all.
“What’s the youngest you work with?” she asks.
“Sixth graders!” I mutter to myself in the office. I was flippantly applying sarcasm to illustrate a point – however, my quip became less amusing when the answer actually turned out to be “sixth graders”.
“So the other day I helped them make a quilt, and they were just so cute…..” the woman went on, and I’m sure there was more, but my brain could no longer follow, because it had become focused upon the phrase “so the other day I helped them make a quilt.” A quilt? Really? Couldn’t these girls be learning something else? Perhaps something useful? I understand the concept of sex education would be a little belated, but surely it couldn’t hurt to teach them how to care for these children they had apparently decided to keep?
The woman goes on, and on, mentioning that at whatever center she teaches at, they inform the girls of their custody rights. “There are things you have to do if you don’t want that baby going straight to your mother,” I think she said. This is a point I can actually agree with, the girl’s mother, I assume, being the person who let things go so terribly wrong the first time.
The woman’s profession is not the only mildly disturbing topic she broaches in the lobby. Her past hits include “I don’t know where my oldest son gets all his money – he must be dealing drugs, hahahaha!”
Once she told a story involving this same oldest son – who believe you me, is no prize in terms of humanity – catapulting his younger brother off of a homemade see-saw into a tree. “The kids just seem to enjoy hurting each other,” she says with a remarkably carefree laugh. “Well, all kids are like that,” says the woman sitting next to her.
They are? I wondered in my office. It was one of many partially italicized questions I found myself asking myself, including: have I gone completely insane?
One of my respites from the lobby and my office is college, a place where I am enrolled in, amongst other things, Film Appreciation. The other day we watched The Naked City, a murder mystery of 1948.
In any movie that old, there are bound to be cultural referents that befuddle audiences of today – things change, they just do, and you can’t stop them.
One scene attempted to show the ‘domestic’ side of the handsome young detective assigned the murder case, he left the precinct and returned home to his white-picket fenced house and his almost painfully adorable wife.
They spend about a minute and a half being so cute, and post-war, and gung-ho, and can-do that you find yourself wanting to kill them. They are like an advertisement for the 1950s – “Got you a nice, cool supper,” the wife, Janey, whispers. “Jellied Tongue.”
Then these charming people proceed to have a rather disturbing conversation.
“Billy has to have a whipping.” Janey announces. “He walked right out of the yard, crossed Stillman Avenue all by himself, and went to the park.”
“Well… I’ll give him a real talking to.” The Handsome Young Detective says reluctantly.
“No you won’t, you’ll give him a real whipping, with a strap.” Janey counters.
“Just a minute, honey…” the Handsome Young Detective begs.
“I know — I know — you don’t believe in whipping a child. Neither have I until now.” Janey interrupts matter-of-factly.
And rightly so! I want to yell at the screen. What is wrong with you? As I sat there, watching this woman attempt to talk her husband into beating up on their son, the thought crossed my mind more than once: you are the DEVIL.
“But do you want Billy run over by a truck? I’ve reasoned with him, I’ve pleaded with him, I’ve threatened him. But the minute my back is turned, he’s off.” Janey logics out.
So let me get this straight, I want to say to her. You are going to purposefully and maliciously hurt your child in order to prevent him…..getting hurt? This doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. I want to ask Janey what she has tried other than reasoning, begging and threatening. How about scaring him out of his mind? Explaining exactly what happens to his little body when a truck makes contact with it? It’s not an ideal solution, but surely it’s better than whipping him. With a strap.
I brought my concerns about this scene up during the class discussion, after the movie ended. No one else seemed very bothered by it. “You have to understand that this was made in a different time,” my film teacher offers. “I know it’s hard to imagine people having conversations like this today, but this scene made perfect sense to a 1948 audience.”
But doesn’t know how wrong he is – that is why I am so upset. Because I know all too well that people continue to have conversations like this, on a very regular basis. I know this, because they have these conversations right outside my office door. Janey, minus the jellied tongue, could easily conduct a dialogue with the people who sit in the lobby. She’d fit right in.
My boss, hearing the horror stories about the lobby from myself and the others who work in the office, put signs up everywhere, requesting that people keep the conversations light.
I don’t think it will help.
I think that if we want to stop these conversations, we need to go to the root of the problem, and change the world. Perhaps a few well-placed signs would do the trick.
My signs would read: “Do not abuse your children in the lobby”. “Preferably, also do not abuse them at home”.
“Do not tell stories that involve excessive bloodshed, or harm coming to children or animals”.
“Keep your personal thoughts about others to yourself”. “I don’t care. So stop talking”.
Maybe these signs would be a good start.
But chances are, I am going to continue sitting in my office, overhearing things and questioning my sanity for a long time to come.