Off the elevator straight ahead, Hazel stood behind the barren counter in front of her glass-entombed office. There was no private space for her to fuss with her gelled-straight bob or smooth her suit skirt. Payroller eyes stretched to catch a glimpse of her to report back to the boss. He wanted to catch her making personal calls or reading a magazine at her desk so he could threaten to fire her or move her to the archives in the basement.
He directed supervisors to inform workers that there is a waitlist of qualified applicants for their jobs. People who fear for their jobs work harder, he told me. I didn’t tell him I feared for my job and it made me hate him.
Desk photos of family weddings and barbecues were discouraged. Spending any more than fifteen minutes in the restroom was prohibited without a doctor’s note. Workers returning late from lunch were docked. If they were chit-chatting about their weekends when the boss walked by, they’d be called into Human Resources the next day for the great inquisition.
“Do you like your job?
“Do you like your co-workers?”
“Is there any place you think you can improve?”
“Do you have enough to do?”
Every question was loaded, fraught with danger. HR reported findings to the boss using verbal shorthand only the two of them understood.
“Hmm,” he says.
“Yes,” she says.
“No raise?” he asks.
“No.” she says.
HR liked to please the boss. He thought low-wage workers were trying to take advantage of him and the system by getting away with as much slacking on the job as they could.
The twenty-something son of one of the boss’ friends got hired as a manager. He had an office with walls and a window, kept his door closed and handed out assignments on the cusp of their due dates. Workers were blamed for not meeting impossibly tight deadlines and the son of the friend got promoted.
Every few months the boss required workers to perform an audit of their time. They logged every activity at every minute of their workday. I allowed workers under my supervision to log their time at the end of the day. I had hoped to spare them the demoralization of feeling undervalued. The boss found out and had HR demand that I account for my own time, minute by minute.
I took sick leave. HR called and said I had to come back to work. Instead, I called a lawyer. On my walk home from psychotherapy, I got caught in a freakish Midwestern squall and ducked into Bloomingdale’s. The lawyer rang to say he negotiated disability leave for a few months, then I could retire.
And right there in the housewares department a ten ton block of despair lifted from my shoulders.
“Do I ever have to go back?”
“No,” he said.
I walked out into the storm and lifted my face into the downpour. I let it wash through me until I no longer felt shackled to the boss, the job, the fury, the fright of it all.