Most of my offices have had to serve double duty. Usually I set up a desk in the corner of some room and hope that it was out of the way enough to create a multi-purpose space. During the day it would be a living room, but at night I would sit down and work. A true Office seemed out of my league with the kinds of clients I was able to drum up, so a desk in the corner was good enough for the odd jobs I did manage to get. When I had work, the desk served as a focal point for client info, schedules, stories I had to finish, and a box of index cards was enough to keep track of all. All I had to do was step away from the space and it would return to being a bedroom again.
Every time I would sit down at the desk, though, the transformation seemed more than just a glamour I had cast. There was something about sitting down to do work that pushed away the rest of the world and helped give me focus. At the desk, it was clear I was working for myself, calling the shots and making all the arrangements, and that made all the difference in the world. When I had a case, even a cheating spouse or assembling a quick spell for a paying customer, I could look proudly at the invoice that I would send out, even if I knew it would never get paid. Jobs like that add up over the years, and eventually I had a reputation that generated new work from time to time.
Not a good reputation, but a reputation.
Of course, there’s only so far you can get in this world trying to work for yourself. The spoils of WWII have entrenched capitalism, bureaucracy, and a class structure that left a fairly strong mark on us, and as we’ve scrambled to find places where we all fit properly in this modern world, it’s been too easy to jockey for positions within these structures. It became harder and harder to find self-made men the way you once did. As the money coming in paid for less and less, it was harder to make a case for pursuing the work. Like my own desire to make it work, checks bounced, or were lost in the mail. I could spend all the time I wanted at my desk, but if I didn’t have a place to put it, then it was largely metaphor.
To keep the bill collectors off my back, I usually had to have a day job, too. While I want to say that I sold my labor for a fair price, in truth I worked for others in a series of demeaning (and unflattering) jobs. There was little that I didn’t (and couldn’t) do: knoll exterminator, bookseller, mail carrier, street sweeper, radio engineer, copy machine repairman, fifth dimension tour guide, teacher, dental hygienist, musician, illuminated text copier, and, ironically, office drone. As I sat in these mazes of cubicles with a coffee cup in my hand, I spent my days trying to figure out what these jobs were actually about, and my nights at my desk at home wishing that I didn’t work in a office, but instead had my own.
I spent years like this, working for one person until we had reached a point where it was clear to one or both of us that it was time I left. I lasted a few years in some, but for the most part I was terrible at showing up on time, doing what I was told, meeting dress codes, filing paperwork, going to meetings, or doing just about anything short of taking breaks and drinking coffee. There was just something about the way bosses tried to manage me that bred contempt and disgust. I tried everything I could think of to make jobs more tolerable: being a clown, being a drunk, working hard, not working at all. But no matter how much acid I took or pranks I would pull, there was very little that made the jobs interesting or worthwhile.
And all the while, I’d be chipping away at a case, trying to make some sense out of something that was absolutely senseless.
It’s funny how 20 years can go by and you don’t realize it’s been that long. Or, that when you do, you can’t believe it. But there I was, a jack of all trades, a trail of broken relationships and friendships and bank accounts, and a pile of stories to show for it. As my desk relocated and the birthdays piled up, it didn’t really occur to me to try and balance the ledger until there was so much to keep track of that it began to take a while to make sense the past, too. My own life became a new case to work, and when I was not trying to work some job I was piecing together some narrative about where I had been, and where I wound up, and what I’d done along the way, usually transcribed using some symbolic three act structure, where I had to keep re-scripting the key figures and ending with each new year.
It’s not surprising then that things started going my way when my last boss tried to screw me over. It was a perfect irony, and the final straw. But it solidified a number of things that were not entirely clear to me before. With my particular resume, I had no business doing business with the rest of the world on their terms. I had made only the smallest of reputations on the outer fringes, not enough to get any special treatment or anything. But at least I could call the shots, and prove myself based on something I knew I could do, rather than hope that some new manager was going to choose to treat me with any kind of dignity or sense of fairness. I had cut a distinctive path on my own, and as I put together the clues and solved more cases, I felt more accomplishment in assembling a case file than I ever had at any job anyone ever offered me.
It is true, the desk helped make the man, but recently I’ve come to see that it wasn’t that I’d put the desk in a room in my house, but rather that I lived in an office where my desk happened to lay. In textbook fashion, I couldn’t see the entire picture until nearly the end, and by then the cliches were as thick as a wool blanket. But I felt like I was on the path, where I had a code to live by and made my own way, doing things I was proud of. It wasn’t just that my origin story involved an office; but rather that I’d been transforming into The Office Dick the entire time.
Sure, it might be a retcon, but it sure makes for a good beginning, don’t it?