Friday, December 16, 2011

Status Sort (1998)

There is a worn path in the carpet, extending from the door of my office, around my desk, to the printer beside my computer.  It wasn't there when I moved to this office three years ago, saying perhaps as much about the prior occupant, J.S.M., and the one before him, J.W.S., as it does about me.  Does the printer show it too, I wonder, some extra shine on the plastic, bearing witness to pressure from countless elbows?  My visitors always lean there as they face me to talk, while I sit at my computer.

Lately that path is quickly becoming more threadbare.  A new regime.  Retirements.  A transfer.  Accelerated game playing.  Fear.  Redistribution of work, combined with more draconian rules for the clerical staff, but correspondingly very little change among the professionals.  "You're the only college-educated person I know who doesn't look down on us," H.C. says from her place by the printer.  I am touched, but remind her that it isn't true, it's just that this is a very stratified place. It's as if the database coding table that we use to identify campuses -- doctoral on top,  comprehensive next, specialized next, community next -- is mirrored in our staff. A trivial but poignant illustration is that professionals in our office invariably use three initials, while members of the support staff use two.  With the exception of me, of course, since among other reasons, the "M" would ruin the alliteration of my name.

"Let's all go out to breakfast together at the Miss Albany Diner," says department head R.A.L., trying, and genuinely I think, to implement some idea he learned from a management article.  But the clerical staff doesn't want to go, and they start making excuses and plans to take the day off.  The senior professionals wouldn't want to go either, but can't resist the temptation to bask in his glow.  Staff meeting.  "Is the breakfast only for the senior staff?" asks a timid junior professional.  The question is ignored by all but me.  "No, no," I quickly respond, "this isn't a status sort," and then I can't resist the opportunity to skewer our new provost's directive about using titles by teasing, "Staff Assistant T.J.M."  There is surprised laughter from all at the table.

Still, the lower caste won't go.  The day before our reservation, all of the junior professional and clerical staff announce their intentions.  "I have a doctor's appointment," one offers, "I'm staying to watch the phones," says another.  I am annoyed and say so.  The idea of getting up earlier than usual gives me no pleasure, and a meal at the M.A.D. isn't something a vegetarian relishes.  "So I am not going either, but I'll make no excuses," I tell them.  There is distress on their faces.  They waver.  The junior professionals and half the clerical staff have a change of heart.  "If you go, we'll go," they say from the familiar worn spot.  "I'll meet you," I promise.

It is morning of the appointed day.  The professionals, especially M.D.L., the least respected, vie for spots closest to the Man.  It is not a happy group; peacemaker G.W.C. had his first chemotherapy treatment yesterday, uppity N.L.R. is outraged at the loss of her secretary and not at all satisfied by her reassignment.  I purposely sit at the low status end.  I steer the conversation away from work.  I flamboyantly tell every witticism that comes to mind.  Everyone relaxes a little.

Back at the office, I accomplish a lot without the constant interruptions.  The atmosphere feels calm today.  There may yet be a little life left in that carpet, after all; the spot near the printer is vacant.

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