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Into the Big Machine

Art by Mike Lee
MY FRIEND ERNIE WORKS FOR A BIG machine downtown that makes the world a better place by manufacturing things. Every few months, Ernie would tell me how important it was that I see where he worked, so that I'd understand why he'd become who he was. Years passed. At last, one Saturday while we were en route to a friend's loft, Ernie talked me into a short tour.

Why not? The big machine promised to be at least architecturally interesting: It's big, and it's a machine.

We parked without incident and entered the machine through an unmarked brass port. Inside, an armed security buffer in a military uniform stood alone in a small white booth, waiting for passwords.

"Hello," said Ernie. "I work here, but I forgot my ID."

"That's okay," said the buffer. "Sure. I recognize you. Go ahead."

"And this," said Ernie, "is my friend."

"Hello," I said.

"That's okay," the buffer repeated. "Sure. I recognize you. Go ahead."

Between boilers, up a dim brown stairwell and out into the longest, most fluorescent path I'd ever seen: an empty corridor two blocks long; no windows, no restroom. Along both walls, thousands of meticulously formatted printouts, 34 inches high by 22 inches wide, had been hung at two-foot intervals: "OLYMPIC BOMBING STUNS WORLD"; "PRINCESS DIANA, FRIEND, KILLED IN PARIS CAR CRASH"; "NY JET EXPLODES. 229 ABOARD." Everything was a catastrophe.

"Say, Ernie," I said. "What is all this stuff?"

"Those are ads," said Ernie, "for some of our products."

I nodded and Ernie made a face. Then I made a face, then we took an elevator up to another path that appeared to be the same corridor with the same evil throbbing fluorescence, covered with identical data pulp all the way to the cafeteria. I asked Ernie if this was a different floor. "It's a copy," Ernie replied.

The printouts concluded at the cafeteria port with "39 IN CULT LEFT RECIPES OF DEATH." The cafeteria looked just like the corridor, only wider and with big, zany signs: Mexican Food! Deli Food! Hamburger Food! Pizza Food! We debited two large colas and took them through half a dozen further ports and paths and corridors and arteries, quickly into and out of several elevators, then down a deafening metallic duct to a sudden field of gray, windowless, subdivided sectors, silent beneath 7-foot ceilings. The sign said Creative Services. In each cubicle was a data terminal, a clean, white desk, one black pen and a pad of yellow stickers. All visible surfaces were otherwise empty. Ernie described what his department did -- mostly gibberish to me. The only thing I understood was that there were six workers, including Ernie, in cubicled subsectors, surrounded by 32 supervisors, each with a private sector and a 34-by-22-inch view of downtown.

"Say, Ernie," I said. "Why's everything so . . . antiseptic?"

"Every Friday night," said Ernie, "the supervisors reformat the subsectors. Whatever you leave out or hang on the wall disappears over the weekend. But take a look at this." Ernie gestured grandly and adjacently. "This is mine."

Inside Ernie's subsector, the walls were an exotic mess of photographs, notes, drawings, fishing lures, marijuana paraphernalia and whiskey bottles -- more like offices where I work.

"Holy something," I remarked. "How did you manage that?"

"I wrote a little program that saves my mess to a local drive, which they don't know I have, then writes it back onto the walls immediately after the supervisors wipe it."

"Won't you get fired?"

"Nah," said Ernie. "The supervisors have never actually set foot in the office."

 

"If the existentialists are right -- that action defines being -- then we are what we do, and what we do is work. It defines us and consumes us. When we are not at work, we are driving to work or escaping from it, doing it at home or preparing for it." Daniel S. Levine, editor of Disgruntled ("The Business Magazine for People Who Work for a Living") (www.disgruntled.com), invites "all takers to use these pages to vent and tell their tales of horror, disgust, frustration, liberation and revenge." Plenty of grumpy stories, puzzles and games.

Refresh every five, 10 or 30 seconds at the Amazing CoolerCam™ (www.coolercam.com), a 24-hour, live-video capture of a water cooler and surrounding office environs. Workers will entertain you with their dispensations Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. MST.

 

"Hearing that I was visiting Detroit, [a reporter] had told me of the factory-belt system there," recalls Charles Chaplin in his autobiography, My Autobiography. "A harrowing story of big industry luring healthy young men off the farms who, after four or five years at the belt system, became nervous wrecks. It was that conversation that gave me the idea for Modern Times." Only two things -- Modern Times and a pitcher of ale at McGinty's -- have caused me to fall out of a chair. Pathfinder has archived a QuickTime clip (www.pathfinder.com/time/time100/artists/video/chaplintimes.mov) of Chaplin's pre-fired factory-worker character descending via conveyer belt into the big machine where, hypnotized by employment, he tightens the factory's most fundamental nuts.