Staring out the window at ships in the harbor. In the spring of 1988, that was my job.
My real job had disappeared with the merger announcement. Collecting data for new projects was no longer a priority, now that there would be no new projects.
No one told us to stop. The futility was just so obvious, even to the dumbest and most in denial among us, that it only took a few days after the announcement for the work of an entire department to grind to a halt, its data-spinning machinery shut down by an informal but uniform consensus.
The first week, huddled in cubicles, we traded internal rumors.
By the next week, most talk turned to life on the outside. We’d started drifting apart.
The big offices emptied first. Those with initiative and internal connections grabbed lifelines, pulling themselves out of our sinking ship. They promised to keep us in the loop, but once in safe departments, none looked back.
Those with initiative and external connections just disappeared. With nothing going on, few bothered to give two weeks’ notice. They’d tell their friends and walk out with a banker’s box of pictures. If you missed them in the elevator lobby, you wouldn’t know they’d left until you saw their empty desk or called their dead extension.
The rest of us sent out resumes. We wore our best suits each day, never knowing when opportunity might knock. We kept showing up. We hung around, ate long lunches, left early, wondering all the time what the hell was going on.
After a month or so, so many had left that we abandoned our cubicles and grabbed the vacant offices. Mine had a nice view of the harbor, a couch and a huge desk.
The desk was too big for me, its vast polished wooden top a constant reminder of the work I wasn’t doing. A desk needs to be cluttered.
The couch was a constant temptation to loosen the tie, shut the door, lie back and sleep the day away. Everyday I thought of doing it, but I never did.
What I did instead was stare outside at the view. I’d recline in the ludicrously large leather wingback chair, put my feet up on the massive empty desk and stare out at the ships floating in and out of the harbor.
The office was old enough to have windows that actually opened so, as the days got warmer, my reveries would be punctuated with sounds of engines and horns and gulls drifting up on sea breezes from below.
A dream job, I suppose, but I wasn’t happy.
I wasn’t worried for my future. I was young enough to know that things would turn around, that I’d find something eventually, so that wasn’t what was getting me down.
And it’s not that I missed the data job or mourned the department’s loss. Much of the work was tedious, the subject matter often dreary. I never saw myself doing it for long.
I think I missed having a purpose. On even the most mundane tasks, I used to try to make small improvements, to achieve small efficiencies, growing as I progressed. So even though I was low on the ladder, my daily masteries made me feel much bigger.
Now that I wiled my days away staring out the window, my only task figuring out how to keep my feet elevated without having them go to sleep, I lost my sense of mastery, of progress. Sunken into that huge chair, dwarfed by the vastness of my empty desk, I looked like I felt: a shrunken little man.
The window staring gig ended a few months later, soon after the merger closed. We scattered, losing track of each other, our time at the department reduced to a line or two on our resumes.
I eventually found a new path, and started growing again, but even today, over 20 years later, a part of me remains permanently diminished, haunted by that little man.