One had to wash up after meetings just to feel human again.
The unit boss was a stodgy little thing with a closet full of personae. There was the prissy schoolmarm persona concocted for most of the email she sent us, though “sent” doesn’t convey the way she issued it forth, sometimes in wave after wave, as if she’d been saving it up. That little persona sometimes held hands with another one, a coquette who wore fancy hats and longed to be admired, and there was another one she seemed to imagine as a Victorian woman of letters with a long, slow hatpin and a lot of time on her hands. Her missives seemed to assume that we were pets of a sort–often bad pets–with no lives of our own, and thus always interested in hers.
Autumn is upon us, and I have yet to take my cozy winter shawls out and my somewhat trendy though purposeful rainboots still sit in the back of my closet, a bit dusty they are, though everything else in my tiny closet is neat as a pin awaiting the munificent and beguiling change in weather, which seems to be arriving sooner than I’d anticipated this year unlike last year when it arrived with the Perseids, those glistening ladies who swarmed in last November’s sky. I watched them from my sturdy balcony, drinking the special tea that an adoring friend sends me from China, accompanied by my faithful Esmerelda who could not see the magical fireworks of nature in the velvety dark sky because her eyesight, alas, is failing although she still greets me with excited little leaps and yips of joy whenever I return home from work, which, as you know, is often late in the evening because my duties as your leader are so numerous and so time-consuming . . .
You had to scroll through lots of that kind of thing to parse out or get to whatever it was that you needed to get to in addition to admiring her person and enjoying the glimpses she set forth of her fascinating life.
. . . Just as season follows upon season, monthly reports are due on the last workday of each month—that’s the last workday, NOT the last day of each month. Unlike the season, which seems to be arriving unseasonably sooner than even I had anticipated, your monthly reports are sometimes arriving at the last minute or, unfortunately–dare I say it?–late. Some of you have of late–no pun intended, tee hee–been forgetting that when paperwork is not tendered forth at its appointed time, all is not right with the world even if the seasons go on, wistfully, perhaps, in their fleeting and inimitable if somewhat relentless and casual way without our notice. If you cannot submit required paperwork when it is due, I shall have to take the unfortunate and regrettable step of docking your otherwise generous pay, and I shall have to go out of my way to do so, or rather, I shall have to ask the Dean to go out of his way to do so. Nothing could make me less happy than taking such drastic action, and I’m sure you do not want to make your ever faithful and humble leader, me, unhappy.
She may have actually thought that we were grateful for her personal ruminations and thought them charming and witty. And some—perhaps many– of us may have. But I always felt as if I’d been pinned down and slapped around. After the first year of it, just seeing it waiting there to be opened made my lesser self run all around in my mind slamming doors and kicking children.
Of course that may have been because by then I had gotten to know the constant behind her miscellaneous personae, that unpredictable and snake-mean little person who was endlessly busy not so much being the boss as showing us that she was the boss and nobody was the boss of her. When she lobbed email at us or corralled us into the protracted performances she called meetings, the several fancy fussy little beings boiling away inside her couldn’t quite agree on why we needed to be bothered but all agreed that we should be bothered often. And at length. Some of us more than others.
Tatting away at her computer expanded opportunities to circulate and bestow her queenliness. The missives constructed for mass consumption (unlike those aimed at individuals and sent by regular mail and sometimes even registered mail to contaminate your home) always started with “dears” or “my dears” or “dear ones” and ended with “cheers,” words that began to look unsavory or even threatening when one paused to reflect, as I often did, on the contempt in that familiarity, or paused to reflect, as I often did, on the fact that she enjoyed having everyone in thrall and that she really could, and did, punish anyone who didn’t enact the appropriate excitement upon seeing her perambulations through the cubicles or seeing her planted firmly and troll-like in the nearest possible exit.
She had an unerring instinct for primitive–and very effective–forms of intimidation. At some point even before I was singled out for special treatment, I realized that she didn’t really smile: she bared her teeth. She wasn’t quite as good at the subtleties of impression management as she probably imagined herself to be. Everyone pretended not to notice, though no one should be faulted for that. If she thought you saw it, you yourself would be in for the kind of relentless micromanaging that makes it difficult to get any work done, the kind that had nothing really to do with your work and everything to do with her compulsion to tell you over and over that she could do anything she wanted to you and there was nothing you could do to stop it.
The fiefdom she maintained needed helpers of course, and she was a tireless recruiter. She’d beckon someone into her office or catch them off guard in the supply closet and in a flimsy approximation of casual chitchat she’d bring someone’s name up and slide it around in some faint praise before tarring it into place with some drummed up flaw or offense, and if you refused to participate in this, well, there were punishments. One must admit that she had a talent–though perhaps it was just a lot of practice–for turning innocuous or even good things into bad things. By the time she was advanced to a sort of permanent overlord position, she had turned a group of amiable and otherwise intelligent people, some of whom might even have been thought of as one’s friends, into a mob.
It’s hard to sit in a roomful of colleagues most of whom will no longer even look you in the eye and to know your part is to be the baboon at the bottom and to know that part of their part is not to be the baboon at the bottom by helping her make you the baboon at the bottom. But what’s even harder, perhaps, is to catch sight of your own face over the sink in the women’s room—one had to wash up after meetings just to feel human again—to catch sight of your own face and to know that if you didn’t know what it was like to be the bottom baboon, you yourself might be one of them, sitting in the smug seat of the sycophant, enjoying the high end of the pay scale.