Thursday, November 12, 2009

Welcome to the monkey house

posted Wed, 01 Dec 2004

Tanager had a great response to my post about my office:

“Listen: I used to have an office, and then MIT spent over 300 million to build this new p.o.s. building and take it away. Now I have a "workspace." It has a glass wall behind me, and the upper four feet of the glass wall area are OPEN. As in, someone can climb in. I can hear everything. Everyone can hear me. And see me.

”You're lucky to have the office. It sucks to be in cubicles or workspace or whatever and have no privacy at all. Not to mention security. My desk has become Office Frigging Depot after hours.

”I don't mean to rant, sorry. Frank Gehry designed this building, and says he studied the social lives of orangutans as he came up with the "concept." I swear I am not making this up. Just google Stata Center MIT and you'll see...of course, they only talk about the "good" stuff, and not my crappy open space, where I smell everyone's lunch, and the leaks, and the sewer smell, and the lack of natural light anywhere near me, and the dead rodents under the floors, etc. etc. etc...”

Her comment made me think of my experience in Chile. I worked with a group of Mapuche women who had a small cooperative. Our offices were in an old house that had no heat and plumbing that barely worked. The store where the women sold the rugs and blankets they had woven was on the first floor and our offices were on the second floor.

I shared an office with Monica. Juanita, the midwife, had her own office, as did Rosa, the director of the agency.

I discovered that the Mapuches had different ideas about private and community property. Every morning, Monica would walk into our office and throw her purse onto my desk. My desk. Not hers. When I would ask why, she would tell me that there was no room on her desk.

We had three student interns who would stay after hours to use the computer, which was in Monica’s and my office. I would come in the next morning to find their schoolbooks and their trash – cigarette butts, teacups, scrap paper – on my desk.

At first, I would put everyone’s stuff where it belonged nicely and ask them nicely not to use my desk as a dumping ground. Didn’t work. I bought a potted plant and put it on my desk just to take up space. Still didn’t work. I finally got to the point where I would sweep my arm across the desk and knock everything to the floor every morning. That felt good.

Rosa hated sitting alone in her office, so she would hang out with us. If I was not in the office, she would sit at my desk. Not in front of my desk -- at my desk. You know this is just not done in our culture.

And yeah, yeah, yeah – I know I was in their country and should have adapted to their ways. If that’s the case, then why aren’t foreigners supposed to adapt to our ways when they come here?

I did try to adapt without losing my sanity. When I told Rosa to get out of my chair and she got huffy about it, I said that I would be more than happy to trade offices with her. But no, she didn’t want that, even though she hated sitting in that office alone, because for all her anti-capitalist, anti-western, anti-patriarchal, anti-hierarchal, life was paradise before you white people rhetoric, she loved the trappings of power, one of which was her own office.

My desk was raided for supplies as well. I used to buy a diet Coke every morning at the little store at the corner. Sometimes I would get a full liter with the idea it would last two days. One day, I got to work on what should have been day two of the liter bottle and discovered it was – empty.

I asked Monica if she knew anything about how the diet Coke has disappeared from the bottle that I had hidden in the corner behind my desk. She drank it, she told me. It was out there – surely that meant it was available for consumption. She was surprised that I was annoyed.

I learned to lock up my Coke. I also learned to lock up my toilet paper. Every roll of toilet paper we had in the bathroom seemed to disappear. At first, I assumed our budget problems were severe enough that we couldn’t afford toilet paper, but then I noticed that my colleagues had no qualms about eating lunch out on the grant provided by the Inter-American Foundation (i.e, you American taxpayers).

I supplied the toilet paper for a little while, but then decided that it was not my job to pay for toilet paper for the eight other women in the office and any of the 135 members of the co-op who might show up that day. I continued to bring toilet paper to work, but just for myself, locking the roll in my desk drawer.

OK. Yes. It could be worse.

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