The Summing Up

We may spend more time with our co-workers than our families, but that doesn’t mean we have to like them. Our D.C. correspondent Clay Risen starts a new job and barely gets past the front desk.

I just started a new job, and for the first time in my career I work in a building with a lobby, complete with an always-attended front desk. I didn’t think much of it when I walked into work my first day, and I barely noticed when the woman behind the desk said ‘Good morning, how are you today?’ Good. Thanks. A minor event in my morning, but hey—I did feel just a tiny bit better on the way up the elevator.

Two weeks later, though, things have gotten weird. Far from being happy to go into work, I am starting to dread it. Not the job itself, which I’m enjoying (for once), but the actual ‘going into work’ part; in the 11 times I have entered my building’s lobby, the exact same woman has said the exact same line: ‘Good morning, how are you today?’ The same smile, the same slight tilt in her head.

That this bothers me seems, at first, a bit petty, a sort of pseudo-Seinfeldian irritation that only proves my neurotic tendencies. But it’s so much more than that. It’s not just that it’s the same greeting every morning; it’s that she says it in the exact same tone, with the exact same force in her voice, and I am always at the exact same point between the door and the elevator when she says it. It isn’t Seinfeld; it’s Groundhog Day—I may change, but the world of my office lobby repeats itself on an infinite loop.

I leave the building about four times a day—for lunch, errands, coffee, a walk around the block. But each time, she says the same thing as I clear the elevator: ‘Enjoy your break.’ The first time I wanted to pause and tell her ‘oh, no, I’m just running an errand for my boss, no break for me,’ but then I realized it wouldn’t matter. And rather than make me feel special, she makes me feel insignificant. Bland, anonymous courtesies, repeated daily, the precision of which pigeon-holes me into an inescapable sameness. Her greeting has an eternal quality to it; it will exist long after I am gone.

I don’t know her name; it’s hard to think of her as even human. Her jet-black hair is perfectly coiffed, her pant-suit combo immaculately pressed, every day. The overall effect is something akin to a near-future sci-fi film, a world of brushed steel and outrageously clean streets, office environments plagued by strong dystopic overtones. Her presence at the front desk implies a teeming office-staffing apparatus, guided by a dark anthropology of its esteemed tenants. Someone has trained her to say these things, to dress this way, and that person has obviously assumed that the people on the receiving end will actually appreciate it. Almost offensive, this assumption about those who work in the building—that we are pliable and undifferentiated enough to welcome a canned, precisely replicated greeting every morning—is actually quite frightening. Real people would get fed up and say something. But we just pass by, reply with our own canned comments or, at most, try and avoid eye contact.

There is, of course, an alternate view: that she was not trained this way, but that she in fact has trained herself. Perhaps with the aid of an office-administration correspondence course, she has decided that this is the way to run a building. Like Jay Gatsby, she has whittled human interaction down to a set of simple precepts, and has pegged her career on following them.

Which is why, ultimately, I say nothing to her but the shortest and blandest pleasantries. Don’t get me wrong, the thought of doing otherwise has crossed my mind: I considered, once, smashing ketchup packets on my forehead, running out of the elevator holding my hand to my temple and yelling ‘They’re coming! Oh, God! They’re coming!’ Other times I contemplated a more direct approach: ‘Look, cut the crap. It’s annoying, and no one appreciates it.’

But that would be cruel. And not just harsh-medicine cruel, but possibly life-disaffirming cruel; at times the force in her lines sounds almost inspired, like an actress who only has one line in a film but, damn it, will be the best ‘Third Woman on Bus’ Hollywood has ever seen. So instead I barrel through the lobby, keeping my head down to avoid eye contact—just like everyone else I see coming in and out of the building.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen