The view from this window exists on several planes, not unlike a diorama; multiple images, multiple focal points, possessing both depth and scale.
It is a large window, reaching nearly to the ceiling of this ground level floor, wider than it is tall. The glass is unobstructed, the view commanding.
In its original incarnation, the building was industrial, part of the bustling working waterfront. The ceiling above me is unfinished, with electrical conduit, water pipes and HVAC ducts unapologetically visible, unashamedly functional. It must be ten feet high.
Fifteen yards from the window are the tracks. The BNSF handles the rail traffic into and through the city. North and southbound freight moves through this natural corridor between the hills on which the city was sited 150 years ago and waters edge. The Interbay freight yard is about three miles north, just past Smith Cove. King Street Station, built by the Great Northern Railway at the beginning of the last century, is close to the downtown city core. Commuter trains come from the north every morning with workers on their way to the city, returning each afternoon. The sound of the crossing signal and the rumble of the locomotives, as much felt as heard, weave into the fabric of every hour of every day. Each passing train fills the window.
Just beyond the railroad right-of-way is Alaskan Way, the street which carries car and truck traffic along the waterfront. In summer, Alaskan Way is a tourist destination. All day, the jump-on / jump-off tour buses are in view. The buses share lanes with the Ducks, the WWII-vintage amphibious trucks that are the most popular tourist ride in town. Pedicabs carry fares up and down the street. Taxies line the curb in front of Pier 69 twice a day for the departure and return of the Victoria Clipper, the boat that goes to Vancouver Island in Canada. Then there are the runners and walkers, some with dogs, some with kids in strollers, along the sidewalk that runs the entire length of Alaskan Way, past Colman Dock, The Olde Curiosity Shoppe, Ivar’s, the aquarium and any number of seafood restaurants. At its north end, the sidewalk empties into the waterfront park, a narrow band of lawns and trees, with postcard views of the bay and the city.
Alaskan Way provides shore side access to the waterfront piers, extending 1600 feet out over Elliott Bay. Pier 70 was built in 1902 by Elton Ainsworth and Arthur G. Dunn Sr., when the city was young, in a time before rail or air travel, when freight and passengers came to the city aboard ships. It looks much as it did then, although the old wharf is visited by ships no more; offices have replaced the cargo that used to be stored in the warehouse. It is the northernmost survivor of the former working waterfront, before the advent of ocean-going steel containers.
My view of the bay never changes and is never the same. The play of light, shadow, sun, clouds, fog, wind and tides all conspire to alter the character and features of the water and sky, season-to-season, day-to-day, hour-by-hour. In fair weather, I can watch the Bainbridge Island ferries, almost from the time they cast off from Coleman Dock, to their arrival at Eagle Harbor, six miles across. On other days, fog creates a curtain though which the ferries emerge like wraiths, apparitions. At times, clouds create a seamless gray in which the bay and the sky become one, with no horizon line, no way to discern where water ends and sky begins.
Beyond, the most distant of all, is the Olympic Mountain Range. The mountains belie their true size; lying between the Pacific Ocean and our vast inland sea, Mount Olympus is less than 8000 feet above sea level but, on a recent November day, with the low-angle morning sun illuminating first new-fallen snow, they look as high as the mighty Cascade Range to the east.
My presence at this window is remarkable. For one thing, it’s the only window I’ve ever had in any office where I’ve worked. This space isn’t even an office, it’s a cubicle. Other than the window, it’s an entirely unremarkable workspace. The remarkable part isn’t even the window, or the view.
The remarkable part is that I am here at all.
A recent headline in the local daily: “Nearly 1 in 5 workers in state underemployed”. That’s me. And I consider it to be a fairly significant accomplishment, thank you very much.
I have a predisposition to commitment, obligation and responsibility, probably part of my Scandinavian lineage. So when the job ended at the Fortune 500 company, followed by a summer of no work, with layoffs in every industry and rising unemployment, my instinctive reaction to the situation was to adopt reemployment, in any form, as the new imperative.
Throughout my working life, I’ve moved more or less seamlessly from one position to another, one company to another, one industry to another, as circumstances changes and I followed what I will laughingly call my fortunes. Job changes were based on my perception of opportunity, perhaps a dash of convenience. Each was effortless. At no time was there any question of having a job to go to. This time, it was going to be different.
With my focus locked onto the maintenance of our modest life, I decided that nothing, no job, no task, no situation would be beneath me. Dignity be damned. To keep body and soul together, I would consider all sorts of possibilities, jobs I would normally never consider, except in hallway jesting. I think I’d like to drive a Towncar, the tips might be pretty good, ha ha. Except it was not a hallway joke; there are several hotels around the building where I worked and I approached more than one of those drivers to learn what I could about being a chauffer.
As expected, I haven’t found anything remotely like the job at the F500. I don’t think I’m being fatalistic when I say there may not be another of that kind for me, in the time left that I intend to work. This recovery from the 2008 downturn is now two years long, but it has not included any significant rise in employment. The financial news is filled weekly with news of a rising Dow, S&P and NASDAQ. Corporate profits are generally up. But unemployment persists. It is said that businesses will refuse to hire as long as they can, adding to revenues, instead of paying people they have discovered they can do without.
I’m merely underemployed, rather than unemployed, as are several former co-workers who’ve been out two years now. Others I know obtained short-term work, completed those assignments and are now out in the job market again, looking for the next thing. Another made a lateral move, outside her career path, which has bought her two extra years, but who has now received her termination notice, from the same company that gave me mine.
During that first summer, I accepted a position outside my career path, not driving a Towncar, but one for which I was recruited, which seemed to be a good thing. Nice to be wanted, I thought. It wasn’t what I had in mind, but it had the advantage of being the only offer I’d received in five months. Almost at once, I knew it was a mistake. As soon as I saw a way to exit gracefully, I pulled the ripcord. The job search resumed.
The next opportunity that presented itself was also not what I had in mind.
The job description was basic, stuff anyone several years into their career could claim on their resume, but it was on my career path, work I’ve done in various forms most of my life. I recast my resume to match and presented myself as the perfect candidate to do whatever they needed to be done.
Somewhere during the second interview, it came out that it was a temp position, 60 to 90 days. As if to test my “dignity-be-damned” policy, I was asked if in their opinion I turned out not to be a good fit, would I stay until someone more suitable could be found. Sure, whatever.
I was hired but the job did not end after three months; in fact, it is now more than half a year along. It has not only lasted longer than expected, I am surprised with every week that gets added to the total. I am gratified that I’ve been able to meet my obligation to Jeni and the lender of our home loan. The little check each week is a good thing. But there’s another aspect. This job has come with a look through a window of a different sort, a view of working life unlike those companies and jobs that came before.
I had been warned to leave my suit in the closet for this interview. At the last minute, I threw a sport jacket over my shirt with the collar unbuttoned, sans tie. Showing up for any interview wearing only an Oxford cloth shirt and khakis just seemed wrong.
I followed David, the hiring manager, to the café. Almost at once I noticed the informality. I felt over-dressed. Lots of t-shirts. Lots of hoodies. Lots of shorts. One of the employees was wearing sweats; very nice sweats, but sweats nonetheless. And there was the guy in the kilt. And tats, lots of tats, highly visible tats, and other superficial, social, lifestyle self-expressions, of a kind never experienced in any workplace where I’ve ever been.
The place is populated by General Managers, Directors and VP’s who look (well, to me) as though they should still be completing their degrees. I’ve since located a few gray heads, taken solace in the thought that there may still be need of the kind of experience that only comes from being part of the business world for epochs of time.
There are people from every walk of life. A former Marine who handles building security but performs Gilbert & Sullivan. A former sergeant and veteran of Iraq, who survived the violence of that war, has married, is having kids and is grateful for everything in his life. Another whose day job is facilities management, but who is a filmmaker, whose work has been shown at the Seattle International Film Festival. There are also people from virtually every continent on the planet, more languages and more cultures than anything I have ever experienced, a mini United Nations. Good people, talented people, people who are good at what they do, people who, on a personal level, have allowed me into their life. I think back to the homogenized, buttoned-down workplace I left behind, turn and look where I am now, and see something I never imagined.
I’ve tried to adapt, although I’m fairly certain my attempts don’t even register in this milieu. First thing I had to do was buy jeans. The slacks and ties are gathering dust; I still like my tassel loafers, and they still get worn, but I wonder that they look somewhat out-of-place. My hair, after about forty years, is approaching shoulder-length again, but it’s not the same as when I was twenty. I’m beginning to think I may be coming off as an AARP-trying-to-look-younger-than-his-years fool. I have the feeling every day of being an old fuddy-duddy; a somewhat accomplished old fuddy-duddy, but a fuddy-duddy, just the same.
Corporate culture can be a strange and illusive entity. At the F500 financial services company, there was no mistaking it. It hung in the air like smoke. It was Responsibility and Obligation, to the customers who had entrusted us with their finances, their futures and their security. I felt it when I walked through the doors the first time. My job was to engage outside sources of supply and services, do deals for almost every department in corporate operations, to provide support to the business units that delivered financial services to our customers. Like me, people everywhere in the company were able to draw a straight line between what they did and the objectives of the customers.
The corporate culture here is harder to pin down, although it’s fairly easy to see what it once was. The products are not the serious, necessary stuff of life, but entirely discretionary, fun stuff, part of the digital experience of technology. After only a few short years since the beginning, being spun off from the local software giant, the rambunctious energy, rampant creativity and abundance of money seems to have ebbed. There is evidence of trying to hold together the former freewheeling working environment, but the markets have changed, the business model has been slower to respond, the attention which must now be paid to the metrics has been hard to convey, without strangling the freedom of the creative spirit, which is the fuel of this digital, internet, mobile communications services company. At times, the strain is palpable. Many of these bright young men and women probably found it to be a lot like an extension of university life, except with an income. As revenues wane, profits a thing of the past and the burn rate ruling every decision, I’m certain they now find themselves in terra incognita. Writers in some of the business pages say, with money now a finite resource, the random entrepreneurial culture cannot survive, perhaps the business itself. There is some indication in news reports that insiders are quietly selling their stock.
David left several months ago, along with scores of others whose jobs were eliminated, as the officers and board attempt to right the ship. The way forward is not as clear to me as it is to the new CEO, who paints a brighter picture, as he must do. Even so, the need to stem the bleeding of cash, to respond to new markets with new products, to put revenue in the bank and show value to the Street, defines every action, every activity.
Whatever I do here will have no effect on the outcome. The work they need me to do is basic, sometimes simplistic. It seems an insubstantial encore to my previous position and contributions, my previous level of responsibilities, my previous perception of the kind and quality of position I thought I would occupy at this time in my life.
The day doesn’t pass when I don’t think about the F500 at least once. I’m still in contact with the people I worked with. I’ve remained far closer to these former coworkers than any others before. Some days I miss it a lot.
At times like this, when responsibility and obligation fill my life, I like having a few paperbacks around, something I can use to get my reading fix, if only a few pages at a time. I just picked up John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza, about a third-string quarterback recently cut from his last NFL team. No other team will have him so, with nowhere else to go, Rick finds himself playing American football in Italy. His team is largely made up of Italians who are fanatical about the American game but are not pros. They are restaurateurs and judges who practice in the evening and play on weekends. He looks at the playbook and tells his coach “It’s high school stuff”. Coach Sam Russo replies “Yes, it’s very basic. We can’t get too fancy here. The players have limited experience, and there’s not much practice time.” “To Sam’s relief, his new quarterback had no interest in changing everything. Rick made suggestions here and there, tweaked some of the pass routes, and offered ideas about the running game.”
I’ve never been an NFL quarterback, not anywhere close to the corporate equivalent, but this story has the ring of familiarity.
Like Coach Russo’s Italian football team, big changes in this department are not wanted. The company doesn’t see, or is not aware of, the value of supply management, in having experienced people manage supplier relationships, manage expenses for goods and services. For all I know, they may be right, but then why am I here?
A former coworker and trusted friend described this as a good “landing place” for me, given the state of the economy and my circumstances. I don’t know if that’s what it is. Might be, might not. Either way, this time, it’s not up to me. From October 2008 till now, this is not a plan of my making, not a plan of any kind at all.
My default position in life has generally been stability and predictability, viewing change as something to be avoided and, when absolutely necessary, something I needed to control. Every experience with change had to come with what my friend Chris calls “an iron-clad guarantee that the path I chose was the one and only True Path”.
This has been not at all like that. I am doing this part of life with instability and unpredictability as my companions, with no control over change. It has taken me out of my deep comfortable rut, an unplanned, unexpected, indeed unwanted, journey into something not on my radar, something I would never have sought out, if it had all been up to me. Like Rick, the fictional quarterback, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this is not where I’m supposed to be.
Without the ability to reprise my last performance, without the promise of advancement or recognition, better assignments, even the ability to do what I consider to be good work, I’ve had to look for other reasons to show up every day.
And there are some. It’s close to home. It affords me the flexibility to leave the desk without notice to go to my 95 year old mother when she unexpectedly needs me. I like the people. It’s relatively low pressure; there’s no sweat on my desk. There are several other superficial justifications I could list, if that were the point of all this. But it isn’t. Not entirely. That may not be why I’m here.
The “why” behind my presence here, the obvious one, is that the economy tanked in 2008 and jobs have remained scarce ever since. The “why” is my dedication to my self-assigned role as provider, to do what I need to do to protect our personal economy, to insure that Jeni never has to return to the workforce. And the “why” is that, of the other people they considered, I managed to get hired. But I’ve become aware of other “whys”, less clear, less tangible.
In my more philosophical moments, it sometimes occurs to me that these other “whys” may not to be about my alleged career, or about my relationship with responsibility, authority or achievement, perhaps not about me at all. Just maybe, this time, it’s about others. This may be about being of service, to do what is asked, to do what needs to be done, to their standard, not my own, for the people who have accepted me into their work group. It also seems to be a refresher course in humility, a reminder that I don’t know every damn thing. I hate that.
This year at this company with its seriously devalued stock and quarterly losses, known to be on a business form of life-support, and this job which I never would have considered, would have rejected out of hand at any other point along my way, has opened a window into an experience I never would have sought out, not intentionally. And yet I find myself surprised, and grateful for it.
Being fairly perceptive, I realized early on there would be little point in trying to impress my new coworkers with what I’d done before. My worth will been assessed by their needs, their standards, the standards to which they hold each other. Waving my credentials around in front of this group wouldn’t mean jack. I think perhaps I have earned acceptance from Lindsay, Eric, Q and Kris, on their terms. In return for their acceptance, I’ll do whatever they need me to do.
I have no roadmap for this detour, this side road I find myself on. I’m not writing this script. I don’t know the end to this chapter.
With no clear vision of the way forward, the space that still exists between where this economy has left me and my goal of retirement, I continue to approach every day seeking to go where I’m led, to do the work I am given, to be present, to show up, listen to the will of things, to be open to the dharma of the situation in which I find myself. I continue to hold fast to my objective of staying employed, to meet my obligations, to bring home the bacon. And, as long as I’m here, to do what I can for these four very good people, to be of service to them, individually and collectively, and to express my gratitude, for being allowed into their world, into their lives, into this experience, during this part of my journey.
And to be ready for whatever’s next, which, no doubt, will once again be unexpected.
* * *