A Totally Criminal Response to Workplace Illness

A Totally Criminal Response to Workplace Illness

By Eugene S. Robinson

SourceImage Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY


Because there's a thin line between the good, the bad and the ugly.

By Eugene S. Robinson

Workplaces are wild and wonderful places full of fun and frivolity. Oh yeah, and impossibly beautiful people making with the quips and the wisecracks between wandering in and out of frame while doing some sort of ill-defined job task. On TV? This is just what you’d come to believe them to be.

The reality? Sometimes cooler, sometimes less cool, but in a lot of ways weirder than ever could have been imagined. Especially in Silicon Valley before the Valley itself started generating a sui generis class of professionals who were never, ever interested in any kind of life outside of the Valley (the place, not the TV show).

Before then? You had the Willingly Displaced: former Navy artillery, former untenured Ivy League assistant professors, former inmates, all trying their hand at getting some of the gold they heard was being mined in Silicon Valley. Making for a not entirely frictionless field of engagement.

I have work. I’m here TO work. Spending my time coughing on doorknobs makes no sense. To me, I mean.

“Did you hear him? He said we needed to be results orientated!” The speaker was an old-school media guy, about 10 years older than me (I was 30 at the time), who had grown tired of media and wanted to try his hand at one of the Valley stalwarts.

I explained that the multilingual CEO had probably meant to say “results oriented” and we argued about this, good natured but not without passion for a good 20 minutes. Fundamentally it rankled the soft-science folks that the worm had turned and the revenge of the nerds had editorial and marketing on the org charts down by janitorial.

In the middle of a design meeting with outside designers, two of them, one of me, a knock on the office door and at the pane of glass in the door the semi-frantic face of another one of the Willingly Displaced.

“Hey” — he glanced from face to face before resting on mine (I was leading the meeting) — “would you all mind terribly if I took a quick nap?”

“What?” I smiled.

“A nap.”

“Man, we’re in the middle of a meeting.”

“I won’t disturb you,” he said, closing the door behind him. “I’ll just crawl under here.” And that’s just what he did, the meeting eventually continuing to the sounds of him gently snoring under the desk.

Corporations were way stations for the WD. They’d stay long enough to amass some stock, and then they’d head on to adventures better suiting folks who saw themselves as direct descendants of Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald. Lots of them had been previously published. Spending days on deadline for articles about computer technology? A distinct kind of letdown.

Turning the corner one day, down a long, nondescript hallway, I saw one of them. He took a step, leaned over by the door of an office, did … something … and moved on. That is, taking a few more steps to the next office door and bending at the waist, maybe peeking in the office? I couldn’t tell.

Systematically, he had covered about four offices before I got close enough to at least hear what was happening. He’d take a step, bend over and cough on the door handles. He didn’t stop when he saw me. He picked up the pace, anticipating that he’d be speaking to me, I guess, until I stood there in the hall behind him.

“What the HELL are you doing?”

He considered it and then grinned: “Spreading chaos.” He was my age, a pretty straight arrow guy. He and I had had some curiously compelling discussions about music and, weirdly enough, Moses. He of the parted Red Sea.

“Of course I’m sick!” His grin dropped, stopping like I hadn’t gotten the joke. “There’d be no point in doing this if I wasn’t sick.”

“Chaos? Are you crazy?” I was sort of smiling myself but more because in the presence of the truly mad I am often truly amused. But I’m also a hypochondriac, so now, also, disturbed. “More importantly, are you sick?”

“Of course I’m sick!” His grin dropped, stopping like I hadn’t gotten the joke. “There’d be no point in doing this if I wasn’t sick.”

So here we were back to my original query: “What the hell is ‘this’?”

And so he explained it. “I see the Ping-Pong tables, the game lounges, the free food and these fucking companies making here a cooler place to be than home. This works for people who are single and this place is just as good as any other. But you think I like working 12 hours days?”

When I suggested he only work the number of hours he felt like — I mean he wasn’t a slave — he flipped out.

“Hive mind won’t let this happen!” He was sort of shouting now. “So I’m STUCK here, and surprise, surprise I am sick. Do you think I got sick anywhere else BUT here? I can tell you I did not. So if I got sick here, and there’s pressure to not actually use the sick days we have, what would your solution be?”

“I have work. I’m here TO work. Spending my time coughing on doorknobs makes no sense. To me, I mean.”

“It makes perfectly good sense,” he sighed. I could see I was keeping him from his rounds. “If there is no world but this world. This world inside of this corporation, and they don’t care about entertaining the idea of any world but this one, then this one should include it all, and if A comes to work sick and makes B, C and D sick, who am I to refuse this process, this procedure?”

“That sounds like order and not chaos to me.” I felt like I got him on that one. But he shook his head and walked around me to the next door handle, bent over and coughed on it, the phlegm burbling in the back of his throat.

“Take it easy.”

“You too.” And I meant I’d try, but didn’t until a few months later when he left for greener, snot-free pastures.

Pre-COVID-19? Slightly amusing. Post-COVID-19? Totally terrifying. But there it is: humans.