As I See It: The Last Day
March 27, 2006 Victor Rozek
He drove into the familiar lot, nosed his car toward the oleander bushes, and parked just as he had for the past 17 years. He liked the oleander. It held its bloom for a long time, much like he had. As was his habit, he parked away from the building and walked toward the entrance, in no hurry, enjoying the morning air. Living life indoors was, in an evolutionary sense, a very recent development, and some days it felt unnatural to him. As often happened, several people passed him in a rush, intent on getting to their desks and making a good impression on whoever might be watching. They probably missed the oleander, he thought.
The building was unremarkable; modern, functional, and not designed to elicit sentiment. Even after all this time he felt no attachment to it; not like a teacher might feel attached to his school, or a fireman to his station. He walked through the lobby, flashed his ID at a new receptionist he didn’t recognize, and turned right toward the IT department.
Acknowledging several greetings and congratulatory wishes, he arrived at his cubicle. Like the building, it too was modern and functional. A few decades back, a new word had entered the collective consciousness: “ergonomic.” He still didn’t know exactly what it meant, but figured it must be the equivalent of the real estate descriptor “cozy,” meaning too damned small. Modular cubicles made walls unnecessary and privacy impossible, he thought. They were supposed to increase access, but they mostly increased noise level and annoyance. He wouldn’t miss them.
He stood looking at the assortment of stuff pinned to his padded walls. Pictures of friends; a couple of cartoons; a quote; a calendar; project schedules; and a photograph of him atop Kala Patar, an otherwise impressive 18,000 foot peak made insignificant by virtue of standing too close to Everest. One of the cartoons showed a computer salesman talking to an IT manager. The salesman was describing the advantages of his product “This system will cut your work in half.” he beamed. “Great,” said the manager, “give me two.” But it never quite worked out that way, did it? The faster the technology, the more work we found for it to do. Economists called that productivity, but he wasn’t so sure.
Basic, Assembler, Fortran, Cobol, RPG, Pascal, C, C++, Java; moving targets one and all. As a child, he remembered playing in the park and seeing a rainbow arching to the ground across a vast expanse of lawn. He ran towards it, but as he got closer it seemed to move away from him, always out of reach, until he got to the spot where he had first seen it, and it completely disappeared. Over the course of his career, he had mastered a rainbow of languages, and although they were a moving target, constantly shifting with the technological winds, for the duration of his run he was proud to have kept up.
He took everything off the walls, put the photographs in a folder and threw the rest away. Then he sat in his ergonomic chair, answered a few phone calls, turned on his computer and checked the office email. A few congratulatory notes, two company memos, and a couple of change requests for a software development project he had been shepherding. He had hoped to have everything finished by now, but the implementation dragged on as users became familiar with their new system and discovered additional layers of wants and nice-to-haves they couldn’t live without. It drove some members of his team crazy, but he didn’t mind. He liked it when users discovered new possibilities in his software. They wanted to make it better, more useable, and so did he. Translating wishes into code was what he did, and wishes did not always come neatly attached to schedules. He forwarded the change requests to another member of the development team, and deleted everything else in his in-box.
He walked over to the coffee station, poured himself a cup, and stood looking at the faces of his coworkers as they moved about the room. Some were familiar, and some less so. Many of the familiar ones were friends, and he had a great fondness for them. Friendship, he knew, was rare in the workplace, dampened by competitiveness, and based mostly on shared accomplishment and survival; projects completed, systems installed, successes celebrated, crises weathered, managers endured. Like most workplace relationships, they seldom saw each other outside the office and most of these people he would never see after today, but he felt blessed to have known them.
He looked at the clock. Time for the obligatory exit interview with his manager and human resources. He had been their faithful resource for seventeen years, and now his usefulness was exhausted, and they were replacing him with a less expensive resource. Life went on. The meeting, he knew, was to make sure there weren’t any residual problems with his departure that might bite the company later. There were the predictable papers to sign and the less predictable questions to answer. What do you think of the company? Is there anything about IT that you would change? Do you feel you have been treated fairly? For seventeen years, no one had bothered to ask. It was like performing quality assurance after the car drove off the assembly line. Not much to be done about the defects then. They should have asked while the answers still mattered to him. But he knew that wasn’t the point.
He looked at his manager. Twenty years younger, ambitious, probably unaware that he was glancing impatiently at his watch, ready to be done with what was no longer useful to him. Much like himself twenty years ago. But that all changed when his wife died. He returned his keys and ID card and received a final pay check and a packet describing his reduced benefits. On the cover was a picture of an older man with his arm around his spouse looking eager and delighted to face life after work. He flinched when he saw it. Lost in his thoughts he suddenly realized they were saying something to him and when he looked up they were already standing. He stood with them, shook hands, accepted their congratulations, and went off in search of a cardboard box.
He found one near the copying machine and returned to his cubicle to empty his desk. He filled it with a few folders, some pens, several books, a handful of manuals, several boxes of disks, a box of Kleenex, a coffee mug, an award he received from manufacturing, and a little stuffed badger he got from the accounting department in recognition of his tenacity after spending a long weekend finding and fixing an elusive bug in the accounting system. The flotsam of a career.
He shut his system down and sat looking at the blank screen for a long time. When he began his career, computers were wondrous things; large, mysterious and complicated. But they had lost some of their luster, hijacked by thoughtless people who used them as efficient delivery systems for trash and pornography. He left a sudden pang of sadness for all the creators who send their creations into the world only to see them ill-used. But the sadness quickly turned to an unexpected swelling of appreciation for these miracle machines that he had served for so long and had in turn served him. He was a good craftsmen and he respected his tools.
His coworkers had planned a going-away lunch for him, and several people came by to remind him that it was time to go.
He put the box in his car and drove to the nearby restaurant. They sat him at the head of a long table, toasted his retirement, recounted old war stories, asked him what he would do, and told him how lucky he was. There were cards, a bouquet of black balloons, and a parting gift. He thanked them all and the time passed too quickly.
He became aware that several people were checking their watches. Energetically, they were already moving away from him, like a herd leaving a wounded animal that might attract unwanted predators. There was no ill intent, but he was no longer a part of them. He was a man without a tribe.
Out in the parking lot there were hugs and handshakes and promises to keep in touch. He stood in the hot afternoon sun saying his good-byes and watched until the last of them drove off in the direction of the office, no longer his direction. He got back in his car and glanced at the dashboard clock. Not even 2:00 p.m. yet. A rare afternoon without obligations. He was about 200 miles from the coast, and if he left now he could make it well before sunset. It had been a long time since he’d seen the ocean.
He started the car, rolled the windows down, pulled out of the lot and headed West toward a distant horizon he could not yet see.