Bereft On The Coast
Many years ago in the newsroom of the small paper I worked for, I was interviewing the local parks and recreation director about his upcoming budget requests. I believe we were discussing tennis courts when a colleague from the ad side, who moonlighted as a reader of tarot cards, burst into the room and announced loudly and tearfully, "My husband has left me for another woman, and I am bereft!"
At that point another co-worker jumped from his chair, ran over to the woman and said, "You need a hug!" then proceded to administer one.
Did I mention this happened in California?
Throughout the morning, the sound of the jilted woman's wailing filled our broom-closet-sized quarters. I plugged away at my parks and recreation budget story, but it seemed awfully tame in comparison to the melodrama that was unfolding around me.
In the next few weeks the entire staff followed the protagonist through reproach, recrimination, revenge and, ultimately, reconciliation.
Did some of us exchange glances and suppress chuckles along the way? Well, yes. Did we wonder among ourselves why she hadn't seen all this in the cards? Did we joke about needing hugs? Of course. Did we also feel sympathy and concern for the woman? Sure, we did.
We were, if not family, at least members of the same community.
There is something about the combination of familiarity, proximity, routine, deadlines, lofty goals, petty gripes and shared purpose that forges workplace communities, and I suspect it is as true of factories, hospitals and construction sites as it is of publication offices.
The people you work with are your comrades-in-arms, your daily companions, your neighbors for five days out of every seven. Some become friends; some don't. But there is a genuine bond — no less real for being temporary.
Every workday crisis, tough task or collective mistake strengthens the connections. Your co-workers are the people you drink your morning coffee with, eat lunch with, share rituals with. How many office bridal showers do you attend over the course of a career? How many birthday cake slices on wobbly paper plates do you consume? How many cards do you sign, how many flower funds do you contribute to? How many "Please Don't Leave Your Dirty Cup In The Sink" signs in office kitchens do you ignore?
More often than not, you find yourself involved in other people's lives — in matters grave and trivial. You know whose kid is playing softball, failing math or taking piano lessons. Whose spouse is ill, whose has lost a job.
Most of us have sat in hospital waiting rooms with colleagues, cried at funerals and danced at weddings, wiped baby spit-up from the shoulders of our work suits when new arrivals made their first visit to the office. We've offered Kleenex and sympathy, listened to minor grumbles and major complaints, suffered embarrassments, meted out encouragement, served as mediators, shared a lot of inside jokes and reveled in the you-had-be-there brand of hilarity peculiar to every office.
At the California newspaper referenced earlier, where the scorned woman offered daily performances, another reporter and I disgraced ourselves in a quite different manner. We came that close to being thrown out of the inaugural Brown Bag Opera Lunch sponsored by the local Friends of the Library.
We were sitting on folding chairs in the library with the local gentility, munching our tuna sandwiches, sipping our bottled drinks and feeling very good about supporting the local arts scene. All was well until a comically bad male vocal duo, dressed in matching sportcoats, began to sing a medley of Rodgers and Hammerstein favorites.
"People Will Say We're in Love" went well, but things started to fall apart at "Hello, Young Lovers." We giggled semi-quietly and looked at the floor. But at the point the songsters started in on "We Kiss in the Shadows," the two of us regressed to junior-high school assembly behavior. Our shoulders shook, our eyes teared and our hands covered our mouths in an attempt to suppress the laughter. It didn't work. We made a not-particularly-subtle emergency exit, leaving our brown bags and our dignity behind. We were bereft.