Weirdos at Work

I work with a man that we call “Bend Over”. He’s in his 50s and lithe, lanky in the way that men of that age will be if they drink too much or sleep too little. He’s also very tall, so he looks a bit like an average man’s shadow at dusk, and after work, I often see him running home on the sidewalk like a pale wraith, with his legs swinging like sinewy croquet mallets, face knotted resolutely. He clearly falls into the category of men who get very little sleep and seems to have deep conduits of vitality running through him. I’ve estimated, based on where I’ve spotted Bend Over running (from my car, naturally), and where he says he lives, that his run home is at least fifteen miles. Age cannot put its cloak over him.

He is proud of those legs, with their globular muscles and sturdy knees, and he used to wear uncomfortably short shorts year round until someone of weak disposition complained about the obscenity of his britches. As a result, he had to attend a meeting with higher ups from the Company who made him bend over, hence the moniker, to see what might be revealed. After that meeting and some negotiations, the Company and the Union agreed on a suitable length of trousers for him to wear, which reach to the top of his knees. He complained to everyone who would listen about this and soon we were all calling him Bend Over.

In general, Bend Over despises the Company and will unleash jeremiads about it at the drop of a “Good morning!” This makes it difficult to talk to him and I often find myself navigating between avoiding him entirely, which might well alienate him, and triggering his flood of invective by chatting with him. His tirades can be unending. He doesn’t really seem to work very much and is in a strangely combative relationship with the Company, and yet he also doesn’t seem inclined to leave. The Union steadily defends his right to be there. For a time, there was a conflict because Bend Over would show up for work and then disappear for most of his shift. The Company gave him a pager, which he claimed never worked, and the Company and the Union fought over that as well. Our Union rep is nearly as strange as Bend Over and I remember their conversation at the annual Christmas party.

B.O.: Why do they want to take our pictures?

Me: It’s the Christmas picture for the newsletter.

B.O. They don’t have the right to take my picture! I refuse! Who’s going to get that picture?

Coworker: It goes up in the break room and I believe Mossad gets a copy. (Laughter)

Union Rep: Don’t worry everyone. The Union says we don’t have to be in the Christmas picture. We can refuse. It’s a violation of our privacy.

As I sat there listening to this winding conversation and considering committing ho-ho-homicide, a few random but related thoughts occurred to me. They’ve been coming back regularly over the year that I’ve worked for this Company.

The first is that Unions such as ours are the worst possible solution to a problem that Companies such as ours create, with the rest of us getting stuck in the middle. Namely, the Union fights most vigorously to defend the continued employment of workers at the outer edges of dysfunction who probably should be fired. I don’t think those of us who generally defend unions acknowledge this quite enough, but it tends to give the Company a negative view of unionized workers overall. All organizations have a few people who don’t exactly pull their weight; ours are there for life unless they commit some horribly egregious sin.

The problem for the rest of us is that the Company is pushing to undertake a complete “casualization” of its labor force, regardless of service, which means that we still need the Union. The movement to only hire part-time minimum wage workers on short-term contracts along with other temps is fairly universal across the industry, and many, if not most industries at this point, and it keeps gaining force and momentum. Ignoring all the corporate blather about “flexibility” and “streamlining”, I think it’s fairly clearly motivated by the traditional administrative obsession with control; power, in other words. Again, it’s average workers like myself who get stuck in the middle. Even if we excel at our work, we need the Union rallying to keep our jobs, and the Union in turn spends a great deal of its time and energy keeping the worst of our coworkers employed.

A secondary thought is that I work with a great number of square pegs and misfits. If we’re being honest here, I’m fairly odd myself. It’s entirely possible that some of my quirks and eccentricities would get me fired elsewhere: I lose things constantly, work on writing until the wee hours of the night before work, often seem to be daydreaming, and am generally best at working alone. This is important and related because there’s a subtle ideology in our society about labor jobs such as this one; a sort of vulgar Cartesianism wherein the intelligent or educated will naturally work best in a white collar office setting, while those on the lower end of the intelligence spectrum should work with their bodies at semi-skilled labor jobs like this one. What gets overlooked is that there are many of us for whom the thought of sitting in a cubicle staring at a screen is simply more painful than cleaning toilets for just above minimum wage. I work with writers, musicians, religious seekers, some PhDs, and more than a few weirdos, like myself. I work with a few high school dropouts too, but not as many as I think people would suspect.

At least, this is the impression I get from my white collar friends who ask “Why do you clean toilets? You’re smart!” I get the same impression from many of the people whose offices I clean, particularly the ones who speak to me very slowly and simply. I should mention though that I work at a university, which is a huge corporate enterprise sustained by the belief that intelligence naturally leads to professional employment, which, in turn, leads to some sort of personal fulfillment. When polls show that roughly 70% of workers feel disengaged from what they do, this can’t possibly be true. I suspect that many of us do things to pay our bills but consider our true work to be elsewhere. As I often say to my artist friends: in 2015, nobody cares whether or not William Faulkner was a good or a bad night watchman.

Finally, when we talk, as we often do nowadays, about income inequality and employment ‘precarity’, it would be good to consider our own assumptions about different sorts of work and the people who do that work, and how those assumptions contribute to these situations. At some point, we need to realize that for many, if not most, of us, what we do during the working day has nothing to do with who we are.

And yet, we all (more or less) have to work in this world. Even us weirdos.

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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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53 thoughts on “Weirdos at Work

      • ha… i heard that phrase from people at Harrah’s casino in AC. They didn’t want a union while most of the other casinos had unions. They lived by that motto so they made sure to treat staff well and give them at least as much as the workers in the union shops got. In a sense the staff there were free riding on the unions. But it worked for them and the staff at the Harrah’s was motivated and effective workers.


  1. Re: 70 percent disengaged.

    I’ve always wondered with the large amounts of memes and other internet distractions is because a lot of people are very bored at what they do most of the time.

    No job is perfect. I am lucky that I like what I do and find most of it interesting. There is also a lot of political and social debates about jobs on the left. The schools of thought seem to be:

    1. Bullshit Jobs. This is a heavily Marxist influenced theory that seems to argue that the entire modern economy is really nothing more than a hoodwink and most of our jobs are not necessary and we are just fooling ourselves. The problem with this theory is that it doesn’t really have an alternative replacement and seems to be adamantly opposed to the idea that anyone can love a white-collar/professional job. The prime example from the original essay is a guy that went from punk rocker to corporate lawyer because he had a kid. The BS Jobs theory seems to think we all want to be punk rockers at heart. There was also a surprisingly little questioning about how why the guy went into corporate law instead of something else like immigration or family law.

    2. Don’t do what you love. I can get behind this one easily because it is more about injecting realism into finding jobs as depressing as that is.


    • Most people probably get their job to make a living rather than out of any particular passion. They might accidentally fall in love with their job or place of an employment but it isn’t something that happens by design. The BS jobs theory sounds like a theory that is too clever by a half. Humans were perfectly fine with a hunter-gatherer civilization for most of our history. Any job that isn’t strictly necessary for barebones survival can get characterized as bull shit. A lot of these bullshit jobs make life a lot easier and more bearable.


    • I’d have to see the Marxist essay about bullshit jobs. I don’t think most jobs are unnecessary, but I can think of a few that could disappear without too much trouble. Interestingly, though, the jobs that seem fairly critical to me for reasons of health and sanitation are ones that very few people have a calling to do, but plenty of people do them, myself included.

      I know an extremely talented drummer, punk and otherwise, who works as a corporate accountant and tells me that he envies the freedom I have with my shit jobs. The best advice I ever got is that, if you’re going to make art, find a day job and don’t get very good at it.


      • Besides the stereotypical bartender/food server gigs, I seem to know a lot of artists who settle into 9 to 5 office jobs that offer security but perhaps and reasonable wages. The more ambitious ones go for jobs that offer flexible schedules like real estate and sales.


  2. I’m reading through the British historian Dominic Sandbrook’s four volume history of Britain from 1957 to 1979 and watched his documentary on the United Kingdom during the 1970s. When he is writing about British union activity at the time what really struck me was how short-sighted and un-strategic a lot of it was. It seems that a lot of the actions were almost designed to piss people not in unions off like a strike of a support staff at a children’s hospital during a bad winter riddled with strikes from other unions. I’m not sure what they were thinking or if they were thinking at all.


  3. I work with some very very smart folks. And I work with some weird ones too. I’m one of the more weirder ones. This is true: I suspect that many of us do things to pay our bills but consider our true work to be elsewhere. While I enjoy my job, and am good at it, it’s not my passion. It FUNDS my passion, sadly not at the level I would prefer, but it’s enough.


  4. Riffing off the few comments up as much as the OP:

    My sister and I were each raised to believe that hard work was its own reward. I don’t know that this axiom is deep down in our bones that way it was with our father, but it’s still pretty deeply ingrained. I get the sense in a lot of places — and maybe especially here, actually — that this is not a very commonly held belief these days.


    • I believe in hard work and that you need to work at something to be good at it. But the idea that “hard work is its own reward” sounds a bit too compliant and subservient to me. The idea sounds like something developed by titans of industry to prevent their employees from asking for their fair share. Corporations exist because of the people. People don’t exist because of the Corporations.


      • :

        Do you think “hard work is its own reward” should be a commonly held belief?

        No, not really. But then I am not someone who tends to think anything should be a commonly held belief, or at least not anything beyond the peace on earth goodwill toward men-level stuff. That being said, I think it’s an attitude that has served my both sister and I well over the years. In fact, I think it’s the primary reason for whatever success we’ve each had in our chosen careers.

        How can you defend the idea in an age of income inequality?

        Well, I’m not sure why I should have to defend the one against the other because I don’t believe that income inequality and hard work are very closely related. I’m not sure how much income and hard work are that related, to be honest with you. I’ve known too many lazy people, hard working people, and people everywhere in between at all points of the income spectrum to think one has a causal relationship with the other.

        One of the inherent disconnects I have with income equality as a political rallying point is that it generally forces people to tie together first wealth and happiness, and later wealth and morality. I firmly reject both of these ideas. People that I have met in my life are happy and/or moral — or not — for reasons that have nothing to do with their income.

        But to answer a question you’re not quite asking: My experience is that — generally speaking — people who approach their work from a “it’s its own reward” POV are not only happier, they tend to have more fulfilling work and find more success in their profession. I’m not entirely sure why this is. It might be that they are more engaged at work; it might be that they are lee likely to be hindered by obstacles. It might just be social dynamics. Or perhaps it’s simply because people who think working hard is its own reward tend to be less constricted by what they do for work, because they are not waiting for just the right bargain from a higher-up person to dive into what they most want to do. (Dave Ryan is a pretty great example of this, I think.)


        • I pretty much agree with you, Tod, and I was probably raised to believe that work is it’s own reward and, relatedly, we should be grateful for the jobs we can get. I might feel differently if I hadn’t been well-served by those attitudes, though. It’s quite possible–it’s actually a fact–that I have a lot of unearned and unworked for advantages that have made it possible for my attitude toward work to be so rewarding. It might be a lot different if I came from more constrained circumstances.

          Also, about lazy people annoying the heck out of you and Rufus…..same here, but I often notice times at my job where I slack off, or check personal email, or just get involved in water-cooler conversations. So maybe even the hard working types are lazy, too, without acknowledging or fully realizing it. I also tend to think that lazy workers make it easier for my “hard work” to stand out, so their laziness makes me a bit more secure in my employment. I think we’re all in the mix.


          • I think we often mischaracterize a lack of output as laziness. Some of the hardest working people I’ve ever known were completely inept. What most people resent as “laziness” is really just getting so little done that the rest of the team has to pull the slacker’s weight. People who get their work done but also hang out at the water cooler aren’t usually called “lazy” even though they’re chilling when they could be getting extra work done.


            • I agree. I’d like to think I’m the type of person who gets his work done and yet takes time to socialize or recharge or whatever. There are also sometimes people who really don’t get their work done and who take frequent 15+ minute breaks and who make it necessary for others to cover for them, etc.

              I do believe, however, that the line that divides the first group from the second is not necessarily as clear as it might seem at first.


              • Drawing the line definitely isn’t easy (especially since we don’t know all the details about what our coworkers are really doing), but we do know who’s doing what at each end of the distribution.

                My work ethic rules are less along the lines of, “Work hard, always,” and more along the lines of, “Don’t let your extra leisure come at the expense of somebody else who is doing your work.” People who don’t do much work but also don’t make others pick up their slack don’t bother me at all. The guy who does occasional odd jobs and lives out of his van so he can surf works just fine for me. The guy who takes breaks during the work day and lets others pick up his slack can go get hit by a truck.


            • I’m lucky. Where I am now in my career, I generally am paid for results, rather than output. And my team most often consists of me wearing a number of different hats (at one point literally, I stole from one of my grad school professors and literally had hats on my desk that I would switch between when talking to people).

              My ethic is that if I am being depended on to deliver X result in Y time units, I do at least enough to git-r-done. I’m not obliged to offer more, and whether I do so is entirely dependent on other factors – morale, outside responsibilities, how I feel about the customer.

              So I could just as easily be answering a support call at 2am on the Saturday between Christmas and New Years (this actually happened), telecommuting for 12-16 hours over the weekend, long water-cooler conversations only tangentially relevant to work, or spending an entire afternoon on TV Tropes.


    • My upbringing would be closer to “there’s no such thing as demeaning work,” I think. Throwing hay bales up on the wagon may be hard, dirty, somewhat dangerous, and not pay for sh*t, but it’s not demeaning.

      And was mechanized decades ago, because it got to be difficult to find people who would do it for less than the costs of the equipment.


  5. nobody cares whether or not William Faulkner was a good or a bad night watchman.

    Little-known fact: Absalom, Absalom was inspired by an incident where one of the company’s sheds burned down on Faulkner’s watch. He was told to find out what happened, but everyone he talked to had a different story.

    Second little-known fact: Faulkner began as a junior executive, but was demoted to night watchman after he proved himself incapable of writing memos that anybody without a degree in English could understand.


  6. I am someone who has a bullshit job. I cannot count the number of times I’ve completed a project that I was somewhat proud of only to hand it in to watch my boss thank me then light it on fire in front of me.

    My job could disappear tomorrow with nobody even noticing.

    I daydream about writing a children’s book, I daydream about winning the lottery, I daydream about doing a job that does not get set on fire in front of me at the end of the project.


  7. I have had jobs which weren’t bullshit, in that what I did was actually important to the success of the company I worked for, and my leaving would have been a real loss. Now, I’m a tiny cog in a huge machine, and while what I do does matter, if I stopped doing it I could be replaced by someone just as good the next day. I honestly can’t say that’s made a lot of difference to my sense of self-worth.


  8. … It really doesn’t sound like you have truly weird people working at your job…
    Just people a little eccentric, and even then not terribly much.

    You haven’t even mentioned people willing to eat 5 day old burgers that haven’t been refrigerated…


  9. My sister and I were each raised to believe that hard work was its own reward. I don’t know that this axiom is deep down in our bones that way it was with our father, but it’s still pretty deeply ingrained. I get the sense in a lot of places — and maybe especially here, actually — that this is not a very commonly held belief these days.

    You know, this is one of those parenting areas…

    I am not a fan of the Puritan work ethic or the worship of work attitudes, which is where this can very easily go if you aren’t careful.

    On the other hand, about 70% of life is doing stuff you don’t want to do… even if it is in service of something you want to do.

    I know a lot of folks who love music, and enjoy playing instruments, but I don’t know too many of them that ascribe the same amount of joy they do to performing that they do to tuning their instruments or practicing scales.

    Jack and Hannah are both old enough that this is something that they struggle with. I want to do X. I don’t want to do all that stuff that you have to do to be good at X, because that stuff is totes boring.

    The distinction that I’m currently working on instilling is the distinction between enjoyment and satisfaction. Doing something *well* is something that should give you satisfaction, even if it doesn’t give you enjoyment.

    I don’t think it will stick until their mid-twenties, but hey, work in progress…


    • I always keep in mind something my first college math professor said. “I don’t know where people get the idea that learning is supposed to be fun. Sometimes learning is fun, but sometimes it’s downright miserable. Sometimes you just need to sit down and work on your Taylor series expansions until you’re good at it. Knowing is fun. Learning is hard work.”


      • Yes, very similar version of the same disconnect.

        The process very often sucks. It’s boring, repetitive, annoying, frustrating, you hit plateaus where you go a long way without seeing visible progress, and the cold truth as well – many of the things you might want to do, you may never ever get to be as good as you’d like at it… why folks try to message this as “its own reward” has never made sense to me. I didn’t buy that for one second when I was a kid. Kids aren’t stupid.

        It’s not a reward. It’s just ass. It’s part of the base of the human condition, and it’s not a fun base.

        The reward is what gets opened up by the work. A better understanding of art. The ability to build something that won’t fall down. An enhanced ability to express yourself through music. A deeper understanding of your self. Any one of a million other outcomes.


    • “The distinction that I’m currently working on instilling is the distinction between enjoyment and satisfaction. Doing something *well* is something that should give you satisfaction, even if it doesn’t give you enjoyment.”

      This is an increadibly well phased idea and one I feel that we need to focus on more and more. As you well point out, the Prot Work Ethic can be a massive barrier to many, but the idea that you have your stamp, so to speak, on everything you do is very important.


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