This post originally ran 30 January 2013.
When my number one son was young he saw a TV show in which a group of people were scurrying about in an office nest. We were good parents and tried to screen the programs he saw, but you can’t catch everything. Turns out this wasn’t the first time he was exposed to this adult material. His curiosity was piqued.
“What are those things called, dad?” he asked.
“Cubicles, my boy,” I answered.
“There are so many of them. What do people do in them?”
The wife and I broke into spontaneous laughter. This was the only answer we would give him, despite his many pleas. Saying more would have been child abuse.
Only later when he had grown and had stumbled into one did he realize their full horror. This may explain why he is now aiming himself at the Amazon (the real one, not the Seattle simulacrum).
A month back I had to be in New Braunfels, which is a bit north of San Antonio. Too far north, so I stayed in a chain motel right off the highway. A watercolor painting of a flower—at least I think it was a flower—no doubt part of a set bought by the gross and made by machine, hung behind the bed, which itself was covered by a duvet with the same pattern found on your better sort of bus seat.
After my business I had to eat. I was too tired to drive down to San Antonio but there was a strip mall the other side of the highway. Same boxy stores you find everywhere, even when you aren’t looking. No grocery store, always a safe bet, so I opted for a chain “sports bar”. It was that, a “steak house”, or Burger King. Bar had metal seats, photographs picked out by an MBA, screens everywhere. Flip-book of cocktails (they’re always discovering new ways to mix sugar with alcohol) with colored pictures for those not in the mood to read.
Pizza seemed safe, but it was a made from a crust that was stamped from a machine hidden in the depths of a Cleveland food mine and trucked across country. As I munched my salad consisting of a nearly frozen greenish leaf with “balsamic” vinaigrette “on the side”, I immediately recalled sitting one day in the Hotel School’s library at Cornell, thumbing trade magazines. They advertised foodstuffs which came out of an assembly line and into bags which could be soaked in hot water or “nuked.” The ad boasted that all the big chains used the same factory. Yum.
On my drive back to the Austin airport, I passed an Outlet mall. These are the physical manifestations of television shopping channels. Hurry! Sale ends soon! If Dante had known about malls, his comedy would have had a snappier punchline.
In the summer I strolled up Cathedral Hill in San Francisco, and thought I should head into church to say hi to the Big Man at a place called Saint Mary of the Assumption. Glass embedded in a slab of concrete topped by a four-corner, ten-story concrete hat. It is more formidable than any prison. Edifice is whitewashed, which reflects all of the California sun into your eyes. Inside there is nothing but cold brutal emptiness. I’m not investigating, but I’m sure this place must have won an award.
A friend on mine works downtown in one of those glass-and-steel three-dimensional rectangles which stand on edge. He does well for himself and has an actual office which looks out onto the river. The office walls are white-ish and bare. Except for the south wall, which is ceiling-to-floor glass. No curtains or arras to hide behind. The windows don’t open.
Functioning windows are architecturally dead. Finance managers concerned only with eking out every fractional cent and thus worried that real windows would let out the heat combined with human “resource” managers who were terrified there’d be no way to track the effect of working windows on “360-degree” feedback forms, both conspired with “starchitects” to design “spaces” of perfect uniformity and sterility. These would “maximize productivity.”
This is what hell with be. Strict, unending monotony. Eternal unchangeable sameness. Nothing moves because there is nowhere to go that isn’t exactly like where you are. Infinite conformity.
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