It’s seven fifteen in the morning and I’m sitting on a train headed toward one of North America’s largest and most rapidly declining cities. There’s an important meeting that needs each district to be at head office in person, first thing. A light breakfast will be served along with lunch.
There’s a young man sitting across the aisle from me. He’s hungry for business, to prove himself and carve out some success in the corporate world. They aren’t hard to spot. Ill fitting, hand-me-down suit and a copy of the latest business self-help/motivator in his hand. He’s being efficient by using his commute time to increase his knowledge both before and after voluntary late shifts at the office. Shifts that are always punctuated with some sign to the boss that he’s still there as the boss goes home. I’ve no doubt that he listens to sales or motivational podcasts while walking from the train to his cubicle just to squeeze in a little more know-how. They aren’t hard to spot. My suits are a little more modern and fit better now, but I still have a pile of those same books collecting dust in a closet somewhere. The podcasts are long since deleted.
Twenty minutes by car to the train station. Forty five minutes by train to the downtown core. Ten minutes on foot to the office and I’ve arrived. A brand new building towering over the competitor’s that resides just across the street. It’s a building set up for the digital age with preactivated QR codes that only get you to the floors where you’re allowed and information panels on all the offices and meeting rooms for maximum efficiency. It’s made complete with inspirational quotes embossed on the walls from the company president who commissioned its construction.
If I had let the drugs fully take hold in college and signed up for that lesbian defence theory class I’d be tempted to say this two billion dollar eyesore was a monument to his dick. Come to think of it, those guys might actually be right.
Passing through the glass doors (no, not those doors, they’re locked but the ones right next to them — you access these doors) it’s only a few more minutes walk to our designated meeting room. A light breakfast consisting of fruit and plastic package store bought muffins is already laid out. Most of my colleagues are already seated and discussing the intricacies of navigating one of the worst cities in the world to drive and just how long it took them to get here. Scattered standard salesmen chatter can be heard throughout.
“Wesley is a shark man, he’s always closing deals. The guy never stops.”
“Now everyone knows John is a patient guy, he really came through in that joint client meeting.”
“Yeah, maybe patient for that deal. Haha.” Forced sterile laughter.
I’m already nauseated.
It’s another room full of empty suits with nothing interesting to say. Just endless attempts at one-upmanship and not so subtly trying to get their boss to overhear their zeal for the work. Some, mainly the veterans, are silent.
We were told that this is what we should strive for. Most of our parents worked menial labour in hopes that we wouldn’t have to deal with sunburns, cracked hands, and fatal injuries at work. They saw the suits heading home at five o’clock, long before they were set to punch out, and told us to get those jobs. Now we’ve found them.
The traditional icebreaker roundtable ensues with the added bonus of a fun fact about you. It will be very important to learn that Lester is a foodie and can eat five meals a day if his wife didn’t keep him in line for the presentations that involve no audience participation. Also, most of us work in different districts so we will likely never see one another again. When it’s my turn I do what I’ve been doing for years: I bring up things that no one is interested in. I state my name, how long I’ve worked for the company (but it sure feels longer than that, haha), and this time, I tell them that I can recite the entirety of the Major General’s Song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. Truth is I can do most of it but I always get thrown for a loop at the part about the frogs of Aristophanes. There are no follow up questions or jokes (those are reserved for Lester and others with “fun” facts that are at least somewhat anchored in the reality of the presenter) and they move on to their next victim. I make a quiet bet with myself that I will not have to speak again for the remainder of the day.
(I heard that song in a video game once and that’s about the extent of my knowledge of Gilbert and Sullivan.)
Our District Vice President, Her Majesty herself, is the first speaker who explains to us that it will be a tough year considering the state of the economy, inflation, and the housing market but that we’ll just have to buckle down and work as a team. Reach out to your clients. Don’t you think they’ll go to someone else who is listening more actively to their concerns? Involve your colleagues and collaborate. For a job that is nothing more than sales versus the competition (meaning everyone that isn’t you regardless of where they work) the delusion of collaboration persists year after year. Much like this speech which we endure year after year with differing reasons to buckle down. Quotas will still increase. After the pep talk comes what is likely the worst part of the day: the first break also known as the bathroom bro down.
You’ve traveled for over an hour, ate before leaving and after getting there, and then you’ve spent the next two hours being lectured while you drank water and coffee to pass the time and keep yourself awake. The most prized real estate in the entire city is now the bathroom and we’re taking a road trip together to get there.
Lance (or a name like it, several people can take his place without anyone noticing) explains his stock picks. He’s been wrong for years now but that never stops him from doling out advice to anyone willing to listen. Other guys get loud, throw their arm around another man and ask vigorously how exactly it’s goin’ buddy. Been too long, they’ve got to go on a run together sometime soon. We got hot takes on the game last night and who’s taking home the belt for the big fight this weekend. If we had beers to shotgun I’d be right back in college. It’s macho bravado time featuring a group of middle aged men and their increasingly doughy figures. I piss and leave without washing my hands.
Another two mind numbing presentations which are eerily similar to the presentations last year except not over Zoom where I can enjoy the comfort of my underpants and we’re getting close to noon. My head hurts. Mercifully, I hear the trolley carrying lunch creaking down the hall. When they tell us that lunch is served and that we can help ourselves, I shamelessly get up first and beeline to the grub. Rookies make the mistake of thinking it looks bad if you’re first out of the meeting. But they don’t realize until it’s too late that the company never orders enough food and that you will be starved with no other opportunity to eat until you’re home. They also have yet to witness our DVP dual wielding plates as to avoid having to waddle back to the table for seconds. It’s the standard stone cold mushy sandwiches cut into squares. If you daisy chain enough of them you may be able to cobble a half meal together for yourself.
The grand poobah’s suggestion to “network” during lunch sits poorly on my ear and I take a walk around our brand spanking new building. I had the last quarter chicken wrap (that’s not a quarter chicken, it’s a quarter of a chicken wrap) and I feel like I’m making my escape before anyone notices. I take the rest of the break to marvel at the avant-garde artwork used for decoration. I’m unable to venture to other floors and see more masterful works of tree bark and recycled bicycle parts that brighten our halls and I am somehow disappointed. Million dollar art is rare and, at the very least, I could have read more quotes from our king. I consider for a moment colouring in one of His teeth with a pen but I’m sure this high tech building has some kind of electronic countermeasure that would see me paralyzed if He was defaced.
After lunch we’re to hear from Emily who is going to review the exciting new products we have lined up for next fiscal (and this is the worst time to present because you guys are all full and sleepy, haha). They are identical to last year’s with the same tips on selling them, who would want them, how they can fit into someone’s life, and where you can find more information. I have been hearing this same speech semi-annually for the last six years. And I’m quite sure they make us use these uncomfortable seats to keep us awake.
We are five hours into this nightmare and I am getting delirious. People shift in visible discomfort as they’ve been kept seated and still for hours on end. For those of us who have been doing this job for years, it’s getting harder to stay conscious. William has nodded off twice. The seats are not infallible. Few are volunteering to speak or “share” save the neophytes but time will have them soon enough. There are only three hours left of years old presentations presented by those who have been presenting them for years. We would have had another break as the next slide promises another hour and a half later but we’ve decided to “power through it” in order to “let you guys get outta here a little earlier.” I don’t recall a vote.
And we never get outta here a little earlier.
At this point I have quietly left mid presentation twice to simply walk around the building aimlessly. This is a last ditch effort to save what remains of my sanity as we review the same slides, the same talking points, and the same motivational quips and tips that we’ve seen countless times before. I pass more conference rooms filled with others marooned inside and wonder if I would be some kind of folk hero if I just pulled the fire alarm and led us out of this bondage Moses-style.
Another hour and a half and my headache has morphed into a migraine. My back is tense and my legs are seizing in pain. I think about how even if we left immediately I still would not be home for hours and I begin silently praying to whatever will listen for an airplane to strike this building. I would have genuinely welcomed a new golden age of terrorism if it could just free us of this torment of which I am sure there is a Geneva Convention in place. Anything to get away from this nightmare of psychobabble and sad attempts at energizing a group of jaded employees. All this effort to suck a few more dimes out of them before they inevitably follow the example set by 20% of the existing workforce and leave for greener pastures.
I’m worried my boss’ boss will spot me writing this but she’s on her phone too. It doesn’t stop the last few holdouts from asking inane questions just to be heard for a moment hoping that she’ll take notice and prolonging this mockery of life just a little bit longer. She does not notice and then excuses herself as she conveniently has another meeting to attend just before traffic begins.
Finally, with little daylight and even less patience remaining, one of the presenters gets up and thanks us for our time (and for coming down on a Friday, haha). He insists that if anyone has any feedback, any feedback at all regarding what they should do more or less of for future presentations, to please not hesitate and reach out. Since Covid is over, we will be doing this again soon. I resist the urge to throw my stone-seated chair at him with my feedback. Then he tells us that we will complete one final exercise (I was on one of my aforementioned sanity walks for the last one) before heading home to enjoy the weekend. I think I can taste vomit. Just write up what changes you will be making for next fiscal based on today’s vital meeting and fire it off in an email to your sales team manager. The sales manager that is not attending today’s meeting and has already gone home. We’ll take about twenty minutes or so to complete this.
I think I can taste blood and vomit.
Ten minutes later, my email was sent seven minutes ago and I don’t believe that I can hide my hate any longer. The presenter tells us not to be shy and that if we’re finished we can just something or other. I can’t hear him over the sound of rushing wind as I am almost running down the hall toward the state of the art elevators. I already had my coat on. Long ago I lost the stomach for pleasantries with people I will never see again and I merely grunt in my table’s direction as I make my exit. Statistically speaking, two of them will no longer work here by month’s end.
It’s eight fifteen in the evening and I am home resting comfortably with the knowledge that we have wasted a workday and that I am starting behind on Monday. I won the bet and lost a part of my life that I will never get back.