The scene would be familiar to those of us of a certain age: a gray sea of metal desks at which clerks sit from 9 to 5 clacking away at typewriters or old-fashioned adding machines, making carbon copies (remember them?) that no one may ever look at. Or forever recording rows of figures.
The popularity of "Mad Men" on television, that trip back in time, brought back the whole, narrow-tie, Borsalino era. I used to ride the
If it were a landscape, such an office could be titled the Sea of Futility, a place
To appreciate or rather apprehend the dismal quality of that kind of office, all it takes is a scene or two from a movie like "The Apartment" (1960), in which an innocent schnook -- lovable
It's in a similar movie, "Office Space" (1999), that one of the characters captures the air of despair that seemed to hover over such places. "We don't have a lot of time on this earth," he says. "We weren't meant to spend it this way."
Picture such an office: Lining this Bay of Boredom in the 1960s were private offices for those slightly higher in the pecking order. Those offices doors could actually be shut -- and so afforded a minimal privacy where middle managers could study their spreadsheets when they weren't giving full attention to office politics. Those little cubbyholes were coveted, and there's no telling how much ingenuity was wasted in conniving to get one.
But all that changed, or at least took on a different configuration, as the 1960s melded into the 1970s, and
What to do? Mr. Propst had the answer, or thought he did. Just change the design of the office! For what are we but the products of our built environment? Change our offices, and we can change ourselves. Make the office more human and we would all be human again. Voila!
So was born the concept and reality that would change the office world, and become the most dreaded word in the American lexicon: Cubicle.
That's a lot of weight for a single word, and idea, to bear. Especially when the cubicle was so simple an innovation: just a three-sided, open-ended box that was supposed to assure privacy and at the same time invite cooperation ("meaningful traffic"). For a personal touch, add a fern. Action Office II, introduced in 1968, was born to rave reviews. Eureka!
The sides of the box could be widened or narrowed to fit the status of its occupant at the time, small or great, little person or big cheese. By 1985 the
Interviewed once for a job at
We spent most of my interview with the Time editor talking about Salinger and
By the time Time came through with a job offer, I was already headed back South in not so quiet desperation. It was no surprise to learn years later that the exec at Time, a nice enough fellow of no particular talent, had been squeezed out. The walls had literally closed around him. The cubicle had claimed another of its own.