Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

‘Life in the Cube Farm’

The copier needed toner.

“What is toner, anyway?” asked Kurt, scratching his pate through his thinning hair.

I told him. No one wanted to replace the toner, because no one wanted to get black splotches on their hands, shirts, pants, ties … toner ends up everywhere, even though it is kept in a hard plastic tube with no discernible openings.

“Can’t Tracy do it? Isn’t that her job?” Kurt said.

Rasheed pointed out that since Tracy got promoted from Secretary to Administrative Assistant, she didn’t have to change the toner cartridges anymore. She was too busy.

“Well, I still make more money than her, promotion or not, so I don’t think I should have to do it. Can’t they make a cartridge that doesn’t shit black all over you?”

Rasheed said what they were all thinking. “The temp should have to do it.”

I was rolling up my sleeves before he even finished his sentence.


I was sitting at my desk when I heard Desiree and Miranda talking in the cube next to mine. They were keeping their voices down, but there’s no privacy in the office, and anyway, Miranda has a way about her.

She wasn’t being treated fairly, she said. The boss didn’t fully appreciate her talents or the contribution she could make to the team. I typed just enough to make it sound like I was working. They thought I had my headphones on.

Desiree was trying to reassure her. Desiree, as a lead, is Miranda’s immediate supervisor, and she could explain to Miranda that Austin, her supervisor, didn’t have anything against Miranda.

Miranda wasn’t buying it. It was the same story I’ve heard hundreds of times, and I was about to put my music back on for real when Miranda said, “He’s cheating on his wife, you know.”

The mother lode of office gossip! I went quickly into Word and typed random letters furiously, just to imitate work. I hummed along to my non-existent music.

“What are you talking about? She just had a baby. He loves them both.”

The chain of command in office gossip runs through a few oracles around the company, and Miranda name-checked the Delphic one. “Missy Herman told me. He and that slut Veronica were eating lunch together the one day, and Missy saw him touch her a little too familiarly. And they go to Seattle on those ‘business trips’ — I bet he’s giving her the business all right.”

“I wouldn’t take anything Missy says too seriously.”

“She knew about that guy’s drug habit, didn’t she? And that other guy, you know –” she lowered her voice, and I knew what was coming, “– the fag, she knew he died of AIDS.”

Desiree’s certainty was wavering. “Still …”

“Listen, I don’t want you to do anything about it. I just have to accept that I’m going to be overlooked because I’m a woman. It’s the way of the world. He gets to buy the cow and get the milk for free, and I’m stuck. ‘Sokay.”

I really did turn my music back on then.


I discounted Miranda’s accusation because I liked Austin. He picked me up in HR on my first day and showed me around the unit. He’s a personable guy, and treats his employees — even Miranda — fairly. And he actually asked me what I did before this job.

The rest of the unit left me alone. They didn’t know what I did and didn’t want to know. They had bigger things on their mind — some merger with a competitor — and didn’t care if health insurance eligibility was interfacing to the claims systems correctly. I pointed out to Desiree that if the eligibility didn’t interface correctly and it was one of their claims, they’d be interested soon enough.

“We don’t get sick in this unit,” she said. “Austin doesn’t allow it.” She said it with a straight face.

They put me next to her, back in a corner, which suited me just fine — I was close to the windows, and any view of the outside world was welcome. Pettygrove Park is a lovely little spot, and in the spring there’s all manner of people jogging, strolling, or just sitting in it. The kids from the day-care center down the street show up every morning about ten and draw hopscotch squares on the ground in pink chalk and run up the hills surrounding the center piazza, screaming their lungs out the way only children can. I like to walk across the park to the store in the building blocking the park from Market Street in downtown Portland, the gleaming cube everyone calls the Black Box because of its tinted windows, when the kids are out there because they often react to an adult in their midst as if the big person is a strange alien, and they are in awe of its power. A petty feeling, in my case, but it strokes my ego.

Some of my co-workers came back to welcome me. Most didn’t. That was fine — I was only there part-time, and who wants to get to know someone who by definition is not going to be around for long? So I sat there, reading about the eligibility systems, taking the pressure of Desiree, and collecting my 250 bucks every week. “Time for that case of Hamm’s” became my only half-joking mantra. Desiree liked my sense of humor, and was glad I was back near her to keep her sane. She worked close to 60 hours a week even after they brought me in to take some of her workload.


There was a culture of raunchiness around the office. Why this exists is probably due to some primitive desire of man to express his sexuality in a repressed environment. I’m not an anthropologist. I was on an email list for the entire unit, but did not receive the really bad jokes that circulate throughout the company — those were for the chosen few. I knew of them, however, because Katherine, another lead, was very loud and found these jokes extremely funny and shared them with anyone within earshot — basically the entire floor.

” ‘… it said to place it on your organ and you won’t get disease. And I did, and I haven’t gotten a cold all winter!’ ” She was finishing a joke as I walked over. Kurt, Rasheed, and Jamie were there, but they dispersed quickly when I arrived.

“What’s up, Elmer?” She had found out that I wanted to get a doctorate, and since Ph.D. sounds like “Fudd,” “Elmer” became my nickname. I don’t make these things up; I just go along.

“We have a problem with CAD.”

“Shit, tell me something I don’t know.”

Austin walked past me, and I had to squeeze into her cube to let him by. Her perfume smelled like Elizabeth Taylor.

“MES is not allowing a new coverage line to interface. I checked CAD and one of the children is duplicated. Once as a child, once as a student. We have to get this problem fixed, Katherine. It happens too often.”

“You know what you’re going to have to do …”

“Trouble flag it?”

“See, Elmer, you’re getting the hang of things. Let those pricks in IT take care of it. They need the work.”

Rasheed came up behind me. “Kat, if you’re not busy, Austin’s ready for our meeting.

“Gotcha. Hey, you guys, did you hear? Darla and Buckwheat are in school together …”


Tracy was Austin’s Administrative Assistant. She ordered supplies for the unit.

“I need a stapler, Tracy.”

She appraised me quickly. “Staplers aren’t cheap.”

Office Depot sells them for $3.99. The ones Northwest Health and Life got were cheaper. I repeated my request.

“We have a catalog to order from, you know.”

“I have not seen it.”

“You hardly ever staple anything, anyway. Your assignment is up in a month. Can’t you just borrow Desiree’s? She’s got a good one; she’s had it since the Seventies. If you ordered one, you’d just get a cheap one — all plastic, not like hers. That’s some quality workmanship.”

“Staplers aren’t cheap.”

She sniffed. “Austin doesn’t like unnecessary expenses.”

“I need a stapler.”

“We have order forms.”

“And those are … where?”

“They’re a pain to fill out. Desiree has hers out for anyone to use. I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. She likes you.”

“Have you ever looked at the ceiling in this place?” I said, gazing upward in a desperate attempt to keep my cool. “Those little holes in the drop ceiling, like people have been hucking pencils at it for decades. Those squares couldn’t hold a person, could they?”

“I don’t look at the ceiling in here. Here’s a form.” She produced one with a bit of legerdemain while my eyes were off her. “Check the box marked ‘stapler.’ ”

“Your guidance is appreciated.”

Tracy sniffed again and cracked what I guessed was a smile. I never used the stapler that arrived four days later.


I stood at the window during the last week of my assignment and gazed out at the park. Mindy was walking back toward our building from the Black Box, clutching her purse to her side and shielding the wind from her face. I watched as she stopped, bent her leg, took off her shoe, and shook a pebble from it. Then she continued. My first week at NHL, she had been frosty to me. My second Monday, she stopped me as I walked past her cube.

“How old are you?” she said softly. Her thin brown hair slid in curious curls around her oval face.

I told her.

“I’m twenty-six too. When’s your birthday? Mine’s September tenth. I always go out and get wasted. Do you do coke?”

“A few times, in college. I never developed a taste for it.”

“We should go out sometime. Get drunk, do some lines. My husband never goes for those things.”


I watched her continue walking until she was out of my line of vision. Mindy has worked at NHL since she was 17. When I was 17, I hadn’t even thought about a real job. And now I’m temping, and she makes at least 35 grand a year. Priorities, I guess.

She was back at her cube by the time I walked by. She stopped me and asked when I was leaving.

“This is my last week, unless Austin decides to keep me.”

“We must go out this Friday. Rockbottom has some good happy hour food, and so does the Pilsner Room. Kurt and Rasheed will go, and I can probably get Katherine too …”

“Maybe. Let me know.”

“I’ve got some stuff, too, you know. My friend in California gets it for me. She’s a terror. We used to have such great times after school! Flying high, checking out the guys — I never went for high school guys, but those college boys were nice! Sorry if I’m embarrassing you.”

I smiled. “Not at all.”

“You have a nice face. I can talk to you. Not like Ken. He just comes home from work and wants to hang around the house, read books, watch the Discovery Channel — come on! There’s plenty to do instead of that.”


“So, this Friday?”

“Let me know.”


On my last Thursday we had our weekly staff meeting. Katherine and Desiree were upset about — what else? — the merger.

“We need more people on this, Austin,” Katherine said.

“We don’t have the personnel, or the budget.”

“Bullshit. Ol’ Jimmy gets his thirty grand bonuses every year, doesn’t he?” I had never seen James Power, the CEO of NHL, but his name was thrown around a lot, like a talisman.

“Budget review is in two weeks. Carla has promised me that she will push for at least four FTEs.” I knew what that meant. More permanent positions meant that I would be out of a job.

“And we have that Bob’s Chicken account to worry about,” Desiree said.

“Where are we on that, Kurt?”

“Well, the EAP is cooking, and we’ve tested the financials in MES. Rasheed, Jamie, Valerie, and I are flying to Seattle next week …” He rambled on for a while. In the two months I had been there, I had never paid much attention in staff meetings. Everything was over my head. I looked at the unit. Sixteen people, all overworked and underpaid. Tensions stretched like piano wire. Miranda, simmering in gossip. Rasheed, sitting tall and proud, his shaved head glistening in the neon light. Valerie, a blanket wrapped around her legs. Her pixie face was circled by delicate baby-blonde hair, and her eyes darted back and forth across the room. She caught my gaze and smiled weakly. Tracy, furiously taking the minutes. Kurt was ruminating about Bob Hancock, the president and CEO of Bob’s Chickens. Bob was over 300 pounds and liked to eat his product. Then Austin asked Mindy about some other merger news.

“Seems Miranda was getting testing done last week when she discovered a glitch in the interface,” she said, slurring her words a bit. “I told Rash about it, we told Kat, she told Gerry upstairs in IT, and now those pricks have it. Nothing to be done … not now. Those pricks will take forever, that’s what we think. They only have until next week. We’re all done except for this one piece. All done, I’m waiting to sign off on this. I told Gerry that he better have it done by next week. I’ll send an email and copy you on it.”

Austin nodded. The meeting was almost over. I looked at Mindy. Her pupils were feline, black and huge, adjusting too much for the light. She smiled dazedly.


On Friday Austin called me into his office.

“I think you know what I’m going to tell you,” he said after I sat down.

“Budget problems?”

He nodded. “Too much competition these days, even with this merger. Caesar Health, Willamette Valley, you know … Anyway, it’s been great having you here. If we could keep you, we would.”

“Hey, no sweat. Two months is longer than I’ve spent most places.”

“And you’re getting out. We’re stuck for the long haul.” He sounded rueful.

I got to my feet.

“Let me ask you something,” he said, lowering his voice. “You’re from the outside. Do you think we’re a little … wacko here? I mean, I get so frustrated with Miranda and her attitude, and Kat and her jokes, and … everyone, sometimes. They work hard, but I wonder …”

I smiled. “I’ve worked in a lot of offices in my life, Austin. You guys are fine. Trust me.”


Mindy never said anything to me, so I went home. I got off the bus and stood still for a moment. It was early May, and the Portland weather had just turned from rainy to sunny, and I felt every ray touching my body. I looked down at my feet and felt two months of office work drain out of me. Somewhere a bird chirped anxiously, as if a cat were in the area. I strolled along the side of the road toward the Park & Ride, wanting to take a nap. I had a date on Saturday, I had a last paycheck coming, I had a few thousand in the bank to pay for school, and I had no assignment with the agency for next week. As I walked down the hill to my car, I passed a cherry blossom tree in the front yard of a house. The blossoms were in full bloom, and were shaking in the breeze. I stood under the tree, letting the pink petals float down and encircle me as the swirled into an organic carpet on the driveway. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, smiling.


[I’m pretty sure I wrote this before Office Space came out, so suck it, Mike Judge!

This is as close as I come to “real life experiences” in these stories – you’ll be shocked to know that I was never an assassin, or a cop, or an anarchist, but I was an office worker! I saw the term “cube farm” in the 1990s (it was coined in 1997, as far as I can tell), and loved it, so I decided to write a story about it. The photo at the top is the actual “cube farm” I worked in … and yes, it was at 100 Market Street, where this story takes place, and yes, 200 Market Street was called the “Black Box” (it probably still is today, for all I know), and yes, I used to look out the window at Pettygrove Park, because there were always a lot of people there. I don’t recall the children, though, so who knows. I worked for BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon, which is still there, and I started as a temp before getting a permanent job for a few years while I went to Portland State to work on my master’s degree, and yes, part of the reason why I was brought in was because the lead worked way too many hours. (She was a nice lady, and she went on vacation with her husband to Hawaii, walked into the BCBS offices in Honolulu and asked for a job. She got it, and moved to Oahu. Wild.) Some of the characters in this story are very, VERY loosely based on the people I worked with – the one lead was quite loud and told blue jokes, but she was extremely awesome, and the admin never vexed me when I asked for supplies. I was never offered cocaine while I was there, either. I did have to change toner on more than one occasion, though, which sucked back in the 1990s. It’s a bit better today, because the packaging is better. We also got invited to participate in the bocce tournament that was held every year at 200 Market, because BCBSO had offices in that building, too. Here’s me and my partner:

I played in two tournaments, if I recall correctly. It was fun. So while this story and a movie like Office Space make working in a “cube farm” seem kind of awful, it wasn’t too bad. It was a job. Most of the people were nice. It could have been a lot worse!]

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