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I’m Virtually Popular!

My coworkers must really love me. They share every detail of their lives with me — every snagged stocking and lost set of keys, every extended vacation and fundraising endeavor. They remind me when it’s time to order business cards, invite me to join the basketball pool, and ask me if I saw the scamp who stole the stapler right off their desk.

Of course, most of them have no idea who I am. They wouldn’t, in fact, recognize me if I were crouched naked on their desks humming the theme from The Office. Because while I’m employed by several companies, I don’t occupy a cubicle at any one of them. I work at home, a freelance serf toiling solitarily at a cheap-ass desk in a drafty corner of my dining room.

But I’m connected to the staffs of various offices via group email announcements. So while I can’t gather ’round the water cooler to discuss politics and gossip about office romances, I get to “hear” whenever a fellow employee is, say, looking for duct tape to fix his shoe. (Which is weird.) But it’s not uncommon. Statistics show 45 million Americans worked at home in 2006, and the number’s expected to top 100 million by 2010.

I used to work in an office: Ergonomic chair. Spontaneous donut days. All the Wite-Out I could burn through. A computer guy who brought me a new keyboard every time mine jammed up mysteriously (with donut crumbs). You could say I had the whole corporate caboodle. And I don’t miss it.

I don’t miss the traffic, the clock-watching managers, the “appropriate” attire, or the fancy phone system with its diabolical transfer button. But … it does get lonely working by myself. And it’s a new kind of loneliness. An odd kind. Because thanks to the cyber miracle of the “send all” button, I’m still very much in the loop. Only it’s not a person-to-person, I-really-value-your-input loop. It’s a loop of endless, distant digi-chatter that makes me feel tragically isolated from colleagues even as I wish they’d shut up for 10 minutes and let me work.

To be fair, I sometimes welcome the distraction. And the chuckle. Like when a broken water main leaves the Santa Barbara City College restrooms “out of use.” The faculty was recently notified, in all seriousness, that the Hula Hoop Club needed an adviser, and polled to see if anyone could shelter some French exchange students who needed little more than a bed each night and a croissant each morning.

Other times, office emails make me glad I don’t spend my day functioning among other humans — snipey and apparently quite slovenly humans.

“When you (whoever you are) make coffee, please make sure it does not leak all over the counter — like it just did,” read one recent email. Or: “The refrigerator is growing things. Oh, the smell! Please mark your food clearly if you don’t want it thrown out. There will be no more reminders.” And also: “Whoever owns the grey Prius, you’ll need to move your car by the time I get back in an hour. You’re in my spot.”

Laboring solo while being privy to office action is like watching the world from behind a sound-proof, two-way mirror, like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. The false connection is most disappointing when it offers up something cool (“Free Lakers tickets in my office. First one here gets ’em.”) that offsite grunts like me can’t have.

It’s like chomping on a virtual donut — or bagel.

“Fresh apple butter in the kitchen for your bagels,” taunted the cruelest, and most memorable, email. “Made by my mama in Michigan. Help yourself.”

Would that I could, stranger. Would that I could.

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My columns are collected in three lovely books, which make a SPLENDID gift for wives, friends, book clubs, hostesses, and anyone who likes to laugh!
Keep Your Skirt On
Wife on the Edge
Broad Assumptions
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