The Ghost Office

This post concludes a series on our experiences under COVID-19, inspired by the realization that “we are all field collectors” in the effort to someday tell the story of what happened in 2020. Let’s turn our thoughts to something lighter. I welcome your submissions: find guidelines for guest writers here.

By Sarah White

I took a part-time job as an office manager for a small video production company in July, 2019, because I wanted an office to go to. I wanted colleagues. As a freelance writer, working alone from home more often than not for the last 20 years, that struck me as reasonable. Besides, I might learn something about video production.

I worked three afternoons a week. As the office manager, I faced down unfamiliar problems—an unscrupulous driveway contractor, a leak that appeared one day and turned out to be a longstanding, unnoticed problem. Both the driveway and the mold remediation project required many hours of phone calls over many weeks. I cheerfully managed them on my to-do list. 

My boss said, “Thank you for taking these off my plate.” 

“Glad to,” I replied. “It’s pleasant to exchange my problems for yours for a few hours.”

His laughter told me we both understood what that felt like.

I shopped for snacks like a den mother, concerned to provide healthy stuff even though the staff mostly ate the salty pita chips and sugary KIND mini-bars and left the dried fruit untouched. I bought plants, had the handyman hang some in the windows, found places for others in the sunny workroom. I really liked the staff, really liked my boss, and was amused to be occupying so nurturing a role, when in my life I have pretty much never nurtured anything.

In between office managing and den-mothering, I occasionally helped with film production. I learned to transcribe and index interviews, helped the producers find the best SOTS—code for soundbites.  I hoped to advance to script-writing, but the opportunity hadn’t come along yet when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The pandemic. COVID19. Those days that unfolded in early March, dividing everything into Before and What Now. 

One day the staff gathered for lunch in a restaurant where we leaned in close over sweet potato fries to hear about the producers’ filming trip to Cambodia. They described visiting Angkor Wat, the great plazas deserted because of virus fears. The empty airports on the flight home. 

A week later, the office closed. The boss and the boys took their fantastic Apple desktop workstations home to work remotely. I had no office to manage. There were no interviews, so no transcription to do. Miraculously, no one contracted COVID19 despite the boys’ trip and our close contact at the restaurant.

I called my boss. “I guess I’m furloughed,” I said. “I’ll keep watering the plants.” 

I soon learned they could thrive on weekly visits during the summer, unlike winter when the forced-air heat dried them out in two or three days. I checked my office email daily, just to make sure there were no problems an office manager could deal with. There were none.I got paid for half an hour a week. 

Six months later. The office is still empty. The plants have thrived, as if they are happier without us. The levels haven’t change in the jars of pita chips and KIND mini-bars and dried fruit. On my weekly visits I’d see a chair moved, or some video equipment rearranged, and know that someone had been in the office. Or maybe it was a ghost?

The job I took, to have a place to go, to have colleagues, was now a ghost, as well. The weekly visits to water the plants just made me sad. 

I called the boss and told him so. “I have to quit,” I said.

“Thank you,” he replied.

This time it was our silence that told me we both understood what that felt like.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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