Talk of the Quad: Ghosts of corporate America
This summer, I interned for a large, upscale department store. It doesn’t matter which one, because I’ve gathered that most department store offices are basically the same.
I won’t bore you with the details of my day-to-day tasks. I do, however, want to tell you a story about one of the most memorable days I had at work. It’s a ghost story. Well, I think it is, anyway. You can decide for yourself.
It had been a beautiful day in midtown Manhattan, though I wouldn’t know it because I sit at a small desk inside a windowless office that hovers 47 stories in the air. If the room did have a window, I would be able to see the office building directly across the street, which is similarly gargantuan and lacking in windows. I might even be able to catch a glimpse of another young man or woman just like me, who has been working tirelessly on an Excel spreadsheet for the last four hours and will continue to do so for another four. They, too, may have taken their shoes off under their desk and their suit jacket would be also crumpled into a ball in the corner, sticky with the July heat and subway residue.
I have several tabs open on my computer. One of them, tucked neatly behind the rest, is a document of the season-to-date men’s jackets sales that I have allegedly been analyzing and will present to my boss later in the afternoon. The other seven or eight tabs include an online restaurant menu for a dim sum place I want to try, a Nicki Minaj music video from 2009, and the WebMD page about exercises for alleviating neck pain.
But my Internet reverie is interrupted when I hear footsteps outside my office, the distinct “clack” of a stiletto. I instinctively hide my open tabs and begin to inspect the spreadsheet that I am supposed to be inspecting. I wait for the footsteps to pass, as they always do, but the clacking stops right outside my door. I hear words.
“Don’t look so sad.”
I look up from my screen, curious where this voice came from and to whom it belongs. A woman who I have never seen before stands in the doorway. She wears an orange dress that compliments her smooth, mocha skin. I have a difficult time placing her age—she has no wrinkles (no Botox either), but there’s wisdom in her face, something that you would only see in a person much older.
“Me?” I say, after some hesitation.
“Yes, you,” she says. “Smile. It’s nicer to look at.”
The woman beams in my direction. After several paralyzing seconds, I see no other option than to beam back, even letting out a fake little chortle in the hopes that it will make her leave. It doesn’t work.
“You worry too much,” the woman continues, a winning smile still plastered to her face. “I can tell. You’re too young to be worrying.”
The woman steps in the doorway, one stiletto now planted firmly inside my office. She looks around, as if to ensure no one else is in the tiny room.
“These people are rubbing off on you,” she whispers.
I immediately thought of my boss, who I had seen smile only once when she had announced earlier this month that she would be out of the office for the week because she was going to Paris with her boyfriend.
“I think I must be tired,” I say.
“No no,” she says. “You’re too young to be tired.”
Apparently, I am too young for a lot of things. This seems to be a recurring theme.
“Okay,” I finally say. “You’re right. I’m not tired, I’m just bored.”
The woman laughs.
“Me too,” she says. “Let’s run away together.”
I smile again, not a fake one this time.
The woman in orange turns to leave. But before she does, she peeps her head back in to say one last thing.
“You have to try harder,” she says. “You have to try.”
Later that afternoon, I tell my boss about the mysterious encounter, describing the woman in great detail. She has no idea what I was talking about.
I never saw her again. And, after some consideration, I have come to conclusion that she must have been a ghost—or, at the very least, a manifestation of my subconscious alerting me to the fact that I had not, in the words of William De Witt Hyde, been losing myself in “generous enthusiasms” as he mandated we all do in his 1906 Offer of the College.
This begs the question: do most of us immerse ourselves in four years of intellectual pursuit only to be chained to a desk for the next 50 years? I think this is my liberal arts superiority complex speaking, but I am not satisfied with spending the rest of my life doing work that doesn’t stimulate my brain in new and engaging ways, nor make the world a more equal, livable place.
As privileged, educated young people, we face pressure coming from all different directions. We are told that in order to be successful, we must “find our passion” in college, use it to make some kind of impact, and above all, achieve financial success. But this kind of pressure can lead to unhappiness—I’ve seen it, and it scares me.
I hope that others will relate when I say that as my time at Bowdoin draws to a close, I have never felt less sure of what I want to do. Yes, I’ll find a job, but how am I supposed to know what I want when I haven’t really done anything yet? What if I care about many different things? Why do I have to pick one? These are questions that I know can only be answered with time. And for now, I need to be okay with it.
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