The Big Meltdown

A Spy in the House of Work

People have stopped going to the gym after work. Instead, they're stopping at a watering hole on the corner, the Low Life Lounge. No one orders the witty, artistic martinis that are the Low Life's trademark. Everyone goes for the time-honored poison of the worried worker: whiskey straight up, with a beer back. That's what I'm drinking.

Quimby has been laid off.

No one can believe it. The most bare-bones operation needs a CEO, a receptionist, and a suck-up. If the office suck-up goes, anyone could be next.

"I don't do recession," says a guy named Evan, from R&D. He went straight from B-school to a Lexus and thinks that the Crash of '29 was a one-hit band from the '80s. "Anyway, I thought this was supposed to be the new economy. New rules, new laws, and all that."

"Just like New Coke," says Jimmy, from marketing. "A great concept, but when it bombs, it gets shipped to the Third World."

We drink in silence. We all think that we were lied to by -- well, by somebody. "Somebody" told us that the new economy was a place where a product-free company could flourish.

"Save up enough to handle six months' worth of expenses," says Evan. "That's my old man's advice for handling a recession."

"Not that word," says Jimmy.

"I told him, 'Pop, recession is like small pox. We all know what it is, but nobody gets it anymore.' "

"Stop it with the recession talk!"

"But Quimby! Quimby was the office mascot."

Now the only sound is that of avid sipping. The TV over the bar fires up, and there's a game on. Jimmy and Evan wander off to the pool table in the back, and I'm stuck watching the half-time show. Suddenly, Spud is pulling up a chair. Mr. Death himself. Alan Greenspan's arch enemy. What do you say to the guy who just axed your best pal? Okay, I admit it: I despised Quimby -- and there's still enough deadwood over on our side of the office to house a termite colony. But is that any reason to trigger a global economic meltdown?

"You know what's going on, don't you?" he says.

"Yeah. The . . ." I stare at the TV. Which team wears green and white? Then it dawns on me: If he's asking me what's going on, that means just one thing: My head will be the next to roll.

I am not one to wait things out. Once someone broke into my apartment. Instead of lying in wait behind the door with a baseball bat, I ran out to greet the guy with my VCR. I can't stand the suspense. I blurt out, "Take me!"

Luckily, Spud is a visionary -- not a listener. "You've got your ear to the ground. You know the score."

"Since I'm going willingly," I continue, "could it be like when they overbook a flight and they need volunteers?"

"I don't get you."

"They give you a free ticket."

"You're talking severance?"

"You could turn my whole side of the office into that meditation chamber you were thinking about. The gals -- women -- would dig it."

"Did someone make you a better offer?"

"No, nothing, nada." Even to my ears, it sounds as if I'm lying. "I swear."

"Fine. Have it your way. Just know that I'll match whatever they're offering. Plus 10%."

"Spud, man, you just did the layoff thing. You can't go around offering raises."

Spud takes a swig of my beer. "Good point. First I'll promote you. Then I'll bump up your pay when the excitement dies down."

We stare up at the green-and-white team, whose quarterback has just been sacked. A promotion! "Wait," I say. "You're not going to make it my job to decide who gets laid off?"

"It's not that big a promotion," says Spud.

"Cool," I say. "Does this mean the recession is over?"

This is Episode 11 in "Working Behind Enemy Lines," The Spy's continuing adventures in the new world of work.

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