Promotion - or premonition? I've gone from being a low-level postmodern worker who pushes Skittles at a convenience store, to being a carefree do-nothing at a product-free startup, to being just another man in the middle: I know enough to be dangerous, but not enough to be effective. I'm stuck in middle muddlement.
That's what the boring bartender at the Low Life Lounge calls it.
Don't know his name. You'd never pick him out in a room, even if he were the only one in it. Graying hair, gray eyes, gray skin. You can't tell his voice from white noise. "I was a middle muddler for six months," he says. "Then I had to get out. You'll see. " He pours me some Jack.
"A middle muddler?"
"The millennium equivalent of an oarsman on one of those Viking longboats. Sweating and faceless, they made the whole thing go. Ever wonder what happened to them once the boat got to where it was going?"
"Nobody cares what's going to happen to you either." He leans over the bar. His voice is spookily urgent. "I didn't always look like this. Before I was promoted, I had red hair and a birthmark on my neck. I just hope I got out soon enough."
I leave, thinking the guy's just another Low Life loony. I spot Rhonda in the window at Starbucks, and I wave to her: Maybe she can explain things to me. But she just stares right through me, as if I'm not even there. I head back to the office, trying to get those Viking longboats out of my mind. What's to worry? For the first time in my life, I have my own office and my own assistant. I'm making more this week than I did last week. This is all good, right?
I hate having my own assistant. Every day, I have to give Leo enough work to do to make her feel useful, but not so much as to make her feel exploited. And can we talk about Leo? Leo, who's saving up her money to start her own company - something to do with girl power, fingernail polish, and the Web. I want to be a cool person with impossible dreams instead of ...
"Don't forget your four o'clock," Leo calls out.
...instead of a drone who's late for his four o'clock.
I head off to an anonymous-looking meeting room. Leo looks up and says, "Nice jacket. Gray is the new black."
Gray? I don't own a gray jacket. I look down, and sure enough, in this light, my sports coat is kind of grayish. When I put it on this morning, it was taupe. At the meeting, I find a group of PotatoWare people I never knew existed: two Matthews, two Jennifers, and two people whose names are L and R and whose genders are unclear. It must be the lighting, because the Matthews, the Jennifers, and L and R all look sort of gray too.
"Are we waiting for Spud?" I ask.
"He never comes to these," says L — or is it R?
Of course not - it's not cool. When the meeting finally ends, everyone else at PotatoWare has left. I run to the Low Life, hoping to catch Boring Bartender. But the bartender is a woman with an anatomically correct heart tattoed on her biceps.
"Where's the guy with the gray hair, the bartender with" — I can't remember what he looked like — "the guy who worked the lunch shift?"
"Got me," she says. "He just vanished."
I stagger slowly back to PotatoWare. I'm standing in the middle of the waiting room ... waiting. Everyone has gone home. The lights are flickering on and off. The air-conditioning is humming. The phone is ringing and ringing, then stopping, then ringing and ringing. I can feel the walls starting to move, the ceiling starting to move. But me, I can't move. This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a promotion.
This is episode 12 in "Working Behind Enemy Lines," the Spy's continuing adventures in the new world of work.
A version of this article appeared in the Feb/March 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.