This Looks Normal

A Spy in the House of Work

I dropped in at the Starbucks down the street a few mornings ago. Who do you think I ran into? Everyone! People I hadn't seen since the invention of the BlackBerry, former road warriors who used to collect frequent-flier miles the way third graders collect Pokémon cards. They were sitting around doing diddly-squat. Grounded. Some were between jobs. Others were hanging out, waiting for the lunch hour to end on the East Coast so they could do business the 21st-century way -- in other words, by telephone.

"Business trips are now to business what those to-go cups were to Amazon.com. Do you remember when those things used to come in the mail every 72 hours like clockwork?" asked Rhonda, my old friend from the gym. She's lost weight and let her hair go back to its original dishwater brown.

"On my last trip, I waited two and a half hours to get on a commuter flight. The trumped-up business trip was the last, best perk of the new economy," said my old buddy Fred Haymaker, unemployed gamer turned convenience-store flunky turned Web-preneur turned unemployed gamer.

At another table I spied Spud, my former boss from PotatoWare and cofounder of the now-defunct e-conjob.com. He was schmoozing with the infamous serial quitter Q, who was so addicted to change that he used to quit a job before he'd even unpacked his cartons. Q hasn't had a job to quit for a while now -- he's had to settle for standing people up for dinner.

Deantra, my old flame from the new economy, former Web mistress of MeditationsDuringMyPedicures.com, was up at the counter getting a cup of black coffee. Deantra said, "There's some good news. The economy may no longer be new, but it's still fast. Remember when we used to have to wait an entire generation to feel nostalgia? Only a year ago, I went to a dotcom launch party where the party favors were red Vespas."

We remembered when I was hired to work for PotatoWare based on the fact that Spud admired my banana-yellow Chuck Taylors. We remembered the endless staff retreats where we were forced to bond over games of blindfolded nude Twister, while singing endless rounds of "Our Clients Are Jackals" to the tune of "On Top of Old Smokey." We remembered the people we knew who suffered from IPOD: IPO Disorder. They had so much would-be money, they didn't know what to do with it all.

Suddenly, from behind the counter, I heard a voice that I recognized. A barista was steaming milk with the over-the-top gusto of a magician at a child's birthday party. "Well, you know what I say! What doesn't kill you makes you stronger!"

Spud saw me staring. Where did I recognize that voice from?

"Yeah, it's Quimby. From PotatoWare. I remember when he used to call me 'Your Spudliness.' "

"Not Quimby," I gasped. "The office suck-up?"

Quimby snapped the plastic top onto a latte with a flourish and handed it over to a young woman with circles under her eyes. "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade! That's something else I like to say. It's not original though, so please don't attribute it to me. The other thing I've learned: Living on Top Ramen is not a curse, but a privilege."

Suddenly, a familiar feeling began to drop over me like a net. A feeling that I hadn't felt in months: Jeez, Quimby is irritating. He was unbelievably irritating when we worked together at PotatoWare -- and he's still irritating! And I felt free to find him irritating. I didn't feel guilty that I wasn't cherishing his essential humanity. I didn't feel bad that I had absolutely no urge to sling my arm around his bony shoulders and start crooning "Kumbaya." I don't like the guy. I've never liked the guy. I didn't like him then, and I don't like him now. I smiled and decided to treat myself to a caramel macchiato. Things are starting to get back to normal.

This is the latest episode in the Spy's continuing saga, "Working Behind Enemy Lines." You can find the entire Spy chronicles on the Web (www.askthespy.com) .

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