"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, April 18, 2014

A Black Mass and Chicken Entrails–My Religious Upbringing

Herbie, Bruce, and I were the Three Musketeers – one Catholic, one Protestant, and one Jewish – who were always together.  We played on the same teams, hung out at Avery’s and Jimmy’s Smoke Shop, threw rocks at the freight trains that rumbled through the woods by Willow Brook Park, blew up trash cans with cherry bombs we had saved from Fourth of July, and watched Nancy Blithe take off her clothes from the top of the oak tree that grew on the side of her house.

On Sundays we went our separate ways. I  went to St. Anthony’s for mass, had a big family dinner, and went for a ride in the country.  Herbie went to the Methodist church on Corbin Avenue, stayed for prayer breakfast with his parents and sister, and listened to the Red Sox game in the back yard. Bruce went to the only temple in town – the biggest religious institution in New Brighton, built by Hyman Rosenthal in 1890, and maintained by his generous trust fund. – but of course did not go there on Sundays.  We never asked him what he did, or why Jews didn’t worship on Sundays like everyone else, and waited until Monday after school when we could play together again.

Our parents did not mix.  The Birnbaums, Swansons, and the Parlatos travelled in different circles.  Bruce’s father was a clothier who owned a shop on Franklin Square and he and his wife Sybil socialized with the other Jewish families in town – haberdashers, shoe store owners, pharmacists, and tailors, all of whom did a brisk business, sold quality goods at reasonable prices. They gave none of the Christian families any cause to jape or insinuate especially because they went out of their way to fit in.

Herbie’s father was a banker – a mid-level manager, Assistant Vice President of Banking Services.  He didn’t have his own office but sat in the middle of the vast hall of the New Brighton Bank Building, another Victorian institution that had been built in the heyday of the railroads and hardware, both of which put New Brighton on the map.  He was the bank officer you saw when the tellers could not handle your request or solve your problem.  Mr. Swanson, always trimly dressed with a starched shirt, silk tie, and modest grey suit, never disappointed.  He was friendly, accommodating, and understanding.

My father was a doctor and travelled in the professional circles of surgeons, dentists, and a lawyers. His practice was restricted to Italians, no different from the Polish doctors who cared for factory workers from Silesia and made house calls on Broad Street; or the West End physicians whose clientele was exclusively old New England money. 

New Brighton was that kind of town in the Fifties – divided by religion, nationality, and profession – but no one seemed to find it awkward or disruptive; which is why Bruce, Herbie, and I thought of ourselves as pioneers, a small band of mixed-blood brothers who stuck together.

All three of us resented being dragged to religious services every week.  I had to put up with Father Brophy who sniffed and snorted through the confessional lattice and prompted me to confess my dirty thoughts; and with Father Mullins who was outraged at the sinfulness of his flock.  “We all will certainly perish, but you, Generation of Vipers, apostates, and sinners who have turned your back on Jesus Christ, will spend eternity in the fires of Hell”.

Bruce said that there was something sad and depressing about Friday services at his temple.  Jews were always begging forgiveness, demanding atonement, rocking and mumbling.  There were no windows in the temple, Bruce said.  It was a kind of sacred crypt where only Jews were allowed.  The rituals of the Torah, the Hebrew incantations and references to a mighty and fearful Old Testament God were scary.  Stepping out into the bright Spring sunshine was like escaping a dark underwater cave and taking a breath of fresh, clean air.

Herbie had the least to say about church.  There wasn’t much to tell, he said.  The pastor never harangued, nor were there any creepy rituals.  His church, like most Protestant churches were devoid of Catholic accoutrements – no horribly disfigured and bleeding Jesus on the cross, no statues of the saints, no stations of the cross, no incense, chanting, or communion.  It was boring, he said, compared to the stories Bruce and I told.

“Why don’t we start our own religion?”, said Herbie.  “It could be weird like the Black Mass and we could call up the Devil”. Herbie said that he had read all about black masses in a comic book and he would go to the library and find out more.

The Black Mass, Herbie said the next time we met,  was a ceremony celebrated during the Witches' Sabbath.  It was designed as a parody of the Catholic Mass.  The idea was to profane the host, and although there has been no agreement on how hosts were obtained or profaned; the most common idea is that they were profaned by means of some ritual related to sexual practices.

Herbie, for a 12-year old in conservative New Brighton, Connecticut already had some weird ideas about religion; but they were not invented.  They were practiced by primitive tribes everywhere.  He liked the Ghost Dance of the Klamath and Modoc Indians who prophesied an apocalypse and a return of the dead.  When this happened, Herbie had read, zombies would walk the earth eating the living and setting up a Kingdom of the Dead. 

The Aztecs performed ritual human sacrifice to appease the Thunder God, and after a dagger was plunged into the heart of the vestal virgin, her body was tossed off the high catafalque into the crowd who cut her open and ate her still-beating heart.

Africans slaughtered chickens and read of horrible disasters in their entrails; and to ward off disaster they dressed in the feathers of roosters and made necklaces out of dried chicken feet. 

Cannibals who lived on the banks of the Zambezi River and impaled the heads of their eaten enemies on poles.  Tribes in the Congolese forest did fire dances to invoke the Evil Spirits of the Universe, and their high priests could summon the Devil and be possessed by him.

We set up our altar in the old shed by the abandoned railroad tracks, and we got ready for our first ceremony.  Herbie was to be the High Priest who performed the rituals, and we were to be his acolytes.  He gave us orders.  Bruce was to get a chicken from the kosher butcher on Murray Street to be used in the ritual sacrifice. I would bring as many crucifixes, medals, and religious statues as I could find in the house; and Herbie would locate the sacred texts we would use in the ritual sacrifice. 

The Catholic paraphernalia was easy.  Every room in the house had a crucifix, a sacred heart, and pictures of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.  My mother was so religious that she had homemade a font for holy water and put it next to a mini-altar she had arranged in her bedroom. She bought the smallest birdbath she could find, circled it with dried flowers like a crown or wreath, and filled it with holy water consecrated by Father Murphy who said that what he was doing was not exactly legal, but that Jesus would understand.

The chicken was harder.  Mr. Katz would never give away a chicken, let alone to Bruce Birnbaum; but Bruce convinced Leo Katz, Butcher Katz’s son and our retard classmate, to steal one.  “Live would be better”, said Herbie, “but a dead one will do”.

Herbie read up on all the Satanic rituals, Black Sabbaths, and invocations of Beelzebub that he could find.  He found texts on divining, exorcism, and summoning; and he put together a black mass combining bits and pieces of all the scariest and unholy practices he found.

We darkened the shed by covering the broken windows with black construction paper.  We built an altar and placed an upside-down crucifix in a circle of burning candles.  We set up Devil’s crèche and put the smallest devil figure we could find into a cradle we made out of twigs and straw. Bruce and I were given ancient Satanic texts to chant while Herbie performed the ceremony.

We invited all our friends to come, and on the day of the Winter Solstice, the day of death and damnation, said Herbie, we held our first ceremony.  Herbie was magnificent.  He chanted, passed his hands over the candles, genuflected backwards, made the sign of the cross – not Catholic nor Orthodox, but the Devil’s sign which started at his crotch, stopped at his forehead, then tapped his shoulders. 

As Herbie did his final genuflections and incantations, Bruce and I raised the volume of our chants and repeated Ave Satanas, the Latin for Hail Satan, over and over and louder and louder.  As the chants reached a crescendo, Herbie picked up the ritual knife (my mother’s boning knife), and inserted it into a cut he had already made in the gut of the chicken.  “Hail Satan”, he said, reached into the chicken, and pulled out the entrails.  He turned to the congregation – five kids from Mrs. Linder’s sixth grade – and held up the bloody guts for all to see.

The girls were freaked and ran out of the shed.  The boys felt they had to stay, but were clearly creeped out by Herbie who looked demonic.  He showed his teeth and bloody tongue (red gumballs), swirled his cape, stared out of his cowl, and made inverted signs of the cross with long black fingers (his mother’s black, formal kidskin gloves).

Word quickly got around about what we had done; and neither parents nor priests were going to take this offense lightly.  I had to go through special re-education sessions with Father Brophy.  He made me write down holy passages on the blackboard like Domine, non sum dignus ut intres sub tectum meum, sed tantum dic verbo et sanabitur anima mea, and repeat them 100 times. He made me hold a crucifix high above my head until my arms ached and made me kneel on the stone floor until I lost feeling in my legs.

“Do you feel the flames of hellfire now, Ronald?”, he said. “Do you smell the sulfur and brimstone?  You so badly wanted to be in the company of the Devil, you will now be his consort for all eternity”. 

Here he paused, perhaps reflecting that I was only a child and that his vocation was to save souls, not to damn them. “Unless you pray for forgiveness to Almighty God, his son, his mother, and all the saints in heaven.”.  This went on for a full month, three times a week, in the sanctuary, on the altar, and in Father Brophy’s cloakroom. After a week I was sick of the smell of incense, after shave, and votive candles, but no matter how apologetic I was to him and my father, I had to continue.

Bruce got off lightly.  In the first place, Jews don’t believe in the Devil or any of the Christian nonsense Herbie and I had to put up with – the virgin birth, for example, and all the other ‘miraculous’ stories we had told him about.  Yet Rabbi Cohen understood the sacrilege in our Black Mass regardless of its Christian origin.  An inversion of a fictitious fable is what, exactly, he wondered, but he was stern with Bruce in public to keep up the reputation of the Jews in New Brighton and his stewardship of the synagogue.

Herbie got sent to Christian camp that summer, an evangelical retreat run by Pastor Hutchins, a wild-eyed Pentecostal from Iowa who ran the camp like a gulag.  He knew that the children sent to him had sinned and would sin again if not for his ministrations and counsel. Aside from a few games of badminton and hot dogs on Saturday, Herbie and his fellow campers suffered through morning prayers, endless Bible study, the fire-breathing sermons of Pastor Hutchins, and had to sleep on straw ticks with no pillows for penance.

Needless to say we never celebrated a black mass again, and went dutifully to church and synagogue for another few years until we all went away to school and could do pretty much what we pleased.

I lost track of both Herbie and Bruce Birnbaum until relatively recently when I found Bruce on Facebook.  As luck would have it he lived in the Washington area and we arranged to meet.  He was married, with adult children, in good health, and looking forward to retirement. I asked him if he remembered the black mass, and of course he did. 

“Funny you should ask”, Bruce said, because I ran into Herbie Swanson’s sister not long ago. Remember how we inverted everything, crucifixes upside down, genuflecting backward, and making the sign of the cross from crotch to forehead? Well, he inverted an inversion and got real religion.  He is Father Swanson, the head of a millennial cult in Montana.  They believe that the East Coast will soon hive off from the mainland, and sink into the ocean to join Atlantis.  Nuclear war with the Russians will ensue, and the only survivors will be the faithful of Herbie’s Church of the Renewed Universe who have lived and propagated for a hundred years in underground warrens waiting for the nuclear dust to settle”.

Bruce said that religion had never been that important for his family.  Although they kept kosher and went to temple, his father felt that the rabbis were a bunch of charlatans just like every other priest or prophet.  They kept up appearances, but did not believe. Bruce dropped away from religion even farther once he left home and became a secular Jew who never gave up his fidelity to the Jews, but abandoned Judaism. 

I fell somewhere between Bruce and Herbie. I was never religious – how could I be after all those childhood and adolescent years being harangued, hectored, and threatened by Fathers Brophy, Mullins, and Murphy?  I became convinced, however, that if one had to choose a religion, it should be a pagan one.  Our flaccid, watered-down, politically correct and largely secular services were nothing compared to Aztec ritual sacrifice, African animism, and Asian theatrical worship.  I could only imagine what it must have been like for an Indian in Mesoamerica, perhaps at Monte Alban, surrounded by mountains and plains, exposed to thunder and lightning, with a belief in the immanence of the gods, participating in a ritual sacrifice.  It would be the apotheosis of life, death, and spirit.  It would be all-consuming, transforming, and elating.

All of which goes to say that religion is never neutral nor ever absent.  Whether one practices traditional religion, rejects it out of logic and reason, becomes evangelical and ecstatic, inverts it into Satanism, or dallies with the philosophical aspects of belief, we are all religious to some degree.  I have always argued that there should be a ‘None of the Above’ category on the Census form to describe those who are spiritually casual and indifferent to religion.  However in all these years I have never met anyone who is totally and completely indifferent. Most people have a seat somewhere in the revival tent. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Cannibalism–A Powerful Human Ritual

A number of decades ago Michael Rockefeller, heir to a family fortune, disappeared while filming a documentary in Dutch New Guinea.  The family maintained that his boat had capsized and that he was lost at sea, and until now there has been no credible information to the contrary.  Many people were convinced that the story was a cover up and that a far worse and fearsome fate befell him; but recent evidence suggests that the most gruesome rumors were true – he was eaten by cannibals.

The practice of cannibalism is not all that grisly, for in most cases it is done ritually.  Bits of fallen enemies are consumed in consecration of valor, ferocity, and will.

In some societies, especially tribal societies, cannibalism is a cultural norm. Consumption of a person from within the same community is called endo-cannibalism; ritual cannibalism of the recently deceased can be part of the grieving process, or a way of guiding the souls of the dead into the bodies of living descendants. Exo-cannibalism is the consumption of a person from outside the community, usually as a celebration of victory against a rival tribe. Both types of cannibalism can also be fueled by the belief that eating a person's flesh or internal organs will endow the cannibal with some of the characteristics of the deceased (Wikipedia)

However, the myth of cannibalistic feasts persists. The unwary traveller lost in the jungle feels he is sure to be eaten.

Reports of cannibalism were common during the recent conflicts of Liberia and Sierra Leone, but rather than sanctified rituals common to cannibalism, the devouring of raw human hearts and livers was thought more to be part of the fevered mania of wigged out, drugged, and T-charged killers. However the behavior of these young warriors was not unusual and had its antecedents in many ancient cultures.


The wars in Africa were reminiscent of the great battles of Mesoamerica in which Aztec warriors dressed as animals, and took on the spirit of leopards, panthers, and tigers.


As Marvin Harris (Cannibals and Kings, 1978) points out, the Aztecs killed thousands in ritual sacrifice and then ate the victims:

“There really is no mystery concerning what happened to the bodies since all the eyewitness accounts are in fundamental agreement. Anyone with a knowledge of how the Tupinamba, the Huron and other village societies disposed of their sacrificial victims should be able to come to the same conclusion: the victims were eaten. Bernardino De Sahagún's description leaves little room for doubt:

After having torn their hearts from them and poured the blood into a gourd vessel, which the master of the slain man himself received, they started the body rolling down the pyramid steps. It came to rest upon a small square below. There some old men, whom they called Quaquacuiltin, laid hold of it and carried it to their tribal temple, where they dismembered it and divided it up in order to eat it.

“De Sahagún makes the same points repeatedly:

After they had slain them and torn out their hearts, they took them away gently, rolling them down the steps. When they had reached the bottom, they cut off their heads and inserted a rod though them, and they carried the bodies to the houses which they called calpulli, where they divided them up in order to eat them.

... and they took out their hearts and struck off their heads. And later they divided up all the body among themselves and ate it...

“Diego Durán gives us a similar description:

Once the heart had been wrenched out it was offered to the sun and blood sprinkled toward the solar deity. Imitating the descent of the sun in the west the corpse was toppled down the steps of the pyramid. After the sacrifice the warriors celebrated a great feast with much dancing, ceremonial and cannibalism.”

The central Christian ritual – Communion – is divine cannibalism. When a congregant takes the communion wafer, he is literally consuming the body and blood of Christ. The words of the consecrating priest are:

Hoc est enim Corpus Meum. Hic est enim calix sanguini mei, novi et aeterni Testamenti

Cannibalism has been invoked over the centuries by colonial powers to dehumanize their subjects.  What act could be more primitive, godless, and savage than cannibalism?  Anyone who eats another person is no better than an animal and deserves to be chained and beaten like one.

Nineteenth century British explorers and missionaries penetrated the inner reaches of deepest, darkest Africa, and reports were rife that many had been cooked up and boiled in a pot.

Mungo Park an early 18th century British explorer who travelled to the interior of Africa reported that he (luckily) never encountered cannibals, but he frequently reported in his journals that they existed:  In his Travels to the Interior Districts of Africa 1795-97 he wrote:

They (Mandingos) describe the sea as a large river of salt water, on the farther shore of which is situated a country called Tobaubo doo (the land of the white people). At a distance from Tobaubo doo they describe another country, which they allege as inhabited by cannibals of gigantic size, called komi. This country they call Jong sang doo (the land where the slaves are sold).

This particular account could of course be legend, myth, or superstition; but Park reported enough of such tales, that he assumed that they were true.

New Guinea in the 1950s was one of the most primitive, isolated places on earth, and Michael Rockefeller was certainly walking uncharted terrain.   Fifteen years after his death, Canadian Club, a maker of blended whisky, ran a series of ads featuring the Mudmen of New Guinea.  The company wanted to show that its whisky drinkers were adventurous and daring. Too much time had gone by to assume any ironic association with the young adventurer and heir; but whenever I read something about Michael Rockefeller – like today – I can’t help conjuring up this image.

One day a few years ago, I was travelling in Zimbabwe, and we spent the night in a hotel in Great Zimbabwe, a point of important cultural and historical significance.  I was anxious to get back to Harare, and asked the driver if we could leave early, perhaps that day.  The roads were good and the distance not too far, so if we started in the late afternoon, we would make the capital shortly after nightfall.

The chauffer demurred and suggested that we stick to our schedule and depart the following morning.  When I persisted and asked why, he said, “Lions, bwana, lions”. After years of having escaped kidnapping, armed robbery, carjacking, disease, shakedowns, coups, and civil unrest, this was the first time that getting eaten was a possibility; but at least it would be by an animal and The Kind of Beasts at that.

I was encouraged by today’s report that Michael Rockefeller might have indeed been eaten by cannibals and not drowned.  I have nearly tipped over many times on African and Amazonian rivers, and there is nothing noble in thrashing around in the stiff current of the Napo River, snagged and dragged under by reeds and broken trees, washed miles downriver and found weeks later in the mud 50 miles from Misaualli.

Death by ritual sacrifice is another thing altogether.

I travelled extensively through Mexico in the mid-Seventies, and visited many of the important Aztec, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Toltec pre-Colombian sites. Many of these cultures practiced human sacrifice, and standing in the ruins of Monte Alban and some lesser-known Meso-American sites, I understood the power of an immanent religion - one in which god or the gods were believed to be in the sun, the mountains, the deserts and plains.  

During those trips I thought about our comparatively tame, passionless, and routine religious ceremonies.  The power and majesty of ritual human sacrifice had been replaced by consecration and allegory.

The gods in pre-Colombian America were not only everywhere, but a looming, brooding, and violent presence – a still and resident power, but a retributive and vengeful one expressed in thunder, lightning, and earthquakes. Human sacrifice to these gods, in appeasement, deference, or awe was the purest and most powerful human emotion.

Which is why I am not appalled at the cannibalism of the recent wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia.  They are brutal and barbaric enough – as are all wars – so that the image of a young soldier holding up the still-beating heart of a conquered enemy is not disturbing. This bloody sign of victory is a more honest expression of the humanity of war than any row of black body bags. Our wars are just as brutal, destructive, and murderous as the civil wars in Africa; but they are fought methodically, mathematically, and procedurally.  They are neither glorious nor evil, just perpetrations of political ambition.

Most of modern life exists in a suppression of human nature.  We are obsessed with expunging any last traces of barbarism and with creating a more civilized, tame, and uniformly predictable world.

Cannibalism, far from repulsing us, should be a reminder of how tame and inconsequential life has become.

In one of Tolstoy’s most famous short stories, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the main character constructs a predictable, safe, and respectable life.  He avoids conflict, prefers absence rather than confrontation, and makes his way up social and professional ladders.  When he finally accepts that he has an incurable and terminal disease, he is paralyzed with fear.  Why death, he wonders? What cruel and unjust fate?  Did he do something wrong?  Was he derelict in composing his moral life as correctly as he did his professional? His social composure was the reason for his panic.  He had avoided any of the validating passions that can at least mitigate the fear of the unknown.

Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Strindberg contemporaries at the end of the 19th century, all wrote about the expression of individual will as the only validation of human life and existence.  Nietzsche in particular glorified action ‘beyond good and evil’, for it was the only meaningful human statement.  Centuries before, Machiavelli, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare all celebrated the expression of powerful, amoral will.  Tamburlaine, Richard III, Goneril, Regan, and The Prince were all great characters and embodiments of what is most unique and special about life.

So I will presume that Michael Rockefeller was eaten by Mudmen but who did so ceremoniously and despite their pagan dances, whoops, and hollers, did so respectfully.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Life in a Cubicle–The Essence of American Capitalism

A few years ago I worked for an organization which had gone through two spatial reorganizations. The first was to merge the offices of three separate buildings – a reasonable idea because to get from the Africa Division to Accounting you had to cross a busy DC street.  The second was to move from individual offices to an ‘Open Work Environment’.  Individual, private, and enclosed work spaces were to be replaced by cubicles.  Literally working under one roof, employees – the argument went – would be more encouraged to share ideas, to collaborate, and to bond together in corporate camaraderie.

Our Senior Vice-President broke the news of the reorganization one day over pizza.  When we saw the Papa John boxes and smelled the sausage and warm cheese, we knew that something was up.  The company paid for lunch only when management had something unpopular to say.

“The Open Work Environment”, the SVP began, “is an opportunity.  For far too long we have labored on our own plot of land – our little kitchen gardens tended with our own water and care.  We loved our tender leaves of lettuce, our carrots, and our modest patch of spinach; but we admired our neighbor’s tall tomato plants, winding green beans, and flowering squash so much more.  Now with one large communal garden we can all share in the planting, the care and the harvest; and the bounty will be far more and far better than any one of us could produce individually”.

Bob Miller wasn’t fooled by the SVP’s folksy homily.  He had labored for five years in the Ronald Reagan Building downtown – a nightmarish, Kafka-esque warren of cubicles that stretched for city blocks, floor upon floor, from east to west, avenue to avenue. Acres of beehives and post office box offices.

One of the reasons he had joined our relatively small firm was to escape the assembly line, depressing environment of RR. “It was hell”, he said.

Any survivor of the Reagan Building had the same stories to tell – tales of confinement, constant noise, interruption, bad lighting, and dry, stale air.  The layout was scary. Whole floors of identically small cubes. The only difference between the modern office cubicle and the sweat shops of the Lower East Side was the machine – a computer rather than a sewing machine.

The ‘open environment’ rather than encouraging cooperation and collaborative work actually discouraged it because after a few weeks of listening to the irritating, scraping conversations of colleagues; the barking laugh of middle-level supervisors; or the football talk and loose corridor jokes of rapping paper-shredders, everyone was on edge, frustrated, and hostile. 

“It’s just a way for management to save money”, Ronald Reagan survivor Miller snapped.

Miller was right, of course.  Individual lighting, air conditioning, doors, and bookshelves would be replaced by track lighting, divisional libraries, and communal air ducts.

Rebecca J. Rosen writing in The Atlantic (4.15.14) adds another painful slight to the office workers crammed into tiny cubicles, rasping in the dry air, and confused by the constant din and shuffle – status and class:

The open-plan office, invented in Germany in the 1950s (and called the Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape”), attempted to level hierarchies by making everyone work out on the open floor. But even in the earliest versions of the open-plan, small markers of status began to assert themselves: Managers would apportion more plants to themselves, or set up informal private spaces through creative use of more desks and partitions. So design at work often seems to say something about relations of power at work.

Later, an increased division of labor and enormously expanded hierarchy led to the offices that we more or less recognize today: large floors, filled with desks, where lower level employees work; offices along the side of the building for middle management (each of these with slight gradations to indicate status or privilege: a nicer desk; carpet on the floor, etc.); and corner offices for executives, or even different floors with different bathrooms. In places like these, space almost directly reflects hierarchy.

My office was no different.  The boardroom and executive offices were on the top floor.  They were cool, spacious, with panoramic views of the city.  There was room for tropical plants, African masks, and photo galleries.  Persian carpets were on the floor, Scandinavian modern blinds shaded the bright sun, and impressive solid mahogany and oak furniture was placed to accentuate the air of authority and good taste.

The difference between executive and worker space was as great as the salaries and benefits.  The minions worked for a pittance, spent long hours in the office and at unpaid overtime on the weekends.  It was only because of a long-ingrained and particularly American sense of possibility (“One day I will have a sunny corner office”) that the laborers did not revolt.

The era of the modern cubicle coincided with the IPod, and so cubicle workers simply plugged in and tuned out everything and everybody in the office.  If these young assistants were isolated before reorganization, they were ten times more removed from communal sharing than ever before.  Almost in spite, they cluttered their cubes with stuffed animals, raver nipples, Jim Morrison posters, and Indian tie-dye.  The floors were stacked with files and books. The desks jammed with coffee cups, pencil-holders, and faux paperweights; and the flimsy composition cube dividers pinned with baby pictures, beach pix, and Mom.  The effect was of a hundred cluttered playrooms.

Management was having none of it, and issued circulars saying, “Forthwith, cubicles shall remain clean and uncluttered; and employees shall not be distracted from their work by extraneous diversions”. 

Workers’ advocacy groups were quickly organized and petitioned management for clemency if not understanding.  We are not living in the 19th century, they said, and must be given the proper amenities. Needless to say, since the demand for employment at the company far exceeded supply, management was politely listening but paying no attention.

I remember visiting government offices in Slovakia not many years after the fall of the Soviet Union when old Socialist worker-favorable regulations were still in force.  Employees had the right to sunlight, air, and space – all thought to be necessary for morale, productivity, and communalism. 

The modern office was more of a Soviet gulag – a white collar salt mine with minions hacking away at their paperwork with pick and shovel, close enough to smell the sweat and breath of the worker working the seam next to them.

Walt Whitman was only slightly less generous:

“A slender and round-shouldered generation, of minute leg, chalky face, and hollow chest,” Walt Whitman called clerks, and he derided their tendency to dress fancily as a kind of compensation: “What wretched, spindling, ‘forked radishes’ would they be, and how ridiculously would their natty demeanor appear if suddenly they could all be stript naked!”

The tendency to assume that the office worker, so demeaned by his dull, repetitive tasks and stifling, chicken coop environment, leads an equally uninspired live outside the office. No, says Rosen:

I sometimes wonder if the abstracted nature of our understanding of “office work” leads us to overestimate the banality of other people’s lives—we see a drab, monotonous, corporate environment and just project it onto the individuals who work in those spaces—and perhaps underestimate the meaning they may find in their work or in their lives out of work, through family, friends, religion, whatever.

Rosen asks, “Is there a way, in a sense, that the office environment obscures the individual?” Of course not.  Sad to say, most people who work on assembly lines or in office cubicles are there for a reason – their skills are appropriate for the regimented and repetitive work required. The ambitious and talented are working elsewhere – painting in NOMA and SOHO lofts, creating computer hardware in garages, software apps in empty downtown lingerie stores, and predictive data engines in borrowed basements. They are counting wildebeest on the veldt, in medical school, or interning in MSF camps in South Sudan.

While cube work may be a way station on the road to bigger and better things; or a place to mark time until a student loan comes through; it is usually nothing more than the modern version of the Roman trireme.

In fact, while the thought of working in a cube anywhere is indeed a very depressing one, for low-level repetitive jobs are always soulless affairs.  But then again American business is a soulless affair which rewards the enterprising, penalizes the indolent, and uses restive but hardworking middle-level office workers to man the oars of the capitalist trireme.

Drones working in cubed offices of the public sector are often singled out for either pity or ridicule. At least a young MPH in a private firm can see her cube days end in a windowed office; but the GS-10 in the Ronald Reagan Building is there for life, signed up for the long haul, waiting for eligibility, security, and a pension.  Either cubed by necessity (a patronage job in municipal government); because of misinformation (government works); or bad luck (a pre-existing medical condition or disability), the public office worker is at the bottom of the heap.

Rosen writes:

The sad news is, given the ubiquity [of cubicles], how unhappy they seem to be making us: One 1997 survey found that 93 percent of cubicle workers would prefer an alternative, and a 2013 study found that they had "the highest rates of unhappiness with their work setup."

Of course cube workers are unhappy with their workplace environment.  Who wouldn’t prefer an alternative?  Yet it is no coincidence that workplaces in essence haven’t changed since the days of the sweat shop.  Industrial chicken factory workspace is a logically efficient configuration of labor force whose union clout has disappeared, whose supply exceeds demand, and whose skills are easily replaceable.

Offices and factories have always been divided by class – executives on the top floor, managers in corner office, and minions at the assembly line or in cubes.  The work environment for labor has improved over the years – fewer noxious fumes, better lighting and ventilation - but the basic, fundamental space configuration has not.

The cube is then the best expression of the nature of American capitalism, the divisions between management and labor, labor and capital, and wealth and a working wage.  The entrepreneurs, risk-takers, and the talented who have never set foot in a cube are relatively few and far between, but they are the country’s most valuable resource.  They punch over their weight, pull more than a full load, give more than they get.  It is that vast army of cubed workers, however, who keep the engines of corporate and public enterprise running.  They may now be coding data, running spreadsheets, and processing electronic requests instead of installing door hinges on Model T’s; but the nature of their work is the same.

So I don’t feel sorry for anyone in the Ronald Reagan Building because they belong there.  They keep the wheels of government running, if only creaking and rattling along; and the taxpayer dollars spent on their upkeep are just about in keeping with their performance. Moving to a bright, sunny, windowed office just isn’t in the cards.