I moved to Charlottesville from my rural, south-central-VA county in December 2008, to take a job I’d just landed. In my head, I’d defied odds. I saw myself as a cripplingly cerebral but practically useless pseudo-adult. I felt my brain, in its small-town country stupor-cum-recluse’s atrophy, couldn’t process fast enough for my survival. I doubted I had the attention span or assertiveness to navigate the world of grown-ups with its binding contracts, complex plan options, and slick monetary exchanges.
This, of course, was absurd. I’d had the wherewithal to graduate near the top of my undergraduate class, then earn an MFA, then produce an album, then make cold sales calls and balance bank deposits, then fake extroversion enough to win the hearts of strangers and ace a panel interview full of behavioral questions before I even knew what that type of question was called. I’d also found myself some sweet digs, where the warm chandelier glow mingled with the plentiful natural light.
Still, I felt a mess. I was over-marinated and under-exposed. The funk of residual inferiority clung to my clothes, my hair. I aimlessly followed orders. I yearned after adoration.
But I can still smell the promise. Knowing I had prospective musical collaborators in town (one who evoked a young Scott Weiland in his “art-f*g” period, with whom I immediately wanted to do unholy things). No over-the-shoulder admonishments. And a picturesque commute to work that saw the mist-blanketed patchwork of the Blue Ridge foothills looming up dramatically before me.
Unfortunately, a lot of this promise wasn’t quite borne out. The gilded path led to a fluorescent-lit cubicle farm full of tasks both tedious and inconsequential, the collaborations (and unholy acts) fizzled, and the smorgasbord of solitude bred excesses and bad habits.
But I still remember how crisp the air felt. That year I ate alone at a Chinese buffet on Christmas Eve and slept on an air mattress. I sat on a lawn chair in a room barren but for a large-screen TV. Later, I sheepishly attended dinner parties of acquaintances that now are long gone. I stayed at Dawning, then Umlaut, till nearly 2 a.m. and was somehow at work by 8.
We got word last week that the cubicle farm nestled in the foothills is closing for good (offloading unoccupied real estate is a no-brainer for cost reduction, and I’d wager the pandemic accelerated a process that was already on the horizon). I have little sentimental connection to it, since the tasks I’ve performed under its roof have been largely ones I have not enjoyed and have found both Sisyphean and against my fundamental nature.
But there are those good people, less wretched and more communal than myself, whose memories are warmer, commence straight out of high school and span some thirty or forty years. They left without a goodbye, some with uncelebrated retirements. I respect the way this smarts for them; I also have to acknowledge the part the place played in my own development. And though the culture was never really mine, I lucked out time and again with the quality of the people who surrounded me.
I’m in relatively good shape these days (mentally, I mean). I’m still gainfully employed with full benefits but without the requirement of any elastic band constricting my breathing or digestion. What the long term will bring is uncertain, but in the short term I am more fortunate than I can fully process.
So, here’s to you, cube farm, you harsh mistress, you container of counted beans, you basic b*tch – for keeping me from ruin, but also for teaching me what to do differently the next go-round.