The copy machine at my old job was the size of a small heifer. It stood in a stall made of three cubicle walls. Shredded paper was strewn on the floor like a sparse layer of hay. I could have sent an intern there to make copies for me. But doing it myself was a chance to get on my feet, stand next to the machine's warm flank and listen to the rhythmic sound of paper moving through its gut.
Each day, my pastoral moment was marred by a fresh sign pinned above the copier. please, it said, in 128-point italicized serif type, REFILL PAPER TRAY AFTER USE. The words "paper tray" cast a forward shadow of black ink onto the page, as if the sun was setting behind them. Clip art floated around the words: a copier, a notarized document and a hand. Pushpins had been pressed so hard into the sign's corners that their soft ends almost penetrated the paper.
The sign was the work of Suzanne (no real names have been used), a criminal-justice student hired last summer to perform general office duties. Soon after she started, the walls of our small public-relations firm were covered with signs that combined art and ordinance.
In the kitchen, before I had even sipped my tea, my eyes would slide to a sign over the sink that admonished YOUR MOTHER IS NOT HERE TO CLEAN UP AFTER YOU. DO IT YOURSELF. Below that phrase, a border of clip-art sponges marched around a coffee mug from which a stream of liquid flowed, like something at the end of an outfall pipe.
Praise for Suzanne's signs cascaded from the top of the employee flowchart. One of the agency's head honchos, Bob, even suggested that the staff thank her for "enhancing" our workplace. I could never bring myself to pat her on the back. Not only did she pollute my moments of relaxation, she invaded all of my private spaces.
PLEASE, IF THE TOILET SEAT DOES NOT FLUSH AUTOMATICALLY, PRESS THE BLACK BUTTON, read the sign on the back of every stall door in the women's room. There was a picture of a toilet and a finger pushing a button. The finger was hugely out of proportion to the toilet, as if it could actually bend at the first knuckle and sit down on the seat. This time, Suzanne added some flowers. I'd sit glaring at the sign. It felt as if Suzanne was standing over me in the stall--not only making sure that I flushed, but that I wiped the seat and washed my hands.
Although the signs tried to be chirpy with their cutesy pictures, Suzanne was not. Her daily uniform was an oversize navy-blue windbreaker. She'd coat her long, curly brown hair with a wet-look gel, so it drooped around her face. These two grooming habits made her look like she was always walking through a rainstorm. She was quiet, too, except for the sound the nylon windbreaker made when she moved.
But I didn't buy her gloomy good-girl act. Anyone who renders the word "please" in 128-point italicized type strips any sense of politeness from the word. Those giant letters were the sound of Suzanne yelling.
At staff meetings, Suzanne stood in the back while we gave updates on our projects. I'd cringe whenever someone would mention an unexpected shortage of blue folders or a missing can opener, because I knew it would result in another 8-by-11-inch proclamation beginning "Please..."
As the summer went on, Suzanne's shouts became more frequent. PLEASE, SQUEEZE OUT SPONGE AFTER USE, cried a clip-art sponge with a row of teardrops beside it. Underneath that was the explanation, "It keeps mold from growing!"
The multiplying signs assumed the worst about me. PLEASE, IF YOU DRINK THE LAST CUP OF COFFEE, MAKE A FRESH POT. PLEASE, CRUSH CANS BEFORE PLACING IN RECYCLING CONTAINER. They fixated on small day-to-day failures. They missed the fact that even if I did leave a sandwich in the refrigerator over the weekend, I finished my work on time. If I had ever had to do CPR on the FedEx guy, Suzanne would probably have made a sign that said PLEASE, BEFORE LIFESAVING, SHUT DOWN YOUR COMPUTER.
Besides, Suzanne's signs missed the big things. One of our top executives, Michael, sold pot from his office. Suzanne never placed a sign there that read PLEASE, OBEY OUR DRUG LAWS, complete with clip-art scales, a blind Justice and little marijuana leaves dancing toward a trash can. Another senior staffer, Chris, was so tight with the city council that he had more power than hundreds of voters. But there was no PLEASE, KEEP YOUR BACKROOM LOBBYING TO A MINIMUM. IT HELPS DEMOCRACY! on his door.
When Suzanne went back to school, her signs lingered for a week. But then someone took one down. Then another. It wasn't the massive tearing down of a leader's statue after a regime ends. Suzanne wasn't important enough for that. But as I removed one from above the copier and put it in the shredder, I felt a thrill of freedom.