A few years ago I shared an office with an older gentleman named Tom. That’s not his name. I’m not very good at guessing people’s ages, but I would say Tom was somewhere between 65 and 170,000 years old. We were technical writers, and since I get asked this a lot: technical writers write the documentation that you and I throw away. The Quick Start Guide that’s sealed in a ziplock bag with the cables for your new Xbox? The Before You Begin pamphlet that accompanies your new fridge that you briefly glance at and say, “It’s a fucking fridge, how hard could it be?” Tom and I wrote those, but for software that no one used. Tom was terrible.
When he interviewed me, the first thing I noticed about Tom was that he was a man of many glasses. One pair was on his face, covering his eyes. Classic. Another pair rested above his forehead. A third pair with orange lenses was on a lanyard around his neck. “Hello,” he grunted, as he slumped in a chair in the conference room where the interview was being held. He sighed, produced a fourth pair of glasses from somewhere, and placed them on the table next to my resume and writing samples.
I was prepared. This would be my second office job, and I had studied the company’s website, I had a vague idea of what the job would entail, and I had tucked in my shirt. “Why do you want to work here?” he asked, switching out one pair of glasses for another. “Well, you see, I just, first of all, thank you for taking the time…” My brain continued to produce words as I watched his eyes fill with disgust at my writing samples that he definitely had not read before now. “This isn’t how we do it here,” he said, interrupting me by pointing at a line in one of my samples that said something like, “To save your changes, click Save.” I hated my current job and was desperate to leave, yet now I also hated Tom, so I got really defensive over a writing sample that meant nothing to me. “Man, I don’t know what to tell you, that’s how I do it,” I said too loudly. He was neither impressed nor intimidated by my passion. Instead he said, “Well it’s wrong,” and the interview continued for another 45 minutes.
Despite Tom’s misgivings, I got the job. My first assignment was to transcribe handwritten notes that he had been accumulating over the millennia, some found in the margins of existing documents that needed to be edited, others on post-it notes, not related to anything. But most of my time was spent troubleshooting Tom’s technical issues, of which he had countless, and receiving daily reminders about how bad I was at my job. He said the only reason I was hired was because the other, much more qualified applicant wore a flamboyant shirt to the interview. The first time I sneezed in front of Tom, he told me he would have said “god bless you” if I was a woman. What I’m trying to say is that he was just a weird, cranky old asshole.
After a few weeks, my boss convinced the higher ups that the tech writers needed absolute isolation to write their instructional masterpieces. I would be getting my very own office. With Tom. I was paired up with Tom. I’m not sure who was more disappointed by this development. Tom showed up at 10:00 a.m. on our first day as office buddies. He hung up his coat and winced. “What’s that sound?” I was riding high off of having the office to myself for an hour before he arrived, and didn’t reply. He looked up. “The lights are humming.” In Tom’s defense, there was a slight hum emanating from the overhead lights, but not loud enough to warrant this reaction: He fell into his chair, held his head in his hands, elbows resting on his knees, and just kinda stayed like that for a while.
Finally he snapped and announced, “I’m turning the lights off!” Hey, I thought, it’s 10:30 in the morning, the sun is shining, it’s a beautiful day. Sure. You want to turn the lights off? Knock yourself out. By 4:30 it was pitch black outside, the lights were still off, and I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. I tried to turn down the brightness on my monitor but couldn’t see the buttons to make that happen. “It’s getting pretty dark, mind if I turn the lights back on?” I asked, walking towards the switch. He just glared at me. Never mind then. Instead, I turned the lights back on when he went to the bathroom because I am a coward, and he turned them back off when he returned. Our stupid battle of light vs. dark continued for months. If I turned them on in the morning, he turned them off when he arrived. If I turned them on while he was there, he’d sigh and stare at the floor until I’d feel guilty enough to turn them back off. Meanwhile, we became known around the office as the writers that love to sit in the dark.
Tom had gastrointestinal issues. In the afternoons after lunch, he would belch with an intensity that I’ve never heard escape a human body before. First he would try to hide the belches under his breath, but he’d always lose control, and the resulting belches would become so wet and so powerful that they’d make me dry heave. Belches so disgusting and fragrant that I complained to my boss. And I have this thing where I never want to talk to my boss because it will remind them that I exist, but this… this was too much. What could my boss do? Send him home? Leave Pepto-Bismol on the dude’s desk? This would be pointless, since one day, unprompted, Tom made it very clear that he didn’t quote, “trust drugs.” He claimed to have never taken so much as an aspirin in his life, and when the company offered us free flu shots one year, he reacted as if the company offered us free injections of cholera. When I described the horrors of Tom’s defective G.I. tract to my boss, she just laughed and said the equivalent of “That’s our Tom!” like it was the end of an 80’s sitcom, right before the freeze frame as the credits roll. He continued to belch. I continued to dry heave in the dark.
Tom studied the martial arts. I can’t remember how the topic came up, but any time Tom divulged a sliver of information about his life outside of the office, I turned into a greedy little goblin, memorizing as much information as I could and then immediately emailing the details to my wife because my memory is shit. Here is one such email:
Before I forget, Tom just told me he practices a style of martial arts called GUIDED CHAOS, and I just watched a video, and it involves jumping around in your street clothes and stabbing people with canes. I guess to simulate an actual street fight? It’s fucking MENTAL. Holy shit. Holy shit.
Here is my wife’s reply:
I cannot describe the amount of joy I felt upon learning that Tom was a disciple of something called Guided Chaos. Just picturing this small, gassy man, surrounded by neon Streets of Rage goons? Incredible. There is exactly one dojo in America that teaches this forbidden art, and it was up the road from the office. “A real fight is utter chaos where anything goes,” their website states. “The question is, why would you want to limit your ability to move freely and better than your adversary? The only question now is: What do you want to do?” I’m not trying to be nitpicky, sensei, but that’s two questions. Of course there’s nothing wrong with learning a martial art, but the vibe coming off their sample training videos is that there are gangs of (dog whistle) “thugs” around every corner, and they all want your wallet, and your job, and your freedom. Very “make my day,” “good guy with a gun,” type stuff.
How many street fights had Tom participated in? He was very small and very frail, but I suppose that’s the beauty of Guided Chaos – you never see it coming. You’re walking down the street, minding your own business. You look at an octogenarian the wrong way and suddenly he’s pummeling the everloving christ out of you with a baseball bat for reasons that you could never understand. Pure. Guided. Chaos.
One afternoon, Tom tripped and fell on his way into our office, and somehow managed to land both in his chair and on the floor at the same time. I was accustomed to Tom falling out of his chair every now and again, so I didn’t turn around to ask if he was okay until I heard him softly moaning from his chair/floor limbo. “Everything okay over there?” I asked in a way that could be described as “shitty.” He said he was fine and worked himself fully onto his chair, assumed the standard Tom seated position of head in hands, and continued moaning. “Great,” I said, and went back to work.
The moaning, punctuated with quiet “oh gods” continued for another 20 minutes. Tom was not okay over there. “Are you sure you don’t need any help? Do you want me to call an ambulance or something?” He said that he was going to drive himself to the hospital, stood up, then fell back into his seat. Dejected, he handed me his car keys and said, “Don’t ask me why, but I have a crutch in the trunk of my car.” Now, this wasn’t a fun “don’t ask me why.” This wasn’t like, “Hey don’t ask me why, but one day I realized that I could sing ‘I Saw the Sign’ in Mandarin.” This was much more sinister. I didn’t ask him why, but the only obvious explanation was that he beat someone with a broken foot to death with a Guided Chaos karate chop, and the crutch was a trophy.
I moved his car to the handicap spot in front of the building, grabbed the dead person’s crutch from the trunk, and brought it to Tom. Still, he couldn’t stand. I asked the question hanging over both of us that I already knew the answer to – “Do you want me to help you?” Of course he didn’t, but at this point he had no choice.
The sound of our jackets rubbing together echoed between the rows of cubicles. Tom held onto my shoulder as we slowly marched towards the freight elevator, pausing every few steps. Coworkers saw this bizarre procession and asked what happened, and he replied, “Nothing. I’m fine,” to all of them. I shrugged my one free shoulder like, “Yeah I dunno man, shit’s crazy,” and proceeded with the death march. It dawned on me that I should have just wheeled him down the hall in an office chair, kicked him into the elevator and sent it down to the ground level. Instead I continued dragging him. As the elevator doors closed and he leaned against the wall, he told me that he hoped nobody thought we were gay. I’m assuming because it’s gay to touch another man, or show weakness, or compassion? At this moment I realized how much Tom reminded me of my father, which was a lot to unpack. I unpacked in silence as we continued onward to the parking lot. Tom collapsed into his driver’s seat and drove off. He returned to work two weeks later with a cane, and we never spoke of this again.
As it turns out, when you write documentation that no one reads for software that no one uses, the higher ups begin to take notice. Rumors began circulating about layoffs. Tom wrote user guides for an older version of the software that no one used, while I wrote user guides for the sexy new version of the software that maybe one person used, so the writing (and please see what I did there) was on the wall. My boss called me into her office to let me know that my job was safe, but that Tom was going to be let go. He had been a part of the company for so long that it was like firing a desk or a power strip. I think he came with the building. I’d like to say I felt bad – I don’t know Tom’s financial situation, and who would hire this strange old man? But I assumed he had a stash of gold underneath his mattress and an off-the-grid bunker to live out the rest of his days, and left it at that.
He returned from his own meeting with our boss and gave me the most Tom explanation of the circumstances. “I just want you to know, I took a bullet for you. They wanted to fire you but I said I would take an early retirement instead. So you’re welcome.” I left the office as he packed up his things and sat in the sad Panera Bread in the strip mall across the street. When I returned he was gone, and I turned the goddamn lights on.