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Quiet Snacks

October 24, 2010

For six years, I worked in an office where co-workers announced their 9 AM arrival by popping the tab on a can of diet cola, where lunchtime kicked off at 11:15 with the aroma of someone eating a  frozen Parmesan-like cheese-based pasta entrée at his/ her desk, and where “snack” was shorthand for “microwave popcorn prepared and enjoyed approximately ten feet from my desk”. There, food was loud, food was smelly, food had no respect for cubicle boundaries and what one person ate, their colleagues vicariously enjoyed. (Enjoy being shorthand for “submit to sensory assault”.)

By no means an innocent bystander, I got in there with carrot sticks and apples and crispy members of the bread and cracker family. In retaliation for someone’s foot-cheesey lasagna, I heated leftover Indian take-out till it was piping hot then lingered over curry, kingfish, and dahl while I checked email and read incoming letters from clients. A boyfriend’s amazing shrimp and chili special, eggy quiches filled with mushrooms and braised greens, bags of corn chips. The more unhappy I became with the office situation, the deeper I plunged into the game of “you want to surround me with bad manners? I’ll show you bad manners!” One morning as I packed a container of pasta with clams, mussels, shrimp, scallops and whitefish left over from dinner the night before, I declared, “I am so winning Who Has the Most Fucking Revolting Lunch? today!”

Years ago, a friend contributed a short character piece to a radio show about work culture. The Clockwatcher sent co-workers baffling items via interoffice mail, perfected playing hookey while appearing to be not only present but also very hard at work, and devised a chart showing workplace offences (bum-punching, not getting a deserved promotion, being asked to get the boss’s coffee, asked to work weekend overtime while the manager headed up north) and a scale of worth in stolen office supplies. The formula went like: Treat me like shit in a meeting and undervalue my efforts all week? That’ll cost you one pack of the good post-its and a three-hole punch, plus a two-hour lunch break next Wednesday. Around the same time, I read an essay in a business magazine, which recommended employers permit a certain amount of low-grade theft and time-stealing since it would lull unhappy staff into believing they’d exacted fair revenge for poor working conditions. In consequence, those frustrated employees wouldn’t bother unionising, filing grievances if already unionised, organising any sort of unified effort to effect real change. They’d believe ten pencils and an afternoon off made up for ungratifying working conditions, and would take no steps to improve their lot.

While I warmed my fishy lunch, I considered these two swings of the office pendulum: sitting back and doing nothing to improve my day because it was kinda hilarious to taunt my colleagues with food that stank worse than theirs did. And, I realised it was time to get out. So, I did. Which is how I came to find myself seated in the quietest corner I have ever experienced outside my own home. A corridor of little offices with real doors that really shut, leading to a secluded (not isolated) corner of four cubicles, each with its own little entrance, tall walls, good acoustics, no phonecalls leaking over the top, no footsteps charging back and forth. No one visiting to whisper at a neighbour’s desk. No conversations conducted from one office to another by using an outdoor voice indoors rather than getting up and walking over to normal speaking distance. And, no food. None.

What a relief! And, what a dilemma. How to snack without being overheard? I am the new girl, the blank slate, taking in what goes on around me before making an impression of any kind. Weighing this and weighing that, and watching how things are done around the place. And so, no noisy snacks. Lunch is no problem, since I’ve taken this change as an opportunity to break myself of the disgusting habit of eating a meal over my desk. But snacktime comes twice a day, and I can’t be dashing to the kitchen every time I feel like nibbling something between meals. And, I don’t want to be like Jemaine on Flight of the Conchords, all “oh gosh, look who’s eating!” Apples are out, and so are carrots. No crackers or things wrapped in cellophane bags that crumple and rustle with even the lightest touch. It was easy to produce a list of snacks that broke the rules, but what to bring instead?

Dates work, and so do plums. The awesome pumpkin-mascarpone muffins I baked last weekend then stowed in my freezer to be eaten one by one, without going stale. Chocolate fits the quiet snack profile, but I suppose is lacking a certain je ne sais quoi in the nutrition department. Bananas are fine but, like my previous sandwich post, me and bananas, we don’t get along; things between us remain fraught despite years of negotiation. Walnuts are ok, so are pecans, but almonds require technique.

When I accepted this new job and was preparing to leave the old one, co-workers cautioned me to not get my hopes up; the new place would be the same as the old place, they predicted, the only difference being its location. I plugged my ears and chanted “lalala not listening!” because frankly, I can imagine few things more horrible than looking ahead and hoping for disappointment. I was excited to wear swanky little office outfits complete with stockings and neckties, to carry a briefcase even though there would be no briefings inside (I write them, but never transport them from place to place), to wear a security badge displaying a photo even worse than the one on my driver’s licence. I was excited to learn the route to the copy room, and to meet colleagues who would be as blank-slate to me as I would be to them. And, I remained hopeful there would be stale building air in place of stinky popcorn and freezer-burnt cheese.

One month in, I am still nerdishly excited. I love my pencil skirts and high heels, and the way the building guards greet each person as we come and go. I love the lobby architecture that is firmly “International style circa 1965”. I love that the guy next to me uses a tiny fan not to circulate the air but to produce some white noise because the silence makes him a bit bananas. And, I love that the other day when someone dined at their desk, it made the whole place feel a little more human, a little more inhabited, a little less like the moment I snick a carrot stick in half I won’t be hustled out the door, ugly security badge torn from my collar by the guard at the front desk.

One Comment leave one →
  1. foodandpassion permalink
    October 24, 2010 4:21 pm

    I have a sneaking suspicion that your skills in the baking department are going to become even more sophisticated in the scone, muffin, cake, and pastry department, not because of the upcoming classes, but from sheer necessity of quiet snacks at the office. The only sound that results from your chocolate pound cake, from what I have experienced anyhow, is a long and drawn out aaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhooooooooooooooohhhhhhhhhmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.Pencil skirts beware.
    PS, I need library-friendly snack ideas too. Let me in on your “quiet snack passed” list please.

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