June 27th, 2014 was my last day on the job. I could have kept on, but a break so natural and effortless is something I am at last ready to receive. The newest manager in the ever-changing succession was surprised when I politely declined another year in the off-white hive, its promise of excitement and doing something important. We can only buy so much safety, and in a year the same desperate rush will still be there, the coming quarter’s rush all forgotten. There is always a new emergency when there is never enough. Money is useful, to be sure, but I have a pile big enough. A key idea we forget–or never learn–is enough.
For weeks, the end comes slowly: my initial hour of heebie-jeebies at telling the manager that thanks for the offer, but I’d rather let my contract expire, successive hours of anxious repeats when the contracting company emails their incredulity and I somehow maintain my position. Then there are just hiccups in the slipstream as the weekends pass, the knowledge that paychecks will stop, that my squirreling behavior of the past eighteen months will shift to a new phase. Writing remains productive. The book’s first draft is less of a mess and getting straighter all the time.
Then the end comes all at once, as it should.
This is dawn on June 27th, 2014. Light comes before 5 a.m. at 47º36″, and light this clear this early wakes everything, even things that have spent all night awake, like cats. I get up, wash my face, take my vitamins and latest round of pills to at last defeat the Lyme (or at least put it back to sleep), make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for my bike messenger bag and walk outside to the clear sky invisible to the freeway noise: the body all habit but the mind aware in a new way. Years past when leaving a job or school my mind would be grave, or boiling, or stunned: this is the end and what comes next? Now I am fine with it just being the end right now.
The bus is unremarkable. I have ridden it sparingly since carpooling, choosing free time over a free ride. It bothers me a little, both as a cheap person and knowing yet another car out on commute time isn’t helping anything I care about. But an extra 45 to 60 minutes free time a day is yet another tradeoff: possibly selfish, but ultimately I can only live for myself. (I spent a lot on therapist copays to learn that, but you can have it free.) It feels good to ride and watch the city work through itself, circulating and alive.
Arriving at the second bus stop to catch the third and final leg, the Microsoft shuttle driver smiles at me. Hey, haven’t seen you much. She knows work, the lines in her face say, but she smiles and drives the big van, not the small van she had before. Yeah, one trip where I have six people and they give me this big thing. I tell her it’s my last trip, at least for a while. You don’t seem upset about it! She’s right.
Work looks like this. Some warrens and cul de sacs are populated: another crop of interns–some flaunting wild and sexually ambiguous getup, others straight from Midwestern Bible college–sit alone before their screens, their office space secured by very temporary sheets of paper taped to doors. Occasionally an employee or another vendor will appear in the custom of corporate departure: a box full of papers or a small houseplant held with bent elbows above the waist. There are few of these. The place is quiet, the project shut down last week. We are just here to wind down the fiscal year.
Weekday waking hours the last eighteen months have been in this physical space: two meeting rooms combined with a movable wall retracted, spare and loud and first, over time becoming crammed and louder. Had a fire or earthquake happened I doubt everyone would have been able to escape, so I’m hopeful to run out the last few hours without that irony requiring my appreciation. People are even-spirited: the announcement was last week and anyone with attachments has had time to process any turmoil. Most of today is contractors lugging vendor-owned monitors down the stairs. Fulltimers plug away at their interminable PowerPoints or are absent.
In the end, there is little to show for eighteen months: a demo application, if you have the right version of Windows and a touch screen; files of drawings; an app (yes, that word) for displaying icons in various colors; an app intended to facilitate brainstorming. This last was of great importance the past month. Now finished, it is unmentioned. Its ultimate purpose was as an offering to impress some wise wizard somewhere in the vast hive. Maybe it did. I suspect it engendered an elaborate conversation full of tangents and wide-eyed insights that might be valuable to someone somewhere, sometime. In the end it will end up like nearly everything created in any idea factory: shelved on a server nobody knows about, lost to the outside when the last person who knows the password is let go. Microsoft spends a lot of money to conquer new worlds. But is in such a hurry to get to the future everyone else made, it doesn’t keep track of all the worlds it tried to invent, and all the closets it put them in.
I feel little connection and no loss. I am grateful to have had the job during a very difficult time, but that desperation faded last fall. After that, I was only in it for the money. Am I happy? I am not panicked, fearful, or shamed. I feel hopeful and just fine. I need to do something different now.
At 11:30 the beer and pizza comes, and with it the Big Boss. At least, the biggest we have. Full of an eight-year-old’s energy, he has zip-zinged the project and its tribe for the past two or three years to end up junked in the ditch, but he holds no grudges. He relates the old days and the new days, how excited he was and how proud he is. He pulled every lever and tried every trick, but in the end The Big Answer came down from on high: The Big No. The company only made $14.46 billion the previous quarter, down from a record of over $25 billion the previous quarter. In response, vendors let go company-wide and projects trimmed. But then, Microsoft has always acted like the old heiress living in a rented room, living off church handouts to keep from running the hot plate. One can only laugh.
Things break up. I wander the halls and take pictures, free of both remorse and expectation. A friend calls quickly to wish me well in the transition. I am touched by this thoughtfulness, and that of everyone I know. Everyone is supportive. You don’t have any kids, the friend with three told me last year. You can do whatever you want. Texts come in through the day: Time for adventure! I look out the windows at the parking lots, the office buildings, the entire suburban consumerist industrial project. It will go away some day, but not tomorrow. When Microsoft cuts off the free soda, we will all know it is the beginning of The End.
I am useful and honorable, updating some tablet computers that don’t belong to the group before handing them back to someone whose also on his last day. He smiles through his beard, hands full of tablets: well, seeya! I fill canvas bags with my vendor’s equipment and haul it to my girlfriend’s car. I remove my plant in homage to Steve Martin’s The Jerk: I’m gonna take this plant, and this keyboard, and this book, and this…. For the first time, I have a real conversation with a woman who sits behind me. She has worked in TV and shares stories of being a colorist. I feel stupid I never talked to her before the last day.
The Big Boss is in his office, all smiles and no desperation. This place, I mean, jeez. He turns on a demon’s voice. Thank you for your years of devoted service. Now go tell all the people you have told are doing great work their project is cancelled. When you’re done with that, tell these young children there is no Santa. We laugh about it. Why not? That’s the power we have.
When school let out for the summer, there was rush, release, a massive catharsis that thundered in every inch of air shouted out every throat. By college the release had become a quieter putting down in the hour before heading off to work. Today the end is like a line on a map: not there at all, only in the minds that agree it exists. I say goodbye to the people that are left, have a longer talk with the oldest fulltimer still there. He seems the most incredulous that the end is real. Well. Well. Good luck to you. He shakes my hand.
On the other side of the door, I am on the other side of the door.
Thursday, June 26th, 2014 is the last carpool day. Traffic is rough and The Lane, even though it stops midway across the lake, saves its many creeping minutes. Sun streams in westward brilliant, the city’s neat houses set dull in the hillside, the sky behind them bright.
The woman I have been carpooling with is older, a teacher of anthropology working at the college near my office building. She has suffered many losses these past few months: her mother, her oldest mentor, another friend. Now she is losing her ride and conversation with somebody who appreciates a hippie-generation anthropologist. She is thankful a ridematch website and chance have brought us together. So am I. She is someone who appreciates leaving the rat race because she remembers when people called it that and had dreams of leaving it.
She gives me the envelope you see at the top. She keeps tabs of her rides and insists on paying for them. This is the last of that. The note is more. It says grateful things.
I am grateful for having a place to go when I needed one, and someone to talk to in the morning, in the rain.