In Praise of Non-coworkers

by Joshua Michtom

Coworkers are the protagonists of our workplace sitcoms and soap operas — they are the fully realized characters who make the long hours from punch-in to punch-out as tolerable or intolerable as they are. But have we ever stopped to consider that wonderful class of bit players who fill in the interstices, upon whom we can project whatever back story suits us? I’m referring, of course, to the employees of other workplaces that share some physical space with our own, the people we basically don’t know, but see enough to offer a nod and some small talk on This Weather We’ve Been Having — let’s call them Non-Coworkers. I love this class of people, and the non-relationship I have with them. Let me sing their praises.

In my experience, there is something marvelously distant-yet-close about non-coworkers. They tend to seem very unlike anyone I’d ever know or work with, but I get to see them up close — smell their perfume or deodorant, overhear their cell conversations, see the flaws in make-up application and necktie knotting that they only catch in the elevator mirror a minute before starting work. And unlike people on the bus (say), or the sidewalk, I see them over and over again.

In my romantic younger days, I actually allowed myself considerable flights of fancy surrounding my non-coworkers. (This was when I did things like keep a journal and fancy myself a writer.) I would sit on the train to Brooklyn and write actual stories about the occupants of the anonymous office building on West 33rd Street where I worked for a non-profit, imagining the chain of events that might bring my life in contact with one of theirs — a spontaneous crime spree with the mustachioed fifty-something accountant-looking guy from the translation company on the second floor, or a torrid romance with the secretary from the human rights group who always wore brightly colored hijabs. When I was a bike messenger, the first floor of my building housed the back offices of the neighboring strip club, and several of the strippers would arrive together around four each afternoon, on Harleys, suggesting that their actual back stories would only be marginally more plausible than anything I could dream up for them.

The other occupants of my current building are appreciably more prosaic, but I love them just the same. In the summer, the administrative offices of the local Democratic party upstairs attract a gaggle of bright-eyed college interns, dressed a bit too sharply and with demeanors somewhere between startled and ambitious. I imagine them caught up in House of Cards-style intrigue and backstabbing, even though I know that there’s probably not so much of that in Hartford. And then there is the dentist’s office on the ground floor, which seems to employ far more people than I can imagine an operation of that size needing, all of whom are somewhat better dressed than any dental employees I’ve ever seen (except for the guy who stands outside wearing an enormous tooth costume). I like to suppose that their office is really a front for some spy agency or criminal syndicate, although there’s probably just another part of the office that makes the whole concern bigger than I realize.

My favorite is a fellow who works for the small outpost of a little-known federal government agency on the same floor as my office. A jowly white man in his mid-50s in wool slacks and short-sleeve button-ups, he seems to spend a fair bit of time each morning in the bathroom, meticulously arranging a preposterous combover. Contrasting the delicacy he employs in that endeavor, all of his other movements are brusque almost to the point of violence: He flips the toilet seat down so it slams against the porcelain bowl; he always smacks the motion-sensing paper towel dispenser, although just a wave of the hand would suffice; and more than once, I have heard him curse loudly to himself in the face of the bathroom’s poor upkeep. Finding a stall door still not fixed a week after it broke, he declared, “This place sucks.” Confronting a clogged toilet, he said, firmly, “Fuck this.” He seems so bland and disgruntled, I have to assume that he’s actually some kind of suave government agent.

Do you, dear readers, take notice of your non-coworkers? Have you befriended any of them? Do you notice them doing weird and wonderful things that make you want to know more? Tell me all about it.

Josh Michtom is a public defender in Hartford, Connecticut. He spends way too much of his spare time decorating his children’s school lunch bags. Photo by the author.

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