The Meaning of a Work Badge

Hopper Office in a Small City
 Office in a Small City  Edward Hopper  Oil on Canvas 

At the Company we had plastic key cards that opened certain doors at certain times of day. We had so many vendors and visitors that access is what separates. Can’t get through that door? You must be other. Or…a dumb employee who forgot your badge at home. Again.

It wasn’t a big deal when people lost their badges. It happened quite often. They were small and thin and had a tendency to fall off belts and waistbands, to disappear into the black void of a lady’s work bag, or slip between seat covers and that tiny, awkward space between the desk and the giant, immovable printer. People shrugged and say, “Man. I need to get a new badge,” and the guy in charge of these things, the Director, gladly obliged.

“First replacement is on the house,” he would say, “the second one is on you.”

At ten dollars a piece, the badges cost just enough to make you wince. But that was the price of access.

The badges used to be more official looking, kind of like the ones you might find at NASA or perhaps the CIA (blatant speculation about the inner workings of both institutions), sporting passport like ID photos printed over the old company logo. But as thriving companies are wont to do, we started to grow and to accommodate the growing body count, we bought the building next door, adding hundreds of square feet of office space and doors to go along with it. But the Director remained one person. People were spending too much time standing around, waiting for him to polish their badges instead of getting to work right away, so the visible ID function of the badges was done away with. We were handed little blank slates with no identifying markers upon them. The only thing that gave our identities away were the electronic trackers that told the Director who was entering a door at what time.

But I disliked the plain whiteness of the badge. I don’t know what hit me – it’s not like me to care about personalizing my things, but the tiny white canvas beckoned and I decided to do something to it. It was a very girlish impulse, a decade delayed as I would have done something like this in 2002, when I was a sophomore in high school. But in high school, while my friends busied themselves with wrapping their textbooks in fancy paper and decked out their locker doors with magazine cut-outs, I was busy playing badminton and eating too much. I was not that kind of girl; I lived lightly upon material things.

But one day Madame Receptionist – a girl all about style – set her badge down next to mine. It bothered me that our badges were indistinct. I could grab hers, she mine, and at least electronically we could parade around as each other. Each time her badge beeped, it would say “Betty” and each time I swiped hers, it would say “Madame Receptionist,” though only the computer could detect this.

Don’t worry, my identity at work had not come down to this; we are not just numbers. But a quick examination of others’ badges told me no one else gave the badge much thought. People were quite open about displaying their family photos on their desk. A fresh-faced toddler surrounded by lights and gifts around a Christmas tree; an awkward group photo at a coworker’s wedding; a postcard of a pristine beach, perhaps a vacation goal, if the displayer was lucky enough to take one. Cats. Dogs. More Cats. My desk was my desk, but not quite my desk. Occasionally people sent flowers to my boss, and because he didn’t care one way or other, I kept them on my desk, prompting nosy upstairs women to inquire after a secret admirer. But no, the flowers were never mine (except for the bouquet the Director of HR kindly left for Admin Appreciation Day). I did not bring any photographs to pin up or any other identifiers to “mark” my space. I assumed that as it was the only desk attached to the walls of my boss’s office, the space spoke for itself.

Either way, given my flighty work history, I assured myself it didn’t matter. The last assistant had left in a hurry, leaving behind an odd, unappetizing collection of diet soup cups (aka sodium bombs) in the bottom drawer. Apparently she also had terrible migraines or cramps and acid reflux: there was a veritable pharmacy, consisting of Tums, generic brand acid reducers and every OTC pain killer available. I hoped my position wouldn’t wreak such havoc on my health, but I kept them around just in case.

And for the most part, I was okay with this. My work space was not ever really mine, and I did not try to make it so. Even the badge (upon quitting, I will have to return it to the director) but for now, it was the perfect amount of space for me to work with – three and a half inches by two – a palm-sized canvas upon which to paint. Or fill with the art of others.

A few years ago I was living in Taiwan in a room not my own: a guest room filled with my grandmother’s exercise equipment and winter coats. I did what I could to make it mine: cleared out the small desk and two shelves and slowly filled them with books from Eslite Bookstore, a favorite if expensive haunt. When that became too much, I began to frequent the Taipei Municipal Library, built like a prison and a much further walk than the bookstore, but still – they had a few shelves devoted to English books, many volumes of which, for some reason, were Canadian.

Including this book, Pilgrim by Timothy Findley. I have long forgotten the story but remember well the novel’s essence (that strange phenomenon when you forget why you were laughing so hard at something, only that it was the funniest thing you have ever heard) – it was strange, strange, strange. Even stranger still, I felt, was that I was a Chinese American college dropout, reading a Canadian Novel checked out from a bookstore in Taiwan.

I stood there in between the shelves thumbing through the pages wondering if I wanted to know this Pilgrim when out fell a small, handwritten card. It was about the size of a business card and upon it, a man (to me the penmanship is masculine…though I could be wrong) had copied a quote from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, one of Ben’s favorite books.

He had written it at 3:25PM on January 6, 2005 in Haas Cafe, the same Haas Cafe at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business – or at least I like to think this is the cafe. At the time, I had no idea I would attend Berkeley, no idea that I would go anywhere and do anything except for perhaps back to the guest room that afternoon with Timothy Findley’s strange novel and this small note card with its vague message. Objectively speaking, it wasn’t even a great quote. There was no poetry and seemed a bit long. I wish Coelho’s editor had cut the last six words. But it was true and, depending on how I felt, quite thought provoking.

“Making a decision is only the beginning of things. When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.” 

-Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist 

I checked the book out and without really knowing why, tucked the card into my wallet. It seemed like something I was supposed to keep.

A year and a half later I was back in the states, having decided to return and finish my degree. I made a habit of keeping the card behind my driver’s license, a literal backing for my identity. Time flew and sometime during those last months of freedom, before I started work, I wondered what decisions I had made to land me where I was. I know, but I don’t. I still don’t. I was sure then that I wanted to write, but not sure I had what it took to push other things out and focus solely on that. I did not write or think about writing every waking moment, but when I did finally sit down to write, the rhythm of the words both as they appeared on the screen and the clickety clack of the keyboard calm me in ways nothing else has been able to do. Is that a lonely thing to say? Yes.

When I started working at The Company, I looked forward to my job. Everything was young and fresh. The people were young and fresh and I, young and fresh to them (except for the ignoramuses who think I have children). But the longer I work the deeper my doubts. People ask me, what are you thinking? What is your next step? And I ask myself…am I being a brat? Are the doubts stronger because it is summer and still, after a year, I am unaccustomed to full days of being indoors?

But I think it happened for a reason. I woke up that one afternoon to take the headhunter’s call because I was ready for a change from my old job. I was in transition and in many ways, am still in transition. Do people truly ever stop transitioning? I don’t think so.

Please share your thoughts. No really, please.

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