Friday, June 15, 2012

Cheap laughs

When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes take me and my Little Bro to his office in Manhattan. Usually this was in late December, when school had already let out for the holidays but the business world was still keeping office hours, even if productivity was close to zero. With his two sons in tow, Dad would take a long lunch and leave a bit early, but he would do at least a bit of work to justify showing up in the first place. He was a middle manager at the time, which meant he had a fair number of occasions throughout the day to visit other people’s desks in his supervisory capacity, or attend meetings in conference rooms, or whatnot. And for those intervals he would leave me and Little Bro in his office, which was an actual central-casting early 80’s American Businessman office with walls and a closing door and a window overlooking downtown and everything.

My dad’s office also had the expected large desk and leather chair, as well as a side table with a couple of humbler seats. Usually (read: always) I would pull rank as the older sibling and sit at my dad’s desk, leaving Little Bro to the side table. We would amuse ourselves by just scribbling away for hours; if there was one thing in abundance where my dad worked, it was corporate-branded stationery supplies, and we went through forests of notepads and oceans of ink drawing whatever our single-digit-aged brains were obsessed with any given year.

But we were kids so of course we couldn’t be counted on to sit quietly and focus diligently all the time. Sometimes we would root through my dad’s desk, together, just to see what we would find. Which was never anything terribly interesting, and this isn’t the beginning of some crazy shocking tale of my dad’s secret life away from home or anything, sorry. But we looked anyway, acting out of our inexhaustible supply of bored curiosity.

One time that boredom led us to start playing with the paperclips in a desk drawer, clipping them together in a long chain, just to keep our idle hands busy. I’m pretty sure we were interrupted in that bit of mindless fiddling by my dad gathering us up for lunch, and I just dropped the chain into the drawer organizer tray with the rest of the loose paperclips and scampered off when summoned, without really thinking about it any more.

At least, not until a long while later, like a week, or maybe even two or three given that the holidays fell in there somewhere, too. My dad came home from work and over dinner told us that he had found the little surprise we had left for him. Little Bro and I had no idea what he was talking about, but my dad was mostly telling the story to my mom anyway, so at least we got to listen to the explanation. Apparently my dad did have cause to use several paperclips a day, holding together various reports and memos and whatnot (he worked in insurance and I’m sure each little sheaf was related to a different policy or whatever, it’s not really important) and of course it becomes a very mechanical process when a form is completed or whathaveyou: stack up the pages, tap their edges and square them off, open the drawer, grab a paperclip, clip the pages together, set the packet in the outbox, repeat. Not the day after he brought us to his office, and not the day after that, but much later he was going through the routine steps, stack, tap, square, open, grab … and grabbed not one paperclip but a whole tinkling chain of them. We had probably clipped together 50 or so, which made for what must have seemed like a never-ending rope of paperclips that came out of the drawer hand over hand over hand until my dad reached the end.

My dad was famously short-tempered when I was little but this memory stands out in my mind because he wasn’t angry at all. He thought the whole thing was pretty hilarious. He laughed as he told the story to my mom, and he said he had laughed sitting there at his desk in the moment. He didn’t even give me and Little Bro the slightest hint of a “don’t mess with grown-ups’ stuff” lecture, either. He was genuinely impressed at how we had pranked him so effectively. Specifically, the length of the fuse on it, the fact that we hooked up so many paperclips but not all of them, so that the odds were good for a while that reaching into the drawer without looking would yield up single paperclips, and then the delayed payoff would come by the time our visit had started to fade from memory. Needless to say, I did not disabuse my father of this notion, even though it couldn’t have been further from the truth. We were linking paperclips because we were bored, and did some but not all because something else came up. No elaborate strategy, really, but I readily recognized the benefit in taking credit for one after the fact.

Read what you will into it, as far as why this particular random anecdote is swimming near the surface of my headspace. The tedium of the workplace from the adult perspective? The tendency to project great motivations and abilities onto our children? Maybe just that this Sunday is Father’s Day. Sometimes things pop into my head for no discernible reason at all, so I suppose a surplus of plausible reasons is no bad thing.

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