Unless you are Brad Pitt and can show a new girlfriend your $40 million Italian chateau (and infuriate an ex-wife, Angela Jolie, a co-owner!), or you are Opray Winfrey and can display a $100 million California home, you are better off trying to impress your friends by showing off your shining two or four-story office where you have a room to yourself. Sadly, that too is becoming doubtful these days, as many companies allot their executives little cubicles that just about holds a laptop rather than a spacious corner room – or ask them to work online from home.
My luck has varied and veered greatly. My trajectory through a variety of offices has been almost a story of Manikin in Wonderland.
Now I was engulfed by rows of clerks, like the phalanx of an endless army, working on stocks and cost control, unraveling the mysteries of FOB and CIF pricing. I had clean shirts and a decent chair of my own, and a restored sense of middle-class respectability. In three months, the thunderbolt struck. The boss took a fancy to my work and moved me overnight to a corner of his cavernous office, to work on a special project for him: absenteeism. My status was on the uptick.
In a year I caught somebody else’s fancy. I was moved hastily to the company’s headquarters in the city. To everyone’s disbelief and the dismay of my peers, I seemed to have suddenly ‘arrived.’ I was not only rubbing shoulders with the corporate honchos, I had, the surprise of surprises, a office of my own. It came with an elegant secretary, who came every morning with a tray of tea and cookies.
A few years later, I joined another company as the chief of a division and was rewarded with not just an absurdly large office but also a private restroom. It was a giant mystery to me why my private functions had to be guarded so carefully that I needed a restroom of my own, but the prevailing culture dictated that a boss had to be shrouded in the aura of privacy.
Some years later, I moved overseas. My boss said despairingly, “The moment I saw that blond woman hovering near your office, I knew your days were numbered.” Indeed I left precipitately and joined one of the six largest corporations in the US. It had a huge estate near Washington, close to the Potomac, and, more than my office, I loved exploring the woods around it. Instead of a sit-down lunch, I would ask the cafeteria for two sandwiches and walk through the oaks and birches until a deer came fearlessly near for my second sandwich.
When I joined a UN group, my office really became the planes and an assortment of hotels in unfamiliar cities. I learned to work in flight while savoring free wine and trained myself to disregard ambient noise and attractive seatmates. For relaxation, I memorized Spanish phrases and French idioms, knowing the lifesaver those would be in other lands.
Things changed dramatically when I joined the diplomatic corps. I had imagined attending cocktail parties in white ties and tails. Instead, I was sent to Haiti to track human rights violations and provide asylum to refugees. My virtual office became ramshackle churches and dilapidated hovels where hunted people hid, the only respite being my alternative office on coast guard cutters that retrieved fleeing refugees from sinking boats. I next went to Nepal, where for days my office was 9000 feet in the Himalayas, trying to find American hikers and mountaineers who had survived an avalanche.
Meanwhile, the digital revolution had come and stayed. When I joined the world’s biggest consulting group, they gave me a laptop and in effect told me to forget about an office. Unless clients wanted me to sit in their office! I loved the new freedom and wanted to make it complete: in two years, I gave up the job and became a consultant.
My major client had an office that was not a brick-and-mortar building at all, but sixteen boats in the Washington Marina. I sat next to the president’s office in a tiny cubicle, in the cozy, gently undulating boat, sipped my coffee and peered out the porthole at the ducks in the rippling water and birds in the cloudless sky.
Now I work at a huge rolltop desk that I brought along from India, in my own home, my castle, in the master bedroom – the best room -- that I have converted into my study, surrounded by books, on shelves, on chairs, on the floor, everywhere, with two large windows practically bringing the encircling oaks and their probing branches right inside, the afternoon sun glinting through the shiny leaves, and a strawberry margarita, frosting in a crystal glass my daughter gave me for my birthday, waiting both to quench my thirst and lift my spirits. Life, even in a pandemic, is dazzling and this is the best office I ever had.