I would prefer not to.
March 25, 2015 5:35 AM   Subscribe

Clerks. “vain, mean, selfish, greedy, sensual and sly, talkative and cowardly”
posted by bitmage (17 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
This job would be great if it wasn't for the fucking customers.
posted by delfin at 6:09 AM on March 25, 2015 [19 favorites]

This job would be great if it wasn't for the fucking customers.

You know, except for certain very specific industries, Management will generally back you up if you politely but firmly ask these customers to stop.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:17 AM on March 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

You know, I've read Bartleby the Scrivener repeatedly and there's one thing I've never, ever understood - why didn't Bartleby's boss fire him?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:46 AM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

I very much enjoyed this article: thanks, bitmage, for posting it. On his retirement from decades of office-work, Charles Lamb (1775-1834) wrote the following, in his essay The Superannuated Man:
If peradventure, Reader, it has been thy lot to waste the golden years of thy life—thy shining youth—in the irksome confinement of an office; to have thy prison days prolonged through middle age down to decrepitude and silver hairs, without hope of release or respite; to have lived to forget that there are such things as holidays, or to remember them but as the prerogatives of childhood; then, and then only, will you be able to appreciate my deliverance.
It is now six and thirty years since I took my seat at the desk in Mincing-lane. Melancholy was the transition at fourteen from the abundant play-time, and the frequently-intervening vacations of school days, to the eight, nine, and sometimes ten hours' a-day attendance at a counting-house. But time partially reconciles us to anything. I gradually became content—doggedly contented, as wild animals in cages.
[…] My health and my good spirits flagged. I had perpetually a dread of some crisis, to which I should be found unequal. Besides my daylight servitude, I served over again all night in my sleep, and would awake with terrors of imaginary false entries, errors in my accounts, and the like. I was fifty years of age, and no prospect of emancipation presented itself. I had grown to my desk, as it were; and the wood had entered into my soul.
posted by misteraitch at 6:52 AM on March 25, 2015 [28 favorites]

Misteraitch, I must print this happy note and attach it to the carpet above my desk at the counting-house, where I do indeed spend eight, nine, and sometimes ten hours' a-day.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 7:18 AM on March 25, 2015

The book that the article is excerpted from is really interesting - if you liked the article you should check it out.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:34 AM on March 25, 2015

This is a fascinating article, especially the bit about the different pace of office work in its early days.

However, this has got to be a typo:
One exemplary office, of a New York commission house that sold western and southern produce, was only twenty-five square feet in size but managed to house four partners and six clerical workers, all men. One was an office manager; two clerks handled the major accounts, while a fourth handled the smaller ones. A fifth acted as secretary to the senior partner; a sixth was a receiving and delivery clerk who worked “from early in the morning until eight to ten o’clock at night” handling freight and storage. There was a group of salesmen who went in and out of the office to arrange transactions and a collector who processed bills and handled bank deposits.

because frankly you couldn't even fit ten people in 25 square feet - and even if you assume that there were only two there at a time sharing a desk, you can't really imagine it. I assume she means 25' x 25'.

posted by Frowner at 7:41 AM on March 25, 2015

You know, I've read Bartleby the Scrivener repeatedly and there's one thing I've never, ever understood - why didn't Bartleby's boss fire him?

Compassion? It was clear looking at Bartleby's decline that he was a fundamentally broken individual. As the narrator puts it:

Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary. He is useful to me. I can get along with him. If I turn him away, the chances are he will fall in with some less indulgent employer, and then he will be rudely treated, and perhaps driven forth miserably to starve. Yes. Here I can cheaply purchase a delicious self-approval. To befriend Bartleby; to humor him in his strange wilfulness, will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience.

And that was EARLY in Bartleby's descent into fatal apathy, before he stopped working, stopped moving and finally stopped doing anything at all. Bartleby was a puzzle because he wasn't trying to get away with something; he was increasingly divorced from the cause-effect relationship on a very primal level. How do you interact with a person who has zero motivations or desires?

I'm reminded of a very simple man who ran around with my mother years ago -- my father said "I'd punch his lights out but I don't think he'd understand WHY." It wasn't that he was intentionally causing harm, but rather that he had a major defect that seemed to prevent him from recognizing the consequences of his actions. So went Bartleby, and the narrator recognized this and felt a need to protect this helpless man from angry coworkers, the narrator's own temper, and finally from himself. In the end, he DID fire him, and it went predictably.
posted by delfin at 7:48 AM on March 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

> You know, except for certain very specific industries, Management will generally back you up if you politely but firmly ask these customers to stop.

This has...generally not been my experience.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:50 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

The self-regarding clerk in his white collar . . . overdressed dandies, imitating aristocratic styles already several years old . . . "young gentlemen with tight coats, bright boots, well-oiled hair, and supercilious lips. Setting aside a certain dapperness of carriage . . . an exact fac-simile of what had been the perfection of bon ton about twelve or eighteen months before. They wore the cast-off graces of the gentry" (Edgar Allan Poe). “A slender and round-shouldered generation, of minute leg, chalky face, and hollow chest. . . . trig and prim in great glow of shiny boots, clean shirts . . . hair all soaked and ‘slickery’ with sickening oils. . . . What wretched, spindling ‘forked radishes’ . . . how ridiculous . . . ” (Walt Whitman)

And as late as 1977, Wayne Dyer* was telling us all that "the clerk is a jerk".

Way to beat up on the little guy.

*Notice how the book cover nicely crops out one of the author's key erroneous zones.
posted by Herodios at 9:57 AM on March 25, 2015

Why would he fire Bartleby? He doesn't fire Turkey and Nippers, each of whom for different reasons is useful to him for only half the working day. He accommodates people wherever possible and he chooses to ignore whatever about them is inconvenient. And this is mostly because he is "a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best."

Every time Bartleby provides him with cause and opportunity, the lawyer finds a reason he can't go through with firing him and decides to wait and deal with it later, when, presumably, it will be easier. He meets every "I prefer not to" with a firm resolve to deal with Bartleby sternly, effectively, once and for all... some day:
"I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure."
"'Very good, Bartleby,' said I, in a quiet sort of serenely severe self-possessed tone, intimating the unalterable purpose of some terrible retribution very close at hand. At the moment I half intended something of the kind. But upon the whole, as it was drawing towards my dinner-hour, I thought it best to put on my hat and walk home for the day..."

The strangeness of Bartleby reveals to the lawyer the strangeness of himself; he is made uneasy by not only Bartleby but his inability to respond to Bartleby reasonably. Is it charity that prevents him? Or is it cowardice and sloth? He hopes it is the former but suspects it is the latter. It's probably a mixture, and in the end it doesn't matter: we may mean well and strive to do great things, or we may mean well but somehow never get around to doing anything at all. Maybe we buy the ring, write the letter, seal it all up and send it winging on its way. Or maybe we think of writing the letter all the time, maybe we walk past likely rings in store windows, every day for a while and then gradually less and finally never anymore. In the end it doesn't matter. Either way the letter never gets where we wanted it to go. Either way Bartleby starves.
posted by Don Pepino at 2:20 PM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

I always thought - possibly because I first encountered Bartleby as a figure for passive worker resistance - that Bartleby would "prefer not" not because there was anything wrong with Bartleby but because the work itself and the work environment were personality-decaying and world-eroding; that the mystery wasn't why Bartleby would rather not but why everyone else would rather. That there was some grain of resistance in Bartleby so that he would rather let himself die than participate, and that there was yet some passivity or defeat in him that kept him from rebelling....that he self-destructs in protest, but it's not precisely an anti-capitalist protest.

But if there ever were a story readily subject to many plausible readings, it's that one.
posted by Frowner at 2:27 PM on March 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

Maybe the reason I was always so baffled by Bartleby not getting fired was because the notion of a boss just letting someone stay because they were too soft-hearted to fire them struck me as profoundly unlikely, and I just never bought into anything else after that. I think that was when I was starting my first high school jobs, and I knew that pulling any of that "I would prefer not to" stuff at the local McDonald's would have me out on my ass.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:42 PM on March 25, 2015

I wasn't even supposed to read this today.
posted by w0mbat at 3:17 PM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

It's been a while since I've read it, but I remember Bartleby being such a brazen rebuke of the system it calls the whole thing into question; to fire Bartleby would reveal as artificial and cruel the very thing everyone involved has dedicated their time and energy to. It would be basically to make his point for him, to call the whole utilitarian modern project into the debate.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 9:37 PM on March 25, 2015

Sorry, Bartleby by Will Meyerhofer, a former lawyer turned licensed-therapist-specializing-in-lawyers.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 10:44 AM on March 26, 2015

I recall believing that the reason Bartleby is not fired is because the nature of his rebellion confounds his boss. He has essentially responded to a yes or no question with "turnip" and, lacking the societal scripts, the boss doesn't know how to handle it. Bartleby rejects the structure and without the structure the boss cannot cope.
posted by phearlez at 12:36 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

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