The Unseen

Where I work we don’t give much thought to the mailroom. It seems like snail mail somehow find us and it ends up in our mailboxes. The people who pick up and deliver the mail zip by a couple times a day. They move from station to station largely unseen and unacknowledged. Without meaning to I had totally tuned them out. It was like they were not there.

My somewhat famous name occasionally it gets remarks. Usually it goes in one ear and out the other. I keep my office door open but I face the hall. Usually I am engaged in work, so my eyes are focusing on my monitor and my hands are flying over the keyboard. I am only dimly aware when people pass by. So I was a little surprised when the other day one of the young women who pushes the mail cart struck up a conversation with me about my name.

Like many in the mailroom she had handicaps. She wears coke bottle glasses and moves unsteadily down the hallways. She runs by my office a couple times a day. I was only tangentially aware of her. I never spoke to her because I had nothing to say. If I were to think about it, which I never did, I assumed she would never have anything to say to me either. Two people with less in common would be harder to find. She delivers the mail. I direct a bunch of knowledge workers using tools like email and conference calls. But she spoke. Her name, she told me was Karen. Nice to meet you Karen, I said. She remarked again about how my name is similar to a famous actor. I smiled pleasantly but wanly. I didn’t mean any offense but I hear such remarks about once a month on average and they are a bit tiresome. She smiled back. And she looked at me awkwardly. I could sense she felt somewhat embarrassed and on some level she was attracted to me. We traded a minute or so of polite conversation and then she resumed her mail run.

Weeks went by. She kept pushing around her mail cart. I tuned her out and kept typing words into my keyboard. Then I heard her ask me a question by name. And I looked around wondering who it was. And there she was outside my door smiling. She said something to me and I have no idea what it was. My train of thought was somewhere completely different. “Umm, can I help you?” I asked. But by that time she was gone. It is only now days later that I pulled her name from my memory.

The unseen are all around us. To call them “unseen” is to really tar myself. But since Karen changed the dynamic I have been looking around me. I am finding the unseen everywhere. Our building, like most federal offices, contracts out most services such as the mailroom, the cafeteria, cleaning the restrooms, picking up the trash and polishing the floors. Like most civil servants with twenty or so years of service I had largely tuned them out. I didn’t mean to. I just sort of picked up this vibe from my coworkers. They never talked about them. So I didn’t.

But sometimes the unseen invade my personal space. A guy comes into my office about noon to get my trash. I always acknowledge him with a “Hello.” I get a muffled “hello” back but basically he wants to be neither disturbed nor acknowledged. I am one of a thousand offices he will visit today. He wants to get the trash and get out. I do always make a point to say “thank you” as he leaves.

For the most part the unseen are in uniforms. Maybe that’s why I don’t see them most of the time. Their uniform where I work seems to be dark blue. I have learned to tune out people in blue uniforms. When I engage others in conversation in the halls it is always with coworkers. The unseen walk past quietly, never talking. Most of the time they will not look you in the eye. It’s like they’ve been told by their managers to blend in.

It’s four o’clock and that means it’s time to clean the men’s room. For some reason Mother Nature wakes me up around this time. I often arrive to find the restroom closed, or about to be closed. Here is a rare case where the unseen sometime need to talk to me. They ask if anyone is inside. If so I holler back. Or I give them an all clear. I know I certainly appreciate a clean restroom. I take plenty of paper towels and toilet paper for granted. Our toilet bowls always sparkle. But it seems to be the nature of these things that we only care when the usual high standards fail. If we run out of paper towels then I am upset. Sometimes I even fume about it. But I don’t acknowledge the many other times when all supplies are in place and the restroom is clean.

In the evenings as I exit work I find the main foyer invariably being buffed by the floor polishing crew. I don’t know their names. I suspect I never will. They are also in blue uniforms. The hum from their polishing machines is almost hypnotic. They are always quiet, methodical and single minded. The bright yellow wet floor sign is about a dozen feet behind them. They squirt polisher onto the floor and buff the tile. The truth is the tile always looks gorgeous. Polishing it so frequently seems unnecessary.

They are the service class. On those rare occasions that I go to the basement of my building I see them in a different state. In the break room they turn into regular people. They laugh and joke. But then the break is over and they resume work. Silence and ubiquity are then again the norms. They move around us but remain unseen and largely unacknowledged.

But because of the unseen I get to work in a professional office instead of a smelly hellhole. I get to do what I do best and have the freedom to concentrate on my job. I wish I were better at acknowledging the unseen. I wish I could find ways to have more meaningful conversation. I wonder is it just me or are they not anxious to talk to me too? Is not being seen or acknowledged a standard they strive to achieve in their performance plan?

I don’t know. But I do know I appreciate the unseen. What they do may seem unglamorous but it is important. I wish we could find ways to better appreciate them. If I were in their shoes I think I would see us as a haughty, stuck up and pretty obnoxious bunch.

I’m sorry you are supposed to be unseen. But I do thank you today for all you do. And forgive us when we tune you out. That seems to be the way it has evolved. We certainly don’t mean you any offense. And I will try to get better.

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