Columns

Gimme Shelter: At home

There he stands, holding a laptop with the power cord looped around his neck, in a sweatshirt that is tattered at the collar and hem, T-shirt hanging below it, track pants, hair askew (to be kind) and a smile just this side of call-the-cops crazy.

The poor fellow looks like he needs counseling, a vacation — or a clue. Some hair product might also help.

Who is the man with his laptop and chord attached to him like an umbilical cord? Your Gimme Shelter correspondent, alas, photographed by his beloved who, she said, couldn’t resist, as he was on his way from one landing zone to another in the house.

Working from home for the past five months has been a blessing and a curse, rewarding and draining. I miss the newsroom, the camaraderie, instantaneous sources, the short-hand jargon colleagues use to answer questions and make requests, and the absence of discussing ideas face-to-face.

I miss the snark, the wonderfully rendered world weariness of our conversations, the strategy sessions, the tips, the newspaper tall tales, and the daily kindnesses and encouragement we offer each other.

Right, I miss the people.

By early morning, before we shut the office in mid-March, I was bathed, shaved and in crisp clothes. But, before you say anything, don’t stereotype me now as a degenerate slob — I won’t look too closely at that photo — because by mid-morning these days, I have exercised, showered and put on a pair of … O.K. … track pants and T-shirt. Clean. Honest.

I have an at-home office now. I got my chair from work, I have a desk, and I’m in a little nook on a second-floor landing, with a wide window giving on to what I have taken to describe as “my” tree, the street, my neighbors coming and going, and the summer sky above us all.

I’ve only had a home office once before, when I inherited a desk from a friend and put it in a window that looked out on a stone ridge 30 feet away. I was locked in for six months, happily recording in longhand the voices and doings of people only I could see and hear.

(Speaking of how close to psychosis novel writing can be, I have a friend who once was working one whole, long day trying to bring a woman character to life, when his wife finally called him down to dinner. Seated at the table, she began to eat, and my friend was embarrassed. “Aren’t you going to wait for her?” he asked. The look she gave him made him realize he had to make more time between his desk and the real world.)

The majority of my work-at-home career has been done at kitchen tables, one in particular, a butcher block on two beautifully carved pedestals that we’ve taken with us, from the city to several stops on the East End. I was perfectly happy with the butcher block, until now, when I’ve found my perch, my tree, my neighbors and my sky.

The pandemic has changed everything in our present, but it seems it will change nearly everything in our future. There might not be a return to offices.

More and more research is being collected about working from home, or, to use that “Brave New World” term, “telecommuting.” 

A recent University of Iowa report says productivity by employees is up for those hanging out in track pants; it’s cheaper for everyone concerned (big surprise); and my favorite — “The benefits of knowledge spillovers from being physically close to other knowledge workers has been falling and may no longer exist in many domains of knowledge.”

Hmm. Don’t know quite what that … Oh, spilling a macchiato over your colleague’s keyboard?

I have a friend who is also telecommuting and he’s getting used to it, listing some advantages. “My time is my own. There’s money in my pocket from slashing the weekly gas bill to the bone.” He also took the LIRR to work on occasions and now is breathing freer since there is no more being crushed in a railroad car “against someone who failed to figure out basic hygiene.”

A loving husband and father of three, he had to face up to the challenges of working at home, not least of which was the need to become a not-so-benevolent dictator with his family.

“I finally had to tell them, ‘When the door’s closed, I am not to be disturbed unless there’s flames involved.’”

Home fires aside, there are times during the day when the door is open a crack. “It’s a signal that if it’s important, you can peek in,” he said.

Anything to be distracted, I’d say.

Here or there, home or office, what’s real and true is that we’re working at a job we not only love, but honor, by showing up, no matter where we are.