Episode 2: Standard Ink

On the Monday after the career fair, I showed up at the address on Bert Mullen’s business card as Julie had instructed. My classes were winding down as I prepared for my fall graduation. I was basically coasting to the end, so I didn’t think it’d matter if I skipped my sole Monday class to meet Bert and learn about what I’d be doing once I graduated.

As the Uber pulled up in front of the office tower at the address, I examined the slim building wedged among a slew of gleaming, new office towers. Standard Ink’s office tower looked more like an eyesore than a beacon of commerce. It had probably been built in the 1970s when, apparently, architectural design had reached its nadir of inspiration. Its sandstone-colored exterior with an emphasis on vertical lines gave it a boxy, cramped look, especially with the narrow windows that promised very little natural light on the inside.

When I walked through the doors of the lobby, it smelled old like that historic theater where I had seen Hamilton¬†or my grandmother’s house. The drab carpet leading to the receptionist’s desk had numerous stains and marks from the endless traffic through the lobby. Even the dark walls moaned like old men sitting up in their recliners.

The cavernous lobby yielded to two elevator banks at the back behind the receptionist’s desk. I followed the strip of carpet to the desk where an affable woman with a big smile sat. She watched me as I approached from the throng of office workers hurriedly making their way to either elevator bank. She kept her big smile even as I told her that I had an appointment with Mr. Mullens.

“You’re a trainee?” she asked. Her sing-song voice sounded warm and inviting.

“Yes,” I replied, although I wasn’t sure what I was.

“Please sign in,” she said, nodding to the clipboard on the desk between us. I grabbed the luxurious pen next to the clipboard and signed my name on the first blank line I saw. The pen felt substantial in my hand, and the ink flowed flawlessly from its tip. I had never used a pen so nice before.

The lady turned the clipboard around so that she could read my name, and then, she looked through a stack of folders in front of her. She pulled out one and handed it to me. “Welcome to Standard Ink, Mr. Potter.”

“Thank you.”

“Please take the elevator to the second floor. It’s this one on your right,” she said extending her left arm behind her and pointing to the crowded area around the elevators. “Tell the receptionist there that you’re here to see Mr. Mullens, and she’ll tell you where to go. Good luck!” Her smile radiated from behind the desk. She seemed genuine, but I had the feeling that her smile was forced for some reason. In that instant, I felt something strange about the building and the people moving anxiously across the lobby. I shook it off and merged into the crowd around the elevators.

On the second floor, another smiling receptionist greeted me at the end of the tunnel-like elevator bank. No one else had exited the elevator to join me on the second floor, so it was just me standing in the dimly-lit corridor. I felt like I had entered a dungeon.

“Good morning. May I help you?” the receptionist asked. Her automatic smile belied her temperament. A more sinister character flickered beneath her toothy grin.

“I’m here to see Mr. Mullens.”

“A trainee,” she said more to herself than me. “Please sign in.” She nodded to a clipboard on the rim of the desk.

I smiled and grabbed the fancy pen to sign in. Before I signed my name, I rolled the pen between my fingers. It had the company name and logo on its side, and like the one at the first-floor receptionist, it felt weighty and significant in my hand. I signed my name on the log. This company may have had an outdated office building and a dying business model, but it sure had nice pens.

“Mr. Mullens’ assistant will be here shortly,” the receptionist said. Her smile quickly disappeared as she returned to her reading behind the desk. I stood back away from the desk because I felt like I needed to give her some privacy.

I expected Julie to come through the doors to greet me, but instead, an elderly woman with a substantial turkey neck plodded through the doors. She stood no more than five feet tall and had teased, thin hair that encircled her head making her look like a lollipop in a business suit. Her suit, whose color suggested that it was probably a few decades old, hung stiffly on her feeble frame. She didn’t so much as walk as shuffle across the floor as if lifting her feet required too much effort.

“Travis Potter,” she called as she opened the door. I was the only one near the receptionist, but she seemed surprised when I sprung to life to greet her. I shook her frail hand, which felt limp and delicate in mine. “Welcome to Standard Ink. I’m Fran.” Her gravelly voice suggested she’d spent most of her life in a smokey room. “If you will please follow me.” She didn’t wait for me to acknowledge her instructions. She turned in the doorway and walked back into the office. I grabbed the door and walked in behind her.

We walked in silence down a dark hallway that was truly tunnel-like, even worse than the elevator landing. The dull light at the end of the tunnel opened up into a sea of drab cubicles as far as I could see. As I suspected the slim building with narrow windows didn’t let a lot of natural light inside. Even the glass of the windows was cloudy and almost opaque giving the office an artificial feeling with the buzzing fluorescent lights overhead. I had never been to a mental institution, but I imagined it looked like this office.

Fran dragged her feet toward a cubicle at the corner of the office, and I followed her. A dreadful feeling churned in my gut. The thought of working in this office for any amount of time depressed me. At the cube opening, Fran turned toward me. “Have a seat. Mr. Mullens will be here shortly.”

I stepped into the cube and sat down in the lone chair at the mouth of the cube, and Fran walked away without another word. I put my bag between my feet and pushed it under the chair waiting for Bert Mullens. It didn’t look like he had arrived at work yet because his chair was still pushed under the desk, but it was hard to tell with the mounds of paper on every available work space in his cube.

After a few minutes, I relaxed and sat back in the chair when it became apparent that it would be a while before Mullens arrived. I tried not to look at his desk, but I couldn’t help it. The stacks of paper, some of which looked like they would fall over with the slightest provocation, made it seem impossible to do any work in the space. His computer monitor, an old, bulky one from the late 1990s huddled in the corner of his desk among the stacks of paper. A stained coffee mug that said “#1 Dad” sat in the one available space near his keyboard, and a framed picture of a baby of indeterminate gender smiled back at me from the furthest corner of his desk. The faded picture suggested that its subject was likely an adult by now.

I turned away from the desk and leaned outside the cube opening hoping to see someone, anyone, walking down the corridor, but the floor was remarkably quiet. Despite the crowd at the elevator bank in the lobby, it felt like no one else was on the second floor other than Fran and the receptionist. I sat back in the chair and pulled my iPhone from my pocket. If Mullens was going to make me wait, then I would play some games at least.

I had finally made it to the third level of this game I had bought on the app store over the weekend when Mullens arrived, huffing and puffing from some apparent exertion. He stopped short of his cube and eyed me with suspicion like he was surprised to find me there. I clicked off my phone, slid it into my pocket, and stood to greet him.

“Hi, I’m Travis Potter.” I extended my hand toward him. He looked at my hand like he was confused. “Julie White told me to come here about a job.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s today?” He shook my hand but his grip misfired and it felt like he simply pinched my palm between his fingers. He released my hand and squeezed past me into his cube. “Let me get settled here…” He put his briefcase by the desk and began shuffling stacks of paper around with his back to me. I sat back down in the chair behind him.

Mullens stood about a foot shorter than me but made up for it in girth. I was certainly no expert in business attire, but from what I gleaned from my dad’s bantering on the subject, I could tell Mullens needed a refresher course on business dress. He looked rumpled and unkempt in his cheap suit. His shirt had come partially untucked and flailed down the front of his pants, which were about an inch too short. The white shirt he wore had turned a grayish white and a cloudy stain peeked out from the edge of his limp tie, which was visibly frayed.

After he shuffled the stacks of paper into some indiscernible order, he re-tucked his shirt and tightened his tie before he turned to face me again.

“Well, Mr. Potter. Welcome to Standard Ink. I’m Bert Mullens, the Senior Vice President of Standards, Conduct, and Training. I’ll be providing you with an orientation before you can start your training. Did you already complete your new hire paperwork?”

“I gave Julie some information, but I haven’t done any paperwork.”

“Oh.” Disappointment rippled across his face. He turned and scanned his desk until he found a bundle of paper clipped together. He handed me the bundle of paper. “Well, first things first, please complete these forms, and then, we can get started on the orientation.”

I looked at the substantial bundle he had handed me. There were probably 30 or so pages of paper in the stack.

“Oh, and you’ll probably need this,” he said handing me a pen similar to the one I had used at the receptionists’ desks. He stood up to lead me out of his cube.

The thought of filling in all of these forms by hand made my fingers cramp. “Is someone going to type all of this information into a computer somewhere?”

“What?”

“I mean, don’t you have to input this information into your computer system once I fill out these forms?” I held up the bundle of paper to help him understand.

He still looked confused. “I don’t know. I just get the forms completed and then I drop them in intercompany mail. I don’t know what happens after that. That’s a different department.”

“Wouldn’t it be more efficient if I just typed my information directly into the computer system?”

He looked as if he had never heard such a suggestion before and it took him a moment to process it. A stern look crossed his face. “Mr. Potter, Standard Ink is a serious company. We’ve been around for almost a hundred years. Serious companies need documentation to hire employees, so if you could complete these forms, we can get started on your orientation.”

Without another word, he stepped out of his cube. I grabbed my bag at my feet and slid the bundle of paper into a side pocket before I followed him down the narrow corridor of cubicles, none of which seemed occupied.

“Where’s everyone else?” I asked.

Mullens stopped abruptly and I almost collided with him. “Who?”

“Where are the others that work on this floor?” I waved my free arm across the sea of cubicles.

“Oh, not many people work on this floor.” He left it at that and continued walking down the corridor. I followed him into a cube that was completely empty except for a chair that was tucked under the desk and an old, hulking phone that sat on one end of the desk. He pulled the chair back and offered it to me. I sat my bag on the desk.

“When you are finished, please bring the forms back to my desk. If you have any questions, there’s a phone number on the front page. You can call our HR department and they will help you.” He pointed to the phone. “You can dial the four-digit extension directly on the phone.”

He turned on his heels and walked away without another word. I felt like I had been left alone to take some standardized test except with pen and paper instead of a computer. I watched his bulky form grow smaller down the long corridor until his head ducked beneath the cube wall when he reached his desk. I sat back in the chair and took a deep breath. The walls of the cube closed in on me, and a sense of dread clenched at my chest. I desperately wanted to stay in college.

Episode 1: Standard Ink

My dad always told me that I had to make good grades if I wanted to get into a good college and that gaining admission to a good college was half the battle in landing a good job, but I didn’t listen. He’d lecture me so frequently about this that his delivery is forever etched in my mind. He’d get this serious look on his face, arching his eyebrows inward as if he were concentrating on something productive. He’d spread his arms out wide and say “All of this…,” meaning the house in which we lived, “…is the result of your mother and me going to college.”

He had been reduced to appealing to my tangible and superficial side after his noble appeals to my intellect and logic failed miserably. I don’t remember the first version of this lecture too much, but the one where he talked about all the things I could have if I went to a good college stuck with me for some reason even though I didn’t take to the inherent message. At the time I didn’t think I needed to get into a good college to get these things. I had them already. It was only years later that I discovered the flaw in my logic.

For what it’s worth, Dad’s life didn’t seem too enviable. Sure, we had these things he liked to point out, but he worked long hours, traveled endlessly, and rarely spent any time in the house he was so proud of. What was the point of working so hard for stuff he didn’t enjoy? That’s what I wanted to ask him, but I never had the gall to ask him that. Instead, I just stared intently at a spot on the wall above his shoulder until the lecture was finished, and then, I’d mope off to my room to play video games.

My grades weren’t failing, but they weren’t the stuff of legend either, not by a long shot. My biggest claim to fame in my entire school career involved a hook shot of a wad of paper from the back of my eighth-grade classroom that threaded through my exasperated homeroom teacher’s hands and landed squarely in the waste basket to the stunned amazement of my thirty or so peers. I earned detention for that careless shot, but my place in the annals of school legend was assured because of my brash stupidity.

By the time my senior year in high school rolled around and my peers were making big college decisions, I was relegated to the community college route, hoping to get my grades up so that I could sneak into a big-time college. After spending a couple of years at a community college not far from my parent’s house, I managed to squeak into one of the lesser state colleges to finish my four-year degree. It was there that I realized how true my dad’s words were.

The state college was nothing more than a degree mill for the less-capable among us, which I had become by default. Everyone graduated as long as they gave a minimum of effort, and if I’d proven anything in my life, it’s that I was good at giving the minimum. I was just a few weeks from graduation with a major in business, not marketing, finance, or accounting, just business, which as far as degrees are concerned might as well have been basket weaving because nothing says “aimless” like a broad, nondescript degree.

The state college had a rudimentary career placement office, mostly because no one of substance recruited from the school. The state itself practically owned the meager career fair held late in the fall semester hiring wannabe bureaucrats for its endless array of departments and agencies. Nothing depressed me more than the thought of rotting in some mindless state bureaucracy for the rest of my life. The few companies that did show up for the career fair were mostly has-beens in their industries, old or failing companies that were one innovation away from death or were in industries that had been completely disrupted by the future but had failed to recognize it.

With nothing better to do, I walked the languid, makeshift aisles among the tables at the career fair eyeing the men and women in cheap suits suspiciously. My dad had warned me that I would have to start paying him rent once I graduated, and I had no intention of doing that, so I decided I had to get a job so that I could move out on my own. I stopped at a few tables and talked to rotund, middle-aged, balding men about their boring state jobs. After each conversation I felt a sense of gloom so great that I wanted to run screaming from the conference center until I noticed a gleaming jewel in the gray sea of the career fair.

At the far end of one haphazard row of tables, I noticed a beautiful, blonde woman standing behind a table smiling and greeting passersby. I quickened my pace to get to her table, almost running past tables for the State Treasury, the Office of Corrections, and some state agency responsible penalizing people for no apparent reason. A small crowd of mostly male students had gathered around her table. I listened as she talked to one particularly listless student who hadn’t even bothered to dress appropriately for the event. Even I had replaced my usual t-shirt, board shorts, and flip-flops with a reasonably appointed suit my dad had bought me for graduation.

I waited eagerly for the student to finish his conversation with the woman. He gave her a gummy smile as she talked and sort of snort-laughed after he said something. I could tell she was a little disgusted, but she kept flashing that big smile. Finally, the student moved on realizing either he had no interest in whatever agency she was pedaling or that he had no chance of asking her out.

The woman didn’t even watch the student leave. She simply turned in my direction, and I stepped forward and introduced myself, cutting off another male student who had probably been standing there longer than I had, but he was too feckless to protest.

“Hi, I’m Travis Potter.”

Her smile broadened and her eyes brightened as she took my hand, “I’m Julie White. I’m here for Standard Ink.” Her handshake was warm and comfortable but firm. I liked her immediately.

“Standard Ink? What does that agency do?”

“It’s not an agency. It’s a company.”

“Oh. What does it sell?”

She looked at me like I had missed the joke. “We sell ink, as in ink pens.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.” A worried look flashed across her face as if she thought the conversation had taken a turn for the worse. For my part, I couldn’t believe there was a company dedicated to selling ink in a world that had mostly converted to digital. I barely used a pen in class, and my school wasn’t known for being a trend-setting educational institution.

“Do you sell ink for printers?”

“What kind of printers?”

“Like the ones attached to computers.”

She shook her head as if I had just asked her to have my child. “No. We’re a very focused company. We do one thing, and we do it very well.”

I must have had this incredulous look on my face because she immediately followed that up with “We’re the best in the industry. We’re a leading producer of ink. Our ink is in all of the leading pens around the world.” She seemed confident and self-assured by this. “Would you like to learn more about the positions we’re hiring for?”

I shook my head mainly because I didn’t want to leave her just yet. Her radiating beauty held me into an orbit around her, and I found myself willing to endure anything, even the inane idea of an ink-focused company in 2018, just to hold her attention. She leaned down across the table and opened a glossy brochure with lots of pictures of people doing serious stuff in offices. All of them were focused on writing something on paper with an ink pen. There was even a photo of a classroom of students, all with ink pens, writing notes in notebooks at their desks. Even in my community college, all of the students had laptops in class. I don’t remember a single Luddite taking notes with a notebook and pen.

She flipped to the last page of the brilliant brochure. Some high-quality ink had been used to produce it for sure. “Does your company produce the ink used to create these photos? I asked, hopeful that this company was at least trying to be part of the modern era.

She shook her head. “We believe focus is the key to success, so we only do one thing. We’re the best in the industry.” She smiled proudly. I must have stared at her dumbly because she kept going. “You’ll find we have that same focus in terms of career development. All of our new hires go through an extensive training program to teach them the Standard way. What’s your major?”

“Business.”

“Great! You’d be perfect for Sales.”

“Me?”

“Yes. You have that look of determination that we seek in our sales staff.”

I looked around us. The crowd of fawning young men had dispersed as if they had intruded upon two necking lovers in a public place. A large, lumpy student who wore jeans, sandals and an un-tucked white shirt with a red, paisley tie looked at me from across the aisle and then looked at Julie. He shot me a look of envy. I felt like a dull bulb in a box of burned out ones.

“What do you think? Julie asked. I felt despondent. Nothing looked good at this career fair. I was either destined to work a dreadful, boring job or live at home with my parents for the foreseeable future. Most of my friends had jobs at exciting companies, startups, or consulting firms. Many had already moved to bigger and better places. I was stuck and in decline already at the ripe old age of 21.

“When do I start?” I said jokingly, smiling back at Julie.

Her eyes brightened and, if it was even possible, her smile grew bigger. She pulled a business card from her suit pocket and handed it to me. “You are going to love working at Standard Ink. Here is the business card for our sales trainer, Bert Mullens. I just need to get some information from you.”

Julie pulled a clipboard from beneath the table and handed me an ink pen (of course). “Please fill out this form and sign at the bottom.” She pointed to the lines and rested the tip of her well-manicured finger near the edge of the signature line. She had leaned closer to me to explain the form, and I could smell her intoxicating perfume. I didn’t care if this was the right choice for me. I just wanted to work with Julie everyday. I looked up from the form at Julie. She kept smiling for me.

“The training center’s address is on Bert’s card. Please be there at 9 AM on Monday. If you have any problems, just call the number on the card.”

“That’s it?”

“Uh-huh,” she said through her radiant smile.

I had been prepared for a much more grueling process or at least a few tough questions. I wasn’t prepared for this. I apparently had a job. I relaxed a little, probably a little too much.

“What do you do at Standard Ink?”

The smile on her face flipped off like a light in a dark room. “What?”

“What’s your job?”

She paused for a moment. “Oh, I’m the Senior VP of Outbound Communication, Inquiry, and Recruitment.”

“Wow, that’s a mouthful.” I chuckled at my joke. Julie did not.

“Hi!” she said as she ended our conversation abruptly and greeted another student who had survived the perilous sea of damnation and boredom to make it to Julie’s table. I watched for a moment as she interacted with the student. Her approach seemed like a recording of our conversation, and I realized I wasn’t so special after all. Deflated, I walked away from the table and directly toward the exit. Outside, the day had turned cloudy and drizzly, much like my future, but at least I had a job.