Bureaucratic Painting Lesson

Jimmy Chen has an epiphany about work, hierarchy, and hollow walls (that’s not a metaphor).


The works of Robert Ryman

My boss, the Director of a fairly notable department in a very notable institution, requested to have his office soundproofed. A department known as “Facilities,” responsible for on-site maintenance, janitorial duties, and various superintendent tasks, incised a large hole in the wall and inserted — or so they claim — insulation in the hollow cavity between the two pieces of drywall which formed the wall between my boss’s and his coworker’s office, the latter of who was not involved and apathetic to the entire situation.

When my boss returned from a trip, during which the task was done, he discovered that the wall was not repainted properly, full of crass brush marks and visible tonal modulations. He brought me into his office, whereupon I conceded that it was indeed a rather shoddy job. He asked me to go to the office next door and speak at a “normal volume” to test the new soundproofing. I went next door and ad-libbed like a moron, Hello? Can you hear me? Yes, I am here. This is Jimmy. I went back into my boss’s and office and saw the look of a very pissed off man. They forgot — as it seemed apparent — to install the insulation, and simply torn a hole in the wall and resealed it, painting it over badly. Part of my job is conveying my boss’s wishes administratively. What follows is an annotated correspondence, in chronological order.

From me to our departmental manager:

Please ask Facilities to finish properly painting [redacted]‘s wall. The job is “sloppy,” in the sense that one can easily see the brush marks, as they are not the same tone and texture as the original layer of paint. The marks are also of an overtly casual haphazard and erratic sensibility. In short, it is not “blended” as paint jobs should be.

Also, please confirm that sound-proofing insulation was actually put inside the walls, and that it’s not just a hollow cavity formed by 2 pieces of drywall. We ask because [redacted] and I assessed the new situation, and the sounds are only somewhat muffled.

Not to be a snob, but I didn’t think mentioning Robert Ryman’s work would help in conveying the palpable tendencies, however aesthetically inadvertent, of the ill-painted wall. For those of you who don’t know (not to be a snob), Ryman is a modern painter primarily interested in the subtleties of white on white, whose work’s sans color “content” is derived from texture and visual “presence” alone. It’s all heady New York School minimalism, and though I am skeptical, I can’t stop thinking about him, which is the mark of an artist’s success, I suppose.

Immediately, from me to boss:

Your office will be repainted, dutifully this time (according to their proclamations), this Friday, where it’s noted on your calendar you’ll be at Six Flags.

I also asked them to confirm that soundproofing was installed, without tearing open the walls to find out.

I am tasked with maintaining my boss’s very complicated and stress-inducing calendar, packed minute-to-minute with meetings, hour-to-hour with deadlines, with little time in between, during which he must fly to various cities across the country. He will often fly home (San Francisco) from Chicago for one night, then fly out to Washington D.C. on the 6:00 a.m. flight the next morning, just to see his kids. I would have blown my brains out. Successful people don’t stress — that is the priceless lesson of being their subordinate. Sometimes he schedules day-long leisure events that incur so much more administrative effort to reallocate displaced events that he ends up having to cancel anyways. I find my boss very endearing.

From boss to me:

I won’t be at Six Flags on Friday — this is now penciled in for Saturday. Can we reschedule to have this done the next week when I am traveling?

p.s. The contractor who did the job should know if he installed sound proofing or not. What did he say?

From me to Facilities:

We have not received a confirmation that soundproofing was actually installed, and do not know how to interpret your reticence.

I never received a reply. Bureaucratic dissemination of responsibility, over time, leads to the end of volition. Life at the office went on. My boss chose his battles, and gave this one up.

Three weeks later a young Hispanic man came up to my desk and asked to be let into my boss’s office. Inside, he slowly touched the infamous once evocatively painted wall with a thin hand, admiring and showing off the new paint job which — as was now clearly apparent — he did after hours one night. Nobody noticed. When subtlety becomes more subtle, it disappears.

I touched the walls too, to corroborate my cognizance of the job well done. We did this is silence, until I broke it. “So, was sound proofing ever installed?” I asked. In the distance, muffled, a co-worker laughed, as if cued by a humorous playwright. He looked at me and smiled with the smile that one performs when they don’t know the answer to a question, or when the answer is no. Sometimes no is a freeing thing. I carefully nodded, and brought my hand away from the wall.

Jimmy Chen lives in San Francisco and works at a large institution. He suffers from various undiagnosed personality disorders, and enjoys food. He can be found here.