Joe Stracci's first novel, Whitney, was the prose winner of the 2011 New Rivers Press MVP competition and was released as a debut novel on October 2013. Please enjoy the following excerpt, which he has kindly shared with the New Fairfield Hamlethub. If you enjoy a good read, support a local author and pick up a copy of Whitney (see below to find out where it is available).
The Richard N. Haythornthwaite Copy Center, in the basement of MasterCard World Headquarters in Purchase, New York, doesn't open until 8:30 a.m., but I arrive a half hour early. The first thing I do once inside is wake up the copy machines. They enter sleep mode after a standby period of one hour, a function that makes them both fiscally responsible and Energy Star compliant. The fact that the copiers are tethered to a source of electricity is what keeps us above them in the food chain.
Next is inventory. I've got 8.5" x 11" 20 lb. paper, made by Domtar, delivered by PaperMart, in a total of seventeen colors. I've got an example board on which I update the 4" x 4" squares every six months, because while sunlight is at a minimum in the basement, the colors still fade. Paper is broken down into three categories: hots, pastels, and textures. The hots are cherry, lemon, blueberry, emerald, electric lilac, tangerine, lime, and fuchsia. The pastels are green, blue, canary, cream, kelly green, and grape. The textures are buff, parchment, and marble. I also stock 8.5" x 11" card stock weight paper, which is available in all of the same colors, save for cherry, tangerine, kelly green, parchment and buff. Moving up the size ladder, I have 8.5" x 14" and 11" x 14", both 20 lb., both in every color, although none of it is available in card stock weight. I've got MasterCard letterhead—with and without pre-punched holes—for all major divisions, MasterCard envelopes in four different USPS-approved sizes, all with and without address windows. I have transparency paper for overhead projectors and three different styles of plastic ring binding mechanism, the biggest of which will bind a five hundred-sheet booklet. I keep watch over a fleet of 350 copiers, which range from the smaller Canon imageRUNNER 1000 series all the way up to the 5000 series, 154 fax machines, also by Canon, and for reasons unknown to me, 37 space heaters, which are an Office Depot generic brand. I have enough toner on hand to replace every copier twice in one day, enough fax fuses to replace a catastrophic three-fuse-failure on every machine in one day, and with 50 space heaters locked up in storage, I am yet to be concerned about my coworkers' office temperature during the winter months.
And then there's the Domtar 8.5" x 11" 20 lb. white copier paper. Usually just called paper. In just the Copy Center, I never fall below thirty cases of the stuff. At ten reams per case, that's 300 reams or 150,000 sheets—750 pounds of paper. Then there are the fifteen paper closets throughout campus in which there is always at least ten cases. I will help with either the loading, the unloading, or both, of every case. Every printed item in MasterCard World Headquarters in some way passes through my control, is touched by my hand. The responsibility is both numbing and tragic.
At 8:30 a.m., I prop open the Copy Center door with a battered wooden scalene triangle and press fresh tape behind the aging sign. When the humidity is high enough during the day, it falls off at night. I am responsible for every service call, every print job, every jammed machine, every printer error, every low-toner situation, Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
The tools at my disposal in the Copy Center are as follows: Two Canon 6000-level imageRUNNERS, which print at a rate of seventy-five copies per minute. Both machines have a touch screen control panel and top and side feeds. Both can staple, punch holes, and print in color, if necessary, although I leave any high-quality color jobs for the FOCUS DX1, by Leica, which produces 600 dpi quality to the tune of thirty-five pages per minute. I have a guillotine-style paper cutter that has a max load of five hundred sheets, made by Canon. I have an envelope inserter from Palm, although with its onboard computer system, four independent inserter trays and pulleys, and sealer mechanism, it's more of a co-worker with no personality. And nobody has to bother addressing the envelopes that I stuff—I'll just sync the provided spreadsheet with the Adresso, by GE, which runs every address through USPS-style checks, corrects any errors, and then prints on the envelope at a rate of two hundred per minute.
We sign contract renewals every October with all the companies involved for all of my equipment. In the Copy Center, everything but the paper is a rental, which is one of the basic operational tenets of MasterCard. I started in September of 2003 and oversaw the first equipment swap a month later. I have handled two more since then, as well as two contract negotiations, and we're gearing up for my third. I have no actual say in this process besides the usual number-crunching and my listing three new contract desires that will always result in two being granted by my business manager.
I run two Friedrich humidifiers year-round and a Friedrich air conditioner ten months out of the year. The air conditioner is swapped out for an updated model every eighteen months, the humidifiers every ten. My two biggest foes are humidity and boredom, and I cannot let them win.
The inventory portion of my morning, when combined with a smoke break and e-mail/voicemail check, will take about an hour. Once I am finished, I turn my attention to the two or three small copy jobs I left in my inbox yesterday. I insist on doing this every day except Friday. It's the equivalent of writers stopping their progress in the middle of a sentence, so that re-entry isn't nearly as hard the next time.
By 10:30 a.m., I'm chasing cigarettes with energy drinks, trying to find that perfect, altered chi, and making homemade notepads with scraps from the guillotine and expired adhesive. The copy requests will begin to trickle in now, via e-mail and phone and sometimes, even in person. I think of something my father used to say, as he sat watching the news at eleven, bathed in the blue glow of the day's evil: A little gun is a dangerous thing.
I don't have one personal item in the Copy Center. No pictures or stress balls or mugs or inspirational posters. Whitney and Lucas have asked me about this on several occasions and my response is always the same: The best way to find yourself in stasis in the corporate world is to show your bosses that you have nested. By cleansing your workspace of yourself, by making you the only thing that needs to be removed, you send a clear signal: I can and will leave for greener pastures at the drop of a hat. The fact that I haven't left MasterCard in five years and have no prospects lined up to do anything else does nothing to deaden the intensity with which I believe in this theory.
I break for lunch every day at noon, or so my timesheet says. I start the week trying to hold out until two, three in the afternoon, and by Friday, I'm chomping at the bit by a quarter to twelve. I have no interest in falsifying any documents, or double-dipping, or squeezing blood from a stone, and so my 8:30 a.m.-12:00 p.m./1:00 p.m.-5:00 p.m. timesheet has never been questioned once during my time at MasterCard.
I've resisted forming relationships with my coworkers, a decision met with little protest. The corporate-level wouldn't look twice if they walked past my corpse. The somewhat illegal cleaning and operations crew want nothing to do with me—collar or no collar, I'm still one of them. The mid-level help—the post office clerks and the groundskeepers and the staff engineers and the rat-hole office retreads—are all in competition to remain invisible while avoiding irrelevant. Nobody laughs too loud or smiles too wide or does their work too fast or too well. We're all on the inside track to just not getting fired, and we'd prefer to keep distractions to a minimum. With that in mind, I lunch alone, smoke cigarettes alone, and keep fulfilling copy requests alone, one job at a time, the smile on my face neither fake nor real—just another involuntary act in a day full of them.
After lunch, making it until five requires flexibility, forward-action, and the ability to think on my toes. This is the time that any techs responding to a service call will make their appearance, PaperMart will deliver, the afternoon mail will come, and anyone who has forgotten something that is due the next day will be requesting a rush job. Everyone will need to be met with just the right amount of stroking, sarcasm, and assumed reliability—imagine a fast food drive-thru clerk with a bit of Harry Houdini mixed in, who then had to convince you to take the food you already paid for. Since I wasn't in yesterday, my PaperMart liaison, Gerald, will have automatically scheduled me for a ten case delivery, what we refer to as a "snack." Anyone who makes the mistake of calling before coming down with a rush job will be greeted by a closed door, a sign hanging on it that says: Gone Pissin'. On the sign is a cartoon man holding his cartoon crotch, eyes shut tight.
Avoiding others while at work takes great skill, an almost Navy SEAL-level of stealth. I am always mishearing greetings, or not hearing them at all. I am always reading something, even while walking. If I hear someone coming down the stairs, I grab whatever pile of paper is closest and start shuffling, muttering, and mixing in an eye roll or a slap on the knee. My frustration is confused for exertion on a daily basis. What's worse is that I'm almost sure I picked this method up from a sitcom.
It's quiet for a Wednesday, and that's fine with me, although I probably wouldn't mind a break from the never-ending check-e-mail/check-voicemail cycle, all while the roar of the imageRUNNERs plays on, interrupted only by empty paper drawer alarms and clear jam notifications. If only I could appreciate being able to go home more. If only I didn't love Whitney so much, my life would be far more unpredictable, and along those lines, better. And now its four o'clock, which means it's time to start my end of the day activities, a list of chores so finely tuned that it will take exactly fifty-seven minutes to complete them. On the radio, someone is singing, "Live young, die fast. No one will last." I'm in a rush to get everywhere, and I think of something my father used to say: We're all lucky. Most of us just don't know how to get the fuck out of the way.
The paper drawers are filled, toner levels are appropriately full, staples have been re-cartridged, and a fresh tank of binder adhesive is warming in its reservoir. I threw out all the garbage accumulated over the day—four big blue recycling bags worth—and straightened out the supply shelves. The humidifiers are set to a cycle best suited for the current weather conditions. I checked all fifteen paper closets across campus twice today. I responded to six jams, eight low toner messages, and four empty paper drawers disguised as a fatal error. One copier—a convenience copier on the second floor, D Hallway, in the Barclay wing—was reported to be unresponsive. And it was. The one design flaw still yet to be addressed by the copy machine industry—the power plug that needs to be plugged in—had reared its ugly head again. I made 4,563 copies since this morning, and on the fleet overall there were 8,911 clicks. According to my spreadsheet, this is within 2 percent of both our daily and monthly average. I shut the lights and besides the low exhaust sound of the humidifiers, there is silence. I slam the door shut behind me and the exit sign over the stairwell goes out. I look at my watch—five o'clock. Right on schedule.
I get in my car and roll all the windows down while it sputters back to life. I look at myself in my new-used side view mirror—sunglasses, two days' worth of facial hair, and a shaved head, courtesy of Whitney—and I don't feel right. It's unseasonably cool for September and I can't shake the thought that with someone else's mirrors, I've got the wrong reflection staring back at me. This attachment, this definition of myself through what an inanimate object reflects back at me, rather than a familiarity of self, is disturbing. I don't know how long I've felt like this. I'm twenty-three, and it might have always been this way. Self-aware that I am self-aware, I light a cigarette and put the bitch in reverse. As I back out, I think of the message that popped up on the computer screen as I shut it down for the day: Would you like to restart?
Joe Stracci was born in the Bronx in 1984, a Virgo, although, he doesn't believe in that stuff, no matter how many times people say, "a Virgo—that explains a lot." Joe graduated from Manhattanville College in 2006 and earned an MFA at Bennington College in 2009. His fiction has been published in Alaska Quarterly Review, Inkwell, PANK Magazine, Specter Magazine, and Word Riot. His first novel, Whitney, was the winner of the 2011 New Rivers Press Many Voices Project. Joe teaches at Manhattanville College and lives in Connecticut with his wife, daughter, and three cats. He blogs regularly at joestracci.net.
Where to Find Whitney
Whitney is available at Amazon, IndieBound, Powell's, and Barnes & Noble.