Of Mice and Molecules...
The Autoclave Lady
I was sitting in an airport a couple of weeks ago, waiting for my flight. The gate attendant had just called for people with children and the disabled. I was in Zone 4. Not long enough to read a book, not soon enough to get up to stand impatiently. I compromised by delving into the normal pool of random thoughts that slosh around my head. Somehow, I settled on pondering the meaning of a tiny population of working society, which resulted in the ensuing vignette:
My first lab job (title: peon, junior grade) was in the department of neurobiology at Duke University. At the end of the hall, around the corner, was a large room where glassware was stored. An autoclave is essentially a dishwasher that uses temperature and pressure to get things very, very clean. These days (well, those days too), the machine's essentially fully automated; cram your stuff in, hit two or three buttons and you're good to go. For this reason, there are no such thing as autoclave operators (outside of industrial settings where literally millions of pounds of stuff needs to be cleaned).
The department, however, not only had an autoclave operator, but a full-time one at that. Said person was an African American lady in her late sixties or early seventies. Let's cell her Rosa. That might have been her name, but it's safe to assume she's dead by now (can I say that?).
Every so often, I would go down the hall to drop off a dirty erlenmeyer flask or fetch a new graduated cylinder. Invariably, Rosa would be there, sitting at her desk. Sometimes she would work on a crossword puzzle, but most of the time she would be coloring. Not the slick adult coloring books either; Rosa was usually slaving away at bringing life to a page full of My Little Ponies (TM).
It was hard to know how to feel about Rosa's situation. On one hand, she had what many would consider a sweet gig, a full-time position with benefits where she didn't have to do shit. On the other hand, because she did nothing, one could imagine the boredom would eat you alive and turn your brains into something a zombie would pass on.
In an attempt to gain insight on how she handled the unending monotony of her life, I would engage Rosa in small talk when things were slow. There wasn't much to discover. Rosa was... simple. I learned this when I discovered she was unaware of the existence of the internet (this was slightly more plausible in 1999, but it was still a pretty massive deficiency).
Although I had nothing against Rosa, I was eventually, I asked my bosses why Rosa worked there in an attempt to learn about the function of the working world. I was genuinely curious as to why the department would pay a full-time person to color all day.
The answer was, well, kind of shocking (to young, un-jaded Noah). Evidently, Rosa was hired many, many years ago during the initial drive to diversify places of higher education. It was strongly implied that, at that time, skin color, and not scientific qualifications (remember my earlier post about African American scientists being like gold?) was the main criteria in the hiring decision.
Predictably, Rosa's lack of skills made her unsuited for any of the more technical jobs. This left the department big shots with a fundamentally nice person who had been thrust into a situation over her head. After banging around through a number of jobs, Rosa was eventually assigned to the autoclave room.
Why didn't the University just fire her, I asked. After all, I'd seen fundamentally nice people fired for benign reasons before. It was, as they say, business.
After nervously looking around to make sure no one overheard, the bigwig whom I'd asked explained that it was very, very difficult to fire anyone in the University system, much less a minority who could claim racial discrimination*. Considering Rosa's proximity to retirement, the powers that be had made the decision to sit tight and run out the clock.
I wasn't sure how to feel about Rosa's situation. In their effort to be progressive, the University had hired someone who probably didn't belong there (insofar as she was incapable or unwilling - this I doubt - to contribute at a reasonable level. It was a glimpse into a tiny slice of the working world, people who had no apparent function but were nonetheless retained.
Two years later, Rosa retired. Obviously, no one replaced her.
In grad school, it became apparent that the autoclave was the go-to site of employee purgatory when I learned of the existence of a second autoclave lady. I've forgotten this woman's name (let's call her Carla), but she was a hispanic woman who was, I heard, a total bitch. Everyone who'd ever dealt with her said she was surly, hostile and altogether unpleasant to interact with. I believe she was also fairly incompetent (in my experience, you can get away with being an asshole if you are really excellent at your job), but didn't have any direct experiences on that end of things.
Again, University leadership had moved Carla around a little bit, trying to find a niche in which she could be happy. After a few failed attempts, school officials tried what those at Duke were unwilling to do - they made a play to fire Carla.
What does a person with nothing to lose do when their livelihood is threatened? Carla played the race card. That put the brakes on the firing and, after some interdepartmental wrangling, it was agreed that every faculty member involved would take on a tiny piece of Carla's salary until she left. However, since no one actually wanted Carla in their lab, there was the question of where to put her. Moreover, everyone wanted Carla gone, so they made sure to make Carla's new job as unpleasant as possible.
Carla was assigned to the autoclave, which was stashed in a nook in a dingy building with no windows. Unlike Rosa, Carla's office was little more than a stool. She was assigned a clipboard and given instructions to autoclave whatever came through. The intention was obviously to shame her into quitting.
Well, they underestimated Carla. She quickly fought back by providing the worst service known to man. She would snap at innocent grad students and deliberately fuck up a machine with three settings, knowing full well that a broken machine meant more down time for her. People were terrified of Carla, and no one with any power wanted to push the situation any further, and so Carla stayed, posted by the autoclave for eight hours a day, suckling resources from the University as a tick might draw blood from the vein. Some say she still sits there to this day.
In an effort to understand the motivations of Autoclave People, I've begun experimenting on one such individual. There's a contractor who apparently has some deal with my current job. Something to do with IT (IT is the new autoclave, by the way). Honestly, no one knows exactly what he does, but he's a real piece of work. Every two months he shows up, unannounced, and follow the same routine for the 1-3 days he visits: Each day starts with a massive Taco Bell breakfast (followed by a dump that irradiates our bathroom). Purged, he will then sequester himself in our guest office with the lights off. Under cover of darkness, he will do nothing but watch movies and take naps. I suspect he repeats this at other places he "works", creating a chain of uninterrupted fast food, cinema, and somnolence.
In a sad, shameful way, I admit admiring this guy. He's either lucked into an easy job with easy conditions or he's a secret genius who's skillfully manipulated the system into tolerating him. Yes, his arteries are clogged and he seems to have no joie de vivre, but he's living life on his terms. I must also admit a morbid curiosity, a desire to understand what makes someone like that tick. Since I'm a scientist (and have little self control) I have, of late, been indulging in a few... tests on Autoclave Man.
What am I doing to this lazy fellow? Since I don't actually know what his job is, confronting the dude about not doing his work is impossible. So I've started with a test aimed at determining just how shameless Autoclave Man is. Here's the protocol thus far: When Autoclave Man turns the lights out, I'll wait until he gets good and comfortable, then burst in as if I didn't know he was there. "Oh, sorry," I'll say, as I go for the water cooler and begin making a hot tea. "Didn't realize anyone was in here. No, no," don't get up," I reassured as he struggled to hide/minimize Mean Girls on his computer screen. "I can see your plenty busy with work."
Then, in a flash, I was gone, leaving him with the realization that he'd been busted. This has happend the last four times he's visited. While Autoclave Man is clearly embarassed each time I enter his place of leisure unbidden, he has made no attempt to reform his activity. What's really concerning is that Autoclave Man doesn't seem to be learning that I will invariably do this - there is simply no evidence that aversive conditioning is occuring. It's a fascinating piece of data I hope to explain through additional testing.
Oh yes. More testing. There are, naturally, many more experiments to be performed on Autclave Man. At some point I will begin delivering additional fast food to him to test his gluttony. I'll remove the toilet paper from the bathroom to test his resourcefulness. Then sociability testing to find out if he can accept another loafer into his group. Each test will provide me with valuable data on his species. Eventually, I will have the full psychological profile of an Autoclave Person and, gods willing, will figure out how we might fix them. Or at least not hire them in the first place.
*Another woman who worked nearby was an emaciated blonde with dead eyes who was colloquially known as "Meth". This lady was famous for smoking crack cocaine (I know, I know; we still called her "Meth". I think there might have been a "CeeCee" already running around the medical center) in the bathroom. After being confronted by HR and her bosses, Meth was placed in a treatment program, from which she regularly backslid. However, the mere fact that she continued in the treatment program gave her immunity from firing under the current University rules. Meth's story is a prime example of why large, ponderous institutions with incredible job security are reluctant to hire anyone.
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Noah's Inner Monologue
Scribblings of a man who can barely operate an idiotproof website.