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Illustration by Laura Paeng

Creative Briefs #10: The Nostalgia of Stuff

Written By Bill Reagan | Jan 7, 2020

As soon as Haley mentioned that she’d be coming to the office Saturday to finish a project, the commiseration began. Laments about workloads, assurances that the weather was supposed to suck anyway, and Lois’ recommendation that the reward for her diligence should be smoking a joint on the porch of the company lunchroom as soon as the project was finished. “So text me when you’re close to finishing up,” Lois added with a wink.

The next morning, Haley tossed her bag onto her desk and stood in the silence of the empty office. She listened for sounds from the other departments — the faint refrain of a song streaming through a tinny bluetooth speaker or the fevered keyboard clicks of someone hurrying to get on with their weekend — but she heard nothing except the HVAC humming its monotonous tune.

Haley silently coveted the marker set, an expensive Office Depot line item that wouldn’t be approved for a copywriter but was begrudgingly okayed for a designer who refused to consider the department’s communal plastic bin of random Sharpies a viable alternative for her storyboarding.

What she hadn’t told her team the day before was that she enjoyed an occasional Saturday at work. The hush of the normally noisy office reminded her of those little literary museums her parents would drag her to as a kid, a room suspended in time exactly as the semi-popular writer had kept it when they were alive. Those little rooms were a beguiling juxtaposition of vitality and stillness, a glimpse at a life in progress with the pause button eternally pressed. Unmarked artifacts on the shelves, a drawer left half open to reveal a secret stash of candy or pens or other telling contents. The rooms looked ready for a writer to start working, except for the tiny Do Not Touch signs discreetly placed throughout.

Haley liked to imagine the Saturday office the same way, an unfinished still life of a Marketing moment, a detailed diorama of a Friday afternoon exodus. Lois hadn’t stashed her OCD-satisfying plastic case of Staedtler ultra-fine markers, the colors arranged Roy G Biv with the pesky browns and grays tacked on at the end. Haley silently coveted the marker set, an expensive Office Depot line item that wouldn’t be approved for a copywriter but was begrudgingly okayed for a designer who refused to consider the department’s communal plastic bin of random Sharpies a viable alternative for her storyboarding. Haley smiled to think of Paul’s repeated prank of swapping a red and a green in their respective silos, then waiting for it to catch Lois’ eye and ire.

She noticed for the first time that Paul was using the Pictionary box as a monitor stand. She knew without looking that the place-markers, long ago lost to carelessness or an overzealous cleaning crew, had been replaced with inverted binder clips that held little cardstock cutouts of Winnie and Kevin from the Wonder Years. These were created for one-time use but now trapped like trinkets in a time capsule, perfectly preserved except the context had long ago faded. Haley pictured the bundle of fading score sheets abandoned in the bottom of the box, a de facto roster of her former colleagues. She wondered if there was a correlation between losing and leaving, but she didn’t want to move the monitor to find out.

As she scanned the room, she eyed the three commemorative shot glasses at the edge of Roland’s desk. These were an inside joke between Roland and the former creative director, each glass tackier than the next. The idea was to build a collection so that everyone on the team had their own glass for office happy hours, but the series was interrupted by the CD’s departure. Now Las Vegas held a few binder clips, Atlanta contained a Bic lighter, and Boston was filled with green Skittles.

Haley thought about the strange alchemy that transforms a five-dollar souvenir into a priceless keepsake, and how a new employee would have no context for the value of the latter. They would mistake them for ordinary shot glasses, markers, and a board game, purely utilitarian items — and to them, that’s all they would be.

But for Haley, they were external memory banks, imbued with history like corporate horcruxes. She couldn’t think of Pictionary without remembering Paul’s drawing of a circle with lines radiating outward as a clue for “son”, a divisive homonym that split the team and fueled an uncomfortable silence for the rest of the afternoon. When she looked at the markers, she immediately thought of Lois’ anxious glances as she monitored Haley’s care for the tips. She couldn’t look at those shot glasses without wondering how long those green Skittles had been in there, and what the shelf life of a Skittle might be.

She tried to remember the feeling she had when she first started here, walking into a room without history, but she couldn’t. There was no extricating the memories from the mementos, or her experience from the environment. We are all giant snowballs, picking up new layers as we roll through our careers, and these objects were the sticks and leaves that got balled up with the snow.

She tried to imagine going to a new job where she had no context for their amassed tchotchkes — a different office’s memory lane that she’d learn about it in bits, tribal knowledge shaken loose by stiff drinks and tight deadlines, stories of legend about people Haley had never met. Her desk would be just like one of those little museums, the pens lined up on the left, the desk accessories arranged just so — all Haley would have to do is sit down and press play and the room would lurch back to life.

Maybe someday, but for now, Haley had a project to finish. She settled in front of her monitor, and while she waited for it to wake up, she rolled over to Lois’ desk and swapped the orange and aquamarine markers in their respective slots.

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