Last Man in the Downtown Office
Keeping the home fires burning while everyone else is working remotely
It’s about an hour’s commute on the Metra train from my Northwest suburban home to downtown Chicago. I feel like The Omega Man. I’m an “Essential”. I’m not one of the brave heroes risking their lives on the frontlines — I’m not essential like that. But to my company of about one-hundred office workers, I’m considered essential.
I’m one of the few employees who are still going in regularly since the strict Illinois shelter-in-place mandate. It’s a few short minutes drive from my home to the empty parking garage at the train station. There’s no traffic anymore, even on a weekday at seven-fifteen in the morning.
It’s a good thing I don’t have to cross the tracks. I have it all timed precisely. By the time I pull into a parking slot, grab my backpack, and pull out my mask, I can hear the ding-ding-ding of the crossing gates signaling my train’s approach to the deserted station. I see one other person, a masked-woman waiting for the train.
She’s a good distance down the platform. I see her every morning when I need to go into the city. This is anywhere now from 2-to-3 days a week. When this all started she was bundled up in winter clothes and boots. Today only a light hoodie and spring wear. We each take a high-step as we board into separate cars. As usual, I’m the lone passenger in my car for much of the ride. Sometimes another person will board as we get closer to the city limits. I situate myself, remove my mask, but keep it close-at-hand.
Everything is routine — it’s like the film, Groundhog Day. My ritual has changed a little though. It’s at this point where I’d typically slip a train ticket from my bag and insert it into the clip on the seatback in front of me. I don’t do that anymore. Not since I haven’t seen a conductor for several weeks now.
They probably figure anybody riding public transportation these days must be either essential or crazy
It makes sense — why risk the contact with passengers, few as they are, so rides are free. I pull a thermos of steaming, black coffee from my bag, unscrew the lid, allowing it time to cool down a bit. The rich, strong smell wafts up to my now exposed face.
It anchors me to the present. It’s a welcome aroma to replace the hint of mildewy odor that’s crept into this rickety old train car over the decades. Every station we come to is the same story. Empty, but for those few essential (or crazy) souls.
It was a Monday, March 16th, the day before St. Patrick’s Day when we received an all-staff message from our company’s president, informing us that we will be working remotely from home, with the exception of those few who are needed to keep some operations running. As Logistics Director, I handle physical product, procurement, and incoming and outgoing package traffic, I’m one of those few who are allowed to continue coming into the office as needed.
Pulling into an empty downtown train station during what’s normally rush-hour, underscores the serious social and economic impact of the global pandemic. I insert a pair of Bluetooth earbuds. Listening to podcasts as I navigate the twenty-minute walk toward the lakefront is part of my ritual, and has been for years before all of this happened. I secure my mask over my face once again and make my way off the train.
Ogilvie Transportation Center’s concourse is eerily quiet. All shops and stores are closed for the most part. The coffee has run through me and I consider using the restroom before taking to the streets. The men’s room can be challenging. There’s no longer the morning rush of commuters relieving themselves at the long row of urinals like dairy cows in stanchions for milking.
I know the only people I will encounter in there are homeless guys, doing whatever it is they do in the stalls. Some of them will be taking sink-baths. It’s not that I fear them. It’s just that they don’t have any sense of, or care to practice, safe-distancing.
And If I were in their shoes, I don’t think I’d care much about that myself. I don’t want to be uncomfortable by the time I get to the office, so I opt to risk it. I’m equipped with antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer and gloves. If I can’t get up to a sink with a good margin of space these will be enough till I get to the office.
The walk East down Randolph street to the office I run the gauntlet of more homeless people. There are also construction workers and a few other essentials. You can tell an essential easily. We walk with deliberate purpose. Another essential is walking towards me. He’s also masked. I think how dystopian and surreal this all feels. How it was like overnight we came to this place. Leftovers from some apocalypse.
As the man approaches we play a pedestrian version of chicken. Who will yield the sidewalk space? I veer away slightly and so does he. We’re both mentally calculating the less-than recommended distance of six feet. His eyes dart from above the mask. It’s something that registers as mild contempt or maybe it’s acknowledgment of our shared bond of essential being here, a fraternal moment.
I arrive at the office lobby. One lonely guard — masked and behind a tall plexiglass barrier. We nod to each other. I’m the only essential in the building, or so it feels that way. I arrive at the suite, pick up a handful of mail and parcels, turn on a few lights and go through my cleansing ritual. I command Alexa to play something classical.
If you’re familiar with Chicago, I’m in the building on Michigan Avenue that has the diamond facade at the top. Being on the 34th floor, I’m actually in the slanted area of that building.
I’m the only one who will be in the office today. Sometimes there’s an IT person or a guy from accounting. I take a moment to look out at the endless expanse of Lake Michigan. It’s another practice that anchors me to the present. I look down at Millenium and Grant Park’s sprawl. They’re desolate and abandoned. It’s almost summer. They should be bustling with activity. I need to get to work.
As I walk to my desk, I notice some of the plants at people’s workstations are looking sad, unhealthy. When was the last time I gave them a drink of water?
I wonder how long they’d survive if I wasn’t here to tend to them. I go to the kitchen and get a pitcher that’s normally reserved for happy hour beer and fill it with water. I walk around and start pouring drink offerings.
They will pop-back in no time. We all will, I’m sure. All the years I’ve worked for this company and I’ve barely noticed these plants before. And now here they are relying on me for life. To them I’m essential.