The Pale King – Chapter 4

Dear Dave,

I was wondering while reading this section if you ever saw the movie Teachers (1984).  The premise of the film is a graduate of a failing high school sues his alma mater because they gave him a diploma despite the fact he never learned to read.  The film is a biting satire of our public education system, and news report about the death of Frederick Blumquist that is chapter 4 of TPK reminds me of one of the minor characters in the film, Mr. “Ditto.”[1]  This washed-up old teacher, who receives the award each year for best classroom management, has a unique system for running his classes.  There is an outbox from which students take their work for the period and an inbox where they turn it in at the end of the period.  The students work quietly for the hour while Mr. Ditto sits behind the newspaper at his desk.  The kicker is that, like Mr. Blumquist in your story, he dies of a heart attack at his desk and it takes several days for anyone to notice.[2]

This short chapter begs the obvious questions of how could a man sit dead at his desk for four days without drawing even the slightest notice from the twenty-five coworkers with whom he shared the office space?  The rather trite answer of “He was always absorbed in his work, and he kept to himself” doesn’t and shouldn’t sit well with us.

But I think there are bigger and more serious issues and questions at play here, questions like what kind of job does this guy have that he has done nothing for four days – because he is dead – and no one – his boss or supervisor, especially – doesn’t notice or care?[3]  Is his job really that unimportant that no one notices that it’s not being done for four days?

And then there is the even larger question of why did his coworkers not notice?  Why was it the night janitor who finally discovered the dead body and not the person in the cubicle next to him?  Are their jobs that engrossing and engaging that they must maintain a singular, horse-blinder-like concentration on their work?[4]  Or is it perhaps that those coworkers are so self-absorbed that it takes the demise of the fellow at the next desk over to draw them out of their little hermetically sealed bubbles?

Just below the surface of this tragically ironic news story is a pretty scathing social criticism of our tendency toward self-absorption.  How many of us go through an entire day without even looking up and into the eyes of those around us?  How many of us remain completely oblivious to the hurts and pains – physical or otherwise – of those we cross paths with each day?  How long does the dead guy have to sit at his desk before we sit up and take notice?

[1] I haven’t seen the film personally, but a colleague of mine loves to relate the story of good old Mr. Ditto who dies at his desk and no one notices.[back]

[2] The chapter is also somewhat reminiscent of the Friends episode that guest stars Jason Alexander from Seinfeld.  He plays an unnoticed depressed office manager who reaches out to Phoebe who temps as a telemarketer.  No one in his office seems to know he is even there, even in the midst of his very loud announcements of his plans of suicide.  Fortunately, Phoebe is able to talk him off the ledge, so to speak.[back]

[3] And the obvious follow-up question of where can I find a job with this little accountability?[back]

[4] My guess is probably not since one of them died doing the same work and everything kept chugging right along all around him.[back]