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Nothing Above The Cube Lines

“But Boss, the memo said ‘Nothing above the cube lines,’” I told my irate vice-president as I handed him his own white paper. “That’s your signature,” I also pointed out as he snatched the paper from my hand.

“Haslam,” he barked at me. “If I didn’t need you on that Navy job, I’d run your ass outta here,” was his response, as he threw the paper back at me. I turned and quickly walked out of his office.

I worked for a company named Intergraph in Huntsville, Alabama, from 1987 until 1992. The last two years I averaged working 67.7 hours per week every week. I worked like a pack mule for the one-time computer graphics giant. When you work your life away as I was doing, you get crazy ideas in your head, especially at 3 o’clock in the morning.

I was working on one of my big projects and it was about 2 a.m. when I decided to go to the rest room. Every once in a while you just had to get up from your desk – no matter how exciting the job was – and just walk around. On that fateful night as I walked back into my office bay area from the boys’ room, I noticed something that I had never noticed before. All across the area as far as I could see, there were plants and flowers growing above the top line of the cubicles.

As I surveyed the room that was as large as three basketball courts, I remembered the memo my V.P. had sent out about a year earlier.

“To make sure we do not offend any of our foreign national customers, we do not want anything in your cube to extend past the top of the cube line” it read.

Y’all know what the cubes look like in today’s modern office spaces. A cube is a wall that is about 5 feet tall that cordons off areas in which people sit and work. Usually one person sits inside a cube, but at Intergraph, we had two people in some of the cubes.

My cube mate was a great guy named Charlie Garrett and he and I had shared an office for almost 5 years before we got moved to the new building which had more cubes that offices. We got “demoted” to a cube and we asked the boss if we could re-arrange our cube walls so that we could still share the same space. He allowed us that luxury.

In our five years in an office, Charlie and I had stretched the bounds of office decorations to the limits. Our boss Patricia was a laid-back lady who used Charlie’s and my expertise to help keep her butt out of a sling with the upper management, so she pretty much looked the other way when Charlie and I would bring a new decoration into our office.

We both had worked for a gentleman at Xerox in Rochester, New York, named Bob Grippo. Bob had a refrigerator with a beer keg inside and a tap that went through the wall. Bob used to invite us over all the time to drink beer when we were in town. He had a cardboard cutout of a Coors Beer cheerleader, which was once part of a Super Bowl beer display. She was about 6-feet tall. He gave us the cheerleader and we flew her home on an almost-empty Eastern Airlines jet back to Huntsville (we actually strapped her into the seat between us). The Eastern flight attendants didn’t mind – they were going out of business and everyone knew it – and they even posed for pictures with the cheerleader, who we affectionately named Debbie Grippo, to honor our friend Bob.

Naturally, we put Debbie in our office.

We once went on a river trip up the Tennessee to watch Auburn and Tennessee play football. About a year before the trip, Charlie ordered maps from the Tennessee Valley Authority (federal government agency TVA which manages the power plants along the river) and hung the section maps of the river on our walls. We had the river maps all taped end-to-end, forming one continuous river from Huntsville to Knoxville, Tennessee. That nearly covered two walls of our office.

Beer posters were big back in the early ’90s, so we added a Saint Pauley Girl and a Red Stripe girl wearing a red and white striped bikini to the wall.

Later in the year, we hung Christmas lights from the ceiling. The multi-colored lights were a big hit. We liked the lights so much, we decided to keep them up – and lit – all year round.

Because Charlie and I were senior staff members, many of the other junior staffers would always come into our office and ask us boring questions. We got tired of everyone coming into our office, so we hung six hanging baskets with leafy ferns from the ceiling right inside our doorway. When anyone entered the office, they would bump their heads on the ferns and get pissed off. Eventually people stopped coming into our office.

After the traffic slowed way down, we got to keep our door closed and we decided to proclaim Friday afternoons as Led Zeppelin days, and we played rock’n’roll, which was frowned on back then in the sterile, IBM-style corporate environment.

Charlie and I both quit wearing ties to work, and unless we had to see customers, we stayed in our little oasis, sheltered from the rest of corporate America.

Finally, we had to move to a big, shiny new building. I think our V.P. made us move to the cubes just to get rid of our office oasis. We did resemble the habitat of Colonel Kurtz, the deranged Army officer in the movie Apocalypse Now, and like the Colonel, we had gone too far.

The cubes made it easy to make us clean up our act.

When we got to the cube, we put up all of our office decorations, but after about two weeks, the white paper memo shut us down. We were forced to get rid of our maps, posters, cheerleader, lights, music and ferns. We did keep our American flag on the wall, and we did hang it above the cube line.

Eventually that went away too. We were reminded by the V.P., through our boss Patricia, that some foreign nationals (probably f_cking Arabians) thought that the flag was offensive. So we took down Old Glory as well.

I could deal with the decorations, but when we had to remove the United States flag form the wall of an American fortune 500 company, I pretty much lost it.

Now, back to the beginning of this story.

There here I stood looking at all those plants and flowers growing above the cube lines. I found that rather offensive. I didn’t think the work environment was a place for gardens. So I carefully checked the memo, then got out my scissors and X-Acto knife and gave every flower and plant a crew-cut, exactly even with the cube lines.

Neadless to say, when I came back to work the next day about 10 o’clock, the office was in an uproar.

I thought my little caper would go unsolved, but when I sat down in my cube, Charlie looked at me and asked, “When did you trim the shrubbery?”

“About 3 this morning.”

“The V.P. wants to see you in his office,” Charlie continued. And we both busted out laughing.