THE OTHER day an article appeared in the newspaper written by someone from my office. I wasn't surprised to see our would-be Ernie Hemingway get published because for years he has been using the workplace for his free-lance writing career and other pet projects unrelated to why he's on the company payroll.
What makes Ernie unusual from other Enterprising Zones -- people who do personal work on company time -- is that he flaunts it right in front of the bosses, who either don't care or are afraid to tell him to stop. Or more far-fetched, perhaps management thinks it will get credit for nurturing Ernie Hemingway if he becomes the next William Faulkner.
But something's wrong when the rest of us dutifully go on dataprocessing on our computers while Ernie determindedly cranks out the next "War and Peace" on his manual typewriter. And then each April Ernie puts his magnum opus aside and turns his desktop into a mountain of tax forms and little slips of paper while he adds up receipts on an office calculator that technically he's not supposed to be "borrowing." A lot of his tax deductions seem to have something to do with a newspaper ad about condominium units he's either buying or selling. I know this because of the number of telephone calls that come in for him asking about the properties -- calls that the rest of us in his de facto secretarial service take when Ernie's away from his desk.
Depending on who's asked, Ernie's colleagues are either impressed or incensed by Ernie's presumption that the rules don't apply to him. It's the same morality that made anti-heros out of Bonnie and Clyde and Murph the Surf, who stole the 535-carat Star of India sapphire.
Maybe, in truth, the rebel/devil lurks inside the souls of most of us deskbound 9-to-5 types. Maybe we, too, secretly want to beat the system but just don't have Ernie's gall or skill.
"Can you believe the IRS is going to end up owing him money?" I heard an anonymous voice say from behind a bathroom stall one day. "Wish I could figure out a way to cheat the government." All across the republic, office copying machines chug away on maximum overdrive, grinding out thousands and thousands of professional re'sume's, while information systems costing who-knows-what a minute are retrieving material for somebody's personal project. Maybe these abuses could be justified by arguing that the Ernies at least make productive use of their office hours while so many others -- the drones -- fritter the day away on 15-minute coffee breaks every five minutes and then, once back at the desk, stare alternately into space and toward the clock. And indeed my Ernie Hemingway certainly is doing something more beneficial to humankind than that State Department G-16 in the news a while ago who, relieved of all assignments and responsibilities, wound up spending his mornings in a windowless basement cubicle and his afternoons wandering the halls.
Ernie, in fact, is just the latest in a proud tradition of Enterprising Zones (a.k.a. Zones) who have launched second, and sometimes more lucrative, careers in literature from the office. It's a pretty impressive list: Geoffrey Chaucer, Miguel de Cervantes, Stephen Crane, Mark Twain, Franz Kafka and O Henry, among others, were Zones. Zone Guy de Maupassant, during 10 years as a government clerk in Paris, wrote on-the-job essays making pointed observations about the bureaucrats who surrounded him. Zone Honore' de Balzac, working in a lawyer's office, used his knowledge of criminal and bankruptcy law in his stories. Zone Anthony Trollope, employed in the London post office, wrote a successful novel about clerical life called "The Warden." Ex-officio Zone Hugh Hefner started doodling sketches on a drawing board at work that turned him into a playboy.
Some Zones have moved up to become Big Deals in the mold of Donald Trump by talking with their stockbrokers all day, or working the phones to trade goods on the commodity futures market. In a place where I used to work, Zones ran horse- and dog-racing betting combines and someone else started a travel agency specializing in discount fares to the Caribbean.
Some Zones even find ways to profit from the work they do for the company. I know Zones who went on fact-finding trips for their employer but, rather than reporting the information back to the office, they turned into contractors and sold it to someone else. If any work is actually done for the office on such trips, Zones are not above putting in for overtime for all the extra hours required to finish the job.
Some people sink one step lower than the Zones. They are the Freebooters, who plunk themselves down at a company computer even though they no longer work there. They pillage the supply cabinet of paper clips, thumbtacks, staplers, Wite-out, Elmer's glue, desk calendars, lift-off tape, Scotch tape, manila envelopes and Rolodexes, and they think nothing of using the stamp machine for a mass mailing of 7 zillion re'sume's.
What's equally amazing is the friendly reception Freebooters receive, even though they are robbing the place blind. The last Freebooter I knew was given her own personal log-on to the computer while the secretary took her phone messages. Eventually, she got a job and left for good -- although this time, for her farewell party, she wasn't taken out to eat at Hogate's.
Higher-ups on the company totem pole also have been known to abuse office resources. Employees are ordered to drive the boss's children to school or made to do management's laundry or pick up clothes at the dry cleaners. Others are sent to the chief's house to rake leaves or put up siding. Why do we have so many Enterprising Zones? Probably because they don't have enough to do on the job, or they find the work meaningless, or they see others starting a second career without having to sacrifice a safe, regular income. And maybe it also involves the thrill of taking chances; seeing what you can get away with adds a little spice to life.
Whatever the reasons for the prevalence of Zones, there are always going to be Scolds who report on them. Scolds have all the facts, or at least the gossip, on the Zone who sets up the dating service using the company's 800 number, or the Zone who sells for his own profit the frequent-flyer mileage he accumulates on business trips.
But the Scold has to exercise caution. It's fine to criticize the Zone a few desks away for taking advantage of the office. But the Scold may not want it known how he finds time for his own personal projects -- say, a free-lance newspaper article.
Eric Green is a free-lance writer and has worked in many offices in Washington.