The Managers

Illustrations by Karam Bajwa

The city would be run like a business. This wasn’t unheard of — other cities had been run this way under the guise of governments and “balancing budgets.” This would be a city with no deficit, only profit. The city would own all of the housing and provide all of the jobs, and people would pay to live in the city. The city would own the grocery stores and pay the people who worked in the grocery stores. People would move to the city after hearing about the employment boom that followed its creation: people needed to build the city and people needed to run the city and people needed to feed the people of the city and people needed to clean the city. 

            The city would make money in two ways: off of exports of items made in the city and interest on debt. Its citizens, of course, would never be able to fully afford the housing with the wages provided, and so they would use credit cards for food and loans for schooling, all of which the city’s banks would control. And making sure that everything functioned smoothly, that would be the job of the managers at every stage, ending with the most senior managerial board. And while there would be many managers who reported back to the board, they could have the opportunity to one day run things, if they only worked hard enough. Hard work always paid off in the city.

            The city was built where oceans had washed out the cities from before. Buildings and roads and infrastructure were deep underwater. A new sustainable construction method had been developed, which compressed old trash and plastics into heavy, dense blocks that could be used to build up land again, and people all over the world were using it to build new coastlines over where the old ones had disappeared. Most were using this to restore cities that had been damaged by the water, but where the managers’ city was built was too far gone for recovery and had been lost for too many years. Time to build a fresh city.

A cluster of towers was a necessity and so was built, right in the centre of the city, towers for the people to run the city. They were built to sway as the wind caught their frames, taller than the buildings around them. Inside each building was a member of the senior managerial board and on each floor was a lower manager.

Despite the managers who worked endlessly answering emails and filling out forms, the city had problems. The initial influx of residents seeking jobs never ended. People kept moving there even after the jobs were filled and the housing was all occupied. There were more people to track and understand. The city was getting overcrowded. People abroad were starting to say it was a city without a heart, that people only moved from home to work and back again and no one was happy. They were critical of the amount of people who were jobless, critical of the people who moved from joblessness to poverty to a state of visible mental illness. Critical that the city did nothing to help. Others, even city residents, were critical of the city’s social structures, said that everything about the way the city was set up led to turmoil and inequality. That it was impossible to be content with the towers stretching up into the sky. These people went to graduate school and wrote papers on these conditions. Some of them wrote about their own experiences with joblessness, of the city making them feel insignificant, of the existence of jobs making them feel insignificant. They made it through graduate school while explaining that graduate school was another structure, like the city, really an extension of the city, where certain people, depending on race, gender, ability, were given more opportunities and that some people would graduate, despite their education, and still be caught in the conditions of the city and others would become managers of the city. They wrote their papers and some debated pieces of these papers. They took breaks in the middle of their papers to post the main argument on social media and everyone agreed that the city was sick. 

The graduate students graduated. Some remained caught in the conditions of the city. Others became managers. 

The managers didn’t stop with managing the comings and goings of the city and its workers; they also gave themselves what they felt was a truly altruistic goal: they would create a sense of warmth and community in the city.

Through vibrancy, a manager dutifully typed in a memo, we will create a new sense of culture in the city. She smiled to herself after she pressed send, and it did land the way she’d intended. All the managers agreed: this manager, a newer manager just graduated from her PhD, had vision.

The managers were on a break, but they spent their breaks answering emails. The emails they received were long and cascaded down the screen, clause after clause connected by only commas — there were so many concerns. How I would love to eat a muffin in piece, the manager with vision wrote another manager.

            Do you mean “peace” or do you mean you’d like to eat the muffin in one “piece”?

            The manager with vision laughed and then realized maybe it would seem odd, laughing in front of a computer screen, alone, alone in this office that was much too big for her. The newest manager, already labelled as having vision. This was why they hired her in the first place. Her master’s had been in urban planning and then when she did her PhD, that was when she shone, with a focus on sustainability in urban planning, especially as it pertained to the rebuilt and new cities that were springing up around the planet.

Illustrations by Karam Bajwa

            She specifically discussed how the majority of the plastoblocks were made of items cast away during the pandemics of the early 2020s — plastic bottles left over from hand sanitizer, disposable face masks, and vinyl gloves. She briefly remembered being a child during the last pandemic, needing to be bathed as soon as she got in with her mother, a rough washcloth wiped over her hands and face. Picking out a mask with cartoons on it to wear as she played with other children. The newer masks that had eventually been created, much more expensive and precise than the disposable surgical masks of her parents’ time. While doing her PhD, she had loved poring over footage or doing a site visit to watch the plastoblocks get made: the trash compacted and pressed and heated up into the new building materials. She loved that they were transforming the bad decisions of her parents’ generation and the generation before them, that the city she now lived in would never have been built without those disasters, that sustainability allowed them to create something new and beautiful from disaster.    

            The manager’s desk was in front of a big empty window. She’d imagined having a desk in front of a window when she had become a manager, but when she saw the window, it looked over a street so grey and depressing that she’d instantly drawn the blind. Little by little, as sunlight began to hit the blind, she rolled it up. Across the street was a building where she could see another desk where another manager sat, typing at the computer. The manager with vision had never met this manager, as she must work for another department altogether, and didn’t even know her name. If they’d ever been on the same email chains, she wouldn’t have known this was the manager who had replied. In her mind, she was only “the other manager.” This other manager never looked out the window, and the manager who looked out the window began to love her.

            “Got a minute?” one of her favourite staff members asked, striding into her office, interrupting her gazing mournfully from one window into another. They fiddled with her pens in her pen holder. They were always asking for the thing everyone asked her for: permission. How odd, asking for permission. She imaged that if she had children they would be like this, but wilder. Her past romantic partners never had to seek her permission — they were equals, figuring the world and their routines out together, though she had noticed a small shift with her most recent partner after getting the job as manager. Her partner had started to ask her opinion more often than before. More and more decisions about money began to be hers, as her partner was not a manager and did not understand what it meant to be a manager, and although these decisions still weren’t at the level of granting permission, a thin line had been drawn, a nudge in the asking-permission direction.

            No one ever said hi to the manager. If they said, “How are you?” it was said with fear. Most times it was just “Have a moment?” or “Got a minute?” And from more timid employees, hovering at the edge of the doorway: “Sorry to bother you, do you have a second?”

            The answer was usually, “Yes.” Sometimes it was, “I’m just running to a meeting, can you email me?”

            But the way the staff member touched her things casually on her desk made her realize that somewhere there had been a miscalculation in her creation of their relationship. The staff member knew or thought they knew that the manager felt more kindness for them than she did the other staff. She couldn’t be surprised by this either — the reason she did feel such kindness was because of their intelligence and ability to observe, though it had now created a problem for the manager. While she knew she would feel pain later, the manager said, “Actually, no, I don’t have time right now. Come back later.” And without making eye contact with her employee, she turned her attention to a stack of forms awaiting signature.

            She tried to explain it to her partner at home over dinner. About the employee, about the manager across the road from her, about being alone in her office for the most part, the silence only interrupted by the occasional employee or the sound of reading emails in her head. Their dinner was from a nearby restaurant, delivered to them on bikes. When she went down to retrieve the meal, she asked the courier if he was participating in the couriers’ recent unionizing drive; she had included a little message of support on the app that was used. The couriers had been trying to unionize for decades, and this time it seemed like it actually could happen. She was proud of herself for showing her interest — she could be a manager and still be progressive. Nothing had changed about who she was, truly, on the inside. You couldn’t change that. The courier looked at her, looked at her clothes, gave her a sideways glance and shook his head. “I’m not interested in any of that,” he said.

            She knew he was lying, wanted to believe he was lying.

            As they ate dinner, the manager told her partner about how insignificant she’d felt when the other manager hadn’t looked up. That she likely would never meet the other manager since she worked in another tower, would never know what she was working on or which department and teams she managed.

            Her partner listened politely, but then the way he was looking at her changed — became darker. “I thought you were always too busy to breathe.” Sometimes he was so cold and hostile that she wanted to scream.

Only in the middle of the night did the manager realize she’d forgotten to tip the courier through the app, even though her partner had reminded her and had asked her to promise the courier. But she’d gotten distracted with her own thoughts about the unionizing drive, and then the dinner, and then her partner’s comments, and then her thoughts about work swirling in her head. She woke more often in the night now that she was a manager. This was a part of the job, but none of the managers mentioned it to each other.

In the middle of the night, the long, complaining emails she received came true. She wrote responses in her mind. While she slept, she had conversations with her employees where she did things she could never really do. She held a hand, she grieved alongside an employee who’d lost her mother. She told an employee who’d felt overlooked that she deeply valued her and gave her a hug. She said sorry.

One of her dreams, when she finally did get to sleep that night, took place in the office. She opened the blind on the window. The window, despite normally being sealed to not let out any of the expensive circulated air and to keep all of the pollution — still in the atmosphere — out, flung itself open like the windows of the manager’s childhood. The manager pushed her head outside into the air and it was fresh. Wind pushed back her hair as she climbed onto the sill and then she walked forward.

In the dream, her body clenched, expecting to plummet down storeys and storeys (she’d had a dream like this before, and only woke up right before her body was going to hit the ground), but instead she was able to wade through the air as easily as if it were water. Up high in the sky, she crossed the road that separated her tower from the tower next door. And directly in front of her, she could see the other manager, smiling with her own window flung open, arms outstretched, waiting for the manager to arrive.

No one ever discussed the difficulty of being a manager unless discussing being slightly disturbed by their employees in the middle of another task or in the middle of some human thing, which of course had to be discarded. Being a manager was more important than the body. And even then, this sharing took on a different form.

On the manager with vision’s first day, the most senior manager in the building described to a group of the managers a day where she was never able to go to the bathroom. She’d gone into the hall and been interrupted by a staff member. The staff member had something to discuss that was very urgent, so the manager had forgotten about her bladder and followed the staff member away from the bathroom and into the staff member’s office. But this staff member claimed that the root of the problem was another staff member. This led to the other staff member’s office. But then the root of the problem was actually another staff member, and so on until it was all over and it was time to leave. Only when the manager was close to home did she realize the weight of water within her, pressing to get out. Depending on who she told the story to, she would describe a little trickle just beginning to soak into her underpants as she unlocked the door.

Everyone laughed when she told this story. But she was the most senior manager. That’s what people always did. The manager with vision felt something else creeping in her stomach and wondered if others did as well: horror. Did becoming a manager really mean no more bathroom breaks, no more time to yourself? “The sign of real power,” the senior manager finished her story with, “is how many people need you all the time.” 

These were the things the manager never could explain to her partner, despite feeling the need to explain to someone. Instead, since she’d become a manager, they’d barely talked. The manager cared about the environment, so she and her partner carpooled to work. “Maybe in the summer you can bike,” he’d said, since her office was fairly close to home and along some of the safest bike paths. The civilians had protested and organized town hall meetings to get the bike paths barricaded behind concrete barriers, unobstructed by automobiles and ensuring a cyclist couldn’t be cut off or hit by a car door. Driving was slower now, the cars reduced to one lane, but both the manager and her partner had attended all of the meetings and handed out leaflets in their neighbourhood. 

            But she laughed because she imagined herself as she had been when attending graduate school, pulling a bike helmet and air filtration mask from her head, her sweaty shirt sticking to her body, her hair getting caught in the foam pads meant to keep the helmet from slipping. She imagined going like that into a board meeting. All the other managers looked like they’d just stepped out of a salon. “I don’t think so.”

            To avoid talking, she and her partner listened to public talk radio in the car. The people on the radio never talked about life in the city — the city made sure programs like that didn’t air. Instead, the radio talked about other cities, different countries, wars and maybe even the threat of another pandemic if a new vaccine wasn’t implemented fast enough. “In Chicago, three buildings collapsed due to unsound structures,” the news announcer said. “More after the break.”

            The manager’s partner said, “I think Chicago only uses plastoblocks now. That could happen here.”

            The manager knew her partner was trying to get into a fight, but this was why they listened to the radio anyway. “It won’t happen here.”

            “Do you know that for sure? It sounds like a lot of people were hurt. I bet some even died.”

            “You studied the plastoblocks too. You know they’re safe.” 

            “I don’t think so. Not necessarily. And it depends on the way they are used. They need proper oversight.”

            “Well, I’m one of the people who does that oversight, so you might want to think about that before you continue with this conversation.”

            “Come on, we used to talk like this all the time.”

            “Well, maybe I’m sick of it.”

They had arrived at the manager’s tower. She didn’t kiss her partner on the cheek as usual, but she still squeezed his hand. She couldn’t stop herself from shutting the door a little too hard. He went speeding off to where he worked as an engineer, overseen by a manager, who was overseen by a higher-up manager, and so on.

            As she scanned her fingerprint, she continued to fume. The city hired engineers like her partner and urban planners to design green rooftops. The manager was especially proud of this. She was proud of the plastoblocks. She knew, of course she knew, that the city had its problems. And yes, she used to debate her partner about these problems for hours, dreaming that they could be the ones that would come up with the solutions. The difference was that now she was able to actually put these solutions in action and he, well, he was stuck following orders, as anyone who was not a manager was stuck doing.

            She entered the elevator and nodded to the other managers who were boarding. They were all required to arrive exactly thirty minutes before any employee and leave thirty minutes after any employee to create the illusion of always being present and working. Normally, the manager with vision would try to have a conversation with the other managers, but she was lost in her thoughts, the disaster in Chicago. 

            As the manager entered her office, the lights flicked on automatically, sensing her movement. She adjusted her papers and sat at her computer, scanned her fingerprint to log in. The blind had been left up overnight, and light spilled all over her desk as the sun grew and filled the sky. A rare sunny day. She looked out the window.

            Across the street, in the building opposite hers, the other manager was arriving. The lights went on in her office; she sat at her computer and scanned her fingerprint. Her hair was the most beautiful colour, thought the manager with vision. A type of rust that surely was dyed, but seemed a part of the other manager all the same. Look, thought the manager. Look. Please. Look.

            But the manager who did not look out the window didn’t even know that the manager who did existed. All the manager had worked for didn’t matter. The manager didn’t matter. Love didn’t matter. Light coming in through the window, whether the blind was rolled up or rolled down, none of it mattered to the manager who didn’t look out the window. So how could it matter to the manager who did?

Comments are closed.