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The other day I was at the radio station attending to things when the new high-tech, global, two-story high copier started acting up, making a high-pitched unidentifiable but extremely annoying noise that made my ear drums ring as if I'd been using a dentist's drill on them as a Q-tip. I turned to one of the secretaries and said, "What's that awful noise?"
Oh, that's one of the “sensors” on our new copy machine, she said in that calm and controlled voice that secretaries are trained to use. She said it's been going off almost constantly ever since it arrived.
She couldn't remember what the sensor “sensed” and agreed it was annoying but she didn't think it was too serious. I'll ask one of the geeks to turn it off, she said.
The geek eventually arrived on the scene and quickly pushed a button somewhere that stopped the noise. But as I walked around the office for the next few hour I became aware of all the genuinely irritating sounds that fill our high-tech work places there days, all the annoying digital sounds that are routinely produced by our age's clever electronic office gizmos. Here and there I heard them in this hermetically sealed and sound-proofed office modern.
As I attended to things - listening to one peevish machine sound after another - I began thinking of all the great old natural sounds that are never heard anymore in today's highly efficient, muffled offices, we know - but don't necessarily love - these days.
When I was a kid I would often go with my father on summer afternoons as he drove around town on various errands. We'd often begin with a stop at Willy's Insurance office on East Main Street.
Willy's was a stately and quiet high-ceilinged office in our town that was filled with ponderously heavy oak chairs, not the slick streamlined torture devices that serve as chairs in today's offices.
The office also had quietly-busy secretaries and walls that were covered with large and small paintings of beautiful Maine-built schooners under full sail. They also had several framed photographs of portly men with huge mustaches who stared down at you sternly as if daring you to crack a smile. These were the company’s founders.
I didn't know what it was like to work in the office but I always enjoyed sitting in one of their mammoth oak chairs by one of their huge windows. As I sat quietly I'd alternate between looking around the office and looking through a particularly good National Geographic magazine as I waited for my father and Mr. Willy to finish what I assumed was very important business.
There was a beautiful old Seth Thomas clock on the wall in the office and it was so quiet that you could hear every tick of that clock all the way across the large room. The only other sounds were the low muffled voices of Dad and Mr. Willy talking about important things behind the big oak door. There was also the occasional rustling of what must have been important papers on the desks of the quietly busy secretaries.
Occasionally the telephone would ring - that classic old telephone ring we all remember fondly - and one of the secretaries would answer.
I would sit and listen to the secretary's end of the conversation and try and imagine what they were talking about. Most times I'd soon lose interest and go back to my provocative magazine.
Sometimes I'd figure out she was talking to someone I knew and would become more interested in what she was saying. It was never that interesting.
On warm days when some of the large office windows were open I could hear the usual noises on Maine Street. Sometimes the conversations of people outside the window would compete with the one-way conversation of the quietly-busy secretary on the telephone.
Eventually Dad and Mr. Willy would come out of their closed-door meeting after finishing their important business and we'd go on our way.
As I thought of those days and compared them with today's irritating office sounds, I concluded that our high-tech, high-speed digital office machines might be useful - but just barely. And maybe not all change has been for the best.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at or 899-1868.
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