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There's this guy who sits next to me at work, Max is his name. He's younger than me, 23 I think, and looks clean-cut, always wearing pressed shirts and schnazzy ties, contrasting starkly with my ink-stained khakis, wrinkled sweaters splattered with cat hair and tendency to wear mismatched socks. But Max cleans himself up for work, and he's not fooling anyone. He has the look of a guy who does this as his day job, and does it well, but his real work, his real fun, comes after hours.

Apparently, outside of work, Max manages an underground rock band-why does an underground rock band need a manager?-and he has earned the reputation around the office as the young party kid. Bosses, married, sedate and living in the suburbs, eager for tales of city nightlife long since passed, are always stopping by his desk to ask him about the evening before, anticipating crazed alcohol-drenched grunge orgies.



To them, Max represents the life they once reveled in, perhaps not as much as they would have liked but enough to make them wistful for it. He's the sprightly buck out there living it up they way they would have if they hadn't grown bald, complacent and focused on family. They listen to his reports on Lower East Side rock with faint airs of desperation; if they can hear a story about youth excess in Manhattan, maybe that'll make the diaper changing or the trips to the Home Depot somehow more tolerable.

These trips by Max's desk inevitably end with a rousing chuckle, a shake of the head and a low-key, impressed whistle. Crazy kids. Then they come by my desk. Their face tightens immediately; their features fall, the jaw sets and the arms cross. In a millisecond, they segue back from a real person with envy and memories and a life before this one into the more comfortable persona of corporate prattler. Nobody asks me about wild parties, or casual sex, or passing out at 4 a.m. on somebody else's couch. Usually my interoffice conversations deal exclusive on work, how my stories are coming, did I get a hold of that one source, so on. If the conversation veers away from work, it's always in the safe, banal cubicle area.

Accepted and Common Cubicle Topics:

1) Discussion of the current climate. (Ex.: "I tell you, I don't think this rain's EVER gonna stop. Sure beats all the snow, though.")
2) Lamentation of the state of the local sports franchise. (Ex.: "I can't even watch the Knicks anymore. They're just TERRIBLE, I tell ya.")
3) Recap of previous night's television programming. (Ex.: "Did you see The Simpsons last night? Man, that Homer … what a character!")

These topics are chosen for the bland inoffensiveness and inherent ability to keep actual conversation to a minimum. The only possible responses to Cubicle Prattle are in the one-to-four-word range. I try to limit mine to:

"Oh, man, I know."
"Yeah, that was funny."
"No kidding."
"You're telling me!"

So, to verify, in case you've missed it:

Question to Max: "So, how was your night last night? You even remember any of it? How many girls did you hook up with this time? What time did you crawl into bed? Man … that's fantastic."
Question to Will: "Will, this weather … it sure is something."

This is distressing. It is true, yes, that I live rather far removed from the Sex and the City single-guy lifestyle. During the week, I'm usually in bed by 11 p.m.; the only time I stay out any later is when there's an Illini basketball game. I'm up at 6:30 every morning and usually at work before 8. I haven't been to a rock concert in about a year, and the next time I pick up a random girl at a bar will be my first. My weekends are typically spent either writing or sitting around an apartment watching television. When I go to a bar, he's usually either a sports bar or a grimy pub with sawdust on the floor and Pabst Blue Ribbons for a buck-fifth. My most daring exploration into new parts of the city was a couple of weeks ago, when I crossed a street I hadn't seen before to feed a friend's cat.

All this is true. I admit it. But I had no idea it was so obvious.

When, exactly, did I join the ranks of the middle-aged? What does Max have that I ain't got?

It wasn't that long ago that I was cool. I would leave work at 6 p.m. and drink until about 2, then crawl into the office about 10, hung over and trying to piece together the evening. But at some point, this all became far too tiring. I have enough to balance here; friends, girls, job, freelance, college basketball. I have neither the energy nor the inclination to fire it all up every night, or even every weekend, any longer.

But did this have to happen so fast? Is it already over? Have I already become that balding middle manager looking back fondly at wild days of yore, back when I had some fire in my belly? And how long as everyone else known this?

My sister is still in college, and she lives her life accordingly. Last October, on my birthday, she called at 3:30 in the morning, and seemed downright shocked that I wasn't awake to answer the phone. When she asked me what I did on the big night, I told I her I had a couple glasses of Scotch with a small group of friends and was in bed by midnight. "Jill, I had to work the next morning, you know."

Jill minced no words. "Jesus, Will, what happened to you?"

I'll tell you what happened, Jill. I, overnight it seems, became an expert in corporate banalities and insignificant small talk. I became happy just to have a regular job that paid me enough to live, and sacrificed accordingly. My friends got old too, and now when we have a rare night of all-night revelry, we pay for it for about a week afterwards. It used to be that 50 percent of my income went to cigarettes and booze. Now it goes to bookshelves and 401k plans.

This is nothing unique, or even unexpected, but it just wasn't supposed to happen so soon. And it doesn't seem reversible.

The other day, I was on deadline and was typing out feverishly a story about Wells Fargo's mutual fund options. To shift myself into the right rhythm, I put on a CD.

A voice came over the cubicle wall. "What you listening to there, Will?" It was Max.

"Um … Nirvana's In Utero."

"Oh, man, yeah, that was really good, way back in the day. I remember listening to that when I was a freshman in high school. What's that been, like, 10 years since that came out?"

Yes. It has. Perhaps I should start listening to more up-and-coming bands, whatever the kids are listening to, what's "hot on the scene," if you will. I think I know whom to ask. And if Max happens to tell me how he saw this band the night before, in a smoke-filled nightclub with 22-year-old Ecstasy girls in tight outfits making out in the corner … well, I suppose that's fine too.


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