A calamity in cubeville
Feb. 21, 2011
by Ivan Raconteur

A flood of competing thoughts washed over me like a vat of Gatorade over a championship-winning coach when I read about the demise of Rebecca Wells.

Wells, 51, is the LA County employee who recently died in her cubicle and wasn’t discovered until a day later.

She was found slumped over her desk by maintenance workers on a Saturday afternoon. Some early reports indicated that the last time anyone noticed her alive was 9 a.m. Friday (the day before), but at least one report later said she had been sending e-mails throughout the day, and was last seen alive and “in good spirits” at 5 p.m. Friday.

Although a coroner’s report won’t be available for weeks, preliminary word is that Wells died from natural causes and play of a foul nature is not suspected.

I confess that one of my first thoughts upon reading about the ill-fated Wells was that here was another example of a government employee who was dead (in this case, literally) on the job, and nobody noticed the difference.

After reflection, however, it occurred to me that this might be considered a trifle insensitive, and likely to offend my many friends whose knees are routinely parked under public desks, so I decided not to pursue that line of thinking.

I also wondered how it is possible for a person to go that long on the job without interacting with other people. It seems as though I can’t go more than about five minutes without someone demanding my attention, so it struck me as an unimaginable luxury for an employee to go a whole day without interruption.

I also speculated that even if the deceased was not the most popular person in the office, someone would be bound to notice that she was being unusually quiet or wasn’t answering her phone that day.

This, too, was partially explained by later reports. One of her supervisors was quoted as saying that Wells wasn’t in her usual office that day and was working amid a row of empty cubicles in a large government building, which may be why it took so long to find her body.

Still, it seems a rather dismal way to end an 11-year career working for the county.

It seems like the ultimate in anonymity for this unfortunate woman to be found dead at her desk in a sea of cubicles in a government office. Even the name of the department in which she worked, the Los Angeles County Department of Internal Services, has an ominous anonymous ring to it.

I don’t dwell on death. I haven’t the time or inclination. But I do hope that when my time comes, and the Grim Reaper arrives to take me by the hand, she will find me in happier circumstances than slumped over a desk in a cubicle, alone and unnoticed.

It is bad enough to have to live and work in Cubeville, and I have sympathy for those who are relegated to that fate, but to die there seems worse somehow.

Most of us won’t achieve immortality, but it would be nice to at least be noticed at the time we file our copy for the final deadline.

Perhaps it is just another form of what we optimistically refer to as progress.

We force people to work in generic, identical cubicles, like worker bees in a hive. We develop technology specifically so that we have less and less contact with other live humans each year, and instead of keeping our elderly in our homes so that they can live out their remaining days among the people they love, we ship them off to institutions as soon as they become too weak to fight back.

This is an over-simplification, of course, but it does seem like we are moving away from, rather than closer to, a world of human contact.

Expiring unnoticed in a government office is an extreme example, but my acquaintances in the law enforcement community all seem to have stories about times they have had to enter residences, only to find the occupants deceased and alone, and frankly, that doesn’t sound like much fun for either party.

I hereby vow to use the cautionary tale of Rebecca Wells as an opportunity to make piña coladas from coconuts, as the old saying goes. I will embrace the frequent interruptions on the job, and the phone that won’t stop ringing, and the ceaseless flood of e-mail messages. Frustrating though this level of attention may be some days, it has got to be better than perishing unnoticed in a cubicle.

I am going to make an effort to check on my colleagues more often, as well. If anyone seems too quiet, I will be sure to give them a poke to be sure they are still alive and toiling away with the rest of us. It seems like the neighborly thing to do.

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