He had been arranging the condiments on his fridge door by frequency of usage: the ketchup, 23 uses in the last month, on the top shelf; Tabasco sauce, 20 uses, right next to it; and the mayonnaise, just 6 uses, on the bottom shelf.
The phone interrupted him. The interview was to be the next day at 10:00 AM at the Schuster Building on West 27th Street, 23rd Floor, Room 710. He was just one of a few to be considered for the position. As he hung up, he felt a sense of deep satisfaction. He had only applied for the job two hours earlier when the title, “Efficiency Expert Vacancy,” had caught his eye. He immediately uploaded his resume (which was current as of that very morning) and submitted his application.
Although a lesser man would have then spent the rest of the day imagining how perfectly this job would fit his personality, he quickly dismissed the emergence of those thoughts as a waste of valuable time and set himself to the task at hand, moving a low stool in front of his refrigerator to tackle the fruit and vegetable bins.
At 4:00 PM, finished with his scheduled activities, he began to plan his job interview strategy. It was his strong conviction that he should arrive exactly two minutes before his interview. He based this on research showing that those who are late are quickly judged incompetent, those who are excessively early are considered desperate, and those exactly on time are on the verge of being late and are thus lumped in with the former group.
The crosstown bus would stop exactly 1,760 feet from the entrance to the Schuster Building. At his average walking speed of 3 miles per hour, plus figuring for access through the revolving entrance door, the time for walking across the lobby, and the time for the elevator to ascend to the 27th floor, he calculated the specific time to leave his apartment.
As the early morning sun spilled into his kitchen, he consumed his black coffee and dry toast and was on his way to the interview for the job of his dreams.
He exited the bus precisely as planned and the synchronized streetlights cooperated with his steady walking. A woman with a baby carriage briefly slowed him down in the lobby but he passed her and quickly made up the time. He reached the elevator just as it was about to close, entered, and turned around in order to be ready to quickly exit at the 27th floor.
He saw a short woman in jeans with unruly black hair running toward the elevator yelling, “Hold the door!”
His body froze in place, but his hand instinctively jutted out toward the elevator panel to press the “Door Open” button. The thought of being late, however, overwhelmed his brain and his hand stopped just short of pressing it. The eyes of the woman, enlarged by a pair of thick wire-rimmed glasses, blinked sadly as the door closed and the tiny room rose toward its destination.
As the last one in the elevator, he knew he would be the first one out. He wondered whether the four other people travelling with him were also there for the interview.
The door opened and he could see a small sign placed four feet ahead in the middle of the corridor. In large block letters it said, “PLEASE PROCEED TO ROOM STRAIGHT AHEAD.” He emerged, saw the well-lit room at the end of the hall with the door propped open, approached at an energetic pace, and entered the room first. He made a quick assessment of the room and noticed that there was a single chair situated in the far left corner of the roughly 10 x 10 room. There were also two chairs directly to the left of the door and two directly to the right. Without hesitation he sat on the first chair to his left. The person behind him took the seat in the far left corner, and then the remaining three came in and filled the balance of the seats.
He congratulated himself, feeling that if management was paying attention to this group he had already shown expert efficiency by taking the least amount of steps after entering the room. He looked toward the man who had chosen the lone chair far across in the corner and could barely contain the urge to chuckle. Although the man was dressed appropriately in a navy blue suit and silk tie, the man had made the glaring error, when having a choice of four chairs, of picking the one the furthest away – a fact he was sure would immediately disqualify the man from consideration.
The two women and three men in the room all did their best to conserve their energy, none moving, all rigid and businesslike, the efficiency of their breathing an example to their potential employer.
After five minutes of this silence, the man in the corner could not contain himself any longer.
“I can see you’re all smirking at me.” The man’s gaze turned to address all of them. “You all think you are so smart for taking the closer chairs and that I am the loser here for making the extra steps to sit all the way here in the corner.” The man leaned forward and his jacket’s sleeves pulled back so that it seemed that the suit might actually be a size too small. “But, you see, it is I who have been most efficient. It is I who noticed as we entered the room that there was a monitor right over the door.” The two people sitting to the right and the two people sitting to the left of the door leaned forward, turned and craned their necks to see the monitor perched directly above the door.
The man continued, “I noticed that these chairs are bolted to the floor,” and the four looked down at their own chair legs, “and so I concluded that we would be watching a presentation on that monitor and the most efficient location would be the chair facing the monitor.”
The woman sitting in the last chair on the right interrupted, “Actually, I think you are very wrong. The fact that you sat by yourself in that corner is a sign that you are a loner, obviously unwilling to work with others. As part of a corporation where there are many people working, a loner by his nature is inefficient for the comp…”
Suddenly a voice from the monitor drowned out the woman and a still image of a corporate logo appeared on the screen. The voice said, “I would like to thank you all for coming today. I do not wish to waste my time or, for that matter, your time any longer. An important component of efficiency includes attention to details and if you will notice when you leave, this is not Room 710, the room that you were supposed to go to for the interview. Room 710 was the first door on your right when you exited the elevator and the one person who got that right got the position. You all assumed that the sign that said “PLEASE PROCEED TO ROOM STRAIGHT AHEAD” was for your attention and all I can say is … never assume anything. We have decided that none of you will be hired and we would appreciate it if you could leave as soon as possible so we can turn off the lights to save the energy now being consumed by the five of you. Thank you and goodbye.”
The other four quickly and efficiently filed out. He, however, headed slowly toward the elevator door. As he passed Room 710, he could see a woman in jeans with unruly black hair and thick wire-rimmed glasses blankly staring out at him.
Jeffrey Jacobs is a Princeton native who now lives in Hamilton with his wife, two children, and three cats. His recent novel, “Darkness Descends on Princeton,” is a murder mystery set in 1930s Princeton.