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News and updates from around the Ujima Ecosystem.

Impersonal Machine Edition: Lunch and Learn, a short story by James Flaherty

The following is an excerpt from a novel, Chi : a story of mistaken identity. The narrator, a meek 17-year-old, is trapped in the body of a thirtysomething who works at a health insurance company. He plays a thankless part in order to get by in impersonal and emphatically white New England spaces.


Lunch and Learn

by James Flaherty

At noon on Wednesday I mentally rehearsed my speech as I circled the first-floor atrium, searching for Conference Room 1.2B West and bumping into people processioning from the cafeteria with stacks of clear plastic containers—salads, sandwiches, pizzas, and cookies—clutched with accomplishment. Mid-day sun cascaded, indiscriminate and white through the skylights. Tables blared coming together on the tiling. People graying, impatient, mid-fifties, business casual. Health insurance. Careers two decades, three decades long. Careers that sit on the waist. Tribes by department and color: An Indian tribe from IT. A Chinese tribe from IT. A Haitian tribe from the call center. White middle-aged women from Health Care Quality and Accreditation. A swarm upon the noon hour like people chasing a craving, like the treasure might run out—lunch, subsidized by the company, the only reason most of them came into the office. A swarm craving permission to do as it pleased, to relax and binge and not be afraid. I couldn’t accept it yet that I was like them, but I was. I couldn’t admit it yet that I was costumed and proud. No better. Maybe worse. Circling the atrium a third time, a pain in my stomach meant I was forgetting to breathe and I still couldn’t find the conference room.

Then through noon glare I asked a handful of women if they were Counting Diversity. They corrected me with a scoff. They were the Spanish-Speakers Employee Resource Group quarterly meeting.

I was led to a conference room I’d passed several times and had assumed, wrongly, was someone else’s meeting. Every seat seemed to be filled with someone older, whiter, and overwhelmingly more expensive than me. I found a spot at the table for my notebook but no chair. A spare was in the corner, next to a buffet table of carafes and an empty platter. I touched the chair and the seatback came apart. They stared as I came in and got settled, but kept chatting.

“Look out for that one!” 

“Should we get started, Eli?”

“Sorry in advance for my noise.” 

“When Felipe’s at the grill, you don’t order a salad, right?”

“We really ought to snatch him up.”

“Criminal, isn’t it?”

“Criminal like my BMI.”

“Does everyone who desperately wants a cookie have a cookie?”

I cleared my throat and opened my notebook. “This morning I’d like to—”

“Speak up.”

“This morning I’d—”


“Twelve twelve.”

“Look at that, palindrome.”

“This afternoon I’m going to talk about waiting,” I said, clutching my notebook, holding my eyes to the page, and putting on, to the best of my ability, an impersonation of authority. I tried not to see any of them too closely, my audience of director-levels and above. But I’d already taken in too much of them, their preemptive boredom, their dislike of each other, their resentment of having to attend my meeting. I noticed, most of all, how to them I was amusing and forgivably small. Though I didn’t realize it, their forgiveness was something I deeply needed: I hadn’t apologized for being late, hadn’t flattered them with friendly preliminary banter, and hadn’t pleased them with direct eye contact. 

“It feels like a lot of us are waiting. I think what we’re waiting for is change. We expect change. That’s what it feels like to me. Have you ever felt like that before?” I lowered my notebook to glance around the table. Several people had opened computers. A tall Hispanic man looked at his phone and thoughtfully rubbed his goatee. A dark-skinned woman in a jean jacket, who I hadn’t noticed before, held me in a look of open irritation. A woman in a pink suit lowered a round of cucumber, unbitten, and either she was shocked at what I was saying, or how I was saying it, or both.

“The thing about waiting,” I continued, “is it’s something people do. I mean, machines can’t wait. Anything that’s not alive can’t wait. It’s either working or dead. I wanted to talk about waiting because we have this mission of serving people. . . . It’s the thing written by the front door, when you walk in. . . . So serving people, that means we have to wait. Because people don’t get changed by us. By the company, I mean. This company’s a machine, like a computer. And if we want—if you want change, you have to have changed people. I didn’t make that up. Someone told me that once. I thought it was funny, that it’s something we can’t make happen. So I thought we might want to think about it, if that’s going to be our mission.” I looked around quickly and lowered my notebook. “That’s it.”

In spite of my overwhelming desire to be finished, I felt, foolishly, that I’d made my point quite well. Of course, I’d never given a speech or presentation before. Nor had I ever formulated a point of view with the intention that another person would receive it. 

“Eli,” the woman in the pink suit said. “Could you go a little slower please? I’m having a hard time hearing.”

“I’m done,” I corrected her. “Do you have any questions?” 

Silence enclosed me. 

The tall Hispanic man spoke in a deep voice ornamented with accent and indefatigability. “Thank you, Eli, for offering these thoughtful words. You certainly gave us a lot to ponder. Brought us well outside the typical box, I’d say.” 

“First time in years anybody’s gotten me to church.” 

“Something we could all benefit from, I’m sure!” Esteban replied with a laugh. The room, under the soothing strokes of Esteban’s corporate calm, was already relaxing. 

“This is a good reminder of something that makes this company so special: our diversity of thought. I think we can all thank Eli for this reminder.”

“Thank you very much, Eli!” said the pink-suited woman, Ashley, the V.P. of Corporate Communications, smiling. 

Though I didn’t realize it then, the we Esteban was referring to wasn’t Esteban and me, but senior management—omnipotent, directive—of which I was, obviously, not a part. We was the soothing and fatherly control. The winsome voice speaking the correct answer: data-informed, trustworthy, and very expensive. We was the tactful application of force. We was the affectation of folksy grace, of weekend leisure, and simple pleasures that resembled our own. We was an aimless empathy. We was a softening, a dressing up of senior management in Esteban’s image. It took me longer than it should have, through the spell of consecrated calm, to realize that, functionally, Esteban was cleaning up my mess and bringing us back to standard procedure. 

“Does anyone have any questions for Eli?” 

A deliberately rude male voice bellowed out: “Am I allowed to be the guy who doesn’t get it?”

“You’re allowed to be whatever you’d like, Kyle.”

“What is this for? I’m not referring to what we just heard. But this entire program. What’s this for?” Kyle, the V.P. of Commercial Sales, was a large man whose head resembled a billboard: bare, sun-stained, and chemically treated. He loomed upon an elbow and stared at Esteban with bored and careless hostility, communicating speechlessly to the entire room that if he cared just a little more, he could draw from a vast reserve of asshole behavior and then nothing would be out of bounds and no shame would restrain him. 

“Interesting question,” Esteban said, seeming to mull Kyle’s comment. 

“What do you think it’s for?” the woman in the jean jacket asked. She was the only other black person in the room. Her head was cocked defiantly to the side.

“I get the diversity commitment,” Kyle said, looking at Esteban. “We’re putting our vendors through the filter. We have the recruitment goal. But my problem—” and here he nodded vaguely in my direction—“with the whole ESG theory is there’s nothing to apply and no implementation. What bearing does it have on the business?”

“In a similar vein, I object to the language about machines,” said Ashley. “That seemed very uncharitable. We’ve invested literally millions into The Community. To call us a machine is pejorative. We’re not some blundering disaster, which is, well, you know—” 

“The implication.”

Unshaken, tolerant, Esteban replied, “What do you need for group business implementation, as far as member diversity is concerned?”

“Lower premium rates,” was Kyle’s brief answer. 

“And what about diverse segments?”

“It’s not about the demo. It’s an employer market. Status quo.”

“And what progress have we seen from a brand advertising standpoint around consumer research, brand affinity? I know we planned a perception study—”

“Lost the budget. Other priorities. Anyway, my point is we’re a business,” Kyle intoned. “When we talk diversity, let’s ground it in implementation. Otherwise—what’s that phrase? Ashley, help me out.”

“Virtue signaling.”

 “And I have to ask. Are you still getting blow-back from Volunteer Day, the T-shirts? ‘Giving back?’”

“Oh, that.”

“There was the color-coding by department, then the distribution by department, using the secondary palette. The secondary black. And the call center—”

“Black T-shirts on black people,” said the woman in the jean jacket—to herself, nobody yet listening, “that say ‘giving back.’”

“Sent a message in error. An oversight.”

“Yes, while the rest of the company was differently colored, let’s say.”

Esteban crossed his arms. “I’ll admit, in hindsight—”

“A process oversight.”

“Debasement,” said the woman in the jean jacket, speaking to the table, her gaze fixed there, on the imitation hardwood surface. “You can’t say ‘giving back’ when you’re treating our bodies with no respect.”

“We so respect you!” Ashley said, as she thrust a thumbs-up at the woman, the other hand rigidly spread across her heart and dazzling with rings.


James Flaherty lives in the Longwood Medical Annex of Boston, the neighborhood formerly known as Jamaica Plain. He works professionally for a nonprofit and, on good mornings, writes fiction before he goes to the office. His fiction appears in journals like Kenyon Review, Quarterly West, and Action Spectacle.


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