When It’s Time To Whinny
by MATT STOKES | JANUARY 18, 2016
The summer between my sophomore and junior years of college, I worked in a law firm for the first time. Hired as an entry-level file clerk at a corporate defense firm in downtown New Orleans, I possessed zero legal experience and didn’t even know what a file clerk does (I wouldn’t learn, either). So, for the first time in my life, I put on business-casual clothes and carried a leather laptop case (usually without a laptop… I just wanted something to hold) into a tall office building every day. There I’d sit, still and silent, seven-and-a-half hours a day, five days a week, hoping no one would ask me anything.
My workspace was in a large file and office-supply room in a low-traffic corner of the office. The room’s other occupant was a woman I knew from school, though by “knew” I only mean that we crossed paths frequently walking from class to class and were semi-familiar with each other’s faces. After covering each of our majors (“English.” “Psychology.”) in the first few minutes of working together, we’d exhausted the connection.
Her name was Shenandoah. The very fact of her name ensured that I would never say it out loud. I have a problem saying people’s names. This is because I don’t trust that they are real. It’s not that I’m bad with names, not like I get people’s names wrong, because I don’t. It’s more like I can know for certain what a person’s name is, and still not really believe that it’s right. I worry I’ll try to say somebody’s name but stumble over it, choking from lack of confidence, or else just say it with an uptick, like I’m asking a question. “Shenan… doah?” This makes longer names especially problematic for me, because they give me more time to become rattled. Obviously, “Shenandoah” is not a word I’m happy to say to somebody.
Also, Shenandoah (the person, not the valley) was cooler than me. This wasn’t unusual, as everyone was cooler than me. But she was cool in that she knew what she was doing. She used words like litigation and discovery, said things like, “Put this letter in the physical file,” and said it all with such confidence. She knew her shit. No stuffing documents into the bottom of a drawer and hope they’d incinerate for her.
It’s not that I wanted to impress her, exactly. I just needed something. I was sick of not existing to those in the upper caste of file clerkerly. And so, every morning when I arrived in the copy room and we first saw each other (she was always earlier than me, because that’s what people named Shenandoah do, is beat you places), I would say, “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” she would say in return. I would sit at my desk and unpack my laptop bag, settling in for a day of trying to be as invisible as possible.
And then I would make a horse sound.
(I hope you know the sound I’m talking about. It’s basically exhaling air into your upper lip and letting it flap against your gums.) This horse sound would, I hoped, communicate something like, “Another day at the ole job, huh? Working here sucks, am I right??”
Immediately after issuing the horse noise, I would become angry with myself. The hell is wrong with you?! I’d scream-think to myself. That’s the best you can do, a horse sound?
Apparently so. And in response, Shenandoah would offer utter silence. I don’t mean that she ignored me, I mean that she either didn’t hear my horse sound or she pretended she didn’t. She didn’t acknowledge that I’d sat down at my desk and whinnied.
After noiselessly beating myself up I’d vow to never make the sound again, to come into work, say, “Good morning,” sit down at my desk, and then not make a God damn sound. No horse noises, no dog barks, no rooster crows… nothing. I mean, it’s not like making the horse noise was my thing, not like I went through life flapping at people left and right. Here comes Matt Stokes, and he’s doing that horse noise again, he’s the coolest! No, I only ever did it in this situation, at the same exact moment of the day, every day. Why this happened is still a mystery to me, and it’s made especially weird by the fact that I’d never made that sound before and haven’t used it since — and I’ve had many awkward work relationships where I could’ve pulled that tool from my arsenal and put it to pointless use.
And yet, each day, after all the obstinate vows never to do it again, I would continue to sit down and greet my colleague with the horse noise. Sometimes the noise would come out immediately after we’d exchanged greetings and settled into silence, and other times there’d be a nice little gap… but the sound would always find its way out. If I let a little time pass, trying to will myself to suppress the sound, I’d feel… off. But you’re doing it! I’d say to myself. This is the day you don’t do it! But then, horse noise.
It just didn’t feel right not to make it. For a brief stretch in the summer of 2008, the whinny had a will, and it wouldn’t be withheld.