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The Story of Sigmund

May 4, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Earlier today, a friend and I got to talking about the some of the colorful characters with whom we've shared offices over the years.  (The statement that kicked it off was, and I quote, "The lab was usually quiet, but some days were harvesting days for the guy doing glaucoma research. It's hard not to lose a couple of hours watching someone slice apart a bucket full of pig eyes."  Because apparently that can happen.  I didn't even know that was a thing.  But now I'm picturing Dr. Krieger from Archer.) 

Nothing like that ever happened in any of my offices.  But I did briefly share an office with Sigmund.

Whose name, by the way, was not actually Sigmund.  And, to anticipate the follow-up question, he was not a sea monster… as far as I'm aware.  I've changed his name here because I'm sure he's probably a good guy at heart.  Just, um, eccentric.

During the second half of my final year of grad school, the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute moved from the very nice building where my thesis advisor's grad students had shared a really terrific office for many years into the newly remodeled Walter Library on the main campus.  So we basically traded a location on the very far edge of a very large campus, with a great office space, for a central location on campus with rather crappy office space.   And of course this happened while I was trying to write my thesis.  Because nothing says 'stress-free living' like writing your thesis when the entire Institute is being crated and shipped across campus.

Originally, the new-and-improved MSI floorplan had no provisions for graduate students. It wasn't until very late in the moving process that somebody (I think it was my advisor) convinced the Powers That Be that not providing space for graduate students who did their research at the Institute would effectively render many of those students "homeless" (this is foreshadowing). For instance, though I was in the physics department, and did all of my work upstairs in astronomy, I had an assigned space in neither department because I spent the vast majority of my time at MSI. 

Once they realized the problem, they hastily converted a "conference room" into a shared office for us.  This "conference room" had AV hookups for multimedia presentations, but it also happened to have a huge load-bearing column right through the middle of it. Which meant there wasn't a single spot in the room that didn't have a hugely obstructed view of almost any other part of the room.   It also had no desks or tables -- just a single waist-high shelf permanently bolted to the wall around the perimeter of the room. (We were not allowed to bring shelves or, basically, anything else that might have made life easier.) Oh, and it was tucked into a garret under the roof, so it was hot and dark. (Did I mention our original office had a grand window? With a view of the city skyline? And sunlight? It did.)

My advisor had 4 graduate students at the time. It was a tight fit for me, Kostya, Eric, and Sean, but we figured we could make it work. And anyway, I was going to graduate in a few months, so it wasn't a big deal. Maybe because I was leaving soon, the MSI decided to add an additional grad student to our new office, a guy none of us had ever met.  At first, we were okay with that...

Until the day Barry, head of MSI tech support, saw me in the hallway and said, ominously, "So... I hear you guys are sharing an office with Sigmund."

And, not being completely oblivious, I said, "Uh, yeah… Why?" 

To which Barry kind of smirked and said something to the effect of, "Well, that'll be interesting." And then he walked away.

Turns out Sigmund was a guy I had seen around the old MSI for years and years.  He always wore exactly the same clothes every day, and he was always eating dinner in the kitchenette when I carded in to the Institute around 7:30 in the morning.  But I didn't much care because he inhabited a different wing of the old MSI.  (Notice the clever word choice.  Foreshadowing!) Of course, the new MSI didn't have the luxury of "wings" and "privacy".

Our first interaction with Sigmund happened on the day we were first allowed to go over to the new MSI to inspect our office.  Sean, Eric, Kostya, and I went over there to measure how much shelf space we'd have for computers, books, etc.  Naturally, of course, I'm talking about measuring shelf area.  So there we were, doing our thing with the measuring tape, when Sigmund came in (same clothes, natch) with his own measuring tape. And we all said hello and exchanged pleasantries, and reached an agreement on who would sit where, and everything seemed perfectly normal.  Until Sigmund proceeded to measure the floor-to-ceiling volume of his assigned space.

To which we said, "Huh?"

"Oh," said Sigmund. "I have a lot of stuff in my old office, so I'm trying to figure out how to pack it all here."  Just to be clear at this point, he meant 'pack' as in mathematically solve the optimal space-packing algorithm for all of his crap.
"What the hell are you talking about?"

Sigmund nodded at our measuring tape. "Aren't you guys doing the same thing?"

"Uh, no."

Sigmund actually started to implement his fill-an-assigned-volume-of-space-with-random-crap program until somebody from MSI management got wind of it.  They shut that down because apparently adding a second load-bearing column in the room would have been a gigantic fire hazard.  Also, his column o'crap blocked the door.

A few days later, we had started to move in (minus, thank God, Sigmund's optimally-packed column) and we start wondering if the AV hookups had been completed before somebody clued in to the fact this was the worst possible conference room in the history of conference rooms.  So we started rummaging through our boxes for music CDs and a compatible cable. But before I could plug some Beatles into the outlets, Sigmund whipped out a CD from the stack of stuff he enjoyed listening to while working. 

"Here," he said helpfully.  "Try this."

We did.  And, in fact, the AV hookups worked swell.

Turned out Sigmund didn't listen to music when he works. Oh, no.  He listened to audio recordings of foreign armies
undergoing infantry drills.  And not pomp-and-circumstance marching drills. Oh, no.  Drills as in some officer screaming while lots of people run around and grunt.  The CD was full of nothing but honest-to-God screaming (in a foreign language) and the sound of rapid, heavy bootsteps.  50 minutes of it.   

A few days after that, Sigmund hung this poster:

A handsome man, I'm sure, but those eyes...

That's Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first President of Turkey. Who, I am given to understanding, was a very forward-thinking leader in many ways. Unfortunately, this particular image had a slightly unsettling effect in that dark office. The eyes... Sigmund even had a story to go along with this poster, which involved looking all over for a really good image of Atatürk. By which, of course, he meant something with unsettling eyes. (He actually used the phrase "creepy enough" when it came to finding the best place to hang it in the office. Those eyes bored into my back for 14 hours a day until I graduated.)

Eventually the move was completed and we all settled into a routine.  Except, of course, Sigmund, who came and went at weird hours.  And who started coming in during the middle of the afternoon, laying out a blanket, and going to sleep in the middle of the floor.  Now, I have no objection to grad students catching sleep in the office.  That's totally normal.  What's not normal is racking out in the middle of the floor of a very crowded office.  Did I mention Sigmund was well over 6' tall?  And that he snored like a bloody earthquake? 

Somehow we all just got accustomed to having to step over comatose Sigmund while doing our work.  Even my thesis advisor took it in stride.  He'd come in to discuss something with me and he'd gamely step over Sigmund's body.  Eventually somebody complained (Sigmund's maybe-corpse was another fire hazard because it obstructed the exit.) So then he transitioned to kneeling on the floor, putting a pillow on his chair, and sleeping on his knees with his head slumped on his pillow. At this point, you might wonder why he didn't just sleep in his chair like a normal person.  Or, you know, in a BED. We all did. It was around about now that we started to wonder if Sigmund had, in fact, been living in his office in the old MSI.

But here's the thing. By then we had established an unspoken rule in the office: No matter what Sigmund is doing, never ask about it. 

I only broke this rule once.

Because I was finishing my thesis, I was putting in late nights at the office. Which meant I got to spend a lot of time alone with Sigmund at night, because he was, apparently, a homeless vampire. One evening I went down the hall to the printer room and came back, oh, 2 minutes later to find Sigmund shirtless. 

Another evening, while I was trying to work, he systematically worked his way through the phone book calling every metalworking and machine shop in the entire Twin Cities.  Sigmund's side of the each conversation went like this:

"Hello!  Do you sell single 12-inch diameter ball bearings?... Oh, okay.  Thank you."

After maybe half an hour of this, I said, "Hey, Sigmund. Why are you trying to purchase a single 12-inch ball bearing?"

He brightened up a little bit, clearly pleased that somebody showed an interest.

"Because," he said cheerily, "it's an old ship captain's remedy for constipation." 
So yeah. I never again broke the rule after that.

Eventually I graduated and departed.  A few years later, Sean emailed those of us who had all shared an office with Sigmund at one time or another. The subject line of his email was, "It Finally Happened."  The "it" in question being, naturally, the day he walked in on a pantsless Sigmund.  The conversation, I'm told, went like this:

"Uh, would you mind closing the door?"


Sean graduated a while after that, and unfortunately that was the end of years of Sigmund stories. Unfortunately for me, I mean. I'm sure Sean had a lifetime supply by then.

[Addendum, 7 May 2012: Sean shares more stories in the comments, below.]


Andrew May 5, 2012 at 11:57 am
That is hilarious! Do you think Sigmund was actually on a stipends to screw with grad students? Any questions during your thesis involving 12 inch Bearing balls?
Scott Denning May 5, 2012 at 1:44 pm
Ian -- Thank you for your bravery in sharing this autobiographical tale. Truly, it will help in your therapy. There is no shame in having multiple personalities, and you have taken another step toward wholeness. Sigmund is a part of you. Embrace him. Love him. Reveal him. On a related note: Just how long does that whole Witness Protection Program coverage continue? Isn't there some statute of limitations involved? And perhaps you can now admit that the recordings of infantry drills were a direct influence on your writing.
Steve Halter May 5, 2012 at 2:37 pm
Wow, I can't imagine having that poster in the same room. Those eyes are freaky indeed. Doing a quick google of Kemal Ataturk shows that he doesn't always look quite so vampiric. Sig must have done quite a search. And the ball bearing ...!
Sean May 5, 2012 at 2:57 pm
Thanks for bringing back the memories, Ian. The team of psychiatrists I've had to see as a direct result of working in that office keeps insisting that "Sigmund" must have been a figment of my imagination or, at the very least, a composite of five or six very weird people. And one famous Turkish revolutionary. I never got around to including the stories as an appendix to my thesis... -Sean P.S. Love the blog!
Alex May 5, 2012 at 10:34 pm
I desperately want to meet this insane, creepy man. He sounds fascinatingly terrible. I want to follow him around with a camera and study him in the wild, Jane Goodall style, and document his behaviors for the anthropological community.
Ian May 6, 2012 at 6:45 am
I find it interesting, by which I mean unsettling, that two people independently suggested Sigmund is a hallucinated construct of psychosis. Especially since both of those comments came in before I had a chance to come online and release them from the moderation queue. Having said that, the imaginary-officemate theory is by far the best explanation for Sigmund I've ever heard. It explains so much. Andrew-- Sean (hi, Sean!) eventually deduced that Sigmund wasn't actually a graduate student. He was, believe it or not, a "volunteer". Whatever the hell that means. It supports your theory... Scott-- one of my multiple personalities is my therapist. And she says I'm doing just fine. Steve-- I did a similar search to learn more about Ataturk after a few days of sharing an office with that poster. Most of the time he seemed like a pretty normal-looking guy, if not downright classy (I even found a photo of him in a top hat). I'm really serious when I say Sigmund had a whole story about his search for this poster. Not that I ever wanted or asked to hear the story, but that never stopped him. Sean-- how long did you share an office with Sigmund? You must have stories GALORE. When I was writing this up I was certain that I'd forgotten a couple of choice incidents from my few months with Sigmund. Have anything you'd like to throw into the circle? (Oh, and thanks for dropping by!) Alex-- I would donate to a National Geographic grant to fund your research! Thank you for volunteering. You're a brave woman, but somebody has to do this research...
Sean May 7, 2012 at 1:01 pm
I always feel sorry for anyone else who tries to tell me stories about their strange officemates because they don't realize that we're holding this unbeatable trump card. I was lucky enough to occupy that office from Fall 2001 to Summer 2005. Over that time, I was subjected to some truly unique conversations, ranging from the difficulties of transporting an eight-foot-long, four-inch-diameter sewer pipe on an airplane to whether or not I wanted Sigmund to put me in touch with his buffalo tongue supplier. For Thanksgiving, of course. I also seem to recall a tale of transporting chicken heads on a public bus, but that story pretty much tells itself. One of my favorite incidents occurred when I came into the office to find Sigmund's single change of clothes draped over the recycling bin, but no Sigmund. Some obvious questions arose.
Ian May 7, 2012 at 1:15 pm
It says quite a bit about Sigmund when I can't tell whether or not I had heard the sewer pipe story. Not whether I believe it, mind you, but whether I had heard it. The chicken-heads-on-a-bus thing rings a bell, too. Was I possibly around for that one? Because it sounds really familiar. How did that one go? I rather wish his car really had had that giant pickelhaube welded to the hood.
Sean May 7, 2012 at 2:31 pm
I believe you were still around for the chicken head story, but I've managed to forget the details over the years. Not that "chicken heads on a bus" leaves much room for further interpretation. Now that I'm reminiscing, I always loved it when unsuspecting MSI staff would enter our office and immediately stop in their tracks upon viewing either Sigmund's enormous mess of stacked papers, the illegible dry erase marker writing on his computer monitor, or the man himself asleep on the floor/chair. They would give me this look as if to ask "Is it always this bad?" and I would nod, knowing secretly that sometimes it was far, far worse.
Ian May 7, 2012 at 4:11 pm
The chicken head story had something to do with Sigmund, a large quantity of chicken heads, and taking the bus from Saint Paul to Minneapolis. And Sigmund's complete inability to understand the overall reaction to his large quantity of chicken heads. I assume he was transporting them in a blood-soaked bowling ball bag. I always remember what Eric said: "I think that guy considers himself quite the intellectual." Which proved true when I'd be working feverishly on my thesis late at night, and he'd stop me to force me to read some article out of The Economist or whatever the hell he was reading at the moment. These articles never had anything to do with radio galaxies. But I did get to hear Sigmund's take on Moby Dick.
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