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?”
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:
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?”
“Would you mind PUTTING SOME FUCKING PANTS ON?”
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.]