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VERY FIRST PERSON

The Myth Of The Home Office

Working From the House--It Sounds So Reasonable, So Civilized. But Before You Take the Plunge, Consider This: a 24-Hour Workday With No Support Staff, No Lunch Break and No Human Contact. Suddenly, Cublicle Life Looks Enticing.

September 21, 1997|Karen Stabiner | Karen Stabiner is the author of "To Dance With the Devil: The New War on Breast Cancer," recently published by Delacorte Press

I know what you think: Life would be perfect if you could just give up the rat race and work at home. Every new piece of hardware or software makes it that much more tantalizing. Technology has brought the world to your doorstep. Why, then, would any sane person want to go someplace else to work every day?

Listen to me carefully. I have been at home for 15 years, since the days of the IBM Selectric. I am the voice of experience, and I say: Stay right where you are--wedged between the gal in the mini-Mercedes who's applying mascara with the right hand and primping her hair with the left and the guy in the Land Cruiser who has Variety propped against the steering wheel while he shaves off that chic weekend stubble. Let the lady in the traffic copter lull you with news about the spilled truckload of frozen fruit that has transformed the freeway between you and your destination into a smoothie. Try to find a single FM station that plays rock from the decade when you cared about it. You're halfway to the office; only 20 more miles.

You think that's rough? Step over the threshold into my home office and find out what trouble really is.

We can talk about the commute first, if you like. Mine takes about a minute and involves walking down 15 stairs, sharp right, another sharp right, and I'm there. The problem is that there is still here, if you know what I mean. I am at work and at home, and the commute between those two worlds is a killer.

Despite the large "No Solicitors" sign posted by the front door, I do wind sprints from the back of the house every day. I toy with the idea of not answering the door during work hours, but what if it's the Federal Express lady with a large check that requires a signature? What if she has my contract? What if it's a messenger from the producer who optioned my last book?

Yesterday it was a wildly respectable-looking young man in an emphatically striped dress shirt and tie, rather elegant braces and a pair of gabardines fresh from the dry cleaners. Just the sort of fellow to deliver a surprise check from the MacArthur Foundation. I opened the door.

"Hi," he said, pressing a business card into my hand. "I was just wondering when you folks are going to sell your house."

For this I got up mid-paragraph.

"Not in your lifetime," I reply, and trudge back to work.

Add the people who think that our lawn/roof/exterior paint need work--and the ones who want to detail my car or help me find a new religion--and you get a good sense of the overlap. And don't forget the phone solicitors, who believe that anyone home during the day has nothing better to do than entertain come-ons for everything from credit cards to storm windows.

In a perfect world, I suppose, I would have a separate business entrance, like those Hancock Park mansions with the discreet little plaque that reads "Service entrance at rear." And, of course, a dedicated set of phone lines. There would be a cleaner separation of church and state.

But this is not a perfect world, despite what the shelter magazines would like you to think. Having run out of ways to make a bathroom upgrade a must-read, they have embraced the home office as the last great decorational frontier. They see it as an Eden of cyberspatial bliss--the sleek modern desk that looks half the length of a football field, the ergonomic chair that's as much fun as a shiatsu massage, the bank of picture windows that face the Pacific. There is always enough room for an overstuffed chaise in the corner. A skylight. A private bath.

I have only one question. If there was such a room in your house, don't you think that by now you would have started living in it? What kind of person would have a room like that lying fallow, just waiting to be claimed as an office?

No one, that's who. My home office is the back bedroom of a vintage 1917 house. I mention the date because that was the era when people took the word "bedroom" literally. It was the place you went to sleep. Not to eat, not to watch big-screen TV, certainly not to work out.

This room is a little, lonely old place, the runt of the real estate litter, the 11-by-11 box nobody in this family wanted.

But here I sit, surrounded by all the stuff I would have in an office, only closer to the laundry room: The computer, the printer, the two-line phone, the digital message machine, the fax, the copier. The only schlep in the crowd is me.

My self-respect demands that I not work in my pajamas. But between them and a suit is a vast sartorial wasteland. Pick your euphemism; it boils down to T-shirts and khakis, turtlenecks and jeans, running shorts and tanks.

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