Had an interesting conversation with my co-worker today.  One that made me a little bit sad.

It was just the two of us in today.  Manager is off and other usual co-worker has swapped days so another co-worker won’t be alone on Thursday (another long weekend for me, yay!).  I got in at around 7.30 and got to work.  Flexitime allows staff to come in any time between 7-10 to make up hours so long as someone is there for 8.30 opening, but they have to be in for 10 at the latest.  By 8.30, the office officially opens, but no sign of my co-worker.  Not too much of a problem, she’s been known to have traffic difficulties and not come in till after 9.

By 9.30, still no sign of her, or a phone call to let us know what’s happening.  A little surprised – she has been late in several times, but it’s understood conduct that if you’re going to be very late in, you tell your co-workers to make sure one of them can make it in for 8.30.

9.50, still nothing.  So when 10am rolls around I get up and go to the floor manager to let him know.  I’m actually a little bit worried – no phone call suggests something might actually be wrong, otherwise she would have called to let us know.

As it happens, a few minutes after I get back to my desk she walks in.  Looking a little pale and apologetic, but here.

Turns out she’s not feeling all that well.  Nothing I have a right to go into, but it was bad enough she was debating coming in most of the morning. As it happens, she was here for before 10, but because the car park was full, she had to park in a really awkward space and hadn’t realised how much she’d been delayed.

No harm done – she’s under the weather but determined to stay the shift.  Let her know I’m not leaving early so she can feel free to do so, and go tell the manager she’s in.  When I get back, she seemed genuinely surprised that I’d told the manager.  To which I reply our department manager isn’t in – I had to tell someone.  Especially since it was so unlike her not to call.

That’s was starting point.  She mused out loud that if something did happen to her, she would probably lie unconscious or dead in her bed for weeks before anyone noticed she was missing.  I argued that if she didn’t make it into work, we would do everything we could to get in contact with her, and it’s doubtful she would go unnoticed for that length of time.  She countered (using a previous co-workers history as an example) that certain things people would feel uncomfortable calling about, and might ignore a phone call.  Plus if someone doesn’t answer a doorbell, it’s not like we could break the door down.  She lives alone – both her sons have jobs that have them away for months at a time – so perhaps her comments have merit.

That just seems sad to me.  And yet completely within my understanding of life.  My previous flat share – I didn’t know my roommates schedules, we basically turned living with each other without seeing each other into an art form.  Had something happened to me in the night, they would only discover the body due to the incessant beeping of my alarm clock or the smell.  My current flat’s a little better, but I can still go most of the week without seeing one of the roommates just due to the schedules.

How is it that in a world where you have a dozen ways to contact someone instantly, you can still have a genuinely understandable fear that something could happen to you – death, abduction, whatever… and not have the people around you notice?  Or if they do, not enough to do something about it (the ex co-workers situation was a doozy, we literally went weeks without knowing had happened to her and there was no real way to find out).  In a world of communication, we have a hundred ways to talk to people across the globe, but don’t know the names of our neighbours.  Yet on the other hand, privacy has become a big thing, people are reluctant to pry, unsure of what is and isn’t allowed.

Then of course, there’s the blind ignorance people thrive on.  There are stories of people lying passed out in the streets, falling or collapsing and desperate for help, but are passed by dozens of people who ignore them, assuming they’re drunk or junkies.  I have friends who helped one such gentleman just last week, who was lying passed out in a bus shelter due to a medical condition for almost 2 hours with nobody coming to his aid – not even a woman who was waiting at the bus shelter and sitting not 6 feet from him for nearly half an hour) and I definitely remember the elderly woman who died after falling down steps and ignored for hours on a cold day several years back.  I myself am guilty of this – I have passed many people lying in shop fronts and doorways without a second glance.  To be fair I’ve been burned, in the early days of living in the city alone I’d approach and ask if they needed help, only to be chased away with slurred words and obscenities for disturbing them.  Sometimes walking past just becomes second nature.

Have we all just become accepting of the fact that we’re alone in a crowd?  That with family scattered and friends absorbed in their own lives, that if the unexpected happens we should accept nobody will notice until bills stop being paid and the smell is bothering the neighbours?

It’s just a very depressing thought.