Michael L. Gray - writing and photography
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Why do Vietnamese grow so much dope?
Stories from Hanoi
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Songs of a strolling blind musician
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Cloud over Sapa
Stories from Amsterdam
Trained monkeys
The alchemists in the basement
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VNGOs and civil society
Highland development NGOs: a case study

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From The money tower blues: stories about working at a bank.
Trained monkeys
-by Michael L. Gray

I used to joke with my colleague that we were the trained monkeys of the department. People come to us when new guidelines or instructions are developed for staff; if we can figure it out, then I guess everyone else can. Maybe we're the lowest common denominators on our floor.

In any case, I don't make the monkey joke anymore. Not after seeing what happens to the real monkeys who make our coffee.

"You know how it is,
they just give up after a while"

Soon after I started at the bank someone walked past my desk, bitterness evident on their face, holding a cup of coffee and muttering in disgust, "Bloody monkey screwed this one up."

I thought that was an odd turn of phrase, although I knew the coffee was very bad. It's just instant from a machine, though, so you wouldn't expect it to be good, would you?

I did notice that it was not uniformly awful, however. Some days it was almost palatable, other days less so. Then early one morning I made my selection on the machine – 'coffee, strong, with milk' – and I was greeted by what can only be described as hot, bitter piss-brew.

When others arrived at the office, I told them the machine was broken.

"Oh, that one probably needs changing," my colleague said in a somewhat distracted, nonchalant way. "It's about time anyway."

Someone called Building Services, and then everyone went back to their work. I waited quietly, to see what would happen. When a man with a large cart rolled down the corridor toward the coffee station, I followed him. I just had a feeling that watching him fix the machine would be interesting.

"Hullo," he nodded, when he saw me standing there.

I didn't feel out of place. This was after all my coffee station.

"Machine broken?" I inquired, making it look like I was waiting for a drink.

"Ach, you know how it is, they just give up after a while."

He whistled suddenly,
and tapped his finger on the panel

He shrugged like it was no big deal and then released a latch at the top of the coffee machine. The heavy front panel swung open.

The first thing I could see was the multiple stacks of plastic cups. The repairman refilled the empty rows and then leaned forward and peered into a dark space behind the second, inner panel.

Then he did something strange. He whistled suddenly, and tapped his finger on the panel.

Nothing.

He whistled again, and tapped a little harder.

And there it was: a very faint, intermittent hissing sound. I leaned forward as well, because the sound was somehow familiar to me. What was it exactly? I couldn't place it. But when the hissing became a little louder, a little sharper, it struck me that the noise, whatever its source, sounded like fear.

Fear.

The repairman had put gloves on now. He reached out quickly and opened the second panel with a snap. What I saw then was almost too much to believe.

"They think it's the caffeine"

Inside the back panel, in a small cage, was a monkey. It had panic on its face and it pressed itself as far as it could against the back wall of the enclosure, its arms outstretched and trembling.

I could not believe there was a monkey in the coffee machine.

"They think it's the caffeine that does it to them," the repairman said. "They just have sugar, coffee powder, milk powder, so… you know," and here he shrugged his shoulders, as the result was obvious.

"Some last for a while, but they all need changing in the end."

The repairman had no hesitation or concern in his manner when he opened the cage and grabbed the monkey by the scruff of its neck. The animal seemed to just give up, and it barely struggled as the man removed it from the machine.

"Do they go back to the company or something?" I asked.

The man paused for just a moment, and looked at me with some concern.

"No, once the caffeine gets to them, they're gone," he explained.

He seemed puzzled by my ignorance, but it didn't stop him from carrying out his work. The monkey was clinging to the man's arm with growing desperation, like it was trying to save itself. With one quick, sudden motion, the repairman snapped the animal's neck, the head twisting right around like a rag doll. For a split second the little black eyes were pointed straight at me. The body went limp immediately.

He threw the carcass in his big cart, and reached down to a curtain that shielded the tray at the bottom. He took out a new cage, with another, completely calm little monkey, cleaning itself without a care in the world. He opened the cage and the monkey obediently crawled into the coffee machine.

It looked very much at home, and even began to fiddle around with some of the many knobs and dials that stuck through the wires.

"You have to know
when to pick your battles"

The repairman replaced the containers of coffee, tea and milk powder, and then closed the front panel. To test the machine, he punched the selection code for 'coffee, with sugar, with milk.'

The machine leapt into action with no hesitation. A cup swung into place and hot dark liquid poured in with a familiar woosh sound. The repairman took the cup, blew on the hot liquid a few times, then took a sip. He nodded in approval, then grabbed the cart and pushed it back toward the service elevator.

I stood there for a while, then went back to my desk. I didn't drink any coffee that day, or the following day.

I thought a lot about my new workplace. Questions I hadn't pondered before, like if trained monkeys make our coffee, what controls the window blinds that go up and down automatically? And what the hell is running the computers?

I remembered something the boss told me shortly after I was hired. During our first meeting, when we were just getting to know each other, he said something unexpected:

"You know, working at this bank, you have to know when to pick your battles."

"In a company this big, you'll always come across things you don't like. But everyone is careful about their own work, or territory if you will. So if you run into any problems… just pick your battles carefully."

This seemed a melodramatic statement at the time. I really didn't know what to make of it. But the monkeys in the coffee machine were my first test, in that sense. I decided not to kick up a fuss, because no one else seemed concerned.

After considering the problem for a long while, here's what I did: I pack my own lunches, and I always have some fruit or vegetables. Just before leaving to go home, I stop at the coffee station and slide an apple slice or a carrot stick as far around the back of the machine as I can. I have relatively small hands, and I can just reach a little ledge near the inner panel.

And come morning time, low and behold, the little snack is always gone.

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