The nature of my avocations has brought me into more than ordinary contact with a singular set of people – I speak of county clerks. One such registrar was a certain Bartleby.
It is, of course, an indispensable part of a clerk’s business to issue licenses to citizens who, for whatever reason, wish to marry. One day we had several such petitioners; this was following the notorious court case expanding marriage privileges to adult twosomes of every gender permutation, and business was brisk. I called to Bartleby, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do – namely, issue a marriage license to this couple, incidentally similarly-sexed. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when, without stirring from his privacy, Bartleby, in a mild, firm, yet aggravating voice, declared, “I would prefer not to.”
I lingered awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Nothing surprising had happened in the county clerk’s office in a hundred and thirty years, if records were to be trusted, and records are kind of what we do. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could muster. But in quite as clear a one came the reply, “I would prefer not to.”
I rose in high dudgeon and fairly leapt across the room (we are not a large county and it is not a capacious room). “Prefer not to,” said I. “What, um, what do you mean?”
He looked at me and shrugged. “’S kind of a God thing,” he said.
I let it go on that occasion, as the day’s end approached and also I’m not big on confrontation. But imagine my dismay, nay, my discombobulation, a few days hence when a situation somewhat similar to the previous situation arose. Indeed it was a situation very like the previous situation. Okay, it was the exact same situation, repeated. This is a county clerk’s office and there are only so many things that we do; variety is not in our wheelhouse. “Bartleby!” I shouted. “We are waiting.”
“God would prefer me not to,” he said, and gently disappeared, sinking stubbornly behind the barrier of his cubicle wall.
His voice hissed forth from behind the upholstered shield secured one day many years ago from Bemco Office Solutions by a long-forgotten office manager who had no idea the irritating ends to which it would one day be put: “Uhhhh, read the Bible. ‘S in there.”
“You are decided, then, not to comply with my request – a request made according to common usage and common sense and a common understanding of what it means to, y’know, do one’s job?”
“The Bible would prefer me not to,” came the reply from within the pebbly fabric of the modular enclosure.
I pressed on. “So I am to do your job instead?”
“Uhhh, sure, if you wanna go to hell and stuff.”
I consulted with my fellows in the office, who all agreed that Bartleby’s responses were inappropriate and hostile to the operations of a civil society and could we revisit the idea of casual Friday.
“Bartleby,” said I, turning towards the gray fabric screen, “come forth and do your duty.”
But he vouchsafed no reply. I suspected he had maybe fallen asleep. But a guileful glance over the top of his quadrangle revealed that he was merely playing Hoot Hoot Owl on his phone.
I felt strangely goaded to confront him. “Can you show me where in your Bible it instructs you not to do the job you have previously committed here to do?”
“I would prefer not to show you that.”
“You acknowledge, however, that your professional role here is not to sanctify or bless or even to express personal approval of the behavior of any of the citizens to whom you issue licenses, but merely to issue the licenses? You acknowledge this, yes?”
“I would prefer not to.”
“You’ll confirm that you know you’re not a priest, or a Pope?”
“I would prefer not to.”
“And you’re not actually participating in anyone’s wedding by issuing these licenses? You admit that nobody leaves this office thinking ‘That was so nice of Bartleby to be in our wedding like that; we should get him a small gift of some kind?’”
“I would prefer not to.”
“I’d like a small gift,” piped up one of my fellows.
“Shut up, fellow,” I said, maintaining my focus on Bartleby. “Will you at last acknowledge that there are others in your business, also self-described Christians, who consider the task of doing their jobs to be not at all in conflict with their professed beliefs?”
“They should prefer not to,” Bartleby intoned.
“So they are wrong?”
“Their preferences are wrong,” Bartleby said. “They should reset their preferences.”
“And how do I know that God would prefer you not to do your job?” I asked.
“Because I said so?”
“Could I ask God myself?”
“Oh, absolutely,” Bartleby said. “You can ask Him. He likes that kind of thing, in fact.”
“But can I expect an intelligible response of any kind?”
“I thought not.”
“That’s not really His thing,” Bartleby said. “I mean, He could respond, of course; He can do anything. But –“
“Let me guess,” I said. “He prefers not to.”
“You’re catching on,” Bartleby said with a big grin. “But you should definitely ask Him, couldn’t hurt. Maybe He’ll burn a bush for you or something, you might get lucky.”
“But if I may sum up,” I said, “I’m expected to accept without argument your assertion that God would prefer you not to do your job, and to conclude that the appropriate response to these circumstances is not for you to resign from your job but rather for you to remain employed here, not doing the job in question.”
Devoid of agitation and impertinence, Bartleby finally smiled – a smile of such placid serenity that I just wanted to sock him in the face.
In the weeks following, coincidentally, the rest of the fellows in the county clerk’s office all found religion, fostering rapid and fervent beliefs in heretofore undiscovered faiths with very specific strictures against coming in on time and answering phone calls and filing papers and working Friday afternoons and wearing non-drawstringed pants. The ensuing months have been trying ones for me, as I am indifferent to matters spiritual and thus my workload seems ever to expand – however I do take comfort in the assumption that there must be some intangible benefit to working in what must surely be the most devout cubicle cluster in all of county governance.
Ah Bartleby! Ah bullshit!