Monday, June 4, 2012


In the kitchen at work, on the counter, there was a white paper plate. On the plate were a dozen or so packets of red pepper flakes, left over from some lunchtime orgy of probably-disappointing pizza. The plate was there long enough to become part of the scenery.

One day, I noticed that someone had arranged all of the packets in a 360-degree fan pattern around the edge of the plate, with each packet scalloped precisely on top of its clockwise neighbor and under its counterclockwise neighbor, and two packets proudly on display in the center of the circle.

I rotated one packet about 20 degrees.

The next day, it was back in alignment.

Someone was compelled to keep these packets ordered. I quietly campaigned to drive this unknown person mad. I'd wait a few days and then rotate one packet upside down, or flip one over, and it'd be back in formation by the next day. Things were underway.

I started to wonder about my opponent. Was it someone I knew? Did they have some real issues with compulsive behavior? How did they feel about someone so blatantly messing with them? Did they guess that it was me?

Over the space of two days I removed a packet, leaving a gap, waited for the gap to close, and then placed the missing packet next to the whole arrangement; it was swiftly reincorporated. 

Maybe it was someone with a good reason to spend a lot of time alone in the kitchen. Nighttime cleaning staff? But, no, sometimes packets would be replaced during the day. The kitchen doesn't serve that many people; it was probably someone I knew, or at least passed in the hall pretty often. I wondered who secretly harbored an inability to let this structure be out of order.

For my part, I couldn't not mess with the arrangement. At one point, I printed some text to look like the front of one of the packets, drew the packet decorations on it ("Brand for Quality!"), cut out my decoy, and inserted it into the fan shape along with a few other minor adjustments to the pattern. The fake packet was gone within an hour, and order was restored.

Scalloping disrupted, one packet flipped, and an impostor

One day, the packets just disappeared and the game was over. I wondered if my OCD-beleaguered coworker had finally had enough or if someone else intervened on their behalf. I could see them walking into the kitchen and being hugely relieved that they would no longer have to lurk there, making awkward small talk with whoever was in there washing dishes, until no one else was around and they could furtively adjust the arrangement of packets that was so viscerally unacceptable to them. I could imagine how that would feel; I could imagine it pretty precisely, in fact.

Maybe someday there'll be another pizza party and the whole thing will start again. I kind of hope so. I've got these 14 fake packets of red pepper flakes neatly stacked in my drawer, all identically and carefully trimmed to shape, just waiting to mess with someone who has a little trouble controlling compulsive behaviors.