Learning about the Meaning of Life at Kinko's
Jay Michaelson

Kinko’s is one of America’s great levelers. You can be waiting with a set of documents papering a multi-million dollar aquisition, but if the mom from the bake sale is there before you, her menus take precedence. If you’re the voyeuristic type, which I am, you can usually peep over people’s shoulders to get glimpses of worlds you’d otherwise never: catalogs of paper gloss, invitations to golfing parties, resumes of former nonprofit marketing directors. And every one has to be just so.

What’s most delightful about Kinko’s, though, is how it puts everyone’s work in perspective. Never having worked in a copy shop myself, I don’t have firsthand experience with this. But it seems from the times I’ve gone to Kinko’s that process must take priority over substance. Even if the Kinko’s employees cared, they couldn’t possibly be interested in the reams of Documents that pass through their hands for collating every day. Solo lawyers assemble binders for litigation, I assemble teaching tools for high school kids -- it’s all arbitrary, all reduced to paper, zoom factors, brightness, contrast, toner.

Which, from 30000 feet up, seems a more accurate picture of what we humans in New York are doing than the localized, stress-filled agendas that occupy our individual time. From the Kinko’s perspective, we are creatures that shuffle paper. Words are written on the paper, or pictures depicted on it, and for us these signs and images have importance. Indeed, at Kinko’s, the minute details of how the signs and images are presented are what generate revenue. But what does it matter what the words say? The point seems to be only that we are ‘Saying.’

Or ‘saying persuasively,’ which a discerning reader can glean from the way the type is aligned, the image is integrated, etc. Or ‘saying in a funny way’ or ‘showing off’ -- all of these performative acts seem far more important than the content of the words and the context of the utterance.

Of course, the words themselves can often be performative -- angry memos which make the office shake (and that’s why they’re copied at Kinko’s), proposals that cause money to change hands, banners that cause delight. But at Kinko’s, even these complex performative acts seem somehow tribal; when it’s all a matter of toner and paper, they seem reduced to arguments over territory or preening or nesting. When they’re my performative acts or yours, every choice of word, each sentiment expressed or repressed communicates something of ourselves. But when they’re the acts of the person ahead of me in line, the arbitrariness is primary.

Who, then, has it right? The all-knowing Kinko’s employee, who shuffles the paper through with wise disregard, or the intensely emotional customer, who’s so wrapped up in the particulars of her project that everything beyond it has faded to gray?

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