Bartleby, the Vax Resister*
I’m a small employer with a modest law practice, one of those unambitious lawyers who does a snug business among rich men’s bonds and mortgages and title-deeds.
I care little what the Supreme Court says about large employer testing or vaccinations for the Covid. But for business and caring reasons, I want to protect my team from getting sick, dying, or spreading the disease to loved ones and everyone. So I asked everyone to please mask, vax and test.
Everyone agreed. Except for a certain paralegal named Bart S________.
Bart showed up one day neither wearing a mask nor showing negative test results or proof of vaccination.
“What’s up?” I gently inquired. “Why not?”
Bart answered in a singularly mild, firm voice, “I would prefer not to.”
“Prefer not to?” echoed I, “What do you mean? We all need to follow the CDC recommendations, or go home.”
“I would prefer not to,” said he.
This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? And why is my brain talking like a Herman Melville character?
A few days after, everyone in the office tested positive for Omicron.
Some have frail elders in their dotage over 40. So I sent everyone home to isolate and/or quarantine, the difference being indiscernible and likely negligible.
Bart refused to leave.
I asked him to put on a mask and see me six feet outside my office. Soon he appeared.
“What is wanted?” said he mildly, also strangely talking like a Melville character.
“I need you to go home and before you come back, please get tested and vaccinated,” I advised in a tone respectful of his special personal agency since he was a Millennial or Gen Z, dunno, I’m not ageist. “Or else you can’t come back to the office.”
“I would prefer not to,” he said, and went back to his cube saying he was slammed with back-to-back Webex calls.
For a few moments I was turned into pillar of salt. Recovering myself, I sensitively inquired in a neutral way I learned in management coaching and couples therapy, “Tell me more about why you refuse?”
“I would prefer not to,” Bart resisted.
I could have flown outright into a passion, scorned all further words, and thrust Bart ignominiously from my presence.
But respecting modern sensibilities, I worried about creating a toxic, microaggressive, triggering workplace environment.
Bart could also ruinously sue me for traumatizing honesty. (He was studying for the bar online at Berkeley Law School.)
“C’mon, man,” I encouraged soothingly like in ASMR Rieke sleep videos with just a soupçon of hothead Joe Biden. “Masking and vaxxing is for your own good and for everyone else. Is it not so? Will you not speak? Could you please answer?”
“I prefer not to,” he replied in a flute-like tone, as if flaunting his flouting.
“You are decided, then,” I then replied decidedly. “You won’t comply with office policy — a policy made according to common usage and common sense?”
He briefly gave me to understand that on that point my judgment was sound. Yes: His decision was irreversible.
It is not seldom the case that when a man is browbeaten in some unprecedented and violently unreasonable way, he begins to stagger in his own plainest faith.
He begins, as it were, vaguely to surmise that, wonderful as it may be, all the justice and all the reason is on the other side. Accordingly, if any disinterested persons are present, he turns to them for some reinforcement for his own faltering mind.
So I DM’d the other team members. “What do you think of Bart’s resistance? Am I not correct?”
The replies varied from “yay” to “I don’t love the double negative,” “tbh smh idk nbd???”, a random string of emojis, and, “maybe stop victimizing him?”
“Your colleagues have mixed feelings about your refusal to mask and vax,” I relayed to Bart.
“Please mask and vax, or I’ll need to get with our HR consultant to discuss a performance plan and next steps. Nobody should have to deal with HR.”
Nothing so aggravates an earnest person as a passive resistance. If the individual, so resisted be of a not inhumane temper, and the resisting one perfectly harmless in his passivity; then, in the better moods of the former, he will endeavor charitably to construe to his imagination what proves impossible to be solved by his judgment.
I regarded Bart and his ways as such. Poor fellow! thought I, he means no mischief; it is plain he intends no insolence; his aspect sufficiently evinces that his eccentricities are involuntary.
But my evil impulse mastered me, and the following little scene ensued:
“Bart,” said I, “You need to get your things and leave the office.”
“I would prefer not to.”
“How so? Surely you do not mean to persist in that mulish vagary?”
“You won’t leave?”
“I would prefer not to.”
“You will not?”
“I prefer not.”
I staggered back to my office, and sat there in a deep study. My blind inveteracy returned. Was there any other thing in which I could procure myself to be ignominious repulsed by this overly entitled Millennial/Gen Z? What added thing is there, perfectly reasonable, that he will be sure to refuse to do?
Long story shorter, Bart left.
No not, dear charitable reader, because the Covid and karma claimed him and his lifeless form departed on a stretcher.
Bart joined the Great Resignation and leveraged his 20 million TikTok (@bartscrivener) followers to gross 1,000 times his paralegal comp as a cultural influencer, life coach, and Voice of a New Generation as anointed by The New York Times in seeking younger readers.
Bart’s “If You Prefer Not To, Don’t” TED Talk, e-book, podcasts, and self-help seminars are viral smash hits in the coveted youth demographic. His Instagrams destroy the internet every day (if you wonder why your Verizon Fios sometimes goes out).
You might have seen Bart making the rounds offering healthy work-life tips on Ellen, Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil, etc. Or on Rachael Ray whipping up his famous ginger-nut cookies. When he says to Rachael, “Wanna try one?” she kills the audience by quipping, “I prefer yes to!”
By the way, turns out Bart was vaccinated and boosted all along. He was just messing with me.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.
*Infinite apologies to Melville for my shameless plagiarizing.