June 27, 2002
The New Girl

miles to go: 1,262.17

The New Girl wants to know if there are any 'good restaurants' in the neighborhood. "You know what I mean, right?" she says hopefully. "Someplace close I can walk to on my lunch hour?"

JoAnne and I exchange a meaningful glance.

"Usually," JoAnne says, very slowly -- I can tell she's struggling to sound nonchalent here -- "we either bring our lunch in, or else we go out together as a group." She smiles at The New Girl: a bright, practiced smile, full of easy insincerity and false reassurance.

And then she scurries back to her office to finish filling out the latest police report.

What JoAnne isn't telling The New Girl, of course, is this: Basically we try not to wander around this neighborhood unless we're desperate ... or armed. 

She doesn't tell The New Girl about the Dirt Company truck being stolen from the parking lot, over the weekend, nor the fact that this is the second truck-jacking we've endured in as many months. She doesn't mention the most recent laboratory break-in, earlier this month (who the hell steals DIRT SAMPLES?? I ask you?) ... nor does she mention the thief who walked into our office last fall, off the street, and stole JoAnne's purse right off her desk while she was in the next room making copies. She doesn't mention my Close Encounter of the Gangsta Kind. She certainly doesn't mention the nice little maintenance guy being beaten to a bloody pulp in the parking lot last week.

No use terrifying a perfectly good new employee on her first day here ... right?

The New Girl looks at me with wide, unblinking blue eyes. She looks a little like Gwyneth Paltrow: all long blonde hair and gangly elegance. It's clear that she doesn't really *get* this whole quadruple-paranoia-security stuff. She was startled, for instance, when we gave her a bathroom key. "You guys lock your bathroom?," she said, looking genuinely shocked. (Just wait till we give her an ELEVATOR key.) Now, as I carefully explain that she probably shouldn't go downstairs to the mailbox by herself -- or that if she does, she should at least carry a cell phone with her -- she's looking at me with an expression that says Lady, I think you've been watching too many 'Cops' episodes.

But that's OK. I understand. *I* didn't get it right away, either. If The Totem Pole Company had nothing else going for it -- and trust me, it didn't -- it at least had location, location, location. Every day I could escape the lunacy for one blissful hour, in the middle of my workday, and walk around downtown Oakland, shopping for books and birthday presents and wedding dresses. I guess I became spoiled by the ease and the convenience of it all. When I started working here at The Dirt Company last fall, I expected it to be more of the same. This was still Oakland, right? People have still got to eat and shop and power-walk in the Coliseum area, right? It took a disastrous lunch hour trip to Pay 'n Pak (where a young man in orange dreadlocks actually spit on my open-toed sandals), plus a couple more of those scary/annoying Thug Encounters in the parking lot (Hey Mama how you doin) for me to understand why my co-workers travel everywhere in packs.

"Thanks," says The New Girl, when I've finished debriefing her. I don't know whether she'll pay any attention to what we've told her. If she's silly enough to risk her life (or her handbag) crossing the highway for a Coliseum Burger, at least we can't say she wasn't warned.

Later in the day, I'm coming back to my desk after lunch. (Today's ultra-healthy/ultra-boring menu: melon cubes, green grapes, bottled water and half a *FootNotes* entry, enjoyed in the privacy -- and security -- of the empty CAD cubicle.) Suddenly The New Girl comes careening around the corner, like the Richmond-Fremont skidding off the BART tracks. She's got an open bag of Cool Ranch Doritos in one hand, a bag of Double-Stuf Oreos and a couple of Kit-Kats in the other hand, and an enormous chug of chocolate milk tucked under one arm. Her new Dirt Company key ring dangles from her mouth.

"Wow!" she says cheerfully, through a mouthful of security keys. "You guys have got a lotta good stuff in your kitchen! No WONDER you never go anywhere!" And she slinks off down the hallway toward her cubicle, lugging her armload of "lunch."

I think I'm going to be hating The New Girl before too very long.

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