September 12, 2000


Ten years ago, Franz briefly toyed with the idea of redecorating the Totem Pole lobby.

This was long before *my* time, of course, but the story is still recounted in whispers around the water cooler. Apparently he hired a pricey East Bay decorator to come in and look around the office and make suggestions. He had some preliminary designs drawn up. He contracted painters and architects. He ordered new furniture. He arranged to have the old furniture hauled away.

And then -- as usually happens with his more grandiose brain-farts, once he's gotten everybody within a 24,000 mile radius of him all stirred up -- he promptly forgot all about it.

(Cheap, temporary furniture was hastily purchased, just to give people a place to sit until the new stuff arrived. That was in 1992. The "temporary" furniture is still sitting in the lobby.)

Fast-forward ten years (and five Executive Assistants) to the present, and something apparently jogs his memory. All of a sudden he decides to reactivate the redecorating project.  Do we still have the files?, he asks me. And the decorator's original drawings?

And the fabric swatches?

Uhhh ... no.

My policy, when I first came on board and started mucking through the archaeic "file system" bequeathed to me by my predecessors, was If it isn't in use, it isn't going to live in *my* filing cabinets. I've got a infinitesimal amount of room here in the Isolation Booth, after all. Files older than a couple of years were moved to the store room down the hall. Files older than five years were moved to basement storage. Files older than that were archived "offsite."

(Files written with PORCUPINE QUILLS were shredded on the spot.)

Of course I kept detailed lists of every file that moved from my office to more *convenient* storage elsewhere, but there was nothing, on any of my lists, even remotely related to redecorating, or to East Bay decorators, or to the lobby in general. I couldn't even find mention of receipts for the new furniture.

"Then call Lizzie," he said. "Lizzie will know where the files are."

Lizzie was Franz' assistant for a significant number of years, in the early to mid-90's. Some of the old-timers around here remember her: for the rest of us, though, she exists solely as a legend. The epitome of efficiency and skill. The world's most perfect Right Hand Gal. The Sistine Chapel of Executive Asses, as it were.

"Give Lizzie a call," Franz said. "I'm sure you have her number in your Rolodex."

I did manage to find her number eventually. But frankly, it took some digging. Lizzie hasn't worked for the Totem Pole Company in three years: apparently she's worked at a couple of different places since then. Although other people in the office (including my immediate predecessor) used to call Lizzie on a near-daily basis, I have always managed to resist the impulse. But I was finally able to track her down, using a combination of skill, luck, research, good old fashioned admin resourcefulness ...

... and a web browser. (Her name is listed on her current employer's website.)

She was NOT thrilled to hear from me.

You could hear it in her voice. Once I identified myself and explained the purpose of my call, it was clear that she would have preferred a phone call from her physician, advising her that the lesion has become infected ... an invitation from the IRS to come in and *chat* ... a telemarketer, trying to sell her carpet cleaning ... anybody, basically, besides Franz or one of his emissaries.

"Y'know," she said -- and it was obvious that she was struggling to be civil -- "I haven't worked for Franz in three years. I barely remember what he LOOKS like, let alone where any of his stuff is filed." And after giving me a couple of vague, essentially useless suggestions (and a half-hearted "good luck"), she all but slammed the phone down in my ear.

I just sat there for a minute, stunned ... slightly pissed ... wondering what I should do next ...

... when I suddenly felt a weird, precognitive chill, like an icy tentacle tickling my spine.

I wonder: is it possible to have déjà vu BEFORE something happens?

Given a choice between a clean break-up -- swift, cauterizing, irrefutable, permanent -- and a prolonged, messy breakup that drags on and on forever ...

... I have historically gone with the prolonged, messy breakup that drags on and on forever. At least in my romantic relationships. Is there anything more wrenching -- and more satisfying -- than wallowing in music, memories and Mocha Double-Almond Fudge, for days and weeks on end?

Jobs, though, are another story.

I was fired from my very first job on my very first day of work. (I was hired as a telemarketer for a carpet cleaning company, the summer after high school. We were required to sit in one of those horrible little boiler rooms, for eight hours, and call people out of the phone book. When I failed to make a single sale my first day, I was fired. It was devastating.) I don't know if that's some kind of world's record for short-term employment, but it certainly set a precedent for quick, clean career breaks.

Over the course of the next twenty-two years I held eleven different jobs. (I'm not counting motherhood, homemaking or running the in-home daycare. Those weren't jobs: they were life choices.) Most of my jobs were clerical, front-desk type of stuff, for a variety of different industries ... everything from the infamous tuna label company to the doomed newspaper, from the telephone company to the knife factory.

Of those eleven different jobs, I was fired from four of them.

I quit another four of them under less-than-professional circumstances. Once I quit my job in a real estate office because my boss -- a disgusting old hag with a chronic Marlboro habit and twitchy fingers -- wanted me to rub her feet. Another time, I went out to lunch ... and moved to Oregon.

I walked out on one job -- at an auto shop -- two hours into my first day because I'd discovered I couldn't stand the smell of car exhaust.

(On the other hand, I gave proper thirty-days' notice, helped train my replacement and left in a blaze of amicable, glowingly-referenced glory from my last job, at the knife factory, just before I moved here to California. That was David's influence.)

The point is, though, that of those eleven jobs/eleven former employers, I heard from exactly NONE of them, once I'd left their employ. The break was swift, irrefutable ... and permanent.

That's not to say that I didn't have contact with them. There was the usual year-end tax stuff in the mail. There were the occasional requests for professional references. I'd actually gone to high school with my boss from the telephone company -- we had friends in common -- so running into him around town was unavoidable for a while, after he fired me. I still exchange occasional e-mail with my former boss and co-workers from Benchmade.

But there were no frantic phone calls in the middle of the afternoon, asking me where I filed the fabric swatches from an aborted redecorating proposal, ten years earlier.

No sternly-worded letters on company letterhead, advising me that unless I returned the extra key to the library within 48 hours, legal action would be considered.

No invitations to company picnics for companies I no longer WORK FOR, forcryingoutloud.

And no ice-cold tentacles, reaching across miles of phone lines and across town and through the receiver, wrapping themselves around my neck, tightening their grip, trying to pull me back ... back ... back ...

I have seen enough former Totem Pole employees called back into  the office, on one pretext or another over the past year or so, to know one thing:

Nobody ever really leaves the Totem Pole Company.

They think they're getting out of here alive, with their professional references and their "Best of Luck!" Hallmark, signed by everybody in the office (if leaving was *their* idea), or with their severance check and their potted plant (if it wasn't).

But they'll be back.

Maybe Franz will call them one evening, late, when a critical proposal is undergoing last-minute emergency surgery and all of the local notary publics are closed. "Would you mind coming in and notarizing a couple of things for me?" he'll ask them sweetly.

Or maybe he'll dangle a plum assignment in front of a retired engineer ... something he never would have been offered when he was actually employed here at the Totem Pole Company. "I'll make you a Project Manager," Franz will say enticingly.

Or maybe he'll just call you at your new job and ask you where you've filed the fabric swatches.

Every day for the next ten fudking years.

two years ago: command central/saturday night
one year ago: cliffhangers

throw a rock