Sunday, January 6, 2008

On Trumpet Solos and Greek Mythology

Anyone who has stopped at my office has likely met the woman who controls the reception area. She also directs quite a bit of business beyond that entrance, but her status as a guardian is key, both to this post and to my work life in general. Simply put: that reception area might as well be a drawbridge, because if you are deemed unfit for entry, the office is basically impregnable and you will soon be dogpaddling around the sharp rocks in the moat. This I like.

What’s interests me most about The Guardian — as I’ll refer to her in this post, for the purposes of not dragging her into the whirlpool of misspelled words and aborted ideas that is my blog — is that she has two distinct personalities. If the one that sends unpleasant, unreasonable people packing is Cerberus — and, yes, I realize that I just blew the whole two personalities motif by comparing her to a three-headed character — then the other is Hestia, the manifestation of all things comforting, warm and familiar. (And yes, I realize I just skipped from a medieval-themed metaphor with the moat-and-drawbridge comparison to a Greek mythology-themed one, but I don’t care. God, you’re picky today.) She’s the one who can exorcise bad feelings about work and co-workers better than most. She’s the one who brought me a plug-in space heater from her home just because I had casually mentioned that my un-heatered house was painfully cold last winter. And she’s the one who happily casts off unwanted visitors when she knows the day’s workload means that I probably don’t have time to chat. (A note: Don’t feel weird about me crediting The Guardian with having dual or possibly even dueling personalities. A Gemini, her birthday being just a few days apart from mine, she totally cops to it and, I’d imagine, would be cool with be noting it myself.)

At times, however, The Guardian blends the two personas to further some goal, and when it happens I can’t help but to watch in astonishment as she makes magic happen with interpersonal skills that I could only hope to one day have. I remembered the best example of this office mediation prestidigitation this past Friday afternoon. Some time back, The Guardian sent out an email to the entire office with what amounted to a request to make both of her jobs easier: retaining her authority in front of visitors while keeping her sanctum holy. For you see, The Guardian’s desk sits about ten feet from a room I identify on tours as “the pretty bathroom.” (It’s seriously the best-looking room in the entire office. Purple walls, lightbulbs lining the mirror, and generally a better smell than other rooms have, even though it’s a bathroom. When I’m showing interns around, I always try to end the tour there.) People like to use the pretty bathroom, but therein lies the problem. The Guardian’s email basically pleaded with those who might do so to acknowledge that its walls were no thicker than those in the rest of the acoustically vibrant office and that no magic spell made the actions performed in that room somehow inaudible to those who sit nearby. She asked not to be put in the position of having to fabricate reasons to the strangers waiting in the reception area for why those rude noises were manifesting, giving the equivalent of a Bronx cheer in their faces, then vanishing before they could be properly reprimanded. (“No! You don’t do that! Bad!”) If I recall that now-deleted email correctly, The Guardian offered an excuse along the lines of there being bad pipes in the bathroom, which, given the circumstances, wasn’t exactly a lie.

As I mentioned before, the reason this six-month-old story is rolling around in my head today stems from the fact that late on Friday afternoon — before Palmer gave me a ride home, saving me from wading through the swiftly-running creeks that were the streets of Santa Barbara — I was walking through the nearly empty office, looking for my coffee cup. (An everyday ritual: placing it down then instantly suffering a type of brain damage that sends me on a Legend of Zelda-style quest to find it half an hour later.) I stood in earshot of a bathroom — not the pretty one, but one of the tenement-style ones in back — and distinctly heard a sour note sound out from behind the closed door. I froze, partially out of the mental energy it took to assure myself that no, that wasn’t me, frenzied in my coffee mug search to the point where my body went on autopilot. When my brain had cleared me of any wrongdoing, I then heard more: a dozen or so staccato blasts, then the noise of a toilet paper dispenser spinning, then finally a rollicking, Dizzy Gillespie-style finish. Given its position at the end of this musical sequence, I’m inclined to think it took the trumpeter by surprise.

I’m not one to judge others for the fact that they are human and, thus, must perform the biological tasks that allow them to remain alive. The occasional sonic output while using the facilities is normal, permissible, even expected. But when someone composes freeform jazz, they’re overstepping a line, likely as a result of a frijoles-inclusive dish from Los Arroyos or a legume-heavy to-go salad from Savoy. It’s one thing to engage in this kind of activity in an empty building or even in a public restroom, where anonymity can lessen the amount of shame incurred. However, when the office is near-empty but totally-not-empty, this kind of performance creates the most problems in that I knew how many people would be using the men’s room and who, given their desk’s proximity to the bathroom, would be the one most likely to use it. Of course, as my coffee cup search continued, I had a hallway bump-into with the trumpeter himself. Picture it: me, trying to hide any expression which might read as “I know what you did” and him, sheepishly waving “hey” as he passed by, knowing full well that he had announced his troubles to anyone not listening to an iPod with the volume turned up. (This group constitutes a good chunk of the people I work with, and the trumpeter is all the better for it.)

Not only did the incident take me back to The Guardian’s email cautioning against this type of activity, but it also made me realize that had I her tact, I would have picked out words that would have simultaneously vanquished the shame but reminded him that other people have ears and would rather not know him on such an intimate level. I lack this skill, even in the context of essays like this, in which I can take however much time I need to scroll through my mental word bank and remove the “shame on you” words. At least I made it through this chunk of text without resorting to using the phrase “taking a dump.”

Oh, damn.

Three other articles about my office smelling bad or workplace bathroom habits:

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