Mr. Faucet says, “Please be gentle.”

This is the phrase on the handmade water-splotched bled-ink piece of paper taped to the wall above the sink in the kitchen at my new job.  What is it about working in an office that turns otherwise normal people into cheesy caricatures of themselves, creating signs that are only appropriate for a four year old?  I only wish the maker of the Mr. Faucet sign at least included a little cartoon picture of a faucet with arms and legs and a smiley face somewhere.

And what about this picture?  I snapped it from inside the bathroom stall with my iPhone.  Should I be worried about the fact that someone feels the need to decorate the insides of the bathroom stalls with calming images?  

When I used to work at the marketing agency, I managed a forty-something Office Manager that would ask me if she could go to the bathroom.  What do you mean, can you go to the bathroom?  Of course you can go to the bathroom.  We’re not in third grade here!  If that alone weren’t enough, the actual words she used were, “I need to go tee-tee.  Is that OK?”  TEE-TEE.  TEE-TEE!  I kid you not.

I once had to referee a difficult discussion between two other employees.  A newbie that had just joined the team asked grass-phobia girl to go out to lunch one day.  Not realizing she was committing herself to become a stalking victim, she agreed to go.  It was an awkward lunch, and grass-phobia girl tried extra hard to avoid one-on-one situations with the newbie from that point forward.  The newbie, however, believed that their single lunch meant they must now be BFF’s.  She stalked grass-phobia girl over instant messenger, tried to corner her for conversations at lunch, hung around after work waiting for everyone else to leave so they could talk.  She did not understand how one day they were BFF’s and the next, she was being blown off.  Eventually, grass-phobia girl confided in me because she just couldn’t take it anymore.  I had to sit them both down and explain to the crazy new girl that not everyone at work becomes best friends, and she needed to respect grass-phobia girl’s wishes to focus on work, not lurid boy and fashion gossip.

I just don’t get it.  Is there something in the air as soon as the corporate door swings shut behind us that taints our ability to act like adults?

The Guatemalan

I used to work with a girl whose family was from Peru.  She’s a good friend, and although none of us still works at the marketing agency, we are all still in close touch.  All includes grass-phobia girl, and some others I have yet to write about. We had a number of hazing rituals when new employees joined the company, one of which was convincing the newbie that the Peruvian was really from Guatemala (or occasionally, another Central or South American country). It drove her nuts, which just provided us with more fuel for the game. Some of us were more convincing liars than others, though. More than once, we ran a marketing campaign that targeted Hispanics, and thus required all copy to be translated to Spanish. We were too cheap to hire a real translator, and though the Peruvian speaks fluent conversational Spanish, she didn’t trust her formal or written Spanish enough to translate for us. So, she enlisted her grandmother. Another example of selling capabilities we didn’t actually have to clients if they only asked is here.

Once I was on a phone call with a software developer working on one such campaign. He was no longer a newbie – he had probably been working with us for at least a year, maybe more. On the call, he expressed his concern that not only were we taking advantage of an employee’s poor grandmother, we were having someone whose native language was Portuguese do our Spanish translations. I laughed, thinking he was just perpetuating the “Peru = Guatemala = Other Hispanic Country” joke. He didn’t laugh back. He thought the Peruvian was really from Brazil. I laughed again, still thinking he was pulling my leg, but no. He was dead serious. I corrected him and said, she really is from Peru and her grandmother really does speak real Spanish. He argued with me, and said, no, she was from Brazil. It took some cajoling, but when I found out who’d told him she was from Brazil, it all fell into place. It was the best liar we had in the company, and he’d absolutely convinced software guy that she was from Brazil. Liar guy had a way of working lies into practically every element of his work, and he always got away with it.  He’s the guy who should’ve been fired long ago, but outlasted all of the rest of us.  Software guy swore he would never talk to liar guy ever again when I finally convinced him Peru was really her country of origin. Miserable as that job was, I sure do miss some of the hijinks.

Cat Power

I have a friend who is crazy for bacon.  I know.  Who’s not?  But my friend’s obsession is extreme (most of them are, like her grass phobia) – so, my partner once took a picture of a package of bacon using my iPhone and associated that image with my friend.  When she calls, I see crispy fried bacon.  All good. She called today, which prompted me to remember another case of iPhone hijacking, but some back story is required.

I’ve written before about the fact that I worked for a marketing agency. The place had trouble with turnover. Someone recently did an official count of how many people were hired and left in the past couple of years. The company averages about 20 employees, but 32 people have come and gone in less than 3 years. Amazing, I know. Anyway, a few years ago, the President of our company hired a person who we were told was a whiz-bang expert at Client Service, which is sort of the holy grail function in a marketing agency, and a role that had gone unfilled for a long time. This guy was awesome, we were told. He had years and years of experience and had started and sold multiple companies, one of which turned into a pretty major player in the digital marketing space. He was going to be our savior, especially since there was a guy that worked in Client Service that all of us in Production secretly wanted to kill. Well, it wasn’t even that much of a secret, actually. This guy made our lives more miserable than a vegetarian eating liver and onions would be.

A few months in, none of us could see the whiz-bang in our new SVP. We didn’t get it. We didn’t get him. He was very Texas, and we were very San Francisco. He liked to talk, but he didn’t understand what we did and he didn’t like to do any actual work.  He was very polite, and the evil and small New Yorker he inherited was meaner than Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. Our “savior” was ineffective, forgetful, and entirely unable to exert any control over The Devil. So, we began to ignore him and go on about our frustrating work. One week a handful of us were in Las Vegas for some client that had a display at a big tech conference. Between courses at a late and luxurious dinner, the big boss checked his email and just stared at his phone – so we all followed suit. Below is the exchange we found in our inboxes, names removed for the sake of privacy:

Email 1
From: Evil New Yorker with Anger Management Issues
To: Entire Staff
Subject: Stuck in Charlotte

Sorry for the mass email, but my quick-in-quick-out has turned into a nightmare. I’m stuck spending the night in Charlotte. My brick is dead and my cell is about to croak. Supposedly flying back to NYC in the morning, so hopefully I’ll be settled by the time you all read this, but if anyone’s looking for me, now you know.

[Guatemalan], we need to cancel the [big alcohol brand] call in the morning.

-The Devil

Nothing big here, nothing to worry about.  Unfortunate for The Devil, but nothing that should cause the endless staring our boss was still engaged in.  BTW, “brick” is the term we used to describe the smart phones our company forced us to use due to their unwieldy size, shape, and weight.

Email 2
From: Whiz-Bang CS SVP (aka Boss of The Devil)
To: Entire Staff
Subject: Re: Stuck in Charlotte

In times like these you need a strong leader (such as myself) and:

  • something warm to drink It should be brown and from the UK; not yello
  • A place to stay the night (remember the guidelines!!)
  • and the knowledge that I will personally help you out of this mess in any way that I can– go to JD’sBBQ and have five shiner bocks, ribs and some potatoes.Take it from me, it’s better than havng a goat’s tongue wake you up in a dirt airport.
  • YOU’LL BE OK. If I can help, lend some support or whatever call me at home ((9X7X2x 3O7–1212 or cell
  • I will however be in a deep ambien trans while my wife is in NYC living the cool life.

But, you an always trust in me –I’m here for you ===^..^=== (cat power !!!)

Are you confused yet?  I have not modified a single bit of the email above other than to change the final few digits of the very weirdly formatted phone number.  I have included it here in all its glory – spaces missing, punctuation missing, letters missing, half words, and the brilliant closing emoticon-ish image of a cat with whiskers.  Eventually, our stares turned to puzzled glances at each other, and finally the big boss broke the silence.  “Hahahahahahahahahaha.  He must be drunk.”  It was not unusual for employees to be drunk – that’s a well known activity that goes with the marketing territory.  Work hard, play hard.  Or, work til you think you’re going to die, then go drown yourself in whiskey.  This was different, though.  Drinking was a group activity, so acceptable drunkenness occurred only when you were with someone else from the company.  And even then, we had standards.  Crazy drunken emails were not part of the package.

The next morning, the entire company was abuzz about the email.  We were obsessed with trying to figure out exactly what Whiz-Bang SVP meant by “cat power!!!”  The Devil had been stuck in Charlotte – was it an obscure reference to the Carolina Panthers?  One brave soul decided to ask.  He said, “When you wrote “cat power!!!”, did you mean “cat power!!!” [said in the style of an innocent high school cheerleader raising a pom-pom high in the air], or did you mean “cat power!!!” [said in the style of the Incredible Hulk]?”  Whiz-Bang SVP replied with something somewhere in the middle, so we were no closer to an answer.  We did print out copies of the email, though, and tape them on the walls around our desks to help raise our spirits on dark days.

A few weeks later, the entire company gathered in San Francisco for some meetings.  We ended one day with an exhausting scavenger hunt through Chinatown and North Beach and our significant others and friends joined us for dinner and drinks.  After we’d had a few, someone convinced my partner to go talk to Whiz-Bang SVP about “cat power.”  He adored my partner, so we all thought she’d have the best luck.  She spoke with him for some time – probably at least 15 minutes, so we were hopeful she’d come back with an answer.  All she learned was that one of the SVP’s hobbies was rescuing cats – a very particular breed of cat I can no longer remember the name of.  She’d had to use every ounce of self-control she possessed to keep a straight face throughout this lengthy discussion of lost cats, and it was all for nothing.  Perhaps he was trying to will the strength of these rescued cats to The Devil, stuck in an airport.  We still had no clear answer, and to this day, no one really knows what “cat power!!!” meant, let alone how the Whiz-Bang SVP knew what it was like to be awoken by a licking goat in a dirt airport.  He “resigned” a couple months later, so we’ll probably never know.  I do, however, still have his phone number saved in my iPhone, and were he to call me, a picture of my own sleeping cat would appear on the screen.

On Employment

Employment has been on my mind quite a bit lately, for a handful of reasons.  First, I’m currently unemployed (though, hopefully, not for much longer) and have been looking for work for the past couple of months.  Second, I picked up Then We Came to the End yesterday, which reminded me of my past job in a marketing agency.  I shared an excerpt of it that made me laugh. Third, I heard from a friend today who just got a new job. Finally, I just finished Before We Get Started, A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life, by Bret Lott. In it, he devotes some time to explaining that characters in stories need jobs, and the best place to find jobs for them is to steal your own work experiences.  That could be particularly interesting for me, as I’ve worked in a toilet seat factory.  That’s a story for another day, though.

As all these thoughts about jobs, work, careers, and employment turned over in my mind, I thought back to high school.  I was very bored in high school, but I was pretty good at it, so occasionally, a teacher took an interest and tried to give me something more challenging to do.  In sixth grade, my teacher let me work ahead in math.  I finished the entire year’s work in a month.  I didn’t have to do math for the rest of the year, so instead, I read when everyone else was stuck doing long division or whatever it is you do in sixth grade math.  As a sophomore, a guidance counselor thought I should take the pre-SAT a year early, just for fun.  I did it and it was not fun.

I expected to go to college, but I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.  No idea.  None.  My school offered a test that was meant to help you determine what job you would be good at doing.  It was a sort of affinity test.  You answered a ton of questions, and it spit out the ideal job for you at the end.  Mine was … believe it … garbage collector.  I’m not kidding.  That’s totally for real.  I wish I had a picture of what my face looked like when my counselor shared that potential career path with me.  Needless to day, I stopped going to her for help, but I still had to figure out what I was going to study.  I liked math, science was OK, and I loved flying in airplanes, although I’d only done it once.  So, the logical conclusion was that I should be an aerospace engineer.  I’m not sure who came up with that, but that became the plan.  I applied to Purdue, got in, was all set to go, but it wasn’t meant to be.  That is also a story for another day.

Suffice it to say, I ended up not going to college, working in factories and restaurants for a few years, and eventually found my way to San Francisco, where opportunities abounded.  I still had no idea what I wanted to do, and almost just stuck with restaurant work.  I thought it would be interesting to work in an office, though, so I signed up at a few temp agencies, and landed a filing job that led to another job working on a big software project.  I’ve worked in technology ever since.  It was purely by accident, and sometimes I’m not sure I really want to work in technology anymore, but it is what it is.

Thinking back to high school again, I remember that we actually did have a computer programming class.  It was early in the PC revolution, but we had a few computers in a lab that used floppy discs – the original floppy discs that were big and actually floppy.  It was still early enough that the poor teacher that had to instruct us had no clue about programming, though.  He sat at a terminal just like we did, cranking out the same assignments so he could try to get a half a step ahead of us.  We were generally instructed to write BASIC programs that spit out various characters in lines on the screen so that they made pictures.  A smiley face, a very square looking dog or cat.  Some of us spelled our names so that each larger than life letter was made up of a bunch of small versions of itself.  Maybe we wrote a program that added up every number from 1 to 100.  Nothing more useful than that, though, and never did it occur to anyone that there might be careers in this newfangled technology.  I wonder if they’ve gotten any better at helping kids figure out what they want to be when they grow up.

Then We Came to the End

I’ve been kicking around the idea of using a day a week in my posts to share something I’ve loved from the many random books I’ve read.  Mondays seem like a good day for this, since Mondays tend to suck the life out of most of us and it’s easier than writing something new and fresh, which might be better suited to Tuesdays… or Thursdays.

I read Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris a few years ago.  It is a story about many things, but it is primarily about of a bunch of sad Chicago ad agency mucks who are within an inch of being laid off every day because of a bad economy.  At the time I read this book, I worked for a San Francisco marketing agency, which made it just a little funnier to me.  We, too, were constantly waiting for the axe.  Working in marketing is like pimping yourself out to whoever will bid the most – or actually, whoever will bid at all, whether you actually offer what they want, or not.  You want Asian?  OK, we can absolutely give you an Asian and she will be the best Asian you’ve ever seen!  Meanwhile, the boss wraps Maria Sanchez in a kimono.

From Then We Came to the End:

  Jim was so desperate one day to come up with inspiration for an ad, he exhausted his traditional list of people, broke down, and called his uncle Max.  “You know how when you buy a new car,” he began – and immediately Max interrupted him.

  “I haven’t bought a new car in thirty-five years,” said Max.

  Jim suspected then that this was probably not a man with his finger on the pulse of the buying public.  Patiently he tried explaining his assignment.  When people buy a new car, he said, they usually have an image of themselves that corresponds to the car they buy.  Jim wanted to know from Max how Max would want to perceive himself when purchasing a new ink cartridge.

  “Ink cartridge?”

  “Yeah,” said Jim. “You know, for your printer.”

  “Uh-huh,” said Max.

  We had a client at the time whose marketing objective was to make their customers feel like heroes when purchasing one of their ink cartridges.  Our charge in every communication was to inspire the potential buyer with the heroic possibilities of man-using-ink-cartridge.

  “I want to see myself as Shakespeare,” Max said.  “What’s this for, anyway?”

  Shakespeare, thought Jim.  Shakespeare.  That’s not bad.

  “It’s for a client of ours,” he said. “They make printers and ink cartridges and that sort of thing.  I’m trying to come up with an ad that makes you want to buy our specific ink cartridge after you see our ad because it inspires you and makes you feel like a hero.  Will you tell me more about wanting to feel like Shakespeare?”

  “So you’re trying to sell ink cartridges?”

  “That’s right.”

  Another long pause.  “Do you have a pen?” his uncle asked.  He began to quote: ” ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…’ “

  Finally Jim reached out for a pen.  He tried to keep up with him.  At a certain point, Max stopped quoting and told Jim the lines should start to fade out, gradually at first, eventually disappearing altogether.  Then he suggested the headlind. “A Great Writer Needs a Great Ink Cartridge.”  The small print could explain how, if ink cartridges had been used throughout time, the history of literature might have been at stake using a cheap ink cartridge.

  Not only was Jim startled that his uncle could quote what he thought was Shakespeare seemingly off the top of his head; he was floored by the speed and ingenuity of his advertising abilities.  Who was a greater hero than Shakespeare?  And the person encountering the ad that his uncle had just pulled out of his ass could immediately put himself in Shakespeare’s shoes.  Max had just made a million Americans feel exactly like Shakespeare.  He told Max he’d missed his calling.  “You should have been a creative,” he said.

  “A creative?” said Max.

  Jim explained that in the advertising industry, art directors and copywriters alike were called creatives.

  “That’s the stupidest use of an English word I ever encountered,” said Max.

  Jim also told him that the advertising product, whether it was a TV commercial, a print ad, a billboard, or a radio spot, was called the creative.  Before he hung up Jim asked Max for two more examples of great pieces of literature, suspecting that an entire campaign could be generated from Max’s concept.

  Sometime later that afternoon, Max Jackers surprised Jim by calling him back.  “You folks overthere,” said Max, “you say you call yourselves creatives, is that what you’re telling me? And the work you do, you call that the creative, is that what you said?”  Jim said that was correct.  “And I suppose you think of yourselves as pretty creative over there, I bet.”

  “I suppose so,” said Jim, wondering what Max was driving at.

  “And the work you do, you probably think that’s pretty creative work.”

  “What are you asking me, Uncle Max?”

  “Well, if that’s all true,” said the old man, “that would make you creative creatives creating creative creative.”  There was silence as Max allowed Jim to take this in.  “And that right there,” he concluded, “is why I didn’t miss my calling.  That’s a use of the English language just too absurd to even contemplate.”

  With that, Max hung up.