Let Them Drink Coffee

My dad has a theory that free coffee at work – good free coffee – is a sign that the end is nigh for your employer. Based on this theory, the government will outlast us all. At my public sector job, there is no coffee. We do have a kitchen with a sink, which is a pretty sweet deal. At least, it feels that way on the days when we have paper towels. Compared to my friends whose employers set out fresh fruit, stock pantries, or offer Tea Time Tuesdays, I’ve felt like an underprivileged government employee. Little did I know how good I had it.

My agency stopped stocking plastic cutlery.

I embraced the change as a call to environmental arms. I brought in my own utensils, and felt, daily, that I was saving landfill space – and thereby the world. In felt righteous every time I washed my cutlery in the rust-spotted kitchen sink, then shook them in the air to dry because there were no paper towels. Then, one dark and gloomy day, my cutlery broke. Of course, it was the day I brought in soup for lunch. With no alternative, I took to the streets to look for plastic cutlery to get me through one meal.

The reasonable thing may have been to purchase a set of plastic cutlery. A few blocks from my office there are some great discount stores, stocked with party goods. But I already own two packages of plastic spoons, they were just both located in my apartment. But I was unwilling to commit to contributing even more to landfills. So, I went looking for a free spoon. Well, not free. I wasn’t willing to stoop to stealing a spoon, but I was willing to take one in exchange for my continued customer loyalty. My first stop was the Dunkin Donuts next door where I pick up a treat from time to time. But Dunkin Donuts is wise to my kind, and they don’t have spoons. Or, if they do, I couldn’t find them and the cashiers looked harassed enough without hunting down spoons for me.

So I walked the streets looking for a shop with a stack of spoons in the window. It took me 20 minutes, a woman who tried to get me to spend $2.75 on a yogurt, one cup of coffee, and $1.46, but I walked back into the office with several plastic spoons – plus a stack of napkins – for my troubles.

Keep Ya Head Up: Choices

My first performance evaluation came as a surprise. I’d been gainfully employed for years before I had one, so I didn’t know what to expect. It turned out to be the most positive version of a conversation I’ve had many times since.

“You come off as somewhat…” my boss paused before completing his thought. The rest of my performance review had exceeded my expectations, but he had said that there were some additional notes he wanted to share as well. “…somewhat aggressive.”

I blinked. He gave examples. I nodded.

“Ok,” I said, digesting this news. “How do we solve it?”

“I don’t think it’s a problem,” he said. “Sometimes it’s good. I know that I can give you an assignment and trust that you’ll get it done. You won’t drop it just because other people aren’t interested in working on it.”

I waited.

“But I want to make sure you’re aware. It can be helpful, but it isn’t always necessary. So you should decide when to be, and when not to be, quite so forceful.”

…That’s how we make an appeal to what is right and decent, and without anger. I did it for the framers of the Constitution, who intended that we would treat each other in a civil way. We call each other gentlemen to avoid being cantankerous. And no one person, Democrat or Republican, should ever call law enforcement on a colleague.

– Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Hall of Congress

Candy Jar: Running on Empty

The candy jar at work remains a mystery. It is filled up sporadically with varied options. The rhyme and reason for who fills it with what is a mystery. Mars bars? Someone loves me. Strawberry-cordial filled dark chocolates?  Who did John* screw over this time? Unfortunately, much of the time there’s nothing to wonder at; the jar sits empty, its cheery orange lid covered in a layer of dust.

On a recent day a coworker walked purposefully toward the candy jar, and stopped abruptly in front of it. He held it up to the light and shook it, as though the clear plastic sides, which showed no candy within, were playing tricks on his eyes.

“Why is there no candy?” he called out, tossing it up forlornly. It was empty because he’d eaten the last of the candy two weeks early, and no one had refilled it since.

“I have m&ms,” I called back. “Do you want some?”

“YES!” he replied, in a tone far different from his usual funereal inflection.

He took a handful, and munching happily, asked, accusatorily, “Why are you hoarding candy?”

“I don’t think it’s called hoarding when I buy candy and eat it,” I suggested.

“It is if you don’t put it in the candy jar,” was the reply.

“Ooh! Can I have some?” pipped in a third coworker, ending our standoff.

I suspect that it’s my coworker’s love of candy, rather than the unpredictable nature of the jar’s filling, that leads to it sitting empty. The candy jar, and now my candy stash as well.

*I don’t work with anyone named John. Even though the security guard told me this week that his brother’s buddy John – handsome and tall – works in the same office. I’ll take his word for it.

Holiday Partying

For weeks beforehand, my office was abuzz with talk of the holiday party.

“Are you going?” asked the woman in the next cubicle.

“To the christmas party?” I asked. “Yeah.”

“You know it’s a holiday party not a christmas party?” she asked, gently. Sure, I nodded, taking in her ‘seasonal’ decorations of red and green snowmen which covered the walls of her cubicle.

At the party itself, I took in the red and green centerpieces and the playlist picked by someone with an overabundance of christmas spirit. I found myself a seat and leaned in to hear my coworkers gossip of parties past.When my group broke up, I got up to find a place to stash my coat.

“How’s it going?” asked my colleague, and our resident party planner, when he spotted me on my own. I was maneuvering between cramped tables in the basement of  a downtown bar, where people clustered awkwardly between the tables at which no one seemed eager to sit. The lighting was dim, the music loud, the ambiance uncomfortable – for those who were still sober because of those who no longer were.

“Good!” I exclaimed, my smile stretched to what I assumed he would take for an enthusiastic grin. In the fifteen minutes since I’d walked in, I’d checked my watch three times and was going for a fourth when the organizer had spotted me.

“Great!” he exclaimed in return, in what appeared to be genuine happiness. “Just remember not to have anything.” And with that he walked away.

Every year, my office has held a holiday party, organized and paid for by the staff. It includes a buffet meal and an open bar – as long as you’re drinking one of the four house specials. It’s heavily subsidized by the managers, so that everyone can afford the $25 to $35 cover charge. So, managers are put out by excessive expense they bear, staff are annoyed they have to pay, and people who keep kosher are allowed to attend for free as long as they don’t eat or drink, water included.

Happy holidays

It is so easy for those of us who can no longer remember not being surrounded by professional people to take this simple truth for granted: You cannot imagine and dream what you haven’t been informed of.

-Rep. Charlie Rangel from And I Haven’t Had a Bad Day Since: From the Streets of Harlem to the Halls of Congress

Election Season Reading: #tbt

Four years ago, I was sitting in a church in Brooklyn, listening to someone drone on about how to be a poll worker. In honor of Throwback Thursday, here’s what I wrote on the Terrifying Tuesday – election day – that followed:

Working the polls wasn’t what I thought it would be. I thought I would sit, greet my people as they ought to be greeted, hand them their ballots, and go back to my crochet or conversation. It wasn’t like that. It was trial by fire.

From down the block, I picked out the polling station by the line of people lined up down the street. That line lend me around the school building, through the front door, past the PTA coffee&tea table, down the hallway, and into the gym. Inside the gym were – I later learned – six districts, each with its own table and a heart-sickeningly long line.
My fellow stand-by worker – how I came to be a stand-by poll worker is a story for another time – and I found our Poll Coordinator, Randy. Randy, sunglasses propped on his head, papers in hand, and bold red shirt, was barely holding on to control. Needed everywhere at once, Randy greeted us as generously as he could – he gave us two seconds of his time. An efficient man, who believed in delegation, he told us each to man one of the two most overwhelmed tables. I took the one with a single person and an extra chair. As I sat, the harassed poll worker who had been on her own turned in Randy’s direction and demanded, “Does she know what she’s doing? I CANNOT have anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.” Randy, without knowing my name, muchtheless the fact that I’d been trained a day earlier in an abridged session that skipped much of the usual content, said, with authority, “She’s a pro.” It seemed safer not to contradict him.
My fellow poll worker told me the tables’s Electoral District, Assembly District, and which number voter and ballot we were on. I filled in the voter cards, she checked in the people. Fifteen minutes later, she’d judged me capable and left me alone at the table as she took her first bathroom break after four exhausting hours on the job. It was 9AM.
The voters were a delight, if utterly baffled by the lack of levered machines and excess of paper ballots. Apparently, voters hide under a rock between presidential general elections. Most were happy to be there, if utterly confused on how to vote, and some were flat-out thrilled that they could have a ballot of their own. Despite the wait in line – over 30 minutes when I arrived – they were courteous and generally kind.
The only people who had trouble were the affidavit voters, and that blame falls squarely on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The day before the election Gov. Cuomo announced that anyone could vote affidavit [absentee voting from a polling site] – but he didn’t discuss this with the people running the election. In the normal course of events, your vote cannot be counted unless you go to your polling station. What Cuomo tried to say was that if you cannot reach your polling station because your home, neighborhood, or polling station has been devastated by Hurricane Sandy, you can vote anywhere via affidavit. Practically, it meant that people showed up because they were in the neighborhood already and didn’t feel like going to their polling station later. One person, when I explained that she’d have to go home to Long Island to vote, even though she attends college in the neighborhood, demanded a further explanation. When I clarified that only people affected by the hurricane could vote by affidavit, she wanted to know why she couldn’t just claim to be a hurricane victim for voting purposes. It was the first time* I’ve ever had to tell someone “I cannot advise you to commit a federal crime.”
That was bad enough, but then we began to run low on affidavit ballots. Randy, the voice of authority, called the Board of Election. We were promised ballots; none came. We ran out of ballots; none came. The clock clicked closer to the end of the polling day, and nervous voters – some of whom has been sent to us by other polling sites without ballots – sat around. Then one of those earnest voters came over to my district table and demanded to know why the woman next to us was doling out an affidavit ballot to her daughter when she wouldn’t give him one. Randy, who had kept his cool with angry voters and a recalcitrant Board of Elections during that harrowing day, swooped down on the table live an avenging angel. He seized all of the poll worker’s affidavit ballots and demanded to know who she was saving them for. She claimed that she had just happened to find them at that moment. Randy glared in silence. She said she hadn’t realize no one else had any of them. We had been talking about little else since the polling station had handed out ‘the last one’ over 30 minutes prior.
Randy gave the ballots to those who needed them until they ran out too. He kept a close eye on that poll worker for the rest of the night.
Despite such hiccups, the poll workers were a dedicated and hearty bunch. From 5AM-12AM we worked the polls, making democracy happen. As we closed down the poll, the news came through the wire: Obama wins in preliminary polling. With a shout, Democrat and Republican poll workers embraced. It was a draining day, and it was a beautiful day. I’m not sure I’ll ever go back.
*Not the last.

Candy Jar

Most offices have a candy jar. Some have a bowl. Others have a dish. My old office had a drawer. While a drawer full of candy sounds awesome, the size made it hard fill it up at once – making any individual attempt seem paltry and stingy. In order to fill a candy drawer you have to stock up on enough chocolates, chewies, and drops to make the cashier fear that you’re trying to recreate the gingerbread cottage in which Hansel and Gretel were held captive. Which is why I tended to only bring in homemade treats – it’s much easier to fill out a desk space with napkins and such than it in to fill up a deep drawer.

My new office, however, has a candy jar. While significantly smaller than a drawer, it could still comfortably hold a small child. However, I am determined to win the affections and allegiance of my new coworkers. So, with candy sales abounding, I filled up the jar. My coworkers were thrilled with this new infusion of candy – I had strategically waited till the jar was emptied in order to gain maximum impact. I was happy that my plan to worm my way into their good graces had succeeded.

At least, I was glad until someone noticed that one of the candies had arrived in my bag – and then the jar – unwrapped. He made sure that I and everyone knew that he found this oversight unreasonable. He was still explaining the extent of his concern when another coworker leaned over him, grabbed the offending mini twix bar, and ate it. The fearless colleague assured us everything was fine and went back to work.

But the sanitary-conscious coworker wasn’t done listing his concerns about an unwrapped chocolate bar, as small and cute and tasty as it may be. Winding up his speech, he told me that he held me responsible for what had happened. I told him that if he didn’t appreciate my candy provisions, I’d stuff the jar with raisin boxes.

“You wouldn’t!” he said in horror.

“Watch me,” I warned him.

Thus is the battle for hearts and minds won. With lots of candy and a hint of dried-fruit menace.

I need my ד אמות

Being short comes with a variety of problems. I can’t change lighbulbs. On subway cars with hanging straps, I can’t be a proper strap hanger. Even worse, some people interpret my height to mean I don’t need any personal space, and crowd in on me. And of course, people make fun of me.

Last week a coworker who does respect my personal space, if not my time, was busy coming up with short-people nicknames for me. He wandered from his desk still talking it out, and then returned and eyed me suspiciously. “I shouldn’t expect a call from HR, should I?” And I suddenly remembered what my mother told me.

At the local library, where I worked in highschool, a fellow staffer was the worst offender to my personal space policy. When he wanted to speak to me he’d come so close that he was practically standing on me. Our conversations – rather, his rants – were punctuated by me swiveling a book cart to block him, and him pivoting around it. When that didn’t work I’d suggested that the biographies were looking overrun or that the paperbacks were threatening to overflow. Usually, that did the trick.

Thankfully, I got a break from all that during holidays. When I came back after Peasch, I was hoping that my personal space would be restored. I managed to load my cart with books and started shelving before my coworker realized I’d returned. He saw me sitting on the floor in the business section, and came over to greet my joyously. He crouched down next to me and asked how I’d been – draping himself over me in a hug. I grimaced. Then he sat down, and proceeded to ask me about my life and tell me about his until I convinced him that Miss Susan in the Children’s Room really needed his help. Finally, he left me and the business books in peace.

A while later, the incident came up in a conversation with my mom; she asked why I hadn’t filed a harassment complain. I’d assumed that my preference for a football field-sized personal space wasn’t enough to validate a complain of any sort. “Any unwanted touch is harassment,” she replied.

I filed that away for later use. Which was last week.

When my current coworker started asking about my ability to take a joke, I smiled. “As long as you don’t hug me, I have no complaint.”

“What?” he replied in confusion.

Uninterested in explaining, I summarized “I don’t like hugs.”

“What?” he asked, this time offended.

“I don’t like hugs,” I enunciated clearly.

“What are you?” he asked. “A cyborg? A robot? Everyone likes hugs.”

I laughed for so long at his interpretation that he was gone – off to share the gossip that I don’t like hugs – by the time I could breath enough to explain. So it looks like I better started learning to dance the robot because I just earned myself a reputation as a cyborg.