The Good Office Girl

Heather was upset.  It had been seventeen years since she started working at the firm, and she deserved better than this.  She was fed up with how Ruth and the others were treating her and how they always sucked up to Fred, who was terrible at his job, but because Fred had this banal way of talking to people, they would just give in to doing things his way instead of wasting another minute listening to him talk.  Heather was ok at the beginning covering up for Fred, but after the Burton incident, she knew that Fred would throw her under the bus if he had to, so ever since then, she made it a point, with an exclamation point! to provide due diligence to all her clients.  Fred eventually caught on to what Heather was up to and, in order to save face, he started spreading rumors about her.  They were little ones at first, like how she was having a bad hair day or how she didn’t know what ganache was.  Giggles and odd looks from the secretaries didn’t bother Heather at first, but when she found out that she was being left out of important meetings and that clients were being diverted to Fred, her temples burned and her heart sank.

I am way smarter than this, she thought, on her way to meet Mia in TriBeCa, I know way more than the other associates.  Sure it was okay at first to not get the recognition she deserved.  Heather’s Midwestern sensibilities kept her modest and stopped her from gloating.  But it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and she was stupid enough to think that she can just sit around and expect the praises for all her good work for the firm come rolling in.  Instead, she laid there like a lost sheep just waiting to get eaten alive by the all too eager wolves in her office.

And that’s exactly what happened.  It had been happening slowly, steadily, right in front of her very eyes.  The CEO wouldn’t reply back to her emails directly, she didn’t even get invited to Betsy’s retirement party.  Not that I care, she thought, but it would have been nice.

When she saw Mia at their favorite cafe, Heather felt the pain in her heart leave.  The furrow between her brows disappeared and her face was back to its old cheerful self.

“How’ve you been, girl?” asked Heather as she greeted Mia with a kiss on the cheek.

“Oh, can’t complain, you know same old stuff goin’ on.  How’s everything with you?”

“I just can’t stand it anymore!” Heather blurted out.  She just exploded right in front of Mia.  She couldn’t share anything at all how she felt at work because there was no one to confide in.  Heather felt better now that it was all out, but her atrocious work situation remained the same.

“Girl, you’re going to have to find another job.”

“I can’t.  There is no way any of those monsters would give me a good reference.  They’ve even turned my clients against me.”

“Can’t you just change careers?”

“Doing what?!?” Heather asked in complete exasperation.

“I’m sure you can find something, because, honestly, Heather, you have been miserable for a long time.”  Heather was grateful for Mia’s honesty.

That night, on her way home, Heather got to thinking.  Her friend Tom had been telling her about this great new job he got up in Harlem and was always reminding her that they were still hiring.  She called the number he emailed her and a pleasant sounding guy in his early twenties picked up.  “Hemmer and Associates, how may I help you?”

“Yes, I was referred by Tom Prescott.  Are you still hiring?”

“Oh, yes.  Hold on, please.”  There was a long pause.

“Miss?  Can you come in for an interview tomorrow at noon?”  That was her lunch hour.  She’ll find a way to sneak out early to make it up there in time for the interview.

“Sure.  I’ll be there. Thank you.” Heather hasn’t been this excited about something for a long time.

The next day, Heather didn’t put any makeup on except for some blush over her nose.  She wanted to look sick for Fred.  When she got to the office, Fred told her to take the day off.  She stopped by a Sephora and put her face on on her way to the interview.

The office was on the seventeenth floor of an old prewar skyscraper.  When Heather got off the elevator she couldn’t block out the musty smell of the old carpets in the lobby.  She went through the double glass doors to find the young guy she spoke to on the phone the day before sitting behind a high but tiny desk.  “Hi, I have an interview at noon.” Heather wasn’t as nervous as she was before she saw the office.

“Oh, yes,” the young guy looked down at the appointment book, “Heather?” he asked as if he might have gotten the wrong name.

“Yes, that’s me,” Heather muttered as she looked around the tiny reception room.

“Right this way,” the young guy said as he led her down a narrow hallway to a small windowless room with two metal folding chairs facing each other.  Heather sat down in the one closest to the door.  Then, the door opened.

Messy Office

Corporate cutbacks are a killer.  Gone are the days where multi-million dollar corporations hire full-time workers.  Hiring temps and contract workers are the way to go now.  Human resources had to hire two people to do all the work that Karen’s former full-time employee was able to do. The unfortunate thing for that full-timer was that her position had benefits- and a decent salary. In the last round of layoffs, management decided her job wasn’t important enough to carry so much of the “extras.”

Karen Wagner was a petite woman in her mid-thirties with no real definable features.  She was plain-looking and wore boring office clothes, and there was really nothing fancy or remarkable about her.  She ran her own department, however, and she got to be where she was by putting in long hours and fully dedicating herself to the job.  Betsy had plain features as well, but wore bright dresses that complimented her bright eye shadow and lip gloss, and was more gregarious.  She got her job from being at the right place at the right time, and because no one else wanted the position.

The temps that the company decided to replace Karen’s full-timer were, let’s say, less dedicated. Terry was a single mother of two and just got kicked out of her aunt’s house.  She had no choice but to give up her kids to the father.  This turned out to be disastrous, as she would come into work screaming into her phone every morning.  It wasn’t clear whether the person she was screaming at on the phone was the same one every morning, but the angry tone she bit into her device was pretty consistent.

Frank was the other temp.  He was a middle-aged man from Brazil via Italy and several other European countries, and spoke five different languages. He had a thick accent and spoke barely above a whisper, but had an odd way of speaking and described things in a very peculiar way.  He would bow to Karen but would call her “Dear” and “Sweetheart.”  He would say “I’m at your service,” but if Karen did not acknowledge him while she was in the middle of doing something, Frank would storm out of the room and slam a drawer at his desk.  Karen was too busy to notice all of this odd behavior from him at first, but when Frank tried to feed her a cookie, a sudden feeling of alarm washed over her.

Frank was out sick for a few days, much to Karen’s relief, but it meant that she had to deal with Terry’s yelling on her phone all by herself. Although she was glad she had the chance to shake Frank and his odd behavior out of her head over the following days, Terry’s outbursts were beginning to shatter her nerves. After several days of dealing with this, Karen was overjoyed when Frank returned.

“How are you feeling?” Karen asked brightly.

“Still not so good- look at my lips,” he stuck his lips and pulsated them like a fish.  Karen recoiled in terror.

Karen can usually shrug off any sort of odd interaction or embarassment but this proved to be too much for her to bear.  Later that afternoon when Frank called her “Honey” again she decided that she couldn’t bear it any longer and had to do something about it. She went to go talk to Betsy.

Betsy was sitting at her desk looking at her Facebook page.

“What’s up?” Betsy asked without looking up from her computer.

“I was wondering if you could speak to Frank about how he addresses me.  Could you please tell him to stop calling me ‘Honey’ and ‘Sweetheart’?”

Betsy just rolled her eyes.  “Why don’t you just tell him yourself?”

“He obviously doesn’t respect me enough to take me seriously if he is calling me ‘Honey’.”

“Did you already talk to him about it, then?”

“Yes,” Karen lied.

“Oh, all right,” Betsy uncrossed her legs and got up from her desk with a huge sigh. Karen waited in Betsy’s office while Betsy went to go talk to him. Not two minutes passed when Betsy stormed back into the office shaking in agitation.

“Uh, Frank, you want to come in here?” Karen had no idea what was going on.

Frank was convulsing. “I never so offended in all my life!” he screamed. Karen was totally confused.

“If this the way you treat me,” he went on, “then I report you to management and hand in my resignation!”

“Wh-what?” Karen couldn’t believe what was going on.

“Did you know I’m gay?”

“Well, no, I didn’t, but what does that have to do with anything?”

“You accusing me of sexual harassment!” Frank then started sobbing uncontrollably. He ran to his desk and buried his head in the crook of his arms. Betsy and Karen ran to his side to try and console him. He finally looked up to wipe the tears from his eyes.

“I w-w-w f–,” he was trying to get the words out.

“What?” Karen asked gently and hopefully.

“I with the same man for seventeen years.”

“Well, that’s great!” Karen may have said this too cheerfully. She saw an opening here, “You see, Frank, I wasn’t accusing you of sexual harassment, I was just trying to keep our level of interaction as professional as possible. It really isn’t appropriate to address your superior as ‘Sweetie’ or ‘Honey’.”

“But I say to show I respect you.”

“Uh, well, it’s actually quite condescending.”

“But you call me ‘Sweetie’ and I won’t be offend.”

“Well, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with calling you ‘Sweetie’.”

“Then I no talk to you right now!” Frank got up from his chair and went straight to HR.

Mrs. Bruni was an elderly woman in her late fifties who was counting the days when she can leave her job and retire. She was lucky enough to have started this job way back when they still offered pensions. That was the only way this company has been able to keep her with what they offered as a salary.

“May I help you?” Frank walked in without even knocking, a little out of breath.

“Uh, yes, I need to file a complaint against a Miss Karen Wagner.”

Mrs. Bruni now looked up and took her reading glasses off, “And you are…”

“I’m Frank. I’m a temp.”

“Well, Frank, I’m sorry, but I cannot help you. You’re going to have to address your grievances with your temp agency.”

“But Karen works here.”

“Yes, I know, Frank, I’m HR,” Mrs. Bruni deadpanned.

“So why I complaint to company that does no do with Karen?” Frank was totally confused.

“Well, Frank,” Mrs. Bruni was trying to be as patient as she could, “your temp agency will forward your complaint to me, and then I will review it. You see?”

Frank then returned to his desk and went back to work. Karen then came out and asked, “Do you still have those cookies you wanted me to try?”

“Yes, yes,” Frank muttered, as he handed her over the tin filled with cookies.

“Yum! These are great, Frank. Where are these from?”

“CVS.”

“Oh, really? Well, they taste gourmet! You really know how to pick them!”

“Thank you,” he managed to mutter.

During his lunch break, Frank went to the temp agency and filled out a formal complaint form against Karen.  He waited several days, until one day, Mrs. Bruni came to get Karen and bring her back to her office.

“So how are things going with Frank?”

“Oh, fine,” Karen was too weary to get into again.

“Well, I got a complaint form here from his temp agency, and it seems that Frank has some issues with you- you demand that you get him gourmet cookies?

“Huh?”

“You call him ‘Sweetie’ and rub his back when he’s at his desk?”

“No, none of that is true!  He’s the one that’s been calling me that.  I only took his cookies because he kept asking me to.  I don’t even like cookies!”

“Well, these are very serious charges, and it seems that we’re going to have to let you go.”

“But they’re all lies!  I’ve been with the company for over 10 years, I’ve devoted my life to this company.” Karen could feel her eyes well up in tears.

“I know, but the temp agency gives us a lot of staff at a discount rate, so there’s no way around this. I’m sorry.” Mrs. Bruni said flatly. Karen couldn’t tell if Mrs. Bruni knew that what she was doing was completely wrong and indecent, but in this day and age, dollars and cents is the only thing that mattered, and she knew she wouldn’t be able to change her mind.

As Karen walked out of her office one last time, she was surprised that she wasn’t feeling grief or anger or any sense of loss. Instead, a feeling of relief and joy began to fill her heart, then spread through her veins into her head and extremities. She exhaled deeply, the way she was taught in yoga class, and walked towards the Fifty-First Street subway station, excited to start a new chapter in her life.