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“Do you smell smoke?”

There’s so much in life that I want to do, see, say, hear, wonder about, laugh about, dream about, ask about, answer, admire, inhale, touch and feel, understand, share, fart around with, read, and especially write, but instead I have to go to work. 

♦ ♦ ♦

And what a day it was at the office. Here's the morning idiocy:

Darla’s only been our boss for a couple of months, and she knows what we do, but she hasn’t really known how we do it, so a few weeks ago, she asked Jennifer for a crash course. They spent a few hours together, and Jennifer said it went well, and now Darla understands how to use the software and the basic rules for how we process price changes. Sounds like a good thing, right?

Last week, we were briefly behind on the data entry, and Darla offered to help out. Sounds like an even better thing, right? How often does a boss anywhere volunteer to pitch in with the actual work? The gesture was appreciated, sincerely.

Or I thought it was, until Darla finished her short stack of work, and returned it to me (because Jennifer (my ‘lead’) was out today). “All done,” Darla said, “but I did a goof on this page, and on this page. Can you fix it?” Sure, I can fix it. Everybody makes occasional mistakes, and Marcia showed me how to make corrections, before she quit.

When I went into the fix-it program, though, and started poking through what Darla had done, she hadn’t done any of it right. She’d skipped fields that must be input, made huge typos that would print on every price tag, changed prices on some of the wrong items, and not made price changes on some items that need the prices changed. Basically, she did everything wrong. If she was a temp or a new hire, I’d be concerned, because even rookies don’t make this many mistakes.

I spent the rest of the morning fixing my boss’s fuck-ups, on a small pile of work that would’ve taken me half an hour to input correctly. And then I swallowed hard, and knocked on Darla’s door, to ask her not to help us any more. Said it about as politely as it could be said, but she took it as an insult, got defensive and dismissive, and said something like, “Thank you for fixing my many mistakes,” but she said it sarcastically. 

“No problem,” I said, and went back to my desk.

As an employee, I believe it’s part of my job to bring problems to my boss’s attention, so that's what I did. With that response, though, I'm not going to say it a second time.

If Darla volunteers to ‘help’ with our work again, I’ll fix her mistakes again, and do so for as long as I work here. And then, when I quit or get laid off, there’ll be a little booby trap — Darla’s mistakes suddenly won’t be corrected.

Better yet, since she (thinks she) understands the intricacies of the work, maybe Darla will train my replacement to do price changes the same way she does them — wrong.

♦ ♦ ♦

And here's the afternoon idiocy:

One of the junior executives dropped some paperwork at my desk, and then he paused a long moment. I was getting ready to say something snide, when he said, “Do you smell smoke?”

You can often smell smoke in the office, because a few of the senior executives still smoke at their desks, though that’s been against company policy for several years. I took a deep breath, expecting to taste tobacco in the air, but it was different — slight, but sooty, like wood burning in the distance.

With images of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire smoldering in my mind, the junior exec and I walked around, poking our heads into a few doors. Finding no explanation for the scent in the air, we knocked on Babs’ office door, and she made an executive decision to abandon ship.

“Everybody out!” Babs shouted as she came out of her office, "but do not take the elevators!" I don’t like Babs, and I’m not sure I respect her, but I respected that — it's a safety rule I had completely forgotten, so it's good that she remembered. She said it several more times, too. That was the only thing she said in all the commotion, now that I think about it.

Everyone from our side of the eighth floor (except two temps, who were on break — Darla left them a note) traipsed down the hall, past another office where people were still working. We tried to rouse them, but their manager said, “If there was a fire, the alarm would’ve gone off.” 

Yeah. More about that later.

“It’s a job,” I said to him, “and not a very good one. It ain’t worth your life.” Boss Babs looked at me as if she disagreed, but I’m pretty sure she’s their boss too, and she didn't say anything. She didn’t tell them to come with us, so we left them to burn.

As we walked toward a fire exit, the smoke became visible, just barely. Seeing it, not just smelling it, we turned back toward a different exit, and walked past the same office where those people were still working. “It’s too smokey to get out that way,” I said casually, “so if your workflow allows it, take the exit down the other hallway,” and I pointed.

My eyes had naturally fixed on a pretty woman in that office, and she looked relieved when her manager said, “Everybody out,” and grabbed his jacket. Staff has been given permission to survive.

Their bunch joined our bunch, all of us marching toward the stairs, and Babs said again, “Don’t take the elevators!” When we reached the door to the stairwell, it had a big red bar across it that said something like, Alarm will sound if door is opened. Babs, leading the way, saw this and hesitated, so I reached around her and pushed the door open myself. 

I am not willing to die for that company, and besides, I’ve always wanted to push those bars and set off those alarms. Sure enough, it started buzzing, but not very loudly — not like a fire drill. It was more like an alarm clock than an alarm, but any racket that might get people’s attention was welcome.

Peter turned around and shouted, “Fire!” behind us, which was smart. We were about to go down the stairs, but our little parade wasn’t everyone who works on the eighth floor, and the only alarm sounding was that door alarm, a polite little beep that sounded more like a dial tone than anything urgent. We should've been shouting earlier, but nobody'd thought of it.

Peter shouted “Fire!” several times, and some of us joined in, and then we walked down eight flights of stairs, with Peter and others opening the door on every floor and shouting, “Fire!” All the floors below ours seemed to be empty, though, like they'd already evacuated.

When we got to the ground floor and emerged on the sidewalk, hundreds of employees and shoppers and gawkers were staring up at the building, but the building just stood there, non-smoking.

Nine (9) hook-and-ladder trucks were out front, completely blocking the usually busy street. Yellow ribbon-ropes had been strung up to keep people back, and firemen had to lift them to let us pass. Other firemen were carrying hoses into the store.

Someone in a suit and a firefighter’s hat was bellowing into a bullhorn for people to walk in one direction, not the other. He was an SFFD executive, I decided, but his instructions were confusing to me. I didn’t see anyone walking in either direction, just hundreds of people standing around.

That’s when I started thinking, hey, I’ll have something interesting to write for the zine tonight, but that’s also when it stopped being interesting. We were all standing around, getting sore necks looking up at the building, which did not appear to be on fire. 

We found out later that all the smoke and flames and real action had been on the other side of the building, where the first stairwell we’d almost used would’ve taken us. Not knowing that as we stood on the street, though, it just looked like a whole bunch of nothing happening, and eventually Mr Microphone announced that store employees could go back into the building, but not shoppers.

With the fire over, the elevators were safe to ride, which is good, because eight flights of stairs is six more than I'm willing to climb. Back on our floor, there was the smell of stale smoke for the rest of the day, and the next day’s paper reported that nobody was hurt, but tragically, there was almost no structural damage.

The fire alarm never sounded on the floor where we work. We have regular fire drills, so everyone knows what the building's fire alarm sounds like, and where the exits are. If the alarm had sounded, everyone would’ve been out of the building five minutes quicker than we were. Several workers on the eighth floor didn’t exit the building at all.

Now, get this: It wasn’t a malfunction. The fire alarm didn’t go off, according to my boss, because fire alarms sound first in the Security office, where the guards sit and watch shoppers on video screens. It’s up to the security guards to decide whether to trigger alarms all over the building, and some doofus with a badge decided to use the building’s public-address system instead of the alarm, “so as not to panic the customers.” 

Well, that’s nice, but on the eighth floor, where I work, we have the store’s Muzak turned off, to preserve our sanity against endless Mantovani strings. Nobody ever told us that turning off the Muzak also turned off the public-address system, so we heard no announcement asking us to exit the building in an orderly manner.

That seems worrisome, don’t you think? It didn’t make me feel like “a valued employee.” It made me angry, so for the second time today, I knocked on Darla's door. I politely summarized the facts, hoping she'd come down on the Security Department for leaving us to roast, but Darla's response was a promise that she’d call someone ... to have the Muzak/public address speakers turned on again.

From Pathetic Life #6
Wednesday, November 16, 1994

This is an entry retyped from an on-paper zine I wrote many years ago, called Pathetic Life. The opinions stated were my opinions then, but might not be my opinions now. Also, I said and did some disgusting things, so parental guidance is advised.

Pathetic Life 

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