16 Sep

The “Yo” Effect

phoneBy Ranae LaFerney

In 1983, to pay for college, I took a job at a public accounting firm in Portland, Oregon. Nothing could have been more counter-intuitive. My universe had been shaped from childhood by the magical manipulation of words rather than numbers. But like so many facets of life this, too, was complicated.

When I reported for work, it was the height of tax season; the feverish weeks leading up to April 15 when thousands of tax returns had to be shuffled through the system. It was my job to make manual revisions (personal computing was still years away), photocopy and prepare them for delivery. My survival would depend on the skillful mastery of two essentials: the IBM Selectric typewriter and the Xerox machine.

I embraced my new environment like a child in a toy store. This was the landscape of elite “Big 8” public accounting in the 1980s before the scandals and mergers. Of blue-suited CPAs directing the audits of major corporations and providing savvy counsel on delicate tax matters. Of the league of secretaries, wholly capable and precise in executing the lofty demands of their charges. And of the bean counters in rolled-up sleeves and loosened ties, arguably the most industrious performers amidst seasonal turbulence, whose desktops went AWOL in February and remained for weeks beneath stacks of brown expanding files while their occupants whirred away at 10-keys. The din of continuous activity, the rhythmic clap-clap of the Xerox machine infused the ether with a singular, repetitive mantra: Deadline. Deadline. Deadline. “I need this right away!” was the rallying cry of my people, often with a pre-emptive semblance of gratitude, though not always. It made me feel significant. I had never been part of a team, athletic or otherwise.

Young and naïve, my attitude became can-do; my temperament, unflappable. One day my telephone rang. “Yo!” I answered.

There was a momentary pause before the voice of the senior partner—a man I’ll simply call Mr. P.—blasted through the receiver. “Is that how you answer the phone?”

Up until that moment, I’d had little contact with Mr. P., though by the tone in his voice it wouldn’t take a financial professional to figure the amount of trouble I was in. There had been a lot of talk about this man. First and foremost, I must always address him as ‘Mr. P.’ High-level managers could call him by his first name—Jim—but not support staff. Some of my co-workers claimed Mr. P. had brought employees to tears. One story alleged that he had a button under his desk that triggered his office door to close whenever he wished to engage in private discussion. One manager offered some insight: “If Mr. P. ever calls you into his office and the door closes behind you,” he said, “you’re fucked.”

Appropriately, Mr. P.’s office was located in a secluded corner on the 27th Floor. I ventured inside only once, on a Saturday, when I knew he was out of town and other partners were noticeably absent. Entering his office was like stepping into the lobby of a luxurious hotel for which exquisite furnishings and artwork had been meticulously selected. Also, there was a commanding view of the Willamette River and the snow-covered peak of Mount Hood in the distance. As I gazed through the glass, I wondered if Mr. P. spent any time looking out these windows—taking notice, perhaps, of the tiny boats that darted up and down the river leaving white ribbons in their wake—or if the demands of his job had long blinded him to the outside world, the ever-changing canvas of geography and sky.

In the office hallways, Mr. P. circulated hastily and with purpose, never minding with what, or whom, he might collide. His erratic movements had earned him the secret moniker, The Tasmanian Devil, after the whirling, half-crazed character of cartoon fame. His mass of white hair served as a functional, high-visibility alarm system for those of us who wished to remain in obscurity. The few times Mr. P. and I spoke, he never addressed me by name. Our encounters were brief and one sided. “Where’s Larry?” he might ask. Or, at the most, “You should look into getting that chair fixed.” Mr. P. didn’t engage in idle chit-chat. He was a boss with a capital “B.”

Everything I had come to know about Mr. P. seemed irrelevant in light of my current predicament. Holding the phone in my hot, perspiring hand, I didn’t know how to respond so I said the first thing that came to mind: I’d been expecting a call from a co-worker.

“I don’t care what you were expecting,” Mr. P. said.

At that point I should have apologized. I should have ensured the man such an incident would never happen again. Instead, I dug a hole. It was a spectacular hole, one that grew deeper and wider in direct proportion to my mounting distress. And then, as if channeling some alien dimension, I found myself explaining to Mr. P. the intricacies of the corporate phone system; namely, how one ring signaled an internal call, two meant external. Somewhere along the way I realized I was speaking to dead air.

What happened next eludes memory. I imagine I sat at my desk debating what to do and that panic would have factored into the equation—to pick up my things and run. As it turns out, I didn’t have a long wait. Within the hour, a memo was distributed. To: All Staff, Re: Telephone. The first line read: “This morning, I called a secretarial station and was greeted with the word ‘Yo!’”

In life, some events turn out worse than we can imagine. This was one of them.

My face burned. Scanning Mr. P.’s three admonishing paragraphs, I took little solace in the fact that my name was not mentioned. From the details he provided, my colleagues would draw the obvious conclusion. If that weren’t enough, Mr. P. had saved the real zinger for last. “This behavior is inappropriate, unprofessional, and will not be tolerated!”

Immediately, my phone rang. “Yo!” the caller shouted in my ear. It was Randy, an auditor who worked on another floor, obviously with time on his hands. Still reeling from shock, I went along with the conversation. Yes, it was very funny…ha, ha, ha. When I asked Randy why he thought the memo pertained to me, it was his turn to laugh.

An onslaught of similar calls followed. Many of these people were senior managers—the very professionals I was supposed to emulate—all of whom seemed thrilled by the diversion away from Capital Gains and Depreciation to razz a colleague. “Keep up the good work!” one of them said.

With the distribution of a single memo, I became the celebratory poster child for ridicule. Worse, the bean-counting paparazzi were camped in every corner. “Yo!” people jeered from office doorways, slapping me on the back as I passed by. Even the surly, non-communicative file clerk cracked a smile. Typical workplace tension had morphed into the kind of atmosphere one might expect if I had performed a successful Heimlich maneuver on a choking co-worker.

By the end of the day I assumed the worst was over. And then my telephone rang. Lesson learned, I answered properly, a fortuitous move on my part since the caller turned out to be Mr. P. “Can you come to my office right now?” he asked. A rhetorical question.

Something told me I was about to be fired. Rather than dwell on my uncertain future, I focused on efficiency. I located an empty box (into which I would later dump the contents of my desk), rinsed out my coffee mug and placed it on the counter next to the sink. In the elevator, I reminded myself not to cry.

Mr. P.’s office door was open. Two steps across the threshold, a rush of air swept across my back. One thought came to mind: I’m fucked.

“Sit down,” Mr. P. said, gesturing toward a chair across from his desk. He removed his glasses and got right to it. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you with that memo,” he said. “We have standards here. People need to act like professionals.”

Mr. P. looked tired. Several hours of relentless “Yo!”-ing outside his door, along with the certainty of lost productivity, must have worn him thin by that hour. But my shallow ego was still smarting from the day’s events leaving me unable—or rather, unwilling—to move past the issue.

“Well sir,” I said, not quite believing what I knew I was about to say. “I thought your memo was inappropriate, unprofessional, and I won’t tolerate it!”

An eerie, protracted groan rolled from the springs of Mr. P.’s massive leather chair as he slowly leaned back and joined his hands together, seemingly in prayer. His gray eyes appeared to look deep into my soul.

No longer able to meet his gaze, I found visual relief in the carefully framed portraits of Mr. P.’s family displayed across his credenza. During the next few seconds—the longest of my young life—I tried to recall the names of his two children, both grown and close to my own age, with no success. My thoughts thus reverted to the more germane chain of events destined to occupy my immediate future, beginning with the empty box downstairs and ending with the long wait in the rainy night for the No. 10 bus. But the leather chair cut short my mental digression, coughing up another squeal of protest as it returned to its upright position. Mr. P. retrieved his glasses from the desk and said, “That’ll be all.”

The next morning I arrived at work and found the still-empty box near my desk and my coffee mug sitting on the counter next to the sink. The Xerox clapped and 10-keys buzzed and the aroma of fresh coffee filled the air. At 7:30, my desk was piled with work. It seemed that things had returned to normal. No jokes. No ringing phone. No ‘Yo’. By some miracle, I still had a job.

I moved about the office with trepidation, peering around corners, opting to hike up and down the dimly lit, stale-smelling stairways instead of using the elevators. It wasn’t long, however, before fate in all its ironic glory brought about the inevitable confrontation. Just before lunch I spied none other than Mr. P. striding toward me with characteristic urgency. There was no time to navigate a quick detour. Mr. P. had spotted me, his eyes grabbing hold of mine like a tractor beam.

At once, everything slowed. My senses sharpened to isolate the details. Mr. P.’s white hair, brushed back and to the side. His red silk tie flecked with yellow crescents. A ringing phone. My racing heart. How I stood there, wide-eyed and curiously mute, as Mr. P. posed to me the powerful question I had not yet considered or prepared myself to hear: “Good morning, Ranae! How are you?”

07 May

Essay: Dying for a Cigarette

cigaretteBy Ranae LaFerney
(As published in More, Life Stories, 2011)

Two life-altering facts characterized my 1960s-era childhood. One: my best friend lived around the block, which made the daunting task of growing up more bearable. And two: our parents smoked cigarettes.

My respect for the addictive nature of nicotine came in the form of several epiphanies. The first arrived when I was six years old and I saw my mother’s long, jittery hand reach for the cigarette pack, and then witnessed the subsequent calm that swept through her after taking that first drag. This observation left me troubled. Somehow I knew my mother could never quit. She was going to die from smoking.

My best friend was not troubled. She didn’t seem to mind that her parents smoked, or that they chewed a lot of gum and drank inordinate amounts of Coca Cola. As individuals and as a family, they took life in stride.

They also loved to gamble. While my friend’s father dashed off to the horse races, her mother kept a steady card game going at the dining room table. Blackjack. Pinochle. Five Card Stud. An odd assortment of cars lined up daily in front of the house, everything from Porsches to beaters. Inside, a motley group sat around the table, jovial and energized. There was laughter. Cash. And plenty of cigarettes.

Things were different at my house. During the day, my mother cleaned and cooked and sewed – and smoked. She was the consummate multi-tasker, able to perform any number of domestic chores with flawless precision. She could smoke a pack, sew a dress, and time a roast to come out of the oven as my father’s car rolled into the driveway.

Granted, my mother was exceptional, but such skills were not uncommon in those days.

In fact, daily activities revolved around smoking and were encouraged or discouraged based on the convenience with which one could light up. For instance, attending a school play or recital (discouraged); duck hunting (encouraged); banking (encouraged, but only if you could wait in the car while someone else went in).

Also, dining and dancing (encouraged!).

Saturday night was my mother’s respite from domesticity. She and my father had a standing “date” to go out and cut a rug, so to speak. Preparations began late in the afternoon with bubble baths and hair rollers, and progressed to the actual layering of clothes, beginning with undergarments and ending with her bejeweled evening bag. This was the era of Playtex, renowned for its ultra body-shaping foundations, most notably the 18-hour girdle. My mother’s girdle was tough, made of material that could rival modern-day Kevlar. I’m sure she could have taken a bullet to the stomach and survived.

I wish her lungs could have been as strong.

By the time I entered high school, my mother had developed a chronic cough. It wasn’t just a hack here and there. It was major. At times, she’d lean over and reach out for something – a counter or chair – to hold herself up.

“Maybe you should see a doctor,” I’d say. I was young. I hadn’t learned yet how ridiculous that sounded.

“It’s nothing,” my mother said. “I got a vitamin stuck in my throat.”

At which point I had my second epiphany: Cigarettes + Addiction = Denial.

Over at my friend’s house, the vitamin scenario played out differently. “I won the Daily Double!” her mother announced as she waved her winnings from the horse track. Cancer? What cancer? Friends still showed up daily to commune around the dining room table. The woman lived by one code: light up and deal.

In both families, our mothers had been the ones who kept everything together. We depended on them. Over time, the paradigm began to shift. Then they had to depend on us.

My mother’s cough grew worse; her energy slowly waned. Almost imperceptibly, my father assumed one more household chore, drove her to another specialist, and took extended walks around the neighborhood while she lay in bed for longer periods of time. Emphysema wasn’t discussed, merely managed.

Just short of my thirty-eighth birthday, she said, “I want to be buried in my blue moiré.”

We’d never talked about death.

But now we were and, ironically, it involved fashion.

Without hesitating, I assumed the role I’d prepared for my entire life, which was to move toward the closet to find the dress and bring it to her.

“This one?” I asked.

She nodded yes.

And that’s when I had my third epiphany: It’s never been about me.

Contemplating an afterlife has never been one of my strong suits; there’s too much to embrace in this one. So here’s my final epiphany – a fantasy, really. It goes something like this:

“You got a cigarette? That Peter fellow confiscated mine at the gate.”

“I think I’ve got some stashed in my evening bag. I’ll check.”

“He let you in with that thing?”

“He was impressed with the gold studs.”

“Wish I’d known that. I would’ve brought my gilded-edged Pinochle deck…oh thanks… Menthol? I can’t stand menthol.”

“Sorry, it’s all I’ve got.”

“I’ll live.”

“Ha, that’s a good one!”

The women light up; take their first puffs.

“Say, that’s pretty good for menthol!”

“Heaven!”

They smoke in silence. Some musicians in white-tailed robes and bow ties walk by carrying instruments and set up on a stage that, strangely, wasn’t there a couple of minutes ago.

“Do you think they know any foxtrots?”

“I bet they can play anything up here.”

“Good point.”

They smoke a while longer; finish their cigarettes. After the haze clears, they’re sitting in a dining room watching people play cards at a table. There’s one open chair.

“What’s the limit?”

“Are you kidding, lady? There is no limit.”

“Deal me in.” She takes the last chair.

The cards are dealt. The band begins to play, “Pennies from Heaven.”

 And everyone’s happy.