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?”