December 6, 2001
Cross Contamination


The voice on the other end of the line is chillingly familiar.

"May I say who's calling?" I ask politely. This is SOP. I always ask who is calling, and if there is a company name, and (sometimes, if the occasion warrants) "what this is in regard to?" -- especially when I'm screening incoming calls for any of The Dirt Company bigwigs. (Read this: anybody who signs my paycheck/approves my expense reports/will be conducting my salary review next spring.)

"Tell him it's George Gunther from The Totem Pole Company," the voice snarls. Every hair on the back of my neck stands at complete attention.

George Gunther.

Regular *FootNotes* readers may remember George as the subject of the infamous "How Can I Respect You When You Behave Like An Insufferably Pompous, Intolerant Jackass (You Insufferably Pompous, Intolerant Jackass, You?)" memo, written a couple of days before I strapped on the parachute and jumped from The Totem Pole. (Although as I recall, I phrased the memo somewhat more delicately: I didn't refer to him as "pompous.") What I didn't tell you, at the time, is that George was the reason I finally quit my job. They were trying to maneuver me into an admin support position working directly for George, and I was having none of it. His relentlessly dour view of the world -- plus his habit of trashing co-workers whenever they were out of earshot (and sometimes when they weren't) -- convinced me that it was time for me to leave.

(Funny, isn't it? I survived two and a half years' worth of Franz, but it only took two weeks' worth of GEORGE for me to pull the ripcord finally.)

And now here he is again, like that sore throat I keep trying to give away.

I shouldn't be surprised. I hear from Totem Pole Company people all the time: at least once or twice a day I pick up the phone and there's somebody I used to work with on the other end of the line. Bob The Engineer Guy. Bob The Other Engineer Guy. Donald in the San Ramon Office. My new company and The TPC regularly team up together on projects -- most of them thrilling projects involving both dirt AND Offset Barrier Type-Y Crossings With Signalized Crosswalk Indicators: it's like a dream come true for me, really -- so there is a lot of cross-pollination going on between the two companies.

(Or -- in the case of an unexpected phone call from George Gunther -- it's more like cross-contamination.)

Most of my former TPC co-workers who call in are already aware of the fact that I work at The Dirt Company now, and we chitchat in a friendly way whenever they call. That's how I hear all the really juicy Totem Pole Company news ... like the fact that Franz is going to be a grandpa, or that Lori The Main Female Engineering Person had her baby last month, or that my ex-boss Jim finally quit last week. But others are surprised when I recognize their voice on the phone and say "Hiya! It's me, Secra!"  It's a merry moment, usually.

This time, however, I elect not to identify myself. George isn't going to recognize my voice, anyway. And even if he did, he wouldn't care. Basically there are two kinds of people who call into an office on any given day: 1.) Those who understand that the person answering the phone is a human being, and is therefore deserving of courtesy, acknowledgement and respect, even when they accidentally transfer you to the Soil Response Department when you were merely looking for Human Resources, and 2.) Those who understand that the person answering the phone is a human being ... but couldn't fudking care less.

George falls squarely into the latter category.

I transfer him quickly, quietly -- and unrecognized, thank god -- to Scott the General Manager. And then I wonder if there is a way to antibacterialize one's eardrums.

Our brief and chilling encounter, however, does starts me thinking. (Yes I know. Lately everything 'starts me thinking' ... especially on a slow personal news day, when nothing has yet gone hideously awry, and I still have an Internet journal entry to write.) 

Among the thoughts I process:

  • How glad I am that I don't work at The Totem Pole Company anymore.
  • How glad I am that I don't have to look at George Gunther's sour, sunken, cadaverous face every day anymore.
  • How glad I am that I don't have to tolerate George Gunther's tiresomely sexist, racist, elitist posturing every day anymore.
  • (How glad I am that I'm not still harboring resentment about George Gunther.)
  • How glad I am to work for a company where I actually LIKE 99.999% of my co-workers.
  • How glad I am to have a job that doesn't make me cry.
  • How glad I am that I wore a SLIP under this stoopid skirt today. (Another story/another day.)

Later in the morning, I overhear a hallway conversation between Scott the General Manager and a handful of The Dirt Company's top techs. "I just got a call from George Gunther," I hear Scott say. 

Suddenly a weird, reverential hush seems to fall over the group. From the awestruck tone of Scott's voice, you would think he'd just received a call from Matt Lauer Himself.

"George and Armand are going to be meeting next week on The Willson Avenue Project," Scott tells them.  Armand -- the owner/president/Grand Poobah of The Dirt Company, headquartered in Southern California -- is one of those shadowy CEO types who everybody seems to simultaneously avoid and suck up to, a la Franz. I haven't met him yet, although I've already hung up on him accidentally a couple of times.

"So what's the deal with George Gunther?" I ask JoAnne, a few minutes later. "Is he Armand's best friend or something?"

As a matter of fact: he is.

Apparently George and Armand are lifelong fishin'/golfin'/drinkin' buddies. (Although I'm having a tough time picturing George squeezing his skeletal frame into a pair of golfin' jodphurs. Where would he fit his forked tail?)

"All I can tell you is this," says JoAnne. "Armand said once that when he dies, George Gunther is going to be one of his pallbearers."

Jesus. Am I ever glad I'm finding this out now, before I say something nasty about George to somebody here in The Dirt Company and it travels, as *gossip molecules* are wont to travel -- especially the *gossip molecules* you least want traveling anywhere -- back to Corporate Headquarters in Los Angeles.

(And BEFORE I meet Armand for the first time, face-to-face, at the Christmas party on Saturday night.)

Plus this gives me a chance to start mapping out my strategy. Next time George calls, I plan to give him the four-star, full-out SecraTerri Treatment. I'll identify myself, right off the bat -- "Hello, George!" I'll say, making sure I sound absurdly happy to hear his voice -- "It's me, Secra!" We'll exchange courteous professional pleasantries. I'll ask an informed, whip-smart question or two about The Willson Avenue Project. I'll politely inquire after his wife, and about his son who had the ski accident last summer. I'll ask about things at the Totem Pole Company. I'll wax briefly and insincerely nostalgic about my days on the fourth floor. In short, I'll dazzle him with charm and bullshidt. By the time I'm finished with him, he'll be wondering how on earth he ever managed to let me slip through his talons.

And then I'll *accidentally* transfer him to the Soil Response Department.



tell 'em secra sent you

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ok. i recognize sheryl crow and [i think] liz phair ... but i have
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