February 13, 2002
Running The Gauntlet


The mornings when I'm hauling the laptop into the office with me are the trickiest. 

That's an additional fifteen pounds of line cords, batteries, floppy disks and outdated Toshiba technology, slung over my left shoulder ... on top of the 43,897,621 metric tons' worth of cosmetics, feminine hygiene products and emergency pantyhose I'm already carrying in my purse, which is slung over my other shoulder. With my keys and my electronic key card in one hand, and my bag of fruit and Slim-Fast in the other hand, that leaves me with zero free hands to carry anything else.

(Like an extra- jumbo can of pepper spray.)

David routinely lets me out of the Subaru in front of my office building every morning, even though technically all employees in this building are supposed to use the rear entrance. I don't care very much about technicalities, in this particular instance. Using the rear entrance means walking through the parking lot behind the building  --  a vast, inhospitable no-woman's-land filled with old cars and young men, neither of them looking at all trustworthy  --  and that's NOT how I'm interested in starting my day, thankyouverymuch. Coming in through the rear entrance also means being forced to use the auxiliary elevator in order to get to the third floor, where The Dirt Company offices are located. The auxiliary elevator is slow, creaky, notoriously unreliable, makes funny noises, and smells like 20th Century urine.  Plus it is totally isolated AND totally devoid of security cameras.

So sue me. I'm entering through the front door.

As I trudge along the dim and forbidding corridors each morning, lugging another day's worth of food, electronic equipment and girl stuff along with me, I have to admit I feel a little vulnerable sometimes, even on the non-laptop days when my hands are free. To help me feel more secure, I stay focused on my surroundings at all times.

Are the lights burned out at the end of the hallway? Is somebody getting into the elevator behind me? Is that a man's voice I hear, coming from the ladies room? 

I recall the lessons we learned in our Self-Defense For Women class, back when I worked at the Benchmade Knife Factory. (Lesson #1: Always carry a KNIFE with you, OK? Preferably one of the higher-end BENCHMADE models.)  And I'm always updating my defense strategy in my head, as I walk along.  If somebody jumps out of a dark corner at me right now, what will I do? Swing my bag of Slim-Fast at him? Poke him in the eyeball with my key card? Drop everything, scream "NINE ONE ONE" at the top of my lungs, and run like hell?   It's a little bit like running a Fun House gauntlet, except of course that this isn't a house ... and it isn't all that much fun, actually ... and it isn't a gauntlet,  it's a dark spooky hallway in a dark spooky office building in one of the darkest spookiest parts of Oakland.

(But other than that, it's EXACTLY like running a Fun House gauntlet.)

Once I am safely inside The Dirt Company offices, the peculiarly heightened security measures do not end. I spend most of my workday sitting at a reception desk in front of a large glass door, where I am clearly visible from the public hallway outside. (It's a little bit like being in a fish bowl, except that it's not a bowl ... and I'm not a fish ... etc.)  As I answer phones and type groundwater monitoring reports, all day long, a steady stream of people wander past our door. 99.9999% of them are looking for the Unemployment Office upstairs. At least a dozen times a day, somebody will stop and peer through the glass door at me, uselessly jiggling the doorknob.  When they realize that the door is locked, they give me this surprised stoopid look that says Hey! Your DOOR is LOCKED, lady!  Usually,  if I pretend I'm engrossed in a Very Important Phone Conversation and ignore them, they'll go away eventually.  If they persist, I'll grudgingly open the door and point them in the direction of the elevator. I don't care if I seem snooty or unapproachable or paranoid. I run an extremely tight  --  and secure  --  front desk. No one gets into the office unless I open the door for them: not the UPS Guy, not the Fed Ex Guy, not even the 1-800-Flowers Guy delivering my beautiful Valentines Day roses tomorrow.

[ahem]

All Dirt Company employees are trained to take their keys with them, everywhere we go, even if it's just a routine trip across the hall to go tinky-winkle. EVERYTHING on this floor is locked: the file room, the kitchen, the lab, the front and back doors, even the entrance to the stairwell. Most of us have also gotten into the habit of taking our cell phones with us,  just in case we find ourselves unexpectedly locked out. More than once I've had to phone my boss from the lobby downstairs because I went outside to drop off the mail and forgot to bring my key card with me.

All of this paranoia and precaution may seem excessive, but it's a fact of life around here. Our building is averaging one break-in a week these days, according to a memo issued recently by the property owners. (WOW! There's a ringing endorsement for us to renew our lease!)  A legal firm down the hall had all of their computers stolen last month. Just last week, somebody drove off with a Dirt Company truck in broad daylight: the police recovered it the next day, abandoned ten miles away. The week before that, one of my co-workers called 911 after he witnessed a man stuffing another man into the trunk of a car, downstairs in the parking lot.

And of course we all remember the infamous Gansta in the Ladies Room incident from a couple of months back.

So why, you may be asking, do I subject myself to this kind of workplace menace and apprehension? Why don't I just find a safer, less dangerous place to work? How can I function efficiently in a state of constantly heightened alert?

The answer, of course, is that I put up with it because I like working at The Dirt Company. I feel that the benefits of having a job that doesn't make me grind my teeth into little pointy stubs every night vastly outweigh any minor inconveniences. I put up with it, also, because I know this is a temporary situation: we'll be moving our offices out of the Oakland Coliseum area and back into downtown Oakland proper sometime before the end of the year. (Ironic, isn't it, that this nervous white woman from the suburbs will actually feel safer working in downtown Oakland??)  JoAnne and Scott The Office Manager are actively searching for new office space, even as we speak.

But mostly I put up with it because I refuse to allow fear to dictate the way I live my life. There is a difference, I think, between being "on alert" and being "on edge." I choose to live my life with the awareness that disaster could strike at any moment -- and with a reasonable amount of preparedness against that possibility -- but also with the expectation and the hope that it probably won't.

After all,  that's how I live my life in general. Why should my work life be any different?



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of course, if i win the lottery tonight
this entire entry becomes
instantly obsolete.
[as does my LAPTOP.]