July 1, 2004
The Next Voice You Hear

I don't remember the phone number anymore. Isn't that funny? 

There was a time -- not all that long ago, either -- when I must have typed or dialed or recited this number at least 43,897,621 times per day. Now I have to look it up in my Day-Timer before I dial, and even so, even seeing it in my address book in my own neat careful handwriting, it still doesn't look right. Is it possible that I've written it down wrong? I open up my Outlook contacts directory and scroll down to the "T" section -- T" for "Totem Pole Company" -- to check the number in my Day-Timer against the number on the computer.

Nope. It's definitely the correct phone number. It just looks wrong, for some reason. I suppose the fact that I haven't dialed it in nearly three years has something to do with it.

(Then again, I still remember my childhood telephone number, and I haven't dialed THAT number recently either. We remember what we want to remember, I guess.)

The last time I dialed the Totem Pole Company number was in the fall of 2001 ... shortly after I'd parted ways with Franz & Co. and fled to the relative sanity of The Dirt Company. There was a glitch in transferring my 401K, as I recall, and I needed to discuss the issue with my old pal, The Human Resources Director Person. These days, I still talk to people from The Totem Pole Company on a fairly regular basis ... although now I'm merely acting as the go-between. The Dirt Company and The Totem Pole Company team on engineering projects occasionally, which means that there is regular back-and-forth between our nerdy geotechs and their nerdy geotechs ... our snippy accounting people and their snippy accounting people ... our frantic overcaffeinated Business Department and their frantic overcaffeinated Business Department. (I even spoke to Franz once, briefly: he called to decline an invitation to the Mold Seminar.) In fact, it was Jane The Business Director who suggested I make this call tonight. "I think you'll get a kick out of it," she said.

I dial the number quickly, before I have a chance to change my mind.

My memories of the three years I spent at The TP Company -- unlike my memories of labor, my memories of ninth grade, my memories of the early days of my first marriage -- have not mellowed with time. I don't look back nostalgically at my Totem Pole days and think Gosh, maybe I shouldn't have been so hasty about giving up that moldy window office. The fact is that I thank god and karma every single day that I don't work in that loony bin anymore: looking back, I'm amazed that I lasted as long as I did. Even when things are lousy at my current job -- and when things are lousy at my current job, it's usually because *I* am making them lousy, not because someone else is making them lousy for me -- it doesn't begin to match the level of misery and dysfunction I endured at The Totem Pole, especially during the years I worked directly for Franz. I'm fully convinced that if I had stayed at The TPC even one millisecond longer, somebody would have gone head-first out that fourth floor window.

(And *somebody* would be sitting next to Mark Geragos in a courtroom today, pleading temporary dwarf-schleffera-induced insanity.)

The phone rings in my ear -- once, twice, three times -- and then switches over to the automated operator. I have deliberately waited until after 5 p.m. to call, ensuring that I will not be forced to speak to an actual human being.

The automated operator is who I'm interested in, anyway.

Hello, she says, in her practiced, smooth-as-Yoplait-Custard-Style automated voice. You've reached The Totem Pole Company. Our regular business hours are Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you've reached this message during regular business hours ...

Holy shidt. Jane was right: it IS my voice on the voicemail greeting.

I don't know whether to be flattered ... or weirded-out. On the one hand, it's nice to know they think so highly of my *dulcet tones* that they've preserved them on their voicemail system, all these years. (Although a more likely scenario is that they've just never gotten around to re-recording the message. I'll bet they've still got the same toner-guzzling POS photocopier, too.) On the other hand, there is an undeniable ick factor involved. It's sort of like finding out that your ex-boyfriend is still carrying those Polaroids around in his wallet, six years after you broke up. You may have both moved on to better things since the break-up. Your lives may have gone in totally different directions.

But he can still look at you naked, any time he feels like it.

If you know your party's extension, you may dial it now: otherwise, please dial zero and an operator will assist you ...

I remember the day I recorded that message. I hadn't been at The Totem Pole Company very long, at that point -- I hadn't been in California very long, for that matter, or sober very long, or living with David very long -- and I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the changes in my life. The job, especially. I'd worked in offices before, but this was a BIG office, in a BIG building, in a BIG city. (Or at least it seemed big, compared to Oregon City.) I remember that The Human Resources Director Person sat me down at the main telephone console, that morning, and asked if I would mind recording a new greeting for the voicemail system.

"You have such a nice phone voice," she said. 

Other managers would probably have handed me a prepared script to read and then stood at my shoulder while I recorded it, just to make sure I wasn't chewing gum, to make sure I didn't drop my consonants, to make sure I pronounced the CEO's name correctly. But The Human Resources Director Person told me to "wing it" ... and then she walked away and left me alone. (I loved her for that.) Listening now to my six-years-ago voice, I hear no trace of the nervousness I know I must have been feeling that morning. All I hear is the calm, brave, perfectly-modulated voice of a woman who has just changed every single thing about her life ... and who remains blissfully unaware that things are actually going to get a whole lot worse before they get better. At least, where her job is concerned.

Thank you for calling The Totem Pole Company, and have a nice day. *BEEP*

I disconnect without leaving a message -- offering up a silent apology to the receptionist who will have to listen to my hang-up in her ear, tomorrow morning -- and then I sit here for a moment, thinking. Funny how much of ourselves we leave behind, isn't it? We may believe we're taking it all with us when we quit a job -- we may pack up our coffee mugs and our Dilbert calendars, we may clean out our file cabinets and our desk drawers, we may delete all of our personal e-mail and wipe all the incriminating cookies from our hard drive ... but we always leave something behind, whether we mean to or not. Which, for me at least, begs the question: where else have I left my voice behind, without even knowing it? What other former workplaces still feature the smooth *dulcet tones* of Secra on their welcoming voicemail systems? Perhaps it's time to place a sneaky after-hours call to The Knife Factory ... not to mention The Tuna Label Manufacturer, The Doomed Newspaper, Betty Barfy's real estate office, the health club collection agency, the phone installation company ... any place I may have left a little auditory piece of *me* behind.

If I can remember the phone numbers, that is.



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