July 31, 2003
Boxing Ted


Ted Dirby is buzzing me on the intercom again.

"Hello Secra," he says."This is Ted Dirby." Ted Dirby is a firm believer in always identifying himself by his full name -- first and last -- even though:

  • He has been our Office Manager for three months now: more than enough time for me to recognize the sound of his voice when I hear it.
  • There are no other 'Teds' in this office. It's not like I'm going to accidentally mix him up with Ted Smith or Ted Jones or Ted Kneufflepflepper.
  • He is calling me from less than a hundred feet away.
  • The LCD screen on my telephone helpfully identifies the caller as Ted Dirby.

"Yes, Ted?" I say to him, in what I refer to as my Velveeta Voice: all bland overprocessed false cheer. This is going to be about the dumpster in the hallway again ... I just know it.

"I would like you to call The Management," he harrumphs, for the 43,897,621st time this week. "They still haven't done anything about the dumpster in the hallway." Ted Dirby is a firm believer in Calling The Management whenever anything goes wrong in our office building: if the thermostat is set too high, if the air conditioner is set too low, if somebody 'suspicious' is wandering around in the hallway, if the toilet tissue in the men's room is unspooling from the top rather than from the bottom. Now he wants us to call The Management because our neighbors across the hall have left a plastic recycling dumpster full of old books and papers sitting outside their door, right in front of the Dirt Company main entrance. The dumpster has been there for about a week now, while our neighbors are in the process of moving; it shows no sign of going anywhere soon.

"Let me transfer you to JoAnne," I say.

JoAnne is the person who has been handling The Dumpster Crisis this week. JoAnne handles all of Ted Dirby's most important crises: The Blue Ballpoint vs. Black Rollerball Crisis, The Dust Bunnies Behind The File Cabinet Crisis, The 'Why Isn't Anybody Signing Up To Help Organize The Company Picnic?' Crisis.  And now, The Dumpster In The Hallway Crisis. This is because, as senior admin person, JoAnne is responsible for the smooth and efficient flow of operations in our office ... and because she's really, really good at this sort of stuff ... and because Ted Dirby still thinks I'm dumber than a bucket of dirt, apparently, and therefore can't be trusted to handle a situation as delicate as The Dumpster Crisis. (A notion I do nothing to disabuse him of, I might add. Mainly because I'm actually NOT dumber than a bucket of dirt.) 

When I transfer the call to JoAnne's extension -- "It's Ted Dirby," I solemnly announce -- it is clear that her last viable nerve is in peril. A minute later I can hear her arguing with him. "Building Management doesn't OWN the dumpster, Ted," she tells him for the 43,897,621st time this week. "There is NOTHING they can DO about it."

This, of course, is not the answer Ted Dirby wants to hear. Ted Dirby is a firm believer in Yes Answers: Yes I can! Yes I do! Yes I am! Yes I will!  Yes Answers are proactive, Ted Dirby says. Yes Answers are power answers. Yes Answers get the job done.

No Answers, on the other hand, are a one-way ticket to the Unemployment Office.

I can't hear what Ted Dirby is saying to JoAnne, but it's obvious from her muted responses -- and by the sound of her head furiously and repeatedly banging itself against her desktop, after she hangs up -- that she's being asked, once again, to achieve the unachievable. Haul the dumpster down the freight elevator by herself, perhaps. Accidentally start a bonfire. Sleep with The Management. Do whatever it takes, in other words, to rid the world -- and our hallway -- of the unsightly dumpster.  She emerges from her office, looking grim and homicidal. For a long moment she stands at the front door, staring out at the dumpster. Then -- without a word to me or to anybody -- she marches back down the hallway, goes into her office and firmly closes the door.

A moment later I see her telephone extension light up on my switchboard.

In the meantime, Ted Dirby bursts out of his office, like a little styrofoam pellet out of a popgun, and rushes off for his 12:30 lunch meeting in San Francisco. As usual, he doesn't say a word to me as he signs out: he doesn't look at me or nod at me or acknowledge my presence in any way. As he scurries down the hallway, I see him glare at the dumpster in unmasked hatred.

The issue here, I think, is 50% power -- this is a situation he cannot control, no matter how much he spits and swears and orders people around -- and 50% aesthetics. Ted Dirby is a firm believer in The Painfully Tidy Office ... especially any portion of the office that Might Be Seen By Visitors. No discarded candy wrappers laying around in the lobby area. No empty coffee cups on the front desk. No more than three magazines displayed on the coffee table at any time, and then only if the most current issue is arranged on top of the older issues. "First impressions are the impressions that count," Ted Dirby says. I don't completely disagree with him on this one. I've been in the front desk business for almost twenty-five years now, and I understand the importance of projecting a polished and professional image. I'm pretty darned good at it, too, if I do say so myself.  

The difference here is that I don't allow my sphincter to get tied up in knots over little things, the way Ted Dirby does. 

Lately, for instance, he seems to be fixated on cardboard boxes. The mere sight of an unattended box sitting anywhere within a 500 foot radius of the front desk sends him into paroxysms of fury. This goes for incoming boxes -- UPS shipments, dirt samples, Priority Mail cartons, pizza containers -- as well as outgoing shipments waiting for pick-up, or (especially) empty boxes we no longer have use for. Before Ted Dirby joined The Dirt Company, JoAnne and I used to routinely stack our flattened cardboard boxes outside the front door, for the cleaning crew to pick up after hours and haul off to the local recycling center. Now we're not allowed to do that anymore: in order to accomodate Ted Dirby's tragic cardboard allergy, we're forced to hide the boxes in the file room until after 5 p.m., when he has gone home and the coast is clear and it's safe to dump them in the hallway once again.

(I wonder what Ted Dirby would say if I told him I was married to a CARDBOARD BOX MAKER for sixteen years?)

It isn't until the middle of the morning that the offending dumpster is finally carted away, by a squad of burly young mover guys in baggy pants and backwards baseball caps. I watch as they load the dumpster onto a handcart, secure it with about a bazillion bungee cords and roll it down the hallway towards the freight elevator. One of the mover guys waves at me as they roll past my front door. Cheerfully, I return the wave.

JoAnne hears the commotion and wanders out of her office. Together we watch the freight elevator doors slide closed on the offending dumpster.

"Crap," she says dourly.

Apparently Ted Dirby called her from his cell phone just moments ago -- he bypassed the switchboard and called her direct line, for a change: no doubt attempting to avoid my Velveeta Voice -- and he told her that he's been thinking about The Dumpster Situation. Ted Dirby is a firm believer in Making The Best Out of a Bad Situation. Perhaps we could call our neighbors, he is suggesting, and ask to borrow their dumpster, once they're finished with it? We're having an Office Clean-Up Party tomorrow afternoon -- a prelude to the upcoming office move this fall -- and now he's thinking that maybe the dumpster would come in handy as we're sorting and purging files. "I told him it was too late," she says, and there is no mistaking the note of grim satisfaction in her voice. She adds that she did call Building Management to see if maybe they've got a spare recycling bin or an extra large waste receptacle we can use for the afternoon. "The building manager might be stopping by to drop it off later," she says.

And with that she leaves for a well-earned lunch-slash-nervous breakdown. I'm hoping I see her again ... but I suppose I shouldn't be surprised if she never comes back.

I spend the next forty minutes sorting through the folders in my hanging file drawer, in anticipation of tomorrow's gala Office Cleaning Party. I've got to admit: the hallway does look a lot better without a big plastic dumpster obstructing my scenic view of the broken water fountain. It makes the entire Dirt Company lobby look neater and tidier and more professional. In fact, I'm feeling so inspired by all of this unexpected neatness and tidiness that I'm thinking about rearranging the magazines on the coffeetable -- maybe in alphabetical order today, just for kicks? Engineering Soil Trends Magazine, followed by Soil Engineering Trends Magazine, followed by Trends in Soil Engineering Magazine? -- when Dick the Building Manager Guy suddenly lets himself in through the front door.

He got our message, he says -- "ALL of your messages," he adds pointedly -- and he thought he'd better stop by personally and make sure the dumpster was gone. "I don't have any spare recycling bins," he says, "but I was thinking maybe these might work just as well." And with that, he wheels two ancient shopping carts through the front door. Both carts are cast-offs from the recently defunct Oakland K-Mart store, from the looks of them. Both carts are covered top to bottom in multiple layers of rust and grime.

And both carts are filled to the brim with old flattened cardboard boxes.

"I threw in a few extra boxes," he says. "I thought maybe you could use them for packing?"  We can fill up the shopping carts with all of our old books and papers, he suggests, and then roll them downstairs on the freight elevator when we're done.

I smile sweetly at Dick. "I think these shopping carts will work out just fine," I say. "Thank you so much." And I request that for the time being, he should probably roll them into the middle of the lobby, right in front of the coffeetable.

Ted Dirby won't be able to miss them when he comes back from lunch.



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