Employee of the Year

 

The Academy Awards are given out in the month of February; however, an outstanding performance by a leading lady was observed in late December in Philadelphia that warrants consideration…

2:55 P.M.   “Wow.  Thank you so much.  Some of you know what kind of year we’ve had.  Three trips to Guatemala and red tape and wondering if we’d ever get little Esme….” I let out a breath and forcibly swallow.  “But we did and here we are.  I know many companies wouldn’t support working from home and I probably shouldn’t even be talking about it but without that option, I don’t know where we’d be right now.  Esme is the greatest blessing in our lives and Lisbeth and I cannot be more grateful.”  I look at Cathy/Lisbeth and smile and nod as if to say, You know what we need to do.  “What Frank said earlier is true:  at the end of the day, it’s about family and loved ones.  Through everything, it was Janet who stuck by us, who would take the late night, hysterical phone calls. It was Janet that offered support, that walked the tightrope of offering encouragement but not false hope.  It was Janet who knew when to just listen.”  I pause and look Janet in her wide-eyed face.  “And it is Janet that is getting this BMW!”   People gasp and I hear “Oh my Gods” all over and I’m waving her up and everyone begins clapping and pushing her up to the stage and her mouth keeps opening and closing as if she is trying to say something.  I give her a quick hug while handing her the raffle ticket and say as honestly as I’ve ever said anything, “You deserve this so much more than I do.”

2:53 P.M. “536727!”  Oh my God, that’s my ticket number.  I can’t believe it. I walk towards the stage and lean over a heavyset woman in a painful holiday sweater with alternating rows of standing and jumping white reindeer on a red background.  While giving her a sideways hug, I whisper in her ear, “What’s your name?”

“Janet…”

“Well, Janet, you’re just going to have to trust me.”

*                                    *                                    *                                    *

11:40 P.M.  As Cathy and I speed up the street to the entrance of the venue, World Café Live, a bus is letting off a large group.  We slip into line and follow the stream like cattle through a chute, as we are herded down the stairs to a reception area.  I admit I was trying to be inconspicuous.  Cathy will say she didn’t know we were part of a private party.   I hadn’t planned to crash, but after slipping into that line, it was really easy.

At the sign-in table, there is no signing in.  No paying a fee.  No giving your name to be checked off a list.  Glass coasters engraved with snowflakes, two drink tickets and one raffle ticket complete each of our welcome packages.

While I check my coat, Cathy huddles over her phone researching the name of the company on the door: Elseviere.  “It looks like they do medical journals,” Cathy says.

Mistake number one:  the way we were dressed.  Besides one stereotypical lesbian, we were the only women there in jeans and sweaters.  To make matters worse, I was sporting my new tweed cabby cap.  We order two vodka tonics and produce two drink tickets that the bartender receives without hesitation.  Mistake number two:  the tickets were only for top shelf concoctions and anything ordered after 3:00 P.M.  The bartenders must have been instructed to snatch up tickets from those who didn’t understand the system.

Smiling, we chat up the barkeep.  “Hey, can I ask you something?  We’re part of this party but were wondering if we could check out the Tracy Grammar concert upstairs.  Is that possible?”

12:05 P.M.  Even though it’s a free concert, reservations are required.  Reservations are not our specialty today.  While sipping on our free vodka tonics, we manage to find seats in the folksy yet trendy venue.  It’s not filled with all hipsters though.  Patrons range from construction workers to sixtyish hippies, to college kids, to us.  After downing her vodka tonic, Cathy buys a Yuengling draft.   We agree to leave after the performance and explore the city or maybe grab one more free drink and then head out.

1:00 P.M.  As we return to the party, the head of the company, Frank, begins addressing the crowd of 200.

“You all know it’s been a tough year for us.  We’ve faced some challenges, had our share of struggles…” Cathy and I twist our faces into the most sincere expressions.  Yes, we are nodding, what a difficult year.  We truly feel lucky to be here.  Cathy and I feel luckier than most.

Lisa, Frank’s assistant, begins calling out door prize numbers.  Twenty-five dollars to CVS, Applebee’s, Michael’s…. “Make sure you are here at 3:00 for the grand prize – a 2012 BMW!”

Cathy and I look at each other.  “We can’t-” she begins.

“We’ll go to jail,” I say.  “Ok, we need to spend our time finding the most tragic figure in this company because when we win, and I have a feeling we will, we’ll give the BMW to that person.”

I tick off people who do not qualify:  the obnoxious, the young.  Youth provides plenty of time to make enough for a Beemer.  What about the ten percent minority, the gays?  Two guys each seem to be Mr. Popularity so they don’t need the ride to move them up the social ladder.  Wait a minute.   There’s a sister – decked out in cement-colored cargo pants and a long sleeve, hunter green t-shirt under a quilted cream-colored vest.  Comfortable shoes (do they still make Cloud Climbers?) carry her along.  Save for one guy with whom she is absorbed in riveting conversation, she makes no eye contact with anyone.  She comes across as I.T. and is not the lucky one.

1:30 P.M.  Scanning the crowd, I observe two Pakistani little people making their way up to the buffet.  Each woman wears black dress pants, rayon earth-tone blouses, and moderately expensive watches and bracelets – too much for a work party.  I make an assessment.  They are not power-players but their husbands do well.  The other revelers are invisible to them.  They must be elitists and will not be getting my BMW.

“The food looks incredible.  Maybe we should eat,” I suggest.

In front of chafing dishes, we jockey for position with the rest of the buffet line athletes.

“I’m cutting in line,” a fifty-something man announces.

“I’m reporting you to H.R.,” I say.

“I would too,” he jokes right back.  Another missed opportunity to gain an ally.

At the bar, we enjoy Beef Wellington, pulled pork and shrimp but later sit at a half-empty table on the lower level for dessert.  We’ve gathered up dropped drink and raffle tickets like Zuzu’s petals in It’s a Wonderful LIfe.  Keeping one ticket behind the other, I try to check my multiple tickets during the next round of door prizes.

“We need aliases,” I decide.  “I’ll be Holly Rowe.  What do you want your name to be?”

Cathy looks at me as if I’ve lost my mind.

“Seriously.  It’s safest if we have fake names.  What would you like your name to be?” I nudge her.  She’s not the game player I am.  She’s more of the straight shooter of the two of us

“Lisbeth,” Cathy gives in.

“Lisbeth?  Lisbeth the lesbian?  That’s not conspicuous,” I say but I don’t push her further or she won’t play.

Cathy heads up to check out the other bar and I head back to adopt a few shortbread snowmen from the dessert table. In my mind, these three little guys make my fourth adoption in one day.

2:01 P.M.  “Dance contest,” I text to Cathy.

“You in?”

“Not without you.”

“Probably not a good idea,” I say with some relief when Cathy returns from the upper level.  Initially I was going to jump up on stage with 16 other dancers and then realized each contestant had to be introduced by name and perform a solo.   Half a vodka tonic stood between me being up there and hiding in safety among the masses.  About 200 people have come out to celebrate the holiday and are scattered between a lower level that has a stage, dance floor and white linen covered tables, a mezzanine level bar and an upper level bar that overlooks the lower level.  Dimly lit like a dance club, it’s hard to believe it’s the middle of a workday afternoon.

As soon as the contest ends, people move to the dance floor.

“We’re dancing,” I announce.  The group of 30 moves with a pulse of its own, with a collective rhythm, the Elseviere beast writhing after a year of torturous toil and office politics.  Knowing that for this one day, it is free from the enslavement of a Marxist workplace to bloom like the Corpse Flower after which it will return to its lockstep of labor.   If not valued, at least the creature gets free food and booze for three hours.  “Every day I’m shuffling…” pounds from the DJ booth.

“I’m not feeling it,” Cathy says.

“I’m not looking back on this someday and regretting I didn’t have as much fun as possible.”  Before I can say anything else, Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” comes on and we’re up.

Clusters of people dance and cheer each other on.  Mistake number three:  not socializing enough earlier to establish a support network on the dance floor.  These same people could be our cheerleaders when we win the raffle.  Next time we’ll know better.  I bounced up and down to Lady Gaga and tried to catch people’s eyes to see if they would invite us into their circles.  What drunken strangers don’t acknowledge other dancers?  Like at weddings – it’s a code, isn’t it?  Mistake number four:  making ourselves noticeable by dancing.  I don’t regret it.  “You only go around once,” Cathy’s dad always says.

*                        *                        *                        *                        *

But that’s not how it played out.  My ticket didn’t win.  There was no BMW, just travel vouchers and we didn’t win those either.  The speech that I rehearsed in my mind a thousand times never took place.  The woman in the reindeer sweater may not even be named Janet.  It’s probably just as well.

*                        *                        *                        *                        *

Around 3:15, Cathy fights through the throng of people and I wait for her to ransom my leather jacket.  I calculate totals for the day:  coat check tip -$2, tips for bartenders – $10, Yuengling – $2, memory that will last a lifetime – priceless.

“What’s your name?  I don’t think I know you and I know just about everybody in this company.  Where do you work?” says an African-American woman in a burqa.  Distracted temporarily by her makeup (I didn’t think Muslim women were allowed to wear makeup), I respond, “Karen (So much for my alias.).   I work in Philly.”  Mistake number five.  When Cathy researched Elseviere, she saw there were many offices including one in Rockville, Maryland.   Initially we thought this was a regional office party which would explain why no one was really talking to many other people.  If pressed, we could just say we worked in the Rockville facility.  Obviously this was a party just for the Philadelphia office.  Philly, really?

“What department do you work in?”

“H.R.,” I say.  Every company has an HR department.  I wouldn’t have to know anything technical.  I toyed with saying I was an elf – one of those people companies hire to spy on fellow associates as a quality assurance measure.  Would an elf be invited to an office party?  That would reveal that there were elves in the company.   Surely no friends would be made.  Maybe elf would be my fallback position right before the police were called.

Burqa, whose name is Tia (Spanish aunt?) turns to another African-American woman and says, “She must know Salena,” and without waiting for an answer turns back to me and says, “You know Salena?”

“No,” I say, “I don’t really know many people.  I haven’t been with the company that long.”

“Who you know then?  How long you been with the company?”  She keeps firing off the questions.  This burqa is relentless.

I look around to see who is listening.  I hem and haw and lean in conspiratorially,

“Here’s the thing…” I look around again.  “I’m a lesbian-”

“So?  Nuthin’ wrong with that.  So?”  (Muslim community embracing the gay community?  In my head, a South Park episode is developing.)

“See, the thing is, my partner and I just adopted a baby from Guatemala.  I’m not supposed to say anything and despite what Frank said today about the importance of family, I know they are not big on it… they let me work from home.”  I pause for a split second to let this sink in.  “I conference call when necessary but that’s about it.”

“Oh, no, they don’t like that.  Don’t say anything about it,” Tia says frowning.

“So I don’t really know anybody here and I think they’re letting me work from home because they worry I’m going to go all ACLU on them or something,” I explain.

“You been to the gatherings?” this is the other woman, Nita, speaking now.  “They have gatherings like monthly or something.  There are a lot of people in the company…”

“I don’t know about the gatherings.  I haven’t been out of the house in months,” I say.

“How old you say the baby is?”  Tia’s in charge again.

“Four months old.  I haven’t been out in four months. This is the best I’ve looked in four months (to explain mistake number one), I’m sleep-deprived and you’re lucky I don’t have sputum on my shoulder,” I gesture.

The duo appears stunned.  Cathy approaches, hands me my coat and tries to get away when Tia rebounds, “What’s your name?”

Cathy doesn’t stick to the plan either.  “Cathy,” she says.

Panic begins to rise within me.  Run, run, run, run, takes over my thoughts along with concerns about Cathy destroying my story.  What if they ask to see pictures of the baby?  What will I show them?  A cat?  Deliberately remaining planted, I try to appear casual.  I extend my hand to shake for the second time.  “Tell me your names again, it’s Tia and…”

“Nita,” says the second woman.

“Nita,” I repeat.  “It was so nice meeting you and thank you for being supportive.  Please don’t say anything about what I told you.  I hope to see you both again, maybe next year.”  I smile my most sincere smile looking each of them in the eye while shaking their hands.

Up the stairs to the street level, out the door into the sunlight, down the street and around the corner we go, restraining ourselves from running.

“So I guess we won’t be able to go back for next year’s party after all,” I say.

Cathy shoots me a sideways glance and we both break into grins we wear all the way back to the hotel.