Friday, November 16, 2012

No. 566 – Man in the Box

Performer: Alice In Chains
Songwriters: Layne Staley, Jerry Cantrell
Original Release: Facelift
Year: 1990
Definitive Version: None

Got a long one today. You’ve been forewarned.

As anyone who has worked anywhere long enough knows, a workplace can be a volatile thing, and that’s certainly true at a newspaper. I wouldn’t say “particularly,” because I don’t know the pressures that go on at, say, a machine shop, but the newspaper biz is a fast-paced, high-pressure world, and when the tension is high—as is typical—things can snap in an instant.

That happened one night in the Business department at The Dispatch sometime in 1995, if I remember correctly. (I honestly don’t remember the when; I definitely remember the what.)

Hildegard kept things on edge. As I’ve intimated, she had a, shall we say, prickly personality and made no attempt to smooth any rough corners if things didn’t go her way. The problem was she was married to someone in upper management of the newspaper, so no one was willing to stand up to her nonsense, until one Thursday night …

Thursday night was the only night where all three of the full-time copyeditors and Hildegard worked. Business had three desks, one for each full-timer, and four ATEX terminals. Hildegard usually worked at the extra one in the back, but we were starting to transition to Macs, and the fourth terminal was gone. So she worked in the library next door, which got her out of the room—not a bad thing.

On deadline, things need to be moved along quickly, so chores got passed off to the first person available. Hildegard wasn’t around, and she came to believe that she was being left out intentionally, which, of course, wasn’t the case. On the aforementioned Thursday night, when Paul asked me to read the Wheels proofs—usually Hildegard’s responsibility—before I did the BT layout, she decided she needed to say something about it.

She complained that we were ignoring her—Paul in particular because he was in charge—and obviously didn’t value her contributions. “You know,” she huffed. “This always happens when it’s the three of you guys together.” (All three full-timers were male.)

As I recounted the next day to one of the reporters who had gotten wind of what happened the previous night, “Two of the copyeditors were smart and said nothing. However, I …” I didn’t have to say anything more.

Yeah, I said something. I saw where this was going, and I wasn’t going to let her get away with it. I had to say something … because I already had been accused of sexual harassment in the workplace.

At the Harbor Country News, late in my tenure in 1988, I made a joke that went horribly awry. One of the ad reps was moving to a new job—traffic, which is the person who lays out the ad pages of the newspaper each day among other smaller duties. The ad rep—let’s call her Darlene—was undergoing training, and I teased her about whether she could handle the job. The reality is a 12-year-old with any brains at all could do the job, which is why this position no longer exists at any newspaper. Darlene was a sharp cookie. OF COURSE, she could handle the job.

Well, she took it literally, and the traffic person—let’s call her Kayden—who was training her reamed me out but good in my office the next day, saying I had belittled Darlene. Shocked, I apologized and insisted I was only kidding, but Kayden wasn’t wrong to call me out. I meant no harm but I did harm.

I apologized profusely to Darlene about my ill attempt at humor and said I had no doubt whatsoever she could do the job and that I was looking forward to working with her, which was true. A bit begrudgingly, perhaps, she said she accepted my apology. And that was that … or so I thought.

About a week later, the editor called me into his office and told me that Darlene complained to him about the “harassment.” This was after I had apologized to her and had said nothing more to her in the interim. I told the editor my side of the story and apologized again for my behavior. Fortunately, I wasn’t fired, and it went no further than that, but I did never speak to Darlene again. Can’t be too careful, you know.

Now here’s the rest of the story: There was a bit of history between me and Darlene. In February, she had asked me out to a Notre Dame basketball game. This was a welcome development. Unfortunately, the date didn’t go so well. We parted at the end of the evening with nary a kiss nor any hint of further dates.

Later, I found out from Jim that word was going around the office about how I was a cheapskate and was withdrawn most of the night. All true. I was a cheapskate at the dinner we went to after the game, because the service was abysmal, and I tipped accordingly. (I wasn’t making enough to be generous with my money—particularly when it wasn’t warranted.)

But I never explained being withdrawn to him or anyone … until now.

See, I was hot for Darlene, but as God as my witness, my feelings became an Antarctic blizzard when I discovered that she had breath that could choke Michael Phelps at 50 paces. We’re talking smoker’s halitosis, you know? Whenever she spoke, it was all I could do to keep from passing out. I didn’t feel I knew her well enough to confide the nature of my problem, so, of course, I withdrew. Maybe the friction of that bad evening led to things being said / taken more harshly than they should have—even subconsciously.

Whatever, that was the backdrop when Hildegard launched her attack, and I immediately put into words her insinuation. “Yeah, the three of us here are sexually harassing you.”

She sharped her glare. “That’s EXACTLY what I’m saying.”

I matched her dagger for dagger and jumped up out of my seat. “Well, then you better be prepared to take this to ER (employee relations) right now, because this accusation is nonsense.” I said this a bit more colorfully than I just wrote it.

If looks could kill, I’d be a skeleton, but Hildegard said nothing and stormed out of the room, packed up her stuff in the library and left the building. She didn’t work the rest of the weekend, which was no loss professionally or, certainly, from a morale standpoint.

She also didn’t go to ER or anyone else that I’m aware of. I never heard anything from anyone—even my boss. Hildegard returned to work the next week but never again worked in the same room with the rest of the copy desk and might have said no more than five words than was absolutely necessary to anyone. I think she might have been in shock that someone actually stood up to her.

A month or so later, Hildegard quit The Dispatch for a while before coming back as a reporter. She worked during the day on the fifth floor, and our paths never crossed.

The upshot of all this? A couple of years ago, I got an LinkedIn invite … from Hildegard. I’m certain it was a blast invite sent to everyone she knew or had known at The Dispatch, but still, this was a surprising turn of events. I let the invite sit in my email for a couple of days, because I didn’t feel as though I could recommend her if push ever came to shove.

Finally I decided, what the hell. Obviously, the incident wasn’t that big of a deal in the long run, and if she were willing to let bygones be bygones, who was I to say no? I clicked accept.

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