Thursday, June 30, 2005

Optimism Is Percolating

This morning I thought to myself, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mary Martha has already returned to work, but Susan has her working at another reception desk just so that I can continue experiencing the misery that is the 19th floor.

But it ended up being a good day; no run-ins with Rude Partner or Snotty Secretary anyway. The big news of the day actually happened downstairs at the Starbucks before work (I was getting a fruit bowl, not a coffee!) when I ran into Judy (Harvard, 2004). Getting advice about law school isn't the only reason I wanted to meet her. I do freelance work for this local magazine (it’s a piece of crap, otherwise I’d link to it here), and for the upcoming issue focusing on immigration, I pitched the idea of an interview with a successful, young attorney who is an immigrant herself. Enter Judy, who’s from Mexico.

I approached her in the Starbucks line -- luckily she was alone (and not one of those crazy-without-coffee people). “You’re Judy, right?” She seemed to vaguely recognize me. I introduced myself as one of the temp receptionists from the firm and then asked her if she was from Mexico (prefacing it with, “this is a random question, but…”). She said yes, I told her about the magazine interview idea...and she agreed to have lunch with me next week! As she ordered her coffee, my mind was already racing ahead to the opening of my article: You might not guess that the American accent ordering a Venti Iced Mocha Latte at Starbucks is that of a Mexican immigrant. But it is. It belongs to Judy Rodriguez, a recently naturalized U.S. citizen and a successful, young attorney at Acewell & Julius… Or something like that.

Well, for once I don't have a woe-is-me conclusion. Things might actually be looking up!

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The 80/20 Rule

Today I was on the 19th floor for the third day in a row; Mary Martha must have the bird flu. I’m starting to miss the comforts of my regular floor -- like my visits from Deborah, the lady who’s in charge of stocking the refreshments in the conference rooms. She always sneaks me free bottles of water (which I stash in my purse and take home -- I have to ration my water intake during the day because I only have limited bathroom breaks). And I miss the attorneys on my floor, who seem so nice in retrospect. Sure, most of them never talk to me, but they also don’t actively seek opportunities to be mean to me.

I got another call from That Partner today. It was a roll-over call, meaning he had called an attorney’s extension, but after a certain number of rings of neither the attorney nor the secretary picking up, it rolled over to me. “Is Pat Thompson there?” he barked, cutting off my “Reception desk, may I help you?” greeting.

“It looks like…uh…Pat Thompson is not in right now.” (Receptionists and secretaries are supposed to refer to attorneys at all times as Mr./Ms. Attorney, but I was unable to shuffle through Mary Martha’s phone list in time to find Pat’s picture and determine his/her gender.)

“What do you mean it looks like he’s not in?” he asked, with (continued) impatience. Does this guy not understand how the whole roll-over system works? If you’re speaking to the receptionist, it’s because no one answered the attorney’s phone. So to me, it looks like the attorney is not in his office, but I’m not his secretary -- I’m out front in the reception area, so I have no way of knowing for sure. He might be in there and just not answering his phone.

I started to stutter a response but he cut me off again: “Just tell him I called.”

“Sure, and your name is?”…but he had already hung up.

I left a message for Mr. Thompson that he had missed a call and named the rude partner from yesterday as the caller. I’m 80% sure that’s who it was, but there’s also a 20% chance that there are multiple attorneys on the 19th floor who are complete assholes.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Sour Cookies

Mary Martha was sick again today, so I was back on the 19th floor. One good thing about this floor is that the relief receptionist is Tina, who, unlike Joan, is a permanent employee and has a computer login. She logs me in when she goes on her breaks so that I can have a few minutes to check my favorite blogs and email with my man. The bad thing about 19 is that being there gives me a general feeling of incompetence.

This morning a partner called from his cell phone asking if his secretary was in yet because she hadn’t picked up her extension when he'd called. First I had to ask who he was (was I supposed to know from the sound of his voice?) and he seemed genuinely annoyed about having to tell me. I looked him up on the phone list and found his secretary. Unfortunately, even with Mary Martha’s handy pictures on the phone list I still wasn’t sure if I’d seen his secretary. There are a whole bunch of them on this floor that kind of look the same; to me the morning rush is just a parade of nondescript, older white ladies. The only secretary whose face I have registered in my brain is Diane’s secretary Monica (who appears right next to Diane’s picture on the phone list and who twice yesterday complimented me on my “complexion,” whatever that means). So I told the partner that I was sorry, I wasn’t sure if his secretary was in yet. He sighed and asked to be transferred into her voice mail, at which point I hit the wrong button and dropped the call.

A little later in the morning, a salesman from one of the copy centers stopped by to leave a package for Todd, one of the second year associates. It looked like some kind of give-away and the box wasn’t sealed, so I peeked inside – cookies. Figuring an associate would be too busy to worry about a box of cookies, I called Todd’s secretary and told her (cheerfully, since it was cookies) that Todd had a package. She was silent for a moment. “Ok…can you hang up, call his extension and tell him yourself?” (If receptionists’ pictures appeared on the phone list I guess they would be even smaller than the secretaries’ pictures.) So I called Todd’s extension and after four rings it bounced back to the snotty secretary. “Todd Amstead’s office,” she answered. “Yes, hello, this is the reception desk, Mr. Amstead has a package.” And I hung up.

Maybe I really am just a lousy receptionist. At least I avoided another run-in with Diane today.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Desperately Seeking Diane

Joan was sitting at my desk when I arrived to work this morning. She said Susan had told her to cover my floor for the day and I was supposed to cover 19 for Mary Martha, who had called in sick. (Yes, it would have been easier to just have Joan cover Mary Martha. If Susan ever showed a flicker of intelligence I would think that she was moving us all around just for her own amusement, like the guy who came up with Daylight’s Savings just so he could watch the whole country change their clocks twice a year. But I’m pretty sure this was just a failure to figure out the simplest solution.)

As I got back in the elevator to head to the 19th floor I suddenly realized that today could be the day I meet Diane (My School, 2004). Any glimmer of hope for excitement will do on a Monday morning.

I settled into Mary Martha’s desk on 19 and discovered that she had hand-made her own floor directories. Every floor has a standard phone list and map of attorney offices, but Mary Martha had added photocopied pictures from the firm directory to hers. What was especially amusing is that she took the time to enlarge or reduce the size of each person’s photo based on their “status.” Partners were large, associates were medium, and secretaries (who appeared next to their bosses) were small. Diane’s picture was on there -- it was already familiar to me because I’d studied it so much in the firm directory.

Around 10:00 Diane-in-the-flesh came flying through the reception area from her office on the West side of the floor (I had looked her office up on the map so I’d know from which direction to watch for her). It’s always strange the first time you see someone in person after seeing only their picture -- it’s hard to know what they'll really look like. I was sure this was Diane because of the poofy blonde hair -- but it was in a ponytail! In her directory picture her shoulder-length hair was down, so naturally I had imagined that’s how it always was.

She seemed to be in a hurry as she passed the reception desk, so I didn’t try to get her attention. She approached the double doors that lead to the east side of the floor and I heard her punching the access code into the number pad. It wouldn’t let her in. She tried again but the door was still on lockdown from her previous miss. She looked at me and asked if there was some way to clear the number pad so that she could get in. I looked back with my “I’m just a temp, I don’t really know anything” look.

I started to pick up the phone (for what -- was I calling someone for help?) but Diane scurried past me, having decided to give up on the double doors and take the long route around to the east side. She was mumbling about being late and the damn door never working and I think I apologized and reached for the phone again.

I hope Mary Martha isn't sick again tomorrow.

Friday, June 24, 2005

BBQ and Beer, with an Exclamation Point

Friday is coffee day for me. Not that I’m not sleepy every other day of the week (Joan and I recently discovered that we have the same trick for sneaking naps at work – laying a book flat on our desks and hanging our heads down as if we’re reading), but I only allow myself to drink coffee on Fridays because the caffeine keeps me up at night. Even on Fridays I don’t drink a whole cup, I just mix a little in with my hot chocolate. One time an associate saw me in the kitchenette making my Friday drink but he missed the first step, where I put the hot chocolate powder in the bottom of the cup. He looked on in horror as I poured a quarter cup of coffee and then filled the rest of my cup with hot water. I wanted to explain the hot chocolate part but he must have sensed that I had noticed him staring at me because he quickly pulled out his Blackberry and started acting busy.

Anyway, this morning I was sipping on my coffee chocolate and turning to the editorial section of the Chronicle when a woman who I vaguely recognized as being on my floor stopped by with an armful of small boxes. “Will you do me a favor and stuff these envelopes for me?” I must have given her some kind of dirty look because she quickly added, “It’s not a rush, you can finish reading your paper first.” She stacked the boxes on the edge of my desk and thanked me in advance. “Just call me when they’re done – no rush…I’m Jana, by the way, extension 3730.”

I suddenly regretted whatever mute attitude I had given her. This is Jana Strummer, Manager of Attorney Recruiting. The reason I hadn’t recognized her face was because I only ever study the attorney section of the firm directory – but I had spoken to Jana on the phone before, during my first week at Acewell. At the time I was filling in for Mary on 26 while she was on vacation, and in a rare moment of boldness I had called Jana and introduced myself as a temp from another floor who was going to law school in the fall. She was a little dismissive until I mentioned My School. We then had a 10-minute conversation about the attorney recruiting process and associate life in different kinds of firms. It was exactly the kind of interaction I had hoped for when I took this $11/hour job.

I jotted down Jana’s extension and she left my desk without asking my name. I couldn’t decide if I wanted her to know who I was at this point…she might not have remembered our phone conversation anyway.

Although I was told the envelope stuffing job wasn’t “hot,” I folded up my Chronicle and grabbed Jana's boxes -- I can never enjoy leisure activities when I know there’s work lurking in the wings. (One time I was asked to help a secretary with “closing out files,” which entails punching holes in stacks of documents and securing them into manila folders with metal tabs. I devised an efficient assembly line process and finished her box of files in less than an hour, expressly so that I could get back to my book – I think I was reading Wonderland at the time. I called the secretary and told her I was done so that she could collect her files. “Terrific, you’re so quick! I’ll bring over the next box.” Turns out there were over 50 boxes of these files and there was no chance I would finish, ever. I spent the rest of the afternoon punching holes one paper at a time, my motivation destroyed. Luckily she got her own temp a few days later and I was able to get back to my book.)

I removed the plastic lids from Jana’s eight-or-so boxes. Each one contained 10 envelopes with fancy colored linings and 10 one-sided cards.

You are cordially invited to:
“BBQ and Beer!”
hosted by Helen and Thomas Mansfield
Thursday, July 21st, 6:00 p.m.
Casual dress

Tom Mansfield is a partner -- I knew right away what these invitations were for. I can't wait until I'm a summer associate.

I got to work stuffing and stacked the completed envelopes in an empty file folder box. By the time I'd finished I had decided that I did want Jana to know I was the future law student she had talked with on the phone. I called her to say that the envelopes were all set and she came by to pick them up. As she thanked me again, I struggled to think of an opening.

“Are there going to be a lot of events for the summer associates?” I asked, hoping to start a conversation about summer events which would turn towards summer associates and then law schools and then me.

But Jana was already walking away, the box of invitations tucked under her arm. “Yeah, there are, thanks -- I’ll have some more stuffing for you to do next week.”

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Garden of Eden

A client came in this morning to see Eden Shoal, an unusually young-looking partner who I always see brushing her teeth in the ladies’ room. I asked the client to take a seat and then dialed Eden’s extension. Usually when you dial an attorney’s extension, their secretary picks up and you say, “Mr. So-and-So is here to see Ms. Attorney,” and the secretary tells you that the attorney will be right out. But Eden’s secretary must have been on the phone or something because Eden picked the line up herself. The Acewell receptionist manual states that even if the attorney picks up the line, you should still say, “Mr. So-and-So is here to see Ms. Attorney.” This gives the waiting client the impression that there’s a secretary on the other end of the line.

So I said to Eden, “Mr. So-and-So is here to see Ms. Shoal.” To which she replied, “That’s me.” So I said, “Shall I tell him that Ms. Shoal will be out shortly?” To which Eden replied, with some annoyance, “I’ll come out to get him in a minute.” I don’t blame her, I must have seemed like a fool – but if I backed out of the charade at this point, I’d only seem more foolish, as if the light bulb had suddenly gone off only after her second statement. “I’ll tell Mr. So-and-So she’ll be right out.”

A few moments later, Eden came to the waiting area and approached the client. “Hi, I’m Eden Shoal,” she greeted him (the extra loudness and clarity for my benefit, I can only assume).

I considered trying to explain myself when I saw her waiting for the elevator later on in the day. But I didn't.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Little Black Book

The “firm directory” is a little book that shows pictures of all the firm’s attorneys along with their contact info, their degrees and institutions, and the names of their spouses. The photos are yearbook-style. I imagine there’s a photographer that comes to the office once a year and sets up his lights and reflectors and marbled-paper background in one of the conference rooms. Some of the more senior partners have clearly become exempt from the annual photo update (although the year of their undergraduate degree belies their true age). One of the oldest-looking guys managed to avoid listing his undergraduate degree altogether – or maybe he’s so ancient that he went to law school back in the day when you could go straight out of high school.

Perusing the directory never gets old to me. At first I used to just look for the attorneys on my floor so that I could start to match names with faces (faces that look the other way while they wait for the elevator). I learned that Edgar is the name of one of my floor favorites – an old, eccentric partner who wears a bow-tie and a pink seer-sucker suit about three times a week. At first I thought maybe he was traveling and living out of a suitcase for longer than he had anticipated. But I later realized that he just owns several of these pink suits.

Recently I’ve used the directory to set my sights on a handful of first year associates that I want to meet so that I can pump them for law school and firm life advice. There’s Judy (Harvard, 2004), who I've seen in the elevator and is much shorter in person than I would have guessed from her photo. Then there’s Barry (Georgetown, 2004) who works on my floor and who (in my head) I always call “Crazy Hair” because of the cowlicks in his directory photo. In real life his hair is neater, although still a bit long and wild for a buttoned-up law firm (think, Manu Ginobili, but without the sweat). The biggest coup would be to meet Diane (My School, 2004) – not just because she went to the school I’m going to, but because she works on the 19th floor, which is in a separate elevator bank (greatly diminishing my shot at a chance encounter).

This morning, as I was stirring my hot chocolate in the kitchenette, I finally got my opportunity with Crazy Hair Barry. He’s one of the few attorneys who sometimes smiles at me, so I didn’t feel too nervous approaching him. “You’re Barry, right?” (I considered adding, “Georgetown, 2004, right?” but worried that might scare him off a bit.) He shook my hand and asked my name. I told him I was starting law school in the fall and he enthusiastically talked to me about school and his experience at Acewell so far. Turns out he’s also from New York, so we chatted about how funny Texans are and how neither of us realized there are folks who still display Confederate flags.

Back at my desk, I felt an almost giddy enthusiasm, not uncommon for me after successful social encounters. But there was something extra good about this post-chat high that I didn't quite put my finger on until later. I guess I’m hoping that Barry will tell all the other attorneys that the receptionist is a delightful young lady who’s going to law school in the fall.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Joan of Acewell

The person I talk to most at the firm is Joan, one of the relief receptionists. She's usually the one who covers me for my breaks and lunch hour, and she also comes by my floor every afternoon to re-stock the conference rooms with pens and legal pads. (Last month, after stealing pens from the conference room for several days, I discovered that none of them had ink -- another detail that delights the attorneys, I'm sure.)

Joan is a slim, white woman who wears short skirts and colorful chandelier earrings that would be too teenage for someone of her fifty-something age if she didn’t have the personality to pull them off. She always carries two purses plus a paper fan, a huge cup of ice and a fleece blanket (weapons against her alternating hot and cold flashes). She is deeply Catholic; she cried the day news broke that "Joan of Arcadia" was being canceled from the CBS lineup.

I'll openly talk to Joan about whatever she asks me (although once when I mentioned that I was living with my boyfriend she disapprovingly asked if he “intended to marry" me), but our relationship is largely based on my listening to her life dramas. The latest is about her 22-year-old stepdaughter who was in a car accident over the weekend and subsequently taken into custody for drunk driving. Today I was going to suggest that she start her own blog to chronicle her family soap, but she wouldn’t have the time. Evenings are busy with Bible study and, like me, she doesn’t have a computer login to use at work (she has been at Acewell for about a year and a half, but she is still officially a temp).

Lately Joan has been offering to take my timesheet down to HR for me on Fridays and for that she is my best buddy.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Light Bulb Man

Mary from the 26th floor called me early this morning asking if I had seen Eduardo. "Eduardo who?" I asked. "You know, Eduardo the light bulb man." Riiight. There's this little Mexican guy named Eduardo whose sole responsibility is to replace light bulbs. When an attorney notices an outage in one of his reading lamps or overhead lights he tells his secretary, his secretary tells me, I call Eduardo's supervisor, and a few minutes later up pops the light bulb man, wheeling his stepladder and case of assorted bulbs behind him. No, I hadn't seen Eduardo yet today.

Fifteen minutes later Mary called again asking for the light bulb man. Apparently someone kept calling her saying he had an urgent message for Eduardo about a closing and she couldn't get a hold of his supervisor, so she just kept calling all the receptionists to check if they'd seen him. Still no sign of Eduardo.

An hour later, Mary phoned a third time to call off the search party -- everything had worked out, she said. I found out later from Yvonne on 24 that the urgent caller was not looking for Eduardo the light bulb man at all. He was looking for Eduardo the visiting attorney from Washington. That does make more sense, in retrospect.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Susan Strangebird

I had yet another run-in today with Susan, the HR secretary who I can only describe as both cooky and bitchy. My official supervisor is Shandace, the staff manager, but the person I usually have to deal with is her secretary Susan. This morning’s incident resulted because I arrived to work late (I was getting my Texas plates at the DMV). Work starts at 8:00 and I had previously gotten approval from Shandace to arrive as late as 9:30, but I actually got there at 8:30. I dialed Shandace’s extension to say that I had arrived (so they wouldn’t be trippin come timesheet day). Susan answered, so I told her I was in. An hour later, my phone rings and it’s Shandace, wanting to make sure I was at work. Apparently Susan never gave her my message.

I was delighted to detect a hint of annoyance in Shandace’s voice when I explained to her what happened – it was as if she and I tacitly acknowledged we were on some higher level than ditzy Susan. Shandace knows that I’m going to law school in the fall and I think she views me as someone who is smart and only doing this job as a temporary gig.

For some reason it’s important to me to have my intelligence recognized, although I’m (just) modest enough to not go around advertising it (in person, that is – not here, obviously). Even though I like to think I don’t give a damn about dolts like Susan, I still find myself wanting them to know that I'm smart. And Susan seems to have the impression that I'm a bit of a dimwit.

Part of the problem is the confusing glass door in the HR office. Handles are supposed to be vertical on the side where you pull and horizontal on the side where you push, but this door has vertical handles on both sides. Even though I consciously try to remember when I should pull or push on the HR door, I always choose the wrong way. It's like when you always misspell a word that you know you always misspell. I can never remember if “separate” or “seperate” is the correct spelling and every time I go to write the word I stop and consciously think about it. But all I can think about is how I always choose the wrong spelling. Sometimes I even try to fool myself by picking the one I think is wrong so that I might actually choose the right one, but it still always ends up being the wrong one. (You would think the immediate reinforcement of spell-check would have helped me learn it by now, but it has only eliminated my need to care. All I have in my brain under the category of “separate” is the knowledge that I don’t know how to spell it.) Anyway, I can never open this HR door correctly and it makes a loud “clank” when it wobbles from being pushed or pulled the wrong way. So every time I go in or out of HR, it’s “CLANK,” followed by, “No...push, dear,” and I know Susan’s thinking that I'm a moron.

Every trip to HR is comical like this. One time I was dropping my timesheet off with Susan and I asked if I could use her stapler for a minute for a few personal papers. That’s not really a question so much as a courtesy statement: “I’m going to borrow your stapler right now, please pass it to me.” But Susan didn’t have the normal reaction (handing me the stapler). Instead, she looked at me strangely and asked, “How long do you need to use it?” What kind of a question is that? I'm just asking to use your stapler, not to sit in your chair or use your phone or filter my blood through your kidney. “I just need it for a minute,” I said, “I have three or four personal things I need to staple.” She handed me the stapler – reluctantly – and told me, “You know, people don't usually hang around here in the HR office.” I quickly stapled my stuff and got out of there, clanking the wrong way through the door, of course.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Hourly Waged

Without fail, every morning when I get in the elevator, someone makes a remark about my sneakers. “Those are nice sneakers,” they’ll say, but I know what they really mean is, “Why are you wearing sneakers with a suit?” I guess it’s a New York thing to wear sneakers when you’re in transit to and from work. Why should I dirty up my suede Stuart Weitzman stilettos on the bus when I can just throw on some Nikes and change shoes when I get to the office? I guess most folks in Texas drive to work.

This is my sixth or so week temping at this law firm – let’s call it Acewell & Julius. It’s a prestigious (that’s what my temp agency told me) downtown law firm, taking up seven floors in one of the handful of Houston skyscrapers. The name actually changed a few weeks ago when Julius was taken on as a partner. The firm used to be called Acewell & Patrickson, but old man Patrickson got booted off the letterhead when Julius showed up. Patrickson is actually dead, but I still felt kind of bad for him.

I’m “working” here as a receptionist. Basically, my two duties are to answer the phone and to greet visitors. The phone rings maybe three times an hour and a visitor arrives maybe three times a week. There is a receptionist like me on each of the seven floors, plus there are two “relief” receptionists who rotate throughout the floors to give us our morning, lunch, and afternoon breaks. I’m still in disbelief that the firm employs nine people to basically do nothing, but I guess it’s not like they’re paying us that much.

I make $11/hour. Mind you, a few months ago I was making a very nice salary, living in New York working for a Connecticut mail-order company. The money was nice but it was a miserable job and I’m happy to be free from it, despite the sudden quartering of my salary. I’m just content to be in a job where I have nothing to do. When I was at the CT company, stressfully slaving away for 60 hours a week, I often daydreamed about having the kind of job where you goof off all day and then leave right at 5:00. That’s exactly what I do at Acewell. My routine is to read the paper in the morning and then talk on the phone or read a book in the afternoon. And they pay me to do this. Sometimes it does get boring, and I find myself counting the hours (or the dollars – “you’ve already earned $22 this morning!”), but I’m not complaining.

And no, I’m not planning on becoming a career receptionist (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I moved to Houston because of my boyfriend's job, and it didn’t make sense for me to find anything permanent because I’ll be starting law school in the fall. So for now I'll just chill and read the paper for $11/hour.

The one bad thing about this assignment is that I don’t have a computer. Oh, there’s a computer on my desk, but I don’t have a login for it. I was told by HR that temps are not allowed to use the computers. I guess they don’t want regular folks off the street looking at the private legal documents on their server. Or they could be afraid that I’m a paralegal from a competing firm here to spy on them (I’ve heard that really happens).