As people head back to the office after working at home, I thought this would be a good time to reminisce about interesting coworkers I have encountered over the years. From the early days working during high school and college, to the really interesting years as a college professor, I give you a veritable who’s who of my working colleagues.
My first paid position was working as a waitress at a local restaurant called King’s Food Host. It was an early fast food chain in the Midwest known for its burgers and malts. In addition to waitress work, I also made some of the food on the weekends. My coworkers were primarily teenagers, and we had a good time working together. Our manager, who had just started dating his future wife, wasn’t around much. So we had free reign as long as the customers were taken care of and we cleaned up at the end of the day. We also wore lovely teal polyester pantsuits as our uniform. Ugly, but sturdy.
When things were slow, we had time to chat and make ourselves food. One favorite activity was putting candy bars in the malt machine and making new flavors. There was a boyfriend/girlfriend pair of workers who ducked into the cooler periodically for some private time. Occasional water fights between the dishwashers. But overall a fun place to work.
Other part time jobs followed: more waitressing, a photography studio, and teaching tennis lessons. The photo studio and tennis lessons were fun and pretty stress free. The waitressing was at a Pizza Hut, and it was the low point of my part time jobs- low pay, low tips and low morale among the workers. But one group always seemed to be smiling, and that was the cooks. The only perk of the job was taking home a free pizza at the end of the night. I found out later the cooks laced their pizzas with marijuana every night. No wonder they were very protective of their food, and ever so mellow on the job.
None of this prepared me for the workplace after law school. My first job was at bank, and it included a lot time crunching numbers, drafting documents and reviewing regulations. There weren’t a lot of women in professional level jobs, and all of the senior executives were men old enough to be my dad. You could smoke at your desk, and there were a lot of smokers in my department. Really kind of a Mad Men atmosphere, but in the 80’s. The only fun part of the day was going to lunch, and that hour went by way too quickly. I kept a jar of jelly beans on my desk, along with a recipe card. Combine a coconut, with a pineapple and it was a pina colada. Other than that, it was a keep your head down, don’t ask too many questions kind of place.
None of these experiences prepared me for my years working at a college. Academia has a well earned reputation for having shall we say “quirky” folks working there. It is well earned. Here are a few of my favorites. No names are mentioned, but work friends will recognize some of them.
Let’s start with adminsitrative assistants. My first week at the college, with only two weeks until classes started, was very hectic. The admin assistant I shared with other faculty split her time between two buildings. She left me some office supplies, and then went to the other building. I rarely saw her after that. She somehow managed to always be en route to the other building when you needed her. She also had a knack for snagging things she needed, like the window air conditioner in my office, and installing it in hers. I couldn’t prove it, but I knew it was her. She had some foot issues, so she used a cane. This didn’t stop her from being amazingly shifty and hard to find.
She was supposed to work from 8 am- 5 pm, but frequently claimed to be coming in at 6 am, which no one could verify, and then leaving by 3. She had a great affinity for two older science professors who never really learned to use their computers. She liked to do their typing, and make them coffee, and they were happy to monopolize her time.
One day, she was asked to go into a messy office left by another professor who was gone for the summer, and clean out his file cabinet. Offices were being renovated, and it had to be done. When she opened the middle file drawer, she found a long deceased mouse family. After a loud scream, she somehow pulled the cabinet over, and it landed on her good foot. This unfortunate accident lead to a worker’s compensation claim, months of rehab, and ultimately her early retirement.
Two other interesting assistants- one unique character who wore blue rubber gloves every day. This was long before Covid. Her reason? She claimed to be allergic to paper. I did a google search and can’t find any indication this is a legitimate allergy, but if it is, working as an admin assistant doesn’t make much sense. The other was a long time assistant who was being let go for what appeared to be legitimate reasons, and decided to yell about it on her way out of the building. And I mean yell. Years later I heard that she may have been working under an assumed name due to some type of legal problems in her family.
But I am saving my all time favorites for last- the IT department, and accounts payable. I have a photo of an empty room above because that was a common occurrence when trying to teach. Somehow, access to the Internet, and having everything function properly in our classrooms, was an ongoing challenge. As a small school one would think this would be avoidable. A typical problem- I remember one day trying to play a dvd on the new desktop computer in class. I also had the monitor displayed on the screen in the room. I had used this DVD numerous times, and nothing seemed to be working. I tried calling the “emergency” IT number, and no one answered. No surprise there. Mercifully, a student came in late who said another professor had the same issue, and she knew what to do- press the icon on the screen that looked like an orange traffic cone. I did, and voila! The dvd popped up. Because nothing says “click here to play a DVD” like an orange traffic cone!
And last but not least, getting a bill paid or reimbursement for a work expense. The long time occupant of this job was so unpleasant, I nicknamed her Ms. Congeniality. My first skirmish with her was after attending a conference out of town. I turned in my bill for four days of breakfast at the hotel. The bill just said “breakfast”. She refused to pay it because it wasn’t itemized, and there could have been alcohol on the bill. Alrighty. Duly noted. She once threw a check at a colleague. Several staff members refused to deal with her. There was also a huge lead time for any check to be written, and holidays (campus and her vacation days) really added to it. So if you needed any checks written between October 1st and January 15th, you needed to get your request and detailed documentation in by about the first week of September. I am not making this up.
Luckily, I had the good fortune to work with some excellent admin assistants during my last few years, and the college started using credit cards for conference payments and most expenses. Admin assistants could make the charges for faculty, and help with the documentation. It was a wonderful way to avoid the previous unnecessary stress.
If you are working from home, heading back to school or the office, or are happily retired, I hope you have enjoyed this trip down coworker memory lane, and had a few laughs along the way.