The Day of the Office Stampede

Some days I wish I could draw. Not just scribble the occasional cartoon dog, but actually draw. But alas, I cannot. As much as I would like to illustrate my own books or my own fiction that I plan to post to this blog, the reality is I possess the artistic skills of a ferret on quaaludes. I’ve tried art classes. I’ve tried tutorials. Heck, I’ve tortured myself with dozens of how-to books (you know the ones: draw a fighter jet in five easy steps! So you start with some sort of vaguely poop-esque oblong shape with rectangles jutting from its flanks and end with a flashy piece of aerial firepower that’s a raw adrenaline rush just to behold. Except in my case, I end up with a vaguely poop-esque oblong shape with myriad other shapes glommed on to the whole mess like some sort of half-evolved primordial amoeba left behind in the sludge as all the other sleeker, better-evolved amoebas have stretched their perfect pseudopodia and squidged their way up to dry land). In short, drawing is a disaster.

It’s not that I ramble, it’s that I enjoy a good word vomit.

But today isn’t about drawing, other than my lament that my life stories would be funnier if they were illustrated. Sure, sure, I could use my “words” or whatever it is we expect authors to paint with, but awkward follies and foibles are so much more entertaining when accompanied with pictures. Illustrations : Schadenfreude :: Salt : That half baked casserole shoved into the back of my refrigerator. There we go, kids, that was a free SAT question for you to study.

Today in Melion’s Weird Life Story File, I have an episode from the workplace. Choosing just one episode was something of a chore considering how many odd stories I have from my work experience, but I’ve got one. Grab your popcorn, because here we go.

Years ago, I worked for a company that hired employees from a temp agency. Where the temp agency found these employees, I’m not sure. We’d had one temp agency that consistently sent reliable, sensible people who were a joy to work with. Those people got crap done. It was like they were coming to work, or something. But that agency lost the contract with us, and we picked up another agency. New Agency could not have found stranger employees had they put out an ad with the only stipulation being “must on occasion shower” with “occasion” being translated in the loosest terms possible.

We had to let one guy from New Agency go because he claimed bathing was damaging to the environment, so he refused to practice basic hygiene. Sitting at a desk next to him had all the appeal of sitting beside an uncovered barf bucket–a truly gag-worthy aroma roiled off him and clung to anything he touched. Even after several “chats” with HR, he held to his moral stance, which I suppose has a certain respectability at the heart of it. I mean, I’m a coward; when faced with losing my job or taking a shower, I’d cave to the Man and buy some eco-friendly body wash. After he was fired, the gentle reek of body odor and other excreted smells lingered in his former work space. The company had to throw out his chair.

Another temp from New Agency had to be let go in the first week with our company because he could not keep his hands out of his pants while at his desk. For some strange reason, the training lead took offense to teaching job responsibilities to a twenty-something-year-old man who thought having a good, vigorous scratch about inside his jeans was acceptable workplace behavior. Pro tip: it’s not. It can also be sexual harassment and it will get somebody fired.

And then there was the Day of the Stampede. In the years to come, nobody wanted to be the first to admit that they participated in this undignified episode, and certainly nobody wanted to admit they were the first ones to run. I don’t know who was the first to actually start the Stampede, but I won’t forget the day it happened.

I had just gotten back from my lunch and had come into the main entry way of our office. We had a two-floor complex with a grand, sweeping staircase that spilled into an open foyer. I can say with certainty that we weren’t the sort of business that merited either grand and sweeping staircases or anything with a classy name like “foyer”, but our boss had ideas about image and everything, so that’s what we had.

We also had an elevator with mahogany paneling, but nobody used that since the day half my department got trapped inside, spent four hours jammed wall-to-wall in a confined space, and had to be rescued by the fire department. The most exciting episode to happen in our office, and I had to miss it because I chose to burn calories by taking the stairs. But I digress.

Anyhow, back to the Stampede. When I had made it halfway up the stairs, the double doors to our office burst open and a lone employee exploded out like a coyote with a firecracker strapped to its butt. This was long before the days of office shootings and disgruntled employees doing more than drawing obscene pictures of their bosses in bathroom stalls, so I think we can excuse me for a little lack of self preservation as I stood rooted to the stairs. My brain juggled, “What the hell?” and “Who is that?” along with “Did I miss a memo?” and dropped the whole lot of them, leaving me staring as this employee ran at me with arms windmilling and hair streaming.

“For the love of God, just run!” she shrieked as she barreled past me and rampaged down the stairs. Just beyond me, she lost her footing and tumbled face-first down the remaining stairs, sliding on her belly like a penguin down an ice flow. She hit the bottom, rolled, flopped and then leaped to her feet, scrambling for the door with a banshee-like wail.

Any sane person would have run. I stood, staring after the person who galloped through the parking lot and darted for the street.

What I didn’t realize was that I had witnessed the first wave of the Great Stampede.

Since the receptionist was still at the desk and hadn’t bolted for the door, I figured I’d better get back to my desk and clock in. It’s not that my office was draconian in their time clock policy, but they did believe an hour lunch had no business extending past 45 minutes, and any employee who insisted otherwise was clearly a disreputable slacker. So, I started back up the stairs.

That was when the office doors burst open and a mass of people spewed forth like an antediluvian horror was at their heels.

I don’t know about anybody else, but when I see a screaming mob of people running towards me, my instinct is to run where they’re going.

“Melion! Run!” some unidentified voice shouted from the churning pack of coworkers. By then, I didn’t need the urging. I ran. We all ran. The whole blessed office ran. Anybody who says they didn’t run on the Day of the Stampede is either lying or wasn’t in the office that day.

I had a head start, but I have short legs–I’m pretty sure my Viking ancestors would have held the bridge not because they possessed an unhealthy abundance of courage, but because us short-limbed folk are a liability in a running mob–so I was overtaken before we reached the foyer. We swept through that foyer like a flesh-covered flood of panic: furniture strewn across the tile, potted plants knocked aside. We were a tsunami headed straight for the glass doors. That we got the doors opened and didn’t crash through the glass remained a talked-about element of the Stampede in the coming weeks. We credit the guy from billing for having the presence of mind to open the door, and then numerous of us who had etiquette drilled so deep into our psyche that even sheer panic couldn’t override the chivalrous concept of holding a door open. I might have died, but at least I wouldn’t have been rude.

We hit the parking lot and . . . stopped. Just stopped. From full sprint to milling about aimlessly, as though whatever eldritch horror was upon us would be stopped by the glass doors. I looked around and saw where my department was beginning to cluster.

“So, uh, why’d we run?” I asked.

“Well,” said the assistant manager, “accounting started to run, so we thought we’d better, too.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t argue with that logic.

Suddenly, the front doors swung open and one of the IT guys stumbled out, hefting a printer. Black smoke rolled from the printer as the IT guy heaved the machine out onto the pavement. It smashed apart and more thick, tenebrous smoke belched forth as though it had been called from the Stygian pits. Looking back, maybe we all should have gotten back from the printer, but for whatever reason, we all edged closer. A second IT employee ended the whole debacle by producing a fire extinguisher and putting the printer out of its misery in a pool of foam.

En masse, we began the slow and shameful procession back to our office. Nobody spoke. Maybe none of us wanted to admit how useless we all really were in the face of a some amorphous threat. One lousy office desktop printer caught fire, and we all ran as though the elder gods had burst forth from a portal in the break room. The whole thing hadn’t even set off the smoke alarms or the sprinklers, but we’d all joined together in a wild, rampage of primal fear.

I never did see the employee who flopped down the staircase again. Maybe she didn’t stop running until she hit the county line and figured by that point, no sense going back to that freak show. Then again, she was a temp employee, and perhaps she told New Agency that she wanted a job with less impromptu calisthenics. I don’t know.

How’d the fire start? That became part and parcel to the mythos of the Day of the Stampede. Some claim a temp employee tried to “fix” a paper jam using a paper clip, others said a temp had spilled coffee in it, and another said a temp tried injecting pen ink into the ink cartridge to save funds. I could believe all three. In the end, it was easier to blame the temps–we had enough shame of our own to sort through without thinking that one of us might have started the Stampede.


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