Not long ago, during one of those internal shuffles that give meaning to the expression "itinerant journalism," the desk of one employee of a metropolitan daily newspaper was moved to the front of the room.
This, I assure you, meant nothing in terms of status. There is no status in a newspaper. But it put this woman's desk among seven or eight others within range of something called The Door.
Now newspapers are the closest thing in the work world to the community drop-in centres. People wander in and out of them carrying every sort of notion and promotion from wedding announcements to dancing bear advertisements to proclamations about National Taxpayer Week.
Sometimes they even arrive offering themselves as objects of national fascination. There was, for example, a man who used to lumber into my old office in Detroit every January wearing nothing more than a wet bathing suit and doing a seal imitation.
Sitting near any door in a newspaper office thus has certain built-in liabilities. Streams of people are constantly asking you where they should deposit their dancing bears and life stories. Not to mention their wet bathing suits.
Most people would reasonably assume that, if they were sitting among seven co-workers, these fascinating inquiries would be divided into seven equal parts. But they would be wrong if only one of this up-front group was female.
The cruel fact of life, as this woman (who shall remains nameless) discovered in months of people-watching, is this. This average stranger would walk into a room, past the charming music critic (and disco dancer), barely glancing at the well-groomed highbrow of the movie critic, avoiding three reporters and one columnist until his eyes fastened on the only person in the room trying madly to find a solution for world hunger 10 minutes before deadline.
It was clear that this person and no other had to be the receptionist because she was of the Female Persuasion.
In this way, many brilliant ideas were interrupted and forever lost to the world - including the solutioin to world hunger. But something was gained. The woman won a daily sense of camaraderie with every female executive who is asked to get the coffee, every woman ever arbitrarily handed a dictation pad, and every female doctor ever asked when the doctor would be in.
In an effort to prove to herself that she was not paranoid, she even conducted a brief sociological study. First, she made certain improvements on her own public barriers. She put a bookcase in front of her desk and piled it with newspapers, sweaters and phone books. This, however, only seemed to give people a place to put their elbows and their dancing bears, while asking for information.
Next, under the tutelage of her neighbor, she tried to perfect a technique of rudeness. She discovered that there were people who would rather spend 10 minutes waiting for her to look up than to disturb the man reading the paper with his feet on the desk behind her.
The woman didn't want to be hostile about this. It wasn't fair to get angry at the poor fellow carrying a case of yogurt samples when he asked where the food editor was. It wasn't his fault. It came with the blue booties.
Yet she gradually became desperate to finish a sentence with something other than a question mark. She was willing to try anything short of a sex-change operation.
So, one day, in fit of a anxiety, she placed a handwritten warning on a top to the massive barrier. It read: This Is Not a Reception Desk.
What was the result of this, the Ultimate Weapon, you ask? Well, the first two souls were intimidated. They walked to the back of the room to find another woman. The third smile jovially over the top and asked, "Could you please tell me where the reception desk is?"
The woman was, either way, defeated.
Now there is a new rumor floating through the office. They are playing musical desks again, and everyone is going to be moved.
This time, she is looking for a back seat with a thoroughly rear view. If she doesn't get it she intends to come to work throughly upholstered and do a nifty imitation of an empty chair.