Gwendolyn puts on her steeltoe boots, safety vest and hard hat. She closes her trunk and walks to the process facility to meet an operator who will show her the newly installed pumps. She needs to inspect the equipment prior to operation and check the safety box. She arrives at the control room and sees two men sitting in front of ten computer screens, showing various parts of the system working.
“Joe?” One of the men raises his hand, without turning around. After 30 seconds he gets up and head towards her.“I’m Gwendolyn.”“Safety inspection on new pump?” he asks simply, offering his hand to shake perfunctorily. “Follow me”. They walk through the long hallway with many sets of doors to process rooms. The walls are windowless but well lit, painted in grey epoxy, easy to spray down for washing. Joe leads to the door leading to the warehouse. The door contains the usual set of generic warning signs, -- “Personal protective equipment required”, “Safety boots must be worn”, “ “No entry without safety glasses”, “Authorized personnel only”, and even an old “No smoking” sign. Joe grabs the handle.“The pump is right in here.” Gwendolyn notes Joe’s running shoes.“What about safety boots” Gwendolyn motions at the safety boots sign.“Oh, you’re ok. I’ll keep you out of the way” he says with the tiniest indulgent smile. Gwendolyn steels her face so her impatience wouldn't show.“No. I’m wearing my safety boots,” she pulls up her pant leg slightly to show the green triangle on her boots. “If you want to put yours on, i’ll wait.” She pretends that she thinks he just forgot. It's one of her on the job tricks. “We’re just going to the pump and back, we’re not going to the machines”, he says, a little impatiently now. Gwendolyn could too feel impatient, but she has long ago realized that half of her job is reminding people about basic safety rules like wear your safety boots where required, don’t eat food in the chemical testing area, etc. She was a natural rule follower, and she didn’t play those games that other safety reps played pretending that they didn’t see rule bending in order to finish more visible tasks, like getting some forms signed properly.“Joe, the safety boot rule applies all the time. You can’t enter the warehouse without them.”Joe didn’t bother to hold back his eye roll.“I don’t have them here” he says leaning his head back. He might as well have crossed his arms on his chest and said “deal with it”.He was right. It was her problem. She was responsible for getting the safety inspection done.“Do you have steel toe caps to put over your shoes?”Gwendolyn waits while Joe tries to find them. She’s there alone; once about every 5 minutes an operator passes by. She turns another one away for not having safety boots, she reminds two about wearing safety glasses and not just having them in their pockets. Joe shows up after 25 minutes with toe caps. Gwendolyn performs a 20 minute inspection and is able to sign off on the form.
Back at the office, on her way to the kitchenette for some tea, Gwendolyn passes the training room where an orientation for new employees is happening. She smiles secretly for the poor souls who have to spend two days listening to…. A whole lotta rules. Like: “No tank tops, no tops with logos bigger than 1.5 inch, no neon colours, no t-shirts from vacation destinations, no earrings larger than 2 inches”. This will be followed by a list of all the scented products new employees are not to wear, including deodorant and clothes washed in strongly scented detergent. And so on. And on.Gwendolyn reaches into a cupboard for her Snoopy mug and sees a printed sign “Do not use other people’s mugs.” Actually, signs like this make her want to take someone’s Hello Kitty mug, put on red lipstick, drink from it, and leave it on the counter with the lipstick stain. But she gets Snoopy and makes camomile tea.
When Gwendolyn arrives at work the next morning, she starts her day as usual, checking emails. Nothing urgent, just something from HR reminding everyone about not wearing flip-flops or loose sandals, as the flop flop sound distracts many people (actually, it was Kevin from accounting who complained and got this rule erected), and no eating carrots or other loud crunchy food (Susan). After clicking delete with great satisfaction, Gwendolyn grabs her mug and heads for the kitchen. Oh yay, the drab, grey kitchenette has been spruced up with a 5 foot tall print. Gwendolyn’s eyes narrow as she reads it.
Do:Clean up after yourselfWash your dishesClean out your items from the fridge on FridaysDo not:Leave a messLeave dirty dishes in the sinkLeave food to rot in the fridge
And especiallyDon’t eat other people’s lunches!!!
Gwendolyn stares at the last line, forgetting about the first thing she needs in the morning before confronting the world and all the rules of this particular office microcosm.
That is how Steve finds her moments later.
“Good morning Gwendolyn”. She just stares with her mouth slightly open. He raises his eyebrows in a silent question.“Don’t eat other people’s lunches???” she says loudly, bitterly and dripping with sarcasm.“Makes sense” he replies, turning to the coffee machine. “Have you ever taken someone else’s lunch?”“No, but someone took the intern’s last week. He…” sensing he was about to launch into the story, Gwendolyn cut in.“Who would take someone else’s lunch?” it wasn’t a rhetorical question and she let Steve know by staring at him intensely.“Some people just do that. They don’t follow our social conventions.” Steve said evenly.“Yes!” Strangely, that makes Gwendolyn light up even more. “Yes, the issue isn't that they don't know the rule. The issue is that some people don't follow social conventions,” She repeats. “Do you think a generic message in the kitchen will magically turn them into rule followers? No. “ she answers herself. “The only thing this poster accomplishes is to put yet more meaningless rules on us, conventional folk.” Steve stirs his coffee silently.
“I mean, doesn't it bother you to be told not to eat loud food and not to wear flip flops, like you're a child?” She tries to engage him.“Nah, I don't wear flips flops.” Hmm. Fine, it wasn't everyone's issue. But it was Gwendolyn's. And she's had enough of these inconsequential rules. She left the kitchenette in a hurry. Her mind was off on a gotta do somethin’.Gwendolyn had a busy day, but her mind kept coming back to don't eat other people's food. And when she took out her lunch from the fridge, her eyes fell on a chocolate mousse pudding cup that had been in there for days… Her all time favourite snack. She leaned closer to examine it without actually a touching it. Not expired. Not marked with a name. Huh.After she ate her lunch and got that urge for something sweet to finish off with, she thought of the pudding again. She smiled at the thought of taking it. Relishing it. Then she dismissed the silly thought and concentrated on a report. Her afternoon meeting was tiring and she came to the kitchen afterwards to treat herself to a snack. She hesitated a minute seeing the pudding cup again, then picked it up. She ate it at her desk before making edits on another report, with not a shadow of guilt.
Gwendolyn woke up in the middle of the night, with her mind chasing a thought. She was a little giddy, and a little laughing at herself for getting so stirred up about it.The next day was … Another office day. A meeting here, a safety inspection there. But there was a little glow in Gwendolyn's face, a sparkle in her eye. She took her lunch early. The kitchenette was empty at 11 o’clock and Gwendolyn examined everything that was available in the fridge. Lasagne, leftover Chinese takeout, three salads, two soups. She quickly placed the desired container in a bag she had ready and headed to the next building to use the microwaves in there to warm her big score. It was a warm, early spring day and she decided to make her feast at a picnic bench outside. The lasagne was fair, better than frozen, not as good as mom’s. She threw out the Tupperware in the outside garbage.After lunch, Gwendolyn joined her coworkers as they listened to the story of the missing lunch. It belonged to Sherry from Finance. Gwendolyn joined in the “who would do that” and “you just can't trust people”.
“I hope it wasn't homemade” she offered in a consoling tone to Sherry.
Two weeks later, she scored some Chinese. She didn't want to do it too often, not to incite rage. Just enough to get that feeling. Two Fridays after the Chinese, as she was placing her lunch bag in the fridge, she saw something new.
Well, well.It was a bakery box. It was a cake for Susan's birthday. She smiled as she imagined cutting the first piece out and putting the rest back. But she'd be eating it at lunch with everyone else. And what kind of person would take a birthday cake. That would definitely cross the line. She closed the fridge.
The next day she had another safety inspection. She had to go into a process room and she again was very patient about reminding the operator about safety. This time it was safety glasses. Even though Gwendolyn recently became an outlaw who didn't care about social conventions and would eat whatever she felt like eating from the office fridge, and even used milk that came from a carton labelled “Fred’s milk. Don't touch”, she didn't question the safety glasses or safety boot rules. She believed in those and felt good about protecting the safety of those who rolled their eyes at her. In a way, she held those rules more dear, because she wasn't enforcing them just because it was her job. She made her point about choosing which rules she'll follow.She gave herself a little smile on her walk back to the office from. She was done with her little robbery experiment, she thought as she she checked in on what she missed during her 2 hr inspection. An email from Brian about new inspection templates, a notice about a missing birthday cake, a conference invite, HR reminder about washing hands after washroom visits...
She smiled to herself. She wasn't sorry.