The gift of perspective
What I learned from my worst, weirdest, and stinkiest work experience EVER
Seasons greetings, everyone!
‘Tis the time of year when my thoughts turn to gift-giving. And boy, have I got a gift for you: the story of my Worst Work Mishap EVER. Consider the following my tidings of comfort and joy: be comforted that this will probably never happen to you, and enjoy the fact that it happened to me.
However: be warned, dear reader. The following story is not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach (I’m not kidding—the whole thing hinges on one really revolting incident). It’s a story I’ve only shared in hushed whispers with trusted colleagues.
The following events took place at an institution that shall not be named, in a city that will not be identified, in a year I’m glad is far behind me.
It had been a truly awful year. I had lost out on a dream job in my own department to another internal candidate (not the last time that would happen!). I was utterly heartbroken, but also painfully conscious of the need to keep acting like a professional (i.e. to continue getting along with all my colleagues and generally avoid throwing tantrums in public).
And the day in question was going to be a particularly awful day. Not only was I facing another year of teaching and working alongside the successful candidate and the search committee members, but on that day I was co-organising a conference at which several of the parties concerned would be presenting.
I woke up that morning determined to give the performance of a lifetime. I was gonna put on my fanciest clothes and my biggest smile, and by golly I was going to run the most fabulous conference the world had ever seen! Because the stakes were so high, I still remember what I was wearing that day: a Banana Republic knit shirtdress in a chain-link pattern, and a pair of orange Tory Burch ballet flats I’d splurged on when I got the fixed-term job I was in. I’m a big believer in the power of a good costume (other people call them ‘outfits’), and I was pulling out all the stops.
I double-checked that I had the printed conference programmes, my ID, and all the essentials. I locked my front door, and made my way to the conference venue.
It was a bright summer day. The sun shone down like a benediction. I felt light on my Tory-Burched feet. I could practically hear Nina Simone singing that she was feeeeeelin’ good. All the heartbreak and frustration was buried deep, deep inside where I couldn’t feel it anymore—or if I did, it was mingled with a sense of defiance: I might’ve missed out on my dream job, but I was gonna show everybody what they’d missed out on by not hiring me! You coulda had THIS.
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So when I arrived at the room we were using for the conference and found it locked, I didn’t feel a flicker of worry. I was a brilliant, fabulously dressed conference organizer, dammit. A locked door was nothing to someone like me.
I strolled back to the security booth at the site entrance and mentioned I was having trouble opening the door to my conference room—could someone please let me in? The security officer asked me to hang on a moment so she could get her supervisor. No problem! I’d just hang out in the sunshine and think about how awesome my conference was going to be.
It was after a couple of minutes had passed that I started to get…not concerned, but curious. I saw the security officer conferring with her supervisor and gesturing in my direction.
The supervisor walked over to where I was standing. I presumed he had to check my ID card to make sure I was allowed to be on site.
He cleared his throat. ‘Morning.’
‘So you’re running a conference here today?’
Yep! We had people coming from all over. Cambridge, Princeton…fancy places.
‘Uh-huh.’ I could tell he was deeply impressed. ‘And which room is the conference supposed to take place in?’
That one over there. Could someone please unlock the door so I could set things up?
He cleared his throat again. I waited politely.
‘So…here’s the thing—’
And then he said ten words I will never forget:
‘—someone broke in last night and defecated on a table.’
It’s amazing how unpredictable human reactions can be. I mean, some of you probably read those words and shrieked. Maybe one or two of you did a spit-take. I imagine most of you felt disgust or horror.
When I heard those ten words, I experienced the closest thing to an out-of-body experience I’ve ever had. And oddly enough, in that dissociative state I felt neither disgust nor horror. Instead, I felt something more like…awe?
My first cogent thought was, But…HOW?! I mean, think of the planning and timing involved! The perpetrator had to have a digestive system that worked like clockwork! And then to climb on a table to do the deed?
My second fully-formed thought was, No, really—HOW. The room was on the top floor of a building with one side that dropped straight into a body of water and another side whose doors were locked every night. How in the everliving hell had someone gotten in there? Had they scaled a wall or something???
If the security supervisor’s first revelation had been mind-blowing, his next remark was positively earth-shattering:
‘…It’s been happening all year.’
How could someone have been pooping on a table in this place all year?!? How had they not already figured out (a) how to stop it from happening or (b) who the culprit was?!? I mean, had these guys never heard of a stake-out?!?? Surveillance?!????
Observing that I was still incapable of speech, the supervisor went on. ‘We’ve called the cleaners, but I don’t know if they’ve been in and cleaned it up yet.’
So we went back over to the building and up to the locked room.
Reader, they had not cleaned it up yet.
The next hour is still a bit of a blur. I remember my co-organiser arriving and reassuring me that we could get another room. I remember ushering conference attendees to a different area of the site to enjoy an impromptu al fresco morning coffee before the conference began. And I remember shoving cash into the hands of my doctoral student, who had thoughtfully arrived early to help out, and begging them to head to the nearest store and buy every single disinfectant and air-freshener they could get for that amount of money. (It is worth noting that the room in which the incident had occurred had east-facing windows. And it was, as you will recall, a hot summer day).
I regret to say that, despite all the fabulous speakers from fancy places, I’ve forgotten just about everything that happened after that (apart from when my boss—and the head of the search committee that hadn’t hired me—nearly caused me to hyperventilate by asking kindly, ‘I heard there was some sort of incident—is everything going all right?’).
What I do remember clearly was my ride home. There I was, sitting in a nearly empty bus in my carefully selected conference clothes. And I just started laughing.
Sure, I’d just organised a conference whose launch had been disrupted by a phantom shitter. And yes, I’d had to do it in front of my colleagues after having missed out on a dream job in their department. But I’d done it, hadn’t I? And without falling to pieces (although those of us in the know had studiously avoided eye contact with one another throughout the day).
On the few occasions when I told this story in the years that followed, I used to joke that nothing but a dead body at a conference could faze me now. I don’t feel I can say that anymore because a couple of years ago a colleague told me about a time he actually did have to deal with a dead body at a conference he was organising—but that’s his story to tell. And yet, even while I was sitting on that bus, I realised that the events of that morning had given me a gift, if an incredibly stinky one. Even now, when times are tough or I’m on the verge of stressing out, I tell myself:
As long as there’s no shit on the table, my day probably isn’t all that bad.
A brief epilogue
I never found out whether the phantom shitter was ever stopped or discovered. But not long after I left the institution in question. I had coffee with the doctoral student who had assisted us during the conference. During our chat, the student told me that, from time to time during the year after I’d left, seminars and other events scheduled to take place in THAT Room had been abruptly cancelled or moved to other locations at short notice.
We shared a look.
The phantom shitter was still out there.
Happy holidays, everyone!!!
A story like this is why I rarely find academic satire . . . satirical, or funny. My response so often amounts to: "That doesn't sound outlandish; that could happen." In this case, it did, I'm sorry to see. Whew! And you survived it, just as you say.