I’ve been working in a new office for over three months, now. It’s small but mighty, comprised of a handful of really decent people who take organization and attention to detail to a whole new level.
I’ve been thinking, however, that all those pretty, straight, and color-coded lines are the bedrock for truly great humor. My cautious attempts to lighten the atmosphere have been met with suspicious side-eye. Not that they don’t joke amongst themselves. They just don’t want to joke with me, the new guy. I’m uncharted territory.
Or I was until yesterday.
Running payroll is one of my favorite activities, followed closely by cleaning out old binders and dashing up three flights of stairs to bring in the mail. That’s because our employees have fun names that greatly entertain me even though I’ve never personally met the people that the names belong to.
I just get them all paid.
There is one name on the list that is famous for his wit, and I met him when I was freshly hired and had no idea who he was. Through a brief casual conversation it was discovered that we were both parents of five kids and he asked me quite seriously what kind of advice I would have for parents like ourselves.
“A sense of humor is key,” I told him, “All of the ridiculous things we have to struggle through with our kids gets so overwhelming. Sometimes you just have to give it up and laugh it off.”
He bought me a coffee and nodded gravely. I could see he was pondering my wisdom.
I haven’t run into him since.
Yesterday, the phone rang.
I snatched it up, all service-with-a-smile and listened carefully to a thick back-country drawl who wanted a burn permit. He knew rain was coming this week and had some big piles on his property, on which he was going to use some fire accelerant and clear the place. He wanted it now. He didn’t want me to transfer him to the Fire Marshal unless “he was a real reasonable man” and what would happen if he just skipped the permit part? Would the citation be reasonable because it seemed the more efficient route, and probably end up cheaper, now that he was thinking about it.
“Sir,” I begged, “you really don’t want to do that. Let me see how we can work with you.”
I was rolling my eyes at my coworker who was trying in pantomime to help me.
“What is it exactly that you want to burn, and when?” I asked.
“A Hyundai, a Celica and an Audi.”
“You…you want to burn cars?”
“Yes, ma’am, those rusted out buckets just need to burn clean up. I’ve got ‘em all ready to go. Now, what’s the worst that can happen? If I get the fire goin’ and y’all come out, I guess they would just help me put out the fire, right?”
I almost dropped the phone. I put him on hold.
“Do we do that?” I asked my coworker, “Does it matter what they burn for a permit?”
She mentioned junk yards, crushing, and other words that sort of just blurred in my head.
“Sir,” I continued into the phone, putting on my best mom-is-now-in-charge voice, “I’m going to transfer you to someone who can help you.”
Like the police.
And that’s when the laughing began.
“Jolie,” he said with zero trace of bayou, “it’s me.”
In a moment of complete shock, I realized immediately who was calling and why.
I could not decide then or even now, whether I admire him more than Jim Carrey or hate him more than Jim Carrey.
I heard more than one person laughing, and it wasn’t my coworker.
“DO YOU HAVE ME ON SPEAKER PHONE?!”
It doesn’t matter than I don’t remember anything he said after that. When you are two inches tall, you can’t reach to hang up the phone, which is what I should have done.
I smiled and gently, professionally – poised even – scolded him before cheerfully chatting a bit and wishing him a good Monday.
People were watching.
A sense of humor is key. Sometimes you just have to give it up and laugh it off.
But also, you don’t want to joke with me, the new guy. I’m uncharted territory.