In the days before e-mails and mobile telephones, in the middle of the growing city of Houston, there was an architectural office located off Loop 610 in the Buffalo Bayou ravine. The building was situated just above the level of the hundred year flood plain and had parking on the roof. This meant that, on the day of our story, the furniture delivery van parked on the roof next to the only visible structure – a small lobby with stairs and elevator. The delivery men, who were professionals, quickly manipulated their package into the elevator and rode down to the main lobby.
They hesitated when the elevator doors opened. The vast architectural lobby with its clean lines, exposed cast-in-place structure, brick paver floor, and frameless windows looking out into a tree-covered ravine, was unlike anywhere they had been before. Instinctively they wondered whether they were in the right place. They walked over to the large spare reception desk to greet Mandy, the attractive blond receptionist.
“Good afternoon, is this EFS Architects?”
“Good afternoon, yes, EFS Architects.”
“We have a delivery. We need someone to sign for it.”
Mandy took the papers and checked them – there was a manger’s name, and a purchase order signed by one of the principals. Everything was in order.
“Could you un-pack it?” she said, “Then I can sign the receipt.”
The desk which emerged from the protective wrapping was a highly decorated ponderous thing which, even the transport team saw, was strangely out-of-place against the spare detailing of the lobby. Mandy was also surprised but she walked over to it and inspected it to make sure that there were no scratches. She tested the drawers and then signed the paperwork and the carriers left.
Mandy liked the authority which taking deliveries gave her. On a normal day her job was to answer the telephone, transfer and take messages, and to greet visitors when they came into the office. These responsibilities suited her well as she loved people and had a special knack of being able to remember faces and names. Some clients even made a point of arriving early for design sessions so that they could exchange comments and mildly flirt with her. She didn’t mind for she was sure that one day one of them would ask her out and who better for a date than one of the firm’s affluent clients.
On this day she quickly called Paul Jones, the manager whose name was on the PO. He arrived accompanied by one of the principals. They stopped when they entered the lobby, for this desk was not what they expected.
“There has been a mistake, a terrible mistake,” said Paul. “This is not what I ordered.”
Mandy gave him the papers, and he disappeared into the office to emerge some time later with a catalogue. Someone, probably he himself, had transposed the item number on the order; and the wrong piece had arrived. While he was gone, the principal had become excited and irate. He shouted at Mandy, his voice resounding on the hard surfaces of the lobby, “Get that thing out as quickly as possible. We have clients arriving to tour the building this evening. When they arrive that thing has to be gone.”
Mandy didn’t like the implication that the mix up was somehow hers; but she had better sense than to argue with an angry, almost irrational boss. After they left the lobby she called the vendor who calmly told her that Wednesday was the day for their area of town and that they would gladly schedule a pick-up for the following week, but anything before then was out of the question. She was at her wit’s end and shared her concerns with Jennifer who worked the executive office. Jennifer thought for a while and then suggested that her brother had a furniture show room only a few blocks away and that he might be able to help. Sure enough Jennifer’s brother had a van and men available. Within an hour they came and removed the offensive desk.
The next day Paul Jones had a new PO which was delivered to the executive office area. Jennifer put it into the principals’ signing folder; and in due course it was signed. She placed the new order. No one asked her about the returned desk and so she sent the paperwork on to the accounting department who checked the signatures, and signed PO and paid the bill. No-one asked about the desk, and so Jennifer told her brother to sell it. When he sold it he kept a third of the proceeds for himself and gave the rest to Jennifer.
For some time Jennifer wondered whether she should tell Mandy about her wind-fall; but then one day when Mandy was complaining about her debts and desire for a new purse, Jennifer mentioned what had transpired. She rationalized that since Mandy had had to take the brunt of the principal’s anger that day that she deserved some extra compensation. She also saw Mandy as an accomplice whose support in the future would be valuable. As soon as she was sure that Mandy had no scruples she gave her a third of the proceeds.
Now Jennifer was savvy as well as being attractive, which is why she had been able to land a job as secretary and “office assistant” to the principals of this large architectural firm. She couldn’t stop thinking about the little wind-fall which she and Mandy had made over the desk mix-up. She decided to test the system and prepared a PO for a new chair using the name of one of the other managers. She slipped it into the signature folder when it was bulging and waited. Sure enough the PO came back signed. She placed the order and alerted Mandy. When the delivery came, Mandy signed the appropriate papers and directed the delivery men to Jennifer’s brother’s store. She then passed everything on to the accounting department. The simple process worked!
This is where our story gets interesting for there was another secretary, Mary, in the building who was dating one of the young architects. His dream, like that of many young architects, was to one day open his own firm. After he proposed, he suggested to Mary that he hoped that his firm would need an accountant and who better than his wife. Mary started night school and persuaded her boss, Paul Jones, to let her transfer into the accounting department.
The accounting department resented Mary; for they had to teach her everything, and she asked ever so many questions. She read the purchase orders instead of matching numbers, and was soon asking about the new furniture. They told her, “Heavens, just do your job, Mary. Don’t be Mary, Mary, contrary! Your job is to match numbers, check the signatures, and process for payment. We haven’t got all day!” Mary nodded and tried to accept their admonition. Every day she steeled herself as she attempted to hone her senses to see numbers not things.
After a few months Mary seemed to be adapting to accounting. Superficially she was, but she couldn’t dicipline herself to totally ignore the documents which came across her desk. So when a PO for an expensive floor lamp arrived she put it aside and asked her fiancé about it that evening. They both knew that floor lamps, of any kind, were taboo in their modern clean-lined office. Her fiancé speculated that the PO must be for a lamp for the interiors group to evaluate for a project. This explanation made some sense and the PO got processed.
Mary’s night school ethics class gave her a different perspective. They advised that one should always be alert and watch for evidence of increased or unusual affluence. She knew what everyone earned and couldn’t reconcile Mandy’s expensive designer clothing with her meager salary. She knew that Mandy did not have a permanent boy-friend and asked herself how she managed. Occasionally she had seen Mandy’s family during the office Friday night happy hour. Their dowdy clothing and range of conversation brought her to the conclusion that if they were affluent they concealed it very well.
The week before Mary’s wedding she received the paperwork for a large conference room table. Paul Jones was the requesting manager. Mary knew and liked Paul and felt able to approach him and so she went out of her way to catch him in the break room and to casually ask him about the refurbishing of the conference room. He laughed, “What do you mean Mary? You must be mistaken we are not refurbishing anything!”
Mary blushed and murmured something about a possible confusion, but, as she and her fiancé left for their wedding she placed the PO for the large conference room table bearing Paul’s name and principal’s signature together with the signed delivery receipt bearing Mandy’s signature on his desk.
© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, July 2013