The Office Party

Office holiday parties are fraught affairs. According to a survey by the website, 15% of employees have either been disciplined or fired because of their actions at a holiday party, presumably related to overindulging in some way. Another 18% get romantic at these parties--drinking is up, inhibitions down, and warm holiday feelings encourage hugs that can turn, shall we say, inappropriate.

My favorite hellish office party memory isn't quite so debauched, and after all these years it still makes me laugh. It was circa 1992. My boss had just had a whirlwind romance and married a woman he'd dated for only a few weeks. She was quite the package: statuesque, blonde, and oozing charm, she made us worker bees feel frumpy and inarticulate. She had a background in television, radio, Vegas...she'd done it all. And oh, the stories she told! Long, detailed epics with herself as the centerpiece, not really bragging but not exactly humble either. You were left wondering why these things never happened to you--or indeed if they actually happened at all.

She swept into that year's office party in a tall mink hat, announcing, "Don't blame me! It was dead when I bought it!" We all gathered 'round because she was a startling new addition to our corporate family and we were still trying to determine whether she was the wicked stepmother or benevolent aunt. And she regaled us. She told a story of giving a voiceover audition in her convertible on the 405 freeway, doing the voice of a parrot in stop-and-go traffic. She squawked while young men in nearby cars gawked. (She got the job, of course.)

Then came the main event, a long tale about her days as a helicopter traffic reporter. It was somewhere around the time that a U.S. rescue attempt of the Iran hostages had ended in tragedy, when the helicopter went down in the desert. On the air, she said that if she had been there, it would have ended differently: she would have made sure to get those men out.

Apparently the CIA was listening because she was contacted shortly thereafter and asked if she would be willing to serve her country on a top secret mission. Her expertise was needed in El Salvador to help extricate some CIA agents caught up in civil war there. She described the situation, which of course was extremely dangerous, as well as her arduous decision-making process. Yes, she knew she could make a difference. Yes, her government had recognized her abilities and attempted to recruit a qualified citizen to help out in a troubled region. But she was single mother to a young boy and ultimately she chose to put his needs first. She regretfully declined--not out of fear, since she would have had no hesitation to do whatever was necessary. She simply couldn't take the chance of leaving her son without a mother.

She finished this tale to dead silence and dropped jaws. We were literally speechless. Except for one person: my husband. Not employed by this woman's new husband, he was unencumbered by the decorum that prevented the employees among us from reacting honestly. After a long pause he asked, "Are you sure they didn't say El Segundo?"

For those not from southern California, I should point out that El Segundo is a relatively small area within Los Angeles near LAX best known for its excellent school system. It was, in fact, just down the street from the restaurant where our office party was being held.

The expression on her face at this deflating comment was almost more painful than the story itself had been. She may have been an egomaniac, but she was no fool, and she knew she had been dissed. I felt my heart stop. Involuntarily, I started to back away from the group, trying to escape a) before I burst into laughter and b) before she connected me to my husband. If she didn't know he was with me, maybe I could continue to climb the corporate ladder.

Getting drunk and publicly making out with one of the company's many engineers wouldn't have been half as career-ending as knocking the wind out of the puffed-up sails of the boss' wife. In fact, given the choice between making a drunken fool out of yourself at the office party and just making a fool out of yourself, go for the booze. At least you'll have an excuse the next day when HR comes calling. I know that's what I was prepared to do. But this heroine endeared herself to me forever by sloughing off my husband's comment and moving on to the next story. She never spoke of El Salvador again.

Or El Segundo.

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