We stared at the shrinkwrapping machine much the way cavemen might have looked at the first wheel. Fascinated... seeing the promise... but recognizing it as one more damn thing to make cave-life all that more complex.
Of course, it wasn't cavelife we were talking about. It was Cubicleland. My first real job out of college. Equally tribal, political and cut-throat-- only, caves have the benefit of full-walls.
Bummer for us, really.
The shrinkwrapping machine, we were told, was going to make shipping product all that much more professional.
What I personally felt would be more professional would be not having the same person shipping the product (namely me), as answering the main telephone... ordering the office supplies... user-testing the product... making all the product icon graphics... and writing the software manuals.
But I didn't mention that part.
So, one of my supervisors at the time-- we'll call him Jeff-- demonstrated how to use this machine with a sort of zest he'd apparently summoned up from somewhere deep-- possibly in the Big-Toe Region.
He showed how I should ensure each software manual was safely entombed in plastic, then add those manuals to a box that got the shrinkwrap treatment again.
It was a Brave New World in Product Packaging! And gosh, you could almost hear the music from 2010: A Space Odyssey playing...
Only we weren't allowed music in the office. Y'know, because it clashed with the overall atmosphere of deep depression and abiding wheel-spinning futility.
Well, interestingly, Jeff was also a bit of a practical joker. He was one of those quiet, placid pools of a person, where miles underneath, there lurked steamy magma just waiting to bubble up to the surface.
It didn't bubble up much-- again, probably due to the aforementioned depression/wheel-spinning futility-- but every now and then something would overcome him and-- gloop!-- volcanic fun.
Now as Technical Writer Office Manager Shipper Receptionist, one of my first tasks every morning was to check the company answering machine and distribute the messages that had come in overnight.
I was usually only roughly-caffeinated at this point, but that was okay because I'd worked out a system where I tried to spend as much of my morning on autopilot as possible.
The way I figured, the less I actually contemplated my daily routine, the less I would want to throw myself on the railroad tracks below the office building windows. I always assumed the office windows didn't open for a reason.
So, this one morning, I went to check the messages, pushed the button on the answering machine only to discover...
The answering machine wouldn't talk to me.
The light was on. Plug was in. Power was fine. Pushed the button and...?...
And that's when I discovered that at some point between the day before and this morning, someone had encased the answering machine in a thin, tight, virtually-invisible layer of shrinkwrap. I knew instantly who the culprit was. I also knew this shrinkwrap trap had been set for me.
Thus, began my plot for revenge.
It was as I made the day's first pot of coffee, I developed my scheme. It had to be subtle. Personal. Inoffensive yet unquestionably making the statement that in Cubeland, one Technical Writer Office Manager Shipper Receptionist Practical Joker reigned supreme.
I went into Jeff's office and took...
His favorite Cross pen.
For two years, this pen had been Jeff's trusty weapon. Where King Arthur had Excalibur, and Milton had his red Swingline stapler, Jeff had this slim, beautifully-weighted Cross pen.
He twiddled it in thought in meetings. He drafted memos and diagrammed ideas with it. He even used it to sign our paychecks. It was a constant companion to his workday. His own personal Yes-man in stylus form.
And ohhh, I shrinkwrapped that baby like nothing had ever been shrinkwrapped before! Shrinkwrapping perfection! The seams were almost undetectable to the unsuspecting naked eye.
Then I put it back on his desk.
Jeff came in not long after, and I waited to hear some exclamation emanating from his office...
Jeff went to get coffee just as I made a second pot. He said good morning to me with a smug smile, his beard bristling merrily as he considered his own office prank genius.
So we stood, two smug cyphers poised around the Coffeemate and artificial sweetener. We chatted. It was stilted as he waited for me to mention how some joker had shrunkwrapped the answering machine. But that confession would not be his. I was biding my time.
Disappointed, he headed back to his office, and I to my cube.
There I waited.... And waited.
Hours passed. Jeff stepped out to the men's room and I slipped into his office to see if he'd found my little trap.
But (gasp)-- impossible!-- there was the pen, and the shrinkwrap was still intact!
Of all days, Jeff had had no occasion to write. No occasion to push that button at the end of his slim Cross beauty and discover the Nib Blocker to beat all Nib Blockers.
I went about my day, but found myself unnaturally alert to any potential groan or laugh from our ranks-- which didn't happen much anyway under the grim Dickensian sort of office tone. Yet, the clock ticked on. I had not been rewarded.
Then, about one in the afternoon, my intercom buzzed. "Jenn, could you come in here for a minute?"
Ah, there it was, I thought. But he didn't seem to be laughing. Had I gone too far with the pen retaliation? Was my original attacker not, in fact, Jeff at all?...
Had I shrunkwrapped too rashly?
I entered his office on numb legs and he asked me to sit down. I tried to gauge his mood. Would I get lectured? Would I be fired? No, I learned, there was a new writing project to do. But I couldn't quite hear what he was saying, because there, in his unsuspecting hand was that perfectly shrinkwrapped pen.
I choked back a giggle and straightened my face. Must pay attention, I thought, as I forced myself to jot down project notes and be the efficient, serious employee that had somehow set me up as the office's Chief Cook and Bottlewasher.
But as the discussion progressed there was a technical aspect I wasn't quite visualizing. Putting my tech writer hat on, I asked a few detailed questions...
And that's when Jeff decided to pop the pen to draw me one of his helpful diagrams.
Push... no click.
Push... no click.
At this point I was struggling with internal laughter combustion. If I'd exploded in an earth-shaking rattle of laughter, office coffee and bodily fluids, I wouldn't have been a bit surprised.
And without moving his head... without so much as a flinch... Jeff's eyes lifted to me. His beard bristled, hinting at a smile somewhere under the fur.
"Niiiiiiiice," he said.
I wiped away a few tears and managed to thank him, somewhere between the now-releasing hysteria.
"How long?" he asked.
"Oh, God-- hours and hours and hours."
And the funny thing is, the shrinkwrapping machine and I came to terms with each other after that. Jeff and I, too. Every time I'd look at one or the other of them, I'd think about Cross pens that wouldn't write, and answering machines that went silent.
I guess it just goes to show, even in the deepest, darkest grimmest of caves-- sometimes a little glimmer of light can shine through.
If you have a moment and want to read more office pranks tales, you might enjoy these past posts: