I'm sitting in the lobby of PotatoWare, waiting for my appointment with spud, the big pomme frite who's supposed to interview me for a job. The whole thing was his idea - I didn't even want a job. But he liked my sneakers, and the next thing I knew, I was in line for a possible paycheck at his product-free software shop. Naturally, I show up wearing the very same pair of Chuck Taylor high-tops (banana yellow) to show my, uh, solidarity with Spud, whose signature shoe is the neon-orange Chuck Taylor.
But I know these little gestures can be misinterpreted: One person's sneaker solidarity is another's big wet smoochie on the boss-to-be's caboose. And I can't help noticing that my big yellow shoes are the only Chucks in the office. The admins are all wearing nuclear-blast-resistant
Marine Corps boots or British let's-stomp-someone-to-death-at-a-soccer-game Doc Martens. I know I'm in trouble when I see a young admin (topknot, John Lennon glasses, black miniskirt) stop to schmooze with the receptionist (same topknot, only in dishwater blond, and black Elvis Costello eyewear). Their eyes flicker down at my Chucks - so large they seem! so yellow! - and one whispers to the other something that sounds like "suck-up." I want to shout, "Solidarity!" - but at that moment a guy named Quimby appears, and sticks out his hand. He's wearing a tie with Tigger emblazoned on it. "C'mon, this way! Cool shoes!"
Quimby leads me to Spud's office, giving thumbs-up to fellow workers we meet on our way. He knocks on Spud's door. "Yoody-hoo, here's your next victim, Great One!"
Spud mumbles something through the door. It's either "I'm on long-distance with our VCs" or "Get rid of that loser."
"Say no more, your Spudliness," Quimby says with maximum suckiness, and leads me on a mindless office tour. We end up at his cubicle. On his wall, he has a picture of Spud playing golf with Michael Jordan. I look closer at the picture: Spud's caddy is wearing a Tigger baseball cap. The empty cube next door he says is mine.
Just then, a young admin sits down at a desk opposite the two cubicles. She has no messy topknot, no rock 'n' roll glasses - she is wearing little Piglet earrings. "Meet Charm," Quimby says.
"Charmed," I say, my head spinning. If Charm is the suck-up's suck-up, does she suck up to me or do I suck up to her? Suddenly I feel like a helpless bubble being sucked down the drain of life.
I mumble something about having to use the restroom and bolt. Outside on the sidewalk, the exiled smokers' club is playing Camels and Cowboys. I feel an overwhelming urge to light up, even though it's been years. I ask to bum a cigarette, and realize that I'm talking to one of the In-Crowd Twins.
"How'd the interview go?" she asks.
"Didn't have one."
"When do you start?"
"You in the cube next to Quimby?"
"And then you just left?"
"First I met Charm."
"Took the stairs because you couldn't wait for the elevator?"
"How'd you know?"
"That's the test. The faster you get away from Quimby, the more Spud likes you. You know the old saying - 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend.'"
"You mean, 'The enemy of the suck-up is actually cool'?"
"That - or an even bigger suck-up."
"Can I have that cigarette?"
"Sure. And hey, the shoes? They really suck."
This is episode four of "Working Behind Enemy Lines," the Spy's continuing adventures in the new world of work.
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.