It took me two days at my new job at PotatoWare to figure out that unless I did something quick, I would be eating lunch with Quimby the Suck-Up and Charm, his mega-suck-up admin, forever - or until I was laid off, quit, or jumped out a window. I knew I was doomed the moment Quimby yelled across his cubicle to me, "Lunchtime! Let's tie on the ol' feedbag!" The day before, he'd pantomimed ringing a triangle like a chuck-wagon cook, and Charm had giggled like an idiot. We'd all made the lemming run to the local sandwich shop (turkey swaddled in Saran Wrap, mayo and mustard in tiny packets designed to squirt onto the front of your shirt, Big Gulp, Big Grab), and then reconvened around our desks.
"Hey," I chewed, "how about we see if any of the Mod Squad want to join us?"
"To coin a phrase, 'Cold day in a hot place,'" quipped Quimby.
"Spud likes us to stick to our own kind," Charm explained. "He has a saying: 'The unit that breaks bread together . . . um, does something else together.' "
"Could it be 'Wishes it were dead together'?" I suggested.
They pretended not to hear, but all I could see was the three of us chained together for eternity - chewing our sandwiches, Quimby talking, Charm smiling, and me longing to shout, Elephant Man-like, "I am not a suck-up! I'm . . . a normal . . . undermotivated . . . employee!" Trapped like a rat, I started scheming.
The next morning, I made it a point to stop at the receptionist's desk. One of the Topknot Twins was on duty. "Hey, if you're not busy at lunchtime, why don't you stop by my cube?" I asked.
"I have plans," she said stonily. At 12:30, I spot her eating alone at her desk, reading a three-month-old copy of Details, a splotch of mustard on her T-shirt.
Day Three. I stop at Lotto-Donut-Pizza. It's like an acid flashback, but I'm desperate. A $20 bill buys a lot of sugar. Back at my desk, I hit a general-distribution email: "Who wants a Peppermint Pattie for dessert? Stop by my cube after lunch! Free!"
I'd gone from being a trapped rat to being a cheesemeister, baiting my own trap. The question was, Who would bite?
Topknots One and Two passed by and eyed my free candy as if I were passing out religious pamphlets. But I overheard One ask Two whether she'd had a chance to try the new Thai restaurant down the block. Two said no, but that she'd been meaning to. That sealed it: The next day, I slipped out and brought back about a hundred bucks' worth of noodles, curries, grills, and pad whatever.
Back at the office, Topknot Two was on reception. Pretending to stop by for messages, I rested the greasy brown bag on her desk for a mere second - just long enough for her to get a good whiff, look up, and see the writing on the bag.
She was the first to join me for lunch at my cube, although I didn't eat: I can't stomach the stuff. But that worked out, because after Topknot Two, Topknot One, and their groovy group came by, and the techies drifted over, and even Spud dropped by and sampled the Drunken Noodles, there wasn't much left.
The next day, there wasn't any left. Nor the next.
Then I started getting the email: "Could you get the Drunken Noodles in mild instead of hot?" "Pick me up an extra order of pad Thai. Oh, and get some better chopsticks." Judging strictly by the email, I figure I'm the most important person in the office. And Quimby and Charm have found a new place to eat their turkey-flavored hockey pucks.
As for me, I've got the system down. I put in the order each morning and pick it up at noon. Sure, it costs me an arm and a leg to treat people to lunch every day. And they don't exactly eat with me: After that first day, they realized there wasn't enough room to eat in my cubicle, so they went back to their own.
But I'm not worried. I deliver.
This is episode five of "Working Behind Enemy Lines," The Spy's continuing adventures in the new world of work.
A version of this article appeared in the June/July 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.