Peter Be Talkin’ ‘Bout “Interactions”

“May I Help You”?

It was a late spring Friday afternoon, and the office was quiet. A glance at the wall clock would remind you that if you could get through the next hour without punching someone in the nose, you would have the whole weekend to recover. As I strolled toward my boss’s office, I could see that the manager had dropped in for a quick visit. My puckish sense of humour kicked in and I entered the office, looking at the floor and dusting my hands off. “Well, I got rid of the guy”, I said. Then I pretended to notice the manager standing there, so I snapped to attention, threw a credible Royal Navy salute (a) and said “I mean, I successfully completed the citizen interaction, sir!” The manager shook his head, chuckled and probably thought that if he could get through the next hour without punching someone in the nose, he would have the whole weekend to recover. 

 This week, Loyal Reader, my topic is “interactions”, mostly based on my personal experience both on and off the job. You might find some of them interesting. It’s funny how often they come back to me, memories of my misspent career  😉 .

I remember one morning when my assistant manager walked by my desk, accompanied by an older man in a cheap suit. I nodded a greeting, then returned to my crossword puzzle. The assistant manager returned to my desk a few minutes later and said that the gentleman with her, who was the manager of a Canada Employment Centre in Northern Ontario, wanted to know why I was sitting at my desk, drinking coffee and reading the paper. I was somewhat startled, but did recover enough to reply that as the office was not open yet, my time was my own. She walked away shaking her head, while I gave thanks that I did not work for that particular individual.

On another occasion, I was sitting at the front desk bringing the computer on line. Someone knocked on the door. As it was 8:10 A.M., I pointed at my watch. When I did open the office, he raced past me to the desk. I sat down and asked what I could do for him. He wanted to know why I hadn’t opened the door when he knocked on it. I asked him if he routinely started working 20 minutes early, and HE SAID “NO”. I asked him why I should be any different. This sense of “ownership” was one that I encountered often enough that it was troubling.

For example, one day I was working at our Toronto City Hall office with a co worker. It was raining, so I put on my jacket and slipped out to get some lunch. ( I was entitled to a half hour, unpaid, lunch.) I went to a hot dog cart and ate my purchase there, in the rain. I then walked straight back to the office, having been gone less than 10 minutes, and therefore, on my time. As I re entered the waiting room and passed the three people waiting, one “stage whispered” to her companion ” There’s only one person working!” 

Placing the palm of my left hand on the table, I pivoted, looked her right in the eye and, in a measured tone, asked “I’m sorry ma’am, do we look like ATMs?” There was a stunned silence. 

Our interaction went smoothly, and after she left, my co worker asked me what I would have done if she had complained to anyone. I asked him if he had seen and heard the exchange, and he nodded. I asked him what she could complain about. For example, I imagined her speaking to the manager and saying that “the employee had insisted on having his lunch!” He nodded ruefully and agreed with me. 

One morning we were very busy, so I went next door, bought a tea and returned to my office. Logging back on the computer, I called a client. I had checked his identification and began to work my “magic”. He looked at my tea sitting on the credenza and told me that he didn’t “feel comfortable” that I was drinking coffee during the interview.

While I wondered if he thought we were in a group therapy session, I gently pointed out that I was entitled to two 15 minute paid coffee breaks during the day. (In fact, Loyal Reader, I often skipped them if we were busy, not because I was noble, but because I wanted to get out of work on time whenever possible.) I went on to say that I had decided to curtail my break in order to get people looked after as quickly as possible. I told him that he had two choices. He could sit in my office while I interviewed him and sipped my tea……or he could return to the waiting area for 10 minutes while I took some “me time”. No prizes for guessing which course of action he opted for. 

One of my pet peeves was people who treated the office like it was a rec room. When I was strolling around the office, I would keep an eye out for such behaviour. Thus it was that one afternoon, I came upon a group of people sitting around a table. Except that one of them was sitting on the table. I walked over and asked him to have a seat in one of the numerous empty chairs. He looked at me and said that he was a taxpayer, and his taxes had paid for that table. I replied that I was a taxpayer too, and I didn’t want my taxes to have to be used to buy a table to replace the one that broke because he sat on it. One of his companions laughed and told him that I had “got” him. A somewhat chastened citizen removed himself to a chair. I made a dignified exit from the scene as quickly as possible, as I didn’t want him to think that I was gloating, even though I was  😉 . 

One afternoon I was in a bank, and the customer to my left became rather upset and started to raise his voice. To my shock, the teller dealing with me turned to the teller to his left and started to make mocking comments about the customer.

I gently rapped on the counter to get his attention. I told him that I worked at the Unemployment Insurance Office across the street, and if he wanted this situation to escalate, if he wanted the branch on the evening news, all he had to do was let the angry man see him laughing at him. The young man looked at me and I could see that he was thinking the situation through. He calmed down and murmured his thanks.

And speaking of the news, I am reminded of this particular situation, which occurred at our City Hall office. In those easy days, one of my duties was that of being a “Commissioner Of Oaths”. I took extensive training and passed a rigorous exam in order to obtain this qualification. I should note that every 2 years, I had to requalify. As a “COO”, I had some impressive powers, and the responsibilities of the post were taken very seriously.

So one day in early July, a guy walked in and wanted me to do my “COO” duties and attest that he and a certain woman were living together as of July 31st of the same year. I politely declined his request, whereupon he said that in that case, he would just get in touch with a certain 24 hour news channel. Then he smugly sat back in his chair to watch “the power of the press” in action.

I replied that as far as I was concerned, he could go to the Minister, although he would probably have better luck with “Doctor Who”, the time lord. I very calmly told him that there was no one on the face of the planet who would attest to a future event, and that I saw no reason to jeopardize my livelihood for him. It was truly wonderful watching the realization of just how preposterous his request was dawn on him. He departed my office in a stunned silence, his request unfulfilled, for that day, anyway.

These are just a few of the many interactions with which my career was blessed. One of the beauties of my career is the fact that I never have writer’s block.

I will finish off this week with an interaction which I had with my Cat Jane, Reg’s mum. One evening she was sitting on my lap while I was whistling some Mozart. She turned around and put her right paw on the tip of my nose. Naturally I stopped whistling immediately. Maybe she was a Bach fan. 

See you soon 

(a) Hand at a right angle to the ground, so you could see that there was no tar on my palm.


A confirmed Cat person, Peter dabbled with being a water boy, a paper boy and an altar boy before finally settling on a career with the Canadian federal government.  Once, in his youth, he ate a Dutch  oven full of mashed potatoes to win a 5 cent bet with his beloved sister Mary’s boyfriend. (Of course he was much younger and a nickel went a lot farther!))

He has retired to palatial “Chez Montreuil”, which he shares with his little buddy CoCo the Fashionable. He is blessed to have the beautiful Betty in his life. He is not only a plastic aircraft modeller, but a proud “rivet counter”. Military aviation and live music are among other interests of his, and he tries to get out to as many shows as he can. He will be here for your enlightenment whenever the stars align. Profile photo courtesy of Pat Blythe, caricature courtesy of Peter Mossman.

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