The Wonderful Q-Mail

SHORT STORY by Ross Manus

Camille started it. Here's what she wrote:

TBWA Chiat/Day qmail

date: Wednesday, March 24, 1997

to: network

from: camille bellan

re: missing

If you are missing something that you lost on Tuesday afternoon near my old cubicle I have it in my desk. If you can tell me what it is it's yours.

Note: Camille Bellan is none other than the Personal Assistant to the President of the whole advertising agency.

I didn't know it at the time I wrote my response. When I was later informed of this I did not even flinch. Rubbing salt in the wound is neither here nor there if it's a leg you've just lost.

Granted, the above may sound like a very standard "network" Q-mail (i.e., one sent to all employees) easily ignored. And granted further that a rambling disjointed two-page response, cc'd to the whole TBWA Chiat/Day network (700 or so employees) in which was covered every subject from deliverance to the Big Blue Bus to Celine Dion (who got three mentions, or "hits" as they call it in the PR business) is anything but standard. Factor further that I was not even an employee, but a temp.

I grant you even further that my response Q-mail was the single stupidest thing I have ever done in my life--by a wide margin. Nothing comes close. Not even the break-dancing contest I entered in college.

Yet if a tone of nonchalance concerning the whole Q-mail disaster is detectable, it's because it quite simply, my dear Watson, is not my fault. The real fault lies with the Wonderful Bag.

* * *

"One day in the marketplace of Baghdad somebody let fall a tiny little bag, and then walked on without noticing," is how the green-grocer starts his tale to King Haroom Al Rashid, whose tale is told by Sheherazad to King Sharriar (in both instances with the consequence that if the tale failed to please, their heads would roll); as told by the actors in a National Public Radio adaptation of The Arabian Nights. Amid the hiss and jumps and starts of my cranky cassette player, a crowd can be heard gathering around the wonderful bag. Not because the bag seems to them to be worth more than a tuppence ha'penny (as my mother would say), but because of the passion of two men. One a Kurd, the other a Turk. Both exclaiming that the wonderful bag belongs to him. Voices are raised.

Soon the Kadi, the most highly respected and eminent man in all of Baghdad, arrives. Effortlessly, he arrives at a solution as brilliant and yet as simple as King Solomon's concerning the newborn. Each is to give a list. "Whosoever's list is closest to the actual inventory shall own the bag." The crowd applauds approvingly. Why couldn't they have thought of that! And from there the Kurd and the Turk proceed to devise even more maniacal lists of things in the bag, from a quill to lint sculptures of swans, to a dead cat that died of hoof and mouth disease "which is unusual for a cat, but he was hanging around with a herd of horses (pause) which are also in that bag," to a "very large sharp-toothed condor circling around Baghdad" and so on. Finally the Kadi has heard enough. "As Allah lives either you are two rascals mocking at the law and its representatives," he exclaims, "or this bag is the bottomless abyss of the valley of the day of judgment itself." ("It could be," murmurs a cheap-seat voice).

He proceeds to open the bag and pull out a little bit of orange rind and four olive pits.

I admit that it was by the slenderest of margins that the tale of the wonderful bag saved the lives of the green-grocer and Sheherazad. "That is the most absurd story I have ever heard!" erupt both potential hangmen upon the tale's conclusion. Yet there is joy in the ever-escalating madness of the Kurd and the Turk, each one provoking the other to take another step into dementia. The only heads that rolled were those on the cassette player, and they were kicking tape. The green-grocer and Sheherazad needn't have worried. The wonderful bag set everything right.

If only it had done so for me!

I might state also that in gaining a monopoly on my brain, the wonderful bag benefitted from an almost total lack of competition.

I had no TV, no online computer (at that time), no CD player, and I almost never went out other than to work. Yet, as I lay in bed and closed my eyes, that beat $35 cassette player transported me back in time to the golden age of the Midddle East, of beautiful veiled women, jeweled turbans, "Allah be praised," sweet scents, and honor. Sheherazad tells a number of tales before the two cassettes spool to an end. Only the wonderful bag, Theseus-like, seeped into the deepest mazes of my brain.

* * *

Then, too, there was the matter of the decision concerning my new home cumputer. Dennis, the computer guy, had left me a voice mail just the previous day. "I'm still holding on to your money." He wanted to know what was up. Two weeks earlier I'd handed him an envelope containing thirteen hundred dollar bills for a PC but the next day called him from work at TBWA--the first day of my two-week assignment--telling him to hold on. Thursday, the day I received Camille Bellan's Q-Mail was almost two weeks later. I had two days left on my assignment. If I wanted a job at TBWA, then I should get a Mac, which powers the entire advertising industry. But if I was going to be a writer, then it should be a PC. The previous day, Mr Bixler, the Senior VP in charge of the automotive account had offered me a job at TBWA and I had stalled. Stalling, after all, came easy to me after so many years of practice. The real problem was that damn envelope with the thirteen hundred dollar bills. It was burning a hole in Dennis' pocket.

Even though by then I had pretty much realized that the "rise through the ranks" method wasn't going to work for me, if there was any place in the world in which to give it a second chance, it was TBWA/Chiat/Day. That place is the nazz. It's a "virtual office"--which means nobody has an office. As for a phone, it's wireless and you carry it clipped to your belt or in your pocket--or most usually, attached to your ear. Your computer you check out from the concierge when you show up to work. Your work space--anywhere you can find a computer jack (there's lots of them) or one of the "work rooms." And that's if you show up at all--most employees work half the time from their homes, from sailboats, from airplanes...and work do they ever. The place is alive--people running here and there, phones ringing from hip pockets, a swirl of ideas, color, art and energy. Paper barely exists--there is not a single file cabinet in the whole place--it's all electronic mail, files saved to disc rather than on paper. They work all hours--weekends are hardly any less busy than weekdays.

* * *

Apart from the Wonderful Bag and the computer, sure, there were other reasons and factors why I wrote that two-page Q-Mail. It's just that further probing is too depressing. Besides, if the Heidelberg Principle fates physicists to be led further from normal quantum behavior the closer they probe, what do you want from me? I'm a temp.

The Q-Mail settled the computer question. That was the good thing it did. Just before disconnecting my phone Thursday March 25th evening, I called Hank and told him to go PC. The bad thing is that it involved and upset innocent bystanders--and I said about as much in my subsequent letter of apology to Camille Bellan.

* * *

When I screw up, I do so with a certain verve. Here are the facts surrounding March 24:

That evening just before I left work, I printed out Camille's Q-Mail, carefully folded it into my coat pocket and hustled home. There was no time to waste. An immediate response was required. After all, what if someone beat me to the punch? I cranked up my old DOS computer and went at it with a mad sort of fury. To my mind, the contents of Camille's desk drawer and the wonderful bag were one and the same. I started to go the Kurd and Turk one better.

It got far worse, but started out in the groove of tweaking Camille (whose Q-Mail mentioned that the missing item was dropped near her old cubicle), for having imagined that "I would know the location of your new cubicle much less your old. Or did you suppose that the location of your cubicles is something that is part of TBWA Chiat/Day lore, gossiped at the coffee machine, and passed on from generation to generation much as the Greeks did the Odyseey?" and other such nonsense that is too painful to recall. And indeed impossible to quote directly from even if I wanted to as I have carefully erased and obliterated each and every computer file or scrap of paper pertaining to this disaster. Even the aforementioned three Celine Dion "hits" couldn't save it.

Funny too at just how hard I strived to make it funny. My one goal was to make the reader laugh. I feverishly wrote and rewrote until 5.30 Thuursday morning, at which point I must have felt humor sweep as if a breeze from start to finish. Or been too tired to care.

I caught a couple of hours sleep, printed my response out and slipped into work thirty minutes early. I transposed it, changing not a word, into the "Respond" window of Camille's Q-Mail. Fifteen minutes later I was done. I positioned my pointer on the RESPOND TO ALL RECIPIENTS button. All that was needed now was a click, the slightest twitch of the hand.

My mind filled with great visions. I saw the Q-Mail actually working. I saw it generating excitement, getting employees' creative juices flowing, feeding fuel to the machine. I saw it sparking off all kinds of wild replies, starting with nice and easy Q-Mails, such as: "Is it a hairpiece?" or "Is it green and have a picture of a dead president on it?" and moving on to "Come to think of it, I haven't seen my girlfriend for these few days. Camille, if it's a blonde and she's 39-24-39..." and POW POW on and on from there 'cause that's the way I was thinking that night I wrote the thing. I saw it spreading to the internet where it immediately sparked an international craze. From the Siberian snow forests to the parched deserts of the Sahara, the entire world participated in trying to name what was in Camille's desk. Red lines rang, CNN speculated and the Pope pontificated. And all because of wonderful, wonderful me!

I also saw what actually happened.

I clicked RESPOND.

The next two torturous minutes spent debating whether to cancel were brought to a merciful end by Claude, the guy in the next work area who said, looking up from his computer, "Missing Response? What's this?" smiling at me in disbelief, then asking real nice and respectfully, "Why don't you cancel it?" Which of course soon gave way to disappointment. Everyone was disappointed in me. Disappointment took many guises that day, each worse than the previous one. Laura, the Director of Central Intelligence, for whom I'd done some good work in the past and with whom I once had a really nice long conversation, didn't make eye contact with me in the hall. Kirk, the freckle-faced kid just out of college who shared my work area, shied away from walking by my side on the way to the mailboxes--"I don't get it," he had told me. Paul, Kirk's frat brother wrote a response asking what kind of drugs I was on. I only heard about Paul's Q-Mail. The first one that came up on the Group Network was a: "What is this?" after which I exited Q-Mail for good. All eyes were on me though none would look at me.

But all this was to come later. Claude wasn't laughing. It was as simple as that. From then on it was all over but the damage control. I made it through that day and got nice and blitzed that night--bracing myself for Friday, the last day of the assignment. After that, I planned to hole myself up in my room and never come out until the Day of Judgment or my landlkord called in SWAT, whichever came first.

The "talking to" wasn't as bad as might be feared. It happened right off the bat Friday morning so there was no waiting around. In fact, I ran right into it. I dashed into the tiny Zerox room to make a photocopy and there was Mr Bixler (Senior VP and head of the Infinity account who had offered me a job the previous week) calmly watching his copies run. I kept the eye contact and the cocky attitude through the whole course. "It created quite a stir at our meeting last night. Indeed, people there just couldn't stop talking about it. And this at a time that we have some very big pitches coming up, especially the Sun Western account next week that everyone has put a lot of time and effort into." (They had all worked way past 1 a.m. that morning.) "It is important at this time that we stay focused. And what they were saying was that if he has the time to write something like this, maybe he doesn't have enough work to do. And it reflects badly on me because then I'm not doing a good job...yadda yadda..." etc and I stood there keeping my confident air, thankful for the dignified manner in which he read his lines and conducted himself, and with one thought uppermost: "Please don't let me be sent home." The Xerox machine chugged in the background. All the fallout and embarrassment to come later I could handle as they came up. Right then, what I most wanted to do was work. Although Mr Bixler must have seriously considered pulling the plug; instead it was I who pulled through. As the Kurd or the Turk would say, "All praise be to Allah."

* * *

I normally work at double speed, but that Friday it was quadruple. I was a man possessed. On one computer a Persuasion Report for the Promotion Director, rip[ping and tearing off wrapping paper from a set of new boards with an account assistant, so loudly that the very halls crashed and crackled on a second computer spitting out ten color Excel graphs for a board; showing a lady in Promotions how to send faxes over her computer'answering phones; setting up a Filemaker database for Direct Mailing. The sought effect. The whirlwind. Fear that all was lost if I stopped moving the high octane fuel.

And that evening when I split that building and its funny two-storey-high earth-facing binoculars, I was thankful oh so thankful that it was over. I crumpled the previous two weeks' Time Slip into the first garbage can. If life is just kicks, why are so many aimed at me? I saw my bus in the distance and ran.

* * *

A week later I renonnected my phone and called ABC, my temp agency. Fallout from that sector was better than could have been hoped for. Jackie was a saint. "You don't have to explain anything to me," she had said when I, talking the speed of light during our phone converesation, slipped in that I wanted "to give TBWA Chiat/Day a break for a while." (Jackie's a Brit who is married to an American salesman she literally bumped into on a London tube platform four years ago as he, lost, was about to board a train headed in the wrong direction). When I tried the same line on Joan, the New York-native office manager, she didn't say anything but did allow herself a barely visible but oh so pregnant smirk.

* * *

In hindsight, it is so easy to see that the biggest, probably insurmountable problem with my Q-Mail was that it was too long. The idea of writing a response, I think, was actually good. Camille's promise of "If you name it, it's yours," was an opportunity too good to pass up. I should have simply lifted verbatim from The Arabian Nights. Q-Mails such as "Is it my ghost writer?" or "Is it a cat with hoof and mouth disease?" would have been funny. Perhaps might even have generated another funny Q-Mail or two.

At worst, they would not have been the main topic of conversation during a key pitch meeting for the multi-million dollar Sun Western account at 11 o'clock at night! Big difference there, and it would behoove me to take note of it.

And yet if the fates dictate that I be cut down by a two-page Q-Mail from my own hand, then so be it. It's just that I would have liked the two pages to have been funnier. Therefore, as a proud citizen of the United States of America (the historical country of the second chance) and as a big fan of the "Prodigal Son" parable, I lay claim to my right for a second chance. In closing, then, I present what I should have written in my two-page Q-Mail response:

TBWA Chiat/Day Q-Mail

to: camille bellan

from: ross manus

date: Thursday, March 25, 1997

time: 8.45am

cc: network


Hi Camille. I did drop something near your old cubicle on Tuesday. It was a list of business ideas--I especially want it back because it's my ticket out of the temping game. Someone else will most likely claim a suspiciously similar list, so here is what mine says (give or take an inflection here and there):


*not necessarily in order of importance.

Business ideas #1: write a book specially targeted to paranoids. As they say "knowing your audience" is the key to writing. The working title of the book is PUCK NO. In the book, claim that through years of careful research analyzation of thousands of photographs and countless interviews, you have uncovered the greatest conspiracy of all, i.e., paranoids worst fears ARE in fact true--THERE IS NO PUCK TO HOCKEY. It really is just 12 dentally impaired men pretending to chase after a pock. The conspiracy, of course, does not stop with the players. It runs deep. The coaches, the so-called "fans" are all in on it, as are the TV stations. In fact, the whole caboose and caboodle. Again, the working title of the book is PUCK NO and should retail for about $29,95 and have real big print.

And then, Camille, I go on to describe other equally ingenious business ideas on that list, such as great movie ideas (also, coincidentally enough, of particular interest to paranoids) of Randy Newman who, for a $300,000 fee, is flown to a tropical island to do a concert inhabited, much to his ever-growing consternation, by nothing but short people who, over the course of several days, proceed to take terrible psychological retribution.

I'll spare you the rest. It all goes downhill from there. Besides, Celine Dion was in the headlights.