Taming El Chupacabra
It takes a certain kind of person to remain cheerful in the face of adversity; not only to keep a positive outlook in trying times, but to remain genuinely happy, regardless of the circumstances. It’s a personality trait that has served me well throughout my life and was especially beneficial when I went to work in Hollywood.
As a producer’s assistant, I was assigned to several “screamers”, the most notorious of whom noshed on boiled peanuts, disdainfully tossing the shells on the floor as I knelt at his feet with a dustpan and broom. Once, a particularly high maintenance A-Lister spun into a fit of rage that almost made pee my pants. Her voice shot through the telephone like an electric jolt, causing my urethra to become inordinately relaxed, as if anticipating death.
No worries. It will all be over soon.
The reason I’m an expert in managing difficult people today is because at some point in my career trajectory, I lost all shame. To paraphrase Stan Lee, with the loss of great shame came the loss of great power once lorded over me by a-holes.
That lack of shame ultimately landed me an assistant gig with one of Hollywood’s first female agents, a woman as famous for busting balls as she was glass ceilings. She hired me after I warned her about the dangers of the impending Mercury Retrograde, a particularly shameless piece of advice to give a 72 year-old prospective employer during a job interview.
When the head of HR fired me eight weeks later —which, by the way, was the equivalent of lasting eight weeks on a mechanical bull— I sent my former boss a letter thanking her for the opportunity and expressing my disappointment that she had left work early instead of breaking the news to me personally. The following week, I received a heartfelt, handwritten apology in which she confessed that firing employees was the part of her job that she hated most.
As my dismissal coincided with my annual trip home for the holidays, I capitalized on the situation by picking up a temp job at a Minneapolis ad agency. Aside from answering the occasional phone call, my biggest responsibility was to keep morale high —a criteria I met by wearing fuzzy duck slippers and having a Twister mat on the floor of my office, open and ready to play at all times.
The reason that my workload was so remedial was because the agency had put the onus of its most exhaustive administrative task — client billing —squarely onto its creative executives. As I celebrated TGIF by cranking the Backstreet Boy’s Millennium album, my colleagues scurried to get their timesheets to the accounting department before close of business 5 p.m., by way of its gatekeeper, a manimal known as El Chupacabra.
Much like Monty Python’s Knights Who Say “Ni,” El Chupacabra reviewed these submissions and declared which ones could pass. Invariably, his answer was “DECLINED”. Every Monday, my co-workers’ timesheets were returned via the Interoffice Mail Envelope of Shame; the rejects offloaded unto me and filed under “Not My Fucking Problem.”
One day, El Chupacabra called to make it my problem.
“Fix it!” he yelled monosyllabically into the phone, sounding like a Phil Hartman impersonation Frankenstein.
“Lemme look into the situation and get back to you,” I reasoned.
As it turned out, the cause for this ongoing standoff between the executives and El Chupacabra was due to a simple miscommunication over job numbers. Job numbers were numerical codes assigned to the projects the agency produced, in order to track every penny that was spent.
The reason that El Chupacabra was so upset was because billable hours were consistently submitted under obsolete job numbers. The reason the executives were so confounded by his rejection of their timesheets was because nobody had bothered to inform them that of the job numbers’ expiry.
To further complicate matters, any number of the company’s 600 employees had permission to open and close job numbers at their discretion, but no one was accountable for informing the rest of us when these numbers were created and cancelled.
El Chupacabra had gone to painstaking lengths to consolidate a list of active job numbers. The simplest solution would have been for him to share this information and to help implement a chain of communication for the opening and closing of all job numbers moving forward. Instead he contemptuously withheld this information, insisting that I collect it for myself and correct the timesheets accordingly.
After weeks of hunting down any employee who had ever opened or closed a job number and correcting every timesheet ever rejected, I resubmitted them to El Chupacabra via Interoffice Mail, only to have my efforts returned; the offending job numbers circled in red felt pen, accompanied by quasi-encouraging remarks, like “close, but no cigar” and “lotsa luck to you, dolly.”
Having exercised diplomacy ad nauseum, I lost my shit big time, stuffing the heaping pile of rejects into yet another Interoffice Mail envelope. Using my fattest, most sarcastic Sharpie marker, I decorated the package with rainbows, hearts, smiley faces and stars, writing in the most flowery script possible:
TO: EL CHUPACABRA
FROM: YOUR PAL, ERIN
The next morning El Chupacabra called, his demeanor warm and fuzzy.
“Hi, Erin. A couple your timesheets were incorrect, but I went ahead and fixed them for you. I’m gonna email you a current list of all the job numbers now. Feel free to call with questions anytime.”
In that moment, I realized that everyone just wants to be welcomed as a pal…most of all, El Chupacabra. I have been signing my name “Your pal, Erin” ever since. And no matter what, I always mean it.
Even when tempers flare and friendships end, I hold everyone I’ve ever met as a pal in my heart.
Originally published in Connect Savannah (page 60)