When I took a sales job that was to end disastrously, in a company that was about to go under, with a boss who was about to relocate and be replaced by somebody I did not get along with, surrounded by very conservative colleagues with military backgrounds and attitudes—in that worst-fit environment, Alice was the office manager and executive assistant who took care of people. I’m not using her real name for the sake of privacy.
When I first made contact with the company, Alice arranged my interview with the general manager, who was going to be my first boss. She sounded extremely polished and professional, which raised my expectations about the organization; unfortunately, she was in a class by herself and nobody else matched her poise and style. When I was about to be fired nine months later, Alice showed me the warning letter that my second and last boss had her draft. She was upset that he would make her do this instead of writing it himself. She also disagreed with the content of the letter, which made me feel better about it, because Alice was the one person there whose judgment I respected. Because of her indiscretion, I was able to prepare the conversation, and came away less upset and with much better terms.
Alice’s windowless office was next to that of the general manager. Both men in that position were moody, often angry characters, about the same age and with roughly the same amount of years working behind and ahead of them as Alice. One of them was loud and yelled at people, the other one preferred to speak quietly and glare with eyes of poison. Both of them were in the habit of shouting for Alice from behind their desk when they needed something—a document from the archives, a reminder of a commitment or meeting, a meeting to be set up, and so forth. When this happened while one was in a meeting with the boss, it could be most unpleasant to sit there and watch Alice being treated shabbily. Somehow, she never let that darken the friendly relationships she had with the rest of us. At the same time, she did not invite gossip about the two bosses or anyone else. But she helped everybody else work with and around the two difficult general managers. Everybody knew to call Alice first if they had a meeting scheduled or had to approach the boss about something. She would advise us whether it was a good time, or whether one should reschedule or wait.
Another woman working in the office once suffered a devastating epileptic attack and was not able to drive to work for several months. Public transport from her suburb was unreliable and would have taken a couple of hours each way. Alice, who did not live anywhere close to this colleague, picked her up every morning to take her to work. At the end of the day, she drove her home. She continued doing this without a break until the woman was able to resume driving. From time to time, I heard about similar kind acts Alice performed, but she never volunteered any information about them.
Alice loved animals, especially cats, and her husband would not let her have any. Sometimes she bought toys and treats for other people’s cats and dogs, or donated them to a shelter. She never forgot to ask about her colleagues’ companion animals, whose names she always remembered. “I can’t have my own animals, so I have cats-in-law and dogs-in-law,” she said. When I went to Rome and took pictures of the many, often well cared for stray cats there, I put a little album together and told her about the Roman cats and the cat sanctuary at Torre Argentina. It made her happy to hear about it.
For a couple of years, Alice and I sent each other Christmas cards and updates, and eventually I lost touch and a mail was returned to me. If she is still alive, without a doubt she is making life easier and more graceful for the people around her.