I remembered this yesterday and wanted to write it down somewhere. Plus, it's May Day and just a good day to celebrate workers generally.
Long ago I worked for a large international development firm which I will not name here. We had a home office in Washington, DC and field offices all over the world staffed with a mix of American expatriates and local hires, easily 3000+ employees. My job was to write proposals for new projects, a large part of which involved recruiting highly-paid consultants and convincing them that they really wanted to move to Mongolia for 3-5 years to implement sustainable infrastructure investment or help Ukraine's farmers access commodities markets for their crops. Then I'd manage the resulting projects, my lowly portion of which involved shipping these people and their families around the globe and making sure they had what they needed while they lived there and also making sure that all of it was expensed and billed correctly and in compliance with US government regulations.
I'd also compile and edit the reports they wrote to show how well the project was doing its work, and handle the daily emails back and forth to the field office. We all went by initials in electronic communications, some kind of military/government convention, and the emails were official records, so they would be very terse and formal: "JLP to PYK: Files received, receipts & expenses logged for Q3." (which would refer to actual receipts and expenses) and "JLP to NLS: Expect media materials you requested in Friday's pouch" (Translation: "Don't worry, bud, I'm still taping The X-files for you, incoming"). I still think of some of the friends I made there in terms of their initials, like it would not be weird to write a birthday greeting as "JLP to KYH: HB."
Sometimes I'd get to travel one of the field offices, I have pretty good stories about being driven around Kyiv to meet with parliamentary officials and government ministers and "pick their brains" about a proposal we were working on, they probably wondered "WTF is this 24-year-old American CHILD doing here," but my smooth, polished translator played it off like I was some brilliant researcher. This fooled no one, but it was the 1990s, I was young and convinced of my own brilliance and good intentions, surrounded by smart, energetic young people and work that was classified as "helping" that used my brain and my fancy undergrad degree, and I loved it very much for a while. (The irony of my country self-styling ourselves as exporters of successful democratic government and institutional reforms and sending a bunch of mostly white, mostly male, mostly wealthy MBA do-gooders across the world to "help" is not lost on me in 2019, believe me, but I loved it very much for a while.)
That's not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about Nettie.
Sitting at the center this operation was our receptionist, Nettie. A shapely and well-padded Black woman, always gorgeously attired and coiffed in high femme style, with bright violet contact lenses, impeccable eyebrows, a lipstick collection to make pageant contestants and drag performers weep and shred their gowns in envy, and a manicure that qualified as "art" in all possible definitions of the word, Nettie answered our phones.
(I don't know how old she was. I was 23 when I first met her, with that obliviousness of youth that means she could have been 35, could have been 55 given her glamour and presence, just mentally insert that clip of Michael B. Jordan saying "Hey Auntie" from Black Panther and you have it right. Angela Bassett and Nettie are who "Hey Auntie" was created for.)
Nettie was friendly and welcoming, with ready laugh and a big, warm, lovely voice.
Nettie was VERY informal. She called everyone sweetie, baby, honey, which we knew because we'd hear it all day over the page system. "JLP, you gotta dial Nettie, baby" (translation: One of your field staff needs you NOW and you're not at your desk, that's okay, dial me from wherever you are and I'll hook it up.")
Nettie could match people to exactly who they needed to speak to in very short order, keep track of who was traveling and who was actually in the office, match you to your 2nd, 3rd, or 10th right option if the first choice wasn't around, keep track of international time zones in her head, ("It must be late where you are, baby, is everything okay?") and be incredibly friendly, smooth, gorgeous, and delightful while doing it.
NETTIE = INTERNATIONAL TREASURE
The former office manager and Nettie's supervisor, who I won't name, was a very competent person in her own right, but she did not like Nettie. She was a formal, buttoned-up sort of person, and Nettie's casual style rankled her. So (and this is my memory from a very lowly position on the sidelines), she eventually successfully made the case that it would be "more efficient" and "more professional" to replace Nettie with an automated telephone system. That way, she argued, people could dial in and find their project team directly, no need for waiting, no need for "distracting" pages ringing out all day. I don't know exactly which person at senior management level bought this line of reasoning, but it was the mid-1990s and the idea of finding a technocratic solution to a business problem was pretty goddamn exciting I guess, so the decision was made: They replaced Nettie with an expensive, sophisticated mid-1990s automated phone and voice mail system designed in the pit of Satan's anus.
For about one month.
Then Nettie was back at her desk, looking well-rested and even more beautifully groomed, with presumably a giant "please come back, we've made a huge error" bonus or pay raise, sending her honey-tongued "sweeties" and "babies" out over our paging system once more, and all was right in the world again.
The office manager took the week of Nettie's return off, which was smart, I think. More time to rehearse the tight-lipped "we reevaluated our approach to communications and staffing, sorry for the disruption" script in private.
Nettie's return happened, I think, because all the expat consultants (who had billable hours and hence accounted for all the money) called and wrote in from the world with one single refrain: "WHERE THE HELL IS NETTIE."
Imagine it: You've moved yourself and your kids to Kyiv for 4 years to work on helping local governments create a transparent commercial real estate market for some reason, and you've stayed up late so you can call in when the DC office is actually open, because you need to tell someone that Ukraine is having the coldest winter in a century, so a lot of the staff are without heat at home so they're camping out in the office, in fact, you and your kids and their nanny are also camping out in the office, the office only has heat and power sometimes, you would purchase space-heaters, candles, hand-warmers, gloves, etc. but none are to be had because everyone else is in the same boat, and you would try to find hotel rooms but they're all cold and dark, too, so you need your project staff (aka good old JLP aka me) to procure a bunch of this stuff and ship it immediately so that people won't freeze.
You dial the number of your employer, the place that sells itself on how well it takes care of people like you so that you can focus on your job, where usually a friendly, knowledgeable human being greets you enthusiastically by name, assesses the situation, and locates the person who can actually help you within seconds.
Today, instead, you get this: "If you know your party's extension, dial it now. For a company directory, dial 1" and then a whole bunch of rigamarole about entering the person's last name. So you press "1" with your freezing claw, which is turning blue with cold, and start to type in the person's last name, except you don't remember it off the top of your head, because all your other communications involve initials or first names and you've completely forgotten it.
Now imagine that repeated all over the world, stuff like "The students and the police force are fighting each other in the capital and we're trapped here until it calms down, but we're okay for now but comms might be sketchy for a few days, can you tell our families" but also "My kid's seizure medications should have been Fedexed to you yesterday, can you confirm they arrived" and "That very important meeting with the cabinet minister who has the power to greenlight things affecting many millions of dollars has been moved up three days, please change your travel."
And then imagine like a thousand highly-paid economists and finance guys with Executive Hair who have to suddenly remember the last names of the assistant-level people they work with, or remember that they have a big chart (a big chart that Nettie updated every time there was a new hire) mapping sets of initials to names and phone extensions, and type those things in themselves. (That part is funny, at least) Then they have to wait for the system to locate people, wait for them to pick up or leave a voice mail, except they still really need to talk to an actual person, so now they have to figure out who else on the team might be around, and how to spell that person's last name, and type that in, etc. Cell phones have been invented but nobody has one, this is pretty much the only way you're getting through.
A person who can connect 3000+ people across the globe and make calling into the office feel like home, and leave everyone they speak to knowing that they will be listened to and speedily helped? That's pretty damn valuable. The employees didn't want "neutral" or "professional," they wanted a real person. I hope the company got a refund for the money they spent on the whole "Hello, you've reached A Demon's Butthole, please dial 1 and get ready to press random numbers and wait while irritating music plays" phone system, but probably not.
I haven't seen or spoken with Nettie since I left D.C. back in 2000. I hope she's got a fucking fat retirement and is the queen of all she surveys.
If you know someone like Nettie who is completely awesome at their job, this is probably a good day to tell them so. And if you have power to get that person paid more and officially recognized for what they do, what are you waiting for? Because this is also a good day to be reminded of the power of solidarity, especially the solidarity that senior, visible, highly-paid people could show for the so-called "little people" who make their companies actually run, if they wanted to, they could honestly do it any old time.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: An old friend and fellow Nettie stan just reminded me of the very awkward going-away party that was held for Nettie's departure, where the office manager who got her "replaced" gave "thanks for all your work" speech that was so awkward and sent an all-company farewell email about her departure that was so stilted that it prompted another long-time staffer to reply (again, to the entire company):
"GOD HATES HYPOCRITES."
Happy May Day, y'all. GOD HATES HYPOCRITES.