On any given day here at O, The Oprah Magazine, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 69 very talented, extremely detail oriented, high-energy, hardworking women and men all doing their jobs and doing them well. I love a few of them, I like a lot of them, I despise one of them. She is the Magneto to my Wolverine, the Saruman to my Frodo, the Dr. Octopus to my Spiderman. I call her The Tinkler.
It's a typical Tuesday; the office is humming along. I'm answering e-mails, writing cover lines, scheduling a dental appointment here, partial highlights there, kicking myself for not getting sushi at lunch. The sun is shining, the color printer is working—my life is good. I mosey into the ladies' room, glance at the mirror, remind myself that fluorescent lights make everyone look as if they're in the final stages of tuberculosis, and head for a stall. And then I see it: The seat, even the floor, is covered in little yellow droplets. The Tinkler strikes again.
To date, I have been able to deduce only four things about her:
She is female.
She attacks between the hours of 10 a.m. and 8 p.m.
She works alone.
She was raised in a barn.
I've been her victim more times than I can count, and it has turned me from a happy-go-lucky columnist into a bitter, paranoid germaphobe. She has become the bane of my existence. We live in a world where our soldiers lack sufficient body armor, where Rupert Murdoch is blurring the line intended to keep the business and political interests of media owners from influencing the presentation of news, where the White House still refuses to respond to questions they promised to answer as soon as the Scooter Libby case was closed, where studies indicate that worrying you're going to get sick will actually get you sick—and yet I am devoting an entire column to The Tinkler.
Any shrink worth his or her salt will tell you that it is a mistake to think of your colleagues as family. But what is a family if not a group of people who care about you and irritate you and show up for cake on your birthday and look at pictures of your kid even when they don't feel like it and think it wouldn't kill you to put on a little makeup and a pair of heels once in a while? I've been earning a paycheck for 30 years. Whether rinsing conditioner off a Lhasa apso during my stint as shampoo girl at Mr. Whiskers Pet Boutique or breathing on the chicken breast I was about to serve a rude diner during my waitressing days, I've always found that the people I work with matter to me. Their moods, their opinions, their style influence my life. They've appreciated me, humiliated me, surprised me, and antagonized me. I've gotten flowers and I've gotten fired (and I'm pretty sure I didn't do anything to deserve either), but I've never experienced anything like The Tinkler.
"Dammit!" I say upon encountering her latest Jackson Pollock imitation. Pat, Suzan, and Valerie each come out of their stalls to see what's wrong. I point in horror. Pat groans, Suzan moans, Val throws up her hands in disgust, and we fall into silence. Then I rally, "At least we know it's not one of us." But everybody else is a suspect. "It can't be Sudie," Suzan volunteers. My eyes narrow. "What are you basing this on?" I ask. "I've seen her," she answers, "she always heads straight for the paper seat protector." "And," Valerie adds, "we can cross Mamie off the list—it happened twice while she was in Sweden." Sixty seconds ago the four of us were editors; now we are FBI profilers. "She probably likes to burrow into small spaces," Pat conjectures. "This never happens in the big, wheelchair-accessible stall…." "It's very primitive, as if she's marking her territory. This is clearly a hostile gesture," Suzan declares with authority. We're finally getting somewhere. "So, really," I say, "we just need to be on the lookout for an aggressively mean-spirited, mole-like cavewoman who is not confined to a wheelchair…is that right?" Val is the first to realize that we're losing our minds. "I'm out of here," she says, and exits the ladies' room.
Later, I complain to J.J., poor, naive little J.J…. She tells me that it can't be any of us, that the toilet is somehow to blame. I leave J.J. in her special world—a place where troubles melt like lemon drops and Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone—and resume writing my column. Gina drops by and reads over my shoulder. Suddenly she has an epiphany: "It's you!" she announces, pointing at me like she's Javert accusing Jean Valjean of stealing silver candlesticks. "Think about it," she says. "What better way to cover your tracks than writing an outraged piece on the subject?" I kind of like that Gina believes I am an evil genius, and don't have the heart to tell her that I once refused to sit my daughter on the lap of a department store Santa Claus because I had no idea who else had been sitting there.
Another day, another bathroom break. "Steer clear of the third stall," Yeun warns as she dries her hands and heads for a meeting. Jennifer emerges from door number four to see what exactly's going on behind door number three. She is appalled yet philosophical. "Believe it or not, every place I've ever worked has had a Tinkler—maybe sharing a ladies' room just sends certain people into a passive-aggressive snit. It's the dark side of office life."
Lately, my daydreams bear a striking resemblance to one of those black-and-white Sherlock Holmes movies: The entire team sits, sipping brandy in an ornate drawing room. "I suppose you're wondering why I've gathered you here today," I begin in an inexplicable British accent. "Well, my friends, one of you is The Tinkler." The research department averts their eyes. The art department fidgets nervously. An intern gasps. "And," I go on, "nobody is leaving this room until I reveal the person who refuses to work and play well with others." My assistant, Polly, looks up. "You mean you've figured out the identity of The Tinkler?" she asks, filled with an admiration for my powers of reasoning that she has never once expressed in real life. "It was elementary, dear Watson. I merely—" but before I can unmask The Tinkler or explain why I refer to Polly as dear Watson, the lights suddenly go out…
I could go on, but I'm bored silly whenever someone feels compelled to relay every nanosecond of a dream. Suffice it to say that I usually wind up in the arms of Tyrone Power. As for The Tinkler? She's still on the lam.
There are lots of days when I find myself wishing life were closer to a gorgeous movie from the '40s—women wore fabulous hats and pearl chokers, and I don't think they actually went to the bathroom back then. They were too busy dancing with Fred Astaire and smoking unfiltered cigarettes to schlep to an office every day. Now some of us are running the offices, but it seems we've brought a few low-grade lunatics along for the ride—and they're wreaking havoc in the ladies' room. Where have you gone, Edith Wharton? I'm not asking for cloth napkins and classical music. I don't need a mint on my pillow. I just want a bit of common courtesy, a modicum of civility, a touch of class, or, failing all that, a good supply of Lysol.