Office Prank

Back in 2000–2003, I worked a gig doing drivers, protocol support and installation media for a high-speed printer. It was a pretty neat thing to work on—and handy, when I think back. Sun Microsystems made PDF files available for all their system documentation, so whenever I needed a manual, I sent the PDF down to the Q/A department. Sometime I had to wait a few days until they needed to run a test on the binder, but when they did they’d run a “test” and print and bind the manual. Covers were generic white cardstock, but it was free vs. $outragous to buy a “real” one. So I had a lovely collection of Sun reference manuals with hand-written covers.

But I’m digressing.

This workplace was known for its office pranks. They weren’t all incredible, but some were legendary, and tailored to the individual. Somebody who didn’t like the new phone system came back to a cube filled with dozens of shit phones. Someone who poked fun at the crappy corporate art came back to an office redecorated with artistic horrors from all around the building.

Anyhow, two years into this job, I took a month-long personal leave. Drivers and kernel STREAMS modules are hard, and I was spread thin between those and assorted other stuff. I needed a break.

After 4 or 5 weeks I returned to work. I don’t remember if I was pranked, but if I was, it wasn’t memorable.

But at lunch that first day, coworker Ron shared his idea for a now-too-late prank wherein I could have pranked the office on return. But now that everyone had seen me, it was too late.

I pointed out that Jeff was on vacation this week. And so it began.

I don’t think fast on my feet, but I had a week to prepare stories and mentally rehearse encounters. By the next Monday, I was ready; I donned a suit I own for occasional gender-bending, and headed into work. I went to my cube and got to work on some code.

Meanwhile, coworker Bob primed Jeff with the “news”: I was back, and it was kind of shocking, so they wanted to let him know so he’d be ready: in the weeks I had been away, I had reverted to my original gender, and had some surgery to undo the sex change. I had gone with my original name, Peter, to keep it simple.

And there was serendipity. The Friday before returning to work, I had a hankering for lunch at a place near work. I’d called to ask if he wanted to gather the gang and join me, but I got his voicemail so I left a message. Now in retrospect, it sounded like a chance to break the news before returning to work.

There were also the circumstances of my leave. I was away 5 weeks—who takes 5 weeks off in tech? Five weeks is enough time to undergo and (partially) recover from radical surgery. And before I’d left, I had been cranky and emotionally volatile, an effect of stress and lack of enough downtime. I hadn’t had a good break in nearly 2 years, and was cracking. But Jeff didn’t know that, and now, there was a potential explanation: the terrible stress of having made a horrid decision, having to live with the consequences, being the wrong gender, and preparing for detransitioning.

Around 9:10 I was hacking away when Jeff walked past my cube, glancing in as he went by. He got a few cubes down, stopped, and came back. Clearly, questioning what he’d been told, which was a good idea given the history of pranks at this place.

“Peter?” he asked tentatively.

“Jeff, good to see you,” I got up and shook his hand. “How was your vacation?”

I could see him trying to process it all as he took in me in a suit and tie. Finally he came out with, “Welcome back to the tripod club?” Typical of him to use humor to defuse a situation.

I chuckled, careful not to laugh too hard. “So you’ve heard.”

So began a 10-minute conversation with this open-minded friend, trying to be sensitive about an awkward situation. He timidly asked several questions, aiming to understand but also afraid of hitting a nerve or saying something hurtful.

I fed him all the bullshit I had prepared: the original sex change just wasn’t working out (in real life, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe me as male-to-tomboy, so there was some plausibility), I just wasn’t happy and I’d finally figured out I’d made a bad decision. I told him that so far, it seemed like things were going well and I had made the right decision. I focused on my mannerisms, trying to emulate speech patterns I that had been socialized out over the past 10 years.

I could see him struggling with it, trying to put himself in my shoes and contemplating the difficulties of my journey. Somehow, I managed to keep a straight face.

He finally left, and I giggled to myself, the terrible person that I am. Then I got back to work, occasionally interrupted by co-conspirators coming to confirm that Jeff had visited, and ask how it went. I don’t know who started it, but the gesture of the day was hooking a finger in the side of the mouth and tugging: we’ve hooked him.

At lunchtime, the troops gathered and we headed to the cafeteria. Jeff had thought of a few new questions, and so had the rest of them. “So are you now Pete or Repeat?” one of them joked, and we all laughed.

Except Jeff. “How could you? Why would you say that? Can’t you imagine what she’s goin—what he’s going through,” he said, his body posture tense with the situation. He continued to trip over pronouns, and feel guilty about his mistakes, while the rest of them made insensitive comments all the way to, and half-way through, lunch.

During lunch he admitted that he hadn’t been sure Bob was speaking the truth that morning, until he’d come to speak with me. That seemed like a good opening, so I let him in on the truth: we’d all been telling him a lot of lies. There was a series of faces: Confusion, dawning understanding. A moment of reevaluating everything he’d heard that day. Relief that I wasn’t in the pain he’d thought. Realization he’d been had, and appreciation of a prank well-pulled.

“You bastards,” he said as I took my tie off, put it in a pocket, and loosened the top button.

And then began recounting the tale and deciding where this belonged in the prank hierarchy.

Of course, stories like this travel around the building. Rumor is when HR first heard, they shit their pants thinking I’d sue when I found out what they’d done. Then they found out I was in on it, and had no idea what to do with it. I quite imagine that today we’d all end up in a lot of trouble for it, but we never heard a peep. I suspect they didn’t want to touch it with a 10-meter pole.

So where did it end up in the prank ranking? It was up there, but personally, my favorite was downsizing someone’s cube after he bitched about space. They’d scrounged up spare cube walls and walled off his real desk and equipment, leaving a tiny cubicle behind—where they installed a shitty desk with a crappy typewriter. That took real work, so I personally defer to that as #1.