Siddiqui was my hero.
Siddiqui means The Truthful in Arabic. Siddiqui became my hero when one day, while on a break at work, he quietly told me that he had hiked hard for months across the harsh desert that stretches across northern Africa, and then he traveled far to eventually reach San Diego, California, USA. I had been a US Peace Corps volunteer in sub-Saharan Africa so I knew a little about the hardship that had meant for him. We were sitting in the breakroom at Phogenix Imaging, LLC*, a small, joint venture of Kodak and Hewlett Packard (HP) which was charged with creating the kiosks that are now prevalent in drugstores for printing out variously sized photographs from personal computer memory devices. Siddiqui was one of the electronics technicians and I was the teams’ technical writer. When other team members came in to join us on break, I matter-of-factly told them, “This man is my hero.” and explained that he had hiked out of Africa to come to America. They were all from various countries of the Middle East, China, and elsewhere, and their own journeys had been difficult, but they were impressed at the magnitude of Siddiqui’s endeavor to find a new life. One of them matter-of-factly suggested that Siddiqui and I were a nice couple and we should hike around San Diego together, “You know, walk up the hills, down the hills...together”. He smiled kindly, curiously, a little suggestively. I was embarrassed, as the thought had never occurred to me. I was past middle-aged and not looking for romance but I saw his point. Siddiqui and I were simply simpatico, as the many Spanish-speakers in San Diego might have put it. But we did not walk together.
I enjoyed the cross-cultural component of Phogenix and I was proud of my skills at working with so many different sorts of people. My job was to photo-illustrate the work-in-progress and facilitate inter-team written communications while they built the kiosk prototype. The head of Phogenix seemed to be a mysterious Egyptian who was never in-office, but I may be wrong in this as the company hierarchy was never clear to me. I saw him only once, when he smiled almost tenderly at me through the door of his corner office. My direct supervisor was an Asian Indian who gave me assignments then turned me loose to work. He unsettled me by having an underling tell me that my desk and computer had been moved from the lab in the basement (where I wanted it for easy access to the work I was documenting) up to the first floor with management next to my supervisor's cubicle. The underling told me that he was to convey that I was being moved to "The Taj Mahal", which was baffling because I did not then know that reference was a romantic innuendo on the part of my very married supervisor. My supervisor compromised with me by assigning me a second computer in the lab. My favorite mid-level manager, who could always find information for me, was an aging but fit Caucasian surfer-dude of superior intellect who surfed the Pacific Ocean most mornings before coming to work, a dedication to sport and health that really impressed me. My favorite programmer was a Hispanic skateboarder/dirt bike enthusiast who could always find obscure measurements for me; and so on. My prankster, whom I converted to a work-buddy by playing his pranks back at him, even though that is not at all my work style, was an elderly Spaniard whose favorite city in the world was Barcelona, but he could not tell me why. I sensed that he loved both the city and someone in the city. The last trick he played on me was to glue my calendar shut which turned out to be prophetic.
One of the few women working at Phogenix was a very ill cancer victim who told me that her boyfriend in Human Resources had gotten her the job where nothing was expected of her by fudging her resume with complete falsehoods, so that she would have income during her last time in life. I had not wanted to know that, but I kept her secret until this day seventeen years later. One evening after work she showed me the small sailing yacht that she owned, it may have been moored in Chula Vista Marina in San Diego’s South Bay. She was disappointed when I declined her offer of a trip out into the open harbor. I feared the unknown and her diminished capacity. She said that she slept on the yacht on nights when her pain was worst, the memories and the rocking of the swells comforted her. The pretty, messy little yacht smelled of her sickness.
Early on during my time at Phogenix, one of the clerical staff was celebrating her birthday. I offered to take photographs for her, but she cast her eyes down and demurred. When I asked why, she gave me an angry glance and pointed to her eye. I had not noticed that she had a badly matched glass eye. I thought for a moment, then said, “Trust me, I won’t embarrass you. It will be fun. Okay?” So when her friends brought in a large cake I took a group photo and the young woman with the bad glass eye smiled bravely. The next day I emailed her the photographs. She came over to my cubicle in happy tears, “Thank you, I’ve never seen myself with two eyes!” I had photoshopped her good eye in reversed duplicate to give her two pretty eyes. It was my pleasure.
The only woman I got to know well at Phogenix had been a member of the San Diego Ballet, but she would not tell me why she no longer danced. I was foolish for asking. She was beautiful in the faded way that age has with exquisitely beautiful people. People used to tell me that I was graceful, but I believe that she was significantly more graceful than I, and I felt a little jealously toward her. She was gracious to me, probably used to envy from other women. I remember that she and I went to a musical performance where we sat in 2nd row, center front seats, her treat. And, she kindly invited me to share a holiday meal with her and her boyfriend. She lived in an upscale condo in a gated community. Unsurprisingly, she set a superb table, with fine china, crystal glassware, true silverware, and many desserts on display. She was very gracious, but seemed anxious. It turned out that her elderly boyfriend, who was very senior management at Hewlett-Packard or Kodak or Phogenix (as usual it was unclear), was bombed out of his mind. She wanted very much to have a festive dinner and finally managed to dress him and guide him to the table, but he was incapable of doing anything more than sit there. His collapse seemed eminent. She and I had a brief meal together, and I left early though she wanted me to stay. I was very, very sorry for her but I fear to be around the unstable lives of the drugged. She never forgave me for witnessing her humiliation and I did not try to win back her friendship for fear of him.
Most of the employees at Phogenix were young, healthy men and being cooped up in a building all day was difficult for them, so at noontime they often played a quick game of soccer at a nearby football pitch. They asked me to take photographs of them playing, so one day I did. They played vigorously and posed for the camera as I sat on a sideline. One of them pretended to be out-of-control and leapt over me for an action shot. The blurry, indiscrete photograph "did not turn out", but the players roared with laughter. I took it with good-nature, but I did not watch their games again. I uploaded their photographs to a common area of the company intranet. They really liked those mementos, and I was happy to provide them.
Phogenix was not always fun and games, sometimes it was just a few bad, old games that men have always played against women at work. HP and Kodak placed some of their own employees at Phogenix, maybe some were old reprobates who were politically ensconced but did not work well with others. Two such ne'er-do-wells were an older manager/technical writer team who bragged that they did nothing. I believed them when they complained that they were bored. Phogenix was a small building but I never saw the old technical writer working anywhere. What was that old man doing at Hewlett Packard, he bragged to me that he did not do any work, what did he do to earn his pay? I did frequently see him when I came out of the women's bathroom with his arms outstretched as if he were trying to catch me. He was very acrobatic and enjoyed dancing around trying to coral me. He did very strange and inappropriate staring antics which embarrassed me in front of others. Others came to me and complained that the old reprobate was harassing them too. His advantage of a Sorbonne education in Paris, France and a highly educated mother who was a published author and professor of art back east did not seem to have polished him. Incidentally, I feel no need to say his name, he was not that important to me. And, he may still be well-connected, I am afraid of him. There was little I could do except to avoid him and complain to Human Resources, which as a contract employee made me vulnerable to dismissal. So I was annoyed but not surprised when Human Resources came back at me with a complaint he had made that I was "racist". He had sent me an inappropriate note with his Chinese chop (signature) on it, and I had asked if he was Chinese. He volunteered that he was part black but his girlfriend was oriental. He twisted my question into racism. Nowadays I supposed the absurdity could continue with a counter-accusation at him of cultural misappropriation. At the time, none of it was amusing as I was hoping to be hired full-time, permanent, with benefits, and his behavior jeopardized that. His manager said to be patient with him, to be nice because the old reprobate's father had recently died, and his wife had left him for his best friend, and he was going though a divorce because of it. The old reprobate himself told me that his father had been CIA or FBI or...it was never quite clear what, and that he had followed in his father's footsteps. I believed him, especially after I saw the gun he wore in his shoulder holster and the purple motorcycle he buzzed around on, giving the suggestion that he was a NARC on the side. He was also a pilot and frequently absent from work because he was out-of-town. He bragged that he had many sources of income, unlike his friend and manager who was fully dependent on HP. He appeared to have "dated" most of the women at Phogenix before marrying his oriental girlfriend. What havoc he was to me is a story for another day, just tag it as "sexual harassment" today.
When employees from different teams got together for lunch at an expensive, revolving sushi bar, I joined in even though it was somewhat out of my budget. My favorite type of sushi was the basic raw, red-fleshed tuna roll wrapped in vinegary rice, a paper-thin sheet of nori (seasoned black seaweed), and tropical vegetables rolled into a tidy, bite-sized cylinder. Sometimes I had a nice piece of sashimi, which is very fresh raw fish sliced into thin pieces. I liked the raw fish seasoned with soy sauce, tissue-thin slices of gari (pink ginger), and a touch of wasabi (green horseradish paste). We had to choose our assortment of sushi and eat quickly to get back to work within an hour.
One day I was checking into the front entrance at work after a nice lunch of sushi, when I saw a wild woman running into the building. Her hair was flying, her face was storming, her arms and legs were working with the weird gait of a speed walker, or someone out of control with anger. I whispered wide-eyed to the guard, “Who’s that?” He pulled a face, “That’s our fearless leader.” She was Cara Carleton "Carly" Fiorina, Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett-Packard from 1999 to 2005, the first woman to lead a Top-20 company, and later to be a United States Presidential candidate. I did not vote for her because of what I observed at Phogenix, which she also controlled.
Midmorning of September 11, 2001**, someone ran through the offices at Phogenix, as people probably ran through offices throughout the world, yelling in an instantly believable voice, “We’ve been attacked! They hit the World Trade Center! We’ve been attacked!” The sound of his frightened, scrambling feet as he careened through the cubicles was viscerally frightening. At that moment there were few if any people working on the upper floor of the building, I did not see anyone in adjoining cubicles. I did not think of searching for news on the internet, so I ran to the guard desk at the front entrance. It was empty. I ran downstairs to the laboratory and the research offices of the technical teams but I did not see anyone. Many of the doors were closed and locked. I ran to the guard desk at the back entrance, the dour old man was quietly reading a paperback book and had not heard about anything. He was dumbfounded when I told him what I had heard. I asked where to find a television to see what was happening. When he said he did not think there was a TV in the building, I told him to go get one, break a store window to get one if he had to but get one, hoping he would get a gun to protect us if the building were attacked. The events were surreal, nightmarish, inconceivable. In a few minutes the guard came get me in my cubicle and showed me to the executive conference room where he had turned on a TV. Frightened employees were congregated there watching in horror, but there were no executives. There did not seem to be an upper management person in the building. In fact, after that day many of the foreign nationals, from corporate officers to cabling wiring technicians never showed up to work again. I never knew what happened to my hero Siddique.
After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, our work relationships at Phogenix were irreparably damaged. Trust would become a huge issue. Among the many foreign workers who never showed up to work again was a Middle Eastern electrical engineer who had inexplicably gone through the offices about a week prior, frantically and nonsensically asking “How do I rent a car to drive east?” But he did not wait to get any answers. He had always seemed too sensitive and immature to me. I wished him well at the time and worried about what had happened to him. In hindsight I wonder who he was and what he had known. Another very young Middle Easterner who worked in Human Resources, and of whom I had been particularly fond, took to stress sleeping at work, curled up tight underneath his desk. The first time that I discovered him there, I took his jacket from his chair and covered him with it. His eyes were dry but his face cried. Three Chinese men in programming came to my cubicle a few days after 9/11, they stood in a formal line, bowed deeply to me, and expressed their sorrow at “What has happened to your country.” They pinned a hand-scribed calligraphy inspirational banner to my cubicle wishing me “PROSPERITY”. I cried unabashedly. It was hard to work.
One day when our upstairs offices were entirely empty except for two of us, I heard an American supervisor complaining on the telephone to Human Resources that all of his team had disappeared, and I heard him demanding to know why no contact addresses were available for his entire team of international H-1B non-immigrant visa workers. When he hung up he called out over the cubicles to me, asking what I thought he should do. I asked if he had a wife and children. He said yes, so I told him that if I were he, I would not complain further as it would probably do no good and could damage him professionally. I told him that single people such as myself should complain loudest, as single people have no family to protect. But I found no way to complain for him. At the time I was not even sure of what had happened.
After 9/11 a young Middle Eastern woman passed me in the hallway with a head toss of her waist-length cascade of hair, "See, this is what happens to your country. This is what you deserve." I did not recall having ever seen her before and I never saw her again. In the Middle East she would have been wearing a hajib over her pretty hair, and an abaya cape over her svelte body, if she was even allowed to work.
In the first moments of 9/11 a fat, typically stressed engineer from Columbia, South America rushed to my cubicle to confront me, "This is what your country gets for destroying my country." I was flabbergasted and very relieved that I never saw him again. I asked some friends why he would say that to me, and they said that his father had been a CIA agent in Columbia so despite being half American, or maybe because he was disappointed in it, he hated America. I had had very little contact with him before, primarily because he never knew anything about the work that I was doing. Perhaps it made him angry not to know.
After 9/11 my supervisor had me call about twenty or thirty technicians and engineers from the teams that he managed into a conference room to run them through paper tests on basic science, mechanics, and electrical terminology. He seemed very angry, so I did not comment when he directed me to take the test too. He let us cool our heels while he graded the tests, then came back even angrier. He said that many had not even passed the test, then he added that the technical writer, ME!, had done better on the test than most. I was not surprised because English is my native language and reading Science used to be a way that I relaxed. I was, however, shocked to be publicly called out on it and I slunk out of the room hoping to avoid jealousy. I need not have worried because after 9/11 all of us had bigger things to worry about: keeping our jobs.
All work at Phogenix became disjointed, fast paced then stalled, always confused. I soon had no supervisor which did not bode well for me. I worked at Phogenix from June 25, 2001 to April 12, 2002, then I was let go. It was just one more contract position that never turned into permanent employment for me.
Sidenote: I would not believe this myself but for the coincidental confirmation of the manager of the apartment complex where I lived. She sought comfort after 9/11 when she said to me, “You know that gas station down the street? One of the clerks there was a guy who flew the plane into the World Trade Center!” I instantly knew it and I denied it, saying, “No, oh no, I don’t think so!”, and like a coward I never spoke to her of it again. But God’s truth is that earlier in the year I had stopped at that gas station for gasoline, and I had had an altercation with a sullen middle eastern clerk. I wanted to pay for my gas and he was at the cash register daydreaming (of his nightmare vision for the ruination of the World Trade Center?), and he ignored me. I asked him several times with annoyance, “Are you working here or not?” and was stunned by his response. His face snarled like an animal, he whirled out of the gas station and ran to a shed beside it. It was locked and he stood there enraged until an older manager caught up to him saying, “Stop, think what you are doing. Wait.” I do not want to believe this, but I fear the Devil’s fingers brushed me that day. If the shed had been unlocked would he have gotten a weapon to fire on that day instead of later? The thought is mind-boggling. This is the first time I have recounted this event in my life, I wish it was not so. I would not tell it except that I am so much closer to the end of life than the beginning.
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* “Phogenix Imaging LLC ceased its operations in May 2003. Phogenix Imaging develops and manufactures retail thermal inkjet photofinishing machines including the DFX digital photofinishing system. The company was formed by the joint venture in February 2000 by Eastman Kodak Co. and Hewlett-Packard Corp. It is headquartered in San Diego, California.”
** “The September 11 attacks (also referred to as 9/11 ) were a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda against the United States on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. The attacks killed 2,996 people, injured over 6,000 others , and caused at least $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage. Additional people died of 9/11-related cancer and respiratory diseases in the months and years following the attacks.
Caption: Siddiqui became my hero when he hiked out of Africa.
by Annmarie Throckmorton 2018
Caption: Carly Fiorina-public image on internet 2018