By Jeff Lowder
(Excerpted from Dirty Shorts: True Stories of Sex and Bad Judgment at Work)
Surrounded by a dozen flickering TV monitors, hospital Safety and Security Director, James Halstrom, and I sat focused on the screen labeled, “Park Gar/2 LL.” Jim had refused to tell me in advance what to expect, but I was pretty sure I knew this was most likely video evidence of an employee’s car falling victim to another smash-and-grab burglary—I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The screen displayed a black and white freeze frame. The image was dark and grainy, but I had no trouble recognizing the star of this short subject, the “perp” as former cop Jim likes to say. “That’s Helen Barrett!” I blurted.
Helen was a Senior Buyer with twenty-plus years in our Supply Chain organization. (Don’t ever call it Purchasing.) I never knew the details of their feud, but for almost six years, Helen had been the Moriarty to Jim’s Sherlock Holmes.
I’m no shrink, but passive-aggressive is the term I think best describes Helen’s behavior. On an almost monthly basis she would make a formal report of some breach of facility safety and/or security, real or imagined. Her complaints ranged from “deadly” icy sidewalks to feeling threatened when “a rough-looking guy with gang tattoos” passed her in the hallway by the E.R. And every whiney email included “Cc: Hospital Administrator.”
Jim sat at the controls, finger poised over the Play button. “Are you sure you’re ready for this, Jeff?”
“What? Cut the drama and roll it already.”
What followed was something my son would call “a major WTF moment.” Helen took a few steps into the parking garage and stopped at the driver’s side of a dark colored car, probably a Honda Accord. She looked to her left, then right, presumably to make sure no one was watching. Then—and I saw it with my own eyes—she bent over and gave the door handle three long, wet licks.
I let out an involuntary groan.
Jim paused the video, obviously upset. “Did you see that?”
“Looked like Helen gave that car’s door handle a tongue bath. But why would—”
“Watch this.” Jim unpaused the machine.
Helen stepped around to the passenger door and gave the new handle the same wet treatment—at which point I lost it. Tears were literally rolling down my cheeks before I could finally stop laughing.
Jim, on the other hand, was pissed. “Hey, this is not a laughing matter.”
“Then . . . I . . . don’t know . . . what is,” I responded, still short of breath. “What was she doing?”
“Licking the car, you said it yourself.”
“Yeah. But what the hell possessed her to do that?”
“I think she’s trying to kill me.” Jim sounded totally serious.
“Kill you? Come on.”
“That was my car, Jeff. I think Helen’s trying to infect me with aids or something.”
My laughing spell started up again. “The only way you could get aids from a car door is if you tried to open it with your— ”
“Yeah, yeah, very funny. Maybe not aids, but . . . something. Anyway, you definitely gotta fire her.”
“Fire her? For what? There’s nothing in the hospital’s policy manual like, ‘Licking coworkers’ cars will be grounds for discipline up to and including termination.’” I gave my earlobe a contemplative tug. “Let’s assume for a moment that Helen’s motive for licking your door handles was something slightly less sinister than attempted murder. What’s another logical explanation?”
Now it was Jim’s turn to laugh. “Logical?”
“OK, any possible explanations?”
“Maybe her doctor called with the results of the blood test—and her road grime levels were dangerously low,” Jim muttered.
For a minute or so I looked down at my interlaced fingers, deep in thought. “We need to talk to Dr. Vogel.”
“You know I was kidding about the road grime, right?”
“Vogel’s a psychiatrist I’ve worked with before. He might have some insight.”
Jim looked skeptical. “A shrink? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just ask Helen what she was up to? Give me thirty minutes with her, and I’ll—”
“Beat it out of her with a rubber hose?”
Jim rolled his eyes in response.
“Let’s start with Vogel,” I said. “You and I’ll probably end up talking with her before this is over.”
Two days later I punched Jim’s extension into my office phone. Skipping “hello,” he blurted, “You talk to your head doc yet?”
“If you mean Dr. Vogel, yes I did.”
“And he wants to see the video,” I said. “He can come down at two tomorrow afternoon.”
“Tell him to bring popcorn.”
I arrived in Security five minutes early. Jim had the video cued, ready to roll. Vogel arrived promptly at two. A slight man, maybe five-six, Dr. V. was only forty-five-ish, but a prematurely white beard seemed to endow the good doctor with wisdom beyond his years.
After a brief introduction, Jim started the video. Vogel stroked his chin and watched intently. During the two-minute clip his expression changed from mild surprise to a knowing nod and back again at least three times.
Jim hit Stop, then practically yelled at the psychiatrist, “Bet you’ve never seen anything like that before!”
Vogel remained calm. “Actually . . . I have.”
Jim was still energized. “Don’t know if Jeff told you, but that’s my car she’s licking. I think she’s trying to poison me.”
Another knowing nod. “Interesting.”
“So, Dr. Vogel, any ideas about why Helen’s doing this?” I asked.
“When can I talk with her?”
A week later, Jim and I waited for Dr. Vogel in his opulent office. Jim paced nervously. I put on a calm demeanor, but could hardly wait to hear if Vogel had broken the code on the infamous handle-licking incident.
Dr. V. came in. After introductions, he took a seat and commenced stroking his snowy whiskers with one thumb. “First, you should know that Helen has signed a release giving me permission to talk to both of you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jim said. “She was trying to kill me, right?”
Vogel allowed a tiny smile. “No, Jim. She had no idea that the object of her affection was your car.”
Object of her affection? For some reason the words leverlingus and autoeroticism popped into my mind.
Vogel continued, “Helen Barrett is not homicidal. She has a plain old garden variety fetish.”
“I knew it—a total nutjob!”
“Not at all, Jim.” Vogel paused and tilted his head a little left. “Although . . . most people fixate on shoes, skin-tight latex, and the like—not car doors.”
Jim looked befuddled, so I translated. “She gets off on licking door handles.”
He looked more confused than ever. “So . . . how dangerous is she, Doc?”
“She’s just embarrassed . . . and frightened people will find out.”
“Didja tell her to just stop it?” Jim asked.
“No. This little quirk probably helps calm her and control her anxiety. But I did strongly suggest that she confine herself to licking her own car doors in the privacy of her own garage—she was actually fine with that.”
“Whew! Thanks for your time and insight, Dr. Vogel,” I said.
“Glad I could help.”
“I’ll admit to being relieved she doesn’t just hate me,” Jim sighed.
“Oh, she does,” Vogel said matter-of-factly. “She despises you with every fiber of her being.” Then he added, with a distinctly un-doctor-like snicker, “But . . . you’re on your own with that one.”