The Land of the Lost

Monday is just not the support department’s day.

Last Monday started off on a high note, with a temporary air conditioning unit being delivered. They have been warm in there for the past week or so because the building AC unit for that office is dead and needs to be replaced. It’s a big job that involves removing half the ceiling, winches, blowtorches and a group of monk overseers of some kind, and to make matters worse, the unit has to be custom ordered. So the HVAC company says it may be a while before the job is done.

Enter the good folks at Spot Coolers, who brought in an awe-inspiring portable commercial AC unit that is keeping everyone comfortable. When it was first installed though, it took a while to cool the office down, so head support honcho Joe Jun thought he would speed up the process by closing the door to the support office. No big deal, right? Well, actually, it was a big deal, as closing the door effectively locked Joe in, along with three other guys.

To understand how the support staff could lock themselves into their own office, I have to back up a bit.

Before we inhabited this space, it belonged to JPL. Part of the room that is now our support office was their data center. It was full of ye-olden-dayes supercomputers and whatnot, so they had an expensive electronic lock installed on the door. When we came in and rebuilt most of the space, we left that door in place. The plan was either to get the lock re-coded so it could serve it’s original purpose, or remove it. Since we don’t have much need for high security on in inside office door (and since the door is always open anyway), we kind of forgot about the lock.

Until one night about a year ago, when I got a call at home from one of our overnight guys at the time, Raymond. He said, “I’m locked out of the support office, the cleaning crew must have closed the door.” I said, “Hmm, well, you know we can’t open that lock…” and Ray said, “Hold on a minute.” He put down his phone and I heard what sounded like a brief, violent scuffle in the background. He came back to the phone and said, “Never mind, I got it open.” When I asked how he managed to do that, he casually said he’d “kicked the handle a couple of times.” Ray studies Karate, by the way.

Not surprisingly, kicking his way into the office broke some mechanical lock parts, so we started to remove the lock the next day. But a weird and complex system of tiny hex screws and interlocking rings made that impossible. The next logical move would have been to call a locksmith and have it professionally removed. We chose instead to leave it partially removed and just try not to think about it too much. It is an internal office door anyway, right? And one that is always open.

At least until Joe decided to close it.

So now you can probably see the dilemma. They closed the door, the broken latch clicked into place, and then the door couldn’t be opened from either side.

I called the building supervisor, Alex, to bring some tools to help us remove the lock. But he didn’t have the necessary tools to take it apart properly, so we started to work on it with drills and pliers, in a stunning brute force attack.

Meanwhile, the guys locked inside the office had their own ideas on how to get out, and requested that a screwdriver be smuggled in to help them remove the door hinges. So Alex climbed up on a ladder, removed some ceiling tiles and handed the screwdriver in through the ceiling.

The screwdriver on the hinges approach was ineffective (it was the idea of the guys who had just locked themselves in an office after all), and not surprisingly, all the activity started to draw a crowd.

The support office has two large windows that face a hallway, so everyone standing outside could see the trapped support staff. And, of course, everyone who saw them thought it was terribly funny that they had somehow locked themselves inside their own office. So people began to taunt them, putting up signs that said “Primate viewing,” and “Do not feed the animals.” Someone (okay, it was me) wrote on the window with a sharpie, “GENIUS DEPARTMENT.” All of this would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic – you know, with lives hanging in the balance and all that.

Alex eventually pried the lock away from the door using the wondrous natural forces of leverage and a giant pipe wrench, and the prisoners were freed. There was sparse, halfhearted clapping, and the captives all rushed out as if they had been trapped for days. In reality it was about 30 minutes. At least they had air conditioning.

But I could see a sort of twisted “Lord of the Flies” scenario beginning to play out as I watched through the window. Jose had recently returned from Subway before being trapped, so he would obviously be the leader, as he had control over the most food. But Raymond was in there as well, with his established kicking skills (Jose swears that Ray was beginning to fashion a crude spear and loincloth only a few minutes before they were released). There may well have been a brutal struggle for power. The group would probably turn on Joe first, as he was responsible for stranding them, then, like sharks feeding, on to the new guy in support, Mike…it could have been ugly. Very ugly.

So if anyone from JPL is reading this and you want your lock back, it’s here on my desk. You can pick it up any time.

Then, in keeping with the theme, early this Monday morning, guess who showed up unannounced? Of course, the HVAC company with the replacement unit! We moved a few desks around but they said, “No way dere partner, youse guys needs to vacate the office, here, you savvy?” We savvied and Joe sent the support staff packing for home where they worked remotely for the rest of the day.

I could see why the HVAC guys wanted the office to be clear. There were a lot of heavy chunks of metal dropping here and there, welding, grinding, electrical and plumbing work and an inordinate amount of general I-don’t-really-give-a-crap-if-this-is-messing-up-your-office behavior going on. So it wouldn’t have been possible to work in there anyway.

The new unit is up and running, but the office still looks like a contractor bomb hit it, so there will be much cleaning up and resettling tonight and tomorrow morning.

I’ll let you know what happens next Monday.

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