Fresh out of college, a numbers pusher working at the corporate headquarters of a Fortune 500 Company, I was determined to climb the ladder with gusto. My colleagues? Almost entirely male. Fierce competitors. In the 1980’s, “dress for success”  meant women donned a uniform of conformity: navy blue or charcoal gray skirt suits topped by crisp starched white shirts and dark silk bow ties.

When each week drew to a close, I collected all of the regional sales projections, prepared a forecast for monthly revenue, scrutinized the results with my manager, and accompanied him as he presented my forecast to the group Vice President. I always wore my favorite suit on Friday: a gray, four-season wool with subtle pinstripes. The pencil skirt skimmed without announcing my hips, while the long jacket made me look and feel tall. On this particular day, I paired my suit with a white blouse tucked securely at the waist, topped by a navy and burgundy paisley patterned bow tie. Consummate professional.

Fridays were often action packed and as usual, I only had time for one bathroom break just before lunch. My coveted pencil skirt was too tight to pull up. I unzipped it, pulled it down, finished my bathroom business, tucked in my shirt and slipped to the corporate cafeteria to join my colleagues.

After lunch, tasks bubbled nonstop. A shirt sleeves afternoon, I draped my suit jacket onto a hangar while negotiating on the phone, and ran back and forth between offices to verify projections, navigate the rapids, and shoot through the chaos.

Leaning over the forecast pages with my manager, I discovered a logic error in one of the regional reports. I congratulated myself for finding and correcting the error before the VP’s presentation. The numbers well received, I was invited to happy hour with the bosses. Slinging my suit jacket over my shoulder, I left my shirt sleeves rolled, joined my colleagues at the bar, and placed my drink order.

Just as I slid away to relieve my aching bladder, the waitress approached. “Honey, your zipper is down,” she said.

Grabbing at the back of my waist, my head pounded as a river of nausea churned. The top button was fastened but the tails of my crisp white blouse waved out between the unzipped teeth like a surrender flag. If my zipper was down at happy hour, it had been down since before lunch, and no one, NO ONE, mentioned it as I ran around the office, leaned over my boss’s desk, or met with the VP.

Right then, right there, I vowed to always let people know if they had inadvertently left an opening for embarrassment.

Thus began an obsession with helping strangers and work colleagues by approaching them with a frank whisper “Your collar is flipped out and your shirt tags are showing.”  Or “You have a piece of toilet paper trailing from your shoe.” Or “The zipper on the back of your dress slipped down an inch.”  Or “Your button is popped and your bra is peeking through.” Or “It looks like you’ve ripped a small hole in the seam of your pants.”

Some strangers seemed to appreciate my help. Others looked at me as though I was trying to accost them.

Over time, I realized that such help was a form of hovering so I made myself stop. After biting my tongue at several incidences that surely required my intervention, I attended an outdoor festival where I spied a woman exiting a port-a-potty with toilet paper trailing from her shoe. Keeping silent surveillance, I saw her stumbling and laughing with no notice to her embarrassing predicament. After about 10 feet the paper fell away. Clearly, my intervention was not needed. Time to stop helping strangers.

And, I did.

But then came an appointment to get blood drawn for a test requiring 12-hour fasting. Dressing for work that morning would be just enough delay to cause a caffeine deprivation headache before I could hit the coffee shop. When the alarm sounded, I spruced up by swiping away body odors likely to dismay the technician who would be poking at me with a needle.

Tossing on a pair of jeans from the previous night, I dug out a fresh bra and t-shirt, slipped on my sandals and jumped in the car. Mine was the first appointment of the day after a moonless night, and I was grateful for the lights on either side of the automatic doors to guide my way in from the cavernous parking lot.

The phlebotomy technician was late. Other patients trickled in to wait. After what seemed like an hour, but was probably only 20 minutes, my name was called. Mission completed, I re-entered a full waiting room, then emerged into a glorious sunny morning.

“There’s something,” said the elderly gentleman patient who had just passed by on the sidewalk. Was he talking to me? I turned around. We were the only people in the parking lot.

“What?” I asked.

“There’s something, um … um on your shoe,” he said and almost ran away.

My shoe? I looked down. Nothing on my shoe. Then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something on the back, trailing my right foot like an iguana’s tail. Flowing out from under my jeans and caught at the heel notch was pair of black granny panties. Yesterday’s underwear.

Thoughts of my pencil skirt zipper flooded forth. The universe had spoken. Over helping could sometimes be a kindness.

 

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