Thursday, February 20, 2003

All That Jazz

The corporate cafeteria is one of the last remnants of the hi-tech perks that were once proffered as freely as the stock options we were supposed to retire on. Gone are the weekend trips to Cyprus and the shiatsu massages. The company cars have been downgraded and we even have to pay for our own cellular phone calls now.

But the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet still lives, even if greasy grilled chicken is showing up more frequently than roast beef and duck.

And today, there was a jazz quartet, set up on a stage at the head of the dining room, taking over the spot where my usual table stands.

Mind you, this is not a normal feature of our afternoon repast. But with the anxiety level ratcheting steadily upward as the country prepares for what appears now to be imminent war, I guess the company decided to cheer us up with a little afternoon delight. Music, that is.

It was a nice change. Albeit a bit surreal.

First, it was probably the toughest room that quartet had ever played. This was no smoky club off a dark cat-infested alley catering to wannabe Tel Aviv bohemians with extra long sideburns and retro-thick black frame glasses.

No, they had before them a fluorescent-lit Dilbert-esque cafeteria; a large sun-drenched room that holds 300 at a seating, complete with the requisite plastic chairs, paper napkins, and lots and lots of croutons.

The band was in a peppy mood, belting out upbeat classics. Staff members seemed pleased if befuddled as they entered the room. Thinking they were about to engage in some deep conversation about new product features or marketing strategies, they were instead thrust abruptly into audience mode.

Which led to all sorts of questions about etiquette. For example:

Is it proper to applaud?

How long should you stay? Does the 30-minute lunch rule still apply?

Should you leave politely via the back door, or walk right past the stage in the usual manner, tray in hand, on the way, to the dishwashers?

And then there were the cellphones.

Everyone in the company gets one. And we’re expected to carry them everywhere to take calls (if not to make them). It is simply inconceivable that someone should be unavailable for even the briefest of moments. Heaven forbid you should need to use the bathroom – you’re expected to answer in there too (and I want you to know I have overheard some very interesting conversations that way!)

It’s no wonder that Israelis refuse to turn their phones off even in the movies or at the theater. One time, the cellphone racket got so bad at a play in Tel Aviv that the lead actor stepped into the audience, grabbed the phone from the hapless audience member and yelled into it “he can’t talk now, he’s at the theater. He’ll have to call you back.”

So at our unexpected jazz lunch, the phones continued to ring.

“Hallo, Shooey. No I can’t talk now. Yeah – hear the music? It’s great. Next week the scuds will be falling but today we got this girl in a tight sweater wiggling around while we eat our shnitzel and rice. No, the stock price is still in the toilet. Yeah, the company’s still laying people off. But she’s singing ‘Georgia’ now. Nu, listen!”

I began to feel really sorry for the band.

As monophonic renditions of Britney Spears, Shlomo Artzi and Hill Street Blues vied for attention with the polyphonic sounds emanating from the stage, I was, unfortunately, unable to linger.

I had to get to a meeting to finalize our company’s contingency plan. We needed to put into writing exactly what staff members should know and do in case of a missile attack. For example, the very same cafeteria where the music had just been playing has also been designated a Level 1 staging site. In case we need to prepare for evacuations from a chemical or biological attack.

I half seriously suggested that we keep the band on retainer, throw a big dance party with live music and hot hors d’oeurves, and then we give everyone the rest of the week off.

My ideas were not well received.

Meeting over, I went back upstairs and caught the last 10 minutes of lunch. Yeah, Georgia’s been on my mind too…

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