Josée in Ottawa

Steel Toes Don’t Come in Sexy



Its’ the late nineties. I’m in my early twenties, working at my first job after graduation as a process engineer in a metal-working plant. The place is dirty and dangerous, and whenever I’m out on the floor (my desk is in the front office but I spend half my time on the floor) I have to wear the company-issued uniform, safety glasses, a hard hat, ear plugs, and steel-toed boots.

I’ve been tasked with spec’ing out a very expensive piece of machinery, and one of the contending companies has invited me to their plant to view their machine in action.

I am psyched.

I am the customer. I will be visiting the supplier. I have yet to visit any suppliers, but I understand that I will be treated like a queen. I will be wined and dined, and I will get the hell away from the dirty, noisy plant I work in for a few days.

I ask no one for advice about what to bring on this trip or what the conditions will be like at the supplier’s plant. I work with a bunch of guys; in fact, the only other female employee in the front office is the receptionist, who has probably never visited a supplier. I am loathe to ask any of the guys what I should bring or wear. Inside this plant I am not a girly-girl; I am just one of the guys. It must be this way to ensure my survival in this man’s world. None of the guys would ever inquire about wardrobe.

I become consumed with the idea that I will not be “that girl”. I will not drag a two-ton suitcase on a two day business trip. Having only ever once before been on a plane, I don’t quite grasp the concept of carry-on luggage and I don’t want to check any baggage. A buyer from my company will be meeting me at the airport in South Carolina. I decide that my briefcase will be the only thing I bring with me, so that the buyer will not have to wait around while my luggage is taken off the plane.

Yes, I will bring only my briefcase.

I assume that the conditions at the supplier’s plant will be much like the ones where I work. I decide to wear a t-shirt, jeans, and my steel-toed boots to fly down to South Carolina. (This is pre-9/11. I don’t anticipate and in fact do not have any problems wearing steel-toed boots through security.) In my briefcase I pack a change of underwear, a slightly nicer t-shirt for the plant visit the next day, my ear plugs, safety glasses, a hairbrush, minimal makeup, and my toothbrush. My hard hat won’t fit; instead of carrying it around with me I decide that the supplier will just have to lend me one.

I am so pleased that I have managed to fit everything into my briefcase. I pat myself on the back.

The flight to South Carolina is uneventful. Rich, the buyer, is there to greet me. He will be the one cutting the check once I have made the final decision about which machine to buy. He is wearing a suit. I register the fact that he is pulling a large suitcase on wheels. Somewhere in the back of my mind I realize that he must have checked this suitcase. I ignore this fact. He glances at my t-shirt, jeans and steel-toed boots but does not comment. I feel a momentary flicker of… something. He sees my briefcase and heads for the baggage claim, assuming that I have checked a suitcase too. But I haven’t! I call his name and proudly exclaim, “Nope, this is it!”, lifting my briefcase into the air. He gives me a look that I choose to interpret as admiration.

We take his rental car to the hotel. We are in the lobby, checking in, when I realize that he and the hotel desk clerk are looking at me expectantly. They look at me; I look at them. I am unsure of what is happening. Finally Rich turns back to the attendant and whispers, “Just put her room on my card…” This is the moment where my self-confidence starts to crumble. No one said anything about paying for the hotel room. I never thought to ask. As a recent grad I have only one visa with a measly two-hundred-dollar upper limit – two hundred Canadian dollars. I have no idea what the balance is on my card, or how much a hotel room in South Carolina costs.  I can feel the blush start to spread up my cheeks. Yet I manage to improvise: “Oh my!” I cry. “I totally forgot to grab the company visa before leaving! I’m sorry…” Rich looks doubtful but smiles reassuringly. “No problem. I’ve got it.”

We agree to rest in our respective rooms until six o’clock, after which we will meet the supplier for dinner. I fall facedown on the bed and try to stay positive. It’s getting harder by the minute. What have I gotten myself into?

After a few minutes I decide to test the upper limits of my visa card and head down to the lobby. I explain the situation to the clerk (sticking to the “I forgot the company visa” story; I’m sure he doesn’t care) and ask him to try my visa. He does. It goes through. Success! I have somewhat redeemed myself.

When I meet Rich in the lobby later I proudly explain that I have managed to pay for my room myself. He can’t quite keep the smirk off his face and my self-confidence crumbles a bit more.

We head to the restaurant. I’m still wearing the same jeans, t-shirt and steel toes that I wore on the plane. When I glimpse the dim lighting and the candles on the tables I finally start to question my decision not to check any luggage.

The waiter leads us to our table, where the supplier is already waiting. The supplier turns out to be many suppliers; in fact, there are already six men seated around the table. They are all wearing suits. I die a little inside.

Supper is unbearable. The men talk and joke and slap each other heartily on the back. I have no idea what to say.  I sit and stare at my plate and wish that the earth would swallow me whole. I briefly debate whether “accidentally” tipping over a candle and starting a fire would improve the situation or make it worse. Luckily Rich is the consummate sales guy and keeps up “our” end of the conversation. The ordeal can’t end fast enough. I don’t say a word as Rich drives back to the hotel.

I sleep in my t-shirt.

I toss and turn all night. When dawn breaks I change my underwear and t-shirt and put on yesterday’s jeans and steel toes. I head down to the continental buffet and meet Rich, who is wearing yet another suit. “Ha”, I think. “He will feel silly when his suit has machine grease all over it!” I am starting to regain some of my self-confidence. Plants are dirty, smelly, messy places. Plants are no place for a suit.

We head out to the plant. Rich heads into the downtown core. “Strange place for a factory”, I think to myself. He pulls into the parking lot of a large building with a glass front. I start to panic.

We have barely made it through the front doors when one of the men from yesterday’s supper, still in a suit, swoops down and greets us. “Good morning! Follow me…” Today he doesn’t seem surprised by my t-shirt and jeans. He leads us into a well-appointed boardroom to a breakfast spread that could rival the Ritz-Carlton’s. All the men from yesterday are standing around, chatting and eating and laughing. I cannot eat. Or laugh.

Finally, it’s time. We are going to see the suppliers’ machine. The machine in question should be about the size of a dump truck; I am not sure where they are hiding it in this shiny new office building. Perhaps we will drive to the plant? The men lead me through a lushly carpeted hallway to a set of heavy double doors. The man in charge proudly throws open the doors and though he doesn’t actually say it, the word “Behold!” seems to echo through the enormous room.

The machine is in the centre of the room. The floors, wall and ceiling are all blindingly white and absolutely spotless. My first thought is that I will not be needing earplugs or safety glasses today. I am slightly relieved; I had worried about fishing them out of the bottom of my briefcase without pulling out yesterday’s dirty underwear in the process.

The men lead me to a group of chairs placed in a semi-circle around the machine. They are excited to show it off. I feel stupid and am completely humiliated, but I must carry on with this charade. I listen to their pitch and try to fake some enthusiasm. I start asking some of the questions that I prepared, questions about technical specs and performance. The men answer quickly and confidently. I smile and nod but inside I am thinking that there is no way I will recommend that we buy this machine; I can never see any of these people ever again.

Finally I get to my last question. Do they have the results of a particular test that shows the machine’s overall accuracy? I want the results so that I can confirm that the machine is reliable and accurate in various environmental conditions. Without acceptable results we won’t consider the machine for purchase. I haven’t asked for this information from any of the contenders in advance; any good supplier should know that it will be required.

The men freeze. The smiles drop from their faces. They look at one another. They look at me. Do I detect a slight change in their attitude towards me? Might it be a smidgen of… respect?

The men are shaken. They do not have the test results. In fact, they have never even performed the test on the machine. I can tell that I have caught them off guard and they are scrambling. “Of course, we had planned on doing those tests… unavoidable delays…hopefully by the beginning of next week… we’ll send them to you as soon as possible…”

As Rich and I get up to leave the men are still trying to convince me that the test results will be forthcoming and that their machine is the best choice for my company. I know it is not. I’m smiling and confident now. They are the silly ones in their shiny suits. I am the customer. And the customer is always right.

3 thoughts on “Steel Toes Don’t Come in Sexy

  1. Great story. Laughed ’til I cried. Did something similar on my first corporate ‘field trip’.

    • Thanks. I still die a little inside every time I think about it!

      • Imagine what you’d think today if you worked with the kid you were, then.
        You’d cut her some slack, right? Notice that she’s doing her self-sufficient best in what has to be a strange world?
        We were all young, once. It gets us through no longer being that young 😉

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