I Was an Amazon Chew Toy
I moved to Seattle five years ago, after being laid off from my job in New York at one of those startups where employees rally around the VC-fueled dream until they’re dumped via email and locked out of the office. A job at a larger, more established company like Amazon sounded good. Solid. For my second round of job interviews, I had been called in for meetings at the department’s temporary office in the Columbia Center tower. In a city where executives wear faded jeans and backpacks to work, the Columbia Center is Seattle’s lone totem to conspicuous consumption: seventy-six floors that hover over downtown’s more modest skyscrapers by a good two to three hundred feet, and are wrapped in reflective black glass.
Amazon prides itself on a rigorous hiring process. For a low-level merchandising job in Amazon’s books department, after passing two phone screens that included a logic puzzle—“How many floors are there in the Columbia Center? No, don’t look it up! Pretend there is no Internet”—I was called in for five back-to-back interviews that lasted from morning through lunch. During a break between interviews, the human resources recruiter, Ashley Jones1, came in to tell me more about the company’s benefits. There is something about the fastidious personal grooming of HR recruiters that makes one feel dumpy; gazing at me behind thick, mascara-coated eyelashes that boasted immaculate lash separation, she talked 401Ks and stock options while I stared longingly at her frizz-less locks. “And when we move to our new offices, you can bring your dog to work,” she said.
We live in such a dog-adoring culture that it’s hard to admit when you aren’t totally enamored of them. What you are supposed to feel—what you must always feel—is love. And dog owners are blessed with the extraordinary ability to call bullshit; they can sniff out your limp pats, your half-hearted game of catch. Soon the question comes: “Oh, you don’t like dogs?”
- How can you not like dogs?
How can you not like my dog?
When a dying baby’s in the street, do you kick it ‘til it fits in the gutter?
No one starts out this way. There’s a time when all kids want a pet, around the time when spreading boogers on the furniture is still okay. My older sister and I worked our way through a small menagerie of pets—hamsters, parakeets, and fish—though everything seemed to perish or run from our feeble, incapable hands. The grass in our backyard grew high, enriched by the nutrients of our decaying mistakes.
But when I was around nine, I was traumatized by my cousins’ unneutered dog, Max. When I visited them in Florida, he ignored the rest of the family, ran over to me, and humped my leg like he hadn’t had sex in years. No one would admit it that perhaps Max picked me because I looked most like a dog. My hair was black just like Max’s coat, and, crouched on the floor screaming, I was just about the same height as a German Shepherd. My cousin Susan always let it go on for a bit too long; I have never understood why people call out the names of their dogs when dogs only respond ten percent of the time, and like humans, never when they are having sex.
“Max! Max! (Ha, ha.) Oh Max, get off her!”
“Bad dog. (Hee hee.) So bad!”
Hump. Hump. Hump.
“Max, what am I going to do with you?”
After two hours or just ten seconds—what did it matter, when a dog was humping the crap out of you?—she would amble the three long yards across the room to yank Max away, and I would crawl out from under the blanket, the only shield between me and Max’s terrifying dog penis. For years after, Susan would keep me up to date on how my sexual assailant was doing. “When are you coming back?” my cousin asked. “Max misses you.”
My job started in July, and we were supposed to move to Amazon’s new campus the following May. The new campus would unite most of the company into one luxurious mega-compound, the Amazonian equivalent of the Googleplex. I hoped to forget about the new buildings and their dog-filled corridors, but the move was always hovering in the distance, its little puppy paws scratching around the doorway of my mind, dying to be let out so it could take a massive dump. I started to dread my morning hike to work even more than usual. As the date grew closer, you could hear murmurings of excitement around the office and impassioned debates about pet supplies. Kayla, who sat to my left, wanted to discuss her dog’s latest issue. “He keeps peeing on the front yard. It’s so annoying. The neighbors keep complaining about our yard. So now I’m feeding him these pills that won’t kill the grass,” she said.
“There are pills for that?” I asked. I pictured a dog collapsing from acute renal failure in a flower patch. The dog would be fucked, but the begonias, immaculate. “How does that work?”
In November, I felt encouraged by an email sent out by our department head, Scott Reynolds. “Can each of you reply back to me if a) you have allergies to dogs and to what degree, e.g., can’t be on the same floor or just can’t pet them, or b) are afraid or don’t like dogs.”
“Can’t be on the same floor” indicated there might be dog-free floors, which made sense: A multibillion-dollar corporation that had built out space in their complex for nap rooms, outdoor decks, and organic vending machines had surely carved out a few dog-free floors for those of us who wanted to work in a yip-free environment. I speedily typed back my response. “I’m allergic to dog hair—can’t be around furniture or whatever for very long that dogs have been on.” I am far more allergic to cats than dogs, but an allergy is an allergy.
“So if someone had a dog in their office or at their desk,” he wrote back, “would that create problems?”
Every time I admit how I feel about dogs I want to hang my head in shame. When I confess to dog owners, there is an awkward silence afterward filled only by their puppy’s plaintive little barks, barks that have grown mysteriously gentler in the last ten seconds, barks that can now only be translated as “let’s be friends,” barks that make me look like an even bigger toad. But at least the owner moves the dog away from me. I hoped my company would do the same, so I went for the truth: “I am allergic, but to be honest I don’t really love the idea of working around dogs. I would like to be on a dog-free floor, if that’s okay.”
Scott never emailed back, which I took as a sign that things were being taken care of—papers filed, statuses assigned, my employee request put into action! I put my mind to rest and let the talk of doggie adoptions and kennels, puppy blogs and slideshows, swirl around me.
Two months before we were supposed to move, I emailed Scott’s assistant to ensure that my space on the new dog-free floor was secured. She replied that Scott had never said anything to her. Perhaps I should have brought it up with him again, but he and I didn’t have much day-to-day interaction. A Level 7 employee to my Level 4, senior management to my near-entry-level, Scott had only had one appointment with me so far, a little “get to know you” when I first started at Amazon that I had to share with another underling; he spent the first part of it on the phone, refilling a prescription. His assistant told me that I would need to take up my quest to be dog-free with human resources. My HR representative, Deborah “Deb” Pearson, was in no rush to get back to me, but I kept emailing her until she responded.
In huge corporations like Amazon, HR representatives are a separate staff from HR recruiters. Ashley Jones with the thick lashes, my dream girlfriend, was gone. Deb at one point had probably been an Ashley Jones but too much time as the liaison between employees and the corporation had taken its toll. Employees didn’t approach Deb unless they weren’t being paid on time or their health insurance claims weren’t going through. Deb never smiled, and who could blame her?
She examined me from behind small wire-rimmed glasses as I entered. “Hello,” she said quietly. There were no college pennants or posters with cheeky sayings in Deb’s office like in the university-recruiting department. The only decoration was a couple of Harvard Business School alum magazines and a framed picture of her kid and her attractive husband. The picture made me feel less bad for Deb. She could take one more complaint. “So yeah, you know, I just wanted to talk to you about this allergy thing. I had brought it up earlier with Scott, but nothing really happened, and now we’re about to move. So I’m just wondering what I can do at this point. I’d like to be on a dog-free floor, if that’s possible.”
“Uh-huh. Well, so…” Deb stood up stiffly and opened a file folder, yanking a single piece of paper from the stack and handing it to me across the table. “We will need to have your doctor fill out this form,” she said, in a tone that sounded somewhere between bank teller and medical receptionist. Interested, but vaguely so; formal, but not icy.
“Oh. Okay, sure,” I slowly agreed. “I’ll have them fill it out and get back to you.” Gingerly taking the paper from her fingertips, I looked down at one of the first questions on it.
If your patient is limited in his or her ability to work in an environment in which dogs are present, is it safe for him or her to be in such an environment for a limited period of time? If Yes, please state the maximum amount of time that your patient may safely work continuously in such an environment.
If you were limited in your ability, wouldn’t the amount of time be limited as well? I walked out of the office and down the hallway and speedily scanned the other questions.
Does the employee have a medical condition that would limit his or her ability to work in an office environment in which dogs are present? If yes, please fully describe the extent to which your patient would be limited from working in an office environment in which dogs are present. Please include a description of the symptoms or consequences that your patient will experience if he or she works in such an environment. Attach additional pages if necessary.
Can these limitations be fully or partially migrated or offset with appropriate medication?
Is your patient able to work in a building (including use of stairways and elevators) where dogs are generally present, but not in the area of the building in which your patient’s office is located? Assuming the building has a common HVAC system…
I was going to go down in a flood of shrewdly framed questions courtesy of their legal department. This was a game of endurance, to be played until they broke you down. Are you allergic? How allergic? Can they be on your floor? On your side of the building? In the same room? In the elevator? At a desk near you but not, say, at your desk? Okay, what about at your desk? Would if we just set them next to you for five seconds and then whisked them away? Is that okay? Can you handle that? Can you take medicine? Can you handle it now?
I filled out the form, made the appointment at my allergist, and collected the proper paperwork. The allergist’s assistant filled out the form in front of me, and under “Are there any medically-necessary modifications that you believe Amazon should consider?” she recommended that I work on a dog-free floor. Soon after I returned the form, Deb called me back into her office. “Can you go back to your allergist? We need them to fill out more of this form.” She limply handed the paper back to me like it was a half-completed test.
“Sorry, what things? I mean, she filled this form out”—I paused here for effect—“pretty thoroughly.”
“Well, we just need her to elaborate on and clarify some of these points,” she said.
I was confused. There was one box—“If Yes, please describe”—that she hadn’t filled out, but other than that I thought the message was clear: I have allergies. Put me on the dog-free floor. Did Deb want me to go back to my allergist and have her change the answers to suit them? If there was more “elaboration,” would this solidify my position, or would it just make it easier for the company to find loopholes in my allergist’s logic, loopholes big enough to squeeze a miniature schnauzer through?
“You know, I don’t see why an allergy should make a difference,” I said to Deb. “I think if you don’t want to work around dogs, that should be enough.” She stared back at me and blinked. “Are there dog-free floors?” I asked.
Her voice grew soft. “There are special accommodations for the severely allergic,” she said. She emphasized “severely.”
I sighed and looked around the room, my eyes lingering on Deb’s cubicle walls, which were supposed to give the illusion of privacy even though coworkers would overhear every phone conversation. It was just like the dog-friendly policy, there to provide a false sense of comfort: Work hard enough, score your own office, and enjoy the solitude. Bring your dog to work and forget how many hours of your life you spend here. “Where are these special accommodations?” I asked.
Deb walked out from behind her desk with a stack of papers and sat down at a smaller table beside me. She unfolded a thicker piece of paper from the pile—a small map of the surrounding neighborhood, with all the campus buildings identified.
“It’s over here,” she said, pointing to a spot on the map. I followed her finger to a building on the outskirts of our work complex, blocks from my assigned building, where the rest of my coworkers would be located—blocks from where my daily meetings would be held. The severely allergic would be quarantined in a histamine ghetto. “We wouldn’t want to have to separate you from the rest of your team,” she said ominously. I took my allergist’s form back from her, but not before she made a copy of it for documentation purposes.
“What’s wrong with you?” one of my more blunt friends asked me. “Who doesn’t love dogs?” We were drinking at a bar a few blocks from my house, and I had filled her in on my problems at work.
Who doesn’t, indeed. I was the tin man, without a heart. Two of my more supportive coworkers kindly offered to start a petition at the office on my behalf. But I had seen petitions at other jobs before, petitions that would be lining the trash in less than a day. I started to imagine a perfect world where the mere sight of a Labrador retriever could put me on life support. If I could pick, it would be Scott’s dog that would do me in. The last time I saw Scott was during a spring business review. He had refused to follow along during my PowerPoint presentation to the clients, checking his email and eating a mixed nut sampler off my report instead. I imagined him weeping over my body while the paramedics carted me to the elevator lobby on a stretcher. I hoped to die with my eyes open, for maximum effect. Scott would start crying during a post-mortem of the pre-weekly business review, beating his breast with a stapler. Deb, wiping away a tear on the corner of a Harvard Business alum magazine, would be beside herself. “How could I have known? How could any of us have known?”
But I wasn’t even sure if I could sneeze enough to warrant a sympathetic glance. Though getting into the dog-free building would be difficult, the company would, I later learned, honor employee requests for a dog-free room on a dog-populated floor. I dropped the floor issue and filled out another form.
In May, the move to the new Amazon complex was complete. We were in one of the tallest of eleven buildings, all connected by skyways and rooftop terraces and plazas featuring independent Seattle coffee shops. Two campus cafeterias offered daily rotating fresh-fruit-infused water selections, and the company had worked out a deal with Seattle’s most famous celebrity chef, Tom Douglas, to open three restaurants on campus: a cowboy-themed beer tavern, an Italian trattoria, and a Tibetan café that made dumplings stuffed with fresh yak. Floor-to-ceiling windows surrounded all sides of the buildings, bathing the rooms in natural sunlight and offering postcard-perfect views of Lake Union to the east and the Space Needle and Mount Rainer to the west.
One of the buildings was named after the company’s first official dog, Rufus, a pet of one of the earliest employees. According to our company website, Rufus liked walks on the beach, kitties, and his best dog friend, Crew; his academic honors included a certificate from Perfect Paws Kindergarten in San Francisco. Rufus, who used to roam the hallways in the company’s younger years, was responsible for “starting up the dog-friendly culture here.” At last, this was who to blame: A dog that died two years ago and whose turnoffs included “thunder.”
The company did grant my request for a dog-free room—the only windowless office on my floor, and unfortunately, four more poor Level 4s were picked to share the room with me. In lieu of windows, the L-shaped room had wipe boards spanning two of the walls, plus a quote painted in crimson from Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You Will Go. “Seuss” was misspelled. (“Suess.”) Short of the bookshelves crammed with textbooks and tech manuals we were promoting that year, we had given up on decorating.
“All I wanted was a window,” Noah, my officemate, said, looking at the plain white wall above his computer where a window should have been. “I didn’t specify dogs or no dogs. That’s all I wrote down on my request form: ‘I’m just excited to be in a room with windows!’”
Just across the hallway, sun streamed in through the enormous windows of the dog-sanctioned offices. Level 4 employees who had requested dog rooms were awash in sunlight. Sometimes, they complained, it got too hot in their room from all those awesome UV rays. I started to envision Scott and his boss Melissa, both doggie super fans, cackling as they drew up this vengeful floor plan—one hand pointing to the windowless cave I would inhabit, the other stroking their dogs’ coats like Dr. Claw in Inspector Gadget.
The dog-friendly offices always had their doors closed, lest the dogs escape.
Right before Halloween, an email circulated from Scott’s assistant, Hayley, with images of one dog dressed up as a lion and another dressed up to look like it was being eaten by a crocodile. “Don’t forget to bring your dog in on Monday and dress them up (and you if you want to match)!” During a fire drill, I waited for one girl in front of me to walk her dog down twelve flights of stairs, instead of just picking it up. She dragged it down by the leash. Then picked it up. Then set it down. Then picked it up again. If this had been a real fire, we would have burnt to a crisp.
Another employee, a young temp whom one of my other coworkers had described as “a grown-up version of the Campbell Soup kid,” had taken to walking his dog on a leash around the office. Most people just walked their dog from the elevator to their desks, but the Campbell Soup kid perambulated around the office hallways like this was Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and he was on a mid-afternoon stroll. He would start off at his cubicle, round the bend toward the communal kitchen, pause to chat with a friend, and then proceed on to the elevator banks. Instead of going to the park, I imagined them circling the copy machine.
Most of my other co-workers were considerate; they kept their dogs in their rooms with the doors shut, whisking them away when they happened to wander into my office. It made me feel both appreciative and like an asshole. “Peanut! Peanut, get back here! Get away from her! Get a-way from her right now!” Scooping their puppies up, they would profusely apologize for their dogs’ indiscretions. “Sorry about that, Corina. So sorry!”
It was an apology set up for only one response, which I always gave. “Oh, hey, no problem, no big deal,” I said with a wave of my hand. Then we exchanged smiles, the dog owners and I, the smiles you stick on for bridal shower games and your ex-boyfriend’s wedding. Besides, there was nothing to do but fake it. I gave the dogs air pats that never actually landed on their heads. If I liked their owners, I attempted a soft coo. My boss checked in to see how I was doing. “Oh, you know it’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” I told him. “The offices are farther apart than I’d thought.”
I became convinced that I would like the dogs more if our dog-loving culture wasn’t so weird: There were buckets of doggie treats at the receptionist desk and four-dollar gourmet sweet-potato dog biscuits in the vending machine. In the kitchen, there was a sign written in a puppy’s voice, warning owners not to take their dogs out onto the twelfth floor deck: “My cuteness allows me to get away with many things, but dogs are not allowed on the outside terrace.”
When I joined the company, I signed a two-year work contract with a bonus that I would have to pay back pre-tax if I quit early, so I stuck it out for as long as I could. When I left six months later, it was not because of the dogs, but for the lack of work-life balance that the dogs were meant to cover up. I had been accepted to grad school, and knowing that I couldn’t attend school and continue to work the hours expected of me, I quit. The longer you spend at Amazon, the more weekends you are expected to surrender. Still, employees rarely vacated before their two years was up; there is nothing more soul crushing than paying back money to one of the richest companies in the world out of your own wallet. Most people I knew tried to strap themselves in for at least two-and-a-half to five years, spending their lunch breaks weighing their personal unhappiness against how quickly their stock would vest.
I ran into my boss shortly after he broke the news of my departure to Scott and Deb. “I told Scott and Deb about you leaving; they said, ‘Oh, we’re sad to see Corina go, yeah, she was great…’” As his voice drifted off, his eyes focused at a point somewhere behind me, and he concluded with an airy gesture of his hand, like he was summing up their conversation. He had given better performances. That Deb and Scott couldn’t amble down the hallway to say goodbye in person told me all I needed to know about the sincerity of their well wishes, but I appreciated his attempts to compensate.
I went back to the offices a few months later. With me gone, the dog-free room is no longer and the guy who sits in my old spot, a former fraternity brother of Campbell Soup’s, brings his puppy to work every day. Unfortunately, the dog-friendly policy at work still assumes friendly, considerate owners. New Guy’s dog pees on the floor, but he still brought it to meetings, and he expects his officemates to watch the puppy when he needs to step out. Because they are already running out of space in the new complex, managers in my department squeeze several Level 4s, plus their dogs, into one room. Everyone still keep their doors closed, lest the dogs escape.
1. All names have been changed, obviously
Photo by wablair
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