I'm Not Paranoid, I Just Live Here
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – I was in L.A. the other day, which is a good thing when it's the third week of spring and snowing in New York City. Of course they had perfect weather there. They're proud of their weather, which is kind of silly because it's hard to claim credit for it. Still, it was nice weather, and it had the customary effect on everybody in that goofy town, making them kind of jolly and sappy and good-natured, even the agents, particularly over lunch.

There was something else in the air, though, that was a little less sweet.

I was in the office of my man Entwhistle, and there on his desk was a mask. In other years it might have been SpongeBob or Batman, since he has little kids and you know how their toys can clog up your office after a visit. But no, this was a small, rectangular hank of cotton with a plastic gizmo on the front and four strings, one at each corner. A narrow band of steel about two inches long ran down the middle of the inside of it.

"What's this metal thing for?" Entwhistle asked, lifting up the face gear and rotating it speculatively in the air.

"I think you're supposed to squeeze that over the bridge of your nose," I said.

"And this?" He showed me the tiny plastic box on the outside.

"I guess that's supposed to filter out the poison gas or whatever," I said.

"My wife got it for me," said Entwhistle. He put the thing over his face up and down, then sideways, trying to tie the four strings around the back of his head. "Gee," he said, "by the time you get this thing on, you'd be dead."

We're all getting used to this kind of nonsense. Hey, we've been through worse drills before. Remember outsourcing?

Still, these are nervous times. Corporate officers want to do something about the anxiety, because it's their job to do things when there is little to be done. The other day we all got a memo in our e-mail from Klegg, the head of human resources for the parent company of our parent company's parent company. It was an appeal for everyone to stay calm. I don't know about you, but when people tell me to stay calm, I start to sweat tiny bullets from my upper lip.

"These are difficult times," said the memo, "and we just want you to be assured that your company is taking every precaution to make sure that our workplace is safe, happy, and secure," or something like that. If its intent was to reassure, it didn't quite get all the way there, perhaps because it concluded with a rundown of the safety measures the company was taking. When it mentioned the massive procurement of duct tape, I stopped reading. Even when I was a kid made to hide under a desk in preparation for a nuclear war, I didn't believe stuff like duct tape would help much, unless you have a problem with your ducts, whatever they are.

I'm not being critical, though. People are nervous in proportion to their feelings of powerlessness. At our staff meeting not long ago, a few department heads were talking about stocking potassium iodide pills, which supposedly can help during a release of radioactivity, if one would rather be helped than die immediately.

"The hell with those," said Schlott, who is generally grouchy anyway. "What about smallpox vaccine?" That morning the mayor of New York, with his exquisite sense of the right time to do the wrong thing, had been pictured receiving a shot inoculating him against the disease.

"You can't get any," said Imbroglio, the head of human resources, which is in charge of this general area.

"Then how did the mayor get some?"

"I don't know," said Imbroglio. "He's the mayor." Then we went on to speak of other, more palatable things, like how the war was decimating the revenue picture across American business.

In the end, I guess, business as usual is the best defense against generalized paranoia. The other day we got about 100 e-mails from the parent company of our parent company's parent company's parent, asking whether we would host a group of Japanese dignitaries who wanted to be hosted. We whipped into action and organized a day of festivities. When it was all set up, I called my pal Ford at headquarters.

"That's good," said Ford. "And oh, yeah. I told them we were concerned with that Asian respiratory thing--what is it? SARS?"

"Yeah," I said, "SARS."

"I told them that if there's any question of contamination, they should cancel," said Ford. "We don't want a bunch of people sitting around a conference table with masks on."

"That would be a bummer," I agreed, and hung up.

He's right, of course. But perhaps we shouldn't be so conservative. Who knows? A briefcase ... cellphone ... BlackBerry ... plus a mask to keep out chemical and biological agents and disease.... In the future, as in the past, we're going to need the right tools to get on top and stay there.