Burning Down The Building Like A Boss

miltonburnRemember the end of Office Space, where Milton burns down Initech?  Well, I almost did that once, only completely by accident.  I was reminded of it when my niece, who works for the state in Madison, was forced to leave the building on the coldest day since 1996 (last Monday – see my post 10 Advantages To Living In The Frozen Tundra) because the fire alarm was set off.  My story isn’t so much that I set off the fire alarm (I didn’t, by some miracle) but because of the manner in which the fire alarm was set off at the state building.  I hinted at it in my niece’s Facebook post about the alarm, and feel I should tell the “rest of the story”.

A little history: I had been a stay at home mom for almost 13 years when we decided I should get back in the work force.  I had been doing in home day care as a way to provide extra income, but our kids were getting older, and to be honest, I was getting tired of wiping up bodily fluids.  I applied at a local manufacturer in the Order Entry department, and got the job.  It was the middle of summer, and I wasn’t comfortable leaving my kids home all day by themselves yet, so my new employer graciously allowed me to start part-time, with the night crew, until school started.  After that, I would be with the 9-5ers, pulling my 40 hours a week with the rest of the corporate world.


I don’t remember my hours – I think we came in at 6 or something and worked until 9 or 10.  I do know they would never allow that now because there was no manager present, and in fact put the kibosh on it a couple of years after I started.  I hope my “incident” wasn’t a factor in the kiboshing….hmmm – literally just thought of that.  Oh well.  Obviously my manager was very forgiving, a grace granted to me several times in my stint in Order Entry, because this was just the first in a long legacy of “incidents”.

This reminds me – remember my post, “I Wanna Talk About Me” and my 100 words?  This gem falls under “Dumb Ass”.  I have a LOT of stories that fall under that title – this is just one of the few that I can put into print.  I am sure you will be reading more as time goes on.

I had been employed about two weeks, and just getting to know some of the people in the department.  Believe it or not, I am shy at first.  I usually don’t say much until I get to know people (my friend Doreen will argue this.  Every time I say I am shy, she snorts, “Oh WHAT-EVER” and rolls her eyes at me).  I don’t like being on the radar until I know I can handle the heat.  Except I usually end up doing something stupid that puts my name at the top of everyone’s “Who The Hell Is Sue DeGroot” list, and that ends my anonymity.

Such was the case that fateful night.  Our department was made up entirely of women then, and I noticed most of the girls brought something to munch on while they worked.  One time, Barb’s husband brought us Drumstik flavored custard from the local custard shoppe , which is heaven in a cardboard container.  But most nights, it was a small lunch or pretzels or microwave popcorn.  Being the nosher that I am, I was quickly on that bandwagon, and started to bring my own little snacks.  At home, I loved to eat Orville Redenbachers 94% Fat-Free microwave popcorn.  In my head, it had zero calories for the entire bag, thus making it perfect for the perpetual diet I was on back then, so it was a no-brainer snack idea.


A bag of Orville’s took 4 minutes in my microwave at home.  This was back in 2000, mind you, and my at-home microwave was old even then, so 4 minutes was a reasonable amount of time for my microwave.  Also, before you judge me, because I know that you can see the handwriting on the wall as to what comes next, realize I had been out of the workforce for well over 10 years and a lot of microwave technology happened during that span that I was completely unaware of.  Needless to say, I brought my Orville’s into the work cafeteria, placed it in the industrial strength microwave, confidently set it to 4 minutes, and walked back to my desk.

Our department was not very far from the cafeteria, but it was separated by another department and some walls on either side, so I worked at my desk for about 10-15 minutes before getting back up to go get my popcorn, with never a warning as to what I was about to encounter.  I walked thru the cafeteria door from the opposite end of where the little kitchen area was, only to see large amounts of smoke billowing out of the kitchen area doorway.  It took about 10 seconds for my mind to do the inevitable math, and I ran panic-stricken the rest of the way.  I turned the corner, my eyes wide and my breath coming in gasps (smoke inhalation will do that to you) to see a member of the cleaning crew wiping out black soot from the microwave, while another member was running water over a charred, smoking, stinking clump of what was left of my popcorn in the bottom of the sink.  Honest to God, to this day I can’t believe the sprinklers were not set off.  That’s how much smoke was in that room.

Not my official popcorn.  Photo courtesy of Campusbasement.com

Not my official popcorn. Photo courtesy of Campusbasement.com

I began apologizing profusely, babbling about microwave times at home and offering to help clean up, wringing my hands and trying not to pass out from fear.  The cleaning crew was SO NICE.  They just smiled and shook their heads and said, “No, no!  It’s okay!  We got it,” although I’m pretty sure they all went out and talked about me after work over some beers that night.  And maybe for a few nights after.  I walked dejectedly back to my desk.  Not only did I not have a snack for that night, I knew I was going to have to fess up about what happened.  The stench of burned popcorn is like no other, and instantly recognizable by everyone in a corporate office. By now it was clinging to me like a nasty butt fart, and was infiltrating every single corporate department.  Every. Single. One.

I got back to my desk, and shamefacedly told my story to my co-workers.  Most stared at me with the round eyes of disbelief – not that they didn’t believe my story, but that they couldn’t believe I was that big of an idiot – and then a few smiles started, hands flew to cover laughing mouths and startled eyes began to glint merrily.  I was still mortified, but at least I had them laughing and not calling for my head.   By now, the smell had hit our department, and the laughs turned to “Oh my God’s” and the eyes started to water.  Thankfully, they maintained their sense of humor and we finished up our work and went home.

THE NEXT DAY:  Everyone knew my name.  Even though I didn’t work days yet, every person in my department now knew who I was, what I had done, and I was now “The New Girl Who Burnt the Popcorn That Stunk Up the Entire Building and We Will Never Let Her Forget It As Long As She Lives”.   I don’t remember what my boss said to me, although I do know I was never reprimanded (I would have surely remembered that) and I was never called into the CEO’s office with him demanding to know why I almost burned down the building followed by “You’re fired!” (something that amazes me to this day, because like I said, that was one really, really, really burned bag of Orville’s.  I bet it was flaming at one point).

I have friends from that department (some hired years after the incident) who will still send me Facebook messages or texts or emails saying they smell burned popcorn and they want to know what I am doing.  In their defense, I do like my popcorn a little on the dark side, so would sometimes let it go a little longer than necessary, maintaining my claim to fame as the popcorn burner.  However, I now work in an entirely different building and have never made a bag of popcorn in the 4 years I have been there, so one would think they would get tired of blaming me.  But some things just never get old, and I am too good of a sport to really mind.  After all, attention is attention, and I will take what I can get.

So that’s my story, friends and family.  And at least I did it in summer, so if the fire alarms HAD been set off, we could simply have gone out in the warm summer air, and not the Polar Vortex that the state workers had to shiver in (you can see the article here).  Thankfully, all I did was stink up the building, and live to burn another day.

Initech burning down - not by popcorn - by Milton.

Initech burning down – not by popcorn – by Milton.

I would like to take this time to remind my children, nieces, and nephews that genetics cannot be outrun.  They cannot be hidden behind smoked car windows, law degrees, or artist palettes.  Even moving across the country will not save you.  And those of you who already have children…guess what?  You all gave birth to potential popcorn burners.  Yes, that’s right.  YOU ARE ALL RELATED TO ME!  Now excuse me while I chuckle evilly and send you all a case of Orville’s 94% Fat-Free.  You might not want to let it go the full four minutes.

Until next time!

7 thoughts on “Burning Down The Building Like A Boss

  1. Jeff Engel

    Wow, my picture of my burnt popcorn incident still the 3rd image when looking up burnt popcorn on google images, though no longer from my now defunct site. 🙂 That happened to me about 8 years ago to the day (prompting my search for the image online again). I’m not sure when Campusbasement took the image, though I couldn’t find it there any more. Our house smelled like burnt popcorn for MONTHS after that happened, which was also on one of he coldest days of the year in Chicago that year. It was horrible. Anyway, this was a fun find. Thanks! 🙂

    1. Sue Post author

      Hi Jeff- thank you for letting me know this was your image! I tried to find one that looked as bad as mine did 15 years ago (before we all had cellphone cameras). Do you have a current website you would like me to link back to?

      1. Jeff Engel

        I don’t any more. My website used to be alinktothefuture.com. I still own the domain, but haven’t had it up in years. I’m glad that this little piece of it has survived. =)

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