“May I ask what this call is regarding, sir?” My office voice is legend. I can sound equal parts sweet Peggy of Mad Men and commanding Aunt Entity of Mad Max. None of those voices worked on Mr. Bumpus. “No, you may not.”
Pissed, I trekked into Gayle’s office to tell her that a man was on the phone who had very politely told me to mind my business. “Well, who is it?” she asked, unfazed. I figured I’d get to “Bump-” before she laughed it off. This was clearly before Wikipedia.
“Oh, that’s my baby daddy,” answered Gayle with a deadpan that told me that a), she knew she was being funny, and b), she’d probably said “baby daddy” more than once in her life. I was awestruck. I didn’t need to meet Oprah because her BFF was this cool.
Weeks later, the eagle finally landed. Instead of huddling near the front desk like all the other should-be workers, I was stuck covering the phones at the receptionist’s booth outside the office. I wouldn’t even get a glimpse of Ms. Winfrey. For the past three months, I’d walked nearly eight miles a day just for the privilege of putting Oprah’s name on my résumé. I had the emaciated figure to prove how hard I’d worked, but somehow, seeing her would make the whole thing more real.
I was busy with a bowl of Top Ramen when I got the call that Cathie Black, then chairman of Hearst Magazines, would be stopping by. Could I let Oprah know? Could I! I smoothed down my H&M skirt and marched into the art department like I had something super important to say.
Whatever super-important voice I planned on using escaped me as soon as Oprah Winfrey looked up at me expectantly. She was a short giant. Her eyes were even bigger in person. I waited a beat before blurting out, “Cathie Black is coming!” with a squeak that had been on reserve since middle school. Oprah looked at me for just a half second more, gave me a little wink and went back to what she was doing.
A month later, I decided that I’d make my living writing as a journalist, and I’ve spent the last decade doing just that. Not because Oprah winked at me that one time when I was 21, but because I’d walked miles, risked malnutrition and come close to eviction for a calling that I wasn’t sure I had the guts for.
But I did. As Oprah said on her final show this week, “Everybody has a calling. And your real job in life is to figure out what that is and to get about the business of doing it.”