The Un-office party

Just because you work at home doesn't mean you're spared this holiday tradition of secret Santas and Xeroxed body parts.


In the old days, when he had a real job, Josh Fruhlinger's cubicle stood closer to the copy machine than anybody else's. Whenever the contraption sputtered or jammed, as it did several times a week, co-workers stampeded to his workspace, desperation in their eyes.

Just as desperate, he fended them off.

"I'd say, `No, no! Just because I sit near the photocopier does not mean I know how to fix it!" said Fruhlinger, now a freelance Web editor who says he works in his pajamas. "The office mentality stirs up its own kinds of psychosis."

Fruhlinger and about 30 friends are so happy they've left that mindset behind that they just had to celebrate. Friday night in Charles Village, a dog walker, a computer-products designer, an online gambler and a cake artist were among the stay-at-home Baltimore workers who came together -- in pajamas, robes and other office-spurning garb -- for what Fruhlinger calls the first Charm City Home-Office Christmas Party.

"Just because we don't have regular offices, or get dressed in the morning, or even have normal conversations with other grown-ups during the day doesn't mean we aren't a community," said Fruhlinger, a 32-year-old former San Franciscan who hosted the party in his fuzzy green bathrobe. "Why shouldn't we put on the lampshades at Christmastime?"

Why, indeed? Fruhlinger got the idea for the party three years ago, he said, when he and his wife, Amber Eisenmann, a health educator at Planned Parenthood, started noticing that more and more of their friends had left office life for jobs they could do from home.

"I don't want to say one's better than the other," said guest Dave Nottenberger, who designs workplace products from the comfort of his Abell Avenue apartment. "But it's hard to beat a life where you set your own hours and where nobody's looking over your shoulder on a minute-by-minute basis."

Nottenberger, who works for a small company based in San Francisco, epitomizes a demographic that has proliferated on the postmillennial labor landscape -- professionals, mostly younger than 40, for whom the Internet and overnight mailing services, such as FedEx, make possible an array of career choices their parents could never have dreamed of.

"I send and receive such huge [computer] files every day for work. It wouldn't be possible without a high-speed Internet connection," said Nottenberger, a University of Maryland-trained mechanical engineer who came to the party in his "teleconferencing uniform" -- a dress shirt, necktie and plaid pajama pants. "Same goes for FedEx. I get deliveries from as far away as China overnight. Otherwise, I'd be in an office 40 hours a week."

Fruhlinger first thought of the party three years ago, not long after he and two pals moved from San Francisco after the dot-com bust. He, fellow Cornell University grad Freda Kirkham and friend Maria Cimino could no longer keep up with the cost of living in the Bay Area and sought out a city they could afford.

"We polled all our friends," said Cimino, the online bettor. "The name Baltimore kept coming up. We came for a visit. It was affordable and had great architecture and funky people. It seemed like the town that time forgot."

And one that made big changes possible. The rents, a fraction of those they were used to, gave the three friends the luxury of time to think. At three-hour martini lunches at the Owl Bar, the notion of working 40 hours per week never came up.

"Jobs are for suckers," said Fruhlinger with a laugh.

He set up a Web editing business in his home. IBM, a client, sent him its copy over the Internet, and he returned it the same way. He rarely had to leave the house, and when he needed a break he was free to blog, take walks or surf the Net. ("We all know nobody does that at their office job," he said.)

Cimino tried her hand at a "real job" -- a framing business she started with a friend. Within a year, she came to see that venture as a mere "sabbatical" from her destiny: working on her own, at her own pace.

"Betting online is cool," she said Friday night, adjusting her festive straw fedora. "Business-wise, it beats going to the track. With streaming video, I can `visit' 20 tracks a day. If it snows in Maryland and they cancel the races, I can follow races from Florida or Louisiana." With savings to draw on and relatively few expenses, she makes just enough to make ends meet.

Kirkham, at the party in a housecoat, eventually started a home-based business straightening out people's studies, bedrooms and daily schedules, currently at the rate of $40 an hour. She calls it "chaos removal."

"A friend of mine noticed I was organized and begged me to set up her desk for her," Kirkham said. "I had no idea you could make a living at it. But you can. Working on your own makes it all possible."

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