Was this ever fun?
It has been almost eight years since I've written a current work story. I've been with the same outfit all this time and I have not wanted to make any co-workers mad. I will, however, share the work perspective of our recent Hurricane. Here is the summary I provided to the management team today. The italicized sections were deleted from the original email but included here.
Sept 11, Thursday - we close early in anticipation of Hurricane Ike.
Sept 12 and 13, Friday and Saturday - an area around Houston as wide as Florida is long is pummeled by 80 mph winds, gusts over 100, and rain at 5 inches per hour from about 10pm Friday night through 9am Saturday morning. Yet another of avant-garde architect I.M. Pei's cool buildings loses all its windows. Downtown is closed to all traffic, vehicular and pedestrian, for days while workers sweep up the equivalent of two football fields of shattered "safety" glass. No glass is safe hurtling down from six hundred feet...
Sept 14, Sunday - torrential rains flood thousands who thought they dodged the proverbial bullet. Four million people are reading by candlelight, if they have candles. I dodge trees and power lines and find our building intact. I text message the staff inviting them to work in the morning if they can make it.
Sept 15, Monday - two of us ignore the mayor's pleading to stay off the roads and pack a handful of shipments by sunlight.
Sept 16, Tuesday - three of us work by sunlight. FedEx and UPS are beginning to start up but we can't ship anything without power anyway. Gasoline becomes scarce and huge lines form at the few gas stations with fuel. People filling up gas cans for their generators spark a few altercations. Arrests are made and the mayor exhorts the citizenry to stay calm and help each other. That night, under cover of darkness, I steal what ice that remains from my neighbors fridge and make a nice glass of iced tea.
Sept 17, Wednesday - five of us start at dawn and pack shipments. The QC director drives in from Florida late Wednesday with generators, gasoline and extension cords. When he gets to his hotel that night he learns, as many did, the hotel canceled all reservations. Even the ones confirmed earlier in the day!We manage to ship a handful of orders using generator power but FedEx and UPS don't come by because we don't answer the phone when they call to see of we need a pickup. I call them but nothing happens.I get kicked out of my office by the administrative assistant who claims the generator fumes are making her dizzy. I move the generator outside in an effort to accommodate. The next morning I find several dead birds at our front door. I move the generator back inside and save the lives of countless birds. If you know someone looking for work as an admin assistant I'm accepting applications.
Sept 18, Thursday - two-thirds of the staff makes it in and we ship a ton. UPS/FedEx pick up for the first time in a week.
Sept 19, Friday - carbon copy of Thursday only hotter. The mosquitoes return like the swallows to Capistrano.
Sept 20, Saturday - six of us work Saturday.
Sept 21, Sunday - late in the day the alarm company calls to tell me they are getting a signal. They say it may mean we have power. We do!
Sept 22, Monday - we're back up and running on all cylinders.
Sept 26, Friday - Centerpoint Electric gets power up for the area just north of us but it seems they did it by taking our power. We're back on generators most of the day.
Normal electrical service returns late afternoon Friday.
I could hear the shouting through the glass. I walked out of my office and into the middle of a hollering match between two young women. One of the two, I can't remember her name anymore, had been in an argument the week before. Recognizing the common denominator in the shattering of the peace I asked if I could talk with her in my office.
I supervised about a dozen young people, mostly women, at a laid back California freight forwarder. There was some stress but little territorialism and even less competitiveness. Shouting hadn't been a part of the job until recently. I asked her what happened and half listened to the story. When she wound down I posited my common denominator theory and asked for her thoughts.
I'm standing at the fish counter at Ray and Eddie's in Long Beach ordering dinner. Ray and Eddie's was one of the last of the family owned groceries in southern California, the employees had all worked there forever and knew their customers well enough to raise an eyebrow at an unusual purchase. When I was a newbie there one day I forgot my wallet and didn't notice until I reached for it at the register.
Back then, though, Ray and Eddie's had the best fish in town and I'm mulling over the mullet when I feel a tug on my sleeve.
I knock on the apartment door. It opens. A girl no more than ten years old is standing before me with a lit cigarette in one hand, holding a floor length (for her) string of pearls in the other. "Someone call a cab?" I ask, trying to make sense of this scene.
I hear a muffled cry from somewhere in the apartment, "backear, inbrooam."
"My mom's in the bedroom," the little girl interprets. It's about 11 in the morning. I pick my way through the debris, pill bottles, beer cans, cigarette butts, clothes, food wrappers, and peer cautiously into the bedroom. The little girl is at my side, smoking. Mom is laying on her stomach sideways in the bed with her head and arms off the far side. I walk around to where her head is and I see she's trying to keep from sliding all the way off. She manages a strangled "help." I grab her wrists and help her back on the bed. She rolls over and slides off the foot. "Can fine my purse." "It's in the kitchen," the girl says.
I position myself in front of her as we descend the stairs to the parking lot of the apartments. I open the rear door and she backs into the seat. She looks like she's being helped by invisible hands into the back of a police car, head down, hands in front, she falls back into the seat and swings her legs in, looks up at me as if to say, 'OK, close the door, I'm in.' I close the door.
We're about half way to her destination and she says, "I gotta go." I hope against hope she's not going to make me stop at a bathroom. No such luck. A couple of back and forths about whether she can hold it or not and I decide I'd rather not risk it. We stop at a Texaco. After a couple of minutes an Asian-looking fellow in a green jump suit knocks on the driver side window. "Yeah?" as I roll down the window. He points at the bathroom. I nod. He jabs his greasy finger at the bathroom. Great, I think, what now? Standing at the Women's door I hear "help," a long pause and then "help." It sounds like she's not the strength for too many more "helps." The green jump suit guy pulls out a key attached to a foot long board, opens the door, takes a step back and jabs the greasy finger again. I look. She's fallen into the eight inches between the toilet and the wall of the women's bathroom at the Texaco station at Washington and Westcott streets and can't get up.
I manage to wrestle her to her feet. She's nearly unconscious so I pull her panty hose up high enough that she can walk. All the while, I've got the door propped open with one foot so the jump suit and the world can see what I'm doing. I walk/drag her back to the car.
A few more minutes and we're at her destination. The boyfriend is in the yard working on his Harley. She opens the car door and falls out of the back seat into the yard, her dress around her waist and her panty hose as much in place as decency allowed me. The boyfriend starts walking toward the car with a wrench in his hand. "What did you do to my girl," he asks. I reach back, close her door and quickly drive away. I stop and call Child Protective Services and report the whole thing. I've got to get a better job.
I pull in the driveway and honk. The driveway runs up the left side of the house. He comes out the kitchen door carrying a grocery sack under his right arm. He's dressed in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. It's cool outside but not enough for a jacket. As he gets in the back seat I can smell the beer. You can tell when someone's been drinking for a long time by the sour edge to the smell. If they've only had a couple of drinks the alcohol smells like it does coming from the bottle. After several hours it takes on some of the flavors of stomach acid. It's ten o'clock in the morning.
"Where to," I ask.
On the way I get the story. She's taken the family car. The kids are with her mom. They were out partying last night and things turned ugly. They drove home and continued the fight until she stormed out around dawn. He stewed for a couple of hours and then called a cab to find her. We stop for another six pack and he downs four as fast as he can pour them down his throat. No sign of his wife or the car on Main street. His speech is approaching unintelligible when we head for her brother's place on the north side. About the time I'm wondering if he has the cash for the fare, he grumbles, "I need a gun."
"No, you don't need a gun."
"How can I help you gentlemen" he says to me.
"Give me your keys, you're fired." I was trying to sound matter-of-fact.
My heart was pounding so hard I could see it in my eyes. When the blood shoots through the veins around the eyes so hard that your eyelashes move, you know you're in danger. At that moment, though, I was in more danger from the driver across the desk from me than a stroke. He looked like a hardened criminal. He had been driving one of the Paratransit vans for almost a month. I liked the name Paratransit, it called up visions of futuristic, levitating public transportation. In reality, they were modified Ford Econoline vans. Modified to accommodate a hydraulic lift for wheelchairs. The roof had been raised to allow a passenger to stand inside the van with ample clearance. No passenger ever stood, of course, they were either in wheelchairs or strapped into the bench seats. We learned to check the bench seats for exposed springs. Should a person with reduced posterior sensation sit on an exposed spring while being transported to and from the doctor's office, well, you can imagine.
"What for," he snarled. It wasn't really a question, it was more of a challenge. At least that's how I took it.
Few but the psychopathic will deliberately engage in hand to hand to combat unless compelled by circumstance. The merely sociopathic, however, will not hesitate to pummel anyone they perceive to be an easy victim. You can learn an enormous amount of critical information about primal behaviors when locked in a cell with eight bad guys (seven if you don't count me).
I stood and pushed my chair back. I will fight you, was the message. If he got it, the likelihood that I would actually have to fight him would be diminished. That was the gamble.
"Because you're a drunk and a liar." He had finished a shift once before smelling of booze and I had warned him then. Cough medicine, he had said, and coughed in my face as evidence. This time he was done. No more chances. See ya! It was the first time I had fired anyone.
What I knew about firing people I learned firsthand. One summer in high school, two friends and I took a job clearing out houses under construction. We would arrive after the "finishers" and clean up. The finishers left pieces of trim, nails, sheetrock, tape, beer cans, sandwich wrappers, and other assorted items for us punks to clean up. They were misnamed, they should have been called trashers, not finishers. The three of us were traipsing in and out of un-air conditioned houses in Houston in August, carrying loads of trash while trying to avoid putting a nail through the sole of our shoe. A truly horrible job. Then, we were saved. The foreman told us we were being moved to a special assignment. We were to put the roof on a horse stables. Great, we thought, hot as it was, it beat picking through boards and nails and trash. Or so we thought. The roof was tin and it was to be secured with a medieval torture device called the "lead-headed nail." This is a one and a quarter inch long nail with a dollop of lead immediately under the head. As the nail is hammered through the tin into the wooden beam underneath, the lead splays out forming a waterproof seal around the nail hole. Clever, no? Gripping space on the nail shaft is reduced less than an inch. In order to penetrate the tin roof one must smack the nail head with sufficient force to drive it through the tin on the first strike. Otherwise, the hammer simply bounces back from the nail. Get the picture? Miss the nail to the left and you strike finger. Hit it too hard and, as the nail passes through the tin, your fingers are pinched between the nail head and the tin roof. By lunch the first day, I was holding the nail between the ring and little fingers of my right hand. All the digits on my left and three on my right were smashed and swollen. Swinging the hammer with my left hand, aiming through tears that had welled up and parked in my eyes, I was sure I wouldn't last the day. At lunch we decided to buy a six-pack of beer. This would surely make the afternoon bearable. Two six-packs would make it enjoyable.
The foreman found us asleep in the dirt around three that afternoon and fired us all on the spot.
Drawing upon that experience, I added some more definitive characterizations to the drunk and liar labels. I took his keys and he left the property. Well done, I thought to myself.
Later that night, using the extra set of keys he made for the van, my first termination crept onto the lot, and, after getting his former van up to about fifteen miles an hour, leapt from it just before it crashed into one of the row houses surrounding our office. My name, a short verb and some foul words were found on a note in the van. The man who owned the house immediately chained the van to the house. he would have his check for damages before anyone towed that van away. he knew the company I worked for better than I did.
My boss called me into his office the next day. Expecting to be fired in much the same was as I had fired the driver, I was instead asked if I saw anything I might have done differently. Well yes, perhaps I was too confrontational.
Concepts like respect and dignity in the workplace, heretofore foreign to me, soon became tools in my supervisory quiver.
I haven't uttered the words, "you're fired," since.
I get on the 6:20 Friday night flight out of LAX for home. Options are reading and sleeping. No meaningful work can be accomplished on a Friday night flight. As it turned out, I ended up matching numbers from little pink pieces of paper against the numbers on little white pieces of paper. I decide to try sleeping first. I ask the flight attendant for a blanket. "A blanket," she says as she looks past me. I get the feeling she's absorbing the meaning before she commits. She never does. Commit or absorb the meaning. Twenty minutes later, when it's safe to use the electronic devices that would cause us to not lift off if used earlier, I say to her as she passes, "no blankets, I guess?" "I'll check," she says. The subject doesn't come up again.
When the old geezer up front mumbles through the "drinks for four dollars" routine and concludes with "we will attempt to show a preview of tonight's movie, Shanghai Noon," I should have known we were headed downhill. Sure enough, he manages to show the preview, and after seven of my one hundred and sixty two fellow passengers rent headsets, the movie commences. I can see two of the seven fiddling with those buttons in the side of the armrest. The buttons that are positioned immediately adjacent to your hip. The ones you can't adjust without moving into your seat mates' lap. By now, the old-timer has shuffled back down the aisle in response to several "dings" from the flight attendant call buttons. Seems none of the seven can hear a thing. I've seen this movie and want to help out by telling them the only thing they're missing is Owen Wilson's delivery, but... The very senior flight attendant stumbles back to the front cabin and soon we are all listening to the 'whoosh-pop' of Jackie Chan defeating six Crow warriors. The lady with no blankets comes on the intercom to announce the distribution of "free headsets for everyone since the audio portion of the movie can't be heard over the headset." The headsets don't work so everyone gets one for free. OK, I get it.
She then asks those who paid for a headset to please ring their flight attendant call button so she can refund their four dollars. "Please be honest," she asks. I begin matching numbers on little pink pieces of paper with numbers on little white pieces of paper.
A half hour later and the dinner cart is in the aisle. "Meatloaf sandwich" she asks? "I should have a vegetarian meal," I say. "Did you request one?" "Yes, the name is Stiles." She turns to her co-worker on the other side of the dinner cart and says, "he says he ordered a vegetarian meal." "What's your name," she asks. Not the partner across the cart, the same one I just said "...the name is Stiles" to. "Stiles," I repeat. Now it's her partner's turn as she leans across the cart and asks, "what's your name?" "Stiles," I say. "What," she asks? By now I'm about ready for a meatloaf sandwich just for the protein to keep my strength up. Instead, I try once more, "STILES!" "No need to shout, SIR." "Sorry, I'm sorry." They maneuver the cart past me and down the aisle. The drink cart follows, manned by the old geezer. I get a glass of tomato juice. He's past me now but reaches back and over my left shoulder is thrust a plastic wrapped vegetarian meal. "Here," he says. Thank you, thank you. The bean burrito is still frozen in the middle. Normally, they heat them, not tonight.
Dinner over, I try to nap. "Whoosh pop, whoosh pop, aiiieeeee." I try to read. "Whoosh pop-bang, alright Chinaman, you and the scumbag come out with your hands up." Armed with a horseshoe tied at the end of a length of rope, Jackie defeats another four bad guys.
Another announcement - "will everyone that I owe change to please ring your flight attendant call button and please be honest, you may use your neighbors as witnesses." I wonder who the lying, thieving bums are that will try to cheat her out of the few dollar bills she has wadded up in her hand.
With only forty minutes to go before touchdown I ask for a glass of tomato juice. "Tomato juice," she says as she looks past me. I turn around to see what's back there. Ten minutes later, as she comes through the cabin to make sure we all have our seats in their full upright and locked position I say, "I guess this means we're out of tomato juice." "Oh, you're the one," she says. "I'm sorry but we don't have enough time to serve any more drinks." I can't stand it any longer. "This is the worst flight crew I have ever seen." "Oh," she says, "you must have been caught up in the boarding mess, I am so sorry, but we had all these Asians." As she says "Asians" she sweeps her arm about so I can't miss the unusually large number of Asians. "No, I boarded late, I'm referring to the blanket I never got, the movie one hundred and fifty five of us did not want to watch but had to listen to anyway, the cold dinner, the missing glass of tomato juice, the implication that we are all thieves and liars." "Oh sir, I am so sorry, but the lead flight attendant is the oldest flight attendant still active for our airline." I have no idea what that has to do with anything except, maybe, since he was in charge of the video entertainment, since he's so old and everything, maybe they didn't have movies when he started with the airline.
An old friend called. Our last job together had been leasing Panamax class vessels (the largest vessel that can pass through the Panama Canal) for household goods transport between the US and Europe. He was equipment control and I was port captain. Port captain is the person who makes the stevedores, vessel operator, port authority, and warehouse operator come together for the day or so that a vessel is in port discharging or loading. It is a 24 hour a day job while the ship is in port. With a $20- $40 thousand per day vessel lease, moving the ship in and out of port is critical. The first time I did the job a North Atlantic storm (we call them hurricanes in the Gulf) was bearing down on the Port of Bremerhaven and the ship was at the Pilot station unable to load a pilot on board. But that's another story. Lee was calling about another vessel adventure. NAFTA had just passed and the business community was alive with talk of the opportunities of US-Mexican business operations. Lee was one of those guys that always had an iron or three in the fire. The last time we talked he was looking for a home for a garbage scow that had been turned away from New York while simultaneously trying to close a deal on 100,000 used tires for the Yugoslavians. This call, though, was about UsMex.
UsMex was the clever plan of some New York shipping magnates. NAFTA had brought an almost instantaneous increase in the number of trucks moving across the US Mexico border. The Customs services on both sides of the border were wholly unprepared. Trucks would wait for days at Laredo and Nuevo Laredo while documents were processed and loads examined. The process was unrefined and long delays were routine. The Customs clearance process was, and is, organized by transport unit. Since an ocean vessel could carry as many as 1,000 truck load equivalents, one "clearing" would clear a thousand loads while the equivalent land units would take days on end. A suitable port was located in Mexico, Tuxpan. Tuxpan was the closest ocean port to Mexico City and less than three days sailing time from Houston. A Ro-Ro vessel was located and leased (Ro-Ro stands for Roll On - Roll Off as huge doors ascend vertically from the hull of the ship and ramps lowered to facilitate the rapid discharge of truckloads of freight). All that remained was to establish the equipment control and information systems and then get the word out. Shippers and receivers on both sides of the border would beat a path to UsMex' door. Or so the New York wizards believed. They transplanted one of their most clever stewards, Sven Varri, a Swede, to Houston to run the operation. He hooked up with Lee and Lee called me.
I reported for duty the following Monday. The local Houston office was once occupied by Clark Gable. A two-story bungalow with a service elevator in back, we occupied the second story. Sven had twenty thousand dollars worth of Persian rugs delivered the same day I arrived, one for each room, four rooms total. The fact that we expected not a single customer to come calling in person should have told me something. That we sent one of the clerks out for beer every afternoon at four should have told me something. That the entire staff retired at five to the local pub should have told me something. When Sven arranged for the new Cuban born secretary's car to be picked up from the bar (she had left it there the previous night, after determining, on her first day at her new job, she was too drunk to drive home) I decided to talk with Sven. "Maybe things are different in Sweden, Sven, but here in litigious America, office romances between the head guy and the new secretary can have dire consequences for the company." "Thanks, John," he said. When they left together the next afternoon at three, now that told me something.
The first ship sailed with a grand total of three loads. The sales force (all three of them) made dozens of calls in the weeks leading up to the first sailing. Lots of promises, no loads. The return trip from Mexico to the US was entirely empty, but the Mexican-northbound product was expected to lag. The second sailing had nearly a dozen loads southbound and they were negotiated at rock bottom pricing. We were two weeks into what was expected to be an explosion of freight movement and barely a fizzle could be heard. Daily meetings were held with dear Sven haranguing Lee and the sales folks. Beer time was moved to five and retiring to the bar was postponed until almost six in deference to our struggle.
Our Mexican agent called one afternoon from a Mexican jail. He needed a couple of thousand dollars hand delivered to get him out of jail. We never did get the straight story on what happened. He was fired and his replacement came to Houston to "meet the troops." Rudolph Hess introduced himself. He was blonde and from Mexico but spoke without a hint of accent. Sure enough, he was the namesake and grandson of the Nazi that secretly flew to England to try to negotiate an end to World War II. Churchill threw him into Spandau prison where he died decades later. Why his grandson didn't change his name is still a mystery. He promised great globs of business from Mexico on the next vessel.
One of the vessel Captains came in with his arm in a sling, a bandage across his nose and two black eyes. Turns out he was "testing" the ship's ramps and failed to notice the one he was driving his rent car on hadn't been lowered. He drove off the end and crashed, upside down, into the bottom of a cargo hold. One of the secretaries told me he had a problem with heroin. His heroin problem started in a Thai port hotel where he was forced, by a gang of thugs that broke into his hotel room, to take heroin.
That same week a delivery person arrived with ten cases of copy paper. After watching him huff and puff the first case up the stairs I walked him to the back and showed him the service elevator. An hour or so later one of the sales staff asked if I heard what she described as a banging noise. Walking to the back I heard not only banging but some muffled cries for help. The delivery person had stuffed the remaining nine cases in the service elevator and crawled in on top of them. That the elevator was five feet high hadn't registered with him. We pried the doors open and he crawled out, soaked and crying. We never did fix the elevator. We were clearly doomed.
As we learned in a post mortem months later, the movement of cargo from US shippers to Mexican consignees was directed by Mexican agents at the Laredo border. If our cargo was allowed to move over water, their commissions would disappear. Instead, UsMex disappeared. No one had thought to investigate how the freight movement between the countries was determined.
They picked the rugs up on a Saturday. Sven's wife divorced him within six months. He and the Cuban secretary moved to Mexico and formed some strange alliance with Rudolph Hess's grandson. I never heard from any of them again.