Chapter 2 – Incompetence in the Workplace
I arrived in Cleveland on a blustery blizzard of a Friday February evening and spent the night at some downtown hotel where I’d reserved a room in advance via the World Wide Web. I’d never left home on such shitty terms before but I felt no ambivalence about my decision to make the transition. I had to go and that was that.
Through my buddy O’Shaughnessy who’d been living in Singapore at the time, I’d made plans to get picked up the following morning by his dad who was going to take me out to breakfast and talk to me about a possible and probable employment opportunity at his hose & fittings warehouse which had been located in one of Cleveland’s shittier neighborhoods – the type of which generally tend to envelop the industrial underbellies of our nation’s larger cities.
Although I was familiar with my friend’s father, I’d only met the man a few times beforehand and I’m sure he’d remembered me in no more detail than “one of my son’s shithead buddies who helped him fuck up their college house so bad that the landlord decided to keep all eleven-thousand dollars of the security they’d deposited while threatening to sue for more.”
After he’d scooped me in his Benz and we’d gotten reacquainted with one another, Mr. O pointed out a few of the landmarks in Cleveland’s downtown area as we cruised through the slush-filled streets. Offhand, the only one of these landmarks I can readily remember him introducing me to had been the Terminal Tower. I remember this because I’d responded with the line, “Did they name it that after Cleveland’s economy caught cancer?” He grinned and informed me that it had not.
He then drove me over to a place called the West Side Market to talk business over breakfast. As I packed my face with a Spanish frittata and some hash browns, Mr. O’Shaughnessy expressed his sympathy for my familial situation back home as well as his concern that I’d soon leave the job he’d been considering giving me to go back there once the gun smoke’d settled down. I agreed with him that it sucked major ass but guaranteed that I had no intention of returning to Chicago in the immediate future and that I’d be fully committed to my position if hired because I needed the money to fund the trip to Asia his son and I were to embark on seven months in the future. Once we understood each other, he gave me a brief rundown of what’d be expected of me at the position. I told him that it sounded like something I could handle. He told me in return I’d be starting the following Monday and could stay at his house until I found a place of my own to live.
For the rest of the meal, I thanked the man profusely and continuously told him I wouldn’t let him down but then couldn’t help but give him reason to second-guess my integrity while leaving the West Side Market. To save himself the trouble of getting lunch later, Mr. O decided to stop at a delicatessen and pick up some pepperoni rolls. After he’d told the person behind the counter what he’d wanted, I took notice that that person had grabbed the delicacies using the same inside-out plastic bag method that a lot of people employ when picking up dog shit. I felt the need to point this out.
“Hey,” I said to my buddy’s dad, “don’t you think it’s ironic that he’s picking up your lunch the way certain dog-walkers might pick up piles of previously digested lunches?”
In return, he gave me a look that said, “You better be as good a worker as my son vouched for you as,” then we hopped back in his car and went to their house where, by him as well as by Mrs. O’Shaughnessy, I was shown nothing but the most gracious hospitability during the week-and-a-half I’d ended up staying there before finding somewhere else to crash.
With the exception of a summer internship at a radio station that chugged a whole lotta dick and, now that I think of it, had also involved quite a bit of lugging heavy-ass broadcasting equipment around to different events all over the greater Chicagoland area, every job I’ve ever had has been a manual labor position. I’ve been a dishwasher/delivery guy at a catering company, a drywall-lugging, bathtub-smashing carpenter’s apprentice and a window washer/gutter cleaner with my father – not to mention all the landscaping and toilet-scrubbing my mom guilted me into doing around the house over the years. And as I’d soon find out, my new position at the O’Shaughnessy family hose and fittings warehouse in Cleveland would provide for me many of these familiar comforts.
On the first day, as Dan the warehouse manager led me through his domain and told me about the things I’d be doing, he mentioned that I’d arrived just after the firing of the previous warehouse manager who, in the opinion of pretty much everyone who worked there, had been a majorly incompetent piece of shit. Learning that the shoes I needed to fill had not been in the least bit oversized, I knew I’d have no problem carrying out the tasks expected of me.
“Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” Dan said to me, “but this warehouse is located in the ‘hood. Have you noticed that?”
“Yeah, I seen it.”
“Okay, good. So you’re not blind. Well, the door over there where our customers enter we keep perpetually locked and use this button here,” he showed me the lever under a desk on which a computer had sat, “to buzz ‘em in. It wasn’t always like this but a couple years ago O’Shaughnessy put this system in because we had guys runnin’ in here and stealin’ all these expensive hose fittings and selling ‘em as scrap metal. So, if you hear someone ringing the doorbell and no one is standing here at the desk, you’re gonna hafta come over, buzz ‘em in and ask these customers what they need from us. Okay?”
“Funny story about this doorbell system and the previous warehouse manager I’d been telling you about. Even though he was in charge here, the guy knew absolutely nothing about any of these parts or how to crimp ‘em onto the end of a hose. And when customers come in, they expect a certain level of competence from employees. They know what they want and they want us to do it for ‘em. That’s how the business works. But this guy, after three years of working here, couldn’t provide that service and he knew it. He had no interest in learning any of it either. He just didn’t care.”
“How’d this guy get to be the manager if he didn’t know anything? And how’d he last three years at the position if he really was as incompetent as you claim?”
“Well, he went to high school with Big Tim and was havin’ trouble finding work and paying the bills so he hired the guy to help him out. He always thought the guy would get the hang of it but never did. And I think he was trying to avoid the awkward situation of firing him for as long as possible, but after three years of fucking up the business and causing us to lose customers, he finally had to get rid of the guy.”
“Ah, I see.”
“Yeah. So anyway, when customers would ring the bell and this guy would see that no one was here at the desk to buzz ‘em in because we were already busy working on other projects, he’d go run and hide in the back of the warehouse so he wouldn’t hafta deal with it. And we’d have to drop whatever we were doing to come and take on these additional jobs.”
“He’d hide? Are you kidding me? A grown man would do this?”
“Yeah, that’s what this guy would do. And one day we finally called him out on it. We’re like, ‘Hey, this is bullshit, you’re the manager, you gotta step up and deal with these fucking customers or we’re gonna tell O’Shaughnessy how you go hiding every time the bell rings around here.’ And he’s like, ‘Okay, okay,’ or whatever, ‘I’m sorry, I’ll try harder,’ and all that shit.
“So, sometimes I’d be dealing with a customer and Kevin – my brother who also works back here – would be busy putting together an order in the back and another customer would walk up to the door and ring the bell. And the guy would buzz ‘em in and ask ‘em what they needed and they’d tell him but instead of then going to get what they’d ordered, he’d just stand there at the counter with a blank look on his face. And I’d look over at him to see what was going on – to see why he wasn’t doing anything – and he’d say, ‘Hey Dan, this guy said he wants to buy two hose fittings.’ And I’d go, ‘Yeah, so – fuckin’ go get ‘em.’ And he’d say, ‘But I don’t know where they are or what they look like.’ And I’d take the sheet he’d written the order on to see what he needed and they’d be two of the most basic fittings that we sell here – ones that we sell every fucking day. And I’d have to hold his hand and walk him through the process, essentially doing the order myself. Three years this went on for. Three years this guy got paid for doing absolutely nothing.”
“Wow, that’s ridiculous.”
“Yes it is. But the most ridiculous thing this guy had done had been one day when it was just me and him in the warehouse here. It was the afternoon, there weren’t any customers here at the time, we’d already packed up and shipped out most of the orders for the day and I thought it was safe for me to go sneak off and take a shit.
“So while I’m sittin’ on the toilet, glancing at the newspaper, I hear the doorbell ring. No one gets it. A minute later, it rings again. I shout to this guy that I’m taking a shit and that he needs to answer the fucking door. He does – reluctantly, I’m sure – and I get back to my favorite part of being American. You know what that is?”
“Getting paid while taking a dump.”
“Ah, yes, of course.”
“But then a minute later – I still haven’t released yet, mind you – the bathroom door opens up. I don’t think anything of it. I think maybe it’s Ken or one of the office guys just stopping in to take a piss in the urinal. Then all of a sudden, a hand with a fitting clenched in it reaches under the stall door in front of me and the guy goes, ‘Hey Dan, do you know what this part is?’”
“Oh my god. What’d ya do?”
“Whattaya think I did!? I went apeshit on the man,” he said while I laughed. “I, uh, I actually said some mean things I probably shouldn’t have, but a line was crossed. I mean, he’s not my kid. I’m not here to babysit. And when I can’t even take a shit because this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing, that’s when I gotta lay down the law.”
“Wow. I’ve never heard of anything like that before.”
“Yeah, and you shouldn’t have to. Any grown man who’s getting paid should not be getting down on his knees to reach under a bathroom stall to ask one of his underlings how to do his job. It’s total bullshit,” he shook his head in disgust. “So young man,” he said, looking into my eyes, “today’s your first day. What type of employee are you gonna be? You gonna do your best to learn how things work around here or you gonna be an incompetent moron who bothers me when I’m tryna take a shit?”
I took a moment to think about what’d been asked of me. Of course I had no intention of bothering the man when he’d been trying to take a shit, but I am from time to time prone to bouts of incompetence in the workplace. What immediately comes to mind when I think of myself as a fuck-up had been back when I was seventeen washing windows with my dad at some rich person’s mansion in Chicago’s Sauganash neighborhood.
So many of our wealthier customers have so much fragile ornamentation set up around their windows that I’m sure they consider more valuable than our lives that it’s like going through a fucking obstacle course, trying to get our job done. It’s like, one false move and you hit a booby trap that shatters on contact and negates our earnings for that day. It’s dangerous, man – you gotta be careful. And this is a lesson I learned the hard way.
Towards the beginning of the job which had taken four guys three hours to complete, I wasn’t being mindful while sponging up a picture window and carelessly elbowed over some foot-tall stone statue of an angel that’d been perched on the window sill. And wouldn’t you know, the fuckin’ thing’s head broke off on contact with the ground. I immediately went to tell my dad about the situation and he told me to go out to the truck, grab the pack of gum from in there and start chewing. So, I did just that, we stuck the wad of gum between the angel’s torso and head, balanced the thing back in place on the sill and decided not to tell the customer – who hadn’t been home at the time – about the little mishap.
Then towards the end of the job, I’d been trying to squeeze behind a piano to mess around on it when my shoulder accidently brushed the corner of this four-foot by two-and-a-half-foot painting that’d been on the wall and the thing immediately came crashing to the ground.
“We’re on the last window over here,” my dad said, “what the fuck’re ya doin’?”
“Shit, I dunno,” I replied. “I was gonna fuck around on the piano and the fuckin’ thing fell off the wall. I don’t know what the fuck’s goin’ on.”
He came over, picked it up and looked at it.
“Alright,” he said, “the painting and the frame aren’t fucked up at all but the wire cord here that holds it up is broken and I won’t be able to tie it. Take off your fuckin’ shoelace there and give it to me.”
“Yeah, gimme it.”
I unlaced my shit and my dad MacGuyver’d that motherfucker back onto the wall so the owner never knew what’d happened. The next time we did the job, however, although the painting was still intact, the head had fallen off the body of the statue and, like the conclusion of a journalist’s life in a radical jihadist video, the parts laid as two separate entities. They never accused us of anything, but when the thing fell apart and they’d found a wad of Trident had been holding it together, they had to have known that there’d been some funny business afoot at one time or another. Nevertheless, in spite of past boners pulled…
“Nah man, I won’t be like that guy,” I replied to Dan back in the warehouse. “I can do better than that.”
“Great,” he concluded, “then let’s get you started on something right away.”